Who do you trust?

Two excellent essays:

  1. Alan Roebuck’s Why do people believe what they believe?  Because of the authorities.  Yes, it’s absolutely true:  people believe what they’re told to believe.  Liberalism’s uncontested hegemony itself disproves the liberal belief that people naturally rebel against established orthodoxy.  Even what passes for rebellion in the Western world (e.g. teenagers) is in fact people doing what they are told is expected of them.
  2. Lydia McGrew’s Picking our models carefully.  It’s not that Wendell Berry is wrong about something that makes him an unfit guide; it’s that he’s wrong about the most important things, and wrong in not even realizing that they are the most important.  See also the comments where Lydia ably defends herself from the usual “but commercialism is bad too” objections and convinces me to add Thomas Fleming to my list of “Worthless Pseudoconservatives”.

A common theme is intellectual authority, which I mean to distinguish people who we trust to influence our beliefs from people whose commands impart moral obligation on us.  Government officials and military superiors would be examples of nonintellectual authorities; they can command the will but not the intellect.  Who are our intellectual authorities?  The conceit in these liberal times is that we shouldn’t have any, that we should trust no one but judge every claim on the strength of its arguments alone, but in reality this is neither possible nor desirable.  No one has the time to think deeply about everything, and even if he did, an external authority is important for opening our minds to unwelcome ideas.

Let us call these authorities “teachers”.  How is a teacher distinguished from anyone else whose arguments you consider?

  • A teacher has the authority to immediately change your judgment about what is a reasonable opinion.  That is, if you thought belief X is crazy, you will immediately change your mind (without necessarily deciding that X is true) when you learn that Y believes X even before you hear Y’s reasons.
  • If a teacher’s reasoning seems obviously wrong, your first assumption is that you’re not understanding it properly.

We generally grant experts–at least in technical fields–this level of authority when speaking in their field.  The idea that billions of neutrinos are streaming through our bodies may sound fantastic, but the uneducated layman is willing to trust that the scientists have good reasons for being so sure of it.  However, when these same scientists start talking about art or ethics, the public would not be wise to give these pronouncements any special weight.  One can imagine higher levels of teaching authority.

  • A trusted teacher is regarded as reliable on those questions deemed most important.  He is an “expert” on fundamental truths and on the good life.  That is, he is wise.
  • A trusted teacher is trusted to determine for himself the range of his expertise.  That is, you may not think of of Y as having any special knowledge of subject X–say, he has no formal training in it and hasn’t talked much about it in the past–but you know Y is smart enough to see the subtleties of any issue and conscientious enough to not issue an opinion without properly doing his homework.  Thus, all his opinions are automatically regarded as reasonable and worthy of serious consideration.

Note that “trusted” doesn’t just mean “trusted to be honest” (dishonesty would of course be a complete disqualifier) but “trusted to be right”.

It occurs to me that this higher level of teaching authority is what Catholics are supposed to grant the Pope in his non-infallible, and even non faith-and-morals, pronouncements.  I don’t know any Catholic who actually does this.  When His Holiness praises world government or American democracy, I don’t re-evaluate my opinions of these things.  Actually, I don’t even give the Pope deference on theological issues in his non-magisterial writings.  I never ridicule his nonofficial writings (in fact, I think most of them are pretty good), but I don’t take the attitude that whatever I find there is probably right even if it clashes with my prior opinion.  This is a shame, because it would probably be good for me to have my mind expanded by a trusted teacher.

Is there anyone you trust in this way?

27 thoughts on “Who do you trust?

  1. I cannot say that I entirely believe anyone on everything, even the Pope, but as for those whom I would immediately entertain a previously considered insane idea as most likely true, there is but one living. It was he who brought me out of Socialism and anti-Christian sentiments. Some people will likely laugh at my choice but it would be a lie for me to claim anyone else (living that is). Patrick J. Buchanan is my teacher. For all those who never heard his speech, it was the Culture Wars speech which initially brought me out of the darkness.

