Is Reason My “God” 2: On Authority, Uncertainty, and Inexplicability

I’ve been remiss lately in replying to interesting reader challenges.  A backlog is growing of remarks I intend to address.  So I decided, in order to get back in the swing of things to quickly reply to this new one I just got.  Grant writes,

Seems there are people looking for an authority to believe in, be they religious or scientific. I wonder how they get on with uncertainty and inexplicability.

All people look for authorities to believe in.  There are no people whatsoever who eschew authorities or who do not implicitly depend on them in myriad ways at all times.  None of us is an island.  An incalculable amount of what we know depends upon the testimony of other people.  I take it on authority that my parents are my parents, that Russia exists, that the American Revolutionary War began in 1776, that there are things called germs, etc.  It is a false dichotomy to set up a contrast between those who look for authorities with those capable of “getting on with uncertainty and inexplicability.”  Even my belief that my sweatshirt I’m now wearing is maroon is founded on the authority of my senses and my belief that 1+1=2 is founded on the authority of reason.  We all need authorities—both the authorities that our various “faculties” for knowledge provide and the authority of other people’s informed testimonies.

The challenge is not to abandon all authorities but to restrict ourselves only to good authorities and where there are no good authorities to accept uncertainty at least (and inexplicability only when one can prove that what is now uncertain must be in perpetuity—which is a tall order.  If one is to genuinely accept rational uncertainty, then one must accept the possibility of future explicability of most of what presently may seem inexplicable, unless one has specific reasons to be certain that the yet unexplained is indeed in principle inexplicable).

But there is a flip side here too.  Not only must we carefully restrict ourselves to good authorities, we must also pay heed to all good authorities insofar as they are demonstrably good.  In other words, it is not sufficient to simply reject bad authorities if one also inadequately trusts good authorities.  Living with “uncertainty” and “inexplicability” are not inherent virtues.  When one’s uncertainty or inability to explain is simply due to one’s obstinate refusal to listen to reason and qualified authorities, then one is simply obtuse, stupid, and/or irresponsible.

What we should always do is calibrate our beliefs to the degree to which they are certain, no more and no less.  We should calibrate our trust in authorities to the degree that their credibility in general and their credibility on a particular point can be ascertained, no more and no less.  Where uncertainty is high, we should accept a high degree of uncertainty.  Where certainty is high, we should accept a high degree of certainty.

The ability to live with uncertainty when appropriate is highly admirable, something Nietzsche stressed a great deal.  To be able to accept the ever lingering degrees of uncertainty in one’s positions is also a challenge and when people meet it, it should be admired.  But it is also a virtue to accept good authorities, to accept the limitations of one’s own understanding and learn from those with greater expertise than your own.

And with this in mind it is a false equivalence to blithely equate people’s reliance on scientists and acceptance of their authority to their acceptance on religion and its assumed authority.  Scientists earn their credibility through rigorous tests that religions have repeatedly either failed or tried to excuse themselves from.  You can say you don’t trust the authority of scientists until you’re blue in the face.  But every time you turn on your computer in practice you contradict yourself.  Every time you board an airplane, take an aspirin, go to a doctor, use your cell phone, count the carbohydrates in your food, or do any of countless other modern things, you entrust your life, your schedule, your plans, your health, and innumerable other things to science.  Science has earned its credibility.

Religion, on the other hand, is all talk.  Religious authorities know nothing about the world that make them any special authorities.  Everything they know is either scientifically verifiable and therefore not the special domain of religion but just scientific knowledge all over again.  Or it’s philosophically defensible insight, in which case there is again, no need for special religious authority since any one irrespective of religious tradition can understand philosophical premises with the proper training.    And so on and so forth for the rest of knowledge.  Any claim a religion makes can either be confirmed by independent reason and so needs no special religious authority to confirm its truth or it cannot be confirmed by independent reason—in which case we have no rational basis to take it for true.  And with no rational basis to take something as true, there is no basis for taking it as true.

And with that we turn to the next portion of Grant’s challenge to me:

You lost me at “We are all, as rational beings…” If there’s one thing
demonstrated by the facts – humans are not rational beings. Unless you believe we are… against the evidence.

I get to that challenge in the next post.  In the meantime: Your Thoughts?

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