Saturday, January 19, 2008

"But many leading philosophers/Biblical scholars believe!"

I said a while ago that we'd discuss arguments from authority regarding religious belief.

For example, you often hear people say "Many leading philosophers are believers, so it can't be that unreasonable, can it?" William Hawthorne earlier made this sort of move (correct me if I am wrong, William).

Another example I heard from philosopher Gary Habermas (paraphrasing) "The vast majority of Biblical scholars agree that the historical evidence for the crucifixion of Jesus is strong" (he then proceeds to argue that what they agree on then provides ample evidence that Jesus was resurrected. I am reading his "The Case For The Resurrection of Jesus" at the moment.

My view is these arguments from authority are very weak. But at this point I merely invite comments...

Go here for examples of fallacious appeals to authority. Are the above fallacious appeals?

18 comments:

Martin Fox said...

The only necessary criterion for an appeal to authority is that the suggestion of authority takes place of an argument. Unless the person who claims that 'many y believe x' can actually demonstrate that is x is true, then it's an appeal to authority. The reason so many 'group y all claim x' statements are found to be an appeal to authority is because of there was an actual argument in favour it would usually take the place of this one.

There is often another fallacy combined with the appeal to authority. You mention about philosophers believing in God - this seems to me like guilt by association. To use an example:

Some Philosophers believes in God, therefore religious philosophy is valid.

compared to:

Some evolutionary scientists believe in God, therefore intelligent design is valid.

It relies on the idea that the ideas are related in some way when they don't have to be.

Tea said...

Martin,

I think that "appeal to authority" is only a fallacy when the authority appealed to is not really an authority on the *subject discussed*. Therefore, I don't have to be able to demonstrate myself that x is true, if I'm appealing to someone who has actual authority on the subject x. (Otherwise I wouldn't be justified in holding any beliefs on the speed of light, the shape of the earth, or the functioning of human organs, to name but a few).

I suppose that, when it comes to "historical evidence for the crucifixion of Jesus", the authority to rely on would be historians, not biblical scholars (I guess they only have an authority on whether Jesus was crucified *according to the bible*).

On the other hand, the statement "Many leading philosophers are believers, so it can't be that unreasonable, can it?" doesn't necessarily have to be meant as taking place of an argument, but more as an appeal to thinking about the issue more thoroughly. After all, many believers may become drawn to questioning their beliefs because (among other things) it's gradually becoming more and more suspicious to them that the majority of religious people are uneducated, while the majority of scientists tend to be atheists. In effect, they may be thinking "Most scientists are atheists, so it can't be that unreasonable, can it?" I wouldn't call that a fallacious argument, because it doesn't even seem to be meant as an argument at all.

Martin Fox said...

Tea,

I'm sure that the appeal authority is broader than that. Even an authority on a subject can be wrong on their topic of choice, which is why the fallacy includes claims from within the subject. For example, if a mathematician told you that 1+1=2 it's certainly within their expertise but to claim it's true based on their authority as a mathematician is fallacious. The point is that if a point is true there is an argument behind it that does not rely it. This is the response to your examples of the speed of light, etc - an authority may tell you, but there is a factual argument underlying it that can be assessed without reference to that authority.

The point you make about leading philosophers is true, but arguments are often stated in stronger terms than that. To me, the difference between the example you gave and what is claimed is similar to other fallacies. For example, the appeal to popularity fallacy means that truth cannot be established on popularity; it would, as you say, indicate it needs to be considered.

I would consider it an argument, because it is trying to establish a truth (in the form of a course of action): that we should examine this position more closely. This is a distinct truth from 'x position is correct'.

The Barefoot Bum said...

In the dictionary sense "authority" has (at least) two meanings relevant in this context. It can relate to statements that are true directly by virtue of being affirmed by some person or persons ("true" authority), and statements which are believed because one has good reason to believe the speaker is truthful (expertise).

An argument from scientific expertise is just a shortcut. To say that "Stephen Hawking says that black holes radiate" is merely to reference Hawking's explicit argument. Note that without an explicit underlying argument, you cannot really trust (at least not in the same way) even an expert's opinion or intuition, regardless of his or her reliability.

For just this reason, the argument that the existence of god has credibility because many (some?) philosopher consider it credible is at best a reference to those philosophers actual arguments. If you are lazy, and not really interested in examining the underlying arguments, then ipso facto you don't really care whether or not the existence of god is or is not a credible idea.

(I have examined the underlying arguments for the existence of god; personally I find them all egregiously stupid. But you should actually check for yourself.)

Furthermore, without mentioning the specific philosophers and their arguments, the argument from expertise is utterly banal, not just lazy but positively comatose.

Sam Norton said...

