Wednesday, February 04, 2015

C. S. Lewis on authority

“Don't be scared by the word authority. Believing things on authority only means believing them because you've been told them by someone you think trustworthy. Ninety-nine per cent of the things you believe are believed on authority. I believe there is such a place as New York. I haven't seen it myself. I couldn't prove by abstract reasoning that there must be such a place. I believe it because reliable people have told me so. The ordinary man believes in the Solar System, atoms, evolution, and the circulation of the blood on authority -because the scientists say so. Every historical statement in the world is believed on authority. None of us has seen the Norman Conquest or the defeat of the Armada. None of us could prove them by pure logic as you prove a thing in mathematics. We believe them simply because people who did see them have left writings that tell us about them: in fact, on authority. A man who jibbed at authority in other things as some people do in religion would have to be content to know nothing all his life.” 
― C.S. LewisThe Case for Christianity

27 comments:

B. Prokop said...

Wonderful article HERE on Richard Dawkins wanting fight Islam by saturating the Middle East with "loving, gentle, woman-respecting" pornography. Boy, have the New Atheists ever jumped the shark!

im-skeptical said...

"I believe there is such a place as New York. I haven't seen it myself. I couldn't prove by abstract reasoning that there must be such a place. I believe it because reliable people have told me so."

I think this is a good illustration of the non-scientific mind. Let's say Lewis told me there's a place called Narnia. Should I believe him? I can buy a ticket to New York, but not Narnia. I can find New York in the atlas, but not Narnia. I don't have to take someone's word for it. There's evidence that New York exists, even if I haven't been there.

But what about other things that I haven't personally observed? What about atoms, for example? Do I believe they exist just because someone told me? No. I believe they exist because I have a general understanding of nature that includes the physical structure of matter. The existence of atoms is not an isolated fact that I take on authority. It fits into a broader framework of knowledge. If atoms didn't exist, then many things in my framework of understanding would no longer make sense. This understanding comes from education, not just because someone told me.

Sure, there are things that I take on authority. But not 99%. I can't imagine going through life believing most things just because someone said so.

John Moore said...

Yes, it's what im-skeptical said. Following authority is bad if you just rely on authority without any circumstantial evidence, without fitting things into a broader framework of knowledge.

Benjamin Thompson said...

I think Lewis' point is this. We form beliefs largely based on sources of information; news broadcasters, academic journals, researchers in various fields etc. Almost all information gets to us in this way. We believe this information largely because it is corroborated across a range of these academic sources. Moreover, to a limited extent, we can think through the information we gather to see if it makes sense. But even then, we are largely relying on what we learn from others to make such an assessment. So I think Lewis is right, ultimately none of us would be having this conversation if it weren't for the books we read and the teachers/authorities we learned under.

im-skeptical said...

This is what Lewis said: "We believe them simply because people who did see them have left writings that tell us about them: in fact, on authority." He's not talking about a framework of understanding.

JaredMithrandir said...

Thing is, The Bible is quite against believing any Authority other then itself. Jesus hated the Doctrine of the Nicolatians.

B. Prokop said...

"The Bible is quite against believing any Authority other then itself."

Absolutely and totally wrong. Here's what John (in The Bible, no less) says about "going by the evidence":

“That which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon and touched with our hands … we saw it and testify to it.” (1 John 1:1-2)

And Peter:

“We did not follow cleverly devised myths … but we were eyewitnesses.” (2 Peter 1:16)

So, yes. The ultimate authority is seeing for one's self. And since we can't all do that, the next best thing is trusting proven authority. The Apostles have proven themselves trustworthy.

Papalinton said...

"So, yes. The ultimate authority is seeing for one's self. And since we can't all do that, the next best thing is trusting proven authority. The Apostles have proven themselves trustworthy."

Try telling that to a billion Muslims. Or a billion Hindus. Or a few Hasidic Jews.

toddes said...

"This understanding comes from education, not just because someone told me."

Skep and John, you're equivocating. Belief is not understanding and understanding is not belief.

Separate this into first-, second- and third-hand knowledge or direct and indirect knowledge.

How much of your knowledge, Skep, is first-hand, that is, from direct experience and observation, and how much of it is indirect, that is, second, third or greater separation?

A simple example (and this applies to John as well) is the quote from Lewis (cited by Victor). Did you verify the quote prior to responding or did you rely on someone "trustworthy" and "reliable" that the quote is actually from the source given. In other words, you believe that quote is accurately presently based on the authority who quoted it.

And your examples of buying a ticket to New York or finding it in an atlas are exactly what Lewis is addressing. Both the ticket counter and the atlas are authorities. Even if you buy the ticket, how do you verify that you've actually arrived in New York? Do you rely on signs or how about landmarks? Are either of those authorities? Were the sign-painter or the person who wrote about the landmarks "trustworthy"?

Ultimately, your reference to a "framework of understanding" is bluster and bluff.

oozzielionel said...

"Try telling that to a billion Muslims. Or a billion Hindus. Or a few Hasidic Jews."

That would be exactly the job that Christians were given by Jesus.

im-skeptical said...

toddes,

"Ultimately, your reference to a "framework of understanding" is bluster and bluff."

You completely and utterly miss the point. Yes, we rely upon the work and the observations of others. But if we have any level of intelligence, we don't believe something just because someone said it or wrote it. If it doesn't fit with other things we understand, we should reject it or at least be skeptical.

There are people who believe ID is legitimate science. But legitimate scientists insist it isn't science. Why is that? Because ID is bullshit that doesn't fit within the larger framework of scientific understanding they have. It's not just that they postulate something different. That happens all the time in science. It's that they reject what is well-known, and their postulation doesn't fit in the framework.

