One of the most widely recognized yet least well understood informal logical fallacies is the appeal to authority: the argumentum ad vericundiam. Most everyone understands that appealing to authority is, in some sense or other, an illegitimate move in any reasoned discussion. (If one doesn’t care a fig about reason, than any rhetorical move whatsoever becomes “legitimate,” which is to say, allowable provided you get away with it.) The problem here, though, is that if one could rigorously eschew all appeals to authority, not only would one avoid a particular fallacy, one would completely subvert the very possibility of reasoned discussion of any kind. Appeals to authority are not only constant, they are absolutely unavoidable in anything that might even barely resemble civilized existence. The problem, therefore, cannot be in the appeal to authority simply in itself, taken at face value.
Consider, for example, the food you eat. What is really in there, and how do you know? If you read the packaging, you are trusting to the authority of the producer and that of the U.S. government to provide you with accurate information. Suppose you are not prepared to do that, and you grow your own food instead. So how do you know what the nutritional content of THAT food is? Did you run all the tests yourself, and if so, on whose authority did you trust that the tests work, that those tests provide the actual information that is claimed for them, and so on? Did you go to University to get an advanced degree in biochemistry? But then, on whose authority did you decide to trust those instructors, those textbooks, those interpretations of you work and results? Clearly these problems can be extended to any form of practice, judgment or evaluation.
The simple and inescapable fact of the matter is that, unless you are prepared to completely reconstruct the entire edifice of human knowledge from its pre-hominid beginnings to the present day, then you are necessarily predicating every decision you make upon a staggering – indeed, simply incalculable – history of previous inquiries and decisions, and the authorities that emerged from these actions. So once again, the problem, therefore, cannot be in the appeal to authority taken at face value.
And, indeed, there is not.
The fallacy only occurs when one appeals to false or misleading authority. This is the fact – absolutely essential for understanding the nature of the error – that tends to get skipped over by people who would otherwise advocate for logic and critical thinking skills. I would not appeal to my postal carrier for medical advice any more than I would ask my physician for the most efficient delivery route in my neighborhood. If I reverse the questions, though, I suddenly have myself legitimate authorities whose authority on their respective subjects has been validated by years of education and experience. This authority is not absolute; the conclusions are not demonstratively true merely on account that these particular authorities have offered those conclusions. But the fact of their respective authorities is certainly probative, and must be taken into account when the matter in question overlaps meaningfully with their respective educations and experiences.
Some folks will try to dodge the issue by using a term such as “expertise” for “legitimate authority,” and thus relegate the dirty “a” word to just and only “bad” things. In a certain sense, there is nothing wrong in doing so; but it is, after all, nothing more than a semantic dodge. At some point – and that point will have to come very early on in the discussion – the distinction between legitimate versus false or misleading authority will have to be explained. So why not simply make the distinction at the outset, and use such adjectives (“legitimate” versus “misleading”) as make clear from the outset what the real distinction is?
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John Herold said:
I have a question about a situation that I imagine you have encountered before yourself related to what is or is not a valid authority. I have a friend who is a mathematical physicist with whom I used to have very long detailed discussions about physics and cosmology and in the details of those conversations I would find various points I would question. At the time I was unaware of Whitehead and it is this friend who first pointed me in the direction. The frustration would come from the fact that often my friend would argue that an illogical statement was true despite even his own inability to explain it because “smarter people” said it was true.
It seems obvious that people who are have a lot of experience will be authorities but essentially who watches the watchmen? I think the peer review mechanism is supposed to be a means for self-regulation but is there some general logical principle that can be used to refute genuine experts (as in a consensus of extremely experienced practitioners) within a possibly erroneous discipline or community?
Gary Herstein said:
Legitimate authorities can certainly get themselves into a hole which they are professionally &/or ideologically incapable of getting out of. I’ve a trio of posts here, “What is Science?” and the two on what I am calling “model centrism” which take a stab at these issues. It is arguably the case that gravitational cosmology is in just such a hole, as there are more free parameters in the theory than there are independent observations with which to test the theory. Yet it is triumphantly declared to be wildly successful, while alternatives are often dismissed out of hand.
