The Philosopher's Eye

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The Authority of Testimony

Whom do you trust?

Of the many potential pieces of knowledge I have gained this week, numbering amongst them are the facts that the late Pope John Paul II was responsible for a miracle, and that U.S. Special Forces killed Osama Bin Laden. These stories are presented to me, and I must somehow decide whether to accept them or not. Enter epistemology.

WARNING: CRACKPOT CONSPIRACY THEORY ALERT! On Monday, over a million people crowded the streets of Rome to celebrate and witness the beatification of the late Pope John Paul II. One of the requirements for such a beatification is the confirmed attribution of a miracle to the “blessed” one in question. This requirement was satisfactorily fulfilled by the testimony of a nun, Marie Simon-Pierre, who claimed that she had been miraculously cured of Parkinson’s Disease by the supernatural intervention of John Paul’s spirit. Now, denounce me as a sceptic if you wish, but I’m just not sure that this is entirely reliable. How can we be sure that a miracle really occurred here, and that John Paul was responsible? Where is the independent inquiry? Where is the reliable evidence? The investigation is conducted by the Catholic Church, and it is their former leader, and therefore them, that stands to benefit from the successful discovery and confirmation of a miracle. Should we be surprised therefore, when we discover that they find what they wanted to find? How convenient! And further, it was John Paul himself who reformed the beatification and canonisation process in 1983, removing many of the obstacles that stood in the way of potential saints (including the wonderfully titled ‘Devil’s Advocate’). How convenient!

Of course, on the other hand we have the case of the death of Osama Bin Laden. The U.S. military tells us that they have killed the mastermind behind the 9/11 attacks, and though they have yet to present any independently verified evidence to confirm this, we can reliably trust the authority of their testimony. After all, what would they have to gain from announcing such an achievement? Although I suppose celebration in the streets of New York and Washington might suggest that it was a popular move for a president facing a popularity crisis… As for evidence, well they can’t release the body because they’ve buried it at sea (standard procedure in such cases no doubt)…and they can’t release photos because they’re too gruesome…but they’ve done a DNA test and found “virtually a 100% DNA match of the body against DNA of several Bin Laden family members”, so there!

I know what you’re thinking: Sarcasm is the lowest form of wit. And I’m not proposing any crackpot conspiracy theory (though I stand by my assertion that I remain unconvinced that the nun was miraculously cured…). But I was slightly taken aback by the reporting of the death of Bin Laden. “Coward to the end” the Daily Express and others proclaim, as it reports that Bin Laden used his wife as a human shield. These reports were later discredited. To be fair to these reporters, they were only working with what they were given by the White House; albeit adding the emotive embellishments, as is their custom. What struck me was that the general impression received from reading these reports extended far beyond what the evidence alone would allow. The information we are given is scant at best, and yet from this meagre evidence full and elaborate narratives are constructed. Somewhere in this process, the reliability of the report becomes questionable. There, I said it!

Now if you have any epistemological sense you will label me a crackpot conspiracy theorist, and disregard this as thoroughly unreliable testimony. I am only proud that I managed an entire post about epistemology, evidence, and crackpot conspiracy theorists without mentioning Donald Trump once…

Related Articles:

Judgment Aggregation

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The Ethics of Belief

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Intuitional Epistemology in Ethics

Matthew S. Bedke

2 comments on “The Authority of Testimony

  1. David
    May 4, 2011

    Have you ever seen Parkinson’s Disease cured? And yet, medically, the nun no longer has Parkinson’s. That’s just one clue.

    FWIW, it doesn’t bother me that you or many are skeptical. The Church thoroughly investigates claims like this, and this is a Church celebration, so the Church gets to decide if he’s beatified. If God approves, another miracle will occur, and that’s the one that will sanctify him.

    As for Obama and Osama, I reserve judgement.

  2. Pingback: The Authority of Testimony | Sevenoaks School TOK

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