[quote=john doran]this is either (pragmatically) false or irrelevant.
for example, all historical facts are incapable of empirical verification, at least of the kind you seem to be talking about here (i.e. personal execution of repeatable experiments that match predictions).
I admit to vagueness of speech. “Fact” is an equivocal term, even in technical philosophy; it refers to both undeniable statements of sensory evidence as well as well-established ontological statements. If we’re going to speak strictly, we should talk about evidence and conclusions; “fact” is too equivocal to use in a strict sense.
My point about the blind man is that he can come to exactly the same ontological conclusions as the sighted person about light and sight based on the evidence available to him. He cannot, of course, directly experience certain kinds of evidence, but he can still come to exactly the same ontological conclusions.
Historical evidence is just those things presently available to us to experience: records, artifacts and (for recent history) personal accounts. Just as with an experimental science, the best ontological theory of history is just the simplest theory which accounts for all the evidence. Naturally, we can’t do additional experimentation–history is a forensic science–but the fundamental methodology is the same as experimental science.
the distinguishing epistemic factor will always be testimony.
Testimony is just as good (and just as bad) evidence as anything else. I still don’t have to take testimony on faith: I want to check it for independent consistency, consistency with the facts, and consistency with known natural law; I will reject the ontological interpretation of truthfulness to testimony in favor of either uncertainty or falsity for testimony which fails these tests. The best ontological conclusion about conflicting testimony is simply that one or both people are lying, mistaken, or jumping to conclusions.
realistically, i will never be able to go into space to look at the world and see that it is a giant sphere. i will never be able to go to the bottom of the ocean to verify that the pictures in the national geographic magazine that claim to be of the marianis trench actually are. i will never be able to set foot on the moon and finally prove - contra the conspiracy theorists - that we went there. and so on.
It really doesn’t matter. For any claim you have to bet your life on, you’re going to check it yourself (at least I hope you would!). For claims of lesser importance, you can relax your standard of evidence in proportion to the lesser importance.
Even so, you’re still basing your beliefs about ordinary reality on the evidence you actually have, which includes testimony which is (reasonably) independently consistent. Accepting the testimony of others at face value isn’t contrary to empirical methodology, it’s just laziness. And laziness is entirely unobjectionable if the belief in question is unimportant.
of course, perhaps you are simply stating the principle of verification, or something close to it: a proposition is meaningful only if it is in principle empirically verifiable or analytic. but, itself being neither in principle empirically verifiable nor analytically true, the principle must therefore be meaningless…
Generally speaking, a statement of evidence is true if and only if it is verifiable. A statement of ontology is meaningful if and only if it is falsifiable; and it is true only to the extent that it has survived attempts to falsify it. Don’t conflate Popper with Carnap and the Vienna Circle; The Logic of Scientific Discovery and Conjectures and Refutations were written in *opposition *to Carnap and the Logical Positivists. I’ll take Carnap for evidence, Popper for scientific and forensic conclusions, with a side of egg rolls.
so. where we’re left is that reliance upon testimony in the formation of our beliefs is unavoidable, and i think it is entirely possible to have warranted beliefs the basis of which is testimonial evidence.
*Of course *testimonial evidence is probative! But, as I’ve noted, it’s not necessary to take testimony on authority or faith, not even as a report of personal experience. Even a report of personal experience (sans ontological conclusions) can be contradicted by other evidence.