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Arguing from Authority

Hammer

I once heard it suggested that there’s a sort of joke hidden in the Latin original of the Summa Theologiae that didn’t make it into the commonly used English translation: “the proof from authority is the weakest form of proof,” we read in the Benziger edition (I.1.8.2us), and yet we don’t see the words that follow in the Latin text: “secundum Boëtium.” In the original Latin, you see, Thomas argues that the argument from authority is the weakest form of argument on the basis of the authority of Boethius.

While we may certainly savor the irony, two things should be pointed out so as to grasp the real meaning of this assertion. First, although in human affairs the argument from authority is the weakest form of argument, it is still an argument; that is, the testimony of authorities can be of great assistance in our quest for truth, as we attempt to use our reason to distinguish truth from error. Further, although in matters of human reason the argument from authority is the weakest, when we are dealing with matters of divine revelation (to which no one can reason unless he is God), the argument from authority based on divine revelation is the strongest form of argument.

In the Christian tradition, there has been a balanced appreciation both of the value of authority as well as of the fact that the truth transcends the person who speaks. As Pope Benedict tweeted before rescinding the papacy, "We do not possess the truth, the truth possesses us." We can glean truth from anyone who speaks it, whether they are an authority or not. On the Catholic views, in matters of faith, persons endowed with the charism of proclaiming the truth about Jesus Christ possess a unique authority as ministers of Christ, and yet they too are servants of the truth, they too have learned the message they proclaim from Christ and not from their own ingenuity.

Nevertheless, for both Catholics and atheists, when it comes to convincing people of the truth, whether it be about matters of faith, reason, or science, it can sometimes be helpful to omit an explicit mention of the source of our argument or reasoning. The reason for this is that for some people, the authorities in question or even authority in itself is suspect. If we have decided, for instance, that Christians are naïve and outdated, then we will not be inclined to grant a particular Christian authority a fair hearing nor see that person as a helpful guide on our quest for truth.

In the late 6th century, St. Martin of Braga formulated a phrase which summarized this tradition: “Do not let the authority of a speaker move you, consider what is said, not who says it.” (Ironically, the text containing this admonition circulated under the putative authorship of Seneca, presumably enhancing its authority.) In a famous text on study spuriously attributed to Thomas Aquinas (and yet surely expressing something true about his mindset), a similar sentiment is expressed: “Do not consider who the person is you are listening to, but whatever good he says commit to memory.” To adduce another authority, The Imitation of Christ likewise joins this chorus: “Inquire not who may have said a thing, but consider what is said.”

In this context, it is interesting to consider St. Thomas’s treatment in his commentary on the Letter to the Hebrews about the question of whether Paul himself had written the epistle. Observing that there is no mention of the name of the author in the epistle itself, Thomas suggests that Paul may have written anonymously “because his name was odious to the Jews, since he taught that the observances of the law were no longer to be kept, as is clear from Acts 15:2. Consequently, he concealed his name, lest the salutary doctrine of this epistle go for naught.” Paul, in other words, was for this particular audience an anti-authority, a shady character; nevertheless, because his message was so important, he willingly effaced his own authority so as to enable his message to have a fair hearing.

Today, it is often necessary to remind both Christians and non-Christians that they should consider the testimony of those who do not share their perspective. Despite our disagreements, those on the other side of the intellectual divide may have insights into truth worthy of our consideration. In other words, do not let the anti-authority of the speaker move you, but consider what is said, not who says it. If the truth really is at stake, it will ultimately prevail.
 
 
This article first appeared on DominicanaBlog.com, an online publication of the Dominican Students of the Province of St. Joseph who live and study at the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, DC. It was written by Br. Innocent Smith, O.P., who entered the Order of Preachers in 2008. He is a graduate of the University of Notre Dame, where he studied music and philosophy, and St. Gregory's Academy.
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The Order of Preachers, known also as the Dominican Order, was founded by St. Dominic in 1216 with the mission of preaching for the salvation of souls. With contemplative study serving as a pillar of Dominican religious life, the Order continues to contribute to the Catholic synthesis of faith and reason, following the example of such Dominican luminaries as St. Albert the Great and St. Thomas Aquinas. The Friars of the Province of St. Joseph administer Providence College in Providence, RI and serve as teachers and campus ministers in several colleges, universities, and seminaries in addition to serving as pastors, chaplains, and itinerant preachers. Follow the Dominican students at their blog, DominicanaBlog.com.

