Skip to main content

The appeal to authority

In a comment on my Feb 26th Post, anonymous said:

What you write ought... to provide a concise test for those who aspire to be professors of philosophy in this country's universities.If they read it and are unpersuaded then they are lacking in a key ability,to think clearly.At the moment Clark of Liverpool,Cottingham of Reading,Haldane of St Andrews,Trigg of Warwick are professors of philosophy at British universities who I think would call themselves Christian believers.There may well be others.Does the fact that they will all have dealt with the issues you raise in your essay and have come to an entirely different conclusion to you show that they are,unlike you,mentally deficient.

Does the fact that some eminent philosophers believe in God show that it is a reasonable, or not unreasonable, thing to believe? Don't they provide good grounds for thinking I'm wrong to suppose belief in God is downright unreasonable?

Well, let's remember that there are also many eminent philosophers (far more, I think) who side with me in this debate. And then there are a few who are agnostic. So it seems that some very eminent philosophers have got to be wrong. Which ones are wrong? Well, that's what we are trying to figure out, isn't it?

Some (like Mark Vernon) may argue that the fact that there is this diversity of opinion among philosophers shows that agnosticism is the only rational position for most of us to adopt. After all, if the world's leading scientists were deeply divided over some issue, it might well be wise to be cautious and not commit yourself one way or the other. Shouldn't you be equally cautious here?

I don't think so. Here's just one reason why. One explanation for diversity of opinion is when the evidence doesn't settle the matter decisively one way or the other.

But that is not the only explanation. Religion has an extraordinary power to make very smart people believe really stupid things (and even the power to make 'em think they're being really smart when they're actually being really stupid).

Just look at how religion has taken a belief shared by just a handful of religious crackpots some 60 years ago - the belief that the entire universe is six thousand years old - and in just those 60 short years convinced 100 million Americans that it is true. Not just that it is true, mind, but that it is consistent with the best scientific evidence.

Many of these people are college educated. You can be sure many are smarter than you or me. They think they are being reasonable. But of course the truth is they are just deluded.

Given we know religion has this gobsmacking power to blind people to the obvious, the fact that, yes, some smart people think the available evidence is consistent with belief in an all-powerful all-good God really wouldn't be particularly surprising, even if I'm right. So the fact that there are such people really doesn't provide much evidence that I'm wrong.


Larry Hamelin said…
When appealing to authority, agnosticism is warranted on a question if you're not able to evaluate the question on its own merits.

A physicist is entitled to have a definite conclusion on a matter of physics even if conclusions among all physicists is divided: she is part of the group which has divided conclusions. Unless I'm willing to dive into the maths and the experimental results, I have to go with the division of conclusions and myself conclude agnosticism.

But... and this is a big but... If I am willing to do the maths and look at the experiments, I'm entitled to my own conclusions without regard to the conclusions of physicists.

Philosophy is exactly the same. If you're willing to do the work, look at the arguments, think logically about the issue at hand, you're entitled to your own conclusions from that effort. You're entitled if the conclusions are divided; you're entitled even if they are united against you. You might be wrong, but you're still entitled to your conclusions and to promote your arguments on the same "metaphysical" basis as anyone else.

Everyone (except a theologian) is required to show her arguments and the data, and expect her conclusions to be evaluated on what she shows, no more, no less.
Steelman said…
I agree that there's no reason to assume, as the questioner did, that anyone should think believers are mentally deficient. Intelligence can be an aid to developing a richer narrative surrounding one's religious beliefs, even if they are based more on tradition, emotion, and confirmation bias than on logic and evidence. Smart people are good at rationalizing how what they want to be true is actually true.

In regard to college educated creationists, there's definitely a lot of compartmentalization happening there. An extreme case is Marcus Ross, who recently received a Ph.D. in geosciences from the University of Rhode Island. He has chosen to teach at Jerry Falwell's Liberty University, not exactly a paragon of scientific rigor. He sees the science he learned in Rhode Island as simply a different paradigm than the one which includes a 10,000 year old Earth that he'll be teaching in Virginia.

BB: "Everyone (except a theologian) is required to show her arguments and the data, and expect her conclusions to be evaluated on what she shows, no more, no less."

I wonder if the type of compartmentalizing above doesn't allow anyone to be their own theologian, and therefore not under any obligation to have their conclusions evaluated? Do educators of religious persuasion (non-theologians) get a pass when teaching their conclusions, whether they be philosophy teachers or science teachers (like Mr. Ross)?
Anonymous said…
These then are oddballs.They are greatly outnumbered by other clear-thinking atheist philosophers and they have allowed themselves,supposedly smart people, to believe, through a lack of intellectual rigor, statements which, within the wider philosophical ummah, are judged to be stupid and intellectually indefensible.The day must surely come therefore when such people will not be allowed to hold such posts.They are the equivalent of young earth creationists holding chairs in evolutionary genetics.
Lee Walters said…
The agnosticism argument overgenerates. Pick any philosophical or cosmological issue and you have people on opposing sides.

