In my essay “Testimony as Properly Basic” I presented what is, among epistemologists, a relatively benign thesis. It is the claim that testimony can serve as a properly basic source of justification. It is not an ultima facie source of justification, but it is a defeasible, prima facie source. In short, a person’s testimony to p can serve as a properly basic source of justification for a second person coming to believe p. And if the testifier knows p then the one attested to can likewise come to know p based on that testimony.
The fact that testimony can, under the right conditions, serve as a source of properly basic justification and knowledge, means that a person is not obliged to seek further evidence to support the testifier’s claims before he/she can be justified in accepting them. “Under the right conditions” means that the one attested to cannot be aware of any defeaters to the testifier as a reliable source or to the testimony itself. Thus, if the one attested to is aware that the testifier is an unreliable source or if they are aware of evidence unbeknownst to the testifier that appears to defeat the testifier’s claim, then one is no longer justified in accepting that claim. But barring such defeaters one can indeed be justified in accepting that claim.
Here is a simple example. Somebody asks me “What is your shirt made of?” I look at the label. “Cotton,” I reply. Am I justified in accepting the testimony of the manufacturer that the shirt is made of cotton? Assuming that there are no defeaters (e.g. known cases in the past of the factory mis-labelling its clothing) the answer is surely yes. The occasion of my reading the testimony on the label that the shirt is made of cotton provides me with justification to believe “The shirt is made of cotton”. Anybody who would counter this with the insistence that I must confirm independently that the shirt is made of cotton before I can accept the testimony on the label has just bought themselves a one way ticket to skepticville since a global demand to confirm all testimony independently cannot possibly be met.
Unfortunately, some critics appear unable even to understand the position, so anxious are they to caricature it. Consider ngotts who asks:
“Tell me, do you accept the truth of the claims about Mohammed or Sathya Sai Baba? Or for that matter, accounts of ghosts, fairies, alien abductions? There are plentiful testimonies for all of these.”
“Not going to answer the question about horses and unicorns? Or the one I asked upthread about the miracles of religions other than your own? Or the one about ghosts, fairies and alien abductions? Just how far does your laughable credulity about “testimony” extend?”
Notice how ngotts distorts and caricatures the position by setting aside that “Under the right conditions” stipulation. In other words, ngotts seems to interpret the position as being something like this: “Whenever somebody testifies to something, you should believe it.” And from there we are immediately bombarded with the favored denizens of the gnu atheist menagerie: fairies, unicorns and the like.
How does somebody like ngotts end up with such a silly caricature? Is it intentional? I don’t think so. I certainly hope not. Instead, I suspect that ngotts is so driven by ideological commitments that everything uttered by a theist which might in some way be favorable to theism is automatically screened out or altered, resulting in this ridiculous straw man that ngotts boldly knocks over.
I talked about this problem at length in You’re not as Crazy as I Think where I identified several examples of contemporary gnu atheists who are so driven by their ideological commitments that they can’t even understand contrary positions. Unfortunately, ideological control of this sort quickly becomes self-perpetuating and can make reasoned dialogue difficult if not impossible.