July 9, 2010

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The post you are reading is years old and may not represent my current views. I started blogging around the time I first began to study philosophy, age 17. In my view, the point of philosophy is to expose our beliefs to rational scrutiny so we can revise them and get better beliefs that are more likely to be true. That's what I've been up to all these years, and this blog has been part of that process. For my latest thoughts, please see the front page.

Authority, Authoritativeness, and Objectivity

I've just finished reading John Foster's new book, A World For Us: The Case for Phenomenalistic Idealism. Foster had previously defended idealism in his 1982 The Case for Idealism, and many of the basic arguments are the same, though I think the structure is cleaner and easier to grasp. (I've also just finished reading the restored version of Stranger in a Strange Land, so every time I write 'Foster' I'm thinking of the archangel - but that's beside the point.) The main motivation behind Foster's idealism, all the way back to 1982, is the thought that if anything is to count as a physical world, it must be a world which we inhabit and have perceptual access to. This is why the book is called A World For Us. However, Foster argues, realism can't deliver the goods; a realist world could never be 'a world for us'. (I gave an account of this general pattern of argument a while back.) The area where Foster's views have undergone significant change over the years (see pp. 215-216) is in his thinking about a second requirement a physical world would have to satisfy: the requirement that it be objectively real. Foster's latest thought on this subject is that if God is responsible for the organization of our sense perception which, as Foster likes to say, "appears to us systematically world-wise," then God has authorized physical world beliefs and, since God has unlimited authority, this endows the (idealistically created) physical reality with the requisite objectivity.

Now, I think very highly of much of Foster's work, and Berkeleian philosophers are in short supply, so I hate to be negative, but this thesis is just ridiculous. Not only is it ridiculous, but it commits an error which particularly irks me when I hear it from Roman Catholic apologists. (Not that I wish to tar all Roman Catholics with the same brush, or that I need to take a cheap swipe at them; I only bring this in because the argument which I have heard from certain RCC apologists will help to illustrate the nature of the error.) This is the error of conflating authority with authoritativeness. Now, this error is easy for English speakers to make, because in English someone who is authoritative is called an authority (as in, "she is a leading authority on fruit bats"). But being authoritative and having authority are radically different things.

Authority is the right to be obeyed.
Authoritativeness is the right to be believed.

Now, the first difference here is that authority is a purely moral matter, whereas authoritativeness is a purely epistemic matter. Granted, there are connections between the moral and epistemic realms (what you know is relevant to what you morally ought to do; you can be blameworthy for not knowing things you should know; etc.), but these connections are not mediated by the concepts of authority or authoritativeness.

If someone has authority - the right to be obeyed - then, if that person issues a command within the realm of his rightful authority, the action commanded thereby becomes morally obligatory. However, someone might, without having her own authority, merely be authoritative as to what another has commanded. That is, it might be the case that we should do what Anne says, and we should believe Bill when he tells us what Anne says, but we don't have any obligation to do what Bill says.

Authoritativeness, on the other hand, doesn't make anything the case. In the end, we ought (in the most objective epistemic sense) to believe what is true. Someone has the right to be believed only if he is probably right and we have good reason to believe he's probably right.

This leads to an important difference with respect to delegation. Someone who has authority might command us to obey someone else and, if the command is within the realm of the first person's authority, the second person will thereby come to have the right to be obeyed. Now, it might be thought that the case with authoritativeness is the same: if Carol has the right to be believed when she tells us that Daniel has the right to be believed, then we should believe that Daniel has the right to be believed, and if we believe this, then we should believe Daniel. But there is an important difference here: to believe that Daniel has the right to be believed is just to believe that Daniel is probably right. But Carol's saying that Daniel has the right to be believed doesn't cause Daniel to be right about anything. Carol has told us that Daniel is probably right, and we already believe on good grounds that Carol is probably right about such things, so we'll believe her, but the 'delegation' (if you can even call it that) of authoritativeness has no bearing on the facts about Daniel's being right or wrong.

