Logical trap of “Argument from authority”

In mainstream podcasts about difficult subject as politics, economy, religion, nature of consciousness, properties of reality and the universe, and many other scientific subject, it often strikes me how frequently people use a certain type of logical fallacy called “Argument from authority”. *1 It seems that over time, same as before, this tendency is not decreasing - regardless of our current level of progress or technical advance.

This logical fallacy goes like this:

  • A is an authority on a particular topic
  • A says something about that topic
  • A is probably correct

But lately it is being used in another very common form:

  • A is an authority on a particular topic S
  • B talks about unknown U
  • B finds relation between U and what A mentioned about U
  • B uses A as an authority, therefore you should trust B about U

If I would say something like:

“Scientists had preferred to bow to authority rather than believe the evidence of their own eyes.”

I need to supply evidence that will confirm or strengthen the above claim.

But if I say insted:

"Robert Matthews said 'Scientists had preferred to bow to authority
rather than believe the evidence of their own eyes'." *2

You can notice how the meaning of the sentence has shifted, as now it seems to have more credibility, and I do not need to support my claim with additional evidence.

The above technique has been used frequently, and there are multiple reasons for that.

First and foremost, there is practical reason for this. If one would need to supply evidence for every sentence one says, one would need to write an entire dissertation for even the simplest, smallest subject one is trying to address. We have advanced with knowledge so much because we do not reinvent things all the time from beginning, but because we rally on previous knowledge so that we can continue from that point onward. In order to contract the subject, therefore, the author needs to relate to previous knowledge and authority in order to bridge the gap of knowledge, which should be at the time of writing or speaking already known to the targeted public (if you addressing a public of theoretic physicists, you expect that they know who Einstein was and what his theories were). Also, please not that referencing is not same as usage of “argument from authority” although it can be easily mistaken.

On the other hand, there is the insecurity or credibility reason. As we humans like to fix and hold someone dearly to what he said, not giving him a chance to change his mind, whatever he says can be used against him. So, the best option to deflect that threat is to relate to someone who is well known established authority. The fact that the author could be dead is even more valuable, as it will diminish the ability of people to conduct future checks , except from what’s already been written in existing documents.

For example, imagine that we are talking about consciousness and its nature. As at this point, we do not have enough knowledge, or we have not advanced enough technically, in order to find any solid evidence, and most of our talk is in the domain of pure speculation. At this point, one person can claim that every particle in this universe has consciousness. Although this may be true, we do not have enough evidence to support this claim. We can decide to reject this idea, argue about the validity of the idea, or just leave it open as a possible premise. In the case that someone else openly rejects this claim as foolishness, as it can be perceived as an open attack on the personality of the author, and the author may choose the strategy of defence. By using an “Argument from authority” at this moment, the source of the idea can try to make his argument stronger by referencing a well-known authority and what that authority said about the same subject. For this instance, let’s take Richard Feynman, a well-known theoretical physicist who once used the construction “atoms with consciousness” in his poem. *3 In order to “prove” his claim, the person can use Feynman and what he wrote in order to support his argument. At this point, depending on how well this side knows the source of the citation, the other side can decide to back off.

Who is right here?

We know that currently our level of knowledge about consciousness is quite low, so we can safely conclude that in known human history we have never had more knowledge supported by evidence about consciousness than we have now. Although knowledge can be lost, like in the case of “How to build the Pyramids”, for instance, the only thing that matters is preserved research along with reproducible results.

Therefore, although Mr. Feynman was a great authority on many subjects regarding Elementary Particles and the Laws of Physics, we can conclude that his reference about matter and consciousness was purely speculative and poetic. Furthermore, poems can hardly have scientific value as they usually lack evidence, do not conform to standard scientific rules, and what is written there is only limited by the author’s imagination.

It is worth mentioning that very broad abstractions can say that if atoms are parts that create consciousness and therefore necessary for the existence of consciousness, we can say that they have, in some sense, consciousness on their own.

So, who is right and who is wrong then?

Really no one is right, and also no one is wrong.

A hypothesis/claim has to be left “open” until we gain enough knowledge either to prove or disprove it, but that claim cannot be used for further citation or as a source of evidence until proven valid or invalid.

The main point is that we can brainstorm, discuss and debate about uncharted territories, but it is pointless to argue. However this can be quite difficult, especially when someone is claiming that an electric current contains “Unicorns on a bicycle that move by playing harmonicas” instead of something that is more suitable to our belief system or scientific evidence.

History is full of scientists with bold claims that were ridiculed at the beginning, but their theories were proven to be right years later. Just in the recent history of science, there is the case of Fleischmann–Pons famous cold fusion experiment *4, which has turned into a witch hunt within the scientific community just because people who needed to reproduce the experiment were doing it wrong. That single event ruined the careers of two brilliant scientists. That case, along with many other similar events, is a reason why people are so cautious nowadays about announcing their discoveries.

It would be nice if we had enough strength so we could stand behind our inventions on our own, but probably “arguments from authority” are here to stay with us, for better or worse, at least for some time.

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