2005-06-09

Irrelevant appeal to authority???

Rejecting the so-called "appeal to authority" is a tactic used by all kinds of "skeptics" to "debunk" ideas that they do not like. Most frequently I encounter this tactic in discussing God with people who claim not to believe in God. Usually, it turns out that I do not believe in the God they do not believe in either, because they are not actually discussing the Person whom I know as God, but that is another point entirely.

When someone appeals to authority, they usually put it in terms such as "Because [Person/Institution/Source X] supports [Truth Claim Y], then I support [Truth Claim Y]". Usually, in debates about God, it goes something like this "Because the Bible says [Y], I believe [Y]. God says it, I believe it, and that settles it." Nontheists rightly argue that this proves nothing, because the reliability of the Bible is still in question. It may say that Y is true, but how do we know it is accurate in what it says? I mean, there is the issue of who wrote the Bible and when, and whether these writings are authentic and accurate. Then there are the textual issues of how well the text has been preserved, even if the original text was accurate. And then there are issues of interpretation, linguistics, and historical-cultural context, not to mention genre and purpose, in considering how to understand the text. Then there is the question of what presuppositions we bring to the text, and if there are other legitimate ways of understanding the text. All of these must be considered before making an appeal to Scripture to support a certain truth claim.

Most nontheists, like those arguing against "appeal to authority" at websites such as infidels.org and skepdic.com, seem to think that learned Christians are not aware of such problems with appeals to Scripture. They seem to think we do not consider such problems in making statements about reality based on God's revelation through Jesus Christ as found in Scripture. They think that by pulling the "appeal to authority" card they are pulling a surprise on Christians, and shutting down any distinctive content we can bring to the table in discussions about the nature of reality. This is, speaking from the standpoint of a thoughtful learned Christian, pure nonsense. It is pure nonsense for purely non-Biblical reasons.

The main reason is because in actuality EVERYONE appeals to authority in their arguments, either explicitly and implicitly. There is not a single person who comes to know and understand anything outside of a community of knowing. All our knowledge is a completely intertwined matrix of information gained from our senses, reason, emotion, and what we have learned from others. In fact, our very categories of knowing and presuppositions in examining evidence come from the communities that surround us. As Newton rightly observed, we get to our epistemic positions by "standing on the shoulders of giants". No person comes anywhere near believing things only because they are proven by personal reason or empirical observation. Our own names- what we call ourselves and the "label" around which our own self-identity forms- are given to us by the authority of others. Our parents tell us who we are, and what our name is. How do we know our name? We only know it from the authority of our parents, and from the authority of whoever wrote our birth certificate.

To demonstrate the absurdity of rejecting authority altogether as a source of knowledge, I would like to write a few observations about the article "appeal to authority", written in "The Skeptic's Dictionary" by Robert Todd Carroll (found at skepdic.com).

1. First of all, why should I believe this article is actually written by Robert Carroll? All I have is the authority of the web page to tell me that, which is hardly worth anything, since anyone can post whatever they want on the web. I have never met this so-called "Mr. Carroll". I am not even certain he exists. For, even if I were to meet someone calling himself Robert Carroll and carrying identification of Robert Carroll, how could I know that it was really him? After all, such claims and documents are merely appeals to what someone said or wrote, and hence, appeals to authority, which, as we have noted before, can say nothing about the state of reality. Furthermore, I cannot believe He actually penned the article, since I cannot go back in time to directly experience his writing of the article (and I cannot trust video tapes of such an event, since so many computer manipulations are possible these days). Also, I cannot take seriously any purported claims by so-called "eye witnesses", because they are probably lying. I guess the only rational opinion is to believe that Robert Carroll did not write it, and that no such person exists. Since we cannot prove that anyone wrote the article, not having first hand knowledge of its actual writing by any particular person, I guess it would be best to just assume that no one wrote it, and it sprang into existence on its own.

Either that, or we must put some basic trust in the author to be competent and truthful. You decide what makes more sense.

2. What is this language that the article written in, and how did the "author" learn it? Did he learn the meaning of the words by studying books and dictionaries written by other people (which is knowledge gained by appeal to authority), or did he learn language by talking to other people (again, appeal to authority). Either way, it is clear that his whole use of language, vocabulary, and sentence structure in the article is invalid, since it was all learned from authorities. Furthermore, since there is no set, universal entity to observe which is the "English language" (with all its varying usage and dialects), and since only humans use the "English language" (and anything they have to say about English would just be an appeal to authority), then we can know absolutely nothing about this supposed "English language" because all such knowledge is based upon authority. If we can learn nothing about the "English language", then we cannot use it or make sense of it, and thus his entire essay is just a bunch of gobbeldy gook and random black marks on paper that signify nothing.

Either that, or we must grant that our whole basis of communicating information is based on language, which is solely gained through authority, tradition, and community. You decide what makes more sense.

3. The author states in his article that "Einstein was an expert in physics, not religion". Now, how could he possibly verify this statement by either reason or empirical verification? Who says what an "expert" is? Or for that matter what "physics" or "religion" is? If you got together a hundred so-called "experts" in these fields there would be disagreement over what "physics" and "religion" even means, and further disagreement over what it takes to be an "expert" in such fields. The only way the author could have gathered such information, seeing as the author probably did not know Einstein and cannot certify who is an "expert" in anything, is to read books about Einstein. Books are written by authorities, and hence, his whole argument about Einstein is an "appeal to authority".

