The appeal to authority may be the most widely relied upon informal fallacy there is. Of course the reason for this is most likely biological and psychological. From infancy we have no choice but to rely on the protection and safety of higher powers. These powers are usually represented by our parents and guardians, elders, leaders, and governments. It is also why many people, once fully actualized adults, still seek authority figures in their lives. Without a King, or President, or a functioning government–most people wouldn’t have the structure they need in their lives–a structure which reflects their entire upbringing since the day they were born.
Indeed, society as a whole is largely structured with authority in mind. It is why armies need dictators, militaries rely on governments, the pious rely on the priests, and so on and so forth. It is no wonder then that we innately appeal to authority when we are trying to justify our desires, needs, as well as actions.
What I am concerned with here, however, is a specific form of authority used in academia. It is the argument from authority. Now, the appeal to authority is one means in gaining support to justify an argument, idea, or belief. Basically any position we take must be validated before it can become formally accepted. If you write a book on the history of George Washington, it helps to cite historians, and better yet, historians whose expertise is centered on the time and place of your topic. Another important factor is whether there is a consensus on the relevant information. Do the experts agree?
The thing we must keep in mind, however, is that the appeal to authority should be just one aspect of the support we seek–it should not be the sole piece of evidence we have supporting our position–because even authorities can be mistaken or misunderstood.
Appeal to Authority
The appeal to authority may take several forms. As a statistical syllogism, it will have the following basic structure:
- Most of what authority a has to say on subject matter S is correct.
- a says p about S.
- Therefore, p is correct.
- The authority is a legitimate expert on the subject.
- A consensus exists among legitimate experts on the matter under discussion.
Subsequently, if an appeal to authority doesn’t meet the aforementioned prerequisites, then chances are the appeal is fallacious. What this means is, if the authority lacks the expertise to be considered an authority on that subject, or else, the authority is a minority who holds a belief radically opposed to the general consensus, then chances are the authority is invalid. In which case, the argument based on that single authority would be invalid–thus rendering your position invalid.
This is why it is vital to refrain from relying on just one single authority for support of any given position. Which is why colleges teach you to properly support your arguments with more than just one ounce of evidence. Most scholars rely on mountains of collected evidence to support one meager position. Which is why when a scholar makes an appeal to authority, and neglects to cite any other sources, it should send up red flags cautioning you to think more carefully of whether or not this person truly knows what they are talking about.
An Appeal to Authority Examined
Now that we know a little bit about the argument from authority, i.e. appeals to authority, I want to do a semi-formal critique of an appeal to authority. My goal is to show how criticism can reveal the weakness in an argument by highlighting the fallacious appeals to authority. The reason criticism like this is such a powerful tool, is because if we can show that an appeal is invalid, then it most likely isn’t credible. If it’s not a credible argument, then whatever position the proponent is arguing for is likely either unjustified or stuck up in the air–and a better argument is required before their position can be deemed credible.
What follows is a quote from William Laine Craig’s book Reasonable Faith (third edition) in which Craig makes a (intentional) fallacious appeal to authority.
In Plantinga’s view the internal instigation of the Holy Spirit is the close analogue of a cognitive faculty in that it, too, is a belief-forming “mechanism.” As such the beliefs formed by this process meet the conditions for warrant. Therefore, one can be said to know the great truths of the gospel through the instigation of the Holy Spirit.
Because we know the great truths of the Gospel through the Holy Spirit’s work, we have no need of evidence for them. Rather they are properly basic for us, both with respect to justification and warrant. Plantinga therefore affirms that “according to the model, the central truths of the Gospel are self-authenticating”; that is to say, “They do not get their evidence or warrant by way of being believed on the evidential basis of other propositions.”
As you can see, Craig appeals to the Christian Philosopher Alvin Plantinga as his authority. The position Craig is defending is basically the notion that Christian belief doesn’t need to be justified, because it is basic, and he quotes Plantinga to garner this support.
In order to see why this support is invalid, and why this appeal to authority actually hurt’s Craig’s case rather than helping it, we have to do what literary critics do and break down the argument line by line (i.e., sentence by sentence). Literary critics call this an analytic deconstruction. It’s a little different than a formal analysis in the sense that it recognizes that the words being used don’t necessarily contain any meaning apart from the greater sentence, paragraph, or idea (see Jacques Derrida’s 1967 book Of Grammatology). A formal argument, on the other hand, is trying to construct a position and then support it (customarily with evidence).
I typically prefer to analyze a text by first offering an observation followed by a criticism. Using this method helps both to clarify what the intended meaning of the sentence is and highlight any problems which might be obscured by the language. Let’s take another look at the WLC quote, this time paying careful attention to what is actually being said. If you look carefully enough, I think you too will be able to detect the fallacy, even without me having to point it out.
L1: In Plantinga’s view the internal instigation of the Holy Spirit is the close analogue of a cognitive faculty in that it, too, is a belief-forming “mechanism.”
Observation: Craig affirms that Plantinga’s view of the Holy Spirit is like a belief-forming “mechanism.”
