Tuesday, October 5, 2010

The Appeal to Self-Authority?

The fallacy of the appeal to authority entails that one tries to support an argument with an authority's words and expect the listener to accept it solely on the basis that an authority has stated such. It's an error of logic since it doesn't matter who says something, but rather what they say. An authority can add weight to an argument, but cannot make it conclusively true since it's ultimately the content of the authority's words that matters, not that he, as an authority, has said them. But is it possible for there to be an error in which one refers to oneself as that authority?

Here and there I've noticed that there are some people who are terribly sensitive to challenges towards their ideas, and, while their hostility may not extend beyond this point, I've seen on occasion some people respond to my claims by pointing out their "credentials," as if somehow that were to give their words the definitive weight of truth. In the cases I've observed, they'll either point out a college degree they've obtained or a job they worked at and treat it as if such experience has given them enough knowledge to become an unquestionable authority on the subject.

It bothers me that people can be so sensitive to challenge towards their ideas that they resort to such tactics as a way of trying to end debate. What happened to challenging your premises in order to ensure fidelity to truth? I think debates should be entertaining, if not fun, since the healthy epistemological attitude is to enjoy the pursuit of knowledge and all the difficulties it brings, whether from the learning itself or the contrary assertions from others. In a debate, profit is guaranteed: If your position is right, you're given the opportunity to learn it a little better and perhaps convince other people of its truth, and if it's wrong you'll have the opportunity to set yourself right. It's only emotionally uncomfortable during the start of the practice, so that so many people abstain from gaining such a desensitization is a real shame since they're depriving themselves of a great benefit. To observe someone go into old age and still maintain such a sensitivity is reprehensible sign of weakness.

I think it's ultimately a lack of confidence in individual judgment that drives people to depend on such fallacies as the appeal to authority, or to even establish themselves as an authority after other authorities have "certified" them into authorityhood (e.g. getting a college degree). At root, such dependence is absurd. By which means do these people go about establishing who is a trustworthy authority and who is not? Given that these particular people are depending on authorities as a way to not think, we can only assume popularity. After going through the motions in which popular beliefs have determined that one will become knowledgeable about something, they then think themselves the equivalent status of the popular authorities they follow, and so use that "title" in order to swat away questions or challenges to their assertions.

I also wonder whether this is a tactic popular authorities themselves are prone to. Have you ever noticed how some books will list college degrees and whatnot by a person's name and others won't? Take, for example, Objectivist philosopher Leonard Peikoff. Before his retirement he was a *professional* philosopher with the appropriate college degrees. Properly he could have listed his name on his books as "Dr. Leonard Peikoff," and yet he hasn't. Many Objectivist scholars don't. Ayn Rand herself studied history while in college, which is a fantastic credential for her philosophical observations, and yet it's hardly ever mentioned; you practically have to seek out that information. The authors here merely post their names and let the arguments do the talking. I've never been one to really pay attention to the listing of credentials on books, but strangely enough it strikes me to observe that these particular scholars often abstain from doing so, which makes me wonder about the nature of the people who are prone to advertising their Ph.D on the front cover.

As a culture, things will never get better unless people learn how to be comfortable with ideas that are in contradiction to theirs, and to question them and see how they stand up to their own. As Aristotle has been attributed: "It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it." Just question your beliefs and the comfort will soon follow naturally. The longer a person avoids this process the more emotional barriers will be set up to prevent any such attempt.

Do yourself a favor: Depend on your own judgment. In a way, it's like a muscle that grows stronger and becomes easier to utilize with use. Avoid such effort and it will not only atrophy but also be overwhelmingly emotionally negative to utilize after reaching such a decayed state. Accept no authorities in substitution of your own mind, and don't let other people's claim to authority deter you.

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