Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Don’t necessarily trust the experts

My goodness some people are literal-minded. Judging from some of the commentary (here and elsewhere) on my post about the PhilPapers survey, some people really think I was making a blanket assertion to the effect that one should always trust the experts. Well, no, of course I wasn’t saying that. I thought it was obvious that what I was really saying is that if a certain kind of atheist is going to play the stupid “A says this, but THE EXPERTS say otherwise!” game, he ought to do so consistently.

Does expertise count for something? Of course it does. The argument from authority is, when the authority in question is a genuine authority, a serious argument. But it is hardly conclusive. Experts can be wrong. The conventional wisdom in an entire field of study can be wrong. I’m with Aquinas: The argument from (genuine) authority is a serious argument, but when the authority in question is a human being or group of human beings it is nevertheless the weakest of all arguments (ST I.1.8).

38 comments:

Crude said...

Thank you, Ed. I didn't think your point was subtle at all, but apparently others did. Go figure.

Anonymous said...

So, trust the experts when the experts are genuine authorities. In this situation, philosophers of religion are genuine authorities whereas philosophers of mind and philosophers of cognitive science are not genuine authorities.

Gotcha! Thanks for clearing that up.

Anonymous said...

Wow, what a butchering of the OP. Making us anonymous types look bad.

Edward Feser said...

Anon 1,

What a complete jackass you are. That is -- obviously -- not what I meant at all. By a "genuine authority" I mean one who is an actual expert in whatever subject is in question. E.g. Paris Hilton is not an authority on politics, physics, or auto repair, so an appeal to her say-so vis-a-vis those topics would be a fallacious appeal to authority.

But saying "Most philosophers of religion believe some theistic arguments work" is not a fallacous appeal to authority. And yes, "Most philosophers of mind believe in physicalism" is not a fallacious appeal to authority either. In BOTH cases, the appeal to the authorities in question gives SOME reason to believe the conclusion, but very far from conclusive reason.

So, no inconsistency whatsoever on my part. On your part so far, though, nothing but a sophomoric will to misread what I've written. Cut it out or get lost.

Anonymous said...

OK.

And yes, "Most philosophers of mind believe in physicalism" is not a fallacious appeal to authority either.

Thanks for that.

Edward Feser said...

Thanks back at you. Peace.

Interstellar Bill said...

Let's not forget that not every imporant argument hinges on somebody's authority or expertise. Deference to authority usually occurs in cases of specific knowledge and expertise, based on 'time served', whether in study, work, or otherwise productively. (e.g., since I've run thousands of miles barefoot I'm a confident authority on any related topics). In general, the legitimacy of authority ultimately rests on wisdom fed by lengthy experience. Please see 'Human Accomplishment' by Charles Murray. (Too bad this wonderful work is not as well known as 'The Bell Curve'.)
Moreover, I think that the generalized 'experts' Prof. Feser had in mind were publically important members of scientific or medical guilds. Their authority is a different matter than with personally known specific persons.

Bobcat said...

Ed,

In what do you think philosophical authority consists? I have speculations, but every time I tried to jot them down they seemed really jejune.

Felix said...

and how can a non-expert tell genuine experts from spurious experts?

my suggestion: check if your claimant denies causality and rationality

if so, they fail the self-referential test and are mere sophists

Anonymous said...

Anon 1 may be a jacksass, but he does appear to have mastered the web-skeptic formula: one part feigned incomprehension, one part genuine incomprehension, and a whole lotta snark. I am disappointed that he couldn't find a way to use the term "woo" but if given another chance I bet he could manage...maybe with a dash of pop-science wiki thrown in for good measure.

Bertrand Sagan said...

Hey Mr. Feser,
I had a hard time finishing your post after you mentioned Aquinas.
I'm going to guess you're not the type to read Richard Dawkins book, but he pretty much showed why Aquinas isn't considered a threat anymore.
Uuuuuuhhhh, this isn't the dark ages anymore.... sorry.