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  • Sqrat

    What makes someone an authority on a particular topic is his or her presumed expertise in that area. "We" know a lot, in many different fields, these days, but I freely admit that I, personally, am somewhat or very ignorant in most of those fields. Consequently, I am dependent on the expertise -- the authority, if you will -- of others for much of my own understanding of the world.

    That said, I am reminded of an anecdote from Dawkins' book, The God Delusion, of the scholar from one of the major British universities (Oxford or Cambridge, I think, but I forget which) who objected to the presence of a school of divinity at his university on the grounds that "divinity" was not a subject in which anyone could actually be an expert in.

    • Raphael

      What qualifies someone as having expertise?

      • David Nickol

        What qualifies someone as having expertise?

        Please define your terms. What do you mean by qualifies and expertise?

        • Raphael

          Yes, that is what I am asking of Sqrat.

      • Sqrat

        Having knowledge in depth and in breadth within a particular knowledge domain, or having skill in performing tasks within a particular area. Qualifications are often inferred demonstrated by the possession of particular academic degrees or the meeting of formal licensing requirements.

        A person with a Ph.D in physics with a study concentration on the early universe may be presumed to have the expertise to formulate plausible hypotheses about the origins of the universe, and to critique hypotheses advanced by others with similar expertise. A person whose only qualifications are a doctorate in divinity may be presumed to have no such expertise.

        • Scott Fahle

          It seems to me you are committing two errors and thus biasing yourself against the expertise of the theologian. I think the first error is that you have placed the physicist and the theologian in the same knowledge domain, that is, physics. You then claim that the theologian is an unreliable expert which is trivially true, physics is not his field!

          But the same is true in reverse. The physicist is presumably an unreliable expert on the subject of theology. So it seems to me that your second mistake is that you have created a poor example by comparing apples to oranges.

          An alternative: The physicist may posit the theory of the big bang to partially explain the material origins of the universe. The theologian may posit the day-age theory as the most accurate interpretation of Genesis 1.

          • Sqrat

            No, I am saying that the theologian has, as such, no knowledge domain, and thus has, as such, no expertise.

          • "No, I am saying that the theologian has, as such, no knowledge domain, and thus has, as such, no expertise."

            How about theology?

          • Sqrat

            Only in the same sense that a tarot card reader may be said to have expertise within the "knowledge domain" of reading tarot cards.

          • Catholic theologians have expertise in what Catholic theology is, that is it. They can tell you whether Catholics are supposed to believe or do, this or that, and how they are supposed to interpret texts and history. They are not experts in history, cosmology, literature, philosophy or morality.

          • Sqrat

            And in that narrow sense, a theologian who happens Catholic might have expertise in the knowledge domain of Islamic theology, but not the knowledge domain of Catholic theology.

          • "Catholic theologians have expertise in what Catholic theology is, that is it. They can tell you whether Catholics are supposed to believe or do, this or that, and how they are supposed to interpret texts and history. They are not experts in history, cosmology, literature or morality."

            I would mostly agree if you're making a *general* claim (i.e. that Catholic theologians, qua Catholic theologians, are not necessarily experts in history, cosmology, or literature). However, some Catholic theologians like Fr. Robert Spitzer and Fr. Andrew Pinsent (both contributors here) are globally recognized experts in other fields, like cosmology and philosophy.

            Also, you again smuggled "morality" into that group, suggesting that theologians are not experts in morality (despite the many doctoral programs in universities around the world on Moral Theology, and the several courses on morality every theologian takes in graduate school.) I'll ask the same question I asked elsewhere in this thread (feel free to choose where to answer it):

            Who would you consider an acceptable authority on morality and why?

          • Ben Posin

            "Who would you consider an acceptable authority on morality and why?"

