Epistemology,  Learning,  Philosophy of Education,  Truth

Make America Trust Again

This election season has produced a lack of trust. This is especially true in the media. In a recent article in WaPo a journalist complained to Alberto Ibargüen, president of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, “that we no longer have trusted sources in our 21st century, social-media environment.” Ibargüen’s repose is telling: “How can there be,” he asked, “until we figure out … how to decide what a trusted source is?”

What I want to suggest is that we need to re-build an atmosphere of trust. There are two virtues involved in doing so. The first is perhaps quite trivial in principle but we seem to be in an era when it is difficult to practice – telling the truth. I will leave aside the discussion of what we mean by truth and I will assume you think there is such a thing and that you desire, on the most part, to tell the truth. Instead I will focus on the second virtue – trust. This simple virtue entails the following:

Give some level of credence to everything anyone says.

What I mean to imply by such a piece of advice is that what people say is mostly true. And if what people say is mostly true, then we should give some level of credence to everything anyone says.  The credence is not absolute. Some people are pretty shady off the bat and even the people who I trust the most can be wrong sometimes. So some people will get more credence for what they say than others. But the point is: everyone should get some credence for anything they say. One might wonder if that is definition of gullibility? Perhaps, and therein lies the risk one takes in cultivating the virtue of trust. So, I need to argue for it. I will argue that believing what we are told is vital for some set of reasons and that the counter thesis–that we should assume “everyone is wrong about everything all the time”–is false for another set of reasons.

First, the main argument I want to make in support of my claim is that as trust declines so does knowledge. Consider what you take to know. Think of you knowledge of history, science, mathematics, current affairs, or ethics. How did you come by such knowledge? Most of it,  I suggest, came by trusting the person who told you about those subjects — your teachers at school, your parents, and the person reporting the news. In other words, much of our acquisition of knowledge is dependent upon testimonial sources, people communicating information to you from their own knowledge base. But what if you did not trust any source of knowledge, or simply limited the sources to people you’ve known a long time? The less you trust the less knowledge you would acquire. It is not clear that even merely limiting the people whom you trust would work either. Where do they get their information? In as far as they get it from people whom you do not trust, you would not be able to take their word for it on many matters (any matter not known through their own experience perhaps).

To be sure, there are other ways in which we acquire knowledge. We may deduce the truth of some statement from other statements. We also gain much of our knowledge from direct experience. However, without knowledge acquired from testimony even these sources of knowledge would be inaccessible to us (I will explain why below). If that’s so, then trust is vital even to the acquisition to any knowledge at all. 

Consider your upbringing. During childhood your mom and dad, or guardian taught you most of the basic facts you still rely on to get around. When you drove somewhere, they  pointed out the trucks and cars to you. When you went to the zoo they identified the animals and told you their names. As time went along, your parents or guardians taught you all sorts of facts about the world and you trusted them. 
Of course, you grew up. Doing so meant being exposed to multiple of sources of information some of which confirmed and some contradicted what you were taught as a child. As you grew up you learned that your parents or guardians got some things right and some things wrong. When you discovered that something you learned as a child was false you didn’t automatically reject everything you were taught but continued to give credence to much of your childhood knowledge. Perhaps, if it turned out that most of your knowledge turned up false, the consequence would be more traumatic. Suppose when you were taken to the zoo your mom decided to falsely identify each animal. She called zebras, cows, and monkeys, polar bears. When you discovered the deception you would be unlikely to trust much of what you learned from your mom as a child. 
Analogously, we continue to learn in a similar way in which we learnt as a child. Perhaps our ability to cross check has improved due to an increase in the quantity of facts we have accumulated and the ability to integrate our beliefs to increase their coherence with one another. However, when learning a new subject we are required to trust the teacher in the same way we trusted our parents or guardians as we grew up. 
This is a vital feature of human society the lack of which renders public discourse, human relationships, and educational efforts much more difficult, even impossible. Take education, for example. A teacher and her students must have an atmosphere whereby there is an implicit agreement by the teacher, to teach truth, and the student, to trust what the teacher says. Crucially, in order to learn, a student sometimes must accept the teacher’s word for it even if what she has said either is without apparent evidence or does not fit with what the student already knows. 
Consider the following scenario. A teacher is teaching logic. In one class, call it lesson 4, a teacher teaches a rule of logic that has to be taken on trust. The reason it has to be taken on trust is that while it is necessary to learn the rule in lesson 4, the explanation for that rule is only possible once the student understands lessons 5 through 8. The teacher knows that if she were to try to explain lesson 8 while teaching the rule in lesson 4 the students would be utterly confused. What they need to know to understand lesson 8 is an understanding of lessons 5 through 8. So the teacher asks that the students trust what she says about the rule and apply it from lessons 4 through 8 even though they cannot see why the rule should be there. 
The question the scenario raises is one of justification for belief. What justifies the student’s belief in the rule? There are two features of the the student’s justification for believing the teacher. First, the principle of testimony states that it is reasonable to believe the statements made by a trustworthy source. If the source, a teacher, is generally known to tell the truth, then there is good reason for the student to accept what she says in the absence of additional evidence. Second, given that the words that the teacher and the student are using are acquired by trusting the source from which they were learnt, we can offer an additional a priori justification for the student’s beliefs, that of correct learning. A student, S, has justification for believing p if S has learned p correctly from a teacher (see Aron Edidin “Language-Learning and a Priori Knowledge,” 1986 for an extended argument for this claim)
Ever since the enlightenment many people have rejected the view that beliefs should be formed by learning from an authority. Instead, said they, we should never accept anything on face value but test whatever is told us according to some neutral standard. Postmoderns reject that latter part; they deny that there is any such standard – we test things only from our socio-cultural perspective. Question everything but don’t expect an answer; there isn’t one. 
However, it strikes me that no matter how hard we work against it, the prima facie justification we have when we learn correctly from a teacher is very hard to avoid. Consider what it would mean for the child. On one view, the child is making a mistake to take for granted that his mother is telling the truth about what animal in the zoo is called what. But that doesn’t appear to be right. In general, moms are highly motivated to tell their children the truth about the world. And it is right that children accept what mom says as the truth without requiring a second opinion. 
This is not to say beliefs formed in this way are not subject to defeaters. What if a mom misidentifies a kind of truck? Say she thinks backhoes are graders. Now, if the child had access to an excellent series of books called Grady the Grader, then the child would have a good defeater for his mother’s wrongful identification. But this is not the norm. Mom is usually right. Nor is it normative. The child is not somehow amiss if he doesn’t check Grady the Grader every time mom identifies a large yellow vehicle working on the road. 
In the scenario’s just listed the student must have a sufficient level of trust in the teacher in order to learn the subject properly. It is also this kind of trust that we need in a wider societal setting in order for society to flourish. If politicians, business leaders, teachers, media outlets, pastors, and parents damage the relationship of trust between people (by lying), then societies’ atmosphere stifles knowledge, learning and human flourishing. But the solution is not merely fair reporting. Rather, it is vital that we learn to trust what people say, at least lending some credence to what we are told instead of dismissing claims out of hand or suspending our acceptance until we have cross-checked what we are told with experience or some other method.