    The Left still complains about that speech ’til this day. But it, and all that I have read from and about Pat after that day, completely altered my political, philosophical, and theological thought. Speech: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W9gSWZxtN1g

    By the way, I switched my blog from Blogspot to WordPress. It is a much better platform and something I should have done so a while ago.

  2. “Is there anyone you trust in this way?”

    As I implied in the intro to Thought Prison

    (Now available online

    http://thoughtprison-pc.blogspot.co.uk)

    there is JRR Tolkien, C.S Lewis and Fr Seraphim Rose.

    Among the living I would add Peter Kreeft – I think I would always ‘take on board’ whatever he says as requiring serious consideration.

    *

    Somewhat relevant to this point of ‘who to trust’ is an excellent piece of work on rewriting the history of biology newly posted on Jim’s Blog:

    http://blog.jim.com/science/a-tell-revealing-central-authority-over-the-official-line.html#comments

    It seems to demonstrate pretty clearly that we are up against a deliberate and systematic process of intellectual deception going back to at least the years leading up to 1972.

    • C.S. Lewis is a good choice. He was much more reliable than Chesterton, who was given to great insights but also to formulating opinions on non-core subjects based on very superficial understandings. I don’t know anything about Tolkien except as a fantasy writer.

      I do remember from high school biology encountering that attitude of “Lamarck–inherited characteristics–what a moron!” A bizarrely uncharitable way of treating one of the trailblazers.

    • I recommend Father Patrick Reardon, the Orthodox priest, who writes The Daily Reflections at the Touchstone website and has various books “Christ in the Psalms” (that I am currently re-reading), Christ in the Saints and many others.

  3. It is every man’s duty and responsibility to analyze and decide for himself what is right and true. He should NEVER accept the word of anyone just because that one was correct before. Everybody is right (in some way) and everybody is wrong (in some way).
    To accept anything without questioning is the fundamental cause of where we are today (not a very good place). A “trusted teacher” is one who has previously pointed out good paths – which means I should be semi-safe in exploring the next one.
    Therefore… To say “Thus, all his opinions are automatically regarded as reasonable and worthy of serious consideration.” is what may happen – but this is basically an error. A serious error. Look at your own example – the pope. Infallible? A human – infallible. What a bunch of horseshit! What an obscene lie! How can anyone trust (or even consider) the writings of any man insane enough to not only endorse but to live that kind of lie?
    M

    • I gather it probably wouldn’t be acceptable to you if I were to analyze and decide for myself that another’s thoughts and opinions (such as the Pope’s) carry more weight than my own, and therefore ought to be given greater consideration. I don’t see why it shouldn’t be, however, unless in this case you make an arbitrary exception.

  4. In one old definition, faith is “the faculty of grasping evidence” presented by “testimony, or by the voice of authority.” It is the ability “to assent to testimony concerning facts not present and manifest, and to submit to authority in the announcement or proposition of truths, independent of any internal and direct perception of them by ourselves.” These lines are from John Esmond Riddle, The Natural History of Infidelity (1852), but this understanding of faith was common until quite recently. Faith was part of human reason, and a person who lacked faith was rightly viewed as irrational. Obviously, inability to form a belief on the basis of trusted teaching is a crippling disability, and I’d guess that truly insuperable skepticism is really very rare.

    Faith is especially important to Christians because Christianity is primarily founded on testimony. Christian faith is, essentially, an ability to assent to the testimony of Jesus Christ as attested by the authors of the New Testament. And as I understand it, this faith comes as a gift of grace.

    When we Christians think about trusted teachers, we should bear in mind this example of our most trusted teacher, and the grounds of His authority. The authority of Jesus did not, so far as I can see, derive from his having a good “track record,” or from the fact that most of what he said could be “independently confirmed.” What strikes me most of all is that Jesus was a polarizing figure. Those who did not trust him absolutely distrusted him. Those who did not love him hated him. This seems to be true of most trusted teachers.

