Saturday, December 12, 2009

Appeal to Authority

I've heard it argued that appeals to authority are not necessarily fallacies. For example, Gene Callahan argues that, "...appeals to authority are perfectly valid when the authorities in question are, in fact, true authorities... ." I think this is confused, and in fact wrong.

Let me be clear, I'm NOT talking about relying on the opinion of an authority for advice. I'm also NOT talking about pointing to evidence that other people have collected. I'm talking about putting forth the opinion of an authority in place of reasoning and evidence, in the course of argument.

Commonly, appeals to authority are recognized, not by the mention of an authority, but by the absence of presentation of that authority's reasoning and evidence. Note that a statement of the kind, "Einstein claimed _____, therefore _____ is true" is a fallacy even if Einstein is an expert on the subject. If you are persuaded by an argument that has been presented by an authority and think others will be as well, simply present that argument (duly credited, of course).

There is another, much more insidious form of appeal to authority. It is the inappropriate appeal to one's own authority. In a previous post I criticized Richard Dawkins for his sponsorship of Militant Atheism. My criticism of Dawkins was, and remains, that he is leaning on his status as a highly regarded Biologist to support his unscientific opinions about whether there is a god. Not only is Dawkins not an expert on the question of whether there is a god, but the question itself cannot be framed in scientific terms! To wrap the unscientific proposition Atheism in the mantle of Science is to discredit one's own authority as a reliable practitioner of science.

Dawkins doesn't present an argument or evidence that proves there is no god. He can't, because the proposition that there IS a god is logically non-falsifiable. Instead, he expects his audience to rely on his authority, and accept a conclusion that he has reached intuitively.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. *I will answer you here (as I am guessing I inspired this entry). Your understanding of atheism is incorrect. The atheistic position is not that it can be proven God does not exist (and has been), but is that there is no positive evidence for God's existence. Without positive evidence for a proposition, it necessarily falls. A negative proposition (e.g. God does not exist), by definition, can have no definitive proof, but as I mentioned earlier, we are guided in such instances by probability. If this is unclear, think of how you rationally handle the claim regarding the Loch Ness monster. Then realize that Dawkins uses the same reasoning for God.

  3. Roy,

    That's actually pretty compelling, and I admit that I've been thinking about Atheism in fairly limited terms.

    There is still a problem though with the non-falsifiability of the proposition that there IS a god. I think that your example of the Loch Ness monster illustrates this, because the proposition that there is a Loch Ness monster is falsifiable, unlike the proposition that there is a god. For example, I don't think that it is commonly proposed that the Loch Ness monster has magical abilities to prevent its discovery. So I can do things like, use the proposition that there IS a Loch Ness monster to make predictions (e.g. there should be monster scat lying around), and then test the predictions. If the predictions don't test out very strongly then, you're absolutely right, the proposition is weakened.

    The problem is that it IS commonly proposed that god HAS mystical abilities to prevent his/her/its detection. It is therefore consistent with the proposition that there is no evidence for god. So how can a lack of evidence cause the proposition to fail or be weakened?

    So just to restate, my fundamental problem with Dawkins' assertion that there is no god is that he's a scientist dealing with a non-scientific claim, but never admitting that neither the claim is scientific nor is his rejection of it. I'd be a lot happier if he'd just attack creationists on the grounds that they're pretending to be doing science when they're obviously not.

    I think it's fair for Dawkins to embrace atheism, but I still argue that he comes to that conclusion intuitively, not scientifically (since it's not a scientific proposition). And that's fine as long as he and his audience are clear on the difference.

    Thanks for persisting with the discussion, and thanks for giving me some clarification on the Atheistic viewpoint!

  4. Really good discussion here.

    I just started reading The God Delusion and I, too, am troubled by Dawkins' "religious" atheism.

    I agree with Roy in that the burden of proof should be on believers to show evidence of existence, and I agree with Robert that some parts are unknowable. I think the best we can do is assign probabilities.

