From Watergate to Fast and Furious much has been done to erode our confidence in those who lead us and those we willingly follow, but the recent revelations surrounding Lance Armstrong and Manti Te’o have escalated the erosion process. Who would have thought that Armstrong would be able to pass hundreds of drug tests and maintain a web of deception at the highest level of an international sport? Likewise, could we have ever dreamed that a Heisman candidate from vaunted Notre Dame would tell a nation about the death of his girlfriend only to find out later that the girl never existed?
What is sad about these stories is not just that two men were caught in a web of lies (whether they be their own or that of others’), but that the whole scene chews away at a foundational element of belief—human testimony. Alvin Plantinga the renowned American philosopher (who happens to also find his home at Notre Dame) suggests that the vast majority of beliefs on which we build our lives are not based on well-reasoned argumentation or a grand preponderance of evidence but rather on more basic foundations like memory, sense perception, and testimony. We simply do not demand proof that the remembrance of our childhood is accurate, that the flower we see is something that is really there, or that our mother’s words about how long to cook the chicken is trustworthy. Each and every day, we build beliefs upon ground-floor sources of belief such as these.
It has long been recognized that beliefs based on memory, testimony, and our physical senses can be fallible, but imagine if we did not have these sources of belief at all. And imagine particularly if we could not trust human testimony. You could not believe a teacher who taught you want sounds the vowels make. You could not believe your parents when they told you to stay out of the street. And you could not believe the woman who says she loves you. A world without trust in human testimony would be a hellish one indeed. And herein lies the great damage accelerated by the Armstrong and Te’o debacles.
When such public and prominent deception occurs it gives us less reason to believe in human testimony at all levels of society. For some this might be seen as a blessing; they are skeptics and think we ought not to believe so much of what we hear. I will not argue where the line is between what we should and should not believe of what others tell us, but I will say that the further the line is pushed towards distrust the more life and life together is strained. We should be able to trust what a teacher tells us about history or science or grammar. We should be able to believe a friend when he tells us how great a new restaurant is. We should be able to have confidence in the FDA when they tell us a new drug is safe to use. And we should be able to trust these sources without completing weeks and months and years of independent research.
The question I ask is: what will be the response to the actions of those who propagate Armstrong-sized lies and Te’o-proportioned dupings? Will we see the liars write books on their escapades and watch us send them to the top of the best seller lists? Will we paint them as heroes who beat the system and then think of our own creative ways to deceive for personal gain or game? Or will we from the upper echelons of the sporting world to the little league diamond (and in every arena outside of sports) call for honesty and integrity? Will we turn the tide on the dismantling of human testimony as an epistemological foundation? If we do the latter, we will do much to save not just a nation, but a civilization.