Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Testimony and the requisites of the witness

What counts in testimony? The witness' beliefs or her statements? If the latter, how do we have to rethink the criteria for a valid cognition derived from testimony?

I just came across this book discussion and can't wait to have the book in my hands. If you have the time to run through it, please pause for a second on the problem of the involvement of the witness' beliefs. The author of the book (J. Lackey) concludes that in the act of testimony they are less important than her/his statements, since even an insincere speaker can communicate knowledge. This reminds me of the Navya Nyāya example of the lier who is himself unaware of the fact that he is telling the truth (i.e., he says that X because he believes that Y is the case and wants to lie, but in fact —unknown to him— X is really the case). Can his hearer claim to know that X?

I tend to think that those claiming that testimony is a kind of inference, with the witness' beliefs playing a major role as inferential probans (as, in India, with Buddhist Pramāṇavāda accounts of testimony) should answer that the hearer does not know that X (although he happens to believe that X on the basis of the lier's testimony and although X is true). However, one might suggest that it is possible to substitute "belief" with "statement" and still have a valid inference…?

Or should we just agree with the contemporary Navya Nyāya-influenced philosopher Sibajiban Bhattacharya and think that all true cognition is knowledge, even if it is not justified (i.e., if it is acquired in a way which does not stand a closer scrutiny, like in the case of the hearer's belief that X, obtained through the lier's testimony)?

Should we, thus, just focus on the witness' expertise as expressed in his/her statements, without taking into account his/her beliefs and his/her honesty?  

For further posts on testimony, check the labels "śabda" and "epistemology". My first Italian blog is completely devouted to an analysis of the philosophy of testimony in Indian and Western philosophy (until Michael Dummett).


Unknown said...

A tells B about the existence of 5 fruits on the bank of the river. B ‘believes’ in it and if, on going there B finds:

i. There is no fruit at all;

ii. There are only 2, instead of 3 fruits;

then, in case of i B’s belief in A’s statement is wholly crushed, whereas it is partially thwarted in case of ii.
However, if A in fact saw 5 fruits on the bank of the river, and the non-existence is due to some contingency occurring between A’s witnessing it, and B’s endeavour to test the validity of A’s assertion, then A’s statement, at least ideally is not be held invalid. But for all practical purposes, it should and it is held by B as invalid.

However, had B witnessed in ditto what A had described to him, B would have indubitably held A’s statement as valid, and the latter could be well treated as a testimonial.

From the aforesaid considerations, it emerges that the ideas of validity and invalidity function only within the precinct of practical activities. In the same vein, purposefulness (arthakriyākāritva or saṃvādī pravṛtti [as opposed to visaṃvādī pravṛtti]) determines such validity.

Divorced from all practical purposes, truth is neither valid nor invalid – it is as it is – self-revealing and auto-valid.

Truth can never be borne witness to – otherwise, truth, for its very existence, would become dependent upon testimony – an event that would discount its auto-valid character. This is rather figuratively expressed in the followed verse of the Kaṭhopaniṣad [I/ii/23] –

nāyamātmā pravacanena labhyo
na medhayā na bahunā śrutena/
yamevaiṣa vṛṇut tena labhya-
stasyaiṣa ātmā vivṛṇute tanūṃ svām//

What we get out of a testimonial is [provisional] truth as delimited by practical purposefulness [arthakriyākārī satyatā] – but through testimonies we do not arrive at truth in its entirety.

elisa freschi said...

Thanks, Sudipta, for opening the discussion. The case of the fruits is, in fact, interesting. If A testifies that there are 5 fruits on a certain tree what she is testifying is that there used to be 5 fruits at time t. It is irrelevant to the validity of the testimony if, e.g., a cow at time t1 passes by and eats one or more of them. Thus, the claim that A's testimony is false because there are no longer 5 fruits risks, I think, to be itself a false claim because it does not take into account time. Such confusions are, unfortunately, common in trials, where one confuses the validity of p with that of "A says that p".

As for your other claim, i.e., that testimony is only a secondary source, I agree as far as worldly matters are concerned. But what about testimony in the case of topics where we have no other source? E.g., when one is speaking about one's own feeling or in the case of religious experiences?

Unknown said...

Thanks, Elisa, for your highly interesting comments.