Criticism: Craig fails to cite where Plantinga actually makes this claim. Craig also fails to properly explain what it is meant by “mechanism.” Furthermore, Craig has spent the prior few pages using esoteric language to described what he believes the Holy Spirit to be–and since the Gospels, indeed the whole of Holy Scripture, fail to adequately detail what it is–Craig turns to another authority on the subject. The thing we should note here is that Craig is speaking on behalf of that authority–i.e., Craig is paraphrasing Plantinga. So even though Plantinga is the cited authority, Plantinga may not actually agree with the way Craig is representing him. The only way we can be sure that Plantinga’s view is what Craig claims it is–is to directly consult the work of Plantinga himself.
L2: As such the beliefs formed by this process meet the conditions for warrant.
Observation: Craig holds that since Plantinga’s view is sound, belief [in God] via the Holy Spirit is warranted.
Criticism: Plantinga’s view of warranted belief has not been clearly established. Craig automatically expects his lay audience to be experts in Christian theology. Well, actually, he doesn’t. What Craig is doing is making a bandwagon appeal (another well known informal fallacy). Basically what Craig is hoping for is that his audience will be lazy and simply take his word for it. If Craig says it is so, and Plantinga says it is so, then heck, why not just jump on the bandwagon of agreement and ride it whichever way it takes you? It’s a sly rhetorical device used to get people to agree with you without having them ask too many questions, but it still hasn’t explained what it is meant by the term “warrant.”
L3: Therefore, one can be said to know the great truths of the gospel through the instigation of the Holy Spirit.
Observation: Craig has argued that the Holy Spirit is the author and revealer of truth, and because Plantinga has shown that it is a “belief-forming ‘mechanism'” (whatever that might mean), all one needs to do in order to justify their belief in the truth of the gospel, used synonymous with the truth of God, is to accept the Holy Spirit. Craig claims the Holy Spirit can reveal specific truths, mainly the truth of the gospel itself. In this case, the lower case gospel, as Craig uses it, informally refers to the complete New Testament, not merely the Gospels (i.e., Synoptic texts of Matthew, Mark, and Luke).
Criticism: This is where the fallacy is made. Craig has implied the truth of his conclusion is given considering the truth of his premise. But anyone who understands inductive reasoning knows that the truth of a conclusion is not guaranteed by the truth of the premise–so to claim as much is fallacious–hence the fallacy. Furthermore, such an assertion is a non sequitur; the inductive argument might have probabilistic or statistical merit, but the conclusion does not follow unconditionally in the sense of being logically necessary. It also is a blatant case of circular reasoning. Belief in God is justified by the truth of the gospel, which is revealed by the Holy Spirit, which, in the Trinitarian view (to which Craig prescribes), is part of God. You can’t get much more circular than this.
L4: Because we know the great truths of the gospel through the Holy Spirit’s work, we have no need of evidence for them.
Observation: Craig now shifts his argument from the function of the Holy Spirit as a belief-forming “mechanism” to claiming that as a belief-forming “mechanism” the belief in God can be sustained even without evidential verification.
Criticism: Craig has claimed that Christian belief in God, via instigation of the Holy Spirit, makes Christianity impervious to having to rely on evidence as a means of justification. It’s basically saying, Christianity is true because Christianity is true. No evidence needed.
L5: Rather they are properly basic for us, both with respect to justification and warrant.
Observation: Craig eludes back to Plantinga, relying on Reformed Epistemology to negate justification and warrant belief as rational–of course without actually showing it.
Criticism: If we haven’t read Plantinga, it would be unclear as to what Craig is arguing for here. Is he arguing that Christian belief is basic or that the Holy Spirit is a basic belief generator? It can’t be both, but due to the obscurity of the terminology being used, and concepts like Holy Spirit, warrant, and basic belief, confusion arises. Without actually laying it out in more detail to help clarify the issue–we can’t be certain what Craig is hoping to prove.
L6: Plantinga therefore affirms that “according to the model, the central truths of the Gospel are self-authenticating”; that is to say, “They do not get their evidence or warrant by way of being believed on the evidential basis of other propositions.”
Observation: Craig cites Plantinga to affirm his prior claim that Christian belief doesn’t require evidence to guarantee the truth of Christianity. I think Craig hopes the unthinking person will just agree–after all, if Christian beliefs don’t require evidence, and Christian belief is gained only through the belief-forming “mechanism” of the Holy Spirit–then logically speaking–only Christians have access to the truth. Something I am sure most Christians would agree with.
Criticism: Although we could spend our time unpacking this extremely dense, extremely obscure, last sentence, we needn’t bother wasting any more of our time. Remember that the argument became fallacious in line three. This means everything afterword is invalid. Every sentence, every argument, since line three is based on a completely fallacious appeal to authority, so quoting the authority even more does nothing to bolster or strengthen the argument. The argument is already failed.
Of course, this is but one example of a fallacious appeal to authority. But, hopefully, by breaking it down step by step, I have helped you to detect the weaknesses in any given argument. Also, it should show us why it is a bad idea to rely on argument’s from authority without any other evidence, because often times these very appeals to authority have a way to end an argument before it has even begun. Finally, without any additional evidence, you are right back where you started.