So far I have said that we should give some love of credence to what other people tell us. However, some think there are reasons for thinking that we should go in the opposite direction. I am fond of a podcast by Steve Patterson. He argues that it is better to assume that “everyone is wrong about everything all the time.” He gives a number of arguments for his claim.

First, he argues that in order to trust what someone says that person would have to have a sufficient understanding of what they are saying. No one has sufficient understanding of what they are saying. Therefore, we should not trust what they say. Patterson says that for any statement of any fact there are so many things we would need to know to fully understand the statement that none of us could possibly have sufficient knowledge to assume that we know what we are talking about.

Second, Patterson argues that sets of beliefs rely on a subset of foundational beliefs. If those foundational beliefs are false, then the entire set of beliefs is open to question. Since no one has indubitable foundational beliefs statements they claim are true are probably false.

Patterson claims not to be advocating a full blown skepticism. Rather, he thinks that we should never accept a claim because we are told it: “evaluate the ideas purely on their merit, without any connection to the person communicating them.” A claim must be disconnected from a person (the testimony) in order to evaluated. Nothing about the person who made the claim should interfere with our judgment of its truth value. That must be left solely to our reasoning powers and evidence gathered from experience.

I have at least three responses. First, in regard to foundational beliefs, it does not follow from the fact that some people have false foundational beliefs that all their subsequent beliefs will be false. Consider the following foundational belief: God exists and created the world. Now, I happen to think this is true but I know many people who don’t. And those people who don’t hold to that foundational belief are capable of agreeing with me on many other matters. Perhaps they believe things that are inconsistent with their denial of God’s existence (perhaps they believe in universal moral laws) but it doesn’t follow that all their subsequent beliefs are false.

Second, the claim that if we are to have any knowledge we must have such a high degree of comprehension is a steep epistemological claim. Consider the math professor who has spent his life in the study of his discipline. Yet, as he would freely acknowledge, he has only scratched the surface of his subject. Indeed, anyone who seeks further study comes to realize that the further in they go the less they know. Now, Patterson is asking us to be skeptical of any claim the math proff makes just because his knowledge of his discipline is limited. But why should we accept such a view? Surely Patterson must have sufficient understanding of the statement, “No one has sufficient understanding of what they are saying.” But surely Patterson does not have sufficient understanding of all the related presuppositions of such a statement. Therefore, we should not trust this statement. This is self-defeating.

Furthermore, when Patterson says that a testifier must understand (to a sufficient degree) her topic in order to be trusted, he misses out an assumption: even the person with a sufficient understanding got her knowledge from another person (and he got it from someone else). Suppose, you meet someone who qualifies. This person passes Patterson’s muster and has amazing comprehension of their field. Given that this person acquired her understanding we might wonder from whence her knowledge came. Surely from other people, her teachers. If that is the case, what guarantee is there that someone along the line did not have sufficient understanding in order to be trusted? Perhaps her teacher understood her subject sufficiently but her teacher’s teacher’s teacher did not. Her teacher’s teacher’s teacher picked up what he knew from limited resources and a good dose of nouse. And if so, then a mistake has occurred in the chain resulting in no one having sufficient understanding to be trusted.

