The Special Significance of Testimony in Christianity

doubting thomas, evidence, belief, testimonyImagine the scene: you’re standing around at party with your friends, and out of nowhere, Jesus appears! And this isn’t the first time, either. But Tom missed all the parties where Jesus showed up, and he thinks you’re all having alcohol-induced hallucinations. This time, however, Tom sees Jesus himself. He reaches out and touches him to be sure. Then Jesus says, “Blessed are they who did not see, and yet believed.” (Cf. John 20:29)

People puzzle over this strange statement. Critics quickly take it to mean that Christian faith means believing without evidence. Even some Christians interpret Jesus as saying that people should “just believe” and stop asking questions. Take the proverbial “leap of faith,” even if it makes no sense whatsoever. They pair Jesus’ words with Paul’s frequently abused assertion, “for we walk by faith, not by sight.” Is this “blind faith?” Is that what Jesus and Paul meant? (1) If so, this strikes a blow against the view that Christianity is a rational worldview! Thankfully, we can make sense of these statements in a way that doesn’t require abandoning coherence. 

Seeing vs. Evidence

kermit, testimony, evidenceThe main mistake we make here is in thinking that “seeing” and “evidence” are the same thing. But evidence comes to us in several forms, only one of which is sight. Epistemologists, who study how beliefs relate to evidence (among other things), agree that there are five primary sources of belief and justification (this includes evidence): perception, testimony, inference, memory, and introspection.(2) For our purposes, we can roughly equate sight with perception–that is, gathering data through the five senses. So, what Jesus and Paul might be saying is this, “It is better not to limit your yourself to the evidence of (physical) perception,” or even, “You should prioritize non-perceptual sources of evidence.” If I’m right, this supports the coherence of Christianity as a rational worldview. 

One question we might ask in testing this hypothesis is, “Why would Christianity favor the other four sources (esp. testimony) over perception? I mean, isn’t perception the best and most reliable way to gather information and evidence?” Well, let me offer two reasons in favor of this favoritism, and one response to the claim that perception is the best of the five sources.

Is (Physical) Perception the Best Source of Evidence?

forensic evidence, testimonyIn some contexts, I think we would say “yes.” Physical or forensic evidence can be more reliable in a murder case, for example, than testimonial evidence. (I’m no legal scholar, but this seems a safe assumption.) But what about outside the courtroom, in everyday life? Is there any reason to favor the evidence of my five senses over the evidence of testimony, inference, etc.? All five sources are vulnerable to error, and no single source can be set as judge above the rest. They must work in cooperation.

Why can’t I endorse one source as preeminent? The minute I try to set one source above the others, I run into problems. First, by what process did I determine that my preferred source is more reliable than the others? Whatever process I employ, it must, by necessity, involve the use of inference (one of my sources). And if it is inference (reason) that I set up as judge, then who evaluates the process I used to decide that? Reason? Ha! Circularity ensues. If some other source, then inference is no longer King. They must all be taken as a team, serving as checks and balances.

Why Would Christianity Favor the Other Four Sources?

So why would someone be “blessed” by relying on non-perceptual sources of evidence? Simply put, the fundamental beliefs of Christianity traffic in non-physical or abstract entities. Perception just isn’t very helpful in coming to know about such things. And this isn’t just true in religion. It’s true in mathematics, philosophy, ethics, cosmology, human value, and other areas. 

trinity, testimony, evidenceConsider some of Christianity’s most basic claims. God exists, God is a trinity, Jesus is God-incarnate, there is life after death, there are objective moral values and duties. Physical perception won’t (directly) tell you any of these things. So it’s no wonder that St. Paul, in the context of discussing life after death (“walk by faith” 2 Cor. 5:7), says that we can’t rely on our five senses to provide evidence of such things. This doesn’t mean that physical perception doesn’t play a role in faith–it can. Hundreds of people confirmed the physical resurrection of Jesus by empirical observation: sight, touch, sound, maybe even smell! Nature itself indirectly points to God’s invisible attributes. But non-perceptual sources, especially testimony, open to door to so much more. 

Blessed Testimony

family, relational, testimony, loveThe Christian faith favors testimony as a mean of transmitting belief and knowledge because, unlike other sources, testimony usually requires human interaction and is thus a relational means of knowledge transmission. The Christian God seeks to create a community of believers, not merely a mass of isolated individuals. By working through human relationships and conversation, God can establish bonds of trust and love between people, forming the basis of community. People can and do come to believe without relationships, but those who already have a connection to another person in the church will experience the benefits of belonging to a community of love. By analogy, imagine if babies just appeared in the world via magic, rather than through human reproduction! The sense of belonging and obligation created through reproduction in the human family provides far superior conditions for new humans. “Spiritual reproduction” via testimony also creates more “blessed” conditions for new believers. (Testimony also confers benefits on the messengers, but I’ll save that for another time.)

