Authority & Its Argumentative Pretensions

Anyone who conducts an argument by appealing to authority is not using his intelligence; he is just using his memory. – Leonardo da Vinci

INTRODUCTION

The notion of authority is one that is of particular interest to me. I was raised in a conservative Christian home. I attended a private Christian school. I grew up in a Pentecostal church marked by a strong belief in the authority of the leadership and, of course, the Holy Scriptures. I recently broke ties with the Church due primarily to what I believe to be an abuse of authority on the part of the leadership.

What was it that I felt justified my decision to take myself out from under their authority? I appealed to what I believed to be a higher authority than the leadership of the church, the Holy Scriptures. It seemed to me that they were requiring of the members of the church more than the Scriptures taught and, frankly, perverting the Scriptural concept of spiritual authority and church government.

Now, I don’t want to mislead the reader. I’m not going to be discussing church government and such secondary matters in this article. My topic is authority in general. And, I think a good definition of authority is: “that which has the right to demand belief and/or obedience.” Now, I only gave limited details of my personal situation to demonstrate what I think to be an inevitable result of disagreement. It seems to me that the question of authority is inescapable when it comes to discourse regarding the marketplace of ideas. Let me unpack this.

MY TWO CENTS: OPINIONS ARE A DIME A DOZEN

Franklin D. Roosevelt said “There are as many opinions as there are experts.” I was tempted to substitute “people” for “experts” so that this would read, “There are as many opinions as there are people.” While a nice cliche, it doesn’t seem to be accurate. If even two people have the same opinions, this cliche fails; and, this certainly seems possible. Perhaps we could say instead, “There are as many opinions as there are influencers.” Yes, experts tend to be influencers and shape opinions, but certainly not always. I mean, here I am, influencing you right now with my writing and I am certainly no expert! Maybe it is a little presumptuous to assume that I actually am influencing you. But, I digress.

The point is that there are many different, competing opinions. These differences of opinion are sure to come up as we interact with our fellow men. I’m sure you can think of one such exchange you had recently. I’m thinking of one. It went something like this:

  • Me: “It is like this….”
  • My Worthy Opponent: “No! That’s not right! It is like this, you see…”
  • Me: “No! That’s not right! It is not like that. It is like this because of this fact.”
  • My Worthy Opponent: “What?! Where did you hear that that fact was true? That’s preposterous!”
  • Me: “From so-and-so, or, such-and-such.”
  • My Worthy Opponent: “Well, that source of information is wrong, I say, because this source of information says so-and-so.”

And on it went. Stripped of the specific verbiage and topic, the conversation seems very monotonous. But, I imagine if we were to examine the exchange you had in mind, this pattern would overlay it nicely.

SOME DEFINITIONS

When I began to study philosophy, the definition of the word argument began to shift a little in my mind. Before, I would have used the word to describe the exchange between myself and my worthy opponent I recounted above. Now, I wish to be more precise. That exchange is more properly a debate (“a contention by words or arguments” according to Merriam-Webster Dictionary) whereas an argument could be said to be a set of statements in the form of premises leading to a conclusion (“a coherent series of reasons, statements, or facts intended to support or establish a point of view” according to Merriam-Webster Dictionary). So, a debate is an exchange in which contenders use arguments to demonstrate the accuracy of their opinion and/or the inaccuracy of their opponent’s opinion.

As An Aside: I recognize that both debate and argument are words with negative connotations. But, never let it be said that I capitulated the proper definition of a word to the changing tides of connotation! I’d like to stress the emotionally neutral nature of the words as they are defined above. Emotional heat doesn’t seem to be a necessary condition of debate through argumentation. I’m sure there are psychological and maybe even biological reasons for this tendency, but it can be overcome. Keep an eye out for another post forthcoming where I will discuss just this issue!

MY CENTRAL CLAIM

Now, I would like to get to the point of this article and make my central claim. Arguments are necessarily appeals to authority. When we make an argument in a debate, we inevitably appeal to some authority to validate our claim, whether it be a person, a publication, or propaganda! Just look at the exchange I recounted above. There were appeals to “facts” and “sources of information”. These were appeals to an authority which each individual believed had the right to demand belief.

