While I do most of the heavy lifting in this blog, occasionally I will have a guest poster. The following essay started off life as an email from RD Miksa in response to the threaded discussion following my articles “Craig Keener on Miracles” and “Miracles and the old ‘testimony is unreliable so we can ignore miracle claims’ chestnut.”
Given the quality of the analysis I’ve decided to share it with my readers. So here is RD Miksa on the evidentiary value of eye-witness testimony. (Note: I have modified the essay by adding more paragraph breaks and boldfacing the main points. Otherwise it remains unchanged.)
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I am writing you today because as a regular “lurker” at your blog, I was dismayed at certain comments posted recently in reply to your blog posts concerning the topic of eye-witness reliability and the evidentiary value of eye-witness testimony. As an individual who has worked for most of his professional life in real-life fields that depend heavily on eye-witness testimony and which make serious decisions based on such testimony (Intelligence and Policing), I was indeed shocked at the generally poor understanding and misconceptions that many of your commentators expressed when they were discussing the issue of eye-witness testimony.
Let me explain what I mean by focusing on a number of critical issues that are relevant to this general topic and which also respond to the points that some of your commentators made. (And please note that the reason that this information has been sent in the form of an e-mail rather than posting it in the Comments Section of your blog post is due to this message’s length as well as being due to the fact that the Comments Section for the discussion concerning eye-witness testimony has slowed down at this point).
1) Science Over-turning Eye-Witness Testimony: One of your commentators—when discussing the issue of eye-witness testimony in a legal context—made the claim that we very often hear that scientific evidence, in the form of forensic evidence such as DNA, overturns eye-witness testimony. Indeed, the commentator then seemed to infer that courts thus favor scientific evidence over testimonial evidence in many instances. And yet this claim is not only mistaken as a general principle, but it fails to take into account the vastly greatly number of times that eye-witness testimony overrules scientific evidence in a legal setting.
To understand why, we first have to understand that eye-witness testimony, while still remaining eye-witness testimony, varies greatly in terms of quality. For example, there is a big difference in the quality of eye-witness testimony between 1) a group of people who see, at night and in a poorly lit area, an unknown man stabbing another unknown man when compared to 2) a group of people who walk in on a family friend, whom they have known for twenty-years, stabbing his wife (who they also know) in the well-lit living room of his house. Obviously, the eye-witness testimony in the latter case is of better quality than in the former case, and yet in both cases it is still eye-witness testimony.
Yet what this means is that while a court may assess forensic evidence of a certain sort to be sufficient to establish reasonable doubt in the eye-witness testimony in the first case, it would never do so in the latter case. Indeed, if, for example, it was somehow discovered that the fingerprints of the family friend were not on the knife that was used to stab his wife, but rather that the fingerprints of another man were on the knife, do you think that that fact would in any way be sufficient to override the eye-witness testimony provided of the murder by the group of people that walked in on him as he was stabbing his wife in the living room? Of course not. This strange forensic fact would simply be viewed as one of the anomalies that sometimes occurs with forensic evidence in criminal cases. But it would never be sufficient, in and of itself, to create reasonable doubt in the face of the eye-witness testimony provided by a group of people who clearly saw a family friend murder his wife.
And this brings me to my next point, which is that while atheists often mention the fact that, at times, forensic evidence overturns eye-witness testimony, they routinely fail to mention that eye-witness testimony more often than not overturns forensic evidence. For example, a woman is found raped and murdered, and she is covered with the bodily fluids of a certain male, who has now become the prime suspect in this murder. And yet, at the time of the woman’s death, the male was at work in a board-room meeting and was clearly seen by ten of his co-workers within the time-frame of the murder. Guess what? Eye-witness testimony easily trumps forensic evidence in such a case. And such examples could be multiplied endlessly. And so the point is this: while forensic evidence does, at times, override poor quality eye-witness testimony, it is actually the case that eye-witness testimony is routinely more powerful than forensic evidence, and it routinely overrides forensic evidence as well.
2) Eye-Witness Testimony is the Most Powerful Type of Evidence: The next point that I want to raise is the fact that while it is often believed that forensic evidence (meaning “scientific” evidence) is the most powerful type of evidence available in an investigation, this is actually mistaken. The most powerful singular-type of evidence that can ever be marshalled in a courtroom is eye-witness testimony. But it is eye-witness testimony of a certain type: namely, a confession. Indeed, a confession that accounts for the facts at the scene is the most powerful form of evidence that there is. And furthermore, a confession potentially trumps even copious amounts of forensic evidence. To understand why, consider this example. Detectives investigate a murder scene. They find a massive amount of forensic evidence that all point to one man. No other forensic evidence that points to anyone else is found at the scene. The Detectives then arrest the man that is linked to the forensic evidence. And yet that man is adamant that he is innocent. Then, later that day, another man comes to the Detectives and confesses to the crime. He states that he hates the first man (the one that was arrested) and so he set-up that man by staging the crime scene so that the forensic evidence would point to him. The confessing man then describes how he acquired the forensic evidence for the first man, how he then committed the murder, and how he made sure that no forensic evidence would point to him. Furthermore, the confessing man states that he just could not live with himself and that is why he turned himself in. The Detectives review the confession and it clearly matches everything at the scene. The Detectives also discover that the two men did indeed hate each other intensely and that they would never work together in some type of conspiracy. Now, based on this confession, and based on the fact that the other man is also testifying that he did not commit the crime, which man do you think that the Detectives will be charging for murder? It will, of course, be the man that confessed! Indeed, they will charge the man that confessed even though no forensic evidence points in his direction and all the forensic evidence points to someone else. Why? Because eye-witness testimony of a certain quality—meaning a sound and coherent confessions—will always ultimately trump forensic (scientific) evidence.
