More Reflections on Epistemology: Prove Your Authority

More Reflections on Epistemology: Prove Your Authority September 25, 2019

WHERE WE ARE AT

Recent comments on Part 11 of my series defending the Swoon Theory concern some basic issues of epistemology, and for some reason I could not prevent myself from jumping in and responding to some of the comments concerning epistemological issues.

So, I  shared some of those comments and some of my responses to them in a separate post.  The comments were from Phil Tanny, and I hoped that he would discuss those comments, provide some clarification and that he would defend his claims and arguments.  That didn’t work out, because Tanny was unwilling to clarify and defend his claims and arguments. However, we can still analyze and evaluate those comments, and try to make sense of them on our own.

Here is one of the comments from Phil Tanny (I don’t know if that is the actual name of the commenter) that got me thinking:

PROVE YOUR AUTHORITY

As example, if a theist can’t prove their holy book is qualified to deliver credible answers to the very largest of questions, then we need not dig our way through thousands of arguments based on Bible verses, right? If all those arguments are based on the Bible, and the Bible is an unproven authority, then all the arguments are merely someone’s speculative opinion.

The very same situation exists for the atheist. If the atheist can’t prove that their chosen authority, human reason, is qualified to deliver credible answers to the very largest of questions, then all of their logic calculations on such subjects are merely someone’s speculative opinion.

I was not sure what Tanny meant by “the very largest of questions”, but suggested that this might mean questions about the existence, characteristics, and activities of God.  Perhaps he had a broader array of religious and theological issues in mind, including questions about life after death and about the existence, characteristics, and actions of other intelligent beings (besides God) that lack physical bodies (e.g. angels, demons, ghosts).  So, let’s just substitute the phrase “important religious and theological questions” for Tanny’s phrase “the very largest of questions”, and understand that this phrase refers to a set of several religious and theological questions that include: questions about the existence, characteristics, and activities of God, as well as questions about life after death, and questions about the existence, characteristics, and actions of other alleged intelligent beings (besides God) that lack physical bodies (such as angels, demons, or ghosts).

Let’s start by clarifying the argument about “all those arguments” presented by theists.

2. IF all those arguments are based on the Bible, and the Bible is an unproven authority, THEN all those arguments are merely someone’s speculative opinion.

THEREFORE:

1.  IF a theist can’t prove his/her holy book is qualified to deliver credible answers to important religious and theological questions, THEN we need not dig our way through thousands of arguments  based on Bible verses.

Clearly, Tanny was NOT attempting to cast aside every argument ever presented by someone who happened to be a theist or religious believer.  His focus here is on arguments based on Bible verses that attempt to settle important religious and theological questions, so we need to make these qualifications CLEAR and EXPLICIT throughout the argument:

2A. IF any argument presented by a theist about an important religious or theological question is based on the Bible, and the Bible is an unproven authority, THEN all those arguments are merely someone’s speculative opinion.

THEREFORE:

1A.  IF a theist can’t prove that the Bible is qualified to deliver credible answers to important religious and theological questions, THEN we need not dig our way through thousands of arguments about important religious or theological questions presented by that theist and that are based on Bible verses.

There is a missing premise that is required to make this argument LOGICALLY VALID, and the phrase “thousands of arguments” needs to be tossed out, because it is doubtful that there are many (if any) theists who have produced “thousands of arguments” about important religious and theological questions where each of those arguments is based on the Bible.  What this is getting at is that we don’t need to give serious consideration to arguments that are based on the Bible, if the Bible is a dubious source of information on the questions at issue.

Here is my attempt to revise Tanny’s argument to make it a LOGICALLY VALID argument:

2B. IF any argument presented by a theist about an important religious and theological questions is based on the Bible, and that theist can’t prove that the Bible is qualified to deliver credible answers to important religious and theological questions, THEN any such argument is merely someone’s speculative opinion.

B. IF any argument is merely someone’s speculative opinion, THEN we need not give serious consideration to that argument.

THEREFORE:

1B.  IF a theist can’t prove that the Bible is qualified to deliver credible answers to important religious and theological questions, THEN we need not give serious consideration to any of the arguments presented by that theist about important religious or theological questions when those arguments are based on the Bible.

As it stands, this argument appears to be logically VALID.  However, premise (2B) is FALSE, so this argument is UNSOUND, and must be rejected.

There was an AMBIGUITY in the original statement of this argument by Tanny, so the reason that (2B) is FALSE may be the result of the way I interpreted premises (1) and (2), so there is an alternative interpretation where premise (2) is TRUE, or at least not obviously FALSE.  Here is the problematic phrase:

…if a theist can’t prove their holy book is…

This could mean either

if a particular theist can’t prove…

or it could mean

if any and every theist can’t prove…

In other words, it is not clear whether we are talking about some particular theist being unable to prove the Bible “is qualified to deliver credible answers…” or whether we are talking about theists in general being unable to prove the Bible “is qualified to deliver credible answers…”.

If Tanny’s argument is about some particular theist being unable to prove the Bible “is qualified to deliver credible answers to important religious and theological questions”, then this argument FAILS to show that we atheists and skeptics can reasonably ignore the arguments of such a theist, even when those arguments are based on the Bible and are about important religious or theological issues.  This is because some OTHER theist might have been able to prove that the Bible “is qualified to deliver credible answers…”.

If we atheists and skeptics are aware that the authority or credibility of the Bible has been proven by some OTHER theist, then we have an intellectual obligation to seriously consider arguments based on the Bible, even when those arguments are presented by a theist who is NOT himself or herself able to prove the authority or credibility of the Bible.

Premise (2B) is based on an interpretation of premise (2) which assumes that Tanny’s argument is talking about some particular theist, rather than about theists in general.  But this interpretation might not be correct, so we should consider this alternative interpretation:

2C. IF any argument presented by a theist about an important religious or theological questions is based on the Bible, and no theist can prove that the Bible is qualified to deliver credible answers to important religious and theological questions, THEN any such argument is merely someone’s speculative opinion.

B. IF any argument is merely someone’s speculative opinion, THEN we need not give serious consideration to that argument.

THEREFORE:

1C.  IF no theist can prove that the Bible is qualified to deliver credible answers to important religious and theological questions, THEN we need not give serious consideration to any of the arguments presented by any theist about important religious or theological questions when those arguments are based on the Bible.

I think this is a much CLEARER argument than what Tanny originally presented, and on this interpretation, the argument appears to be both logically VALID and SOUND.  That is to say, the premises appear to be TRUE.  The premises are, at least, initially plausible.

The next step in evaluating Tanny’s position is to try to construct a parallel argument that makes an analogous skeptical point about atheists and “human reason”.  If we can construct such an analogous argument, then we need to evaluate that argument, to see whether it appears to be both logically VALID and also SOUND.

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