Tuesday, 24 June 2014

Testimony and Theistic Belief

Jon Robson
I am a teaching associate at the University of Nottingham. I work on the epistemology of aesthetic, ethical, and religious judgements (and also on videogames).

I hereby assert that God exists and that I am in the fortunate position of knowing this to be the case. Of course I am aware that these assertions are likely to prove ever so slightly controversial (indeed Anna Ichino's previous post raises some insightful and thought-provoking worries about whether I am even correct in thinking that I believe these things) but let’s assume for the time being that they are correct. Furthermore, let’s suppose that you don’t share this knowledge. What, then, can I do to bring you to a position where you too know that God exists?

One obvious suggestion is that I provide you with some cogent argument demonstrating God’s existence. Debates concerning the epistemic status of theistic belief have traditionally centred around the evidential value of such arguments with numerous works discussing religious epistemology focusing exclusively on theistic (and anti-theistic) arguments and a number of philosophers endorsing claims to the effect that the rationality of theistic belief stands or falls with the success of these arguments.

Recently, though, (thanks in no small part to pioneering work by the likes of William Alston and Alvin Plantinga) the focus of discussions in religious epistemology has now widened significantly to include putatively non-inferential justifications for theistic belief arising from certain perceptual (or quasi-perceptual) experiences of the kind discussed in Joshua Cockayne’s recent post. But what if I am unable (or unwilling) to furnish you with arguments or experiences of the relevant kinds? Is there anything else I can do to enable you to know that God exists? Here is one simple suggestion; I do what I have done in the first sentence of this paper. I merely tell you – without argument or additional evidence of any kind – that God exists. In other words I attempt to bring it about that you know that God exists on the basis of my testimony alone.

In my view anyone who believes that we can have knowledge of God’s existence should accept the further claim that we can acquire such knowledge on the basis of testimony; knowledge – whether of God or of more mundane matters – is essentially social. In most areas this claim is now pretty much a commonplace and (folk wisdom about ‘believing half of what you see and none of what you hear’ notwithstanding) most philosophers are happy to accept that testimony is a vital and indispensable source of knowledge. There are, however, still those who argue that there are some domains – aesthetics, ethics, mathematics or (most relevantly for our purposes) religious belief – which serve as exceptions to this general trend. I think these philosophers (often referred to as ‘pessimists’) are wrong across the board.

While a blog post isn’t the place to launch into a full-fledged defence of the claim that testimony can serve as a source of theistic knowledge (or of knowledge in the other areas listed above) I want to briefly discuss one reason for being pessimistic about the success of the pessimist’s project. In my view the prima facie plausibility which pessimism in various domains possesses is often the result of arguments that conflate the absence of knowledge (or of legitimate belief) with the absence of some other valuable aspect(s) of the relevant practice. It is true for example that a person who based their religious beliefs on testimony alone would – again, assuming that theism is true – miss out on much of value possessed by a fellow believer who comes to belief on the basis of a genuinely revelatory and life-changing religious experience (though it’s worth noting that the same applies to someone who comes to believe on the basis of a cogent argument).

And, of course, there is much more to genuine religious commitment than mere propositional belief (as previous posts from Anna and Joshua highlight). Full-blooded religious practice will typically involve all manner of affective, practical, and interpersonal aspects that just don’t seem to be the kind of thing we can acquire (at least in any straightforward way) via testimony. None of this shows, though, that there is anything remotely problematic in forming theistic belief on the basis of testimony. Perhaps these additional elements of religious commitment are not available via testimony alone but there is no barrier to prevent the person who initially forms their beliefs on the basis of testimony from going on to acquire them. Indeed having the correct propositional beliefs, whether by testimony or otherwise, would surely be a help rather than a hindrance to this endeavour.


  1. Hi Jon, thanks for your very interesting post. I have a few thoughts on what you say.

    Even if testimony can provide some knowledge about God, this isn't what I think is most important for religious epistemology. To return to the Stump example used in my original post- although I think Mary might have learnt something useful about her Mother if someone brings testimony about her Mother into the room, I don't think Mary truly knows her Mother unless she has a second-personal-experience of her.

    I think we want to say the same is true of God. Assuming the Christian God exists, for example, I think it is reasonable to assume that he doesn't just want people to have knowledge about him but to know him (see James 2:19, for example: ‘You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that--and shudder’). Whilst I have no problem admitting that it is at least possible to get propositional knowledge from testimony, this is inconsequential if what we are concerned with is not knowledge about God but knowledge in God.

