In my last post I provided a simple way that a person could come to believe “Jesus rose from the dead” in a way that is properly basic. I did so by appealing to a very familiar source of knowledge and rational belief: the testimony of others.
Those who are familiar with Alvin Plantinga’s work on this topic will have encountered a more exotic doxastic process, that which Plantinga calls the Internal Instigation of the Holy Spirit (IIHS). Like Plantinga, I am a Christian and I believe there is a Holy Spirit who acts to bring about beliefs in human persons. And I believe that based on this set of assumptions one can rationally believe claims like “Jesus rose from the dead” as arising from such a process so long as there are no strong defeaters to the claim. Consequently, if it is true that “Jesus rose from the dead” then one can also know this in a properly basic way.
Plantinga’s attention to the IIHS represents his unapologetic focus on Christian philosophy, that is, doing philosophy intentionally from the set of presuppositions he holds as a Christian. This is no different, of course, than the atheist who does philosophy intentionally from the set of presuppositions she holds as an atheist, so I fully endorse Plantinga’s unapologetic Christian philosophy along with his articulation of the IIHS. However, I also find that at times this can create a greater gap between Plantinga and his critics than there needs to be, for we can provide a defense for the proper basicality of claims like “Jesus rose from the dead” with a much more familiar doxastic process like testimony. And that is why I focused on testimony at the outset. (Well, in fact that is only one reason I focused on testimony. The other is because I believe many Christians do in fact come to have a rational or justified belief that “Jesus rose from the dead” through the written and spoken testimony of others.)
When I explained this in my article “Knowledge, scientific and otherwise” Robert responded by challenging the very idea that testimony is properly basic. As he observed,
“Testimony is evidence, plain and simple. It might be strong evidence or weak evidence but it is always evidence.”
Robert’s correct, at least in part. We can indeed think of testimony as “evidence” for the truth of a claim. In fact, we can think of any source of properly basic belief as providing evidence for that belief. Consider sense perception which is one of the paradigmatic instances of properly basic belief. I look over at the kitchen counter and see a banana in the bowl. As a philosopher might say, I am at that moment appeared to banana-wise. And based on the evidence of that sensory experience I come to believe I am seeing a banana.
Or consider rational intuition. I read “7+5=12” on a piece of paper. I contemplate the equation for a moment and then conclude not only that 7+5 equals 12 but that it must equal 12. Why do I believe this? It’s hard to say (philosophers debate this topic endlessly, as indeed they do sense perception … and just about everything else). However, there definitely is a type of phenomenology involved, an intuitive sense not only that it is so but that it must be so. (Descartes and Locke both reflected at some length on the subjectively experienced luminosity of self-evident propositions like this.) And so one could argue that based upon an intuitive experience involving a particular type of phenomenology that I come to believe 7+5 must equal 12.
And the same goes for testimony, though here its status as evidence is, if anything, even more obvious. So why speak about sense perception or rational intuition or testimony as properly basic at all?
In order to answer that question, let’s turn back to Robert’s provocative example:
“imagine a biologist is confronted with new evidence that common descent is wrong, and replies, ‘That can’t be right. I have an inner witness that confirms common descent!’”
What’s wrong with this picture? I explained some of the problems in the last essay. But here let me highlight one other thing. This biologist’s inner witness which confirms common descent invites a question: “Why accept that inner witness?” When we ask that question, we are recognizing that an inner witness is not a suitable stopping point for justifying a belief. You’re going to have to provide more grounds than an inner witness to believe rationally in common descent.
Testimony, however, can often provide a suitable stopping point for justifying a belief. There are many cases where the question “Why p?” can be answered with “Because X says so.”
We’ll come back to that point in a moment. But now let’s set things up a bit differently. Let’s say that our biologist is a second year biology student who believes she is being confronted with new evidence that common descent is in error. She replies “That can’t be right. I have the testimony of the world’s leading biologists that confirms common descent!” Would that appeal to testimony be a legitimate way to respond to this apparent defeater to common descent?
The answer is that it could be. Whether it suffices or not would depend on the strength of the evidence the second year biology student has uncovered as well as her reasonable confidence in her own skills at properly collecting and interpreting that evidence. (Too many of us have an irrational belief in our own abilities.)
At this point I need to make an aside for an extraordinary example of a lowly student uncovering this kind of world-beating evidence. The case begins with two well-respected economists, Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff, publishing the paper “Growth in the Time of Debt” which promoted austerity as a means to economic growth. The paper was embraced and lauded by anti-Keynesian right-wingers and provided a template for governments around the world to tighten their fiscal belts in the last few years. However, just last month a 28 year old graduate student and two co-authors debunked this much lauded study in a paper of their own which identified, among other errors, a basic mistake in the coding of Microsoft’s Excel program as used by Reinhart and Rogoff. The result is explosive and truly jaw-dropping. And so the lesson is this: it is indeed possible for students to uncover errors that can undermine the testimony of world-leading experts, even a consensus of them.
However, this is a good example of the exception proving the rule, for as we marvel on the exceptional nature of this case we reflect on how rarely things like this happen, and thus how often it is that the initial flush of a student believing they’ve proved the world wrong is, itself, wrong. And that reminds us that testimony of sufficient strength (e.g. of a testimony of experts) can enable us to retain the truth of a claim even in the face of what would be an otherwise decent defeater to that claim.
So let’s sum up. It is true that you can think of testimony as evidence just like you can think of sense perception and rational intuition as evidence. But so long as there are no defeaters present, we also find that each of these sources of rational belief can provide a stopping point to the regress of justification and thus each provides a means of prima facie proper basicality. Not only that, but sufficiently strong testimony can also withstand the assault of formidable defeaters. Consequently, just as rational intuition can provide us with properly basic belief that 7+5=12, and sense perception can provide us with properly basic belief that “The banana is on the counter”, so testimony can provide us with properly basic belief that “Common descent is true” or “Jesus rose from the dead.”