Should you believe what you hear?
Hazlett (Allan)
Source: Ward (Dave), Pritchard (Duncan), Massimi (Michela), Lavelle (Suilin), Chrisman (Matthew), Hazlett (Allan) & Richmond (Alasdair) - Introduction to Philosophy
Paper - Abstract

Paper StatisticsBooks / Papers Citing this PaperNotes Citing this PaperColour-ConventionsDisclaimer

Author’s Abstract

  1. Much of what we think about the world we believe on the basis of what other people say. But is this trust in other people's testimony justified? This week, we’ll investigate how this question was addressed by two great philosophers of the Scottish Enlightenment, David Hume (1711 - 1776) and Thomas Reid (1710 - 1796). Hume and Reid's dispute about testimony represents a clash between two worldviews that would continue to clash for centuries: a skeptical and often secular worldview, eager to question everything (represented by Hume), and conservative and often religious worldview, keen to defend common sense (represented by Reid).
  2. Author: Dr. Allan Hazlett received a PhD from Brown University in 2006, and taught in Texas and New York City before joining the University of Edinburgh in 2010. He has worked on the problem of skepticism and studied the way that people talk about knowledge, and more recently has written a book arguing that philosophers usually overestimate the value of truth.

  1. Introduction: Hume on Testimony and Miracles
  2. Reid’s challenge to Hume
  3. Reid’s argument
  4. Kant, the Enlightenment and intellectual autonomy
  5. The value of intellectual autonomy

  1. There’s a full transcript available (Link).
  2. Suggestions for further reading are confined to the on-line encyclopedia. The ones I’m least likely to ignore are:-
  3. There are also various historical references, which I’ve no intention of following up, interesting though they doubtless are:-
  4. This week was much more exciting – as far as the lectures went – than last week.
  5. Concerning Hume, and others, on miracles, I have:-
  6. Miracles were also covered at Heythrop; see:-
    • Click here for Note,
    • which, along with Earman’s book, is the source of most of the above references.


Correspondent 1
  1. We have now watched Week 5, and thought it was a great improvement on last week. I got 9.8/10 this week, due to a silly mistake, which I have no excuse for as it wasn’t late at night! That said, we still found the quiz quite hard in places, and particularly Q4, as I didn’t feel like ticking any of the boxes. So I ticked the one least likely to be wrong, and as it happened, that’s what they wanted.
  2. We found the discussion of what Hume argued, and what Reid argued, interesting. We thought most people would start off in the Reid camp when they are young, or immature, and progress to the Hume camp once they are older. We tend to be more trusting and believing when we are young, than when we are old, which is maybe why more people convert to Christianity in their teens, than when they are older?
  3. We had quite a lot of discussions in between each of the lectures. It brought up lots of interesting issues. Mike thought Hume’s definition of miracles wasn’t very good – he would rather define them as “Something that contravenes the laws of nature”, rather than “an exception to a previously exception-less regularity”, as some miracles actually take place a number of times, but they are still miracles. We discussed why we believe in miracles, but not all of them, and so on. We don’t believe in miracles today reported from Africa, and so on, whereas many Christians do. But we do believe in miracles recorded in the Bible, and it made us stop and analyse why. There are so many avenues to explore!
  4. We agreed with Reid that people are born naturally trusting, (fairly) truthful, and credulous, but that many learn not to be through experience of life. That said, we still rely on what other people say for the vast majority of what we believe, and I don’t think society would be able to function without this. Maybe this is why Reid thought we are hard-wired to be trusting of what other people say? (So that society can function reasonably well.) However, we didn’t think that we were hard-wired to be truthful. You only have to be around young children for a short while to realise this! Maybe this is because we are also born self-centred, and being truthful might sometimes get in the way of what we want? Of course, different children cope with this conflict of truthfulness v. self-centredness differently. So some people grow up to be a lot more honest than others – whether this is because some are more naturally truthful, whereas others are more naturally self-centred, I don’t know. In fact, when we discussed some of this, we just came to the conclusion once again that people are so complex and complicated it is very difficult to come to many hard and fast rules as to why they act as they do, why they believe what they do, and why they think what they think!
  5. Also we thought that maybe the more intelligent you are, the more you value intellectual autonomy? We like to collect evidence to substantiate what we believe, rather than accepting it on someone else’s say so. For example, do our own bible study rather than rely on what someone else says.