    As I claimed in my previous post, what I claim is central to knowledge in God is a personal experience of God. I'm open to thinking that testimony might become an occasion for such an experience, but I don’t see how it is possible that testimony can provide knowledge in God.

    This isn't really an objection to your position, as you admit this much in your post. Perhaps you can clarify what you think the significance of this kind of knowledge from testimony is and how it relates to knowledge in God.

  2. The epistemological questions this post unearths are deep but I'll happily stick to the surface. I'm not convinced that anyone who accepts that we can have knowledge of God's existence should accept that we can acquire such knowledge on the basis of testimony. As a naturalist, I will agree that I take certain propositions to be true on the basis of what some scientists tell me without having firsthand experience of the phenomenon in question myself. But such propositions, even theoretical ones like quantum phenomenon, have an empirical underpinning which all cited evidence for God seems to lack. So while I agree that testimony is a vital source for knowledge, I am not certain that I would identify with the "pessimist" approach which simply tries to single out certain domains. Rather, I'd just want to say that testimony of the sort that "God exists" possibly holds the same warrant as, say, "Aliens exist", both of which differ from "Bosons exist".

  3. Thanks Jon. That’s very interesting. I’m quite persuaded by your point against ‘pessimists’; so I’m happy to grant you that in principle I could come to know that God exists on the basis of your testimony (precisely as I could come to know that bosons exist and that aliens exist on the basis of your testimony alone – I don’t see a principled difference between such cases as Eric instead suggests).

    I’d just like to know how *you* came to know that God’s exists – as you assert you do. Is the source of your knowledge the testimony of Sacred Texts - or of ecclesiastic authorities? If so, how did you decide which text or authority to trust (the Bible, the Koran, the Pope, a Rabbi…)?
    (I think here we come to a problem about religious disagreement which already raised in relation to Joshua's post).

  4. Hi Josh, Eric and Anna,
    Thanks for your comments, I’ll respond to them (or attempt to) in turn.

    Josh – I think a lot of the contrast here is going to depend on exactly how we cash out ‘knowledge in God’. Certainly I think such knowledge will entail a lot of propositional knowledge but I agree that it may not be reducible to it (then again maybe it will be in the kind of way that e.g. Williamson and Stanley think ‘knowledge how’ reduces). To make things easier, though, let’s assume that we think knowledge in is non-propositional and that it can’t be acquired via testimony. In terms of importance I think, as I’m sure you’d agree, the debate about whether a certain kind of knowledge is possible is importantly distinct from whether it’s important so I think you’re right when you say that we aren’t really disagreeing on much. That said I do think that knowledge that God exists is very important to have. Firstly because it’s important in enabling us to have other kinds of knowledge (knowledge in etc.), and it certainly seems to me that knowing that God exists will make it easier to have personal knowledge of God and so forth (though it is, perhaps, not a precondition since I can e.g. know my mother without knowing that I have a mother). Setting that aside, though, propositional knowledge is also very important in its own right. If someone comes to know that there is, say, an Anselmian perfect being that created the universe then this is going to have a massive effect on their other beliefs about the universe even if they thought that such a being would have no interest in establishing a relationship with them.

    Eric – I think, like Anna, I’m struggling to see exactly what contrasts you are trying to make here (in particular it seems to me that whether aliens exist is, if anything, a more straightforwardly empirical issues than whether bosons do). In terms of the general issues involved, though, I don’t think testimony can only serve as a source of knowledge with respect to empirical matters since in my view it can, for example, serve as a source of knowledge in mathematics.

    Anna – Those are really interesting question and doubtless not ones that I’ll be able to respond to satisfactorily in the space available (which is why I tried to weasel out of answering then in the original post). In terms of my own knowledge I think I, like most people, know the relevant things largely on the basis of mix of experience and testimony with, perhaps, a few other factors in play as well. This will include testimony from sacred texts and perhaps to an extent from ecclesiastical authorities (though I’m from a tradition that doesn’t put much stress on the latter – another area for religious disagreement). That said I don’t have anything like a worked out theory for how we acquire knowledge either from testimony or from experience (with respect to religion or to more mundane matters). In terms of worries about disagreement I think this is something that is justly getting a lot of attention in the literature lately. A lot of our views; religious, political, philosophical etc. seem vulnerable to various sceptical arguments from disagreement. Again I have no worked out view on how to respond to such arguments but I don’t think it’s obvious that they are more of a problem for my religious beliefs than for my beliefs in these other areas.


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