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  • Writer's pictureboryeon choi

Will our hypothesis die in our stead?: thoughts on 3 states of testimony

[Fig.1] Counterfactual convertibility of the past generated from the tacit state of testimony

Have you ever heard phrases like ‘we will never go back to yesterday’? It's one of the favorite slogans of people who want to make the world a better place. You might have said it by yourself. This slogan, which regards yesterday as something old and something to be overcome, and as if there exists a future to be pursued, is based on the evolutionary theory of history, the arrow of time, and the perspective of irreversibility. However, the problem is that yesterday is not something that can be dumped away like an old shoe, especially for those who have no choice but to continue living yesterday for some reason. There are people who live quasi-today, which is no different from yesterday. They are the people who testified about certain situations in the past but were ignored, instead of being the subject of active debate. The reasons for such disregard are as varied as the number of testimonies. Many of my memories have also entered the stage of oblivion, so I can recall only a few of them:

  1. Any case in which the testimony is unlikely to be a lie. It is in contrast to the fact that the clearest perjury becomes the subject of an immediate and active debate despite (or by reason of) its sloppiness.

  2. While giving testimony, accidentally(or on purpose) there was a noise louder than the voice of the testifier.

  3. When the testifier is too young or otherwise mentally ill.

  4. When the absurdity described in the testimonies is functioning as implicit rationality within the system.

  5. The testified state of affairs is inconceivable, or there exists a reluctance about imagining it.

Hereby we can now even say that only testimonies that are interesting enough are luckily exposed to the subject of argument. This is quite weird considering that testimony is usually understood as a veridical act of truth. We usually believe we can increase the amount of social V-value(Veritistic Value) through the act of testimony, à la Alvin Goldman. But in most cases, testimony that is approved in common sense leads to a revision of the boundary of common sense, and that's all. Unlike judicial judgment, the estimation of common sense cannot be petitioned for, because common sense is the result of intersubjective rationality, not objective rationality. Changing common sense, which inevitably becomes deeply involved in the non-cognitive desires of the perceiver and the air of the scene where knowledge circulates, is in a sense much harder than changing the ruling.

When I say common sense, it stands for a broader sense of how the belief system works in a collective way. Figure 1 shows the structure by which changes in common sense (i.e. shifts in intersubjective points of agreement) challenge the judicial approval/disapproval taken of a testimony. This diagram shows two main ways that a system of collective beliefs called common sense can take to counteract the evidentialist approach of judging the authenticity of testimony through the presence or absence of explicit evidence. The first is based on the ‘probability’ or ‘likelihood’ of the event, and the second is based on the presence or absence of normative or psychological defeaters.

The defeater, which demands rationally formed doubt and a skeptical capacity, plays a role similar to what 'falsification' does in scientific hypothesis. Falsificationism says that no matter how convincing a hypothesis may be, it can be true only until today, and nothing is permanent.* The pursuit of objective knowledge as a survival strategy to avoid being killed by an error is possible only through falsifying the previous wrong hypothesis. Only when we kill hypotheses that could have killed us, we can contemplatively simulate the possibility of us being killed in the counterfactual world of not killing it. However, if the falsification is guided by objective observation and correct theory, the defeater is based on subjective judgment(i.e. the sincerity of the locutionary act that has been exhibited by the testifier), or at best normative judgment(i.e. epistemological virtues that we expect for a sane mind to have them) we have about the testifier.

Let's consider one plain example. Bill wouldn't doubt Jill's words, even if they weren't believable (i.e., in spite of some circumstances in which it might be inferred that her testimony that she saw an orca whale was false) because he's in love with her.** Awareness of the ‘circumstances’ here means having a so-called normative defeater. Since Bill believes in whatever Jill says, he doesn't have a psychological defeater either. This ignorance of dubious circumstances, and the 'compulsive trusting' in the name of love, make Bill's belief 'epistemologically unjustified'. Of course, Jill could have been telling the truth. In this case, a defeater-defeater is established.. and so on. In this sense, defeater is a concept that can express the dynamicity of the testimonial state, especially the tacit state of testimony, which can never be known whether it is true or false. But we voluntarily endure biased beliefs from our birth to death under the name of love and leave the acquisition of truth to a mere chance or luck. Thus, I consider this situation an existential form of what I have called 'systematic irrationality' elsewhere, rather than tragic.

