Criticism, Knowledge, and Authority

Learning about informal logical fallacies turns young philosophy students into gun-slinging logic vigilantes. I love how this comic (courtesy of Existential Comics) portrays the phenomenon.

fallacy man, authority, belief fallacy man, authority, belief

But, as Alexander Pope wrote, “a little learning is a dangerous thing.” In his Essay on Criticism, Pope critiques the critics, warning them of trying to evaluate beyond their skill. The essay (written in verse) holds great wisdom, well-worth the hour it might take to read through. One takeaway is this: if you plan to engage in criticism of a view, be sure you know what you’re talking about. Otherwise your photo may end up on Wikipedia’s Dunning-Kruger Effect  page. “Drink deep, or taste not the Peirian spring.”

The Appeal To Authority

hawking, authority, testimony, scienceOne of the fallacies mentioned above that gets frequent abuse is the “appeal to authority.” Those who have only sipped at the Peirian Spring misunderstand this concept, and so make two common errors: 1) they accuse others of it falsely, and 2) they become oblivious to their own appeals to authority. Let me illustrate a little.

Fallacious appeal to authority:  Brett claims that beer causes Alzheimer’s Disease. Conrad replies, “That’s silly.” Brett says, “My friend, Dr. Swanson, said it. Therefore, it’s true.”

Legitimate appeal to authority: Mark claims that black holes emit radiation. Kenny says, “But nothing can escape from a black hole.” Mark retorts, “Stephen Hawking has argued powerfully for this and talks about it in his book, A Brief History of Time.” 

What’s the difference? For one, Stephan Hawking clearly satisfies any reasonable criteria for being a legitimate expert on black holes. It is not at all clear that Dr. Swanson is an expert on Alzheimer’s. Conrad may not even know who Dr. Swanson is.  Second, Brett bases his argument solely on the word (hearsay) of Dr. Swanson, while Mark offers at least one checkable resource. Third, Brett fashions his argument in deductive form. But an argument from authority should take inductive form, i.e., the evidence from authority does not guarantee the conclusion–it only makes it more likely to be true.   A fourth mistake sometimes made in appeals to authority, though not in this case, is when someone misquotes or misrepresents an expert.

We All Do It

court room, testimonyThe bottom line is: we all rely on legitimate appeals to authority, and rightly so. Testimony (information transmitted to us from other persons, as in court) acts as one of at least five sources of knowledge (inference, memory, perception, and consciousness being the others). I simply cannot help but rely on the words of other people to help me form my beliefs about the world, like when my daughter tells me she is at a friend’s house. And I especially rely on those who have expertise in various areas: scientists, philosophers, doctors, lawyers, musicians, etc.

But I still need to treat authority carefully. When I decide whether to believe something I read or hear, I should make sure I know the source. Not all sources — people, publications, websites–are created equal. I would check to see whether the writer/speaker is an expert or is quoting an expert. And I still use reason and background knowledge to filter the expert’s claims. I address some of these ideas in this 2 minute clip from a talk at the University of Missouri Skeptics Club:

(You can see this video, “Responsible Believing,” in it’s entirety here.)

 A Final Paraklesis

pipe, health, authority, testimony(I like the Greek word ‘paraklesis’ because it can mean both “encouragement” and “exhortation.”) Sometimes extra caution is required. I may take risks, at times, with my own health–like when I indulge in pipe-smoking. But I should think twice about the health risks when recommending such things to others. Similarly, I am sometimes negligent with my epistemic health–like believing something without sufficient consideration. But I try to exercise extra caution and care when conveying ideas (teaching, writing, speaking, using social media), based on authority, to others. Take an extra moment to ask, before you post or assert something based on authority,

  • Is the authority legitimate? (not always an easy question)
  • If the issue is controversial, have I portrayed it as one-sided by only quoting one expert?
  • Is the authority an expert in the relevant field?
  • Did I accept this expert’s word uncritically, or have I checked it out?
  • Have I represented the authority accurately?

And before you draw your fallacy six-gun and dispense epistemic justice on someone, ask whether they might be making an appropriate appeal to authority.

Are There Good Reasons To Be An Atheist?

disagreement, rational, atheistI debated whether to even write this post. Here’s why: many people think that ANY concession to the “other side” amounts to total defeat. For many, to admit that atheist beliefs are reasonable amounts to admitting they are correct. But this is just plain wrong, and I’ll explain why below. Nevertheless, this post may disturb some theists.

Setting the Intellectual Stage

I’m going to set the stage here with a few concepts. Then I’ll tell you whether there are good reasons for atheism and what they might be (if there are any).

