Tuesday, May 20, 2008

More on Trumping: Reply to an Objection

A blogger named Brandon has criticized the argument of my previous post as follows:
What Rhoda calls "Trumping" is in fact simply a tendentious way of saying "correcting one's own reasoning on the basis of authority"; and the Trumper Rhoda particularly has in mind is someone who says that on matters where Scripture speaks plainly and "indubitably opposes our understanding" we should, in fact, correct our own reasoning on the basis of that authority.
Based on this interpretation of my position, Brandon then offers a counterexample:
Suppose that I am reasoning about quantum physics. The argument looks flawless to me. And someone I recognize as an authority on quantum physics hears me out and tells me that my argument, however clever, is wrong, and simply overlooks some key features of quantum physics, or confuses some key features with other things entirely, or what have you. We would normally say that it would be irrational for me not to correct my reasoning light of that authority, unless we had clear, positive reason for doing so -- i.e., clear, positive reason for thinking that either our authority has misunderstood our argument, or has put forward a view that we know to be rejected by many authorities on quantum physics, or some such.
In response, I would simply point out that the claim Brandon thinks I'm making (that one should never "correct one's reasoning on the basis of authority") is not what I argued for. When I called 'Trumping' is the practice of seizing upon some particular authority or claim, one that is not itself a deliverance of human reason or understanding, and refusing to submit that authority or claim to rational critique. In other words, the Trumper has a cherished theory or dogma of which he says, "I don't care where the evidence and the argument may go from here on out, I'm going to stick to my theory no matter what."

Perhaps it will help if I give a couple examples. First, here's a famous quote from Richard Lewontin:
We take the side of science in spite of the patent absurdity of some of its constructs, in spite of its failure to fulfill many of its extravagant promises of health and life, in spite of the tolerance of the scientific community for unsubstantiated just-so stories, because we have a prior commitment, a commitment to materialism. It is not that the methods and institutions of science somehow compel us to accept a material explanation of the phenomenal world, but, on the contrary, that we are forced by our a priori adherence to material causes to create an apparatus of investigation and a set of concepts that produce material explanations, no matter how counter-intuitive, no matter how mystifying to the uninitiated. Moreover, that materialism is absolute, for we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door.
What Lewontin is saying here, basically, is that for him materialism is a Trump. So long as evidence and argument support materialism he'll consider it. But he refuses to allow any arguments to count against materialism.

Here's another example, one time from David Hume's famous essay on miracles:
There surely never was a greater number of miracles ascribed to one person than those that were recently said to have been performed in France on the tomb of Abbé Paris . . . . The curing of the sick, giving hearing to the deaf and sight to the blind, were everywhere talked of as the usual effects of that holy tomb. But what is more extraordinary is this: many of the miracles were immediately proved on the spot, before judges of unquestioned integrity, attested by witnesses of credit and distinction, at a time when learning flourished and on the most eminent platform in the world. Nor is this all. An account of them was published and dispersed everywhere; and the Jesuits, though a learned body supported by the civil magistrate, and determined enemies to the opinions in whose favour the miracles were said to have been performed, were never able clearly to refute or expose them. Where shall we find such a number of circumstances converging in the corroboration of one fact? And what have we to oppose to such a cloud of witnesses but the absolute impossibility or miraculous nature of the events that they relate?
In the context Hume has been considering the possibility that a miracle might be sufficiently well-attested to justify belief that it had occurred. Here he relates a "best-case scenario" from history. But Hume doesn't want to admit that any miracle could be sufficiently well-attested and so he summarily brushes aside the evidence he has just presented against his position by whipping out a Trump - in this case, his commitment to the "absolute impossibility" of the miraculous.

In summary, I do not deny that authority may correct our thinking. What I reject as a fallacy is the practice of treating an authority or claim as though it were absolutely immune to rational critique.

In addition, it seems to me that Brandon is falsely opposing "authority" and "reason". When I reason, I do on the basis of evidence, of which there different types - empirical, intuitive, and testimonial. An authority is simply a good source of evidence. Thus, in Brandon's example, the physicist is an authority for me because he is, presumably, a very good source of testimonial evidence regarding matters physical. In correcting my thinking he's not giving me evidence over and against my reason. Rather, he's helping me to reason things out more adequately by improving my pool of evidence.

I'll close with a quote from Bill Vallicella:
Someone who plays a trump card is not "correcting his understanding" but seeking to put a stop to inquiry.