            This is a very good question. There's no particular category of people or profession that I can think of that I would turn to for moral advice or guidance. Instead, I have to resort to individuals who have struck me as having demonstrated a strong moral sense. Kind of strange, isn't it? I mean, who here would actually turn to a professor of ethics and philosophy for moral guidance in their lives instead of trusted friends and family?

            But to get back to where I think your head is at: I think that God, whether or not he exists, is pretty much irrelevant to any meaningful morality, as demonstrated by the Euthyphro dilemma. So I don't see any natural connection between a religious scholar/figure and moral wisdom, except in so far as an individual who happens to be one of those things has distinguished himself in this area.

          • Again, I would not defer to any authority on morality, why would I? A degree in moral theology is still a theology degree.

            I think of it this way say the majority of people with PhDs in moral philosophy conclude that corporal punishment of children is "morally acceptable" I do not think you or I would accept that conclusion without actually understanding the basis for it. We would not defer to them because they have the skills, knowledge and experience in this field and start switching our kids.

            By contrast, if you are recovering from surgery in hospital and your last dose of dilaudid had worn off and you think you should double the dosage, you should defer to the physician who refuses to do so. They could explain it to you, but it might take several hours for you to understand the physiology, issues

          • David Nickol

            How about theology?

            There are Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Mormon, Muslim, theologians (and more) and even among Catholic theologians there are various schools (for example, Thomism), and there are also other categories (for example, liberation theology, feminist theology). A theologian that might be described as any of the above may know a great deal, but of course is God is a Trinity, all of the non-Christian theologians will be wrong on at least that point. And if God is totally unknowable all theologians may be immensely learned, but they will be fundamentally wrong, as of course all theologians are wrong about something very fundamental if there is no God. Of course, a theologian could be very learned and knowledgeable even if there is no God.

          • "There are Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Mormon, Muslim, theologians (and more) and even among Catholic theologians there are various schools (for example, Thomism), and there are also other categories (for example, liberation theology, feminist theology). A theologian that might be described as any of the above may know a great deal, but of course is God is a Trinity, all of the non-Christian theologians will be wrong on at least that point. And if God is totally unknowable all theologians may be immensely learned, but they will be fundamentally wrong, as of course all theologians are wrong about something very fundamental if there is no God. Of course, a theologian could be very learned and knowledgeable even if there is no God."

            Sure. Of course, there are sub-disciplines within theology, as in every academic field. Nobody is denying that. But that doesn't mean a theologian is not an expert in theology, any more than sub-disciplines within physics prevent a physicist from being an expert in physics. While someone specializing in quantum physics would have more expertise in that particular area, we generally assume physicists of any sub-discipline have more expertise about physics than non-physicists. Would you agree?

            Also, my original comment just meant to question Sqrat's surprising and audacious claim that theologians "[have] no expertise." Would you agree with him?

          • David Nickol

            Would you agree with him?

            Assuming that by a theologian we mean someone who has an advanced degree in theology from a reputable school, or alternatively someone who has acquired the equivalent in some other way (including self-study), I would disagree with the "no expertise" comment. Such people would surely be knowledgeable. However, two different theologians from two different religions might very well give two different answers to a single question. So it would certainly not be the case that if a theological dispute were taking place on Strange Notions, it could be settled by asking any well educated theologian.

            Of course, there are sub-disciplines within theology, as in every academic field. Nobody is denying that.

            I would be hesitant, though, to compare theology to other academic fields, especially in the sciences. Everyone in the physical sciences, whether a chemist, physicist, or astronomer, is studying the same thing—the physical world. However, it seems to me that, say, the Mormon conception of God is so different from the Christian conception that Mormon theology and Christian theology are more like two different subjects than two branches of the same subject.

            Organic chemists and inorganic chemists don't have rival theories of the chemistry. Mormon theologians and Christian theologians have rival, incompatible theories of God.

          • Ben Posin

            I agree with him, but am having a little trouble articulating it well. I'm an atheist. I don't believe God exists, or that those who do have a reasonable basis to do so. To a certain extent, being a theologian is somewhat like saying one is an expert in unicorns. One might have expertise regarding myths about unicorns, about the portrayal and symbolism of unicorns in literature, art, or film, or abou the various arguments put forth about unicorns' nature and habits or existence, but there's no such thing as actually having expertise in unicorns, because there are no unicorns. Similarly, a theologian may have expertise concerning religious arguments, but the most learned theologian has no more expertise concerning God than anyone else.

