How does the brain process information? In particular, is the cognitive portion of the brain divided up into a number of task-specific ‘modules’, each of which are devoted to a specific task, or is the brain constituted by (one or many) processing units which are flexible in their operation? Modularists, as those in the former camp are called, often appeal to a form of argument which makes use of the idea that certain cognitive characteristics appear to be dissociable from others, such that certain individuals can excel, or struggle, in distinct tasks in ways not necessarily related to the complexity of the task, or proportional to their general intelligence. To this end, Williams Syndrome and – at the other end of the spectrum – SLI are invoked to support a modular conception of language faculties, and autism is sometimes (questionably) invoked in support of the view that the capacity to deploy a theory of mind is modular.
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