Intro to Philosophy – Week 5 – Should You Believe What You Hear?

  • This week we are talking about “whether and in what circumstances you can believe what other people tell you”
  • will talk about the Enlightenment (1700-1800) – where reason, science, and liberal democracy were on the rise and religion and monarchy were in decline
  • intellectual autonomy was an ideal/virtue in the Enlightenment
  • David Hume is well known for his naturalistic philosophy – no appeal to God/supernatural in his philosophical explanations
  • Hume concluded “you should never believe a miracle occurred on this basis of testimony”
    • testimony = “any situation in which you believe something on the basis of what someone else asserts, either verbally or in writing”
    • a lot of what we believe is based on the testimony of others (we can’t directly experience everything – so we believe lots of things based on what others say or write)
    • “you should only trust testimony when you have evidence that the testifier is likely to be right”
    • evidentialism “a wise man… proportions his belief to the evidence”
  • miracle: “an exception to a previously exceptionless regularity” – e.g., someone rising from the dead – we’ve never seen that happen before
  • by definition, miracles are unlikely, and since we shouldn’t trust testimony unless there is evidence that the testifier is right, we shouldn’t trust a testimony of miracle
  • as well, people are often wrong when they testify (either intentionally (lying) or unintentionally (mistaken)).
  • so Hume concludes that you should never trust a testimony that a miracle occurred
  • Thomas Reid was a minister who challenged Hume’s argument
  • Hume and Reid both believed that we don’t trust our senses only when we have evidence they are likely to be right,
  • So Reid argued that trusting testimony is like trusting your senses,  so we shouldn’t demand we only trust testimony if we have evidence that it’s likely to be right (since we don’t demand that of our sense)
  • Hume & Reid both believed that we are hardwired to think in certain ways – e.g., that we are hardwired to believe our senses
  • Reid further believed that we are hardwired to trust other people’s testimony – “he thought we had an innate “principle of credulity“, which he defined as “a disposition to confide in the veracity of others and to believe what they tell us”
  • Reid noted that small children are very much disposed to believe what people tell them (even more so than adults) (so basically, he thinks it’s natural to believe people, since kids do it the most, and it gets constrained by experience) – he argues that “if our trust in testimony were based on experience (as Hume claims) it would be weakest in children”, but it’s not – “therefore, the principle of credulity is innate and not based on experience”
  • but Hume is talking about what people ought to do – he would say that children should not trust other people without evidence, whereas Reid is talking about what children actually do
  • Reid also believed in a “principle of veracity” = “a principles to speak the truth … so as to convey our real statements” and so “lying is doing violence to our nature”
    • basically, Reid are naturally trusting, naturally honest beings
  • Hume noted many ways that people testify falsely – sometimes we have motives to lie, people enjoy believing what they are told because we “find the feelings of surprise and wonder agreeable”; sometimes we lie because we get pleasure from telling of news (even if it’s not true) [also, one might testify falsely because they are mistaken – they believe what they say is true, but they are actually wrong]
  • Immanuel Kant, German philosopher, wrote: ““Enlightenment is man’s emergence from his self-incurred immaturity. Immaturity is the inability to use one’s own understanding without the guidance of another. […] The motto of the enlightenment is therefore: Have courage to use your understanding.”
    • Kant felt that not trusting another person’s testimony = a virtue; called intellectual autonomy – e.g. don’t believe something just be an authority, a religion tells you to
    • Kant said you should obey what authorities tell you to do, but not obey whai they tell you to think
  • Hume would be a fan of intellectual autonomy; it’s OK to trust other people, but it’s not OK to trust other people blindly
  • Reid held intellectual solidarity  (because we are “social thinkers: our beliefs and opinions are naturally guided by other people”) to be a virtue (rather than intellectual autonomy)
  • Kant appeals to the Latin motto “sapere aude” = “Dare to be wise” or, slightly less literally translated to “dare to know” – he argues that “if you base your beliefs on testimony, they will not amount to knowledge
  • a philosophical tradition, going back to Plato, that says that “Genuine or real knowledge requires what Plato called the ability to “give an account”: the ability to explain, or to situate that knowledge in some broader body of information.” – you can’t get that from testimony
  • so, the value of intellectual autonomy comes from the fact that knowledge/understanding/wisdom is only possible for an intellectually autonomous person
  • another way to look at it is that our beliefs/opinions tend to be passed on from parents to kids, and from people around you (your community) to you
  • Reid would view this as a good tendency, but Hume would be skeptical that this is a good thing
  • if you value progressive/innovative ideas breaking with tradition, you’ll side with Hume, but if you value conservation of your community’s beliefs and don’t like radical breaks from tradition, you’ll side with Reid
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