    What troubles me is that so many believers assign the probability as 1. If the probability is 1, they ought to have some pretty damn good evidence, right? So why can't they show me? Instead, it seems most likely that these people believe in believing, as if it was somehow wrong to doubt or question their "faith".

    For this and many other (mostly subconscious) reasons, I am currently assigning the probability of the Christian God as <1%.

  5. Justin,

    Is your assessment of <1% more rational or more scientifically supported than a believer's assessment of 1%? I think you might argue that your assessment is more scientific simply because it is skeptical of, but leaves the door open on, this unscientific question. Sounds a bit like agnosticism (which I have previously opined to be the position most consistent with science).

    But the specific choice of <1% seems difficult to defend in scientific terms.

  6. I would say my assessment is more rational and scientifically supported than *some* believers. Probably a lot of believers, actually. But at the same time I know and deeply respect some people who are strong believers and who got that way from a very thoughtful and intellectually honest approach.

    What I am trying to say is that I think my assessment is rational, but at the same time I think it could be perfectly rational for someone to estimate the probability at >99%. The rationality is based on our experiences and pre-existing mental models, which can be wildly different from person to person.

  7. Repost --


    Thanks for overlooking my error...I got confused and wrote about a believer's assessment being 1% when I meant a probability of 1.

    Excellent points, as always!

  8. Robert,

    I gather from your reply that your gripe is with Dawkins not atheism; that's fine - he is worth defending. You are conflating his scientifically based criticism of religion with his reason based criticism of theism. Though the two are very similar (and use the same base principles), science, as you rightly say, is evidence guided. Because God fails the scientific test, any theory on him must begin outside the natural world (deism). There are people that accept this and believe in an entirely unnatural or supernatural deity. Dawkins's clear reply to them is: fine, just do not think that there is any reason to believe that that is true. (Replace Loch Ness monster with fairies, trolls, goblins, or leprechauns for a more magical example).

    If you care to hear Dawkins support his own positions, watch this video of a question and answer period he has in Lynchburg, Virginia:

  9. Roy,

    I haven't had a chance to follow the link yet, but I will!

    If Dawkins really is only saying to believers that there's no scientific reason to believe in deity, then I have no gripe with him. I've actually been making the same argument.

    However, in the TED talk I linked to on my earlier post that you commented on, Dawkins seems to be arguing that there is a scientific grounds for disbelieving in deity. That's where I don't agree with him. That's the unscientific conclusion that he is presenting as though it is the result of science, and using his scientific credentials to put forth.

  10. Robert, as with your "Systems Engineering" post, I can only too briefly acknowledge and appreciate this post. I find that I'm far less interested in the atheism/Dawkins context than I am in what I thought was your point - that it's meaningless to try to make your argument by saying that your position is shared by some known authority. Make the argument yourself and cite the authority as a source where appropriate.

    I am unswayed by appeals to believe or accept something BECAUSE so-and-so says it's true. Give me the evidence, the reasoning, even the gut feelings, and I'm far more likely to consider the possibility. Authority doesn't do much for me.

  11. I have a couple of thoughts in response to comments contained here.

    First, to approach the existence of God and spirituality on a purely scientific basis is, in my opinion, to miss the point. A spiritual quest is not so much about the finite and provable, as it is about establishing a "connection" with something we feel or intuitively "know" but inherently cannot prove.

    There are likely many people who believe in God(s) only because of custom, tradition, culture, etc. However, my experience tells me that those folks pay little attention to the deeper practice of their spiritual beliefs and are never really involved in "testing" their faith.

    My experience also tells me that many of those who take their faith seriously and attempt to "prove" their faith tend to approach belief (and doubt, which certainly accompanies all believers) in a very thoughtful and honest manner. But to "prove" any faith, one needs to follow the faith traditions and then determine if the result matches the promise. Taking a scientific approach to religion (and considering this the only "valid" approach) will never result in convincing one of the existance of God and won't really answer the question.

