Safe, Safe Baby

So, testimony. My last proper (read: contentive or content-present) post was all about whether testimony could be considered properly generative (on its own account). My thesis was just a tad hazy, as can be discerned by the questions raised by two of my earnest commentators. As this particular angle on testimony isn’t likely to come up in the paper I am writing I’m going to justify this blog’s existence by bleating on a little longer. As is my manner (and as is my right) I’ll do it in a fairly circuitous manner.

I want to talk unsafe transmission.

Yes, verily, ‘All-Embracing…’ is all about the sex, baby.

[Normally I’d put a (more) tag here, but I’ve currently given up on hiding the length of my posts, mostly because my list of ‘Pages’ is now so long that I need full-length posts to hide the fact that my sidebar is now unwieldy[1].]

Traditionally it has been held that testimony is only successful when someone who holds a justified belief is able to transfer that belief to you with the same justification. Thus A tells me that ‘Julius Caesar was assassinated on the Ides of March’ and as I know that A is an historian and thus gets her information from the right sources I believe that ‘Julius Caesar was assassinated on the Ides of March’ as well, taking onboard A’s justification as my own (in a sense). We don’t usually believe that testifiers who have unjustified beliefs can transmit those unjustified beliefs as testimony (although that gets a little murky when we consider that some of the things we used to believe in, such as astrology, were quite complicated beliefs, transmitted by learned individuals, treated as knowledge).


Yet there is a case for claiming that unjustified testifiers can cause justified belief in hearers. This is unsafe testimonial transmission. I read a paper on this by Sanford Goldberg and it stirred the inner juices of my brain cavity. I think a lot of my suspicion about the generative nature of testimony came out of this one paper, so perhaps, to save face, reduce confusion and create obfuscation, I should reveal all.

Goldberg uses the idea of local invariance to account for unsafe testimonial transmission. To illustrate this he provides a case very much like this one:

Frank has a peculiar habit of buying milk every day and then, no matter the circumstances, pours it down the drain the following morning before putting the empty carton back in the fridge before he sets himself to work in the very same kitchen. Staying with him are Mary and her child Sonny. One morning Mary goes to get some orange juice and sees the milk carton. By pure accident Frank has forgotten to perform his usual disposal and thus there is, actually, milk in the fridge. Mary tells this to Sonny when he asks if there is milk in the fridge. Goldberg claims that this is a case of unsafe transmission because, although Mary has an unjustified belief that there is milk in the fridge, Sonny gains a justified belief.

Why? Well, because:

Had there been no milk in the fridge, this would have been because Frank dumped it (and put the empty milk carton back in the fridge.) As noted above, in such a situation Mary would still have testified as she did; but Frank (who is a fixture in the kitchen, and so who is in the kitchen in most or all of the nearest possible worlds) would have immediately spoken up against the testimony, informing his uninitiated guests of his strange practice. In that case Sonny would not have consumed Mary’s testimony and so would have refrained from forming the testimonial belief that there was milk in the fridge. This establishes that Sonny’s testimonial belief is sensitive. Now, had Sonny formed the testimonial belief that there is milk in the fridge, this would have been a case in which Frank did not speak up against that testimony; but, given Frank’s scrupulousness, the only cases in which he would not speak up against that testimony (given that he was in the kitchen, as always) would be those cases, like the actual one, in which (upon hearing the testimony) he came to acknowledge that he failed to dump the milk from the previous evening. In all such cases, there would be milk in the fridge. In sum, had Sonny formed the testimonial belief that there is milk in the fridge, there would have been milk in the fridge: Sonny’s testimonial belief is reliable. Note, too, that any nearby world in which (a) Frank disposed of the milk and returned the empty carton to the fridge, yet (b) Mary – or someone else, for that matter – testified (on the basis of seeing the milk carton in the fridge) that there was milk in the fridge, will be a world in which Frank speaks up against that testimony, prompting Sonny to refrain from consuming that testimony. Sonny’s belief is safe.
-Goldberg, Sanford, ‘Testimonial knowledge through unsafe testimony,’ Analysis 64:4, 2005. p. 303-4

Frank is an example of local invariance; he is a fixed condition of the world Mary and Sonny inhabit. Had there been no milk in the fridge he would have spoken up, thus defeating Mary’s testimony. The fact that he did not speak up means that Mary’s testimony, although for her unjustified, was justified for Sonny because of Frank.

It’s a curious little case study and it introduces a whole new further issue in the relationship between a speaker and a hearer. Although it took a while to become formalised in the literature, we have worked out that the relationship between trustworthiness of sources and the truth of the proposition they assert is not necessary for testimony to be good. Untrustworthy people can assert the truth and trustworthy people can have momentary lapses of reason. Goldberg’s thesis suggests that trustworthiness of sources can be considered irrelevant in certain cases; what really is important is that the world functions properly (or reliably) rather than the agents within it (which makes sense, because Goldberg’s thesis is firmly centred on a reliabilist account of epistemology, where the proper function of processes is all important).

So, back to generation. A really ideal example of generative testimony (in re that last, contentaive post) would have the new knowledge come out of unsafely transmitted beliefs. I keep thinking about Math, mostly because there are lots of examples of what we would call mathematical knowledge generated from the contradictions of previously well-held views. I am also suddenly contemplating Galileo and his experiments to do with mass; before he performed the ‘Ball drop from Pisa’ he had already worked out that the Aristotelian model of mass-cum-weight was contradictory (heavier objects linked to lighter objects of the same mass should drag the lighter objects down in free fall but, importantly, lighter objects linked to heavier objects of the same mass should drag the heavier objects down in free fall; which was it? Well, it was neither…).

So, yes, more thoughts on the subject. Because thinking is good, unless you only think you are thinking, which is just all too common.

1. Unfortunately the theme I am currently using for WordPress is a just a tad incompatible with the version of WordPress I am using and so it only is held together with paperclips and bubblegum. Thus the nice plugins that would make the categories and the page links fold-away magically don’t work. I’ve yet to find that perfect theme replacement, so kludges it is.


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