Now this is where the Roman Catholic apologists come in. The RCC holds itself to be infallible. That is, if I understand the doctrine correctly, the Church itself is held to be infallible, and the Church can make its official (infallible) proclamations through the Pope, or a council, or perhaps by other means. I have had discussions with RCC apologists in which I have been told that we must believe the Church because God has delegated his authority to it. But this doesn't make any sense. First, no one can have authority (as distinct from authoritativeness) over beliefs; you need to believe things because they are true, not because you are commanded to believe them. Second, if authoritativeness, rather than authority, is meant, then the sort of delegation envisaged is impossible.

Now, doubtless God has both authority and authoritativeness in the highest possible degree. Furthermore, it is within God's power to cause any individual or organization to have any degree of authority or authoritativeness he pleases. But the point that I am trying to make is, essentially, that there is only one step involved in granting authority, whereas in granting authoritativeness there are two steps. To grant authority to anyone, God simply needs to promulgate a command to the effect that this person or institution is to be obeyed. But to grant authoritativeness, God must (a) cause the person or institution to be right most of the time, and (b) provide the world at large with evidence that the person or institution is right most of the time.

This does not fundamentally undermine the RCC argument in question, it just makes it more complicated. The reason I always point it out when I hear things like this is simply to make this point about the impossibility of authority over belief. If we're to believe the Pope, it had better be, at some level, because the Pope is right. But one could still make an argument that God has done both (a) and (b) with the Church. (Indeed, I believe he has, though I am not sure that he has endowed the Church with the highest level of authoritativeness - infallibility - and I would resist the claim that every official Papal proclamation is a proclamation of the Church.)

However, Foster's claim is undermined in a fundamental way by this distinction. What Foster wants to hold is that God's intention that the sensory organization be interpreted as a physical world makes no difference whatsoever to the fundamental metaphysical facts, yet somehow, in virtue of God's 'authority', makes it the case that the sensory organization amounts to an objective physical world. Because we all ought (in obedience to God) to believe it, it becomes objective fact. This is nonsense.

Having been negative thus far, let me say that Foster is right on two very important points: he's right that physical realism is incoherent, non-sensical, and generally ridiculous, and he's right that Berkeley is the greatest philosopher ever.

Posted by Kenny at July 9, 2010 8:47 PM
TrackBack URL for this entry: https://blog.kennypearce.net/admin/mt-tb.cgi/574
Philosophers' Carnival 111
Excerpt: I've just returned from a long vacation. During my absence Philosophers' Carnival 111 was posted at Parableman, with a link to my post on authority and authoritativeness. I expect to resume regular blogging now....
Weblog: blog.kennypearce.net
Tracked: August 4, 2010 11:06 PM


That error aside, do you recommend the book for someone with potential sympathy to idealistic arguments? As you said, idealists are in short supply, and I'd like to read a modern philosopher advancing the argument/belief.

Posted by: Joseph A. at July 9, 2010 11:29 PM

I thought much of it was very good, and it's a much easier read than The Case for Idealism. So, all in all, yes I absolutely recommend it.

Posted by: Kenny at July 9, 2010 11:31 PM

A Catholic friend once told me that there have only ever been two statements by the Pope in history that have ever been viewed by the RCC as infallible -- the statement that Mary was conceived without sin and the statement that Mary was assumed directly to heaven.

Joseph, Robert Adams is very sympathetic to idealism. He thinks one of Berkeley or Leibniz is right, but he wavers between them.

Posted by: Jeremy Pierce at July 20, 2010 8:43 PM

But does Foster (and must he, to be internally consistent)hold that "God's intention that the sensory organization be interpreted as a physical world makes no difference whatsoever to the fundamental metaphysical facts"? Couldn't (and doesn't) Foster hold that God both (1) has this intention and (2) in fact creates the fundamental metaphysical facts, including the fact of the physical world's existence?

Posted by: Mykolas Drunga at December 16, 2010 12:49 PM

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