  1. Yes - agreed (re the test) - I was back to 10 / 10, but (like you) found it a bit tricky at times. It all depends what they want. I think the answer to Q4 was in the lecture. I found Q1 the most difficult, in that occasionally you hear of "the testimony of the senses" or of introspection. But I assumed that you were meant to go by what was said in the lectures, so avoided these pitfalls.
  2. I agree with Mike's definition of a miracle (and with whatever else you say unless I say otherwise) - though it's probably somewhat early in the history of science to be thinking of "Laws of Nature"; ie. unfair to criticise Hume on that score. He'd probably doubt that there are such things, or that we have good reason to think there are, given that he even doubted that we have good reason to think that causation1 is anything other than the "constant conjunction" of the (so-called) cause and its (so-called) effect.
  3. Hume's Essay on Miracles is worth reading. He gives an account of some miracle in France, wonderfully attested - but by lots of people (the Jesuits, etc.) that the Edinburgh Calvinists would gnash their teeth over. Unfortunately, I can't remember the details, and can't look up the essay, as all my books got shuffled in the move. People tend to be happy to believe in miracles supporting what they already believe, and won't believe, whatever the evidence, those that support beliefs they abhor.
    I was brought up to believe, from as early as I can remember, that lying was the most wicked thing you could do, and was beaten with a stick on being found out, so I only lied when not doing so would lead me to be beaten with a stick even worse for what I was trying to hide. So, I suspect it depends on your upbringing how truthful you disposed to be. Nowadays, beating children with sticks is one of the worst things you can do. How times change.
  4. I'm not sure just what it is that triggers the thought that you have to decide for yourself what's what. I suppose the issue of testimony does come into it - in that the more educated you become, the more diverse viewpoints - and contradictory testimonies - you come across - and they can't all be right. Some people take this too far and trust their own judgement on matters of which they are ignorant. Again, as with the testimony of miracles, the case arises when "the experts" converge on a viewpoint that's antithetical to what you firmly believe. Maybe no amount of evidence (maybe falsely so-called) will be sufficient to budge you in that case.

Correspondent 2
  1. Week 5 was very interesting in that it placed the quasi-atheist Hume against the monotheist Reid as to how we should believe other peoples testimonies. Reid as a Christian would have to argue for intellectual solidarity because his belief in Christ relies solely upon the testimony of the Gospels. I know you have previously said to me that the historical Christ is a proven fact, proven by the writings of Pliny the Elder, Tacitus, Suetonius, and Josephus but as none of these men were born (or was just a child as in the case of Pliny) at the time Christ died their testimonies must obviously rely on the testimonies of others.
  2. Hume being a (perhaps) non-believer could argue from his own intellectual autonomy point of view.

  1. Yes - I enjoyed week 5 as well, having long been impressed by Hume's argument against miracles.
  2. It was interesting to hear the case for and against intellectual autonomy. I've lived in a social group (even when a Christian) where taking nothing on anyone's say-so was so obviously a virtue, and a cornerstone of intellectual life, that it hardly needed to be argued. But it does have its downsides - in particular the conspiracy theorists, and the hatred of experts. Like Hume, I'd apply two principles - firstly, how well qualified in the domain in question are the people whose testimony you are accepting or rejecting (especially in comparison with your own) and secondly, how unusual or unlikely is what they are asking you to believe. Most of the time we have to rely on testimony, and it's too much of a fatigue checking everything out, which is why general truth-telling is so important. But you have to be on the lookout for weasels. I recognise Reid's arguments from Catholic school and doctrine generally, with its insistence on tradition and the magisterium. Maybe there's some comfort in all this, but we need to grow up and throw away the comfort blanket.
  3. I wasn't arguing that the reported acts - in particular the resurrection - of Jesus of Nazareth were facts, only his existence; in that we've as much reason to believe in his existence (with something like the personality reported in the Gospels) as most other characters in antiquity.
  4. I had the impression that Hume was an atheist.
… The discussion continued, but is not recorded here, as somewhat off topic.

Text Colour Conventions (see disclaimer)

  1. Blue: Text by me; © Theo Todman, 2019
  2. Mauve: Text by correspondent(s) or other author(s); © the author(s)

© Theo Todman, June 2007 - Feb 2019. Please address any comments on this page to File output:
Website Maintenance Dashboard
Return to Top of this Page Return to Theo Todman's Philosophy Page Return to Theo Todman's Home Page