Either we must remain absolutely agnostic about Einstein's life, and say that no-one is an expert, or we must grant a certain amount of trust to sources which our communities recognize as "expert". You decide what makes more sense.

4. The author speaks of "religion" as a controversial field, with the implications that the "sciences" are not controversial fields. I find this laughable. Go to any three universities and talk to the respective professors of the various sciences about: (a) what are the areas of controversy in their discipline right now, and (b) what major beliefs have been overturned in their discipline in the last two decades. Then you will find out how "controversial" the sciences are. Sit in on any scientific experiment or research and just listen to such issues as (a) what should be observed; (b) how should it be observed; (c) how to remove human error from observation; (d) what data to exclude from consideration, and you will find out that most of the knowledge gained through science is gained by the scientist arbitrarily, often blindly, making subjective decisions about what to observe, why, and how. For instance, it takes competent scientists years of training by "authorities" to be taught how to observe phenomena using microscopes, telescopes, supercolliders, and other scientific instruments. Without "authority" telling scientists how to use equipment, what to look for, and how to look, then they could gain no data whatsoever. The whole project of modern science is based and rooted in authority and tradition from beginning to end.

Either we must reject science, religion, and all other fields of academic study as hopelessly based on "authority", or we must embrace the communitarian structure of knowledge and find other ways to verify and test our beliefs that do not reject things just because they are rooted in "authority". You decide what makes more sense.

5. The author says that "appealing to non-experts as if they were experts, or appealing to experts in controversial fields, as evidence for a belief, are equally irrelevant to establishing the correctness of the belief". As I pointed out above, the only way to decide who is "expert" is to appeal to the authority of humans who label themselves, or are labeled by others, as "experts". So, the whole process of finding experts is by appealing to authority. If that is true, then we can appeal to precisely no-one, at any time, in any place, to validate our beliefs. Furthermore, we cannot communicate our beliefs with others without making ourselves an "expert" of some sort. If the above sentence by the author is granted as true, then that relegates any statement made about reality by anyone as "irrelevant".

Again, either we must say that there are no experts and nobody can make any valid statements about reality that can be accepted by others as true, or we must accept that some people and some sources of information have the right to be counted as "authoritative". You decide what makes more sense.

6. In his final paragraph, the author states that "it should be noted that it is not irrelevant to cite an authority to support a claim one is not competent to judge... in such cases the authority must be speaking in his or her own field of expertise and the claim should be one that other experts in the field do not generally consider to be controversial". Without going into the self-defeating claim that some people are "experts" again (see above), there are other glaring inconsistencies with this statement. First, he offers no proof for the claim made here that someone can "cite an authority" in a field he or she is not an "expert" in. On what verifiable basis is this claim made? On the author's own authority? This simply shoots his whole article in the foot. Second, it refutes his whole article because how could anyone possibly certify that they are, or are not "an expert", and hence do or do not need other "experts" to tell them what to believe? If they go to other people to tell them that they are an expert, this claim rests on other's authority. If they proclaim themselves an expert, their claim rests on their own authority. It amounts to saying "no argument from authority is ever valid unless it is an authority you pick".

7. The sheer fact that the author wrote a book on the subject of skepticism shows that he wishes to set himself up as an authority in the matter, that others may learn from him and quote from him. This fact alone negates not only this article, but most of the rationale behind his being a "skeptic" in the first place. The skeptic cannot be skeptical of everyone else's presuppositions and truth claims EXCEPT his own and those who he agrees with. If he is skeptical of others, he must either be skeptical of himself, or intellectually dishonest.

In short, using the moniker of "appeal to authority" to disbelieve in something is circular and self-defeating. You cannot use it without destroying almost all of your own beliefs and presuppositions. When using this argument to discredit the Bible (and hence the God of the Bible), it is about as effective as saying "Nanny Nanny Boo Boo I don't like your Bible and will not believe it". There most be a better way of evaluating beliefs and epistemic claims than just dismissing things because they are based on "authority". That is simply not enough, because all knowledge is based on a mixture of authority, reason, and empirical verification. Instead, if an authority is to be disbelieved, there must be a verifiable or logical reason to disbelieve it, coupled with correct understanding of it. Otherwise, you are stuck with rejecting authorities for the childish reason that you simply do not like what they have to say.

The use of authority and community in forming our structures of knowledge is inescapable. We can adopt one of two basic stances to knowledge reported to us from "authority". Either we can account "authority" trustworthy until proven guilty of error, or we can account "authority" untrustworthy until proven to be true. If we adopt the first stance, then we can feel comfortable in using the knowledge we find in our society as a starting point for exploring what is true. If we adopt the second stance, then we cannot believe anything told to us by anyone, we must learn everything on our own, and what we learn we cannot communicate to others, because that would be setting ourselves up as an "authority". The first stance allows us to share knowledge, trust each other, and grow together as a community of knowing. The second stance dooms us to continual uncertainty and the inability to learn from the experiences of others. If we cannot learn from "authority" then the first field of knowledge to die is language acquisition, then history, then the social sciences, then philosophy, then the physical sciences.

The same author advertises a book on his website called "Becoming a Critical Thinker". I do not think it would be a very good idea to buy it, but that is just a statement based on my own authority... so believe it if you want to.
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This is a bunch of stuff to make us think hard about our incredible love affair with the God of the universe, our astounding infidelities against him, and his incredible grace to heal and restore us through Christ. Everything on this site is copyright © 1996-2015 by Nathan L. Bostian so if you use it, cite me... otherwise you break the 8th commandment, and make God unhappy. You can contact the author by posting a comment.