Back to Thomas

So I hope I’ve made some sense of Jesus’ words to Thomas here. By opening ourselves to other sources of knowledge, we increase the potential for a deeper experience of God and human community. We can experience the comprehensive revelation of God: written word, philosophical argument, inner awareness of moral conviction, indirect evidence through nature, etc. Testimonial conversations usher us into the Kingdom both spiritually and communally. Jesus’ words (“blessed are they . . .”) speak to all those who ponder the truth of Christianity, but who simply don’t have the benefit of Thomas’ proximity to the physical Jesus. Even Thomas might have been more “blessed” had he believed based on the testimony of his friends.

(1) For a careful look at the biblical context, see this excellent blog post.

(2) For more, see Robert Audi’s Epistemology: A Contemporary Introduction to the Theory of Knowledge, Routledge, 2000.

Criticism, Knowledge, and Authority

Learning about informal logical fallacies turns young philosophy students into gun-slinging logic vigilantes. I love how this comic (courtesy of Existential Comics) portrays the phenomenon.

fallacy man, authority, belief fallacy man, authority, belief

But, as Alexander Pope wrote, “a little learning is a dangerous thing.” In his Essay on Criticism, Pope critiques the critics, warning them of trying to evaluate beyond their skill. The essay (written in verse) holds great wisdom, well-worth the hour it might take to read through. One takeaway is this: if you plan to engage in criticism of a view, be sure you know what you’re talking about. Otherwise your photo may end up on Wikipedia’s Dunning-Kruger Effect  page. “Drink deep, or taste not the Peirian spring.”

The Appeal To Authority

hawking, authority, testimony, scienceOne of the fallacies mentioned above that gets frequent abuse is the “appeal to authority.” Those who have only sipped at the Peirian Spring misunderstand this concept, and so make two common errors: 1) they accuse others of it falsely, and 2) they become oblivious to their own appeals to authority. Let me illustrate a little.

Fallacious appeal to authority:  Brett claims that beer causes Alzheimer’s Disease. Conrad replies, “That’s silly.” Brett says, “My friend, Dr. Swanson, said it. Therefore, it’s true.”

Legitimate appeal to authority: Mark claims that black holes emit radiation. Kenny says, “But nothing can escape from a black hole.” Mark retorts, “Stephen Hawking has argued powerfully for this and talks about it in his book, A Brief History of Time.” 

What’s the difference? For one, Stephan Hawking clearly satisfies any reasonable criteria for being a legitimate expert on black holes. It is not at all clear that Dr. Swanson is an expert on Alzheimer’s. Conrad may not even know who Dr. Swanson is.  Second, Brett bases his argument solely on the word (hearsay) of Dr. Swanson, while Mark offers at least one checkable resource. Third, Brett fashions his argument in deductive form. But an argument from authority should take inductive form, i.e., the evidence from authority does not guarantee the conclusion–it only makes it more likely to be true.   A fourth mistake sometimes made in appeals to authority, though not in this case, is when someone misquotes or misrepresents an expert.

We All Do It

court room, testimonyThe bottom line is: we all rely on legitimate appeals to authority, and rightly so. Testimony (information transmitted to us from other persons, as in court) acts as one of at least five sources of knowledge (inference, memory, perception, and consciousness being the others). I simply cannot help but rely on the words of other people to help me form my beliefs about the world, like when my daughter tells me she is at a friend’s house. And I especially rely on those who have expertise in various areas: scientists, philosophers, doctors, lawyers, musicians, etc.

But I still need to treat authority carefully. When I decide whether to believe something I read or hear, I should make sure I know the source. Not all sources — people, publications, websites–are created equal. I would check to see whether the writer/speaker is an expert or is quoting an expert. And I still use reason and background knowledge to filter the expert’s claims. I address some of these ideas in this 2 minute clip from a talk at the University of Missouri Skeptics Club:

(You can see this video, “Responsible Believing,” in it’s entirety here.)

 A Final Paraklesis

pipe, health, authority, testimony(I like the Greek word ‘paraklesis’ because it can mean both “encouragement” and “exhortation.”) Sometimes extra caution is required. I may take risks, at times, with my own health–like when I indulge in pipe-smoking. But I should think twice about the health risks when recommending such things to others. Similarly, I am sometimes negligent with my epistemic health–like believing something without sufficient consideration. But I try to exercise extra caution and care when conveying ideas (teaching, writing, speaking, using social media), based on authority, to others. Take an extra moment to ask, before you post or assert something based on authority,

  • Is the authority legitimate? (not always an easy question)
  • If the issue is controversial, have I portrayed it as one-sided by only quoting one expert?
  • Is the authority an expert in the relevant field?
  • Did I accept this expert’s word uncritically, or have I checked it out?
  • Have I represented the authority accurately?

And before you draw your fallacy six-gun and dispense epistemic justice on someone, ask whether they might be making an appropriate appeal to authority.