"When we first begin to believe anything, what we believe is not a single proposition, it is a whole system of propositions. (Light dawns gradually over the whole.)... The child learns to believe a host of things. I.e. it learns to act according to these beliefs. Bit by bit there forms a system of what is believed, and in that system some things stand unshakeably fast and some are more or less liable to shift. What stands fast does so, not because it is intrinsically obvious or convincing; it is rather held fast by what lies around it." (Wittgenstein, On Certainty, paras 141 and 144). What I take Wittgenstein to be pointing out, and it seems to me to be one of the main arguments of that book, is that our world views as a whole are not built up from rational grounds but are rather embedded in how we live and most especially how we are taught - and the teaching proceeds on the basis of authority, otherwise it can never begin. In other words we need grounds for doubting authority, and those grounds can only make sense once you have already been taught how to play certain games. It's impossible to gain an understanding that does not, at some point, rely upon an external authority. (I think Wittgenstein also saw the desire for such an understanding to be pathological, not least within himself). As he put it: 'The reasonable man does not have certain doubts.' (para 220)

So the core issue, it seems to me, is: when is it reasonable to trust someone? Or: what is the philosophical status of expertise (eg an 'expert witness' in a court case)? It's as if we need a catalogue of arguments from authority and the capacity to distinguish between those that are defensible and those that are not.

Dawkins has an interesting argument about creationists trusting modern science whenever they fly in an aeroplane - the example works just as well to demonstrate the reasonableness of trusting authority in the living of a life. If every passenger first had to establish for themselves all the principles of engineering and aeroanautics in order for their decision to fly to be reasonable, the airlines would soon go out of business!

Chris said...

I haven't actually read the book in question, but I've heard Habermas speak a couple of times and he had a debate on the Infidel Guy podcast which I listened to.

I'm surprised if you're paraphrase is accurate, as the standard evangelical apologetical strategy is to argue like this:

There are many good reasons to believe that the historical Jesus of Nazareth was crucified.

Firstly, it is recorded in all four gospels, with remarkable agreement. The pericope appears to have been handed down in whole, and is as such more reliable.

Secondly, the crucifixion is mentioned by Tacitus, a Roman historian who is known to be greatly reliable.

Thirdly, crucifixion was considered a horrible death by people generally at the time. It is extremely unlikely that those who followed Jesus would invent such a horrific death for him.

Fourthly, for Jews, crucifixion showed Jesus to be cursed of God (Deuteronomy 21:22-23). As the Evangelists belived Jesus to be the Messiah, it is historically ridiculous to say that they invented a crucifixion story. It presented a barrier to belief in Jesus, so would not have been fabricated.

Fiftly, no competing death story exists. If the crucifixion were a legend, we would expect other conflicting legends.

For these reasons among others, New Testament scholarship is universally agreed that Jesus of Nazareth died by crucifixion.

Micheal Grant, a secular classical historian said that the crucifixion "must be true" (Micheal Grant, Jesus, p164)"


Paraphrase, by the way. And not entirely accurated, Bob Price remains the only NT scholar today who denies the historicity of Jesus and I'd recommend the Infidel Podcast with Bart Ehrman, in which Dr Ehrman "rinses" Price, to show how Price is regarded in the Academy.

Does this argument constitute a fallacious appeal to authority? I would contend not. The internet link you gave says:

"Since this sort of reasoning is fallacious only when the person is not a legitimate authority in a particular context, it is necessary to provide some acceptable standards of assessment"

1) Do the authorities have sufficient expertise in the subject matter in question?

Yes. New Testament scholars have been part-time historians for at least two centuries. Classical historians agree with them that Jesus was crucified. If Habermas were to list his scholars, I'm sure most would have PhDs in NT or similar.

2) Is the authority speaking within their area of expertise?

Yes. I would contend that classical historians like Robin Lane Fox and Micheal Grant are also useful though, as they come to the NT with fresher eyes, but still the relevant skills. The historicity of the crucifixion lies well within the expertise of New Testament scholars.

3) Is there an adequete degree of agreement amongst other schoars?

Yes.

4) Is the person in question significantly biased?

Yes and no. Some of the scholars will be, others won't. Personally I think this question almost qualifies as attacking the motive.

5) Is the area of expertise is a legitimate area?

Yes, even Richard Dawkins is prepared to allow bibllical hisotorians a place in academia, even if he sees no reaon for theology "to be a subject at all" (paraphrase)

6) Is the authority identified?

Well, other evangelical apologists have, I'm not sure if Habermas/Licona list their scholars or not as I haven't read it. The list would be astonishingly long with regard to all of their minimal facts, if they were to list all relevant authorities. William Lane Craig lists 16? (may be more) modern scholars who accept and argue for the veracity of the empty tomb narrative in The Son Rises. No idea if Licona/Habermas do the same.

