Post Author: Bill Pratt
There are 3 ways that a person can gain knowledge: experience, reason, and testimony. Experience simply means that we observe something directly with one of our five senses for ourselves (e.g., “There is a computer screen in front of me”). Reason means that we make rational and logical inferences from knowledge we already have to new knowledge (e.g., syllogisms). Testimony means that we gain knowledge by hearing it from another person (e.g., “Napoleon was a short man”).
For the average person, it would seem that much of what we know about the world comes from testimony, from facts we hear from other people. Think about it. If you just start listing in your mind all the things you know about every sort of subject, a tremendous amount of it you read in books, were taught by teachers and professors in school, read on a blog, and heard from your friends and family.
We rely very heavily on testimony because as a person who is limited in space and time, we cannot possibly experience everything directly that we want to know. Any knowledge you have about places in the world you’ve never been is because of testimony. Any knowledge of people whom you have never met is because of testimony. Any knowledge of human activity from before you were born is known from testimony.
Let’s take two special cases of where testimony is used: law courts and human history. Every day, criminals are convicted of serious crimes based on evidence from testimony. Attorneys and judges always want to know who saw what. There are other kinds of evidence used in courts, to be sure, but there is no doubt that our legal system would completely fall apart if testimony was disallowed.
Are there sometimes mistakes made by witnesses in recalling what they saw? Sure there are. But often the way we know a mistake was made is because of someone else’s testimony! In other words, we trust one person’s testimony about the facts over another person’s testimony. We don’t just throw out all testimony and call it all unreliable. We work to determine whose testimony is credible by using standard criteria.
What about human history? The truth is that just about everything we know from human history is based on testimony. We read written accounts left behind by people who directly experienced the events of history. Are there testimonies from history that we think are false? Absolutely. How do we know they are false? Often because they contradict other testimony that we trust more. Without testimony, however, we would know precious little about anything that happened before we were born. Historians, like jurists, employ criteria to discern which testimony from history is credible and which is not.
If testimony is so important to our everyday lives, to our legal system, and to our knowledge of history, then why do skeptics of Christianity seem to downplay its reliability so much? We tackle that in the next post in this series.