        • Raphael

          Is an evolutionary biologist an expert on theology?

          • Ben Posin

            Raph: why not just say whatever it is that's on your mind, rather than trying to play Socrates? No, an evolutionary biologist isn't an expert on theology, except to the extent
            that any particular one happens to be. But the point here is that to the extent that theology is the study of God, no one is. an expert on theology.

          • Raphael

            Would that include Richard Dawkins?

          • Ben Posin

            Would it really be that hard to just say whatever is you're trying to imply through questioning?

          • Raphael

            I had asked just two questions before you accused me of "trying to play Socrates". Why does my method of searching for truth offend you?

          • Ben Posin

            I'm happy to "accuse" you of this at just one question, depending on the question. A question like "are evolutionary biologists experts on theology" is enough for me. But ok: yes, to the extent that theology is the study of God, evolutionary biologists, including Richard Dawkins, are experts in theology, or at least as expert as any Catholic, including the Pope.

          • Raphael

            What qualifies you to say that "no one is an expert on theology" or on the expertise of Dawkins, Catholics, or Pope Francis?

          • Ben Posin

            Do you disagree with me?

          • Raphael

            Yes, I disagree with you. So what are your qualifications to say that "no one is an expert on theology" or on the expertise of Dawkins, Catholics, or Pope Francis?

          • Ben Posin

            What are your qualifications to disagree with me?

            While you're answering that: I'm not basing my answer on any particular qualification. I'm basing it on the failure of anyone to demonstrate that there actually is a God to study, and on the fact, as implied by David Nickol, that theologians of different schools and religions can espouse opposite ideas without any of them being demonstrably wrong (I have extended David's point, and he shouldn't be held responsible if I"m reading more into it than he actually means). Physicists study and learn about the physical laws of the world; art historians review works of art and their history; religious scholars study the history and doctrines of various religions; what common source of knowledge are theologians drawing from? How can we tell if one theologian has more or better knowledge than another?

            Anyway, I'm ignoring your one line questions, which don't strike me as sincere requests for information, from this point forward. If you have actual points to make or arguments, we can talk about them.

          • Raphael

            Having a free will allows me to disagree with you. I am happy to end this dialog. I don't appreciate your insults against me, theologians of all religions, Catholics, and Pope Francis. How much time and effort did you put it until you concluded that there is no God?

          • Sqrat

            Having a free will allows you to express a disagreement, regardless of whether you agree or disagree. I don't see how it would allow you to disagree if you actually agreed. But, as a thought experiment, could you, as an act of will, choose to agree with him right now, just like that?

            Go ahead -- agree with him for a few days. Be utterly convinced that he's dead-on right. Give it a try and let us all know the results.

          • Raphael

            Thanks, but I choose not to go off-topic.

            Are there experts in atheism?

          • George

            what do the theologians know? that's pretty much it.

    • In the opening nostalgic remarks of his homecoming address at Regensburg, in which he outlined the dehellenization of western thought, Benedict XVI recalled, "This profound sense of coherence within the universe of reason was not troubled, even when it was once reported that a colleague had said there was something odd about our university: it had two faculties devoted to something that did not exist: God."

      • Sqrat

        "Dehellenization." I like that term (and I see that Benedict coined it). I suppose it is true, to a considerable extent, that Christianity was indeed the Hellenization of Judaism (or a particular flavor thereof).

  • David Nickol

    As I understand it, the logical fallacy of "argument from authority" takes the form of saying, "Such-and-such an authority says this proposition is true, and that is proof that it is true." Arguing that cigarettes cause cancer by pointing out the American Cancer Society, the American Medical Association, and the World Health Organization say they do is not a weak argument, but it is not a proof, either.

    Of course, arguments made by Catholics that the Magisterium declares something to be true and thus it is true are arguments from authority, at least to those who are not Catholics. Consequently, to Catholics, the Immaculate Conception can be known to be true because the pope made an "ex cathedra" pronouncement that it was true. Of course, the pope's saying it does not make it true (in Catholic thought). It was true before any pope ever thought of saying it. But the pope has special authority to discern and declare the truth (Catholics believe).