We're studying alittle Aquinas right now. One of his problems was that his 5 ways really didn't do what he was hoping they would.
It's a noble cause, to try to prove something you hold dearly. But, with "some potions come poisons" (I came up with that quote - even impressed my prof).
If you're going to imbibe on the fruits of philosophies of rot, then you yourself have only you to blame.

Bobcat said...

Bertrand Sagan has web-atheist-speak down.

Bertrand Sagan said...

Bobcat,
as opposed to making fun of something maybe you should attempt an explanation of your mental ruminations.
So many in the throng are wont to deride, yet recoil in shock when it lacks to impress.


Oh, and I'm a philosophy major, so smoke and mirrors probaly won't work with me.

Maolsheachlann said...

For Pete's sake, Prof, why didn't you read Dawkins before you wrote your books? You've let us ALL down. I never would have bought them if I'd known Aquinas had been discredited. I want my money back.

Bertrand Sagan said...

Maolsheachlann,
I don't want to say that I'm stunned myself, but I have come to expect that certain types just aren't willing to read things they disagree with.
God Delusion was pretty awesome.
But I'd be lying if I said that it was much better than "god is NOT great".
Which one do you like?

Bertrand Sagan said...

Well, since there convieneintly isn't an edit option I can't alter my above post.
But after looking at Maolsheachlann's profile I'm guessing that he wasn't being too serious in his reply to me. Since I don't know many atheists who have blogs dedicated to GK Chesterton.

Okay, you got one over on me. But in reality, it's still one over on you. Since there's a reason most of the atheistic professors do not write on chesterton, because he was substanceless.

Anonymous said...

Anon 9:14 mockingly describes your typical web-skeptic, and right on cue 'Bertrand Sagan' appears to remove all doubts about whether it was accurate....Watch out, Ed! He's a philosophy MAJOR, and he's read Richard Dawkins too!

Maolsheachlann said...

I honestly can't choose between them!

Anonymous said...

Bertrand Sagan I'm going to assume you're kidding and just stumbled in here by mistake, because you obviously have no idea what the hell you're talking about. I'm glad your babysitter (I mean professor) liked your quote though; thanks for sharing, I'm really impressed by your humility (characteristic of so many of your fellow Atheists after all.)

I'm glad you're studying "alittle" Aquinas right now though. I'm a philosophy major too, so I know that smoke and mirrors "probaly" wouldn't work on me either. But I see Billy-Bob's Back Alley University is really giving you a first-class college education.
But no seriously, you probably have chores to do or something, so run along now.

Anonymous said...

"I don't want to say that I'm stunned myself, but I have come to expect that certain types just aren't willing to read things they disagree with."

So I assume this is why you didn't read The Last Superstition. I guess you're just "one of those types" kid.

Maolsheachlann said...

I was only kidding with you, Bertrand. Sarcasm is a pretty low trick so I apologise.

And Chesterton was NOT without substance. Have you ever seen a picture of him?

Anonymous said...

Come clean now, Bertrand Sagan! You are just coming here 'pretending' to be an ass-ignorant internet infidel just to see who would take the troll bait....right? Because the only thing funnier than your comments so far is the thought that you might be serious.

TomH said...

Mary Midgley took Dawkins down a peg or two regarding his "selfish" gene reductionism. Other than a snarky attitude and some really raunchy philosophy, what has Dawkins got to recommend him? How is Dawkins any kind of expert? So he wrote a popular science book. Big deal.

His reductionism ran smack into the work of epigenetics (McClintock) and cooperative evolution (Jablonka), which seem to disconfirm Dawkins' thesis. Epigenetics posits a mechanism which sits on top of genes, so that reduction to a single gene fails. CE posits that species cooperate, which involves more than a single gene for success, so that, again, reduction to a single gene fails.

So how is Dawkins an expert? And why are McClintock and Jablonka considered experts? Is it because they work in the field of genetics?

