Ordinary Language Meanings: Testimonial Truth and Sincerity

In his book ”An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding” the 18th Century Scottish philosopher David Hume wrote: ‘we may observe that there is no species of reasoning more common, more useful, and even necessary to human life, than that which is derived from the testimony of men, and the reports of eyewitnesses and spectators.’ In this statement, Hume was recognising the all-pervasive nature of human culture and its effect on our understanding of what there is beyond our personal experience. Indeed it seems likely in any elaborate society in which there is an education system and individuals have specialised roles that the bulk of our worldview as adults comes via others. In our formative years, we are even more dependent on the received wisdom of those we encounter.

In 1998, Peter Lipton argued that ‘The transmission of knowledge is or ought to be of central epistemological interest’. For anyone like me who places emphasis on the context of ideas and epistemic justification by coherence, it seems difficult to overestimate the importance of testimony and at the same time puzzle about the relative lack of attention that this subject has received from epistemologists. By and large, it is taken for granted that humans, as social creatures who have developed language and symbolic communication, acquire ideas from others. That is simply the human condition.

Additionally, in Western analytical thinking, we tend to make the presumption that it is the idea which is itself the subject of analysis. The originators of the ideas might be the subject of admiration, however, they are not to be venerated or treated as authority figures. Any concept under consideration is depersonalised. A proposition expressed by a declarative sentence is normally taken to be the subject of analysis.

Given these background presumptions, it is hardly surprising that testimony has, with some notable exceptions, received relatively little attention.

Testimonial Sincerity or Truth-Telling

We can assess testimony in at least 3 distinct ways. Firstly, we might ask is the person making the statement being honest or lying, that is, are they being sincere? Secondly, we can go beyond that and ask, are the ideas that they are communicating true, false, reliable, accurate, predictive or have some other relevant attribute. Thirdly, we might also ask is the communicative act metaphoric or fictive? We can, of course, ask ourselves the same questions when giving testimony to others. 

Truth-telling in the sense of not being deceitful or lying to others is a property of statements that we rely on in our social interactions. I shall call this meaning ‘testimonial sincerity’. Testimonial sincerity is the truthfulness of personal intention and report that exists in an interpersonal sense. In other words, do you intend to deceive others or instead portray to them as accurate a picture as you can, given the limits of your knowledge and your expressive abilities? Of course, you might intend something that is in between the extremes of absolute sincerity and outright deception for a large variety of reasons, including those that you consider, for social reasons, to be beneficial to the listener, yourself or third parties.

Nevertheless, without an idealised concept of ‘testimonial sincerity,’ or honesty, we could not have a functional society that involves the existence of laws, courts, witnesses and juries. We could not conduct business efficiently, assess educational performance, treat the sick or undertake scientific study. As social creatures, we depend daily on the idea of testimonial sincerity for our interactions with others, even when we deliberately lie or cheat. 

We cannot directly examine the intentions and understanding of those making statements and those who interpret them, for we do not literally ‘read’ each other’s minds. Instead, we exchange tokens or symbols that often will come in the form of words, sounds, gestures, diagrams, graphs, pictures or mathematics. There exists a gap between minds that we can only partially overcome through communication.

What is to be done in this philosophical predicament? Our only hope is to operate in a society where the benefits of sincere truth-telling outweigh the possible advantages of dishonesty. Within the social domain, effective constraints and the importance of reputation are needed to ensure that we at the very least tend to make our testimony to others truthful. Without a presumption of sincerity, our desire to proceed to a more analytical examination of testimony is groundless. An epistemology that does not take into consideration personal experience is worthless. Why is this? If we have no expectation of sincere reports then we have no expectation of truth or knowledge from others. However, that is not the situation we face. If we are to make any headway in the world we must balance scepticism with an openness to new ideas while at the same time attempting to minimise our gullibility. Indeed the study of epistemology and logic can help us in this regard.

Epistemological Strategies

We are still vulnerable to error even when the people offering their testimony are being sincere. However, in many circumstances there are simply no tests. We are all fallible and ignorant. Others might be more informed than ourselves or they might not. In this uncertainty social context becomes important. For example, is the witness stated to be an expert, an ignoramus, a fool, or an inveterate liar by those how know him? And so it is that our personal epistemology can be dependent on our social domain of reference. Despite articulate arguments to the contrary, there can be no definitive or default rules or heuristics for the acceptance of testimony. From these considerations, we can argue that there is a need for an ethical and social framework in which to communicate.

In accepting the testimony of others there is no overwhelming reason to ‘accept as true‘ in any absolute sense (see reference 3). Do so if you please, however, consider also that we may have the option of prima facie truth taken to mean ‘accept as correct until proved otherwise’. Accept, for me, means ‘accept for the moment’, however fleeting.

In particular circumstances such as in courts, we might seek to precisely define the meaning of some terms and so reduce vagueness or incompleteness either of a deliberate or unintentional kind. At the extreme, in mathematics or formal logic, a precisely defined language might even be developed. However, since the application of logic is dependent on descriptions or assertions even that cannot help us in our dilemma.
Another possibility is that we extend our interaction with the witnesses to include further enquiry in a way that advocates might cross-examine in court. In this case, our degree of acceptance might be influenced by the limits of enquiry.

In the end, we need to make a simple choice. Do we restrict our certainties to what we personally observe or include in our worldview what we learn from others? In so doing we might even be defending unjustified assumptions about our own abilities. Or do we instead, accept that others are fallible like ourselves but reason that the combined belief set of groups of people or whole communities at the very least widens the possible scope of our personal ‘belief space’ and so opens up possibilities that we ourselves could not envisage?