There is a much wider issue here. Although "Tim Williamson believes that" is not factive and "David Lewis believed that" most certainly isn't these guys are much smarter than me, have a better education than me and spend more time thinking about their problems more than me. So why should I think that I am right and they are wrong, which I freqeuently do.

When I decide these guys are wrong it is by examining their arguments and deciding they don't work. The same is true in the religious case, except that we rarely see arguments.

There is an interesting question about whether some believers have access to reasons I do not - revelation etc. But even if I were privy to such reasons I suspect I side with Hume is being sceptical about them. Although that is not to say that my atheism transcends all evidence.
Larry Hamelin said…
I wonder if the type of compartmentalizing above doesn't allow anyone to be their own theologian

My intent was to use "theologian" as an unqualified insult.
Stephen Law said…
Hello anonymous. You keep implying I must favour banning Christians from holding university posts, etc. But of course you are misrepresenting my view.

My actual view is of course that they should be publicly disembowelled and their entrails draped around every town square.
Steelman said…
BB:"You might be wrong, but you're still entitled to your conclusions and to promote your arguments on the same "metaphysical" basis as anyone else."

I agree, as long as the professor wouldn't give you an "F" for disagreeing with those conclusions of his (this would go for atheists being taught by a Christian professor, as well as the reverse situation). Certainly, the God question comes up more frequently in a philosophy class than in other subjects, but as long as an educator can do their job without allowing their religious beliefs (or lack thereof) to cause them to stray from the curriculum, then there shouldn't be a problem. Ditto political beliefs.

There's probably more to this issue in Britain due to publicly funded "faith schools" (i.e., can an atheist teach philosophy in a Catholic school, or a Christian hold that position in a Muslim academy?).

To SL: You English certainly have toned it down a bit in the past couple of centuries; there used to be more removed than just the awful offal, along with the part that involved lighter fluid and the donor as captive audience.
Larry Hamelin said…

I agree, as long as the professor wouldn't give you an "F" for disagreeing with those conclusions of his...

One of the nice things about being a high-school dropout is that I never did have to worry about anything like that.
Stephen Law said…
The main issue I was addressing here was not so much whether I am "entitled to express an opinion" - of course I am - but whether the fact that some smart philosophers disagree with me should be considered significant piece of evidence against my view. I gave one reason why it shouldn't.

I think if anonymous wants to justify his/her belief that belief in God is reasonable, or even just not unreasonable,it won't do simply to point to Trigg, Haldane, etc. and say "But they believe it!"
Larry Hamelin said…
The main issue I was addressing here was not so much whether I am "entitled to express an opinion" - of course I am - but whether the fact that some smart philosophers disagree with me should be considered significant piece of evidence against my view. I gave one reason why it shouldn't.

I understand. Your comments on the substantive point were persuasive; I didn't see I could add anything more substantive than, "Rah!" (I might point out, though, that you have inexplicably omitted quartering.) I wanted rather to address anonymous's point about excluding people from the discussion.

I do think you personally are entitled to your conclusions about philosophical matters, but I don't think there's anything "of course", i.e. automatic or default, about that entitlement.

You have done the underlying work as both your academic credentials and the content of your writing clearly attests. Like any other intellectually respectable writer, you not only present your conclusions, but also present the arguments and data that substantiate those conclusions.

I admire postmodernism to some extent, but I do impose standards on discourse. Those standards, though, are applied to form and not content:

1) Does the writer show her work?
2) Is the writer sincere?
3) Is the writer honest?
4) Does the writer demonstrate a basic grasp of logic?
5) Does the writer demonstrate a basic grasp of the rules of evidence?

If these standards are not met, I do not consider the writing to be legitimate or the writer entitled to hold an opinion on the matter at hand.

But I don't apply any standards to content. I may very strongly disagree with the conclusions of people such as Swinburne and Plantinga, and I think there are profound (albeit subtle) flaws in their reasoning, but both philosophers do meet the basic standards to entitle them to a place at the discussion.

I can only admit to the arrant presumptuousness of mentioning the entitlement of professional, degreed philosophers. I am indeed an arrogant basta... person.
Stephen Law said…
Hi BB. I wasn't criticising - just wanted to make my position clear. Being "entitled to an opinion" can mean various things, including:
(i) having good grounds for holding an opinion
(ii) being well-qualified to express an opinion
(iii) this is a free country goddamit.
I think your focus is on (ii), right?
Larry Hamelin said…
I think your focus is on (ii), right?