Meanwhile, it has been said that the non-reductionist view that accepts the mere absence of a defeater as a sufficient condition for epistemic justification, instead of obliging listeners to have a positive reason, eventually leads to irrational beliefs. For example, beliefs about ‘things that are inconceivable or reluctant to imagine’ often emerge as a cause of ‘gullibility’ originating from testimonial beliefs. As a solution to this, we can ask listeners for a rational and empirical agency of listening.*** Well, after all this means that the listener's hearing shouldn't be strangely altered by some kind of surgical operation. However, this article is more interested in listening to testimonies in a situation where such safety conditions cannot be guaranteed. The moment when the testimony puts the listener in double danger is when it went through what I have called the tacit state of the testimony and has returned to the present.

Why does the tacit state of testimony matter? The epistemology of testimony tends to deal mainly with the 'explicit state' of testimony. That is, we are interested in the problem of distinguishing whether the testimony in question is true or false. This is the same either for one who does not admit the probabilistic approach toward truth like Karl Popper does or contrarily, tries to quantify the degree of belief as in the Bayesian approach. But as said earlier, there exist far more testimonies simply being ignored than those that are explicitly accepted or denied. Consider what Muriel Rukeyser wrote, “What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life? The world would split open." (I often like to imagine the 'world' in this famous phrase as a society of people whose sonic capacity has been forcibly modified to the extent that they hear things that were not audible before.)

As the word itself shows, the boundary between the implicit and tacit states is unclear. It becomes especially unclear when a witness who has not forgotten the content of the testimony gives up on re-testify at t2'. The diagram above expresses the transition between the 3 states of testimony by proposing t1 and t2 as the explicit time axis, and t1' and t2' as the implicit one. These two axes are distinguished by the existence of the revision of the judicial or common sense that had occurred after the outbreak of the testimony. If t2 is the time that has gone through any kind of explicit reaction derived from the act of testimony, then t2' is the time that has just simply passed. In the sense that the act of utterance did not entail any change, the coming time of the disregarded testimony, t2', still is the past, i.e. yesterday in the guise of today.

However, when the tacit testimony is extrapolated to t2 in the form of the 'possibility of a history that could have been different' through the process of oblivion, restoration, conjecture, and manipulation, the testimony enables a counterfactual switch of the classically described version of past, t1. This means even if a testimony that seems to be forgotten, it can emerge again on the surface of individual or social consciousness through a specific occasion. This is where the problem of delayed perceptions or forgotten evidence is triggered, and as a result, a version of history based on facts begins to be agitated. Although philosophers do mad brain surgeries to make this happen, it doesn't seem so unusual for us to remind of something that had long been forgotten. Since there is no justified part in the heuristic induction(so-called common sense) of cognition that operates globally, it is rather that alien abduction that becomes more causal.

Thought experiments that posit extraterrestrial beings as a source of unreliable beliefs—either believing in their existence, or in what they say—presuppose a neurotypical and ableist view of cognitive agency. In their view, those with cognitive deficits are as unreliable as extraterrestrials. Likewise, testimonies that have fallen into a dirty swamp of oblivion and then returned are easily pointed to as sources of conspiracy theories or falsely accused of being no different from fiction. However, isn't the only goal that the re-testify has, which had been carried out without expectation of a different world, to increase the V-value in the world? The most problematic belief begins with the return of disregarded testimony that neither common sense nor the law dared to approve or disapprove.

Therefore, I draw some conclusions as follows.

  1. The nature of the epistemological crisis triggered by the testimony is better demonstrated when the testimony is ignored (the implicit state) than when it is acknowledged or disproved (the explicit state).

  2. Attempts to establish the listener's positive reason (i.e., belief with objectivity) as the basis for knowledge is no longer valid.

  3. The new non-reductionism of testimony must take into account the problem of cognitive spectra which has equally unreliable cognitive abilities like an alien being that is a source of unreliable belief.


* Karl R. Popper(1972). Objective Knowledge: An Evolutionary Approach. Oxford University Press

** Jeniffer Lackey(2008). Learning from Words: Testimony as a Source of Knowledge. Oxford University Press. p. 67

*** Jennifer Lackey(2006). “It Takes Two to Tango: Beyond Reductionism and Non-Reductionism in the Epistemology of Testimony” In. The Epistemology of Testimony. Oxford University Press. pp.160~189


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