Testimony. It's a common word in the law.
But until I read an essay in the New York Times book collection from their Stone Reader series, Question Everything, I wasn't aware that it had a philosophical meaning. The essay was about Deep Fakes where someone makes a convincingly real video of someone.
Contemporary philosophers rank different kinds of evidence according to their reliability. How much confidence, they ask, can we reasonably have in a belief when it is supported by such-and-such information?
We ordinarily tend to think that perception -- the evidence of your eyes and ears -- provides pretty good justification. If you see something with your own eyes, you should probably believe it. By comparison, the claims that other people make -- which philosophers call "testimony"-- provide some justification, but usually not quite as much as perception. Sometimes, of course, your senses can deceive you, but that's less likely than other people deceiving you.
...Now, with the emergence of deepfake technology, the ability to produce convincing fake video will be almost as widespread as the ability to lie. And once that happens, we ought to think of images as more like testimony than perception. In other words, you should only trust a recording if you would trust the word of the person producing it.
Of course, here we're talking about physical eyes and ears. The possibility (which I'd say is a near certainty) of being deceived by someone's testimony that they've seen or heard God, or another supernatural entity, obviously is much greater.
For at least a deepfake video can be observed by anyone with functional vision.
This isn't the case with the vast number of instances where someone claims either to have experienced a mysterious physical object -- Bigfoot, alien beings, the Loch Ness monster -- or a mysterious supernatural object: God, heaven, angels, divine light.
They may sound utterly convincing. Such is possible for several reasons.
Maybe they're a good liar. Maybe they actually believe they experienced the mysterious entity, though in truth they didn't. And there's a very small, yet non-zero, probability that they did experience a mysterious physical or supernatural entity which really does exist.
So unless we give up on the idea of separating supernatural fact from fiction, which I'm definitely not willing to do, what's our option when presented with someone's claim that, say, they've experienced God?
If everyone who supposedly experienced God made the same claim, things would be simpler. But there are countless (almost) descriptions of God, many or most of them contradictory. God is a person. God is impersonal. God has a form. God is formless. God is forgiving. God punishes the wicked. God abhors violence. God wants believers to kill unbelievers.
One approach that I like has support in science.
The Lie Lab has now come up with a new approach to lie detection in which people base their judgments on just one signal. A simple rule of thumb which focuses entirely on the level of detail in the story told by the 'liar.' It certainly takes a bit of getting used to.
"It feels very counterintuitive to just listen to what people are saying and not to pay attention to all kinds of other signals, such as how convincingly or emotionally someone conveys their story," explains Verschuere. "But people who tell the truth can give a rich description because they actually experienced the event, whereas although liars can come up with details, this increases their risk of being caught."
Of course, the Lie Lab approach is aimed at lies about things in this world, not a supposed supernatural world.
So that makes it more difficult to tell the difference between someone who truly believes they have experienced God or some other divine entity, and someone who is merely claiming this happened for a reason such as ego, money, fame, enjoyment fooling people.
Regardless, I like the emphasis on details.
Anyone who claims to have had a supernatural experience should be closely questioned about what, exactly, the experience consisted of. After all, this isn't like the experience of going to a Taylor Swift concert. If a Swift lover exaggerated what happened there, no big deal.
But a religious devotee who claims to have experienced God is making a monstrous claim, one which, if proven to be true, would upend both science and spirituality. They can't be allowed to get away with a fawning acceptance of their claim, notwithstanding the natural human tendency to believe that other people are telling the truth.
Instead, they should be asked questions like:
How do you know you experienced God?
What did God look like exactly?
If God spoke to you, what did God say?
Did you learn anything from God that wasn't already known to humans?
What did you do to experience God?
When I wrote my book about Plotinus, the Greek Neoplatonist philosopher, I included a quote from a scholar that deeply appealed to me then, and still does. Here's what I said in a 2004 blog post, "How to talk to a fundamentalist."
Fundamentalists, especially those of the Christian and Muslim faiths, have a bad habit of wanting to force other people to live in accord with their beliefs. Another bad habit is making dogmatic statements unsupported by objective facts, and then feeling offended when someone challenges their dogma. Bad habits like these should be discouraged, not encouraged.
A classics scholar, A.H. Armstrong, has some apt advice about how to talk to fundamentalists:
When claims to possess an exclusive revelation of God or to speak his word are made by human beings (and it is always human beings who make them), they must be examined particularly fiercely and hypercritically for the honor of God, to avoid the blasphemy and sacrilege of deifying a human opinion.
Or, to put it less ferociously, the Hellenic (and, as it seems to me, still proper) answer to “Thus saith the Lord” is “Does he?,” asked in a distinctly skeptical tone, followed by a courteous but drastic “testing to destruction” of the claims and credentials of the person or persons making this enormous statement.
So the next time someone says to me, “Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life,” I’ll reply: “Oh, really? How do you know? What makes you think that statement is true? I’m all ears, all highly skeptical ears.”