Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Epistemically otiose appeals to authority

Suppose I am an art graduate student.  After careful study, a certain well-known painting of uncertain provenance looks very much to me like it is by Rembrandt.  Kowalska is the world expert on Rembrandt.  I have never heard what Kowalska thinks about this painting.  But I reason thus: "This painting is almost certainly by Rembrandt.  Kowalska is very reliable at identifying Rembrandt paintings and has no doubt thought about this one.  Therefore, very likely, Kowalska thinks that the painting is by Rembrandt."  I then tell people: "I have evidence that Kowalska thinks this painting is by Rembrandt."

What I say is true--the evidence for thinking that the painting is by Rembrandt combined with the evidence of Kowalska's reliability is evidence that Kowalska thinks the painting is by Rembrandt.  But there is a perversity in what I say.  (Interestingly, this perversity is a reversal of this one.)  By implicature, I am offering Kowalska's Rembrandt authority as significant evidence for the attribution of the pointing, while in fact all the evidence rests on my own authority.  Kowalska's authority on matters of Rembrandt is epistemically otiose.

This kind of rhetorical move occurs in religious and moral discourse to various degrees.  In its most egregious form, one reasons, consciously or not: "It is true that p.  Jesus knows the truth at least about matters of this sort.  Therefore, if the subject came up, Jesus would say that p."  And so one says: "Jesus would say that p."  (I am grateful to my wife for mentioning this phenomenon to me.)  Here it seems one is implicating that Jesus' theological or moral authority supports one's own view, but in fact all the evidential support for the view comes from one's initial reasons for believing that p.  One's reason for thinking that Jesus would say that p is that one thinks that it is true that p and one therefore thinks that Jesus would say it.

At the same time, there are contexts where this rhetorical move is legitimate, namely when the question is not primarily epistemic but motivational--when the point is not to convince someone that it is true that p, but to motivate her to act accordingly.  In this case, the imaginative exercise of visualizing Jesus saying that p may be helpful.  But when the question is primarily epistemic, there is a danger that one is cloaking one's own epistemic authority with that of Jesus.

Still, sometimes it is epistemically legitimate to appeal to what Jesus would say.  This is when one has grounds for believing that Jesus would say that p that go over and beyond one's other reasons for believing that it is true that p.  We can know about Jesus' character from Scripture and cautiously extrapolate what he would say about an issue.  (Likewise, we might know that Kowalska judged paintings relevantly like this one to be by Rembrandt, and this gives us additional confidence that she thinks this one is Rembrandt's.)  But we need to be very cautious with such counterfactual authority.  For one of the things that we learn from the New Testament is that what Jesus would say on an issue is likely to surprise people on both sides of the issue.  In particular, even if it is true that p and Jesus knows that p, Jesus might very well not answer in the affirmative if asked whether it is true that p.  He might, instead, question the motivations of the questioner or point to a deeper issue.

Here is a particularly unfortunate form of this epistemically otiose appeal to authority.  One accepts sola scriptura and one thinks that it is an important Christian doctrine that p.  So one concludes that Scripture somewhere says that p.  With time one might even forget that one's main reason for thinking that Scripture says that p was that one oneself thought that p, and then one can sincerely but vaguely (or perhaps precisely if  eisegesis has occurred) cite Scripture as an authority that p.  This is, I think, a danger for adherents of sola scriptura.  (Whether this danger is much of a reason not to accept sola scriptura, I don't know.)

But religious authority is not the only area for this.  This also happens with science.  One accepts the proposition that p for some reason, good or bad.  That proposition is within the purview of science, or so one thinks.  So, one concludes that one day science will show that p or that science will make disagreement with the claim that p ridiculous, and one says this.  Here, the appeal to a future scientific authority is epistemically otiose and has only rhetorical force, though one may well be implicating that it has more than rhetorical force.

Here is another interesting issue in the neighborhood.  Suppose I know some philosophical, theological or scientific theory T to be true, and I know that God believes all truths.  Then I should be able to know that God believes T (barring some special circumstances that make for a counterexample to closure).  But it sounds presumptuous to say: "I know that God himself believes T."  I think the above considerations suggest why such a statement is inappropriate.  It is inappropriate because in standard contexts to say that one knows what an expert believes implicates that one believes it in part because of the expert's opinion--one is covering oneself with the expert's mantle of authority.  Still, inappropriateness is not the same as presumptuousness, and so the above still isn't a very good explanation of why "I know that God himself believes T" sounds bad.  Maybe a part of the explanation of the apparent presumptuousness is that by saying that one knows what God believes one is suggesting that one is one of God's intimates?  (Still, surely no theist would balk at: "God believes that 2+2=4.")


Kenny said...

As with many (though perhaps not all) difficulties for sola scriptura, this one can be run just as well with Church authority: I have reason to believe that p is an important Christian doctrine, so I have reason to believe that the Church has authoritatively taught that p. I then go around affirming 'the Church teaches that p.'

I think, given your explanation of the general phenomenon, the reason for the presumptuousness of 'God believes that p' is that one is suggesting that one is 'one of God's intimates' in a very particular way: namely, one implicates that one has privileged access to information about what God believes.

