Tuesday, 16 March 2010

On Authority I

One occasionally hears the criticism that mediaeval writers held most of their ideas on the basis of authority; the authority of scripture or the authority of great Christian figures of the past, for example. This is often contrasted with thinkers from the so-called Enlightenment onward who, we are told, considered authority of no weight and held their ideas and beliefs on the basis of evidence.

Although this idea is quite consistent with the modern “grand narrative” of progress from ignorance and superstition to enlightened knowledge, I find it quite puzzling. I’ve worked as a mathematician, as a scientist or as an engineer (or, cough, as a manager of same) for most of my adult life. For my leisure interest, philosophy and theology have taken me back through the years, especially to the middle ages. What I find, through my exposure to science and philosophy through the ages, sets off in me a dissonance with this modern narrative.

For when we look at the works of the scholastic theologians of the Middle Ages we find the most astonishing intellectual honesty and a rigorous and lengthy probing of ideas and counter-ideas quite at odds with this grand narrative. In the method of disputatio we find a thesis proposed, then a set of objections to this thesis and a counter argument to the objections. The scholastic master then proposes his assessment of the thesis and finally he answers the objections to his position one by one in great detail. Now, amongst these components of the disputatio, one does find arguments from authority; it’s not infrequent that the counter argument to the objections is taken from scripture or a Church Father such as Augustine. However, this quotation of authority never stands on its own as the deciding factor of an argument. The theological master always argues from rational principles, interpreting authorities, synthesising concord from prima facie inconsistencies between authorities, and sometime even correcting those authorities. St. Thomas, for example, often quotes St Augustine; sometimes he corrects him in a way so gentle and subtle you hardly notice he’s done it. The angelic doctor also corrects and develops his philosophical authorities; sometimes Thomas is claimed to be a slave to Aristotle; nothing could be further from the truth. The duty of the scholastic master is to develop his ideas in the face of the most rigorous criticism possible and to answer all the objections put to him.

In modern life we do, of course, accept authority (in the sense I use here) every day of our lives. Children accept the authority of science teachers as they learn; expert scientists accept the authority of leaders in fields outside their own. Trust is key to any society or to any intellectual pursuit.

But within a single discipline in modern science, authority surely does not have the same role to play? Perhaps it should not in the best of all possible worlds, but in grubby reality it does. Let me give two examples at two extremes.

One might expect pure mathematics to be completely free of arguments from authority, and in one sense it is; the truth of a proposition is only accepted if the proposition is amenable to proof. But not uncommonly proofs are not checked rigorously; peer review is fallible for any number of reasons. Propositions may in fact become accepted by the mathematical community on the authority of the author. Certainly they are amenable in principle to rigorous checking, but in fact they need not be. Another aspect concerns the significance of a particular area of mathematics: if you want funding to pursue study in your area, you will need to persuade a funding body to give you the money. Funding bodies rely on senior figures, that is, authorities in the field to pass judgment on, inter alia, the worth of the field.

My other example concerns the medical sciences. Often the truth of a hypothesis in this field is very difficult to demonstrate rigorously. Randomized experiment may be difficult or even impossible and the complexity of causal pathways may mean that effects measured in observational studies are confounded by other uncontrollable or un-measurable effects. It is not uncommon for hypotheses to be constructed out of very flimsy evidence and these hypotheses, although very attractive and consistent with theory and expectation, may defy demonstration or demolition for many years. In the interim, such hypotheses often gain the status of assumed fact and health and policy decisions are made based upon them; careers are built on weak studies that fail to demolish the hypothesis; those who put forward the hypothesis become authorities in the field; funding for further study depends on those authorities. Sadly, humanity being what it is in its fallen state, it is not unknown for such hypotheses only to pass away with their creators, the authorities that uphold them.

The ideas of authority and of trust go hand in hand and we could not flourish, as individuals or as a society, without them. However, the contrast between the mediaeval and the modern is hardly as stark as some might wish to claim. Indeed, having been immersed in both, I would claim that we should sometimes give the mediaeval thinkers credit for being less beholden to authority than we are and more demanding in their rigour.

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