Trust as a truth-maker [tpm]

Daniel Everett entered Brazil as a Christian missionary. Then he encountered the Piraha people, a community that is indigenous to Brazil, and lived among them for a while. And as a result of encountering the Piraha, he lost his faith.

The Piraha are interesting for a great many reasons, foremost among them being that their culture is based on immediate experience. Everett describes them as “the ultimate empiricists”, because they have no respect for explanations of remote facts. For example, when Everett attempted to convey stories of Jesus and the sermon on the mount, his efforts were laughed off as credulous or delusional, since Everett had not witnessed the sermon firsthand.

This is just to say that, for all intents and purposes, the Piraha endorse a kind of evidentialism. Evidentialism is the idea that we have a responsibility to only believe things in proportion to the evidence. Compare that to the missionary Everett, who was a fideist — meaning, he believed certain religious claims were true on the basis of choice, commitment, and faith.

In a sense, the difference between the missionary Everett and the Piraha echoes an argument in epistemology. W.K. Clifford, a sabre-rattling epistemologist from yesteryear, argued that it is a sin against humankind to believe something on insufficient evidence: to be deluded is to be irrational, and worse. Pragmatist philosophers like William James bemoaned Clifford’s hellfire, and defended the idea that an ethical belief can be supported by force of will. Contemporary evidentialists like Richard Feldman and Earl Conee have goals that are slightly more modest than those Clifford had. Feldman and Conee argue that it is epistemically mistaken to believe out of proportion to the evidence.

I am an evidentialist, in the sense that I think evidentialism is platitudinous — it is surely correct to say that all objective knowers ought to apportion their beliefs to the evidence. But I also think that evidentialism is relatively trivial — evidence and volition are not mutually exclusive. Following the constructionism of John Searle, it turns out that sometimes you can believe in a proposition, and — bizarrely — trust counts as strong evidence in favor of the truth of the belief.


A pastor stands before his assembled flock at mass. The pastor has noticed that over the past few weeks donations in the collection plate have been diminishing. For a brief moment, he suspects there may be a thief around. On this particular day, the pastor has privately observed that a particular teenage boy has snatched some donations from the plate as it makes its rounds. A calm immediately passes over the pastor’s mind. For though the pastor knows that the boy is prone to mischief, the pastor also knows that they are otherwise impressionable and pious. Now suppose the pastor, in his sermon, mentions the mystery of the diminishing funds. In the midst of his speech, he sincerely endorses this proposition:

  1. I know that no-one who is part of this congregation is a thief in their heart.

The pastor says this with all appropriate showmanship – credulous intonations, sweeping gestures – in order to convey his belief that the congregation is made up of virtuous souls. But since the pastor has observed the boy taking the money, we should say that the pastor has made an utterance that is contrary to the external evidence, and is unjustified.

Let (t-1) be the belief in (1) prior to the utterance, and let (t-2) be the belief in (1) after the utterance.

Insofar as we think that (1) is the expression of the pastor’s own sincere beliefs, we might think that the utterance is faulty. Strictly speaking, his prior belief (t-1) is a delusion, since it is a belief that is directly contrary to the external evidence.

Yet the effect of the pastor’s words and bearing is as if it had conveyed a secret message to the boy: I know what you have done, and now you know that I know. As a result of the pastor’s utterance, the boy quietly defers to the pastor. Ashamed at his petty crime, the boy resolves to never steal again, and immediately returns the funds to the plate.

What is remarkable about this case is that simply by uttering (1), the pastor has at the very same moment (with the cooperation of the intended audience) brought about the state of affairs described by (1). The pastor’s prior delusion (t-1) suddenly transformed into an objective fact of the matter after it had been expressed (t-2). The utterance (1) is very much like what John Searle called a status function declaration. The assertion is true because the pastor represented it as true, and it was taken as true by the boy.

In short, the pastor made up the facts — and he got away with it. And “getting away with it” for the right sorts of reasons is all that is required to make the claim true.


In the above example, trust is the thing that makes (1) true. But of course, this is not a feature of all — or even most — evidential claims. No matter how much you trust a homeopath, trust alone will not make their snake oil work.

I think there is quite a lot to recommend the idea that trust can make some claims true. For one thing, it makes sense of the tenaciousness of systematic illusions — the illusions involved in organized religion, for instance — in such a way that we are capable of attributing rationality to them at some level. (Since the presumption of rationality is essential to social scientific explanations, this is only bad news for the cynic.) For another thing, it gives an account of how effective threats to those institutions pose a rational existential crisis in those who buy into them. As the Catholic Church has learned in Ireland, breaches of trust can be both morally outrageous and world-breaking.

(And to their credit, some ancient institutions will occasionally recognize the theoretical limits of their supposed magesteria. For instance, according to Catholic dogma, even the Catholic Pope’s infallibility is limited to its use ex cathedra. So if Mr. Ratzinger were to declare that the Earth has sixteen moons, then he would not be speaking from the chair of Peter, and hence not saying something true.)

So there’s no need to worry that recognizing trust as a truth-maker will lead to an epistemic disaster, and there are some good reasons to think that it makes sense of how the social world works. But even so, this is still a disturbing line of argument. For any free-thinking person who is not dead from the neck down, the idea that authorities can just make facts up from out of nowhere is a complete and utter scandal. And the above argument confounds the initial motivation for evidentialism, which is to reject the idea that wishful thinking can be conducive to rationality.

So the disturbed evidentialist might explain the pastor’s story by saying that at any particular moment in time, trust is never a part of the evidence. The idea is that the prior belief (t-1) and the subsequent belief (t-2) can only be judged on their own terms, and not compared to one another. As such, it would turn out that (t-1) is just the pastor’s delusion, and (t-2) is made true by the decision of the boy — in both cases, trust is not the truth-maker. In other words, the account would have to be synchronic (at one time), not diachronic (across time). This is consistent with what Feldman suggests in his essay “The Ethics of Belief”, when he claims that evidentialism is best seen as a synchronic theory of rationality, not a diachronic one.

If we don’t believe that trust counts as evidence at the level of the diachronic, then we’d have to say that trust is (at worst) a merely sociological event that is of no philosophical interest, and (at best) involves a non-epistemic sense of justification (e.g., as Feldman suggests, a prudential one).

And while I agree that trust is a prudential notion about how we ought to pursue our personal projects as human beings, it seems that trust is also a conception of how we ought to conduct ourselves as responsible knowers. Trust is the causal link between (t-1) and (t-2) that made the boy acquiesce; furthermore, trust is the boy’s evidence for accepting the testimony of the pastor as true, and not just as the pastor’s interesting opinion; and trust is the reason why (1) really is true, since (1) is only true through deference, and there cannot be any genuine deference without trust. And, finally, if either the pastor or the boy had lacked trust, but all other events had remained the same, then we would have grounds to think that the pastor simply was not warranted in asserting (1).


In antiquity, the word “truth” (derived from “troth”) meant faithfulness, good faith, or loyalty. I’ve suggested here that there is one special context in which truth has retained its initial connotations.

I only worry that the Piraha would not approve.


(Corrected Feb 20: it’s the “chair of Peter”, not the “chair of David”. Apologies.)

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