Thursday, May 25, 2006

Principle of Credulity

I read with interest this paper on children's acceptance of testimony (PDF). Chris discusses it briefly at "Mixing Memory." The Scottish common sense philosophers -- Campbell, Reid, Beattie -- would have room to feel at least partially vindicated; they discussed such matters under what they called 'the principle of credulity'. (Hume in a sense discusses it as well; but whereas Hume discusses it simply with regard to prejudices and irrationality in reason, the common sense philosophers discussed it as something that tends to be good, if its results are refined over time by active reasoning, since it plays an integral role in the way we learn.) Part of their point was that a conservative stance of skepticism toward testimony (to use Harris & Koenig's phrase) is neither feasible nor, taken globally, defensible, because it ends up being detrimental to reason: it requires us to be skeptical of so much of what we actually accept and of what we have already learned since our early childhood, because a lot of what we take for granted is learned simply by accepting testimony. That is, the skeptical stance toward testimony is rationally regressive. The rationally progressive approach to testimony is to make extensive use of it, subject (of course) to the supervision of reason. This conclusion, of course, depends on their view of how testimony functions in our cognitive development and rational life; that we all have used it extensively and credulously (hence the phrase, principle of credulity) in learning how the world works (although, of course, it is and has always been subject to revision), that it is necessary for rational development, and that it is an important part of who we are as social creatures.

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