Of the many potential pieces of knowledge I have gained this week, numbering amongst them are the facts that the late Pope John Paul II was responsible for a miracle, and that U.S. Special Forces killed Osama Bin Laden. These stories are presented to me, and I must somehow decide whether to accept them or not. Enter epistemology.
WARNING: CRACKPOT CONSPIRACY THEORY ALERT! On Monday, over a million people crowded the streets of Rome to celebrate and witness the beatification of the late Pope John Paul II. One of the requirements for such a beatification is the confirmed attribution of a miracle to the “blessed” one in question. This requirement was satisfactorily fulfilled by the testimony of a nun, Marie Simon-Pierre, who claimed that she had been miraculously cured of Parkinson’s Disease by the supernatural intervention of John Paul’s spirit. Now, denounce me as a sceptic if you wish, but I’m just not sure that this is entirely reliable. Continue reading “The Authority of Testimony”
This week the Guardian published an article questioning the veracity of UK sex trafficking figures. Not long ago, numbers as high as 25,000 were being used to motivate government policy which has led to changes in the priorities of virtually every police force in the country, and likely changes in the law. But it turns out the figures are bogus. The Guardian article charts their genealogy.
A central division that shapes the epistemology of testimony is that between reductionists and non-reductionists. Reductionists think that interlocutors have to justify what they are told by their own means. Non-reductionists think that interlocutors can, in principle, be justified in being so told, alone. The present situation offers a nice illustration of what’s at issue.
It’s difficult to imagine how anyone could know everything that is known. But in any society in which there is a division of epistemic labour, many people make decisions which affect the lives of others on matters about which they are not experts or even knowledgeable hobbyists.
This combination (absent first-hand knowledge, and, a capacity to affect the lives of others) introduces a requirement that people rely on what the authorities (whoever they are: mechanics, scientists, economists, estate agents, policy designers, teachers…) tell them. This is a fact of modern life. Most of what you know you do not know first hand. But for this dependence on authority to work effectively as a basis on which interlocutors can make good decisions, and act appropriately: the authorities in question must have an accurate reputation; the theatres in which authorities have their checks and controls need to be functioning properly; and that which leaks out into the public domain needs to be put in a way that non-experts can understand and put to use responsibly.
When we have non-expert consumers of information, much scaffolding needs to be in place for a reliance on authority not to end in disaster. But with it in place, we get a picture of the epistemological status of testimony that is not obviously either reductionist or non-reductionist.
Related articles: Knowing from Testimony
Department of Philosophy, Northern Illinois University
(Vol. 1, June 2006) Philosophy Compass