Lots of times certain atheists will argue that the bible is “just hearsay and that is not evidence.” As a trial lawyer with a pretty good understanding of the rules of evidence I think there are some important points to be made here. If people don’t know what they are talking about they may end up with a very odd epistemology (that is the fancy word for what it means to know things or to have your beliefs justified or warranted) if they just repeat the scorn heaped on “hearsay.” To understand how hearsay fits in to our justified beliefs we have to understand what hearsay is and that will take some explaining. So the first part of this blog will go into what hearsay is and is not, and the second part will explain why so much of what we believe is based on hearsay.
Almost all of the important information we know we learned through what would be considered “hearsay” under typical court rules. The US Federal Rules of evidence 801(c) defines hearsay this way:
“Hearsay. “Hearsay” is a statement, other than one made by the declarant while testifying at the trial or hearing, offered in evidence to prove the truth of the matter asserted”
So any sort of written or oral statement made outside of the courtroom, would be hearsay if it is offered for the truth of what is asserted. We can ignore the “at the trial or hearing” bit, because I am looking at the substance of the rule. So if someone is telling you something they saw with their own eyes or heard with their own ears etc, and they are able and willing to answer your questions about that under oath, it would not be hearsay according to the standard I am using in this blog- even if they are telling you this information outside of a hearing or trial.
There are exceptions to the rule where the courts allow certain hearsay in even though it is hearsay. Unlike the definition of hearsay I gave these exceptions can vary from state to state and I won’t go into them, other than to say I think the existence of these exceptions serves my point. Courts are extremely strict about the evidence they let in, but even they allow hearsay in if it is under certain exceptions. Again my point is that hearsay is really where we get much of what we consider “knowledge” so the fact that courts might let some in shows it is not always considered invalid.
There is no question that courts would consider hearsay to be “relevant evidence.” So claims that hearsay is not evidence are just false. Although it is true that it might not be “admissible” evidence. Hearsay is often excluded because we think people should be able to cross examine witnesses, witnesses should have to formulate their responses by live questions not carefully couch their views in writing, the statements should be under oath, and the jury should be able see the demeanor of the person and judge their credibility etc. So courts don’t allow hearsay evidence because they want trials to rely on the best evidence not because they don’t think hearsay is evidence. The courts want the best evidence if they can require it. So they do. But there is no question that hearsay can be “relevant evidence” in that if fits the definition federal rules of evidence definition of relevant evidence.
“ Rule 401. Test for Relevant Evidence
Evidence is relevant if:
(a) it has any tendency to make a fact more or less probable than it would be without the evidence; and
(b) the fact is of consequence in determining the action.”
I talked about this definition in this blog.
So anyone who says hearsay is not “relevant evidence” simply does not know what they are talking about. Let’s get a bit better understanding of what “hearsay” is.
What does it mean to be “offered in evidence to prove the truth of the matter asserted”? It means that the person is trying to use the contents of the statement as evidence that what is asserted in the statement is true. So for example in my post on empathy versus love I quoted a source which said emotional empathy triggers the same brain neurons that relate to direct physical pain. I was quoting that source as evidence of the truth of what was asserted by that source. So it was hearsay. Now unless the person I quoted actually did that experiment himself and looked at the brain mris himself then he likely was just repeating what he read in a journal or some other writing. And he was doing that for the purpose of evidencing the truth of what they were saying in that writing. Thus it was hearsay on top of hearsay – AKA, double hearsay. And that assumes he read the literature directly from the person who made the observations. So it is likely at best double hearsay.
What would not be hearsay?
A statement might not be offered for the truth of what is asserted if for example you just wanted to prove a person believed it to be true or to attack someone’s credibility. So an out of court statement is often used when cross examining a witness. For example “In a prior deposition, you said the defendant was wearing a red hat didn’t you? Now you are saying he was wearing no hat at all.” Well assuming it is not crime to wear or not wear a hat, that fact likely is not directly an element of the case. So the purpose is not to prove he was wearing a hat or not. The purpose the prior statement is being used for, is to challenge the witness’s credibility, for example, maybe lead to doubts about the witnesses accuracy in identifying the correct person. So that prior statement is not being offered to prove the truth of the matter asserted (that the person was in fact wearing a red hat) but rather to attack the witnesses credibility. Therefore that statement would not be hearsay because it is not being used for hearsay purposes.
Also if someone is telling you what they themselves heard or saw with their own senses and they are able and willing to answer any questions you have on the matter under oath that would not be hearsay. (No I am not saying it has to be a courtroom for purposes of this discussion) But they would only be able to tell you what they saw with their own eyes. Experts can also share their opinions but again they would need to be able and willing to answer all your questions. So we can’t just take an article from an expert science journal and enter it in evidence with nothing more. That would be hearsay. That said if your sister told you she saw a cardinal in the backyard and she was there to answer questions that would not be hearsay. Your believing that there was a cardinal in the back yard based on her statement would not be based on hearsay. If you yourself saw cardinal in the back yard, you knowledge of it being there is also not based on hearsay. Of course, those things are not known based on science either.
But any information you learn about from reading that science journal is based on hearsay. The journal is telling you about experiments or science and you are reading it for the truth of what they are asserting. Most of the nonfiction we read, is “for the truth of the matter asserted.” So when I read a history book that says the Ribbontop-Molotov pact was an agreement between the Nazis and Socialist Russia to divide Eastern Europe that is hearsay. It is communicating that information for the purpose of making me believe the statements are true and that is how I am reading the book. Hence the vast majority of what we know from reading any sort of nonfiction is hearsay. All of history, geography, sociology, sports, news, is all overwhelmingly hearsay. None of it is modern science.
