In “Testimony as Properly Basic” I outlined a simple way that a person could be justified in believing that “Jesus rose from the dead”. Instead of appealing to doxastic processes that are accepted only by Christians (e.g. the Internal Instigation of the Holy Spirit) I based my account on a mundane source of knowledge and rational belief: testimony. And so when a person reads or hears of accounts of Jesus’ resurrection they can be justified in accepting it so long as they are aware of no defeaters to it. (Let me note what should be obvious: the observation that “People don’t rise from the dead” is not a defeater to resurrection belief because the claim isn’t that Jesus just happened to resurrect from death like some people just happen to recover from a serious illness. Rather, the view is that God raised Jesus from the dead.)
It is important to understand that the basis of my argument is the observation that we regularly, normatively accept testimony unless we have defeaters to the credibility of that testimony. If we don’t get that straight at the outset then our analysis of belief in the resurrection by way of testimony will be skewed. And that brings me to my conversation with Jeff in the discussion thread to the article, part of which I’ve recounted here. I’ve then included a final response to Jeff’s comments to hammer home why we need to treat acceptance of testimony as rationally justified absent defeaters for that testimony.
Randal: “Hold on. You say: “”Innocent until proven guilty” works as a rough-and-ready approximation of how we treat mundane, relatively inconsequential testimony”. But that isn’t what you said initially. Does this mean that you are conceding that at lest for some types of testimony my characterization is correct and yours is not? Once I’m clear on where you stand on that point I can turn to the issues you propose to be exceptions.”
Jeff: “I’m not conceding that. “Innocent until proven guilty” is not a proper framing of the epistemic principle involved. Returning to the example of restaurant directions testimony, our long history of such testimony being generally reliable allows us to conclude that for future cases of such testimony, there’s a prima facie high probability that it will be correct testimony. In practice, this means that our approach to future cases of such testimony will superficially resemble an innocent until proven guilty approach, but that’s a sloppy and incorrect articulation of the underlying epistemic principle.”
Randal: “So it seems that you are committed to saying the first moments when a developing child trusts the testimony of the caregivers in her midst that this thing is a *ball*, she’s being irrational since she has no history. But then her later history of trusting testimony is built on a starting point that was fundamentally irrational, and like a rotten foundation the whole epistemic structure collapses.”
Jeff: I don’t see what’s problematic about this implication. I’m not sure whether I’d identify the child’s trust as irrational, but of course the capability for rational, critical reflection must be grown and cultivated and depends intimately on a growing awareness of and experience with the external world.
Now I’m going to explain at more length why Jeff’s epistemology of testimony really is fatal. Jeff appears to have defended a principle like this:
Jeff’s principle: it is only reasonable to accept a testimony if one is aware that past testimony from the source of testimony has proven to be reliable.
There are many problems evident with Jeff’s principle. For example, what does it mean for a source of testimony (as I describe it) to be reliable? Jeff refers in his example to “our long history of such testimony [i.e. directions to restaurants] being generally reliable”. This suggests that he believes we need to have access to the past reliability of testimony not from specific individuals but rather in specific circumstances. This seems to me a curious claim, but I’ll set it aside to move things forward.
Let me get to the nub of the problem that I referred to above. If it is only reasonable to accept testimony based upon the reliability of past testimony then it is only reasonable to accept that past testimony based upon earlier testimony, and so on. In other words, we face either an infinite regress of justification or a starting point where we accepted testimony without any past source which had proven to be reliable. Obviously we cannot meet the demands of an infinite regress. So it follows that Jeff’s principle requires us to say that at the foundations of our noetic structure as developing children we were unjustified and irrational to accept the testimony being presented to us because we had no evidential history according to which that testimony had been shown to be reliable.
Now you might like to reply: “Who cares? Perhaps our first weeks of accepting testimony was unjustified, but eventually we were justified once we had a history.”
There are two problems with this retort. The first problem is that this is an erroneous way to think about the epistemology of testimony, for it entails that children were irrational and unjustified as they accepted the initial testimony of their caregivers. This is obviously false. Accepting that testimony was fully rational, justified and just what we should expect from developing children.
The second problem is that this retort fails to appreciate the fact that a lack of justification at the source transfers to all subsequent acceptance of testimony because all subsequent testimony is based on the justification (or lack thereof) which was (or wasn’t) transferred onto subsequent instances of testimony. That’s why I referred to the initial lack of justification that follows from Jeff’s view as being like a rotten foundation in a noetic structure.
Perhaps an illustration might help. Let’s say that the General Hospital hires Dr. Smith as a neurosurgeon based on the testimony of his previous employment at the Regional Hospital. And the Regional Hospital hired Dr. Smith based on his degree from Big University. What if it turns out that Dr. Smith’s credentials were forged and he never graduated from Big University? His lack of credentialing would negate the value of his history of employment at Regional Hospital. And so if General Hospital knew that he lacked these credentials then they surely ought not hire him.
Justification is like those credentials. In the same way that Dr. Smith’s credibility as a doctor at present depends on the quality of his initial credentials, so on Jeff’s view our ability to accept testimony now is dependent on our justification in accepting testimony in the early moments of our cognitive development. But according to Jeff’s criterion we were not justified to accept that initial testimony because we infants and toddlers lacked an evidential track record testifying to the reliability of our caregivers. From this it follows that all subsequent testimony acceptance is illegitimate because it is based on that initial irrational foundation just like Dr. Smith’s medical career is illegitimate because it is based on bogus credentials.
For this reason we must reject Jeff’s evidentialist epistemology of testimony and recognize that we reasonably accept testimony so long as we are aware of no defeaters to it. And from there it is a hop, a skip and a jump to recognizing that folks who have no defeaters to the claim “Jesus rose from the dead” can be justified in accepting testimonials that he rose from the dead.