Heath White said...

1. I agree with Kenny; in principle, church authority has the same problem. One upside of church authority is that, again in principle, there is somebody to speak out and clarify if such a misunderstanding becomes rampant. (But see below.)

2. There is another consequence too. If I am attached both to p, and to the reliability of some source S, I may not think S teaches/endorses/says p, but I might think S does not teach/endorse/say not-p. And this can be equally misguided.

3. True story: I once had an interview at a Catholic university, and I was doing some background research by calling a friend of a friend. This person mentioned that there was some tension between the faculty and the administration. The implication was that they were a bunch of conservative old fogies, but "I teach what Vatican II teaches, that the church belongs to the people."

Alexander R Pruss said...

I agree that this can happen with Church authority, and Heath's example shows that it not only can but does happen. :-(

What prompted this post, however, was that this occurred with sola scriptura yesterday. We were talking about the problem of evil in our philosophy of religion class yesterday, and specifically about horrendous evil. And then someone brought up the idea that horrendous evils were really no worse than any other evils, because all sins are equal in the eyes of God. (I did point out that even if the equality hypothesis was true, horrendous evils can still be worse for the victim.) And a number of students were convinced that the idea that all sins are equal in the eyes of God must be found in Scripture--but the only texts they could cite was Jesus' remarks on anger and killing, which really didn't demonstrate the general point. (Surprisingly, no one even brought up James 2:10.)

The doctrine that all sins are equal in the eyes of God is something the students were getting from their ecclesiastical tradition. So there is a way in which the problem can be manifested in the case of Scripture that doesn't quite apply in the case of Church authority: you get a doctrine from ecclesiastical tradition, and you conclude that it must be somewhere in Scripture. If you thought the tradition was authoritative, you would have presumably felt less compulsion to try to find it somewhere in Scripture.

That said, I certainly wasn't offering this as an argument for sola scriptura, but simply as an observation of a particular danger. That a theological doctrine carries dangers of misuse is a very weak argument against a doctrine.

(On the substantive point that all sins are equal, it is very hard to fit that with our intuitions about moral progress--yet all Christians think moral progress is a part of the Christian life. Let us say that justice requires that I pay my factory workers in some area of the country $12 per hour. I pay them $7. It is clearly moral progress if I raise their salaries to $10. But if all sins are equal, shortchanging them by $2 per hour is no less bad than shortchanging them by $5 per hour. If all sins are equal, the only real room for moral progress is quantitative--committing fewer sins per day. But that surely is a poor way to count moral progress. If Jones gives up committing gluttony every weekend and instead she gets herself dead drunk every second weekend, that's not progress.)

Heath White said...

On the substantive point: the theological function of "all sins are equal in the eyes of God" is to claim that even small sins merit eternal damnation, and consequently every human being requires salvation by God's grace through the death of Christ. That is, it is to deny the mortal/venial distinction Catholics draw.

I don't think it ought to follow that all sins are equal in the sense that they are equally poor imitations of Christ. (Though it would not surprise me if some undergraduates went there.)

Or another way to put it: for evangelicals, sanctification (your degree of holiness) is progressive and comes in degrees, justification (your need for salvation) is all-or-nothing.

Kenny said...

My background is quasi-Baptist (I am now a member of a Presbyterian church), and it has been my experience that Baptists and quasi-Baptist Evangelicals (which is what most non-denominational Evangelicals are) have a tendency to be quite confused, and even inconsistent, about the role of tradition in their belief system. (I'm talking here about the laity; of course there are theologians who have this worked out.) The problem is not just sola scriptura, it's sola scriptura combined with a pretty strong version of the doctrine of the perspicuity of Scripture (stronger than, say, the relatively weak formulation of that doctrine you will find in the Westminster Confession). Once you combine these, there is strong pressure to convince yourself that if something is an important Christian doctrine then you personally must be able to find it in Scripture. And of course you get to be convinced that something is an important Christian doctrine by being told that it is by your church community (i.e. by tradition and/or authority, which you purport not to be relying on). But try independently re-deriving the doctrine of the Trinity. It's not easy. It seems to me that this position is unstable. Certainly in my own case it turned out to be unstable. I got pushed to the traditionalist side rather than the Socinian side, but there are certainly people who go the other way (e.g. Oneness Pentecostals).

Alexander R Pruss said...

Right. And the Protestant idea that all sins deserve eternal damnation is also compatible with the idea that different sins deserve different sorts of eternal punishments.

I do think that the idea that the every sin deserves eternal damnation--e.g., a few seconds of freely chosen and morally unjustified inattention to one's interlocutor in a morally significant conversation--presents a serious challenge for apologetics.

By the way, actually, Catholics have a three-fold distinction: mortal sin / venial sin / mere imperfection. I find that occasionally Protestants consider to be sin what I would consider to be mere imperfection--say, attitudes that you are not morally culpable for having.

Alexander R Pruss said...

A colleague in another Department notes that professors also do this in foisting their view on some historical figure.