Discuss social epistemology and especially the problems of testimony, trust, and justice.
Do you think that religious beliefs constitute a special case of epistemic trust since we have to rely completely on the beliefs and claims of an entire tradition?

Subject: Epistemology
Professor: Fr. Terry Walsh, S.J.

Fx. Lê Văn Tuệ, S.J.
Email: [email protected]

I would like to discuss that question in three parts, such as: social epistemology; the problem of testimony, trust, justice; and the lastly it should be religious beliefs.

1. Social Epistemology

Social epistemology is defined as the conceptual and normative study of the social detentions of knowledge. It builds upon individual epistemology and it studies the bearing of social relations, interests, roles and institutions. The central question of social epistemology is whether, and to what extent, the conditions of knowledge include social conditions. Does it involve a relation between knowers and their social circumstances?”[1]. All knowers are situated: situated in time, space and gender. Thus, social epistemology is an enterprise concerned with how people can best at pursuing the truth with the help of, or in the face of, others. It is also concerned with truth acquisition by groups or collective agents.

I think that social epistemology is very important that helps us very much, especially in a world that has some problem like unjust and abuse. In fact, we get the concept of knowledge and standards of epistemic evaluation from others. Thus, epistemic evaluation is able to improve cognition in the way it does only because it operates through a social system of approbation and sanction[2]. However, for me, sometimes social epistemology is terrible when it based on unjust and immoral, unfree. So that it is nescessary to use the social epistemology as a special way to develop the dignity of human being.

Sure enough, the social epistemology is prepared to advance proposals quite continuous with traditional epistemology. We can see clearly that social factors inevitably affect, pose threats to, the finding and attainment of truth. Thus, social epistemology can be seen as a good way to express the truths. However, sometimes it can get some inhumanity or political purposes as the same things that the communist party of China is controlling. In order to get more to understand social epistemology, we should move on to discuss the problems of testimony, truth and justice.

2. The Problem of Testimony, Trust and Justice


Both practically and intellectually, the testimony of others is importance. It is a social mechanism that conveys beliefs across lives at a time. We can say that testimony is a pervasive and natural source of beliefs. Many of these beliefs are justified or constitute knowledge.

By looking deeper into our life, we are very easily to see that the most testimony is uncheckable by perceptual means, if only through lack of time and resources. It is evident that, in the matter of testimony, the balance of human judgment is by nature inclined to the side of belief; and turns to that side of itself, when there nothing put into the opposite scale[3].

In fact, other testimony sometimes leads us to reject some piece of testimony without personal observation entering into the matter. Consider, for instance, Hume’s very example of the man noted for delirium or falsehood or villainy. Moreover, testimony sometimes leads us to reject some piece of observation. There are many different sorts of cases here. As according to Hume’s thought, since testimony sometimes leads us to abandon on observation then we rely upon observation in general only because we have established its reliability on the basis of testimony[4].

In my opinion, the testimony can help us to earn valuable beliefs. However, we can’t only trust in testimony when our experiences have shown it to be unreliable, such as our own experience, on which individual observations and the expectation are based. That seems false. We can accept the testimony as the primary mode of justification but it is not identical. We can trust in testimony where it means common experience (however, sometimes it makes a gap between testimonial authority and autonomy). Surely, testimonial based beliefs are source dependent though not necessarily premise dependent. Furthermore, as a source of knowledge and justification, testimony depends both epistemically and psychologically on other sources[5]. In other words, testimony is accidental not essential.


Some people said that truth as the goal of inquiry. One truth about epistemic communities is that relationships matter. In fact, the ancient idea that truth is some sort of “correspondence with reality” has still never been articulated satisfactorily: the nature of the alleged “correspondence” and the alleged ‘reality’ remain objectionably. Yet the familiar alternative suggestion that true beliefs are those that are mutually coherent, or pragmatically useful – have each been confronted with persuasive counterexamples. In 20th century departure from these traditional analyses is the view that truth is not a property at all – that the syntactic form of the predicate, ‘is true’, distorts its real sematic character, which is not to describe propositions but to endorse them[6]. According to reductionists, they want to defined truth as the practice of keeping the conversation going; or for M. Foucault, the search for knowledge and truth is driven by desire for power and social domination.

However, these approaches are also faced with difficulties and suggests, somewhat counterintuitively, that truth can’t have the vital theoretical role in semantics, epistemology and elsewhere that we are naturally inclined to give it. Thus, truth threatens to remain one of the most enigmatic of notions: an explicit account of it can appear to be essential yet beyond our reach[7]. It seems that truth is not a construct out of evidence, even excellent evidence that produces a coherent body of beliefs. The nature of truth is intimately bound up with problems as to the accessibility and autonomy of facts in various domains: the problems about whether the facts can be known, and whether they can exist independently of our capacity to discover them. Thus, it seems that truth is deprived of any such epistemological implications[8].

