My Authority

One of the greatest commandments of science is, “Mistrust arguments from authority.”
—Carl Sagan

Some readers have expressed doubts about my authority. They say that because I don’t have a seminary or philosophy degree, I’m not qualified to offer credible commentary on the Bible.  My formal education is in mechanical engineering, but I’m self taught in philosophy, sociology, history, politics, economics and linguistics. Readers will judge this website on its merits; unless they make the logical error of thinking my academic credentials are more important.

Trust in authority without a little bit of skepticism may save a lot of thinking for yourself, but it can have results not in your interest. It is only human for authorities to place their business self interests above yours; and they are trained to approach problems from the perspective of their own specialty, ideology or theology.

The wall that separates religion and science has to do with objectivity verses subjectivity. In science, every effort is made to rule out subjectivity or personal prejudice. While in religion, every effort is made to rule out objectivity when it contradicts personal prejudice. A person of faith would be inclined to ignore material evidence when it doesn’t fit his prejudice. In scientific reasoning, personal prejudice is irrelevant to the evidence. This page is about the irrelevancy of speaker and audience to the evidence.

The first category of fallacies involves credibility. The messenger is not the evidence; the evidence is the evidence.

Reliance on the opinions of authorities is perfectly acceptable as long as they satisfy conditions of credibility. If they are not satisfied, the appeal to authority is fallacious. Given our primate heritage, we are inclined towards dominant hierarchies. Too many such arguments have proved painfully wrong. So, if someone in a position of authority says something is true, that does not necessarily make it true. Some examples make my point.

Two of science’s greatest minds, Newton and Einstein were unknowns until their theories were corroborated by observation. Despite Newton’s contributions to math and science, he remained religious to his dying day. Galileo was religious, yet his observations that earth revolves around the sun, earned him condemnation by the Catholic Church. Darwin’s investigations into evolution destroyed his faith and also earned him negative reaction by church authorities—they had no evidence with which to defend their authority.

The Bible is a remarkable testimony to the power of faith in authority. The book was written by unknown authors over a period of about a thousand years. It was written in an age of ignorance and superstition.  And yet to this day religionists insist that it is the word of God. As one apologist said flatly, “The Bible, in its original text, is the infallible word of God and requires no defense.”

Thomas Paine had a beautiful rebuttal. “It has often been said that anything may be proved from the Bible; but before anything can be admitted as proved by the Bible, the Bible itself must be proved to be true; for if the Bible be not true, or the truth of it be doubtful, it ceases to have authority, and cannot be admitted as proof of anything.”

The ad hominem argument is designed to discredit the credibility of the opposition in advance. It rejects or dismisses another person’s statement by attacking the person rather than the statement itself. This is classic in court room trials where an attorney tries to discredit a hostile witness by attacking his personal history.

The second category of fallacies is based on subjectivism. Feelings are not the evidence; the evidence is the evidence.

The fallacy of appealing to the majority is committed when someone takes an idea as true because large numbers of people believe it. Just because there are a billion people who believe in Jesus, that does not confirm he existed any more than if they believed earth is flat.

A second subjective fallacy may be committed when one appeals to emotion through pity or sympathy, instead of the evidence. “Oh how grateful we are to Jesus because he suffered and died for out sins.”

A popular fallacious defense for the existence of God is an appeal to ignorance. This is an attempt to shift the burden of proof. This fallacy contains the argument than an idea is true because it hasn’t been proven false. “You cannot disprove the existence of God, therefore he exists.”

The fourth subjective fallacy is committed when one appeals to force on the basis of a threat or violence. This type of argument is employed when all other appeals have failed. Since reason and persuasion require evidence, the propagators of faith have found it necessary to use the force of law and the concept of hell to produce the level of conformity they desire.

I don’t want to give the impression that I am advocating we turn into cold calculating emotionless robots. That we are emotional creatures is a self-evident undeniable fact which we have to take into consideration. I could sum it up this way. We are better off by using reason to guide our emotions, then to allow our emotions to guide our reason. When it comes to affairs of the heart, all bets are off.