Is it ever rationally believe in the occurrence of miracles on the basis of testimony of others? I have been of late fascinated by the research of the developmental psychologist Paul L. Harris, who has investigated how young children acquire information through testimony. Harris gauges two psychological hypotheses. The first, which he attributes to Hume, is that children always assess the content of the information: they are more inclined to disbelieve information that widely differs from their earlier experience. The second, which he identifies with Reid’s position is that children are naturally credulous; they are inclined to indiscriminately believe what others testify, no matter who they are or what they tell. Reid thought that this was a “gift of nature” (current cognitive scientists would call it maturationally early or innate), which only gets attenuated over time through experience. I will follow Harris’ attribution of these views to Hume and Reid for convenience’s sake, keeping in mind that their actual positions are more complex.
Harris found that children do not fall into either pattern. Pace the Humean account, he found that young children are readily inclined to believe extraordinary claims, such as that there are invisible organisms on your hands that can make you ill and that you need to wash off, and that there is a man who visits you each 24th December to bring presents and candy if you are nice (see e.g., Harris & Koenig, 2006, Child Development, 77, 505 – 524). But children are not blindly credulous either, as Reid supposed. In a series of experiments, Harris could show that even children of 24 months pay attention to the reliability of the testifier. When they see two people, one of which systematically misnames known objects (e.g., saying “that’s a bear”, while presenting a bottle), toddlers are less likely to trust later utterances by these unreliable speakers (when they name unfamiliar objects), and more likely to trust people who systematically gave objects their correct names (see e.g., Paul L. Harris and Kathleen H. Corriveau Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B 2011 366, 1179-1187.) Experiments by Mills and Keil show that 6-year-olds already take into account a testifier’s self-interest: they are more likely to believe someone who says he lost a race than someone who says he won it (Candice M. Mills and Frank C. Keil Psychological Science 2005 16: 385).
The reliability of witnesses is a crucial element when young children gauge testimony, not so much whether or not the information squares with their experience (the Humean account). In a way this makes sense, especially for children, who regularly learn new information that is not in line their prior experience and beliefs, and may sometimes even apparently conflict with it, e.g., the first-grade teacher telling children that the Earth moves around the Sun. ï¿¼ Children’s reliance on testimony is well described by Robert Audi’s notion of undefeated testimony, whereby we are justified to trust information if the following conditions are met
“Undefeated testimony: the kind that occurs in the absence of at least the following common and probably most characteristic defeaters: (1) internal inconsistency in what is affirmed, as where an attester gives conflicting dates for an event; (2) confused formulation, a kind that will puzzle the recipient and tend to produce doubt about whether the attester is rightly interpreted or even has a definite belief to communicate; (3) the appearance of prevarication, common where people appear to be lying, evading, or obfuscating; (4) conflict with apparent facts evident in the situation in which the testimony is given, as where a person shoveling earth over smoking coals says there has been no campfire; and (5) (discernible) conflict with what the recipient knows, justifiedly believes, or is justified in believing” (Audi, 2012, Testimony as a Social Foundation of Knowledge, PPR).
It seems to me that (5) does not present an insurmountable obstacle, as the heliocentrism example provided earlier illustrates. We learn many things that are in apparent conflict with what we justifiably believe, e.g., that solid objects are composed of particles and mostly empty space.
If this agent- rather than content-based notion is correct, is it ever rational to believe in the testimony of miraculous events? Hume did consider this possibility, but decided against it (from his section ‘Of miracles): “…there is not to be found, in all history, any miracle attested by a sufficient number of men, of such unquestioned good-sense, education, and learning, as to secure us against all delusion in themselves; of such undoubted integrity, as to place them beyond all suspicion of any design to deceive others; of such credit and reputation in the eyes of mankind, as to have a great deal to lose in case of their being detected in any falsehood.” This is quite a tall order for any form of testimony, a lot stronger than Audi’s criteria, and would preclude us gaining a lot of knowledge through testimony. It seems to me that under the agent-based notion, accepting testimony about miraculous events could be justified under some conditions.
Finally, a bit paradoxically, several New testament scholars such as Geza Vermes assume that the disciples believed Jesus rose from the dead, because the earliest witnesses cited in the gospels (not in Paul) are women, who were at that time and culture perceived as unreliable witnesses. In their revised version of the argument from miracles, McGrew and McGrew (2009, p. 608, Blackwell companion to natural theology) put it as follows:
“…it would plainly be better from the standpoint of enhancing the credibility of a contrived story to put a group of respectable males at the tomb and as the first to see the risen Christ than a group of women”.
In the gospels themselves (e.g., Luke) it is also made clear that these women were not believed. It is a bit ironical that new testament scholars and latter-day defenders of the argument from miracles take the historical perceived unreliability of witnesses as evidence for the reliability of the testimony.