Trust, Paranoia, and Giving our Word

Josh Petersen is a 2019 graduate of Stanford University. He holds a BA in German Studies and Philosophy with Honors, and was the 2019 recipient of Stanford’s Suppes Prize for Excellence in Philosophy. 

Imagine you’re driving when, all of a sudden, you realize your car is running on empty. You need to get to a gas station, but you don’t know where you are. Worse, you realize your cellphone is dead. Luckily you see a hiker walking down the road. You get out of your car and ask the way to the nearest gas station. She’s a local, so she rattles off the directions from memory. You hop back in the car, and a few minutes later, you’ve found the gas station. Unremarkable, right? On the contrary, I find this everyday occurrence worthy of interrogation, and after a bit of reflection, I think it can tell us something about trust, bitterness, and how humans come together to uncover the world.

 Think about this: what reason did you have for trusting that hiker? For all you knew, she was misremembering or even lying. Given the high stakes of your situation, shouldn’t you have corroborated what she told you? While it’s not clear you had good reason to trust her, you also don’t seem unreasonable for doing so. Thus, it seems we have a little epistemological puzzle on our hands. Before we get much further, though, I’ll introduce some terminology. Let ‘testimony’ refer to the intentional transmission of information from a speaker to a listener through verbal means. We usually denote testimony with the verb ‘to tell’ — “she told me lunch was served at noon” or “the waiter tells me the soup was vegetarian.” Through telling, a speaker invites a listener to share in her beliefs about, e.g. the time of the meeting or the ingredients in soup. 

Testimony is central to knowledge. Consider your age. How do you know how old you are? Presumably, you don’t remember being born, nor can you time-travel and verify your birth date. Rather, you know your age because someone told you so — and this is true for a great many beliefs. We go around the world believing simply based on what others tell us. One might not find this odd, saying: “testimony is just verbal evidence!” Even if this is true, testimony is not standard evidence: thunder cannot lie about lightning, nor can smoke misrepresent fire (Grice 1957). Pieces of testimony, however, have no reliable causal relationship to what they purport to be about. The intentional nature of testimony — that speakers can freely form the sentences they report — allows speech to misrepresent the world in ways standard evidence cannot. Put less technically, it’s easy for people to lie or to be mistaken when they tell you things — and that might worry us.

So, why do we rely so frequently on testimony? Are we just irrational? I (and most philosophers) think not. To see this, let’s move through an analogous case, that of promising (presented by Moran 2005 and 2018).

Promises are special things, what J.L. Austin called “speech-acts,” or actions produced only using words (Austin, 1962). If I promised my roommate that I’ll clean the kitchen, I’m not merely making sounds. In speaking, I create an obligation for myself — and with any obligation comes accountability. If I fail to make good on my promise, my roommate can scold me or ask me do more chores the following week. These consequences are a part of promising, and they allow others to trust we will ultimately make good on what we promise to do. 

Promises shed light on the functioning of testimony. If someone tells me “the meeting is at noon” but the meeting is before noon, then I can hold them to account for this. When I miss the meeting, I can find the speaker and say “you were wrong, and it made my life difficult!” Imagine the speaker pushed back, saying “I only told you it was at noon, I didn’t promise you that.” What a strange comeback that would be! This is precisely because a telling incurs a similar kind of responsibility that promising does: when telling, a speaker “promises” that what they are saying is true. The clearest case of this is of witnesses in criminal trials, but the phenomenon holds more generally. We can trust testimony-givers because, through telling, they have opted to incur the obligation to tell the truth. If they fail to do so, we possess accountability-mechanisms to rebuke them. Testimony, then, creates a kind of “contract of truth,” in turn, allowing us to trust the words of strangers (Moran 2005). Of course, we needn’t believe everyone. Again, consider promises. If a sketchy wheeler-dealer asked to borrow my bike, promising to return it, I might reject this promise.  Likewise, if someone tells me something, but is darting their eyes and sweating, I might choose to instead think they are lying and subsequently reject their testimony. 