Do experts need some sort of credential? What are acceptable credentials? Are there degrees of expertise with associated credentials? Might someone be able to work their way from total non-expert to apprentice expert to journeyman expert to master without ever taking coursework in the field?

Bobcat said...

Bertrand Sagan,

I really, really thought you were kidding, given that your remark came right after Anonymous's post about atheist web-speak. Moreover, your name is a combination of Bertrand Russell and Carl Sagan, so I thought you were really piling it on.

That said, if you really want a response to your post, OK:

"Hey Mr. Feser,
I had a hard time finishing your post after you mentioned Aquinas.
I'm going to guess you're not the type to read Richard Dawkins book, but he pretty much showed why Aquinas isn't considered a threat anymore.
Uuuuuuhhhh, this isn't the dark ages anymore.... sorry."

A couple of things:

(1) Since you're a philosophy major, you should know that Aquinas is considered a very good philosopher, even by atheist philosophers. The Leiter Reports had a poll of who the most important philosopher of all time is, and Aquinas ended up as the 10th most important. See here: http://leiterreports.typepad.com/blog/2009/05/the-20-most-important-philosophers-of-all-time.html. As a philosophy major, you should also know that mastering Aquinas's thoughts on metaphysics and philosophy of mind is also becoming important. Arguably, Fred Dretske takes a thomistic approach to philosophy of mind and epistemology; Anthony Kenny's book Aquinas on Mind makes the case for Aquinas' continuing relevance to contemporary philosophy of mind debates.

(2) Dawkins is not a very good philosopher. Philosophers, atheist or not, don't generally take his philosophical contributions very seriously, even to philosophy of biology. You may want to read this take-down of Dawkins's argument from improbability, which Dawkins regards as the central argument of his book: http://philsci-archive.pitt.edu/archive/00004652/01/argument_from_improbability.pdf.
We're studying alittle Aquinas right now. One of his problems was that his 5 ways really didn't do what he was hoping they would.
It's a noble cause, to try to prove something you hold dearly. But, with "some potions come poisons" (I came up with that quote - even impressed my prof).
If you're going to imbibe on the fruits of philosophies of rot, then you yourself have only you to blame.

(3) Feser has read Dawkins's book, and he wrote a book of his own in response to The God Delusion. Feser's book is called The Last Superstition. You can order it from Amazon.com.

(4) Since you're a philosophy major, you should know from your studies that philosophical arguments are rarely, if ever, refuted once and for all. Consequently, to assume that Dawkins, in the early 2000s finished off Aquinas, even though Aquinas has been closely studied for over 800 years, should strike you as a prima facie implausible claim. Name me almost any philosophical position or argument that you think has been decisively refuted, and I'll show you a philosopher who disagrees with you. This is true even of logical positivism.

Going on, you wrote:

"We're studying alittle Aquinas right now. One of his problems was that his 5 ways really didn't do what he was hoping they would."

(5) What did you think Aquinas thought he was showing with his five ways? And do you really think you have a good handle on a philosopher who was as systematic as Aquinas (or indeed, any historically significant philosopher) after only studying him a little bit?

"It's a noble cause, to try to prove something you hold dearly."

(6) Why do you think that? Please give me the premises that lead you to this conclusion.

"But, with "some potions come poisons" (I came up with that quote - even impressed my prof)."

(7) Why bring up the fact that the quotation you originated impressed your professor?

"If you're going to imbibe on the fruits of philosophies of rot, then you yourself have only you to blame."

(8) What if you didn't know that the philosophies you were imbibing were philosophies of rot? Are you still blameworthy?

Anonymous said...

Whoever is behind 'Bertrand Sagan' is a genius. I almost took the posts for real at first. They're just so believable, even down to writing style and spelling errors. The only problem is that it's just too good. Even such severe morons would never manage to choose such appropriately ridiculous comments. Only somebody who has actually read Ed's books could have focused on those points.

