Evidentialism, Testimony & Inferior Witnesses

This post by Steve, formally at Triablogue, resurfaced recently. I’ll interact with three excerpts that were in the spirit of Steve’s eclectic approach to apologetics, which included at least mild affinity to Evidentialism.

One thing that’s often lost sight of in debates over the Bible is that testimony is prima facie evidential in its own right unless we have reason to doubt it. You don’t need corroborative evidence before testimony can have evidential value.

It is true that one needn’t always have direct corroborating evidence in order to be justified in believing the testimony of a witness. For instance, if a man claims he saw three children board a yellow bus at 8:00 am on a Monday morning in October, I’d be perfectly justified in believing the witness without any direct evidence regarding his trustworthiness. That’s because, as a general rule, people don’t typically lie about common occurrences. So, although I might not know anything about the witness (directly), I do know something about what is normative, and it’s that which indirectly informs me of whether I may rationally believe a stranger’s testimony. The normativity in view pertains not merely to occurrences (school buses picking up children), but also about human nature as it relates to the reliability of innocuous claims.

To take things one step further, it would be irrational to disregard evidential value in such cases. It’s not merely that I shouldn’t disbelieve and try to remain agnostic about such claims. Rather, I should positively believe those sorts of claims. (I’m not giving a nod toward doxastic voluntarism.)

So, there is indirect evidence that pertains not to what is directly perceived about witnesses but rather to what is normative, which in turn informs us (along with other presuppositions) of whether a testimony is credible. That should become more plain once we consider an extraordinary claim.

Unless we have evidence that the witness is a chronic liar, or unless we have evidence that the witness was motivated to lie in this particular case, it’s irrational to discount testimonial evidence.

Really? Let’s continue with our first witness example. If the witness later claimed that the bus turned into a magic dragon and transported the children to a school made of clouds in the sky as they sang a familiar song by a less familiar trio, would it be “irrational to discount [that] testimonial evidence”? In other words, need I have “evidence that the witness is a chronic liar, or…was motivated to lie” in order to reject such testimony for its incredibility? Of course not. I have indirect evidence as it relates to life experiences. I have a worldview that filters out bogus testimony.

Peter, Paul and Mary sing Puff.

In that misogynistic culture, women were regarded as second-rate eyewitnesses. If the Gospels are pious fiction, why would the narrators invent inferior witnesses rather than more culturally credible witnesses?

That argument gets a bit of traction around Easter. One rejoinder is the narrators weren’t clever enough to recognize that they were inventing inferior witnesses. Another is that the narrators were extremely clever and did recognize that they were inventing inferior witnesses! After calculating the risk of using seemingly inferior witnesses, the narrators concluded that there is significant persuasive force in using such witnesses. The logic being that since inferior witnesses would not likely be invented intentionally, people would naturally conclude the witnesses were not invented and, therefore, are all the more credible. (I’m sure I must have seen such a tactic on a Columbo episode.)

In closing

Claims about flying school buses and raising the dead will always be sifted through one’s network of presuppositions (i.e. one’s worldview).

Our confidence in the Resurrection is not based in part upon directly knowing the eye-witnesses were not liars or there being no reason to doubt their testimony. Nor is it based in part upon a notion that makes inferior witnesses superior witnesses. Our confidence is tied to presuppositions that pertain to what we deem authoritative and possible, which in the case of Scripture relates to being awakened by grace to certain things we know by nature yet otherwise would continue to suppress in unrighteousness. Read on…

When well-meaning Christians remove the extraordinary claim of the resurrection from its soteriological context, the evidence for the resurrection is anything but credible. Yet, the resurrection is perfectly sensible within the context of things we know by nature and are awakened to by the Holy Spirit working in conjunction with Scripture. Namely, God’s wrath abides upon all men and God is merciful and loving. In the context of man’s plight and God’s character, the preaching of the death, burial and resurrection of Christ can be apprehended as not just credible, but the very wisdom of God. Our full persuasion of the resurrection unto knowledge of the truth is gospel-centric. The good news of John 3:16 is reasonable only in the context of the bad news of Romans 1:18-20 and Romans 3:10-20. The former presupposes the latter.

Lastly, the usefulness of evidence is a matter of inductive inference. As isolated observations and testimonies are synthesized, we arrive at general principles. Since inferences consist of making generalizations based upon specific observations, the principle of induction isn’t terribly useful in trying to draw rational inferences about the miraculous. In other words, induction presupposes uniformity but at the heart of the Resurrection is suspended uniformity.

Of course, there is an apologetic that is aimed to unearth the preconditions for the possibility of induction, but that’s not the point of this blog entry. 😉