I’ve glossed over much of the philosophical nuance here, but I still think we can glean some important take-aways from this view of testimony and trust. To summarize, testimony is a central aspect to our identities as knowers. Even though testimony is not like standard evidence, we are licensed to use testimony as justification thanks to the dual concepts of ‘trust’ and ‘accountability’. When someone freely chooses to give testimony, she is performing a commissive (obligation-producing) speech-act, taking responsibility for the truth of her statements, much like a promiser takes responsibility for the completion of an action. Yet, we don’t have to believe everything told to us. In fact, it will often be crucial that we ignore the testimony of liars and the ill-informed. 

The upshot of this view, then, is this: one of our primary “jobs” as knowers is to walk the line between gullibility and paranoia (Fricker 1994). If we believe everything we are told, we are gullible, taking on beliefs that likely conflict, are insensitive to other evidence, or are clearly false. If we don’t take the word of others, we become paranoid — we are unable to believe and act appropriately merely because of our conspiratorial attitudes. Thus, the epistemically virtuous person will be she who is trusting without being gullible, prudent without being paranoid. This is no easy task.

And it’s only becoming more difficult. I’d like to close this reflection by opening up the discussion a little. I think this picture of testimony-giving has extremely important ramifications for how we think of our social fabric, i.e. the communities that we inhabit. In the last few years, we’ve become extremely aware of the problem of misinformation, or “Fake News.” But, I think people have misdiagnosed what’s so bad about Fake News. Helpfully, this picture of testimony starts to illuminate this misdiagnosis in interesting ways. You might think that Fake News is problematic merely because it disseminates false information, merely because people are getting conflicting reports about the truth of a particular statement — and I’m not saying this isn’t a problem. But, I think there is a more nefarious problem afoot relating to gullibility and paranoia.

The account of trust that I’ve sketched is a generous one. In order to form the beliefs we really need in life, I’ve suggested, we need an account of testimony that allows us to take strangers at their word unless we have good reasons not to. When we are inundated constantly by misinformation, however, we do not believe as easily as we once did— doubt becomes the default. Misinformation forces us to move away from trustingness and pushes us toward paranoia — and this, I think, is the true problem of Fake News: we have become a society of paranoiacs, always demanding more sources, more corroborating evidence, never taking people at their word. We fail to trust victims, those who suffer, those whose views differ from our own. When doubt becomes default, we begin to believe “only I can uncover the truth.” 

This is a harmful mindset, leading our communities of knowers to become heremetical, fractured, and exclusive (Fricker 2007). But, this harms us in a more fundamental way, too. Testimony is a miraculous thing — it is a meeting of the minds, wherein a speaker generously offers a belief to a listener, and a listener graciously accepts that belief. In some sense, giving testimony, when done right, is like giving a gift. When we become paranoid, however, we reject these gifts. Paranoia starts to eat away at the social fabric, leaving us in ever-smaller circles of trust. And I worry that as misinformation continues to take hold, these circles will eventually become paranoid circles of one, and what a lonely world that will be. Testimony, I think, defines in part what it means to be human — to cooperatively and socially understand the difficult and massive world around us. When we lose that ability, we also lose a part of what makes us human, what makes us social creatures. While navigating gullibility and paranoia is difficult, I think we must try and trade bitterness for trust — and in doing so, reconnect with one of our most fundamental capabilities: the invitation to share in the truth through nothing but words. 

For further introduction to the philosophical problems of testimony, see The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s entry on the “Epistemological Problems of Testimony” by Jonathan Adler.

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Austin, JL (1962) How to Do Things with Words, Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Fricker, Elizabeth (1994) “Against Gullibility” in Chakrabarti and Matilal (eds.) Knowing from Words, Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers.

Fricker, Miranda (2007) Epistemic Injustice, Oxford: Oxford University Press. 

Grice, Paul (1957) “Meaning,” The Philosophical Review 66: 377-388.

Moran, Richard (2005) “Getting Told and Being Believed,” The Philosophers Imprint 5: 1-29. URL = <;idno=3521354.0005.005;format=pdf>.

Moran, Richard (2018) The Exchange of Words, Oxford: Oxford University Press. 

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