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Saturday, October 16, 2010

Do You Rely On Authorities?

Have you noticed that when you make a claim and point out that an authority on the subject agrees, the person who disagrees with the point tends to question the authority? Have you ever noticed that you do the same when you disagree with a point? I have had several people who have said that I was using the authority of the person cited as an argument for the truth of the claim; then dismiss it. Am I wrong?

Let's look at two different types of authority, then two different ways to use an authority. First, you have a proper authority and an improper authority. The proper authority is someone who is making a claim about a field they have studied and are familiar with the facts of the field. An improper authority is a person who holds credibility in one field, but speaks "authoritatively" about a field they have not studied. The most recent example that comes to mind of an improper authority being cited is Stephen Hawking. He's a genius when it comes to physics, and when he speaks about physics, people should listen. However, he has recently spoken "authoritatively" on philosophy and theology. His arguments have been shown to be quite fallacious when it comes to philosophy and theology. Hawking would be considered improper authority when he speaks on those issues.

There are also a couple of different ways that we can use authorities in our discussions. We can argue from them for a specific conclusion (use them as a premise) or we can use them simply provide us with information. Since no person can know every little minute detail about everything, everyone must rely on authorities for information. There is nothing wrong with this as long as it is a proper authority. Anyone who tells you that you can't rely on any authority for information is not holding themselves to the same standard they are attempting to hold you.

Since everyone must rely on authorities for, at least, some information, it is not wise to continue questioning a person's authorities' authorities (etc). Someone is likely to accept the authority of the researcher if they agree with the conclusions. Disagreeing leads to investigating the researchers sources (okay there, but continue...), and the sources' sources, and the sources' sources' sources, and so on. People who endlessly question levels of authority pride themselves in not "appealing to authorties".

However, on that view, if one wishes to stop at, say, the second level (because of time or resource constraints or whatever), they must make the decision to either accept the authority of the sources of the second-level source or continue to reject the conclusions a priori (because they refuse to check further into the sources). If that person is to have you believe that relying upon authorities is wrong, then they must remain consistent and toss out their entire education along with all written media; then start from the ground and observe and contemplate everything from the laws of logic to the laws of physics to the behaviors of humans. They must reconceptualize every idea ever conceptualized; they must reinvent every wheel ever invented; and they must reconduct every experiment and every survey ever conducted. All this must be done if they wish to escape their own criticism of the reliance upon authority. There is nothing wrong with using an authority for information.

There is also nothing wrong, necessarily, with arguing from a proper authority. Let's go back to Hawking. When he is speaking as an improper authority, I cannot dismiss what he says just because he is an improper authority, but the fact that he is an improper authority should make me more inclined to investigate his claims. This also applies to proper authorities: just because a proper authority states something, that doesn't make it true, but it makes it more likely. Those who hold similar proper authority should critique those to make claims about the facts discovered by a particular discipline- this is called "peer-review" and is practiced throughout the academic community.

We need to make sure that we are using a proper authority when we make arguments. The argumentation from improper authorities is like playing with fire and does require a lot more work, that may end in failure of the argument. Because of the fact that one may need to rely on an authority for information provided in a premise of an argument, using the authority as part of a premise is perfectly acceptable. Like all premises, they are subject to investigation for truth-value, but they cannot be disregarded because of that general requirement. Premises based on authorities are to be held to the same standard as other premises.

Authorities are powerful and necessary tools in conversations. They can be used properly or improperly to support a conclusion. We must be careful that we are using them at the appropriate times, otherwise our points will be missed.

Randy Everist at Possible Worlds also discusses fallacious appeals to authority in his post "When is an Appeal to Authority Fallacious?".


  1. If one is making an argument a priori then no authorities must be cited. We know that A cannot be both A and non-A at the same time and in the same sense without appealing to any authority other than reason.

    Furthermore when making a theological argument or doctrinal argument from Scripture appeals to outside authorities is acceptable but gives one person generally no advantage over another. For one can always find authorities on each side of an argument. I find that it is best to find a solid hermeneutic and then after you have come to your own conclusion then look to authorities for nuances that you might have missed or to see if you are in left field.

    I find it frustrating when those who have gone to seminary for example (several of my friends) take a stance that their opinion on a Scripture automatically carries more weight. This reminds me of the movie Good Will Hunting where the non-college character is just as capable as the college students because he had read on his own. If the Scripture is not meant for the common man to be able to study and grasp THROUGH THE POWER OF THE HOLY SPIRIT, then we might as well return to a Catholic system and have sermons and Bibles only in Latin.

  2. Brandon,
    Thanks for stopping by, bro!

    On this view, how would you distinguish between a bad hermeneutic and a good hermeneutic before you even applied one to scripture to know what it is saying?


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