It is indeed, with a little bit of (i) thrown in as well.
Anonymous said…
Disregarding any sadistic fantasies you may entertain, my question remains.You "know" your atheism to be intellectually irrefutable.The best you can say about those theists who,temporarily at least,occupy a higher status within philosophical circles is that they are outnumbered within those same circles and anyway religion has an unerring ability to make smart people believe stupid things.That can only mean that it is obvious to any philosophically literate individual they are intellectually up the gum tree.Not quite the same as Dawkins "one of the most stupid faces etc" but,it seems to me, veering in that direction nevertheless.
Once it may have been possible for Dummett,an RC, to have uncontroversially succeeded Ayer,the Dawkins of his day, a fact that can probably be accounted for by the fact that Dummett's philosophical work had been on Frege and was not to do with religious concepts.My question is whether in the future it will be possible for someone in this country to obtain a chair in philosophy who has written positively,like Attwood,Cottingham, Haldane and Trigg,about theistic concepts.Or whether a future generation of philosophers will come to consider, as they sit on their selection commitees, that such writings,witnessing as they are to feeble-mindedness, are to be used as evidence against an individuals selection.
Outside philosphy, Richard Dawkins has occupied the Chair for the Public Understanding of Science in such a way that his crusading atheism may well have become inseparable from the task the title stipulates.If a theist were to succeed him would not the post be seen by many to be inadequately filled.In the same way the philosophy department at UCL is based on the assumption that everyone cannot be other than an atheist
To make it even more domestic to Dr Laws, though I had better make it clear that I know nothing about this person except two books of his that I have read.Peter Vardy might be able to appoint someone of Stephen Laws philosophical outlook into his department.But would Stephen Laws and others like him, as convinced that their atheism occupies as near as makes no difference to the status of a necessary truth, be prepared to allow the Peter Vardys of the future into theirs?
Stephen Law said…
Dear anonymous - let me reassure you that I would have no problem at all about hiring a religious person as a philosopher.

Popular posts from this blog


(Published in Faith and Philosophy 2011. Volume 28, Issue 2, April 2011. Stephen Law. Pages 129-151) EVIDENCE, MIRACLES AND THE EXISTENCE OF JESUS Stephen Law Abstract The vast majority of Biblical historians believe there is evidence sufficient to place Jesus’ existence beyond reasonable doubt. Many believe the New Testament documents alone suffice firmly to establish Jesus as an actual, historical figure. I question these views. In particular, I argue (i) that the three most popular criteria by which various non-miraculous New Testament claims made about Jesus are supposedly corroborated are not sufficient, either singly or jointly, to place his existence beyond reasonable doubt, and (ii) that a prima facie plausible principle concerning how evidence should be assessed – a principle I call the contamination principle – entails that, given the large proportion of uncorroborated miracle claims made about Jesus in the New Testament documents, we should, in the absence of indepen

What is Humanism?

What is Humanism? “Humanism” is a word that has had and continues to have a number of meanings. The focus here is on kind of atheistic world-view espoused by those who organize and campaign under that banner in the UK and abroad. We should acknowledge that there remain other uses of term. In one of the loosest senses of the expression, a “Humanist” is someone whose world-view gives special importance to human concerns, values and dignity. If that is what a Humanist is, then of course most of us qualify as Humanists, including many religious theists. But the fact remains that, around the world, those who organize under the label “Humanism” tend to sign up to a narrower, atheistic view. What does Humanism, understood in this narrower way, involve? The boundaries of the concept remain somewhat vague and ambiguous. However, most of those who organize under the banner of Humanism would accept the following minimal seven-point characterization of their world-view.

Plantinga's Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism refuted

Here's my central criticism of Plantinga's Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism (EAAN). It's novel and was published in Analysis last year. Here's the gist. Plantinga argues that if naturalism and evolution are true, then semantic epiphenomenalism is very probably true - that's to say, the content of our beliefs does not causally impinge on our behaviour. And if semantic properties such as having such-and-such content or being true cannot causally impinge on behaviour, then they cannot be selected for by unguided evolution. Plantinga's argument requires, crucially, that there be no conceptual links between belief content and behaviour of a sort that it's actually very plausible to suppose exist (note that to suppose there are such conceptual links is not necessarily to suppose that content can be exhaustively captured in terms of behaviour or functional role, etc. in the way logical behaviourists or functionalists suppose). It turns o