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.

Friday, May 16, 2008

The Theologian's Fallacy

In his contribution to a recent book, Perspectives on the Doctrine of God (Bruce A. Ware, ed.), Paul Helm leads off with an epigraph from Anselm (the exact source is not given):
But if Scripture indubitably opposes our understanding, even though our reasoning appears to us to be impregnable, still it ought not to be believed to be substantiated by any truth at all. It is when Sacred Scripture either clearly affirms or in no way denies it, that it gives support to the authority of any reasoned conclusion.
In other words, what Anselm is saying is that the authority of the Bible always trumps human reason when the two come into conflict. Helm clearly approves of this sentiment, as do many other theologians who want to defend cherished doctrines (in Helm's case, theological determinism) against external critique. My concerns, however, are broader than the question of Biblical authority. I'm interested here in the general practice of appealing to some allegedly absolute authority - whether that be the Bible, the Koran, the Vedas, the Magisterium of the Roman Catholic Church, the Mormon's revelation knowledge (i.e., "burning in the bosom"), or what have you - as a "trump card" for defeating rational objections.

It is my view that this practice, which I will dub the "Theologian's Fallacy", is rationally indefensible. (I give it that name because, in my experience at least, theologians seem to like to whip out these sorts of trump cards with considerable frequency, especially when they feel that what they regard as their intellectual turf is under external challenge from science, philosophy, or even common sense.)

What's wrong with this practice? I'll answer that by addressing some questions to a generic practitioner of this fallacy whom I'll call a "Trumper".

Question #1: Do you place ultimate value on the truth?

The typical Trumper will confidently answer 'yes' to this question. Why? Because the Trumper believes that his favorite Trump (the Bible, the Koran, etc.) is or contains absolute and infallible Truth (with a capital 'T') of a vitally important sort. Moreover, the Trumper is prepared to submit to that Trump over and against, if necessary, the most secure deliverances of human reason. This he takes as evidence of his intellectual humility and sincerity, of his preparedness to sacrifice all for the Truth. Conversely, the Trumper sees external critics of the Trump either as ignorant children who need to be taught or as malicious rebels vainly raging against the admantine Truth with the feeble sticks of human reason.

Question #2: Do you place ultimate value on your Trump?

Again, the typical Trumper will answer with a confident 'yes'. After all, in the Trumper's mind, the Trump is or contains absolute and infallible Truth of a vitally important sort.

Question #3: Is it possible that you could be mistaken about your Trump, concerning its status as a source of absolute and infallible Truth?

At this point the Trumper is caught in a bind. On the one hand, his own aspirations to intellectual humility encourage him to answer with a 'yes'. Human fallibility is too familiar for us to dismiss such possibilities out of hand. On the other hand, the Trumper's preparedness to use his Trump as a Trump, if necessary against even the best that human reason and inquiry can muster, requires him to say 'no'. After all, once a person genuinely admits that it is possible for him to be mistaken about a Trump, it ceases to function for him as a Trump. But how could one honestly answer 'no' to this question without committing the sin of intellectual pride? There is a way - the Trump must be self-authenticating in the highest possible degree, such that its status as Truth is at least as obvious (to those who are sufficiently prepared) than the most secure deliverances of human reason and inquiry. This leads us to our final question:

Question #4: Can you honestly maintain that your Trump is self-authenticating in the highest possible degree?

Unless one's Trump is something on the level of the Cartesian cogito, like a simple conceptual truth (e.g., "All triangles have 3 sides") or a simple introspective report (e.g., "I am in pain right now"), to answer with anything other than a blunt 'no' would seem a breathtaking display of nerve. Furthermore, if one's Trump is self-authenticating in the highest possible degree, then one would expect it should be accessible to human reason and inquiry, just like the cogito and simple conceptual truths are. In that case, of course, it can no longer be used as a Trump over and against human reason and inquiry. Still, some incorrigible Trumpers will have the temerity to answer 'yes' to this question. Such people are, I think, beyond hope of rational engagement. But those who still have a robust sense of reality, of their own finitude and fallibility, will look at their prospective Trump (the Bible, say) and realize that they are not in fact more or even equally confident of its Trump-worthiness than they are certain of the best deliverances of human reason. And if they realize that, then they should realize that they are no longer in a position to use it as a Trump.

In closing, I say to any of my readers who are inclined to commit the Theologian's Fallacy and appeal to the Bible, Koran, Vedas, Book of Mormon, Communist Manifesto, Magic 8-ball, or what have you, as a Trump to defeat external criticisms to your pet theories, knock it off! If you really have the Truth that you think you do, then you can and should be able to meet the criticisms head on without whipping out a Trump card.