Wednesday, August 31, 2016

The Role of "Appeal to Authority" in the Creationism - Evolution Debate

Very often Creationists will characterize the arguments of evolutionists as committing the logical fallacy of argumentum ad verecundiam, commonly called the appeal to authority.  Evolutionists, of course, accuse Creationists of doing the same thing, although they seldom name the fallacy, but it is inherent in the statement that "the Bible is not evidence".

Both sides are guilty of fuzzy thinking and inattention to the meaning of words and phrases.

Here's a brief quotation from An Introduction to Logic and Scientific Method, by Morris R. Cohen and Ernest Nagel (1934).

"We may distinguish two forms of the appeal to authority.  One form is inevitable and reasonable.  It is employed whenever we are unable for lack of time or training to settle some problem.....  We...leave the resolution of such problems to experts, whose authority is acknowledged.  But their authority is only relatively final, and we reserve the right to others, (also competent to judge), or to ourselves (finding the time to acquire competence) to modify the findings of our expert.  The second form of the appeal to authority invests some sources with infallibility and finality and invokes some external force to give sanction to their decisions.  On questions of politics, economics, and social conduct, as well as on religious opinions, the method of authority has been used to root out, as heretical or disloyal, divergent opinions.  Men have been frightened and punished into conformity in order to prevent alternative views from unsettling our habitual beliefs."

"...we shall have to resort to some method of fixing beliefs whose efficacy in resolving problems is independent of our desires and wills.  Such a method, which takes advantage of the objective connections in the world around us, should be found reasonable not because of its appeal to the idiosyncrasies of a selected few individuals, but because it can be tested repeatedly and by all men."

So what is the proper role of an appeal to authority in these discussions?  Clearly, appealing to knowledgeable scientists in the field (evolutionary biology, paleontology, etc) is not a logical fallacy on two levels.  First, it is an appeal to a qualified individual, and is thus to be allowed.  Second, it appeals to an individual, or a corpus of work, which is scientific, and is thus available (published) so that the analysis can be repeated and verified; or the experiments can be replicated anew and the prior results confirmed.  On both counts such an appeal is to be logically allowed.  One should note that this is often where creationists will attempt to insert the observable versus historical science distinction.  The historical sciences use the same tools of the scientific method as to the supposedly "observable" sciences.  Cohn and Nagel neatly dispose of that distinction decades before the Creationists ever articulated it, when they note:

"We reserve the term "science" for knowledge which is general and systematic, that is, in which specific propositions are all deduced from a few general principles.  Now we need not enter here into the quarrel which arises because archeologists, historians, descriptive sociologists, and others wish to call their more empirical knowledge science. ...all the logical methods in proving the existence of laws are involved in establishing the truth of any historical event.  In determining the weight of evidence for any human event, we must reason from general propositions in regards to human affairs, though such propositions are generally implicit rather than explicitly assumed.

On the other hand, appeal to God, or appeal to scripture is not an appeal to a qualified person.  It is at best an appeal to the person or persons who wrote the scripture being cited.  The observations of that person cannot be repeated  All that can be repeated is the reading of the particular scripture, and the literature of Biblical exegesis is notoriously contentious, with widely varying interpretations among the various religions, sects, splinter groups and even between individuals within even the smallest and most circumscribed of such groups.  This form of appeal to authority is a logical fallacy. 

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