A Logical and Pragmatic Note

It is worth noting that Testimonial Sincerity is a necessary condition of truth-telling except in circumstances where the communicator has the intention to deceive and unintentionally discloses what they perceive to be truthful communication. Even if we assume sincerity is used in communication the situation is still not logically easy to define. When we consider logical modality for example, we might accept for example the assertion of another person as possibly true rather than being definitely true or always true.

In more general terms we could argue that that the truth of the testimony is either necessary or necessary and sufficient for the recipient to be given a truthful picture. The simple argument for necessity is that the witness would need to know what is truthful to communicate reliably. However, arguing that one piece of testimony is true and is thus logically sufficient seems to be a manifesto for gullibility. There are at least 2 obvious reasons to argue this way. Firstly, the wider contextual evidence surrounding a statement might be different for the witness and the recipient. A witness in medical research might, for example, argue that there is no well-established link between the artistic creativity of an individual and their risk of suffering mental health problems. I, on the other hand, might just have read a new and compelling piece of evidence based on the educational and mental health records of almost 4.5 million Swedes that argues differently. I might then accept the new evidence as sufficient justification to hold this belief.

A second (and linked) reason for arguing that testimonial truth should not be regarded as sufficient is that the witness and recipient might apply different epistemic standards of justification given the same testimony. For example, another reader of the same research paper referred to above might weigh the evidence differently from me. In the case above it could be argued contextually by a third reader that the name of the degree of obtained by Swedish student is not a useful surrogate for artistic creativity within a population of South African individuals. A fourth reader might argue that if anything this is probably an understatement of the link. A fifth reader might think somewhat differently about the same from a Bayesian perspective and consider a sliding scale of degrees of subjective belief that would be influenced by our prior estimates or some other form of relevant thinking. In plainer words, we can vary the credence we give to any account.

Where ambiguity due to conflicting or incomplete testimony arises we might decide that a non-binary fuzzy logic can be applied. If fuzzy logic can be successfully and objectively applied in engineering control systems, it almost certainly has something more general to offer.

The concept of an idealised absolute testimonial truth is one that can be usefully understood. However, given the constraints described above it is up to each of us to develop ways of assessing truth claims. At best we might we seek to determine whether or not a particular item of testimony is logically coherent with our own existing understanding of the world. If new testimony is incoherent with our existing beliefs we then we have the new dilemma of deciding whether or not to reject the testimony or instead revise our worldview to some extent.

Bias and Rationality

There is a sad tendency within modern epistemology to ignore the influence of emotion and cognitive bias on our thinking and instead assume that we are perfectly rational creatures. Clearly, the style of argument we hear and the emotive components of testimony are likely to induce cognitive biases in the listener. (See a  very long list of biases) Consider the position of a jury member in the case of a rape or violent crime. Is her weighing of the evidence in a court case likely to be entirely independent of her own personality, experience, education and social situation? Does the background of a philosopher who has worked out her own personal position on many concepts leave her as an entirely free agent when a new idea is encountered?

One bias of core significance to epistemology is the so-called ‘Belief Bias in the acceptance of argument’, This bias has been defined in Wikipedia as “the tendency to judge the strength of arguments based on the plausibility of their conclusion rather than how strongly they support that conclusion”. In other words, if you like the conclusion accept the arguments that are used to support a particular view. One problem in this way of thinking is that it can lead to cognitive dissonance or the holding of conflicting beliefs by an individual.

When giving and receiving testimony is tempting to believe that we are rational agents capable of producing logical arguments and reasoned responses to truth claims. As a counterbalance to that temptation, it is worth noting that the 2017 Nobel Prize in economics was won by Richard H. Thaler for his insights that in economic matters we have limited rationality, we are strongly influenced by social considerations of fairness, and that we lack self-control (further reading).

Rhetorical Emphasis

When I read newspapers I am constantly reminded of the importance of rhetorical skill in testimony. Apparently factual reports are full of comparisons that are designed to put my understanding in a certain context. Within newspapers, the context, of course, is that of the writer and her editorial situation. For example, when I read an article about the investments of the University of Oxford and Cambridge in the Guardian newspaper and notice the following two consecutive paragraphs I am being deliberately asked to make a certain kind of comparison. “The most concentrated commercial land ownership is in Brent, where All Souls College, one of Oxford’s wealthiest, owns more than 300 properties. The vast majority are residential houses, but they also include the freehold of a Ladbrokes betting shop. The London borough had the highest proportion of housing benefit claims by private tenants in the country, according to research by the Financial Times in 2015″.

I might say to you “That is a table”. However, I might also use a more elaborate and evocative description such as, “That is a beautifully designed oak table produced using wood from timber mills in Germany that source their materials from sustainably managed forests”. In the second case, I am inviting you to consider a much wider frame of reference with respect to the table by including in my testimony the concepts of design, beauty, timber production, human choice, international trade, and impact of humans on the environment. Philosophers, such as Aristotle in ancient Greece, have long been aware of the persuasive power of rhetorical skill. Although there now seems to be less emphasis on rhetorical education, it seems prudent not to dismiss the way in which rhetoric sways our acceptance of testimony.

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Further Reading

1. An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding by David Hume
http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/9662 (Free)

2. The Epistemology of Testimony by Peter Lipton Studies in History and Philosophy of Science 29, No. 1, pp. 1-31, 1998

3. Epistemological Problems of Testimony by Jonathan Adler (2012)

4. Knowledge by Acquaintance and Knowledge by Description by John M. DePoe, Internet Encylopedia of Philosophy

5. Philosophical problems of testimony

6. Sworn Testimony
Wikipedia https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sworn_testimony

Steve Campbell
Glasgow, Scotland

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