Even if you read a copy of a diary explaining what a person saw themselves, it would still be hearsay. At trial you would not be able to just enter that diary. You would need to be able to call that person live and that person would have to be able and willing to answer questions under oath. So hopefully you are starting to see just how much of what we know (or at least “reasonably believe”) is in fact hearsay.
Modern science started around 1600. Before then People lived lives where they knew all sorts of things about those around them. Sure lots of it through hearsay especially after the printing press. But very little of it through what we would consider modern science.
Modern Science is not how we know if we walk on water we will sink or that dead things typically don’t come back to life. People knew these things before 1600, and really science added very little to these beliefs. People knew the earth was round. They even traveled around the world all before modern science.
So how much of our scientific knowledge do we know by reading it from books or from people who learned of it from reading books as opposed to doing the experiments ourselves? All of those experiments you read about other people doing you know through hearsay. I mean unless you are a very busy scientist who never reads about any other science experiments, probably, the vast majority of what you know about science you know from “hearsay.” Now at least presumably most of that hearsay does also have a causal root in science as well. That is the statements would not have been made if it weren’t for the scientific testing done. So I am willing to call that knowledge as coming from both science and hearsay even though the more proximate cause of our knowledge is hearsay. Since that knowledge is based on both science and hearsay, let’s call all that knowledge it a wash in our tally.
Moreover, we should consider that science is not the only way we can reach what seems like scientific conclusions. Galileo figured the heavy ball would fall just as fast as the lighter ball by a simple thought experiment. No scientific testing required. Consider one cannon ball is heavier than another. Now attach them to eachother. If Aristotle was right and the lighter cannon ball would fall slower than the heavier one you would expect the lighter one to slow the heavier one’s descent. But if they are attached then they are one thing and therefore the combined weight of both balls in this system is more than either individually. Therefore the two balls attached should both fall faster then either when they were separate! It is a contradiction to say the heavier cannonball will fall slower and faster if it is attached to the other lighter cannonball. From this Galileo knew they would fall at the same speed before he ever supposedly went to the Tower of Pisa.
Now to be fair I do not think that is hearsay either. There is a certain type of logical thinking that philosophers do that can yield knowledge that is neither hearsay nor modern science. Math is neither hearsay nor science. Math is best understood in ways other than hearsay. But sometimes people just memorize those times tables and then it could be hearsay. It would be hard to say how many people know the Pythagorean theorem from figuring it out versus just being told. If you know it from being told then that is hearsay. If you know it from being told that is hearsay that is also based on math but it is also hearsay. But knowing the Pythagorean theorem is clearly not modern science either. So again that could be something that we know more due to hearsay which may play a part but science clearly does not.
Here is another math and hearsay piece of knowledge. I know there are 73 books in the Catholic Bible. I could have learned this by counting the books and doing the math myself. But, I have to admit, I just looked it up and was told – so I know this by hearsay. How do I know what “modus ponens” means? hearsay. (If you looked it up then you learned it from hearsay too) How do I know the word gato in Spanish means cat? Hearsay.
History is huge on this. Prehistory is usually defined as those times and places before the use of a written language we can access. This should tell you just about all history is hearsay. Who was the first U.S. president? So many facts about the Roman empire etc etc.
Now compare all the information that you read or were told about by someone (other than someone who says they were personally there and saw what they are telling you about and is able and willing to answer any questions you have) versus that information you have learned from doing a scientific experiment yourself? Hopefully you are now starting to see that it is not even close.
And no I am not even dealing with Humes issue with science.
Now it is true that by creating the internet science has spread knowledge. Similar to how the printing press did before that. But the knowledge they are distributing is not usually scientific knowledge. New recipes, history, geography, a different way to do you hair or how build a shed what I did today work matters etc etc. It’s not science. But it is hearsay! Yep most of what we are sharing over the printing press and internet is hearsay. So again the internet is a win for science and hearsay. But most of what we are learning is based on hearsay and not scientific knowledge. And the fraction of information we get about science over the internet is almost always hearsay. So if we wanted to say there would be no internet without modern science I would agree. But without hearsay (scientists sharing the results of their experiments in writing) modern science would be so slowed down that we wouldn’t have an internet now either. Books contain hearsay and they were important to the development of all learning including science. Hearsay is just as important to the development of the internet as is science and most of what we know from the internet is not science.
Even videos that show an event are dependent on hearsay to say they are what they claim to be. As a lawyer I can’t just show up and start playing a youtube video without a live witness to testify what is actually in the video and that it accurately depicts what it seems to depict. On the internet we get this writing under the video explaining what it is and that writing is hearsay. So I couldn’t just pull up a youtube video and say “here judge see the type under the video that says it is what it claims to be?” No that’s hearsay. And you rely on that hearsay to know if you are looking at what is supposed to be a real video as opposed to a doctored video. So even there we need hearsay and most of the videos are not teaching science.
Hopefully this posts will help people understand that we base a huge amount of our justified beliefs on “hearsay” but science independent of hearsay accounts for only a tiny fraction of those beliefs. Hearsay is the basis of so many more of our beliefs it is not even close.