Probably my favorite part is: "Oh, and I'm a philosophy major, so smoke and mirrors probaly won't work with me." Reminds me of things like, "Oh, and I know Karate, by the way, so you'd better not mess with me." Perfectly adolescent stuff. Brilliant.

Matthew said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Matthew said...

We're studying alittle Aquinas right now. One of his problems was that his 5 ways really didn't do what he was hoping they would.

I agree. When i took my advanced class in medieval philosophy, I learned that Aquinas first way is nothing but the basic cosmological argument: Everything has a cause.

Anonymous said...

This is getting surreal. First Bertrand Sagan shows up and engages in a little self-parody. Now 'Matthew' drops in repeats the urban legend about Aquinas saying "everything has a cause." It has reached the point where it is impossible to tell the real net-skeptics from the people making fun the net-skeptics....

Bobcat said...

It's philosophically interesting when web-atheism gets to the point where you honestly can't tell the joke posts from the serious ones.

But at the risk of once again being wrong, I really think Matthew post is a joke.

Scott Shaffer said...

I have to admit Prof Feser, that I also had a difficult time reading your post after the quote from Aquinas, for that's where it appears to me to have ended.

What did I miss?

Anonymous said...

Keeping with the present discussion, I once overheard a very vocal agnostic woman who matter-of-factly told a group of people that, and I quote, the "second law of entropy shows matter cannot be created" and so, of course, "everything has a natural explanation." Oy! Maybe they can post that one on internet infidels?

Eric said...

"It's philosophically interesting when web-atheism gets to the point where you honestly can't tell the joke posts from the serious ones."

Bobcat, perhaps we need a web-atheist version of Poe's law.

"the "second law of entropy shows matter cannot be created" and so, of course, "everything has a natural explanation." Oy! Maybe they can post that one on internet infidels?"

Ugh. I've heard that one many times myself. I doubt even internet infidels would touch that one; heck, even the Rational Response Squad wouldn't touch it! (If you're not familiar with the Rational Response Squad, well, let's say that they make Dawkins look like J. L. Mackie by comparison!)

David said...

"We're studying alittle Aquinas right now. One of his problems was that his 5 ways really didn't do what he was hoping they would."

I agree.


I agree also. It's quite clear from our vantage point in the 21st century that the 5 ways clearly don't do what he was hoping. Since surely he was hoping that they would function as concise points on which to base rigourous, reflective, in-depth discussions of serious philosophical issues; something that seems a forlorn hope given the current state of academe.

P.S. I was taken in by "Bertrand Sagan" at first too... the sad thing is that such parodies are possible and even plausible because, as Bobcat suggests, there really are people like that.

Matthew said...

This is getting surreal. First Bertrand Sagan shows up and engages in a little self-parody. Now 'Matthew' drops in repeats the urban legend about Aquinas saying "everything has a cause." It has reached the point where it is impossible to tell the real net-skeptics from the people making fun the net-skeptics....

I was hoping that phrasing the urban legend the exact same way Prof. Feser formulated it in previous entries would make the parody obvious enough.

That being said, I think

Uuuuuuhhhh, this isn't the dark ages anymore.... sorry.

Is also not being very subtle.

But yeah, Poe's law holds for a reason.

Bobcat said...

"I was hoping that phrasing the urban legend the exact same way Prof. Feser formulated it in previous entries would make the parody obvious enough."

That's what really made me think you were joking, and yet Nigel Warburton, who seems like a smart enough chap, uses that very formulation.

Ranger said...

David,
The thing is...I'm still not sure that Bertrand Sagan was a parody? This is proof that I've spent too much time scanning "arguments" by web-atheists since his rhetoric (authentic or not) has become the standard on many sites (Debunking Christianity, Free Ratio, Dick Dawkins' site, etc.)

Ranger said...

"And Chesterton was NOT without substance. Have you ever seen a picture of him?"

Maolsheachlann,
That was a brilliantly Chestertonian response!

Maolsheachlann said...

Thanks!