If I am right on this, then the Leonardo da Vinci quote at the beginning of this article is missing the mark somehow. He insists that it is unintelligent to “conduct an argument by appealing to authority”. I’ve heard this same notion before even from someone with whom I agree on a lot, the conservative author, Ben Shapiro. In a famous video of him responding to questions after discussing sociological issues on a college campus, he discusses the “argument from authority” with a student who is trying to discredit his opinion because he doesn’t have a degree in the field of sociology. Ben says, “I would urge you not to use the ‘argument from authority’, which is, ‘somebody has a PhD by their name, so they know what they are talking about’. That’s a dumb argument.” He then says, “This is actually the equivalent of…a religious person…citing the Bible for an argument…That’s an argument from authority. You may not believe the authority…I’m citing.”

I think that both Leonardo and Ben are on the money as far as their statements go, but I think they aren’t being precise with their terminology. Let me explain.

A NECESSARY DISTINCTION

Presumably, these fine scholars would say that, instead of “appealing to authority”, we should appeal to something else such as demonstrable facts and/or evidence. Well, there are a couple issues with this. First, I would say that the facts and/or evidence to which we now appeal have become our authority on whatever matter is in question. Authority then, in argumentative pretensions, is that to which one appeals in order to make one’s case. Second, it seems very difficult to discern the facts and discover the evidence without some mediating authority. We can’t all be specialists in every field of endeavor. We can’t all be biologists, historians, philosophers, etc. There are “experts” who act as “authorities” in their field. These are the ones to whom we turn to discover the “facts” pertaining to their particular area of inquiry. It is very simple to see the practical ramifications of this when one sets out to “prove” something. For example, let’s assume one wanted to make an argument that “Darwinian evolution occurred”. How would one go about making this argument? Well, he could go dig up the fossils and do all of the necessary scientific experiments, but this is plainly impractical. Therefore, he must rely on the work of scholars and specialists who have done so. But, at the moment he does this, he has made an appeal to authority.

So, I think we can here distinguish justified vs. unjustified authority. It is unjustified authority that Leonardo and Ben have in mind when they say it is unintelligent to make the “argument from authority”. The authority they have in mind is an authority which asserts itself without any validation of its authority. It is unintelligent to do so because without first validating the authority to which we are appealing we run the risk of error. After all, simply because we have identified this source as an authority on the matter at hand doesn’t mean it actually is! So, we must justify the authorities to which we appeal by validating them. Validation leads to justified authority which has the right to demand our belief.

THE IMPLICATIONS

Well now, doesn’t that put us into an interesting position? How exactly do we validate an authority in order to use it as an authority? It would seem that we must appeal to some higher authority in order to validate the lower authority in question. But, it is hard to imagine how this doesn’t lead us immediately into an infinite regress of validation!Therefore, it seems to me there must be some end to the regress and this end would then be the Ultimate Authority.

Now, having exhausted my thoughts on the matter at this point, I’d like to take an interesting excursion into apologetics. It is at this point that I would like to tie the aim of my mission (truth) and the topic of this argument (authority) together and make my “Argument From Authority”. Leonardo must be turning over in his grave…

THE ARGUMENT FROM AUTHORITY

  1. If discerning the truth on any particular matter is possible, there is a particular authority to which we can appeal in order to do so.
  2. If there is a particular authority to which we can appeal in order to discern the truth on any particular matter, then this particular authority is validated by a higher authority.
  3. If any particular authority is validated by a higher authority, then there is an Ultimate Authority from which all validation flows.
  4. If there is an Ultimate Authority from which all validation flows, that Ultimate Authority is God.
  5. If the Ultimate Authority is God, then God exists.
  6. Discerning the truth on any particular matter is possible.
  7. Therefore, there is a particular authority to which we can appeal in order to discern the truth on any particular matter. (1,6)
  8. Therefore, this particular authority is validated by a higher authority. (2, 7)
  9. Therefore, there is an Ultimate Authority from which all validation flows. (3, 8)
  10. Therefore, the Ultimate Authority is God. (4, 9)
  11. Therefore, God exists. (5, 10)

IN CLOSING

The irony of the title of my argument given the topic of this article does not miss my notice…

This argument felt like a fitting end to this article. It feels a little clunky and I’m sure can be slimmed down. It could also use some validation…

I hope this stirs thought and helps lead us all closer to The Truth.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s