The Generation Game

There is a common claim in the epistemology of testimony, which is that testimony requires witnessing and so isn’t generative of beliefs in the same way that memory is. Memories can combine, it is claimed, to generate new beliefs (you remember that your parents told you the cat went away to the farm and you remember another instance (when you were older) where your parents playfully suggest to some other parents that they should tell their kids that the cat wasn’t put down but was sent away; lo and behold you generate a new belief that your parents cannot be trusted) but that testimony simply transmits existing beliefs between the speaker and the hearer (thus any new beliefs are generated not by testimony but with testimonial support acting along with beliefs you acquired by other means).

I’m not sure I find this (above, crude) account all that convincing. It is true that for a lot of beliefs that are transferred via testimony there did have to be an original witness. For example, a lot of us know about the structure of the atom yet, I would wager, most of us have not performed the necessary experiments to know ‘first hand’ (if you will) that structure. We have, however, been told about it, by reputable sources. Yet I’m also fairly sure that a lot of beliefs have been generated via testimony as well. I’m thinking here of emergent beliefs; beliefs that have come out of inferences from other beliefs. Take the atom example. A lot of the information we have about atoms originated from experimental data; someone ‘saw’ something and then told others. But surely some of the subsequent beliefs about atoms have been generated by people who haven’t performed the experiments but rather have taken these reliable bits of data and inferred further beliefs (which then may well have been subject to testimony). I was going to use an example from mathematics but as it is really quite hard to tell a story about witnessing the truth of any given mathematical proposition I’m not entirely sure this is a good avenue to explore. In any case, surely there are cases of people using only testimonial beliefs, to which they have no other support, to generate new beliefs (which will then count as knowledge) which can then be transmitted testimonially?

The notion of testimony generating belief is contentious as it stands. Reductionists, those who hold that testimony is a second-class citizen compared to perception, memory and the other two classically recognised senses, claim that testimony can’t generate beliefs because experiences generate beliefs and testimony is simply belief-transfer (criude but basically true). If I am right, however, then the reductionist needs to distinguish between primary and secondary testimony. Primary testimony is non-generative; the proposition involved was generated by one of the four senses. Secondary testimony is generative, however, in that the component beliefs of secondary testimony (pieces of primary testimony) infer the belief that is the secondary testimony.

Non-reductionists (oft called anti-reductionists (you can guess by who)) accept that testimony can be generative (via different accounts, usually), in which case you have primary testimony which is generative by whatever mechanism produces testimony and secondary testimony, which is the inferences licensed from primary testimony (so secondary testimony is just a special class of primary testimony).

So, the question is, can I come up with some good examples of secondary testimony? Or, because this is a blog, can you? My problem is that I suspect that most of the obvious candidates for my theory are probably going to be examples of primary testimony. What I really need is an example of an idea where the belief being transmitted really isn’t based upon someone inferring something as an hypothesis, testing it and then transmitting their belief. It needs to be an example of taking primary testimony and, from that alone, coming to knowledge of something inferred from it that doesn’t take its justification (for its truthiness) from the primary testimony that produced it.

Ideas, anyone?

About Matthew Dentith

Author of "The Philosophy of Conspiracy Theories" (Palgrave Macmillan), Matthew Dentith wrote his PhD on epistemic issues surrounding belief in conspiracy theories. He is a frequent media commentator on the weird and the wonderful, both locally and internationally. On occasion he can be caught dreaming about wax lions but, mostly, it is rumoured he works for elements of the New World Order.


  1. I hate it when you set homework.

    I am not sure if I have understood your requirement for an inference “that doesn’t take its justification (for its truthiness) from the primary testimony that produced it” but could the explanatory power of a scientific fact be an example? Say I am puzzled that I can take a block of gold and beat it into leaf, which I could later melt into a liquid which, when it cools, becomes a block again. However, I cannot do this with a block of wood: if I beat it, it breaks into many fragments that cannot be reconstituted; if I heat it, it burns to ashes. Then I am told that things are made of atoms – very small elements – and that there are different sorts of atoms. I infer from this new knowledge and my experience that gold must be made entirely of one sort of element, because it can be modified and then returned to its original state. I also infer that wood must be made of many elements because it cannot be reconstituted. I further infer that when it burns, some of these elements must be lost. So the new knowledge gives me an explanation for my experience.

    All well and good, but I need an experience (or another testimony, such as being told about these properties of materials) in order to make the inference. So my example fails the requirement that the inference should come from the testimony of the new knowledge alone. And there’s the rub. It seems that an inference can only come from the testimony combined with another testimony or with experience.

    If I were you, I would mark this effort “caverage,” (a word I am trying to popularise). I would then observe that the word truthiness refers to beliefs that are not based on testimony (or much else besides), so I would protest that I was misled by the question

  2. I too am a little confised by your definition, but it sounds to me like the sort of thing you see on your CSIs and other crime dramas – potentially unrelated testimonies from a group of people come together to form a belief in someone’s guilt (or innocence, I guess). Testimony from witness A places the suspect at the scene; testimony from witness B gives the suspect motive; testimony from witness C disproves the suspect’s alibi – the suspect done it, Your Honour. Is that the sort of thing?

  3. You go away for the weekend and people comment and you get back all tired and you think that you’ll be able to answer their questions in the morning but you then find out that actually you’ll still confused after a night’s rest and it might be because you confused them in the first place with definitions of ideas you wrote when you had a headcold…

    Or something like that.

    In re Paul (because I like to use ‘in re’): I think my putative example is more likely to come from the Social Sciences (because, all joking aside, social science facts aren’t always based upon empirical investigation of the world (see: Anthropology and Sociology… Or Political Studies… Oh, and Psychology). Although… I suspect you might find examples in the very theoretical parts of Physics where someone who is conversant with multiple sets of equations (but, importantly, trusts that they are proofs rather than having done that work themselves) infers a further ‘fact.’

    I think I need an example to be able to explain myself better. More news if that comes to hand.

    In re Josh: The problem with the CSI example (apart from the fact that forsenic science doesn’t work like it does on TV) is that the justification of the intitial testimony is rooted in the four classical senses (memory, sense, inference and reason) and so any objector to my thesis could just say that the generative role I am claiming for testimony is found one step back… Like I said in response to Paul: I need an example to explain my intuition.

    Because, damn it, it is a good and novel intuition.

    Even if it turns out the example only exists in a possible world.

  4. Alright then, theoretical physics it is. We Art Historians are good at that sort of thing.

    Einstein proposed the Special Theory of Relativity in order to reconcile Newton’s laws of Motion with James Clerk Maxwell’s laws of Electromagnetism. Without doing any experimental work, Einstein inferred from Maxwell’s equations that the laws of physics are the same for all non-accelerating observers and that the speed of light in vacuum is independent of the motion of all observers and sources, and is observed to have the same value.

    Will that do?

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