3) Testimony can be Extraordinary Evidence: Naturalists often like to claim that “Extraordinary Claims require Extraordinary Evidence” while simultaneously implying that eye-witness testimony simply is not extraordinary evidence and thus that it can never be sufficient evidence for an extraordinary claim. Now, while there exist a myriad of problems with the claim that “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence”, let us grant, for the sake of argument, that it is a sound principle. Yet even with this concession granted, the naturalist’s attempt to claim that eye-witness testimony could never count as the very extraordinary evidence needed for an extraordinary claim is just mistaken. Why? Because, as is known in the intelligence world, eye-witness testimony from informants / spies / sources is based on the key factor of reliability. Essentially, if a source’s long and varied track-record of reliability is exemplary, and if his information has always panned out as described, then his testimony would be considered of “extraordinary” evidentiary value.
Thus, for example, say that we received a report from a human source with a top-notch reliability rating that a high-value terrorist commander was planning to sneak in to the United States to personally lead an attack against America. Now say that such an action was absolutely extraordinary for this particular terrorist commander given that for the last fifty years he had never left his personal compound and had never personally led any of his operations. Nevertheless, even though this claim made by the source would be extraordinary, the testimony from the source—given his track-record of total reliability so far—would also be extraordinary. And thus, this source’s testimony would be sufficient, in and of itself, to have the whole intelligence apparatus start moving heaven-and-earth to prevent this upcoming terrorist attack.
So note: the testimony of even one eye-witness can count as extraordinary evidence that is sufficient to justify belief in an extraordinary claim. And the evidence from two such eye-witnesses would be exponentially more powerful. Now the reason that this fact is pertinent to a discussion on apologetics is because if you knew someone who was completely reliable (and of sound mind), say your father, and if you had known your father for thirty years and he had never once lied to you or played a false prank on you, and if your father one day told you that he had just seen a man levitate (and he had checked out the man completely and had confirmed that his levitation was no magician’s trick), then you would be entirely rational and reasonable to believe in human levitation based on the testimony of such an eye-witness (and see the “Fallacy of ‘Broken’ Natural Laws” Section below for an expansion on this topic). The fact just is: highly reliable eye-witness testimony is powerful enough, in and of itself, to make believe in an extraordinary claim rational.
So the above are just some key points about the value of eye-witness testimony that may be of use to your readers. In addition—and if you will permit this indulgence—here are a few more points that are worthy of discussion.
4) The Fallacy of “Broken” Natural Laws: Atheists and naturalists routinely like to claim that eye-witness testimony of a miracle cannot be believed because it seems to go against our knowledge and experience of “unbroken” natural laws. But such an objection is utterly vacuous and impotent, for even if it is granted, for the sake of argument, that natural laws cannot be broken—and this is a massive assumption—this objection nevertheless assumes that we actually have knowledge of what the natural laws are.
But do we? Let me explain. Consider levitation. Currently, we believe that due to the effects of gravity, a person cannot levitate. And yet it is entirely conceivable that an advanced alien civilization could possess the technology necessary to allow a person to levitate. Now, in doing so, this advance alien civilization would not be “breaking” any natural laws, but rather would be using other natural forces to naturally counter-act the effects of gravity. In the same way, God, if He exists, could very possibly be using certain “natural laws” that we have no knowledge of (and might never have knowledge of) to perform what to us would be a “miracle”, but which he could accomplish through entirely natural means. And yet God would not be “breaking” any natural laws in doing so. Rather, he would just be using one natural force to override another.
Now why is this important to the topic of testimony? Because the naturalist can never claim—at least not without begging the question—that the testimony of an alleged miracle cannot be believed because it seems to imply the “breaking” of a law of nature. At best, the naturalist can only claim that it is breaking what we currently believe to be a law of nature. But there is a world of difference between what we believe the natural laws are and what they actually are in an ultimate sense. Furthermore, the history of science shows us that what we once thought were laws of nature no longer are, and that things we thought not to be possible are now possible, which thus weakens any claim that the naturalist might make in support of our current understanding of what constitutes the laws of nature. So, again, the naturalist can never claim that the testimony of a miracle is not to be believed because it is testimony of the breaking of a law of nature. And this fact is critical because testimony is more powerful than current science, a point which we will turn to next.
