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.