Against Coherence: Truth, Probability, and Justification

By Erik J. Olsson | Go to book overview

5 C. A. J. Coady's Radical Justification of Natural Testimony

5.1 The Problem of Justifying Natural Testimony

Our reliance on other people's testimonies is no less extensive than our reliance on our own memories. It does not take much reflection to appreciate that our knowledge would be but a fraction of what we ordinarily think it to be were it confined to that which we can verify for ourselves via perception and reasoning. Without trust in testimony, written and spoken, we would not even know our passport numbers, our parentage, dates of birth, most geographical facts, and so on. In ordinary life we go about relying on the word of others so long as there is no positive reason to question the reliability of the informer. In this fashion we are able to extend our belief systems in ways that greatly transcend our own limited perceptual horizons.

Just as we can ask what reasons we have for trusting our memories, we can enquire similarly into the underlying rationale for the reliance upon the word of others. What is the philosophical basis of this reliance? Can it be vindicated in some way by showing that the testimony of others is reliable enough to be worthy of our actual trust?

Several philosophers have taken up this challenge. According to David Hume, to take a famous example, the basis of our trust in testimony is the observed 'constant conjunction' of testimony and fact. We rely on what others say since we have been able to observe that their reports are mostly correct. Thus, Hume's approach is in a sense reductive: rather than taking testimony to be an autonomous

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