One of our commenters, Nate, is a professional philosopher. And his comments reflect the fact. In the comment thread of “Testimony, God, and, er, a glass of milk” he offered an extended quote which is worth highlighting on the main stage.
Please note that I’ve changed Nate’s text to red, I’ve added boldface in a couple spots, and I’ve divided it into numbered sections for ease of reference.
Our conversations always seem to be more productive if I stipulate some tentative necessary and/or sufficient criteria for what I’m getting at with my “too many mechanics” analogy. So let me try to analyze the underlying intuition. Feel free to tear into it, and I may revise accordingly.
First, suppose the following situation obtains:
Testimonial Underdetermination (TU): Assume there are at least two, but possibly finitely many agents n; A, B, … N, each of whom satisfy sufficient criteria for reliable transmission of firsthand knowledge by acquaintance. For example they are sincere, they have proven reliable in the past, they are intelligent but also epistemically humble: they do not claim to know something that is beyond their cognitive ability to grasp (as when sincere and otherwise sane people claim that they directly “manifested” that promotion at work through positive thoughts — and so can you!). Add in whatever else you think is sufficient to make a person’s testimony credible. Stipulate also that to the best of your knowledge these agents satisfy the criteria to an equal degree: from where I stand, I have no non-arbitrary means to rank these people in terms of their credibility.
Now, suppose agent A testifies that p, but agent B testifies that q, and that p and q are logically incompatible – at most one is true. If there’s more than two agents, C testifies that r, but r entails that both p and q are false. And so on. In short, each person’s testimony provides a prima facie rebutting or undercutting defeater for each of the other testimonial claims. (This ends my description of TU).
In such a situation, I endorse the following claim:
The Principle of Underdetermined Testimonial Defeat (PUTD): Whenever one is aware that TU obtains, one has an epistemic duty to reject the testimony of A as a warranted basic belief, similarly for the testimony of B, and so on. In short, the situation TU constitutes an undercutting defeater for each testimonial claim p, q, r, and so on.
I propose that the fact that there are thousands of religious traditions, each of which are “backed up” by special revelation from God (or gods), or other forms of testimony, such as witnesses to miracles, is in fact an instance of TU. Therefore, by PUTD, there are no properly basic grounds for religious testimonial beliefs.
I anticipate two replies:
(i) “But all those other people are wrong.” One could try to undermine the testimony of people from other faith traditions as unreliable due to something allegedly uniquely remarkable about their own religion (i.e., that the origin of the Koran is so remarkable that the only reasonable explanation is that Allah directly revealed himself to Muhammad; the fact that multiple people with no reason to lie claimed to have seen a risen Jesus demonstrates that the resurrection must have happened, etc.). I hope you can understand why I would find this to be epistemological hubris in the extreme. Most believers (and I would submit even many professionally trained academic theologians) are unfamiliar with the apologetic traditions of other faiths. It’s hard to see why this wouldn’t amount to much more than special pleading.
(ii) The appeal to background beliefs. One could say that given my upbringing and membership in a certain tradition, the testimony of fellow believers provides a ground for properly basic belief; however I readily admit that the same is true of members of other doxastic communities: a Hindu or a Muslim or even a Scientologist might rationally reject the testimony I accept, and so for them it would provide no such grounds for reasonable belief. Vice versa, their testimony cannot compel me to believe them from where I currently stand.
I know that you make this dialectic move a lot, and I’m not skeptical of it tout court. But I worry that this response threatens a kind of “to each his own” relativist epistemology. Of course we all have filters through which we see the world. But isn’t it a prerequisite for seeking the truth that when we come to recognize the existence of these filters, we should hold them up to critical scrutiny? I am emphatically not saying that we ought to expunge ourselves of any interpretational framework or “plausibility structure,” that’s simply naive. (I think this is the real problem with Loftus’ “Outsider Test” by the way, but he’s certainly on to something).
We need a framework to understand the world. But neither can we just “stand pat,” content with our own worldview, assuming that it’s the best game in town. Once one realizes that people are operating with quite different ways of understanding the world, this ought to at least make one worry that perhaps I haven’t got everything figured out. Hopefully you don’t think it’s impossible to try to change one’s mind, or to succeed at actually understanding a different interpretive framework. I think that would commit you to a very radical form of cognitive relativism, and you wouldn’t want to venture there.
For the Christian, what this would imply is that a lot more interfaith dialogue and a sincere attempt to understand radically different traditions is necessary before one can say, “well, given my way of seeing things, the word of this person (who happens to agree with me) is enough for me to believe.” The very fact that there are billions of others out there who believe wildly different things using the same self-justification ought to be more than a little bothersome.
Lastly, if I’m right about this, the believer who does engage needs to be extremely cautious about not falling back onto strategy (i). An anecdote to make this point: my wife attended a small women’s college in NC which was nominally Methodist and generally non-religious in orientation, but her comparative world religions teacher had an apologetic axe to grind. Basically, when the class read the Bhagavad Gita, the Koran, or the teachings of the Buddha, these were read in the same way we might read ancient Greek mythology – that is to say, as mytho-poetic wisdom literature, not the divinely inspired Word of God. When it came to the Bible, however, things were (shall we say) quite a bit different. According to her, the guy would present apologetic arguments along with the readings to try to convince the class that Christianity is the only worldview that “made sense” (her words). It’s far too easy to be dismissive of other faith traditions when one is already armed with a bunch of reasons in their back pocket about why their religion is special.