Castaway, island, belief, atheistThe first idea that needs stating is this: you aren’t obligated (epistemically) to believe X simply because there are some good reasons to think X is true. The equation is more complex than that. Imagine you are Tom Hanks’ character in the film Castaway. You hear on a radio that there were no survivors from your plane crash, and they even claim to have found your body! You now have two excellent reasons to believe you are dead. But you have one HUGE, overruling reason to believe the opposite: your own (physical) self-awareness. So, having good reasons for X doesn’t settle the matter.

The second idea we need to get straight is what counts as a “good reason.” We can say more than just “whatever reasons I like/agree with.” Good reasons should be those that give some rational support to your position. Put another way, good reasons (if true) should be things that increase the probability that your position is correct. Example: I believe that Dylan will win this tennis match against Austin because Dylan has never lost a tennis match against Austin. (Even though these are independent events, the inference comes from Dylan’s apparent superior skill.) Believing that Dylan will win because he wears orange shorts would not be a good reason because the color of his shorts, presumably, has no bearing on his probability of winning.

Rationality and Reasons

dreams, rational, atheistThirdly, rationality.* The problem people have with understanding rationality is this: they assume that if Joe’s belief is false, then it can’t be rational. (People also assume the contrapositive: if it is rational, it is true. Sort of the logical Field of Dreams.)  This misses the mark completely. Rationality and truth come apart all the time. We aim to be rational or reasonable because it increases our chances of believing what is true. But being rational cannot guarantee we are right.

Throughout history, and even today, people have rationally and reasonably believed false things. Many intelligent people rationally believed the earth was the center of the universe. Heck, I read an encyclopedia from the 1950s that claimed space travel to be impossible. Bottom line: it’s OK to concede that people can be rationally wrong.

Think of it another way. There can be good reasons to believe something, even when it’s false. Think of a murder trial. Juries sometimes convict a person of a crime because there is a good case against them, only to be proven wrong by new evidence later. The jury may have been completely rational in their decision, given that they did not yet have the new evidence.

Pro-atheist?

cancer, child, evil, faith, atheistSo are there good reasons for atheism? I think so.  First, if God exists, then you’d think he would prevent small children from getting cancer, or from being sexually abused. But these things still happen. This counts as prima facie evidence against God’s existence, I think. Second, much of what we attribute to God can be explained other ways. Religious experience, alleged miracles, changed lives. Alternate explanations for these things give us reason to doubt the reality of God. Third, if one already has strong reasons to accept an atoms-only view of the universe (i.e., physicalism), then one has a reason to deny God’s existence. These three brief, good reasons fall short of a total survey of arguments for atheism, but it’s a start. Suggestions welcome.

There are also many awful reasons to be an atheist. In my research for this post, I found several websites about “reasons to be an atheist,” and they were, to be honest, mostly atrocious. People routinely conflate theism with Christianity, and mistakenly think that an argument against the Bible or the church is ipso facto an argument against God. Some claim that there’s “no evidence,” which is obviously false, since billions of people would line up to give testimony of their experience of God (some have even written it down). You may discount this evidence, but it is evidence nevertheless. Some even go so far as to say that since we don’t “need” God, then we shouldn’t believe in God! That argument fails in exactly the same way that the “we need to believe in God or else we won’t have meaning/morality/happiness” argument fails.

Conclusion

respect, disagree, belief, atheistIn conclusion, many theists ought to reevaluate their attitude toward their atheist acquaintances. Some atheists may believe irrationally (as many theists do), but many of them actually have good reasons behind their disbelief. In fact, I’d wager a small amount that the percentage of (evidentially) irrational atheists out of all atheists is smaller than the percentage of (evidentially) irrational theists! So, approach your conversations with respect, and assume the best, until proven otherwise. (The same goes for you atheists!)

*I’m using the term ‘rationality’ quite loosely here. I’m taking ‘rational belief’ to be roughly synonymous with ‘reasonable belief’ or ‘justified belief.’

Fear and Reason

subconscious, fear, politicsDo your subconscious fears influence your political beliefs? As much as we might all like to think that our political positions are the result of careful, rational investigation, they aren’t. A fascinating article published in the Washington Post last November has been making the rounds on social media, claiming (roughly) that feelings of safety will cause more liberal political leanings. Before you dismiss this as nonsense or fake news, hear me out and then take a few minutes to read the article. It should take about 6 minutes. Here’s the link.

First of all, this kind of research is inductive, which means that it does not prove the conclusions — it only gives us good reasons to accept the conclusions as true. Second, this research only identifies one potential factor in how our political inclinations are formed. Many other causal factors go into explaining why people vote or believe the way they do. Third, this study uses statistical reasoning to conclude things about the general population, which does not automatically mean these things are true of you, personally. And fourth, I don’t see anything wrong with admitting that my emotions and fears sometimes influence my beliefs. I’m human, after all. And this doesn’t mean that all my thinking falls short of being ideally rational, just that some of it may. In other words, don’t freak out.

