Sunday, April 30, 2017

Quote of the Day

Testimony is the source of an enormously large proportion of our most important beliefs; it is testimony and learning from others that makes possible intellectual achievement and culture; testimony is the very foundation of civilization. The Enlightenment looked down its rationalistic nose at testimony and tradition, comparing them invidiously with science; but, without learning by testimony, clearly, science would be impossible. Newton stood on the shoulders of giants; indeed, every scientist must stand on the testimonial shoulders of others. Nearly all of what we know of the history of humanity or the structure of the universe we know by virtue of testimony; but it is also by virtue of testimony that I know such homelier items as what my name is and that I live in Indiana. You visit Armidale: you believe that it is indeed Armidale you are in, and that Armidale is in New South Wales. I have never visited Armidale and indeed have never ventured beyond the borders of Königsberg; but you rely upon testimony for your knowledge of those items as much as I do. You are also dependent upon testimony for your knowledge that New South Wales is in Australia (a fact you perhaps learned from a map or encyclopedia) and that there is such a nation as Australia.

Sigmund Freud, that Enlightenment figure born out of due time, offers an account of religious belief that, oddly enough, includes testimony as a special case: "Religious ideas are teachings and assertions about facts and conditions of external (or internal) reality which tell one something one has not discovered for oneself and which lay claim to one's belief." (Obviously testimony involves "teachings and assertions about facts and conditions of external [or internal] reality which tell one something one has not discovered for oneself and which lay claim to one's belief.") He immediately goes on to contradict this account of 'religious ideas' by claiming that what distinguishes religious ideas from testimony is that what you learn by way of testimony you can always check or verify for yourself, thus finding out whether what you were told is true.

But surely this is Enlightenment optimism run amuck. Can I really discover, in a way independent of testimony, that in the fifth century B.C. there was a war between the Athenians and Spartans? Can I discover in this way that Plato was a philosopher? Or that the woman I take to be my mother really was? Or that I was given the name I think I was? Or that there is such a country as Australia? Indeed, the mayor of Armidale himself depends upon testimony for his knowledge that it is Armidale of which he is the mayor; and though a lifelong resident of Australia, he too depends upon testimony for his knowledge that Australia is the continent of which Armidale is a tiny part. You say: perhaps he just to himself: "Armidale is a part of _______," where the blank is to be filled by his own name of the land he sees around him, land on which Armidale is obviously to be found. But if _______ is his name for Australia and is bestowed or introduced by way of the description 'the land around here' or 'the land I now see', the proposition he expresses by 'Armidale is a part of _______' is not the one we expressed by 'Armidale is in Australia."To express the same or an equivalent proposition, his sentence would have to contain a name of Australia; and it is not easy to acquire a name of Australia on one's own. He might try to name Australia by picking it out with a definite description: 'the continent of which where I stand is a part' or 'the country to which this land belongs'; but of course it is only by testimony that he knows there is such a continent or country, or indeed any continents or countries at all.

We are therefore dependent upon testimony for most of what we know. Further, it is likely that most of our beliefs are such that the very possibility of our forming them is dependent upon testimony. For if there were no such thing as testimony, as a source of belief, then, in all likelihood, there would be nothing but the most rudimentary sorts of language. I don't mean to endorse Wittgenstein's enigmatic suggestions to the effect that it is impossible (in something like the broadly logical sense) that any person have a private language; that is as may be. (And the way it may be, I think, is at best inconclusive.) But it seems likely, as a matter of contingent fact, that language and testimony are mutually dependent phenomena in such a way that apart from testimony, there would be no language. And without the resources conferred by language we should have been unable to form any but a small proportion of the beliefs we do in fact hold.

Alvin Plantinga
Warrant and Proper Function

Jim's comments: Sometimes my students are skeptical of whether you could know something simply on the basis of testimony. I think this is understandable: it seems that the person who believes something on the testimony of someone else has not come into direct contact with the truth of the claim, but only, at best, indirect contact. The intuition is that she doesn't believe the claim because it is true, but only because the other person is trustworthy or something. I think this is mistaken, and in the future I may have them read this passage by Plantinga.

Saturday, April 29, 2017

The old oldest person and the new oldest person

I'm a couple weeks late on this, but I knew I would have to write about the death of Emma Morano, the last woman who was born in the 1800s: November 1899 in particular. She passed away over Easter weekend. A lot of the reports claimed she was the last person born in the 19th century, but the year 1900 was the last year of the 19th century, and the current oldest person in the world was born in March of that year. Of course, I understand the significance of the odometer rolling over: having someone alive who was born in a year beginning with a one-eight just seems like a bigger deal that someone with a one-nine. Nevertheless, we have two people still around who were born in 1900, the last year of the 19th century. And there's another interesting thing about the newest oldest person: she's from Jamaica, where she was born, and which was part of the British Empire at the time. So she's the last person alive who was a subject of Queen Victoria. Wow.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Concord Sonata

I studied music and developed an appreciation for nontonal music. It's an acquired taste and it wilts if I don't feed it. But whenever I want to get back into it, I listen to The Concord Sonata by Charles Ives. I don't know why, but I'm always able to enjoy it. I understand if you don't like it, or even if you loathe it. Like I said, I can't explain why I find this piece so attractive, so listenable. I love the performance below, but there's another performance on YouTube that tracks the sheet music here. That's just to the first movement, the other movements are separate videos.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Time-travelling to see Jesus can be hazardous

For your Good Friday reading, I respectfully submit "Let's Go to Golgotha!" by Garry Kilworth.

Saturday, April 8, 2017

Feser on Kim

Ed Feser comments on Jaegwon Kim's supervenience and attempted solving of the mind-body problem from Physicalism, or Something Near Enough. I've read it, but didn't remember Kim's use of Jonathan Edwards's occasionalism which is what Feser addresses. That just means I have to read it again, which I am happy to do. Kim is a master. Good stuff.

Looking back at the last few posts, I guess I could have collected them together as a linkfest. Oh well.

Friday, April 7, 2017

History and myth

Here's a six year old article on Four Myths about the Crusades. The myths in question are: 1) The crusades represented an unprovoked attack by Western Christians on the Muslim world; 2) Western Christians went on crusade because their greed led them to plunder Muslims in order to get rich; 3) Crusaders were a cynical lot who did not really believe their own religious propaganda; rather, they had ulterior, materialistic motives; and 4) the crusades taught Muslims to hate and attack Christians.

Tuesday, April 4, 2017


Here's a great short story by Robert Silverburg entitled "Enter a Soldier. Later: Enter Another". The second soldier is Socrates. I feel enriched after reading it.