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Seeking the truth in testimony

The experience of providing testimony is often associated with court cases and criminal prosecutions. Testimony is also equated with public professions of religious faith. According to Noah Webster’s dictionary, testimony is “an open acknowledgement” or “a firsthand authentication of a fact.”

Two recent talks given at Amherst College as part of a lecture series on the philosophy and science of testimony have addressed the relationship between testimony and our acceptance of knowledge.

On Oct. 1, University of Notre Dame Professor Robert Audi addressed a crowd assembled at the Pruyne Lecture Hall in the Fayerweather building at Amherst College in a lecture titled “Testimony as a Social Foundation of Knowledge.”

In the course of our acquisition of facts, there is a balance between our acceptance of the testimony of another person and our direct firsthand perceptions. At first, we may not realize that our acceptance of testimony is a central foundation of our base of knowledge. How much of what (we assume) we know actually comes from our firsthand experiences?

From childhood onward, we accept testimony as almost completely reliable. We will implicitly trust our parents and not require much corroboration of the facts as they are presented to us. But as teenagers, we often challenge our parents regardless of the truth of what they are saying. Haven’t we all seen the bumper sticker that tells us to “question authority?”

Even now that we are in college, most all of what we will learn will come from testimony. It may be the testimony of our professors, our fellow students or people we meet in downtown Amherst.

What causes us to accept testimony as reliable? This is what the lecture series at Amherst attempts to address, and something we really ought to consider.

There seems to be a strong basis in our level of trust of another person and our readiness to accept testimony from them as reliable. The second lecture in the series was delivered last Thursday by UCLA Professor Pamela Hieronymi, titled “The Reason of Trust.”

Professor Hieronymi concluded, and common sense would also affirm, that as our level of trust of another individual increases, the need for corroborating facts to support their testimony is lessened.

According to Professor Audi’s research, we sometimes believe testimony over and above plain facts when presented with them.

This brings us to a crossroads, because closely related to our acceptance of testimony is our perception of the world. The way we process information, both sensory perceptions and testimony, is influenced by the presuppositions we make about how the world operates.

Our worldview is shaped by presuppositions that we have been making since our childhood, and it can often be rooted in an ethnic, national or religious identity. Our mind sorts through information based upon these presuppositions, but how can we tell if our presuppositions are valid?

So many of us are locked into our view of the world that we defend our worldview at all costs, sometimes even to the point of violence. We may tell ourselves otherwise, but more often than not, we seek reaffirmation and reassurance in place of objective information.

The basis of many conflicts in the world can be traced to a situation where the opposing parties have competing worldviews. The parties involved are simply not even communicating on the same wavelength. From the outset, both sides simply reject the testimony of the other side. They simply aren’t even speaking the same language.

Throughout our college years, we will take classes with many professors and become involved with various organizations. They are all out there seeking to affirm their own worldview, and to influence others to see things in the way they see them. How do we know who we can trust, in whom we can believe?

The mission and motto of most universities is the search for truth. We must wholeheatedly seek the truth. Knowing that testimony forms a significant portion of how we perceive the world, it is essential to know in whom we can trust.

This should be simpler than we realize, because we can see truth plainly from falsehood. We only have to see who is looking after us and cares for the soul that is inside of us. Some may offer us a membership card, but there is only one who cares for us completely.

To begin this quest, it may be worthwhile to check out the next lecture on the philosophy and science of testimony, titled “Testimony: Depending on Others.” This talk is scheduled to be delivered by Northwestern University Professor Jennifer Lackey on March 4, 2010 at 4:30 p.m. at the Pruyne Lecture Hall at Amherst College.

Eric Magazu is a Collegian columnist. He can be reached at emagazu@student.umass.edu.

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