  • Arguing from authority becomes fallacious when one accepts a statement because someone else had said it, but they do not possess any special expertise in the subject. Or, where no expertise is required.

    For example, it is not fallacious to accept Lawrence Krauss' argument that William Craig has misrepresented the science of cosmology which Krauss, even if you do not have the skill and knowledge in this area. It is reasonable to trust Krauss' opinion on this if you agree Krauss is much better educated and knowledgable I this field. To doesn't mean it is absolute truth, nor would Krauss say so. But we have reasons to trust him. He has education and experience in the area, he is employed and working in this field he is putting his job and his reputation on the line. The way to challenge him is to refer to other authorities who say he is wrong.

    You would be fallacious to accept a statement by Krauss that the eye did evolve on the basis that he is a popular speaker at atheist conferences and is a scientist. This is not Krauss' field.

    It would be similar fallacy to reject Krauss as an authority if he says pizza is the tastiest food. No expertise is required in this filed.

    I agree that the Pope are experts in Catholic doctrine and the church and I would accept their statements on this authority. But this expertise does not cover morality and science.

    • "For example, it is not fallacious to accept Lawrence Krauss' argument that William Craig has misrepresented the science of cosmology which Krauss, even if you do not have the skill and knowledge in this area. It is reasonable to trust Krauss' opinion on this if you agree Krauss is much better educated and knowledgable I this field. To doesn't mean it is absolute truth, nor would Krauss say so. But we have reasons to trust him. He has education and experience in the area, he is employed and working in this field he is putting his job and his reputation on the line. The way to challenge him is to refer to other authorities who say he is wrong."

      Like Alexander Vilenkin, widely regarded as one of the world's premier cosmologists? Although Krauss claimed Craig had misrepresented the Borde-Guth-Vilenkin theorem, Vilenkin wrote to Craig personally to say:

      "I think you represented what I wrote about the BGV theorem in my papers and to you personally very accurately."

      It was, in fact, Krauss--the supposed expert--who strategically manipulated email exchanges he had with Vilenkin so as to align Vilenkin's views with his own.

      I'll admit that Krauss is an expert in the field of cosmology, but in my mind that stunt stripped him of much credibility.

      "I agree that the Pope are experts in Catholic doctrine and the church and I would accept their statements on this authority. But this expertise does not cover morality and science."

      Who would you consider an acceptable authority on morality and why?"

      • David Nickol

        Who would you consider an acceptable authority on morality and why?

        I would think any theologian with a degree such as Moral Theology/Ethics (MT/E) Ph.D. would be a "sort of" expert on morality, in that he or she would have studied ethics in depth and could teach an ethics course that presented the entire field, and not just the Catholic view. For example, I would expect such a person to be able to teach a course on utilitarianism, even though (if a Catholic) he or she did not subscribe to it. But an authority on morality/ethics would not necessarily be right in his or her own opinions about what is moral and not moral. As with any branch of philosophy, there are competing views in ethics, and being tremendously learned does not translate into knowing or being able to prove which viewpoint (if any) is correct.

        • These are credentials in a field of study, but I think this is simply not a field of study in which we ever need to defer to authority.

          • David Nickol

            When I took an introductory course in ethics in college, the first thing the professor told us (and I am sure this happens in every introductory course on ethics) was that we weren't going to learn to tell right from wrong. We were going to learn the various philosophical approaches that philosophers had proposed over the ages for telling right from wrong. This is what I would expect someone with a degree in moral philosophy or ethics to have "expertise" in—e.g., someone with an advanced degree should be able to define normative ethics vs. descriptive ethics, deontology vs. utilitarianism, and so on. They should be able to tell you what Kant's Categorical Imperative is. In other words, they should have an overview (even if they are Catholic and themselves, because of their faith, believe that the Church is the definitive authority of what is right and wrong) of moral philosophy from the Greeks to the present. They would not be experts in telling you what you ought to do in a particular situation. Rather, they would be knowledgeable about all the various different (and possibly conflicting) theories that have been put forward by philosophers over the centuries about theories of right and wrong.

