Against Coherence: Truth, Probability, and Justification

By Erik J. Olsson | Go to book overview

2 Coherence, Truth, and Testimony

2.1 Why Coherence?

In ordinary life we usually rely on the information sources that we have at our disposal, placing our trust in the testimony of other people as well as in the testimony of the senses. Such reliance, as a number of authors have pointed out, is automatic and routine. 1 This is most obvious for the testimony of the senses. Thus, I come to believe that my friend is over there as the direct effect of observing him without in any way inferring his presence from other beliefs I have. But the same is basically true of testimonies from other people. If the secretary tells me that my colleague was in his office just a moment ago, I simply believe it.

While the reception of testimony from various sources is normally unreflective, it is not thereby uncritical. Testimony is accepted so long as there is no explicit reason to doubt the credibility of the reporter, i.e. so long as certain trouble indicators are not present. The mechanism is deactivated if, for instance, we find positive reasons to question the motives of our informant. Is she trying to deceive us? Even an informant with the best of intentions may turn out not to be trustworthy if there are signs that she acquired her information under problematic circumstances (e.g. under bad lighting conditions). If there are no special reasons for caution, the unreflective mechanism of reliance is invoked and one single testimony suffices to settle the matter, at least for the time being. 2

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