    Second, there is a great deal of evidence of a non-scientific type that supports the existence of God and spiritual belief. There is also evidence and arguments to made that God and the spiritual does not exist.

    Ultimately, belief in God and development of spirituality does not come through careful analysis, debate, or examination with the physical senses. It comes through exercise of the spiritual senses and by taking specific actions based on the doctrines of the faith. It is "unprovable" in a scientific way, but to the experienced believer, it has been proven in the 'heart'.

    I am grateful to have a spiritual knowledge of the existence of God and to know how I fit into the bigger picture.


  12. Jared,

    The question I have been asking all of my religious friends is "what is the evidence?" I do not need proof; I just want some solid evidence -- a testable hypothesis to work with. Would love to hear your thoughts.

  13. Jared,

    You make essentially the same point that I've been arguing in other posts. There is much to the human experience that falls outside of Science, and that doesn't make it any less real or relevant.

    When it comes right down to it, Scientific objectivity has to exclude the internal human experience, which is the thing we all care most deeply about, because that experience is actually what it is to be alive. But since we can't observe any internal experience except our own, there's no way to do collective/collaborative Science about it.

    I do think it's possible to do individual, personal Science. But that's pretty much only useful to oneself. You can't share it, as Science, with others.

    So when Justin asks for evidence, the best anyone can do for him (in my opinion) is to describe the personal Science they've conducted, and suggest that he could try the same thing. Sounds fairly simple, but I think that the communication barrier is extremely severe. It's very difficult to get someone else to understand how you've analyzed your own internal experience.

  14. Sam Harris has a clever way of putting statements like Jared's in perspective. I'll take one his paragraphs and tweak it cosmetically, leaving the meaning intact.

    --My experience with witchcraft also tells me that many of those who take their faith in witchcraft seriously and attempt to "prove" their faith in witchcraft, tend to approach belief in witchcraft (and doubt in witchcraft, which certainly accompanies all believers) in a very thoughtful and honest manner. But to "prove" any faith in witchcraft, one needs to follow the witchcraft traditions and then determine if the result matches the promise. Taking a scientific approach to witchcraft (and considering this the only "valid" approach) will never result in convincing one of the existence of the Triple Goddess and won't really answer the question. --

    It sounds like garbage with our without witchcraft (or substitute your choice of faith), but the addition of the word "witchcraft" helps denude passages such as these of any respect inherent in being associated with a popular religion.

    Robert, you are right to correct Justin; his search for evidence is, as Jared says, missing the point. The best answer anyone could give would be like their describing dreams - meaningless, and usually boring.

  15. Roy,

    It's a good thing that you replaced the loaded term 'faith' with the completely neutral term 'witchcraft'. Otherwise I might have thought you had an ax to grind.

    I'm pretty sure that you know that you've misrepresented what I've said. So let me ask, do you think that your own internal experience is meaningful on any level? Or is it just the tugs and pulls of chemistry? And if it's not meaningful, which I concede is a perfectly reasonable perspective, then what are the guiding principles of your life? And how do you select them?

  16. Robert,

    As I say, this is Sam Harris's "axe," and he wields it effectively.

    To answer your questions: yes, yes, and undecided. This is glib and doesn't get at the root of your inquiry, I know. But each question merits its own post, and to that task I hope to be equal. Perhaps then you will read my full answer and tell me your thoughts.

  17. Roy,

    Fair enough! I'll keep an eye on your blog.

  18. "So when Justin asks for evidence, the best anyone can do for him (in my opinion) is to describe the personal Science they've conducted, and suggest that he could try the same thing. Sounds fairly simple, but I think that the communication barrier is extremely severe. It's very difficult to get someone else to understand how you've analyzed your own internal experience."