Kuhn’s “Structure of Scientific Revolution” is pretty good source on the sociological aspects of research. Charles Sanders Peirce wrote numerous articles on the logic of inquiry. But there’s no specific name for the kind of intransigence that converts legitimate authority into a cult of expertism.
(I actually wrote my dissertation on Whitehead’s alternative to Einstein, and the history of neglect and misrepresentation that has dogged Whitehead’s approach.)
John Herold said:
Two things: First, the Furious Vexations page doesn’t have a comment box, only share buttons so I can’t ask my question there yet.
Secondly, I’ve been trying to figure out Whitehead some. The distinction between Eternal Objects and Actual Occasions is essentially just some sort of theory of Platonic forms. The Actual Occasion is like a quantum superposition in that the actual occasion actually occupies all possible states simultaneously and concrescence is the process of the probability space of the actual occasion collapsing into a single state. The Actual Occasion prehends other actual occasions and in response to the information it gains thusly, it “chooses” what part of its probability space to manifest during concrescence. Actually I’m not clear on prehension really. It also seems like you could say that a concrescence only exists to be prehended by another actual occasion. So a prehension and a concrescence are like a handshake between two actual occasions and only exist during the process of prehension.
Am I completely off base?
Gary Herstein said:
(See my longish note, posted as a new comment.)
Gary Herstein said:
I believe I have fixed the problem in the general questions page.
No one is going to solve the issue of prehension in a paragraph — a colleague and I have a book under review (which, not accidentally, goes by the same title as this blog) which spends about 315 pages of single-spaced typescript (plus another 85 pages of notes) explaining the issues and answering the questions you present. Part of the difficulty is that there is very little of the secondary literature that is especially satisfying. One of the few exceptions is F. Bradford Wallack’s “The Epochal Nature of Process in Whitehead’s Metaphysics” (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 1980). While there are a few points where my colleague and I would disagree with her analysis, on the whole her book is both readable and correct. (Used copies do still seem to be around.) Elizabeth Krause does a good job of schematizing and flow-charting the structure of prehension, although there are other areas of her book that we find less than satisfactory. Keep in mind that “eternal objects” are pure possibilities and potentialities; they are “eternal” not because they last forever, but because temporal considerations are irrelevant to them.
Whitehead is a *kind* of realist, but pushing the platonism angle too hard is to trample over his thought entirely. Thus, eternal objects (pure possibilities) are real, but they are not actual; they are not “things” sitting around in some ideal “place.” Actual occasions, in turn, are not “little” bits of actuality actualizing itself; neither are they “big.” This is because they come into play before metrical considerations of any kind can be meaningfully discussed.
One thing to resist at all costs, and the single greatest error people make in reading Whitehead, is to try and push the connection between process metaphysics and quantum mechanics. Whitehead’s metaphysics is about the quantum of *EXPLANATION* — it is logical, not ontological. Since, as noted, it takes 400 pages to completely present this case, I’ll not try to summarize it here.
I personally think it is a mistake to try to enter into Whitehead’s thought by way of his most difficult work, “Process and Reality.” Rather, I’d recommend a sequence somewhat akin to this: “Concept of Nature,” “Science in the Modern World,” “Religion in the Making,” “Symbolism: Its Meaning and Effect,” “Modes of Thought.” With the exception of the last, these books all precede PR.
That helps, I will follow your recommended sequence and I look forward to reading your upcoming book on the subject. Will your book discuss the measurement problem you’ve written about before?
Gary Herstein said:
It is discussed there as well, but in terms of insanely expensive academic books (which this MS will likely be when it comes out), my earlier one is entirely about the measurement problem of cosmology: http://www.degruyter.com/view/product/209462
If you’ve access to a university library, you might be able to find that on interlibrary loan. (I’d be surprised — but, admittedly pleased — if it could be found through anything less than a university library.)
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