            If you really need to know what to do in a specific situation, you must write to The Ethicist at the New York Times. :P

      • Brandon, this was an example, I was not trying to prove a point about cosmology. I will accept what the majority of well-respected physicists and cosmologists say about it, because it is beyond my skill and education to understand it myself.

        For the same reason, I think there is no such thing as expertise in morality requiring our trust in authority.

  • Peter

    " Despite our disagreements, those on the other side of the intellectual divide may have insights into truth worthy of our consideration."

    Absolutely!

    Look at Sean Carroll, the altar boy turned atheist cosmologist. Other atheists say that the universe is hostile to life and that human life is a freak occurrence, but Sean Carroll argues the contrary, which is that the universe is highly fine tuned for life, far more so than would be necessary just for human life to appear.

    He uses this argument to disprove a God who creates the universe just for human life, since such a God would not be so wasteful as to create a universe capable of so much more.

    However, by demonstrating scientifically that the entire universe and not just planet earth is configured for life, what Sean Carroll has done is bring to our attention the sheer creative power of God. God with his limitless power has created a fertile universe on an unimaginably vast scale, which in the aeons to come will bring forth new sentient races to worship him.

  • vito

    Theologians, distinguished clerics etc. can be an authority in their field only in the sense that they can teach you what the rules in their religion are, i.e. what their particular church, sacred text, document etc teaches. For instance, I may go to a particular distinguished Catholic theologian for an explanation of the concept of Holy trinity. He would explain and I would believe that that's WHAT THE CHURCH IS TEACHING. In that sense, he is an authority. But he is definitely not an authority in the "truth' aspect of his claim. Why? because his claims are untestable. So yes, people with high degrees in theology may know what the claims ARE, but not if they are true.

  • There is a lot of discussion here about what makes someone an expert in a given field. But we should keep in mind that just because it is possible to receive high level degrees in a field does not mean that it is reasonable to defer to such persons' expertise in that field.

    It might be of some use to consider how courts of law rely on expert evidence, Courts cannot defer to any experts on legal issues (the judges themselves are the experts in to field and must make the legal decisions themselves), but they do recognize that in some areas they do not possess the necessary skills, experience and knowledge to make certain findings of fact.

    Take the example of a person claiming damages for a destruction of cabinet they claim to be a 16th century antique, whereas the defendant admits to destroying it but claims it was a worthless replica. It is reasonable for the court to defer to the expertise of persons with the knowledge in antiques to rule on the age of the piece These experts may be able to explain why they reach their conclusions, and there may be competing experts. But it is reasonable for the judge to defer to the experts on these questions, and there are ways to judge which expert it is more reasonable to defer to.

  • In other words, do not let the anti-authority of the speaker move you, but consider what is said, not who says it.

    I'm glad to hear this bell struck again. What are missing are notes that show understanding of why the problem occurs and how to practically achieve the goal. I'll quote a unusually excellent series of blog posts that strives to do exactly that. Early on it gives a good starting point of what's wrong:

    "Arguments are soldiers. Once you know which side you're on, you must support all arguments of that side, and attack all arguments that appear to favor the enemy side; otherwise it's like stabbing your soldiers in the back."

    So the first step in fixing the problem is to refuse to view the argument as conflict. We don't need to support all arguments that go our way or oppose all arguments that go the other way.

    Instead, view debate and discussion as cooperation. We're trying to scale a cliff to the truth, so you bring your pitons of evidence and I'll bring mine, and we'll combine them to try to make a route upward that anyone with the right experience can follow. And of course we'll examine the pitons carefully for defects in their construction or unsuitability for the hardness of the rock and throw out any we aren't sure we can rely on. If we keep our curiosity and go exploring, we may find some anti-authorities have build routes to lead us to some fascinating places!

    There's actually a lot of great ideas from neuroscience, psychology, decision theory, and epistemology in that linked list of blog posts. The main thing I like about it is that it's very accessible; you'll physically feel the important bits enlightening you, even while you itch to argue with the author about his personal conclusions. :D