    Maybe this is my failing. I fail to see how coming to believe a religious view is much different from coming to believe, say, a political view. I understand the religious view is much more personal and emotional than the political one, but with both it seems there must be some evidence (even if only observing the way it has changed other people, or changed yourself) that convinces you to select this ideology over any other. One of the things that troubles me the most is how such a high percentage of people inherit the ideologies of their parents. How can we be approaching truth if everyone believes what their parents do?

  19. Justin,

    I don't mean that you have to give up on evidence. Just on shareable evidence.

    If you could go for strolls through the minds of other people and directly observe their internal experiences, then you could collect observations and use them to evaluate the truth of various statements and propositions. That kind of science would give you the opportunity to look for god in one of the places that he/she/it might be hiding out.

    But you can't do that, and you can't trust what other people say about their own internal experiences (because it's hard to know if they're being honest, or what biases are present in their observations, etc.). So all that's left to you is to collect observations of your own internal experience.

    The problem is that you have your own biases, including the limits of what you're able to understand or imagine. So, you just do your best to do science, recognizing the constraints you're working under (one more dig at Dawkins: he doesn't recognize any constraints on his ability to analyze his own internal experience). It's not very good, but it's all we have.

    When people talk to you about why they believe, they are talking about an internal experience that they can't share with you. They just hope that you'll have a similar enough frame of understanding (bias), and similar enough internal experiences that it will make some sense to you.

    I don't believe that there can be any external evidence. I don't think you'll find evidence in differences among populations (of believers and non-believers, for example) that can't be explained in purely non-spiritual terms. And of course, children tend to inherit the biases of their parents (through exposure more than genetics), and so they're likely to interpret their own internal experiences similarly to how their parents do.

    What you CAN know, though, is that other people DO have internal experiences, and that those experiences are at least sort of similar to your own. So just do science on your own internal experience, recognize that your conclusions could be wrong due to your own lack of insight, etc., and hope for the best.

    At least, that's the way I approach it.

  20. Hey Roy-

    It seems that Sam Harris's "axe" (at least as you've employed it here) is really just an ad hominem attack by method of substitution. Kind of like using the N-word at a KKK convention: you get the expected response, but it's not a thoughtful argument. I supposed the word "witchcraft" is viewed as a pejorative in the scientific community. Honestly, I don't know enough about the beliefs or faith of practicing witches to comment on whether substituting it as you did reveals anything. I suspect you think my comments are garbage because you have a very different perspective on faith and spirituality than I do, and as Robert indicates, perhaps an axe to grind. What can I say to that? I agree with Robert: matters of faith are difficult to communicate and if someone comes from a different perspective, there will necessarily be a different opinion.


    You ask about evidence that supports faith. There is actually quite a bit of evidence that supports faith in God, even evidence that would be admissible in court. It is the testimony of witnesses to spiritual events. There are arguments to be made to invalidate this evidence of course, but in some cases these arguments don't really work that well. This is not irrefutable, scientific evidence, but a reasonable examination leads one to conclude there may be something there. There are also notable gaps and weaknesses in the scientific explanations for existence as we know it, and I believe a reasoned case can be made that current scientific arguments lack credibility in explaining certain things that some hold as fact.

    However, I don't believe this type of arguing will convince someone of the existence of God. I believe that can only come through the exercise of faith, where the seeker addresses the question honestly, with real intent, wanting to know if a spiritual belief is valid and acting on the principles of the spiritual belief to "test" it. In this context, "faith" meaning the exercise of hope on an idea or belief that you do not know and cannot prove. If you do this, I believe you will get an answer to your question. I believe this because I have done it myself and have found therein my own faith. Certainly others could argue that your answer is not an aswer at all and provide speculated scenarios to explain it away: ultimately that doesn't matter, if you are convinced. This is the nature (and beauty) of faith. As Robert indicates, this type of evidence can't really be trasnmitted to another person, since it exists wholly within our own experience.

  21. Robert,

    I am not sure I agree with it, but I really liked your last comment, and will have to think about it more.