About Rationally Speaking
Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.
Tuesday, February 28, 2006
Revealed truth, a logical fallacy
Of course, the very notion of revealed truth is in fact a logical fallacy. See, truth revealed by a supposedly supernatural entity is a particular case of argument from authority. In elementary logic, arguments from authority are a classical example of fallacy, because there is no independent reason or evidence supporting the statement alleged to be true, other than somebody telling you that it is true.
It's important to note that just because a statement is logically fallacious, it doesn't mean it's not, in fact, true. For example, suppose I am taking a certain medicine. If someone asks me why I'm taking the medicine and I respond “because the doctor told me,” I am committing the fallacy of employing an argument from authority. Still, the doctor (who, unlike me, is trained in medicine) is probably right.
Plato, in the Socratic dialog known as Theaetetus, makes the same distinction. He acknowledges that someone may be right as a matter of chance, but he maintains that true beliefs only constitute knowledge if they can be justified rationally, i.e., if one can account for why one holds a certain belief (without falling back on the argument from authority).
This is exactly what makes discussions with creationists so frustrating. They wish to argue their position, thus squarely putting themselves in the camp of rational argumentation. However, when their “logic” is trumped, they use what they seem to think is the ultimate ace up their sleeves: “well, I believe it because it's in the Bible.” But that is an argument from authority, a logical fallacy, and therefore no justification of one's belief (in the broader sense of informed opinion) at all. One has to pick: either engage in rational arguments and face the consequences, or retreat into faith and admit the irrationality of one's position.