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Truth-making institutions: From divination, ordeals and oaths to judicial torture and rules of evidence

Abstract : In many human societies, truth-making institutions are considered necessary to establish an officially valid or “received” description of some specific situation. These range from divination, oaths, and ordeals to judicial torture or trial by jury. In many cases, these institutions may seem odd or paradoxical, e.g., why would an ordeal reveal a defendant's guilt or innocence? Here we propose to address the questions, why those institutions are considered the source of accepted truth, and why they have recurrent features in many different cultures. Our model is based on two well-documented set of evolved cognitive mechanisms. One is epistemic vigilance, the set of cognitive processes that help us evaluate the quality of communicated information we receive. We show how our epistemic intuitions account for otherwise puzzling aspects of divination, oaths, and ordeals. The other set of mechanisms consists in human capacities for coalition building and the recruitment of social support, which explains how truth-making institutions can be strategically used by individuals to influence mutual knowledge for their own interests. Taken together, these mechanisms explain the kinds of institutions found in small-scale societies (oaths, ordeals, divination), as well as the emergence of different institutions (laws of evidence, judicial torture, trial by jury) in large-scale and modern societies.
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Contributor : Charlotte Bultel <>
Submitted on : Friday, December 18, 2020 - 12:15:38 PM
Last modification on : Friday, July 2, 2021 - 9:58:02 AM




Hugo Mercier, Pascal Boyer. Truth-making institutions: From divination, ordeals and oaths to judicial torture and rules of evidence. Evolution and Human Behavior, Elsevier, 2020, ⟨10.1016/j.evolhumbehav.2020.11.004⟩. ⟨ijn_03081784⟩



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