On Testimony

 Posted by on 10 August 2005 at 9:01 am  Religion
Aug 102005

After a quick read of Don Watkins’ recent post on the use and abuse of testimony as evidence, I thought I might have some doubtful questions to raise about it. So I printed it out for Paul and me to discuss on the drive up to a dinner party on Saturday. However, after a careful read and some discussion, I realized that my worries were groundless. I’m almost disappointed!

At this point, I am reduced to this footnote of a comment on Don’s warning that “early Christian writers… were not objective observers” but rather “believers trying to spread their message”: The Teaching Company’s course The New Testament by Bart Ehrman does an excellent job of highlighting the various conflicts between the Gospels — and then explaining why they aren’t significant, given that the purpose of each Gospel is to portray the life of Jesus according to a particular theme, not to accurately record the facts of his life. I’ve only ever read bits of the Gospels myself, but Ehrman presents a compelling case.

Also, I should mention that Don’s comments on the inadmissibility of testimony about causes were quite intriguing to me, likely because I’ve never thought much about this issue. Here’s my take on the matter:

Consider a case in which John wishes to convince us that Mary was killed by a lethal dose of poison administered by her Aunt Bertha. John cannot merely assert that conclusion about the cause of Mary’s death — not if he expects us to agree with him. Why not? Because, as Don says…

Testimony, at its best, can only tell us that something happened, not why it happened. This is inherent in its nature: testimony is a verbal report of an individual’s perception of an event, and perception by itself does not lead to the discover[y] of causes. To identify a cause is a conceptual discovery, and while it is based on sense experience, it requires more than sense experience.

So John can testify as to the concrete facts he witnessed, e.g. that he saw Mary’s Aunt Bertha pour rat poison into her drink, then he saw her drink that drink, then he saw her vomit, convulse, and die. Armed with such particular facts — hopefully also expert testimony from the doctor who performed the autopsy — we can determine for ourselves whether John’s conclusion of death by poison is adequately supported by the evidence. We might confirm his conclusion. Or we might discover that he was lying to conceal his own murder of Mary. Or we might discover that Mary had no poison in her system because Aunt Bertha actually kept vodka in the rat poison jar to hide it from the alcoholic Uncle Bob. In essence then, John can testify as to the facts he witnessed, but to convince us of his conclusion, he must walk us through the reasoning about those facts that led him to conclude that Bertha poisoned Mary, allowing us to check his every step.

For John to try to testify directly as to the cause of Mary’s death instead would be an abuse of the proper standards of epistemology, even if he himself is armed with more than adequate evidence for that conclusion. We would be reduced to accepting his conclusion on faith. So how much worse is it for Christians and other religious folks to demand that we accept testimony not just that some wild and strange event happened, but that the cause was the unseen hand of God? As an arbitrary argument from ignorance, it’s much, much worse.

In discussing this issue with Paul, it occurred to me that people often magnify certain reasonable epistemological mistakes into sheer absurdities in attempting to rationally argue for their faith. That’s a pattern I’ll have to watch out for, I think.

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