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Philosophy Week five – Testimony


This weeks question is

Should you believe what you hear?

Intellectual autonomy

The most important philosopher f the Scottish Enlightenment was David Hume.  He studied humans as others studied the rest of nature. He concluded that you should never believe an exceptional event on the basis of what other people  say or write.

Three Minute Philosophy – David Hume – CollegeBinary

(Some bad language)

Hume said that you should only believe people if they are likely to be right. This is similar to Sam Harris’s view in the TED video when he says that if he told people that string theory was rubbish he would not be credible because he isn’t a physicist.

A wise man… proportions his belief to the evidence.

For him a miracle was an event that is an exception, something that has never happened before.  So you should always ask the question “What’s more likely?”

His assumption that you should only believe people if you have evidence that people are right was criticised particularly by Thomas Reid.

Thomas Reid’s theory of common sense

Reid believed that trusting other people was similar to trusting your senses.  We don’t only trust our senses when they are likely to be right or when they have been proved to be right. Children trust things that adults tell them even though they have no experience to show that the adults are credible. This he felt showed that belief in a person is a natural human condition. Reid called this the principle of credulity and defined it as

a disposition to confide in the veracity of others and to believe what they tell us.

He also believed that people had a propensity to tell the truth so that just as we are naturally trusting we are naturally truthful.

So Hume and Reid both believed that we naturally trust our senses.  Reid thought we naturally trust other people but Hume thought we had to get evidence first. If Hume were right then children wouldn’t believe anything because they would have no evidence.   It looks as though Hume thinks that children shouldn’t believe anything unless they have their own evidence.

Hume thought people lied a lot to gain advantage and Reid thought that people were naturally honest.

What is Enlightenment?

Historians use this word to describe a period in European History. 

The dictionary describes it as follows



  1. The action of enlightening or the state of being enlightened.
  2. The attainment of spiritual knowledge or insight, esp. (in Buddhism) that which frees a person from the cycle of rebirth.

A German Philosopher Immanuel Kant wrote an essay on it. In answer to the question “What is Enlightenment” Kant wrote

Enlightenment is man’s emergence from his self-incurred immaturity. Immaturity is the inability to use one’s ow understanding without the guidance of another…….The motto of the enlightenment is therefore  Sapiere aude! Have courage to use your own understanding.

Sapiere aude – translates from the Latin as “Dare to be wise”.  He believed that we should all think for ourselves and not be blindly guided  by others. This virtue has been called “intellectual autonomy”

Kant’s belief is closer to that of Hume. They both believe that we should not blindly believe what other people say. However Hume believed that no testimony be be used as a basis of knowledge whereas Kant  acknowledged that testimony couldn’t be totally excluded.  He said that such ‘incredulity’ would be a form of ‘logical egotism’.

What interested me most about Kant as I was researching was his views on morality. He certainly felt that testimony should not be used as a basis to adopt moral principles. He strongly believed in intellectual autonomy on this point  His views on morality are strongly stated.

His idea of the “universalizability test” had five steps. You can see them on the wikipedia page. The basic premise is something like this – don’t do anything that you don’t think everyone else should do.

For example if you think it is OK to lie for self gain then you must accept that it is OK for everyone in the world to lie for self gain. If you think that it’s OK for everyone to do it then go ahead. You first need to imagine the consequences of that action if everyone does it.


I am one of those people who believes everyone. I am the sucker who will send you money because you are stuck in a foreign country with no way to get home and please would I send the price of the ticket. I believe and trust everyone until I am proved wrong. So I guess that I am Reid’s ideal. However I know the world isn’t like that. I know that people do lie for lots of reasons. As I have grown older I have grown more sceptical , not sceptical enough according to my husband.

Reid tells us what people do and Hume and Kant tell us what we should do to a greater or lesser extent. The message is clear. Don’t believe everything that you hear or read.  Watch out for the tricksters.

Philosopher-comedian Emily Levine talks (hilariously) about science, math, society and the way everything connects. She’s a brilliant trickster, poking holes in our fixed ideas and bringing hidden truths to light. Settle in and let her ping your brain.

Can I believe my own eyes? Maybe not.

The amazing Dave Cremin performs an impossible card trick in Times Square.

I am not going to become the greatest sceptic overnight but I believe I should question more than I do. As to what is the natural order of man I think and I hope we are naturally truthful and trusting.



  1. […] Philosophy Week five – Testimony (louisecharente.wordpress.com) […]

  2. gbl55 says:

    Greatly enjoyed! The Emily Levine video is hilarious. (Couldn’t find the bad language in the Hume one though – maybe relativism applies!) I’m the opposite of you – I question too much and tend to be far too cynical. (Was called a “Mean Scotsman” by one of these ‘ex-prisoners’ who call touting cheap stuff from a suitcase!) This week’s material was really interesting though I find it difficult to separate out philosophical content per se from what seems to lie more naturally in the realms of psychology or in this case, history. Gordon

    • Louise Taylor says:

      Thank you Gordon. I found that video wonderful as well. It made me want to watch more of her as I had never heard of her as a comedian before.
      I think this week has been interesting. I am not sure where the boundaries are between philosophy and psychology. It does seem though that the same points about governments and society have been made for hundreds of years and that nothing has changed.

  3. […] To be fair, the same could also be said of some of Hume’s beliefs judging from a video on Louise Taylor’s excellent blog. I’m beginning to think that all philosophers tend to push the boundaries of common sense a […]

  4. angela says:

    Enjoyed your post very much — it reminds me that I started last weeks quiz and never finished! As for being a skeptic, meh, I generally believe nothing, ergo, I find it all quite interesting. Hmmm…perhaps I should ask you to fund my Coursera edu – you see, it costs lots of money which I do not have… cheers ~ a

    • Louise Taylor says:

      Thank you. I am glad you like it. I am beginning to doubt everything with this course. There was a new spate of emails recently which replaced the rich Africans wanting to give money away. These came from a friends email address and said they were stranded in a foreign country. I know they are fake as all my friends can spell and have a fairly good grasp of sentence construction. The first time I received on thought I really thought my friend was stranded and had just lost her marbles.

  5. VanessaVaile says:

    For some reason the example of children believing adults reminds me of a recent science article about Capuchin monkeys not taking treats people they had seen be mean and unhelpful. Of course, they probably read body language better than people. Reid might have been onto something without knowing what.

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