Sorry this has been so long. :)

Vinny said...

Since the four gospels were written anonymously, the only recorded eyewitness claim to seeing the risen Christ comes from Paul. Unfortunately, Paul gives us remarkably little detail about what it was he saw. This makes it very difficult to build a case for the resurrection based on evidence.

Habermas sidesteps the sparsity of evidence by directing attention to the abdundance of scholars. He is hoping that his readers won't notice that one witness plus five hundred scholars still only adds up to one witness.

The Exterminator said...

Calling a philosopher an authority on what really happened 2000 years ago is the same as calling a fish 'n' chips salesman an authority on ichthyology.

Stephen Law said...

Hello Chris - just to clarify, Habermas does offer some of those other arguments as well.

I must say I am amazed how Christians regularly trot out Josephus and Tacitus as providing "independent" confirmation, seeing as they seem to be doing little more than reporting what Christians said/believed (at the very least, I see little reason to suppose they're not just doing that).

I wanted this to be on arguments from authority, not historical evidence for Jesus, which you have now introduced. So let's start a separate discussion on that. See next post.

Chris said...

Ok Stephen, thanks for the next post, I'll come to it later.

I did however discuss whether or not evangelical arguments on the resurrection are just appeals to authority or not. Do you agree with me? Why/not?

Stephen Law said...

Hi Chris - oh no they are not all appeals to authority (not contemporary scholarly opinion, I mean). Habermas uses other evidence too, for sure. But he is very fond of appeals to scholarly consensus.

Sam Norton said...

Stephen - the website you link to has a distinct understanding of what the fallacy of an appeal to authority specifically is, which is rather different to what I was taught. That is, the website accepts the difference between reasonable belief and truth (I understood that the appeal to authority was always false because it didn't say anything about the truth of the particular claim). Which is a way of confessing that my previous post was redundant. Sorry.

The Barefoot Bum said...

Chris Hallquist links to a discussion underway apparently about whether the word "expertise" can be properly applied to philosophy in the first place.

The link is unfortunately not working as of the time of this comment, but Hallquist himself asserts that "analytic philosophy has come to define itself in terms of interminable argument, which means that the experts you want to defer to aren't going to agree."

There's also the wastebasket problem.

Tom Rees said...

Appeal to authority is fine for non experts. But it can't take the place of expert argument.

For example, I'm not a climate scientist. To find out the latest on climate science, I'll ask an expert (preferably several).

If I were a climate scientist (or had the time to become an expert), though, I'd go to the raw facts and make my own mind up.

In other words, an appeal to authority is a practical workaround for the problem that I can't be expected to know everything...

Steven Carr said...

Habermas claims 75% of scholars believe in an empty tomb.

I'm not quite sure where he gets that figure from.

If 75% of professional biologists believed in Darwinian evolution, the theory would be highly controversial.

If 75% of cosmologists believed in Big Bang theory, Big Bang theory would be highly controversial.

Is there a field where 75% is considered enough to settle an issue?

William Hawthorne said...
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William Hawthorne said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
William Hawthorne said...

Stephen,

I did not argue from

(1)Many of the brightest philosophers believe in God

to

(2) Therefore, God exists,

or even to

(2*) Therefore, belief in God is reasonable.

What I suggested is this. The fact that many of the brightest philosophers believe in God should give us pause before we join atheist apologists (like Dawkins) in dismissing theism as delusional.

And in general, I would argue that if many extremely brilliant people have thought about p carefully, subjected p to rigorous logical analysis, and have come to believe that p, this should give us reason to refrain from lazily dismissing p as childish or delusional. A more thorough investigation would be called for.

So I have not committed a fallacious appeal to authority.

For evidence that many of the brightest philosophers reject naturalism and endorse theism, visit the following webpage:

http://rationalperspective.wordpress.com/theistic-philosophers/

In fact, when it comes to Christian philosophers in particular, Leiter made the following observation:

"...while Robert Adams and Alvin Plantinga and William Alston were something of anomalies in their generation, the large number of overtly Christian philosophers, who are fairly prominent philosophers as well, in the younger generation (e.g., those under 50 roughly) is quite large, and includes, among others, John Hawthorne (Oxford & Rutgers), Dean Zimmerman (Rutgers), Keith DeRose (Yale), Michael Rea and Fritz Warfield (Notre Dame), Robert Koons (Texas), Michael Bergmann (Purdue), and Mark Murphy (Georgetown)--and that's just off the top of my head. To be sure, religious philosophers are probably still a minority in academic philosophy in the U.S., but my sense is they are less of a minority than 25 years ago."

Best,

Will