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Monday, October 29, 2012

Double-Edged Sword of Authorities

We all like to cite and appeal to people who are well trained in the discipline that we are talking about. We also tend to denigrate arguments or claims of someone who is not trained in the area being discussed. The fact that someone has mastered a subject means that they are an extremely valuable resource that should not be dismissed, while someone who has not studied as in-depth, by necessity of the situation, does not have as much knowledge. It seems only logical to prefer the word of the person with the greater knowledge to the person with lesser knowledge.

All arguments consist of premises and conclusions. A proper authority is preferred when supporting the truth of a premise, but that does not mean that their logic is valid. If the logic is not valid, then the conclusion does not follow. Because of this, appealing to a proper authority does not guarantee that the conclusion follows. So, even though appealing to an authority is helpful, it is not sufficient. It is in this case that someone with lesser knowledge, but good reasoning may have an advantage, but not necessarily. More knowledge could still be used to demonstrate that the conclusion is over-stated.

Appealing to "proper" authorities when making an argument requires more than just someone who can support the truth of the premises. There should also be an appeal to someone who can support the logic of the argument. Interestingly, most of us support our premises with citations, but we rarely support our logic by citing proper authorities on reasoning.

But just as citing an authority to support a premise does not necessitate the truth of the premise, neither does citing an authority to support our logic make the conclusion necessarily follow. This brings up the reason that we all need to make sure that we understand proper reasoning. We have to be able to accurately assess arguments and determine if the conclusions actually do follow. A great introductory resource that I recommend is Norman Geisler's Come, Let Us Reason. Its not too long and is easy for the beginner. All apologists should be familiar with this resource as it may be one that they can recommend to help people understand and evaluate the logic of the arguments presented to them. .

Many great resources regarding proper reasoning and logic can be found at Apologetics 315.

More posts regarding appeals to authorities:
Do You Rely Upon Authorities?
Peer-Reviewed Only, Please


  1. Why trust any authority at all? It's because you can't run around confirming everything for yourself, especially if it happened 2,000 years ago. Religious people tend to trust authorities, but atheists rebel against authority. If you want to convert an atheist, therefore, you must somehow win their trust.

  2. John,
    Thank you for your comment. As much as atheists like to rebel against "authority", they are also accepting another authority. Please see the linked article at the end of my post ("Do You Rely On Authorities?").

    I think that "What Is Faith?" may also be pertinent here. Its under "Must Read Posts" on the right of the blog.

  3. We agree that an authority must be a person, not a thing, so that's good.

    You say it's fine to rely on a "proper" authority, someone who has really studied the matter. But atheists would probably add that an authority must stand up to severe critiques from peers. You can never trust just one authority, regardless of how learned.

    1. Yep, we agree there too (see the second post that I linked to). The more research we can be exposed to, the better. But let's not forget that peers are also authorities who must stand up to critiques from other peers (authorities who much stand up to critique from peers [etc...]).

      Because peers must rely on peers for critique, we must be able to critically evaluate conclusions for ourselves also. Reliance upon authority (many or few) is necessary, but not sufficient in our search for what is true. We cannot "phone in" the reasoning to the same authorities, since they are not trained (necessarily) in logic.

      We must learn to reason properly ourselves, which requires research of a completely different branch of the academy- philosophy. This takes the number of authorities we should investigate even higher and certainly does not give one branch authority over the other. Both are necessary. They must work together to discover what is true. We must allow them to work together in our investigations also.

  4. John Moore wrote: "If you want to convert an atheist, therefore, you must somehow win their trust."

    How? What would it take to win your trust, John?


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