Let's talk about testimony as rational justification for belief

Sometimes you crawl out of bed, you're fixing breakfast, and a random topic pops into your head. Today, for me, it was the idea of testimony as a rational justification for theistic belief—in particular, the idea one need not have any additional evidence to be rational in assenting to claims disseminated through testimony alone.

At the risk of beating a dead horse, I'm going to quote Randal Rauser on the topic, because he's a strong advocate for this line of reasoning. From a post in 2013:
It is true that you can think of testimony as evidence just like you can think of sense perception and rational intuition as evidence. But so long as there are no defeaters present, we also find that each of these sources of rational belief can provide a stopping point to the regress of justification and thus each provides a means of prima facie proper basicality. Not only that, but sufficiently strong testimony can also withstand the assault of formidable defeaters. Consequently, just as rational intuition can provide us with properly basic belief that 7+5=12, and sense perception can provide us with properly basic belief that “The banana is on the counter”, so testimony can provide us with properly basic belief that “Common descent is true” or “Jesus rose from the dead.”
As I see it, there are two fundamental problems with this type of reasoning: the first is that testimony itself is much messier than is being acknowledged; and the second is that even if it is rational to assent to testimony in particular circumstances, it doesn't follow that testimony provides rational justification in any other arbitrary circumstance.

Problem 1: Testimony is messy


It's a misnomer to suggest that we either assent to the testimony of others or we reject it in some binary fashion. Rather, there is a spectrum of confidence that we assign to such belief.

Let's use an everyday example: asking for directions at the convenience store—an example that Randal raised in direct response to me a few years ago. It's true that I'm rationally justified in accepting the 'testimony' of the clerk when s/he gives me directions—however, there are some important caveats that impact the degree of confidence I associate with such an interaction.

First, there's a simple margin of error. The clerk could be sincerely mistaken and provide incorrect directions. I'm sure most of us have had such an experience. Probably less likely, the clerk could be some nutcase who just gets a kick out of giving people incorrect directions. When we take directions from the clerk, we're not doing so unequivocally or expecting that we're justified in the absence of 'defeaters'. Rather, we simply assign, unconsciously of course, a reasonable probability of confidence in the clerk's directions. It's a confidence that always comes with the aforementioned caveats, which ought to temper our confidence a bit—we certainly wouldn't be rational to consider the clerk's directions (forgive the pun) gospel truth.

Secondly, the term 'testimony', used as a hammer instead of a scalpel, has a tendency to confuse the contexts and caveats that inform our confidence in it. For example, it is rational to assent to the consensus of an international community of scientific experts in a given field—still allowing for a margin of error, of course—more so than it is rational than assenting to the claim of a random person on the street who tells you they were visited by a ghost. The latter may or not be true, but there are many reasons to have low confidence in the reliability of said testimony: the inability to independently confirm the claim, the conceptual ambiguity of ghosts, the innumerable known phenomena that could account for the perception of a ghostly visit, and even the possibility that this random person suffers mental illness.


Problem 2: We have to understand when it is rational to accept testimony


The bigger problem with the testimony as properly basic argument, though, is that it fails to actually build an argument as to why testimony should be seen as reliable in regard to theistic belief in particular. In the examples above, I provided a rationale for assigning varying degrees of confidence to testimony. What theists seem to expect us to agree with is that because we accept the reliability of testimony in certain circumstances, we should also acknowledge that the theist is rational to assent to testimony with regard to theistic belief and/or religious doctrine. But this is quite clearly a total non-sequitur. The theist must instead build an argument from the ground up explaining why one ought to assign a high degree of confidence to the testimony of the religious community in which they happened to be raised or otherwise encounter, complete with the same types of caveats that we assign to testimony in other arbitrary circumstances

Most obviously, we can easily think of many reasons to assign a low degree of confidence to the testimony of religious believers: the mire of conflicting religious doctrines, the presence of groupthink, the inability to independently confirm the claims in question, etc. These are not issues to which any modestly educated religious believer ought to be oblivious—certainly not a religious academic. Those caveats alone, in my view, critically undermine the claim that religious testimony can be properly basic. Any rational thinker must be aware of the issues that undermine our confidence in religious testimony and view them as reasonable cause for skepticism. 

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