The Truman Show

Truman and the Value of Testimony in the Formation of Beliefs

Duncan Pritchard

[Excerpted from Duncan Pritchard, What Is This Thing Called Knowledge?, 2nd ed. (Arbingdon, Oxon: Routledge, 2006), pp. 80–84.  The present title was not Pritchard’s, but was rather applied to the excerpt by Alexander S. Peak.]

Jim Carrey as Truman Burbank

Think of all the things that you think you know right now—such as that the earth is round, or that the Nile flows through Egypt.  Most of these beliefs will have been gained not by finding out the truth of the claim in question yourself, but by being told that this claim was true by others.  Indeed, often we do not even remember exactly how we come by most of our beliefs.  I don’t recall who it was who first told me that the earth was shaped as it is (or whether I was ‘told’ it at all, as opposed to reading it in a book, or seeing the image on a TV screen), but I do know that this isn’t the kind of claim that I could verify for myself with my own eyes, since this would involve an investigation that is well beyond my present means (e.g., a space mission).  This might not seem particularly worrying, given that others have seen that this is the way things are and have passed this information on to the rest of the world (with pictures and so forth).  Still, one might be troubled by the extent to which what we believe is dependent upon the word of others.  What is our justification for forming our beliefs via the word of others?

The issue here is that of the status of testimony, where this means not only the formal verbal transmission of information that one finds taking place in a courtroom, but also the intentional transmission of information in general, whether verbally or through books, pictures, videos, and so forth.  A great deal of what you learn you learn via the testimony of others rather than by finding out the truths in question for yourself.  It is actually quite important that you find out the truth of most of what you believe in this way since if what you believed was restricted to only those claims that you could verify yourself (i.e., without any assistance from others), then you wouldn’t be able to know all that much about the world.  Someone like myself, who has never visited northern Africa, for example, would be unable to know which country the Nile flows through, and much else besides.  Much of our knowledge is thus social in the sense that it involves a process of co-operation between lots of different people, including people in different parts of the world and even people who have long since passed away but who transmitted their knowledge on to subsequent generations.

Sometimes, of course, the testimony we receive is false or misleading.  For example, someone with a political agenda might try to make us think that a certain problem, such as immigration, is much worse than it actually is in order to further their own political ends.  In itself, this kind of testimonial deceit is not all that troubling since we have a number of checks and balances which we can use to evaluate the testimony of others.  If, for example, we know that someone has something to gain by making us believe a certain claim (as in the political case just mentioned), then we instinctively put this claim under greater scrutiny than we would have done otherwise.

The same goes for testimony that, on the face of it, must be false (i.e., testimony that conflicts with other beliefs that we currently hold).  If someone told me that the Nile does not flow through Egypt, I wouldn’t simply accept this claim at face value but would rather test its credibility.  Is the person making the assertion authoritative in this regard (is she, for example, a geography teacher)?  Does this testimony accord with what is in my atlas and, if not, why not?  This is not to say that we never accept testimony that conflicts with our other beliefs, since even our most ingrained beliefs can change over time; look at how human beings have adjusted their beliefs to accomodate the fact that the earth goes around the sun rather than vice versa.  Rather, the point is that we are more suspicious when it comes to surprising testimony than when it comes to testimony that accords with what we already believe, and in this way we avoid being radically misled.

These policies for dealing with problematic testimony do not, however, wholly justify our practice of relying on testimony.  After all, we often check suspect testimony by comparing it with other testimony we have received.  For example, I evaluate the politician’s claim about immigration by considering it in the light of the newspaper articles I’ve read on the subject from reliable news sources, but these too are instances of testimony.  One might wonder, then, whether there is any way of justifying our reliance on testimony as a whole.

Suppose, for example, that all, or nearly all, of the testimony that we receive is false or misleading.  How would we tell?  Perhaps everyone is out to trick us, as in the film The Truman Show in which the protagonist, Truman, is, unbeknownst to him, the main character in a TV show whose world is in fact nothing more than a TV production set.  Just about everything that he has been told is false.  If the majority of the testimony that we received were misleading in this way, how would we find out?  Typically, one might try to detect deception by asking someone reliable, but clearly this option is of little use in this case!

In short, the problem of testimonial knowledge is that we are unable to offer any independent grounds for a wide range of the testimony-based beliefs that we hold (i.e., grounds which are not themselves simply other testimony-based beliefs).  Unless we have some general entitlement to trust testimony, it seems to follow that much of our knowledge is on a rather insecure footing.

If one is troubled by this sort of problem than one solution could be to claim that the justification for a testimony-based belief will always ultimately rest on non-testimonial evidence.  That is, if one’s testimony-based belief is to be rightly held, then it is not enough that one’s evidence for this belief is itself merely gained via testimony.  Instead, one needs further non-testimonial grounds, such as personal experience of the fact that this informant is reliable (e.g., one might have observed on a number of occasions in the past that this person’s testimony has turned out to be true).

This way of understanding testimony is often known as reductionism, since it tried to trace testimonial justification back to the non-testimonial evidence that we have, thereby ‘reducing’ testimonial justification to non-testimonial justification.  Historically, this position is often associated with the Scottish Enlightenment philosopher David Hume (1711–76).

If we take the reductionist thesis entirely at face value, then it is susceptible to some fairly immediate problems.  Think again of the protagonist in The Truman Show.  In this model, Truman is justified in believing all those things which he can vouch for himself or which he has gained via a testimonial source which he knows is reliable because he has verified its reliability for himself in the past.

When it comes to Truman’s ‘local’ beliefs about his immediate environment, such as whether the newspaper shop is presently open, this seems fine because he can independently verify what is being asserted.  Moreover, where he can’t verify these ‘local’ claims, he can at least usually be sure that the informant in question is generally reliable about ‘local’ matters like this.  Furthermore, most of Truman’s beliefs in this respect will be true, since, although his world is in one sense make-believe, it is true that there are shops and buildings and people inhabiting this TV production set (i.e., it is not a dream or an illusion).  Truman’s ‘local’ beliefs thus appear, on the whole at least, to be entirely in order by reductionist lights, even though Truman is the victim of a widespread conspiracy to deceive him.

The problem with Truman’s beliefs, however, does not reside in his ‘local’ beliefs about shop opening hours or which building is where on the town square, but rather concerns his ‘non-local’ beliefs, such as that the earth is round.  After all, Truman has only vouched for the reliability of his informants when it comes to local matters about which he can verify, yet the problem here is their reliability about non-local matters.  There is no inherent reason why reliability in the one case should extend to the other.  My doctor is a reliable informant about medical conditions, but that doesn’t mean that she is thereby a relable informant regarding whether or not I need the electrics in my house rewired.  The same goes for the people in Truman’s world.  That they are reliable informants when it comes to local matters, such as whether the shops are open on the high street, does not mean that they are going to be reliable informants when it comes to non-local matters, such as the shape of the earth.

The trouble is, of course, that Truman is unable to verify their reliability about non-local matters of this sort.  So while lots of Truman’s testimony-based beliefs are in order, there is an important class of testimony-based beliefs that he holds—those that concern non-local matters—which are problematic by reductionist lights since he has no independent grounds for them.  Herein lies the rub, however; we are all in pretty much the same situation as Truman in this regard, since we are no more able to independently verify our non-local beliefs than Truman.  Epistemically, therefore, by reductionist lights we are no better off than Truman on this score.  In this view, then, it turns out that we know a lot less than we thought we knew.