The Takeaway

open hands humilityWhat I takeaway from research like this is the importance of intellectual humility. We are finite, fallible creatures who possess many biases and mental shortcomings. Thus, we ought to hold more lightly to many of our beliefs, remaining open to new evidence and amendment. Secondly, research like this moves me to reflect on my own reasons and fears, and to honestly ask myself if this rings true. It’s ok to be wrong. It’s not ok to let my hubris get in the way of correction and growth.

Are They Crazy?

saxophone, talent, rationalMy junior year of college (I was studying to be a band director), I met Steve. Steve was, by all accounts, a talented, intelligent, rational person. Like me, he played the saxophone, but unlike me, he *played* the saxophone. I mean, he flew up and down the scales unconsciously, as if he were playing with 14 fingers instead of the standard 10. Oddly, despite his intelligence and talent, he was a conservative Christian. I thought that was crazy. At the time, I viewed religion and God as ridiculous, only for the weak-minded. Despite this, we became fast friends.

I still recall a conversation (we often got into religious and political debates) in which I said to him, “I don’t know how any intelligent person could believe in God.” To which he replied, without flinching, “I don’t know how any intelligent person could NOT believe in God!” Most of the Christians I had talked to would have been reduced to a puddle of religious sentiment at this point, but Steve held his ground.

Conditional Craziness

horses, crazy, rationalFast forward 25 years. I no longer consider Steve to be crazy.  But I look back on my 20 year old self and I understand why I saw it that way. I also understand the view from the “other side.” For a couple years in my 20s, after crossing over to faith in God, I flipped. That is, I thought atheists, my former brethren, were the crazy ones. I no longer believe that, either. But why do we usually look at our counterparts across the “aisle of faith” and wag our heads, thinking, “Those poor fools”?

I think I can explain this phenomenon. It comes down to conditional probability. You see, when you consider whether to believe something, you often weigh the probability that it is true. For example, suppose Julie tells you that she’s been a bridesmaid in over 100 weddings. You’re skeptical. The probability of this is quite low, say 5%, and the reasonable response is disbelief. But what if you learn that Julie is a professional bridesmaid? Now you weigh the probability that she is telling the truth, conditional on this new information. This conditional probability would be quite high, say 80%, which is high enough to warrant acceptance.

bridesmaid, conditional probability, rationalNotice that we ignore, for the moment, the possibility that the information about Julie’s unusual occupation is false. We simply form the belief that, assuming she is a professional bridesmaid, the likelihood of her having been a bridesmaid 100 times is quite high. We stand well within our epistemic or rational rights to believe her. But another person who lacks this extra bit of information would not be rational to uncritically accept Julie’s “100 weddings” boast.

That “Extra Bit”

So what does this have to do with rational theism or atheism? The reason that theists or atheists appear so crazy to us is that we are often judging them without that extra bit of information. Without that “extra bit,” we simply estimate the subjective probability for the “bare” version of their position. For example, if you’re an atheist, the subjective probability of theism is quite low. Which means that theism shouldn’t be believed by rational persons! Thus, from the atheist perspective, theism appears quite irrational, and vice versa.

believe, belief, think, rationalBut if we could explore the minds of each person, we would find that we aren’t believing simple, bare propositions. (Let’s say that ‘A’ = “atheism is true,” and ‘T’ = “theism is true.”) We are usually believing A or T conditional on a certain set of reasons–reasons that, presumably, increase the likelihood of A or T. These reasons may include a whole host of things: scientific discoveries, experiences, beliefs about the coherence or incoherence of divine revelation and action, testimony, etc. So, for any theist or atheist, given the set of reasons they have, their belief may very well be rational.

Resist the temptation to perform a summary execution on another person’s rationality.

Keep in mind that while you enjoy access to your own set of reasons, you lack access to the reasons of others. You don’t really know whether the set of reasons they’re working with justifies their belief or not. So, like the American legal system, I think it better to presume rational innocence. Resist the temptation to perform a summary execution on another person’s rationality.

Conclusion

Mr. T, pity, rationalNow some of you are thinking, “How can their reasons make their belief rational if their reasons are all wrong or crazy?!” That’s the funny thing about rationality–it doesn’t guarantee truth. It only increases our chances of getting truth (usually). For hundreds of years, people rationally believed that the Sun revolved around the Earth. So the truth of our beliefs is not what I’m talking about. I just want to show that people can be rational even if they’re wrong. So, you may still pity the fool who believes (theism/atheism), but you shouldn’t automatically peg them as irrational. And you absolutely shouldn’t peg them as “beneath you” on the intelligence or ethical scale.