So, what have I been up to?
Well, aside from delighting the adult education community with my Critical Thinking course and prepping the next one I have been reading up both on Social Epistemology and the current debates in Testimony.
Why these two subjects? Aside from being required to write a research essay in Epistemology these two areas are clearly of interest to a Conspiracy Theorist. Social Epistemology is largely concerned with the belief acquisition of groups via reliable processes. Conspiracy Theories, whilst obviously held as beliefs belonging to individuals, are also beliefs that apply to groups. We talk about the 9/11 Truth Movement as holding to a conspiracy theory about the destruction of the Twin Towers even though not every member of that movement holds the same conspiracy theory. We can distinguish some level of group belief and we can also distinguish some notion that these beliefs are being formed by some set of similar processes. The details of this will be the focus of my research paper and at the moment I have such delicate and formative views on this that it would be presumptuous of me to say anything.
The Testimony side of things is far easy to explicate upon. Traditionally testimony has been treated as being suspicious as a belief formation process by just about everyone. Even people like Hume, who thought we couldnâ€™t get away from relying on testimony thought it was just a necessary evil (a little like his view on Induction, really). Yet it is hard to argue against the thesis that virtually everything we know has some basis in testimony. Even our perceptual experiences rely upon testimony; to know that the thing you are looking at is a cat rather than a car relies upon someone having told you something about cats and having been told that cats and cars are different and so forth.
Even if we accept the above account (and not everyone does) then the question becomes â€˜How do we justify testimony?â€™ (I should point out that I am talking about Testimony here in the broad sense of informative statements made by people like you or I to other people like you or I and not in the restrictive sense such as when we talk about witness testimony in legal settings) Reductionists argue that testimony is justified by reference to (other) basic beliefs; when person A testifies the proposition p then for that to count as belief forming for person B, the listener, then needs to have some reason to believe that A is a good testifier for the proposition p. A needs not only to be trustworthy but also B needs to know that they are trustworthy. Sometimes we can generate this evaluation of trustworthiness with ease; in respect to the Sciences we can (usually) safely assume that someone who is an expert in their field has the right credentials to be trustworthy, and sometimes we canâ€™t, such as when you meet a stranger who wants to tell you that their chosen faith is the one for you too.
Anti-reductionists claim that testimony is a basic source of beliefs, just like perception and memory and so forth (part of the argument here is that perception and memory are troubled anyway, so the issues with testimony do not make it vastly different anyway) and that we have a prima facie justification for beliefs based upon testimony in the same way that we have a prima facie justification for beliefs based on perception et al. Whilst reductionists claim that we need to generate trustworthiness before we can accept a belief obtained via testimony the anti-reductionist claims that we should be aware of possible defeaters to trustworthiness but, unless something comes up, we should just accept testimony.
On the face of it that sounds like an exceedingly silly claim and it is, on the face of it. A major difference between the reductionists and the anti-reductionists is the notion of knowledge. Going back as far as Plato the notion of â€˜knowledgeâ€™ has been defined as Justified True Belief (which, for the latter part of the 20th Century onwards has been the subject of much contention due to what are called Gettier Examples; examples of an agent having a justified true belief p which we would not claim were also examples of that agent knowing p). The anti-reductionist camp, by and large, operate with a different concept of knowledge, justified belief (some theorists, like Alvin Goldman, differentiate between super-knowledge (the JTB conception) and knowledge (JB)), where the tricky notion of justification for beliefs comes from reliable processes. Belief acquisition via testimony, then, needs to be shown to be reliable; it must produce, more often than not, knowledge. Goldman, in his â€˜Social Knowledge in the worldâ€™ uses a Bayesian analysis to show that this is so.
Once you get into reliablism you get back to the debate in epistemology proper, where the focus is on the so-called internalist/externalist split. I havenâ€™t really got the material (yet) to explain the notion of mixed epistemology, the curious mixture of classical epistemology and reliabilism, but I will, and this might well be the way forth for testimony.
Or it might not.