Sunday, August 7, 2011

Is this a good argument?

In preparing this post I learnt that argument from authority and ad hominem are not the same thing. I used to think they were. An example of the former is "Karl Barth was the greatest theologian of the 20th century. He did not read Genesis 1 in a literalist manner and so we should not either." An example of the latter is "Theologian A was caught cheating on his taxes and so we should ignore all his work." Arguing in the latter manner is almost always a fallacy. (Although this does touch on some earlier posts about Fallen Scholars). However, the argument from authority can sometimes have merit.

The point of this post is modest. Many people immediately dismiss "arguments from authority". I agree that they can be weak and intellectually lazy. However, I think the reality is that on a practical and subconscious level we often do use them. We have limited time and energy.  If there is an issue we wish to form an opinion on we often are content to look at just a few (or sometimes only one) source and accept that as reasonable. I am not convinced this is so bad.

In my scientific research I hold (largely sub-conscious) different views of different authors reliability (based on my view of their track record). The arguments of some I am much more prone to accept than others.  I am not sure this is right. I just think it is reality.
So shoot me down!


  1. Hi Ross.

    I think the argument from authority is legitimate as long as it is a supplementary argument which supports a main argument.

    In biblical studies (as you know) it's fine to appeal to the wisdom of key thinkers from the past (or the present), but it's hardly a basis for an exegetical argument. I think the main argument should directly engage with the data/text/primary sources. Further additional arguments to support the main thesis may include confirming that one's view is supported by other respected thinkers. So to use your example about Karl Barth (how unlike you to mention him!), "a literalist interpretation of Genesis 1 is not to be preferred because of (x), (y) and (z). As Karl Barth notes, 'q'."

    I think the argument from authority shows respect for other thinkers and recognizes that others who came before us had some good ideas. It has a place, as long as our arguments aren't solely based on the conclusions of others.

  2. Other considerations in the argument from authority might include: 1. The person's character and form of argumentation. Does the author conceal or disclose premises, assumptions and biases? Are opposing views considered, ignored or ridiculed? Is the persons authority based on force of personality or a track record of reasoning with integrity. 2. Does the argument actually lie within the authority's realm of expertise? Experts in a field (Stephen Hawking, Carl Sagan) make popularized philosophical/theological assertions follow unsound or limited reasoning.

  3. Hi Matt and Alex,

    Thanks to you both for such helpful and insightful comments. I agree with all your points.