Third, consider what I have said about our acquisition of knowledge as a child. Particularly, consider how we came to learn the language that we speak. When your mother pointed at the duck and said, “duck” she taught you the word for duck. When you thought you saw another duck you said to your mother, “duck!” This made your mother very pleased. Indeed, this is how you learned the basic set of terms and rules for applying them from which you derive your ability to speak about complex things like Godel’s theorem, Beethoven’s 9th symphony, the recipe for chicken harrissa, and your team’s strategy for the second innings. In fact, it appears to be what Patterson and I rely on for the production of philosophical blog posts and pod casts (of which mine are the inferior). But if we were to say that what we learned as children from our parents is not to be trusted at all, then we could not trust anything we say in our acquired language of English.

There is an objection lurking to what I have just said. Understanding and trust may be linked in such a way that understanding is only possible if the one seeking to understand gives some level of credence to the one she seeks to understand. As Donald Davidson wrote: “[it is] impossible correctly to hold that anyone could be mostly wrong about how things are.” What might make it impossible according is that we have a lifetime of evidence that most of what people say, if we check what they have said against some non-testimonial evidence, turns out to be true. If so, then that fact alone entails that we should give credence to what people tell us is so. If so, then there is some circularity to my argument: I am justified in believing what people have to say because whenever I check what someone has to say with experience people usually get things right. But the means by which I learned the language to listen and cross check testimony is dependent on testimony. Hence, I am not justified in given credence to what people have to say.

There are two responses to this objection. Richard Swinburne argues that the inference from evidence of testimony tending to be true is not one of straight up induction but inference to the best explanation. What best explains the tendency for testimony to be true is that human beings desire to know the truth and tell the truth. This is also simplest explanation.

The second response is to say that we live in a world created by God into which God has verbally spoken to human beings (in the Bible). God’s speech is not trustworthy because God happens to get things right most of the time but what God asserts is necessarily trustworthy in virtue of who God is. If God exists, then everything he asserts is true since God cannot lie or believe some false proposition. Since we live in a world in which there is testimonial knowledge that has this kind of trustworthiness we live in a world in which we can implicitly trust some testimony without cross-checking it at all. If so, and that testimony assumes that human beings can come to know and tell other people the truth and are in fact designed in such a way that their proper function is to tell the truth we have justification for believing that testimony is a trustworthy source of true statements.

An atmosphere of trust is much more plausible in a world in which there is one testifier who knows everything, necessarily cannot get any of his testimony wrong, and has designed every other knower and testifier to come to some knowledge and seek to tell the truth. There is also a moral component to such a point. In a theistic atmosphere of trust it is not only an improper function not to tell the truth or trust other people, but it is a sign of human mistrust in their designer, what the Bible calls unbelief. And unbelief is, according to our tradition, morally wrong, sin.

Of course, not all humans function properly and not all humans desire to  tell the truth. Some have cultivated a strong propensity to lie. Others may have some physical impairment that renders their imagination more powerful than their reasoning or powers of perception. But this does not diminish the claim that in general we should give some credence to all the things that anyone says. Once we know that  someone is a liar or that their mental faculties are not working properly the credence we grant their testimony will be low (though not non-existent. It is perfectly possible for a liar to tell the occasional truth and for a person whose mind is otherwise elsewhere to say something lucid).

To wrap up there are some practical outcomes to seeking to reinstate the principle I have defended. First, in our era of bloated bureaucracy there is a temptation to design processes that assume that no one is to be trusted. Overly bureaucratic systems are expensive, exhausting, and ever expanding. If governments assume that people will lie unless proved otherwise, they will spend more. Consider the process by which one obtains a driver’s license. The more trust, the quicker the process. The less trust, the more burdensome the process will become. Will some people lie? Almost certainly. But you won’t will you? And that’s the point. Systems built on some measure of trust make sense because most people tell the truth most of the time. It is only when we design every system with the minority liar in mind that things get complicated. Of course, as most heavily bureaucratic style governments discover, the liar can usually find a way around the system (hence the ever expanding part of bureaucracies).

There are other systems that work best in a society of trust. The fact that a store will take back a product without a receipt is a good sign. They don’t have to; they could demand proof of purchase, your driver’s license and all sorts of other documents. The ease of all sorts of transactions rely on a degree of trust in what someone says. Take another slightly controversial example: refugees. It is common knowledge that some refugees are accepted into the United States devoid of any official documentation. The authorities take them on trust in their testimony. This in itself is not reason to reject them. Just because they only have their testimony does not mean they should be automatically refused sanctuary. Rather, the vetting process should see if there is other evidence that leads authorities to either doubt the person’s testimony or that leads them to suspect that the refugee is really a terrorist.

Re-building an atmosphere of trust takes some effort. In fact, we may all have a lot of work to do. It is not all on the media, politicians and alike to begin to make efforts to tell the truth but on all of us to trust more of what we are told, giving more credence than perhaps we have during this most anti-trusting year. 

Assistant Professor of Philosophy and History of Ideas at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and The College at Southeastern.