I do agree with you that when something is known it is known in a particular instant of time. But when A provides his testimony he does so believing in the enduring nature of his testimonial stuff. Thus, if we have to differentiate between these two evidences, on ground of their varying temporally determined character, our very effort to bear testimony to something is carried in vacuo, since a thing existing / experienced at time t is different from a thing existing / experienced / reproduced at time t1. Moreover, the time factor would equally affect the testifier – i.e. the person who experiences an event at time t is not the one who is providing the testimony at time t1. Thus we are compelled to discount this temporally determined character of things for all practical purposes, if we are not to accept an endurable/permanent character for them. And ontologically speaking, this temporal character of evidences also supports my basic contention that “Truth can never be borne witness to”.

As for one, who is trying to communicate his pangs to his companion, the latter becomes aware of it through such marks as pale face, tearful eyes, etc. apart from the statement of the narrator – but actors also have the ability to portray such feelings, often in a more convincing manner. So how shall we differentiate the real case from the fraudulent one, provided that we have no other way to test the validity of what the narrator says? A baby is seen to express both the feelings of stomach ache and hunger through his shrill cries – how shall we distinguish the two? My point, therefore, is: I do not deny the role of testimonies in leading us to truth, but what I emphasise is that we only get a partial picture out of such testimonies.

elisa freschi said...

Dear Sudipta,
as you have surely noticed, I am a strong upholder of the validity of testimony. I see your point re. the fact that testimony is linked to time and, hence, by rule no evidence of timeless truths, but this applies to sense-perception too and, most importantly, we ourselves are timely bound and, thus, we are more closely linked to time than to timeless truths, I am afraid.
Secondly, testimony is still the best option left for cases such as the ones you describe. I will not be able to completely understand your feeling/the pain you are suffering due to an injury through what you are telling me about it, but there is no valid alternative. Bottom line: let us not the best be an ennemy of the good (and let us, thus, welcome testimony, if epistemologically sound).

Unknown said...

Dear Elisa,

Thanks for your valuable comment.

I too agree with you that so far as the proceedings of our work-a-day life are concerned, testimony is the only option left. You have very significantly pointed out that we ourselves are bound in time and so are our sense-perceptions, and there is no other way than looking at things through the spectacles of time. But what my purport was in arguing “against” testimony was to testify that:

i. The truth we arrive at is not the TRUTH [i.e. unqualified truth];

ii. One should [principally at least] not deem his findings derived with the aid of testimonies as final, and a space for doubt should always be made;

iii. The above considerations, if applied to court cases, might be able to bring in a significant change in the extant system of punishment.

In conclusion, I may say that so far as our day-to-day life is concerned, I too am compelled to accept truths we arrive at through the help of testimonies, despite knowing that these are determined by practical needs and purposefulness.

elisa freschi said...

Yes, you are surely right. My insistence on testimony has also to do with the fact that the refusal of testimony as a legitimate epistemological means has as an unwanted consequence that many philosophers have not elaborated a strategy to deal with testimony in an epistemologically appropriate way within court cases.

Unknown said...

Dear Elisa,

I've written on this in an article in History of Philosophy quarterly.

As you likely know, Gangesha has anticipated some of Lackey's argument regarding the lack of need for a speaker to know what she is testifying in order for her testimony to be a possible source of knowledge. I would agree with this overall view.

We learn from clocks and other things which lack beliefs or the capacity for "sincerity" and I would suggest that this is indeed knowledge from "attestations" taken to be veridical.

If curious, here's a link with article info: [url]http://philpapers.org/rec/DASTBT[/url]

elisa freschi said...

Thank you very much, M! I am sorry to admit, that I had not noticed this article (perhaps because I was not yet following you on Academia in 2008). I look forward to read it. As for clocks, however, I wonder whether a Pracīna Naiyāyika would not have said that one INFERS time out of the position of the hour hand and minute hand, rather that treating it as an instance of śabdapramāṇa.
Or is the example explicit in Navya Nyāya?

Unknown said...

No--I brought up the example of the clock myself, but you will be happy to know that Gangesha agrees with the Mimamsakas and against old Nyaya on this issue!

elisa freschi said...

Yes, the fact of abandoning the speaker in favour of the listener seems to me a further element in favour of the Mīmāṃsā influence on Gaṅgeśa. That Gaṅgeśa knew Mīmāṃsā very well is proven by his accuracy in depicting Mīmāṃsā views.

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