In my view, the attempt to base epistemological conclusions on a theory of truth must fail because in any such attempt the equivalence schema will be simultaneously relied on and undetermined. We will never know the truth if we only rely on our senses.


Justice in one sense is identical with the ethics of who should receive benefits and burdens, good or bad things of many sorts, give that others might receive these things. Although discourse about justice is often influenced by models of law, the ethics of justice is a subject in itself[9]. From Aristotle onward, philosophers have sometimes taken interest about it. In modern philosophy, one of American political philosophers in the liberal traditions, John Rawls, is very influential. For J. Rawls, justice as fairness describes a society of free citizens holding equal basic rights and cooperating within an egalitarian economic system[10]. In A Theory of Justice, he wants to conclusion is that principles of justice are justified. The principles of justice which set out the rights of citizens will not depend on some particular conception of the good that held by any institutions or philosophical and even divine revelation.

It seems to me that the theory of justice Rawls’s is likely political, not metaphysical. For it is not based on any commitment about the ultimately good in human life, about human ends, human purpose or whatever that makes people happy. However, I wonder that do we have a “cosmic justice” for all? Surely, justice demands equality and fairness in all private transactions, wages, and property ownership. It also demands equal opportunity for all to participate in the public goods generated by society as a whole, such as social security, health care and education[11].

Religious Beliefs

In my opinion, sometimes the standards for religious beliefs have traditionally been set absurdly high. Thus, the main epistemological question about religious belief has been the question whether or not religious belief in general and theistic belief in particular is justified. In fact, the traditional way to answer that question has been to inquire into the argument for and against. Some philosophers want to assume that theistic belief is justified if and only if there is sufficient propositional evidence for it. If we don’t have any evidence for it, then you are not justified in accepting it[12].

We know that in the faith of religious beliefs – the belief that these exits a person like the God of traditional Christianity, Judaism and Islam: Almighty, all-know, wholly benevolent and loving spiritual person who has created the world. The chief problem, therefore, has been whether religious beliefs are justified: the same problem is often put by asking whether theistic belief is rational or rationally acceptable since we have to rely completely on the beliefs and claims of an entire tradition.

I think that we are not only to find evidences to answer about our own faith just only in philosophical, but we also have to find them in theological. There is a set of broadly theological problems about the relationship between faith and reason, between what one knows by way of reason, broadly construed.

It seems that our religious beliefs are based on the beliefs and the claims of tradition. This reason makes it to become a special case of epistemic trust. Surely, religious faith is tied to belief on testimony. Of course, the rationality of faith is tied to the rationality of belief on tradition testimony. Moreover, as the faith also implies trust in a corresponding tradition as the memory of a community “passed on”[13]. However, I do not agree that religious beliefs have to rely completely on the beliefs and claims of an entire tradition. In fact, we are human beings who have freedom, reason and will. So that, religion beliefs also involve the issue of trust between a person and God.

I do not deny the beliefs and claims in the tradition of Church, but I use my conscientious to reflect my beliefs in order to know deeper about God who had revealed himself in the past. In closing, the epistemological problems about religious belief, especially, in the special case of epistemic truth which discuss independently of the ontological issue, will be misguide. These two issues are connected.

By my own experiences, I think that social epistemology helps me to think about seriously questions: how can we develop the dignity of human beings in this world? How can we trust in God in difficult circumstances? How do I deal with the problems in our country and our Church with a peaceful soul and benevolence?

[1] Alvin I. Goldman, edited by Frederick Schmitt, Social Epistemology – Essential Readings, (Oxford University Press, 2011), 354.

[2] Ibid., 355.

[3] Edit Jonathan Dancy and Ernest Sosa, A Companion to Epistemolog, (Blackwell, 1992), 503 – 06

[4] Edit by Sven Bernecker and Fred Dretske, Knowledge Reading in Contemporary Epistemology, (Oxford University Press 2000), 537 – 46.

[5] Robert Audi, Epistemology – a contemporary introduction to the theory of knowledge, (Routledge, London, 1998), 146.

[6] Edit Jonathan Dancy and Ernest Sosa, A Companion to Epistemology (Blackwell, 1992), 509 -11

[7] Ibid, 512 – 15.

[8] Ibid., 514.

[9] Edited by Ted Hendrich, The Oxford Companion to Philosophy, (Oxford University Press, 2005), 463 – 65.


[11] David Hollenbach, Justice, Peace and Human rights, (Crossroad, New York, 1988), 30.

[12] Ibid., 437 – 440.

[13] Linda Zabzebski. Epistemic Authority: A Theory of Trust, Authority, and Autonomy in Belief, (Oxford 1992), 92 -106.

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