Believing Authority

Is there such a thing as cultural evolution? I don’t believe so. But my belief stance on this issue is not important for this post.  Instead, I want to discuss how I arrived at my belief/opinion on cultural evolution.

I disbelieve in cultural evolution not because I know a great deal about the subject (though I know much more than most of my biology-naive acquaintances), but because each time I read someone writing on the issue, I tend to agree with those who also disagree with cultural evolution.

Who did I read first? I forgot. What are the various authors I have read? — well, I forgot that too.  Why did I first find the cultural evolution arguments so weak?  I am not sure of that either.  The information I hold on this issue, though apparently solid with each reading, quick slips from my mind while the opinion remains firm.

Discouragingly, perhaps just such a process informs the vast majority of our beliefs. We don’t believe something because of the evidence, but because we are persuaded by authorities with whom we sympathize.

Sure, it is more complex than that, but I think this insight can help us hold our opinions with more humbly.

Religious folks likewise hold opinions about many subjects in a very similar manner to us lay skeptical science advocates. It seems we are all taking stances in very similar sloppy ways.

Yet “sloppy” seems the wrong evaluation. Instead, this method is highly useful because there is only so much time in the day, we have limited access to information and we can only be experts in limited ways. So we need to rely on the expertise of others — on authority.

Yet authorities — those with much more information, and more experience — inevitably disagree with each other. So how do we chose? And the embarrassing answer to that question is that we usually chose those whom we like, those who reinforce our prior opinions or those who are liked by those who we like.

Question for readers: Give us an example of an belief/opinion that you merely because of the power of authority of others.


Filed under Philosophy & Religion

8 responses to “Believing Authority

  1. rautakyy

    There are plenty of science facts, about physics, astronomy and such, that I believe as I recognize the authority of the experts in those fields. But I also like to think many of those I believe also because I have at least a rudimentary understanding of what they suggest. Now, if I had to place my life in their hands, I might be more interrested in having a deeper understanding of their claims.

    On the other hand, I find it quite easy to trust the authority of a doctor, who tells me stuff about my health. Even though I do not understand much about any health issues exept in rather general biological understanding.

    However, there are examples of situations in wich I would be more tempted to challenge even a medical professional, like for example, a friend of mine with terrible back aches was asking her doctor about becoming addicted to pain medication, and the doctor recommended a highly addictive psychiatric medication. To become addicted to a drug you do not really need only to get rid of addiction to a drug that you do need, seemed intuitively like counter productive. I expect, the doctor had good reasons to suggest this, or possibly I understood the anecdote wrong, or perhaps one is not so easily addicted to a prescription of these psychiatric medicines in a certain time span, or something else… Yet, it would be a matter, to wich I would react by wanting to understand the issue better, instead of just taking the pils by the authority of a single doctor…

    In my view, authority is something earned only when it is granted by others. It may be granted in some situations to a degree even by such a superficial factor as a uniform (though even to that is connected an added assumption of a mass of reasons to grant the authority to the person wearing the uniform). In case of science facts, it is very much about the expertise of professionals, degrees and most of all peer review of scientists, that grant the authority because the scientific methodology seems to function as a self correcting mechanism, providing more reliable and testable information. Because the system usually works, it grants some authority to those under it’s rigours.

  2. evan young

    I would like to read a similiar essay by you on the broader topic of things you know (ie can verify empirically, or have someone you trust verify empirically) — as opposed to the subset of things you believe (ie judge– consciously or unconsciously– to be true on the balance of probabilities much as in court of law. “Authority” is but one way of assigning weight or proabability. The authority may again merely be someone you trust or someone that society trusts in context and pressures you to do so too.)

    But there are many other ways of assigning the balance of probability, and i believe you have given short shrift to several, including intuition — the subconscious sifting of pros and cons. Indeed, does not our psychological makeup predispose us to becoming comfortable with something as apparently true, over a frightenly wide range of probabilites. Some of us are easily pursuaded.

    So i would enjoy looking at some of your other beliefs, opinions (often subconsciously held), feelings about something, predispositions, biases, superstitions, considered opinions (consciously held), and outright faith — and seeing how you establish and apply the ‘balance of probability’ method more generally.

    The method, including reliance on authority is an extremely efficient culturally induced or programed method — and sometimes wrong — or reasonably correct only in a limited range of conditions– as the same thing is the case in science itself. Einstein corrected Newton’s theory of gravity in very high gravitational fields, and we await someone else to correct it in very low gravitational fields (evidently, authorities say, as a solid alternative to the hypothesized ‘dark matter’.)

    And, yup, I believe culture evolves –but my belief is somehow intuitive and tentative–based i suspect on a deeper belief that culture serves us, thusmust evolve with evolving conditions…and so on.

  3. It isn’t clear what you are denying, when you deny cultural evolution.

  4. @ Neil,
    Very good — your observation is accurate. If you will note, I wrote: “But my belief stance on this issue is not important for this post.”
    The post is not about cultural evolution, so I didn’t go on about it. Instead, it was the rest of the post I wanted to discuss with readers.

  5. @ rautakyy
    Great comment. Loved the examples.
    But I must say, with my long experience with “science” shows the inevitable vested interests, lies and self-deceit that can also enter. Sure, ideally the system is self-correcting, but remember, people do it.

  6. @ evan young,
    I am not giving “short shrift” to authority or intuition — many times it is all we have or the best we can do at a given time and indeed we often don’t have the luxury of time for many things.
    In science we talk of “levels of evidence” and intuition and authority count, though they are a low level of evidence.

  7. I agree with you, Sabio. And, with my biases I seem to rely on your authority as philosopher and author.

    It would’ve helped me as your reader to understand your definition or what you mean precisely by “cultural evolution”.


  8. @ Skeptic Meditations,
    Well, if you are not familiar with the term or the controversies, you can read about “Cultural Evolution” or “Social Evolution” and its critics at the following:
    (1) Sociocultural Evolution (wiki)
    (2) Sanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

    Most of the errors in “cultural evolution” lie (1) Misunderstanding Evolution in general (2) Seeing culture as having similar conservative mechanism as genetic chemistry (called “Memes”). IMHO.

    BUT, I’ve no desire to discuss cultural evolution here — hopefully you see the real point behind this post — how we believe.

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