Don't tell me this is bluster and bluff. My framework of understanding is what helps me to discern between what is likely to be true and what is likely to be bullshit.

toddes said...

"Don't tell me this is bluster and bluff. My framework of understanding is what helps me to discern between what is likely to be true and what is likely to be bullshit."

Your system is failing you.

"But if we have any level of intelligence, we don't believe something just because someone said it or wrote it."

And this is one place where you are failing. Get it through your head, the Lewis quote doesn't state that we are to believe something just because someone with direct knowledge wrote it or said it. It is contingent on that source being "reliable" and "trustworthy".

Victor, for example, I consider an authority on Lewis. If he makes a claim about Lewis or quotes from his work, I believe it to be factual.

If you were to make a claim about Lewis (or any other claim for that matter), I would need meticulous sourcing which I would then verify.

im-skeptical said...

"If you were to make a claim about Lewis (or any other claim for that matter), I would need meticulous sourcing which I would then verify."

So you are using your own framework of understanding. You just proved my point.

oozzielionel said...

I think he is comparing C.S. Lewis' reliability against yours...

Papalinton said...

Quoting Lewis as gospel is the act of last resort. It is not only a testament to the callow and terminally unsettled nature of theologically-derived philosophy as a genuine and veritable explanatory mechanism accounting for reality but equally, it doubles as profound irony that the religiose put their utter faith in a fantasy writer to guide their journey to 'reality'. No doubt Lewis creatively crafted wonderful and imaginative narratives in his great fantasy works, particularly the two for which he is best known, Narnia Chronicles and Mere Christianity. But it is deep and abiding folly to iterate his stories as anything more than credulous opinion.

The pathology of fantasising Lewis as the purveyor of reality is thoroughly misguided.

Papalinton said...

"That would be exactly the job that Christians were given by Jesus."

Give it a break, oozzielionel, and spare us the apologetical pablum. It simply has no credibility any more.


Victor Reppert said...

Lewis offers an argument for his position, so this is no appeal to authority.

B. Prokop said...

The true situation is even more removed from direct experience than Lewis describes - because yes, we do indeed get nearly everything that we call "knowledge" not from personal experience but rather from the testimony of others. So we need to at least hope that we're getting our testimony from reliable authority. But (and here's the additional complication) who among us is competent to judge on our own which authorities are reliable? (hint: none of us) So even to decide which authorities are reliable, we must rely on the testimony of still others.

This is ultimately a rabbit hole down which one can run forever, unless one chooses the route of sanity and opts at some point to trust somebody (on the grounds of "good enough" evidence). This is the case for everything we know by means other than direct observation, whether it be science, history, or religion.

Papalinton said...

More correctly, Lewis offers an argument from his position. And there is certainly no appealing authority here.

Papalinton said...

The testimony and authority of religion has been fatally compromised in the last 100 years as methodological naturalism supplants revelation, prophecy and childhood inculcation as the medium of instruction.

There really is no genuine material challenge to the direction of this palpable trend as the community becomes more questioning and less gullible, a consequence of increasing education and learning levels. It is more a question of the time period over which this societal transition will happen rather than 'if' this change occurs.

This changing cultural sentiment is best characterised in the validation of science, based on reason and empirical study, generally being determined remarkably more reliable, while that of religion—including faith, dogma, and revelation—leads to incorrect, untestable, or conflicting conclusions.

Victor Reppert said...

In other words, atheism hurrah, religion boo. When we boil down what you have to say, that's it.

Papalinton said...

No Victor, there is no hurrah or booing on my part. What it boils down to is appreciating humanity's inexorable gradual change, maturation and improved access to knowledge and understanding of the intricacies of life, the human condition, the world, universe going forward. This change, through the many explanatory models that at one time in our history were the best available consistent with contemporaneous knowledge and understanding, continues today. It simply isn't feasible to cling onto explanatory paradigms that are increasingly becoming insufficient and incapable of competing in the marketplace of ideas. Religious and theological explanation have reached and passed its zenith. It is not enough to grant concession by virtue of their place in historical tradition or conventional wisdom.

The world of investigation, research, study is exponentially greater today than at any time in the past. Our future explanatory tools must be necessarily more converging and complementary to adequately deal with the quantum of information and knowledge being discovered today than religion/theology has been able to demonstrate.

B. Prokop said...

"humanity's inexorable gradual change"

I seem to recall reading an expanded version of this speech in Out of the Silent Planet, where Weston states his case before the Oyarsa's court.

Nothing "inevitable" about it, Linton. That's what the Temple Authorities thought, as did the Romans, the Arians, the Germanic tribesmen, the Mohammedans, the Norsemen, the French Revolutionaries, the Nazis, the Communists, and now the secularists (by the way, really nice company you keep there). Yet after 2000 years of trying really hard, Christianity is still here, and the Papacy is the longest lasting institution in human history (and more influential than ever).

I wouldn't bet any real money on its imminent demise, if I were you. And I certainly wouldn't bet my soul.

im-skeptical said...

"by the way, really nice company you keep there"

Nice one, Bob.

B. Prokop said...

"Nice one, Bob."

Yeah, I thought so too.

im-skeptical said...

"Yeah, I thought so too."

Your Christian ethics at work.

B. Prokop said...

"Your Christian ethics at work."

Well, I guess "telling it like it is" (i.e., speaking the truth) would come under Christian ethics, so I'll agree with you there. You gotta problem with being lumped in with that crowd? Then don't be on their side!