Thursday, 24 March 2011

Authority, reason and evidence


To be learned was, for most of literate history, to be familiar-with and adept in quotation and evaluation of, 'authorities' - essentially the canonical and otherwise great writers of the past.


On the other hand, the 'anti-authoritarian' stance swept Western civilization from the romantic era onwards, and accelerating especially throughout the 1960s.

Anti-authoritarianism purports to replace authority with 'evidence' and reason.

Evidence and reason are now (purportedly) the basis of all decision-making: the only claims of authority are claims to have evidence and reason on one's side.

And yet evidence and reason are ignored when they are not faked.


So, having tried evidence and reason as the basis of authority, and evidence and reason having proven themselves inadequate, we need to return to authority: openly, explicitly and with discernment.


To argue from authority is the opposite of being mindless and slavish - as familiarity with the procedure makes clear.

Authority is evaluated, by rational procedures, as the major source of evidence - with 'experience' being the main other source; recognizing that experience is intrinsically more diverse and variable - less-stable and less-thoroughly evaluated: hence given less weight.

(Yet now, given the corruption and dishonesty of officially-sanctioned evidence and reason, we are thrown-back onto mere experience - since we cannot trust anything else.)


Neither is the process of arguing from authority closed and sterile; there is always the possibility of refinement, clarification and even (sometimes, but rarely) of reinterpretation.

Authorities are continually under evaluation, mostly by mutual comparison: some are rejected or down-graded.

And new authorities may emerge, be discovered or recognized (albeit rarely).


To argue from authority is, however, to recognize the eternal verity and relevance of authority - most authorities are old, almost inevitably, because there was more wisdom in the recorded past than exists at present.

To argue from authority entails a certain humility in the face of the past: specifically it entails ejecting the current assumption that it is plausible that we (either personally, or our generation) are confidently able to discard historical knowledge wholesale and make a fresh start on things; yet in doing so expect to improve things...

What an absurd idea! Yet of course it is mainstream: we reject historical art, science and morality wholesale and with scarcely any awareness that we have done so.

And yet we expect the pitiful results of this strategic ignorance and incompetence to be treated with the same reverence as art, science and morality used to command!


This cannot continue, it will not continue.



Alex said...

The sources of authority are not always venerable - meaning that the accumulated wisdom of the ages and the presence of eternal verities aren't essential factors in authority of every description.

There are different kinds of authority. For instance: Legal authority is supposed to be based on rational and normative considerations. Traditional authority is said to be legitimized by immemorial practices etc. Charismatic authority is difficult to account for without a measure of psychological speculation.

Unless we have some information concerning why a specific authority should be trusted (or maybe challenged), there is no basis for evaluating it. In the abstract, authority is neither a good nor a bad thing. To argue from authority can be "mindless and slavish".

(I'd guess you have a religious authority in mind, but you haven't made clear why we should submit to it.)

Bruce Charlton said...

@ Alex - I have been reading Chaucer, and looking at how he uses authority - and a more recent example was Robert Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy.

Indeed, this was the standard mode of argument in psychiatry when I began training in the early 1980s - there was a lineage of great (mostly Germanic, some French) psychiatric authorities whose opinions were studied and compared.

(Of course, as an ambitious and inexperienced young scientist who had conducted a few experiments, I thought this was outrageous - and wanted people to listen to me instead!)

Now we have mega-randomized trials, designed and conducted by Big Pharma and implemented by cook books and cash incentives, written up by agencies and published in top journals then disseminated using sophisticated soft-sell propaganda and state power.

Progress? - I THINK NOT!

dearieme said...

On the subject of faking evidence, do look at Steve McIntyre's recent posts at Climate Audit. Wheeeee!

Bruce Charlton said...

@dearieme - I think this sort of stuff is routine behaviour in great swathes of 'science' nowadays; with most 'scientists', editors, publishers, research funding agencies and the civil service all quite happy about it. Which explains my use of scare quotes.

Alex said...

I've never looked into The Anatomy of Melancholy which is a very esoteric work, I think. And I haven't looked into The Canterbury Tales for many years, but I suppose the Wife of Bath can be understood as an authority on human relationships because she has been married five times and has much wisdom to impart based on her experience.

I would tend to believe, on your authority, what you say about the 'scientific method' and profits orientated research of the big pharmaceutical companies. This is because I believe you are in a far better position to judge this matter than I am.

We are generally disposed to trust the authority of expert opinion on the grounds that at some stage it has been policed and validated by peer scrutiny.

Sometimes we encounter specialists who because they have competence in one particular field of enquiry are asked for, and are anxious to give, their advice on sundry political and moral questions that bother humanity at large. In these cases, a false authority is often assumed by intellectuals who wear the mask of a disinterested counsellor, but really intend to advance an ideological agenda.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Alex - I intend to blog some more on 'authority' since I don't seem to be making myself clear about it - the sense I intend is much more specific than the usage you imply here.

For example, "I suppose the Wife of Bath can be understood as an authority on human relationships because she has been married five times and has much wisdom to impart based on her experience."

As I understand it, authority (auctorite) is the *opposite* of experience, and I think Chaucer is making a joke when the Wife of Bath puts forward her experience as making her an authority.

'Nuff said - watch this space.

JP said...

The PC crowd is not against authority. They are against authorities that disagree with them. Most PC arguments combine appeals to pro-PC authority with ad hominem attacks on anti-PC authorities. The climate change debate is the classic case; PC zealots insist that pro-climate change scientists have evidence and reason on their side, and their word must be accepted without question, while anti-climate change scientists are immoral shills for the fossil fuel industry, or are not real scientists at all, and therefore their words must be rejected out of hand.