5) Testimony Over Science: I have already pointed out how in a legal and investigative context forensic scientific evidence is less powerful than high-quality eye-witness testimony. Now, what I wish to point out is the fact that high-quality eye-witness testimony is more powerful in terms of its evidentiary value than any evidence that science provides. Hard to believe? Not really. Science is, after all, always a provisional endeavour, and as such, any claim that it makes is also provisional. In fact, given the history of science and the changes that science has gone through, I think a good argument could be made that many scientific theories accepted today—especially in “soft” sciences—do not even meet the standard of true “beyond a reasonable doubt.”
But anyway, let me provide some examples/thought-experiments of how eye-witness testimony trumps scientific “facts”. Imagine if “science” tells us that human teleportation is impossible. Then imagine that some unknown being arrives on Earth and tells us that he can teleport human beings anywhere he wants to in the blink of an eye. So, in order to test his theory, we ask this being to teleport people to the Moon and back. He agrees. Thus, we have hundreds of reliable people from different locations watching a specific spot on the Moon. The being then teleports a large number of reliable but randomly chosen people to that spot of the Moon. They are all seen by the hundreds of people watching. The being then teleports those people back to Earth. All these people testify to having been on the Moon. The being then teleports the people back to the Moon to a different spot. Again, these people are seen on the Moon by hundreds of people on Earth. The Moon-people are then teleported back. This process is repeated again a number of different times.
So given such a scenario, it is clear that the eye-witness testimonial evidence that the being could teleport people, and that that teleportation occurred, would be overwhelming, and it would thus indeed be rational, beyond a reasonable doubt, to believe in human teleportation. Furthermore, this eye-witness testimony would be of such power that it would clearly make belief in human teleportation rational even if our current science informed us that such human teleportation was essentially impossible. And note that this eye-witness testimony would keep belief in human teleportation rational even if we could never scientifically explain how it was possible (or never have it explained to us). And also note that this eye-witness testimony would still be as valid even if we never found out if the being in question was an advanced alien that appeared humanoid and who was using hyper-advanced technology to make the teleportation happen, or a human from the future who was also using advanced technology to made the teleportation happen, or an angel in human form, or a Cartesian “demon” projecting himself as a human, or an incarnated God with such power as to be able to cause this teleportation through His will. The fact would be that even if we never knew who the being was, and even if we could never explain scientifically how the teleportation occurred, the eye-witness testimony would make it rational to believe in the possibility of human teleportation even if our best science told us that it should be impossible. And what does this thought-experiment show? That given certain conditions, such as high-quality and reliability, eye-witness testimony can always, ultimately, be a more powerful form of evidence than anything that science offers us.
The debate thus rests with how much and what type of eye-witness testimony is needed to override a scientific claim, but the general idea that eye-witness testimony can always be more powerful than scientific evidence is indisputable. And what this means for apologetics is clear: in theory, eye-witness testimony for miracles can indeed override any claim that science might make concerning the impossibility of such a miracle. And realizing this fact is a powerful antidote to the scientism that seems so pervasive amongst so many naturalists and atheists.
6) Testimony and the Problem for Naturalists: I have always found the rejection of the strong evidentiary value of eye-witness testimony by naturalists quite puzzling. Why? Because so much of their worldview absolutely rests on the strength of eye-witness testimony, and all their criticisms against eye-witness testimony usually back-fire against their own position.
Consider the following example. Scientists report that some new elementary particle (like the Higgs boson) has been discovered (or that some counter-intuitive theory, like evolutionary theory, is true). This is an extraordinary claim. However, I, being highly skeptical of the reliability of eye-witness testimony, demand extraordinary evidence for this claim. I also point out the following. How many scientists witnessed this event? If only a few, then I should not trust them for such an extraordinary claim. Could they not have been mistaken? After all, naturalists routinely tell us that eye-witness testimony is unreliable. Could their calculations not have been in error? For don’t we all know that human cognitive functions are not that reliable. Why should we trust the testimony of those that told us that the machines used to test for this new particle were properly built (or that the physical data collected for the theory was collected properly)? People do, after all, lie. Should we trust the testimony of people that have a serious motive for seeing such discoveries come about? Scientists do, after all, want to keep the scientific funds coming in, and finding new particles is a great way to increase research cash flow. And so on and so forth.
Anyway, the whole point here is that most of the objections that naturalists raise against eye-witness testimony could equally be used against the very scientific and experiential claims which they so often use to attempt to bolster their own position. In essence, the naturalist’s distaste for eye-witness testimony is a double-edged sword, and it cuts him just as deeply as it cuts anyone else.