The Secret Life of a Double Agent

van, vw, Ground Belief, hippieI was raised by hippes. They didn’t really stay hippies, though, except for the ageless Volkswagen van, a bookshelf full of Carlos Castenada novels, and a few other “hobbies.” But I imbibed much of the classic hippie ideology, including a healthy skepticism toward authority and a respect for good pot. So, it was a bit of a shock to my parents when I converted to Christianity in my junior year of college. I imagine they felt a bit like the parents of Alex P. Keaton in “Family Ties.”

Several years later, when I graduated from college and was living on my own, my father bought me a subscription to Mother Jones magazine. I walked almost exclusively in evangelical circles at that time, and I’m sure he wanted to provide some counterpoint and balance. Reading that magazine was fascinating, but the eye-opening experience came when I started receiving unsolicited mailings from various left-wing organizations. Since I was also on numerous mailing lists for right-wing, Christian groups, I would often receive two nearly identical letters, printed in the same fonts, with the same graphic design and same wording, one from the left and one from the right. Both letters would shout that the “other side” was ruining our country and would soon come for my children unless I sent money fast. The right and left seemed like mirror-images.

Double Agent

Missouri, doctor, academic, Chris GadsdenIt took another decade before I immersed myself into the world of a double agent. I enrolled in graduate school at the University of Missouri and assumed the mantle of a novice (secular) academic. Surrounded for eight years by mostly atheist philosophers, teaching freshman as a representative of the secular state, living most of my waking hours within the confines of the campus, and finally initiated as a Philosophiae Doctor by the academic elite, I became one of “them.”

I now live in a curious juxtaposition between two worlds. It is a sort of “no-man’s land.” My Christianity makes me suspect among the academics, and my academic status makes me suspect among the Christians.  Some, for sure, see me as their “agent,” infiltrating the “other side.” But for me, this has been a double-blessing. I have learned to respect, appreciate and love the “other.” And when you learn to love the “other” once, it becomes all the easier to wash, rinse and repeat with any other “other” you encounter. 

It’s All In My Head

Kant, dogmatic slumber, thinking, Ground BeliefI must confess, however, that what I prize most from this adventure is all in my head. I don’t mean that it is illusory. I mean that it is cognitive and intellectual. Like the philosopher Immanuel Kant, I was awakened from my dogmatic slumber. My core beliefs (e.g., the Apostle’s Creed) have remained solid, but I now hold quite loosely to everything that orbits around that core, and I reject completely the dogmatism that so often accompanies religion. More importantly, being a double agent trained my mind in ways I could not have achieved by any other means.

Being forced, not merely to read and understand, but to step into the shoes of my opponents, enabled me to see the strengths and weaknesses of both sides as with a microscope or X-ray vision. No system, no ideology, no institution has it “right.” The line between truth and error, between justice and injustice, as with the line between good and evil, “cuts through the heart of every human being,” as Solzhenitsyn wrote. Even if you believe that God’s Word is pure truth, the hard, human labor of interpretation inevitably works error into the dough like leaven.

The Point

So what is my point? Why the memoir? The point is this: if you want your mind (and maybe your heart) to be all it can be (sorry, Army), then become a double agent. Don’t just observe and read. Go and stand shoulder-to-shoulder with your opponent, sit knee-to-knee over coffee. Find their humanity, appreciate their genius, learn from them. Incarnate yourself into their community. It doesn’t have to be grad school — discover your own way. You’ll find your mind (and maybe your heart) performing new feats of thought (and maybe love) that you hadn’t even imagined before. The end result is not a different set of beliefs, it isn’t some kind of conversion; it is a sharper mind with better understanding. It is your best beliefs held more beautifully.

The Past Is Irrelevant

beliefs, support, past, historyI frequently engage in conversations about beliefs. It’s kinda my thing. People often ask about the history of my beliefs or of someone else’s beliefs, especially religious beliefs. Everyone likes to construct a coherent story that will help them make sense of another person’s views. “That’s how they were raised,” or “they’re just reacting against such-and-such,” or “they went though some trauma that caused them to change their beliefs.” While I do find all this psychologically interesting, when it comes to evaluating a person’s beliefs, it is irrelevant.

In the video, I don’t explain why the past is irrelevant. The past doesn’t matter because of the nature of epistemic justification. Put simply, the quality of your beliefs depends on how well your reasons support them. And the only reasons that count now are the reasons you have now. You may have had different reasons in the past, and maybe you’ll change your reasons in the future, but none of that matters now.

An Analogy of Support

bridge, column, support, beliefs, reasons Imagine a bridge being supported by stone columns. The integrity and strength of that bridge depends on the quality of the support now. The columns may be crumbling now, even if they were strong in the past. Conversely, a bridge that was decrepit last year but has been completely rebuilt is strong now, even though it was weak in the recent past. When you drive over the bridge, all you care about is the condition of the supports now. So it is with beliefs and their supports. And we can evaluate this objectively with standards of logic.