Suppose I don't know much about a certain subject-matter and so consult an expert about it. Then it is reasonable for me to accept his authority and "correct my understanding" assuming it needs correcting. And it is unreasonable for me to "argue with" the expert when he is speaking from his expertise. But when I accept the authority of a medical doctor, say, I don't accept the authority on the basis of his mere say-so, but on the basis of the fact that in principle it is possible for me to follow the rational and empirical considerations that ultimately warrant his dictum.

But it is different in the case of one who plays a trump card by, say, pointing to a Bible passage. "Look! Right here it says that Eve was created from a rib of Adam! That settles the question." Well, no it doesn't. For it is reasonable to ask: how is the Bible to be interpreted, and by whom? A Catholic might say: the magisterium decides. But then surely it is reasonable to ask: whence its authority? Inspired by the Holy Spirit? Could be, but how do you know? Are the Eastern Orthodox and the Protestants also sometimes so inspired? Or never? And if never, why not? And so on.


At 5/21/2008 9:50 AM, Blogger Clark Goble said...

I think Brandon made a good comment over at my blog. It seems like he's assuming there are appeals to authority to which one should always defer. To me such appeals simply don't exist and no non-fallacious appeal would ever function as absolute deferral. My guess is that you would agree.

So perhaps the real debate is over whether authority ever ought entail a trump-like function.

At 5/29/2008 9:58 PM, Blogger overleaf said...

Alan, you say:

"In summary, I do not deny that authority may correct our thinking. What I reject as a fallacy is the practice of treating an authority or claim as though it were absolutely immune to rational critique."

Does the degree to which an authority should be immune to critique vary depending upon the competence of the authority?

For example, taking Brandon's example the authority on quantum physics. Does the degree to which he/she is subject to our critique differ to that which should be applied to a 6 year old. Obviously, it would seem correct to assume that on matters of quantum physics the 6 year old should be held to a great degree of suspicion and critique than the more competent authority.

Also, does the degree to which the authority may be subject to our critique differ according to their familiarity with the subject matter to which they are the authority?

For example, consider 'A' wrote a book, while 'B' has studied the book intently, 'C' has merely read the book in question, and 'D' has never so much as seen the book. In this instance, assume the A,B,C, and D are all well respected and intelligent individuals and authorities in the discipline the book belongs to. Are we to hold each of them to the same degree of subjection to critique, in regards to the information and claims presented in the book?

If this is the case, what if we were to assume that in some matter we had access to the person whom is both most qualified and most familiar with the subject matter. Let us assume that this individual has complete proficiency in regards to the issues at hand, and is also the individual whom has determined their scope and content. Let us also assume, that this individual perceived that we would have questions with regards to their work and designed a structure to inform us as well as the tools necessary for its use and interpretation.

Could not this person then, regardless of our perceived knowledge an understanding of the subject matter, function as a Trump, in light of whose authority any individual should change their mind?

At 5/31/2008 5:20 PM, Blogger Brunellus said...

Hume wasn't alone in thinking that you had to consider something's occurrence impossible in order to count it as miraculous. This is from a footnote to the passage you quote:

"In the case of Mademoiselle Thibault he sent the famous De Sylva to examine her; whose evidence is very curious. The physician declares, that it was impossible she could have been so ill as was proved by witnesses; because it was impossible she could, in so short a time, have recovered so perfectly as he found her. He reasoned, like a man of sense, from natural causes; but the opposite party told him, that the whole was a miracle, and that his evidence was the very best proof of it."

At 6/19/2008 4:23 PM, Blogger Rob R said...

I think your point on trumping is pretty good. An immeadiate thought I had was that the trumper may claim that his faith in the bible is greater than yours by not allowing that anything can contradict it.

I think it is a widespread shallowness to view faith as primarily an epistemic category, but it is along those lines which I would answer the trumper. Faith involves trust and implicit in trust is the recognition that what is trusted may not be. Faith entails some visible risk that what we have faith in may not be as we believe it to be. The trust is great when we persist in that trust in spite of the percieved possibility that what we trust is not so.

Of course, I emphasize that that is not the heart of faith though our culture would seem to place it there. Faith properly understood is first relational, reciprocal, and to a limited degree, epistemic.

At 6/19/2008 4:28 PM, Blogger Rob R said...

To further elaborate, what the trumper does, or at least this is what it seems to me, is that he denys the risk that scripture could be wrong via reason. What do I mean by that risk. I'm not suggesting we have a partial agnosticism about scripture, but only realize that we are willing to put our necks on the line and admit that the evidence and/or reason may disprove some essential doctrines of scripture, but we do not expect that scripture ever will be disproven, and of course, in the mean time, much problematic evidence and reason may give way to different interpretations or understandings.


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