I’ve gone on far longer than I originally intended, so just regarding the role of testimony in analytic metaphysics (and other areas of philosophy), I’m saying that for the layman, the exact same TU-type underdetermination problem. They ought not to take anyone’s word for it. The only reasonable grounds for believing any of this stuff is on the basis of something else, that is, engagement with the actual arguments and reflection on them. This requires a good amount of training, but I don’t see how testimony enters into the picture.
The difference in science is that you do have consensus within a special set of “mainstream” beliefs, and that’s why I offered my Stephen Hawking example. I trust his expertise so long as he is speaking for the scientific community at large. When it comes to his more speculative ideas about the dynamics of black holes, or the origins of the universe, etc., I would listen with interest but not take his word for it. I know there’s a lot of other smart people out there who disagree with him when it comes to the cutting edge of astrophysics, and that’s exactly where my credence should be tempered.
Re: my remarks on naturalistic philosophy, I for one think that it is a good thing that work in analytic metaphysics, ethics, epistemology, and so forth is becoming more “naturalized,” that is, borrowing from mainstream science and incorporating that into their arguments. None of this stuff is really my own idea about how to properly conduct philosophy – it’s taken for granted in a lot of philosophy departments that this is how we do things now. The virtue of appeals to the findings of science is simply that it constrains the terms of debate. Much less is up for grabs.
Yes, one can interpret the significance of scientific findings in different ways, and that’s how a lot of philosophical debate is now conducted. But it’s a good thing that there’s at least a shared “core” of results that are not in question. And as we all know (say, from Einstein’s EPR thought experiment and the physicist/philosopher John Bell’s brilliant experiment) , interpretations can have further empirical significance, and therefore can (to some degree) be further settled by observation/experiment. This is a side issue, but that’s what I was getting at.
As Nate observes, I have discussed these issues many times. They are discussed, for example, in The Swedish Atheist, the Scuba Diver, and Other Apologetic Rabbit Trails. I would especially direct the reader to the following:
Given that I have discussed this topic a fair bit in the above referenced book and articles, I will focus my remarks here to a few key points.
TU and Knowledge of Acquaintance
To begin with, I’d like to offer a quibble (or perhaps a call for clarification?) regarding the definition of Testimonial Underdetermination in (2). Nate sets up this principle so that all relevant testimony traces back to “firsthand knowledge by acquaintance.” But consider the conflicting testimony one receives from professional philosophers on whether a particular philosophical argument is valid or sound. The problem of testimonial underdetermination surely obtains. This leaves Nate with a dilemma. Either one claims, implausibly, that beliefs derived from discursive processes (i.e. the evaluation of particular arguments) fall under the rubric of “knowledge by acquaintance”. Or one arbitrarily restricts the problem of TU to testimonial beliefs which trace back to acquaintance to the exclusion of those that trace to discursive processes.
Nate is correct that I would appeal to (i) and especially (ii). He worries, however, that “this response threatens a kind of ‘to each his own’ relativist epistemology. ” (6) He goes on, “isn’t it a prerequisite for seeking the truth that when we come to recognize the existence of these filters, we should hold them up to critical scrutiny?” I answer: yes, indeed. But that doesn’t mean one is obliged to accept the (PUTD). Accepting that-p based on testimony is perfectly consistent with continually seeking to vindicate and/or falsify that-p over-against its alternatives.
Does PUTD oblige children to withhold belief in their parents’ testimony?
Children are surely aware of testimonial underdetermination, for they can see that their parents testify to the truth of claims that are denied by other prima facie equally credible authority figures. And we’re not simply talking about grand matters of religion here. Consider:
“Timmy, make sure to wear your hockey helmet when you go skating today. Skating is dangerous without a helmet.”
“But mom, Mr. Smith says you don’t need a helmet. He says skating isn’t dangerous.”
If Timmy believes Mr. Smith is equally credible as a witness to his own mom, then it seems that PUTD obliges him to withhold belief on this matter, even if he opts to wear his helmet out of pure pragmatic considerations. Is this really correct?
Does Nate believe that children are obliged to follow PUTD?
Do pragmatic worries carry the day?
Nate worries: “We need a framework to understand the world. But neither can we just “stand pat,” content with our own worldview, assuming that it’s the best game in town.” (7) Nate seems to be objecting to (i) and (ii) based not on direct objections to the views themselves, but rather based on concerns these beliefs will have on epistemic virtue. But how is this not the same as somebody objecting to atheism based on the alleged adverse social consequences that flow from atheism? Whether there are adverse social consequences to the widespread acceptance of atheism is a separate issue from whether one ought to believe atheism is true. Likewise, whether there are adverse consequences qua doxastic virtue arising from the acceptance of (i) and (ii) is a separate issue from whether one ought to accept (i) and (ii) as true.