      • I just came across a relevant quote in my notes. It’s from Orestes Brownson’s “The Convert” (1889). Brownson was raised by a pious but non-denominational couple in Vermont, and as a young man began a long and complicated search for religious truth that eventually brought him to Rome. From the beginning, he writes, “the question with me was not what, but whom, I was to believe; not what doctrines I must embrace, but what authority I was to obey, or on what authority I was to take my belief.” This reverses our normal way of thinking, but is, I believe, correct. We respond first to the teacher, then to the teaching. Certainly this was the case with Christ’s disciples. They followed him even though, at first, alarmed and puzzled by much that he said.

  5. Frankly, Lydia’s “the culture doesn’t matter” attitude is almost as offensive as Berry. The culture isn’t an excuse, but it does matter. It’s as if all we need to do is pass an anti-abortion law (down the teeth of a hostile populace) and abortion will disappear as a serious problem. I myself have zero problem with anti-abortion laws, nor do I much care about whether they impose morality on people, but I also recognize they do need a certain amount of public support in order to function.

    (I am aware that abortion laws could have some effect in establishing a stigma against abortion. But I am skeptical that they could, by themselves, generate enough to make that much of a difference.)

  6. Bonald did you actually read Thomas Fleming’s columns on the subject? I think the only psedoconservative here is Lydia.

    • Hello PE,

      I remember reading, and being appalled by, Fleming’s article when it first appeared. Following your suggestion, I’ve just reread it and confirmed that it does say what Lydia says. Fleming does say that criminalizing abortion (and presumably infanticide) would be Jacobinical because if the State can prevent a child from being murdered, that means the State “owns” that child. It’s one of the most perverse pieces of reasoning I’ve ever encountered. I can only conclude, as Lydia does, that Fleming wrote this balderdash to distance himself from those icky pro-life Republicans.

  7. As against abortion as I am, I don’t see what is so outrageous about what Fleming suggests. The state now controls the majority of what used to be Western (or Roman) patriarchal rights. Was not the right of life or death of children included before the Christian era? So I do not see Fleming’s reasoning to be much of a stretch when he says that the state criminalizing abortion would be Jacobinical.

    Where it fails is that the state has already usurped this (albeit immoral in this case) authority and leaves the decision up to mothers and those who pressure them into committing infanticide. So the argument that it would be Jacobinical is moot because, in many ways, the state already claims every child as its own.

  8. For this argument to work, I think the state would have to assume unto itself a right to command abortions, not simply to revoke the right of mothers to abort. The law against murder does not make me the property of the state, but a law permitting the state to murder me would. I think you are probably right about the direction in which we are headed, but we haven’t quite yet reached the point where the state claims every child as its own. For the present it’s only offering us fat bribes to hand over our children, but this isn’t to say that bayonets won’t follow

  9. This is an excellent website; unfortunately my first comment must seem discordant. A few points need to be made, and made firmly:

    1.) Binary may not be the best way of approaching writers, poets, and philosophers. I.e., “Authoritative Guru” and “Worthless Pseudoconservative” may not be the only two possible ways of regarding somebody. To illustrate with extreme examples, I can’t be the only reactionary who finds some considerable value in the work of Orwell (atheist), Camus (agnostic), Schrodinger (devotee of Eastern mysticism), or for that matter Nietzsche (barking mad).

    Looked at the other way around, my impression is that C.S. Lewis, insightful as he was, was at least a wee bit anti-Catholic. Should I then burn my copy of Abolition of Man?

    2.) It is preposterous to equate Thomas Fleming’s thoughts about abortion with Berry’s comments on gay “marriage”. Or to suggest that Fleming is in any way interested in making himself more appealing to the Left, or in distancing himself from politically-incorrect positions.

    http://www.chroniclesmagazine.org/2009/05/18/the-new-rodney-king/

    3.) Unless you yourself are fluent in Greek & Latin (and for all I know maybe you are) it is more than a little rash to think yourself in a position to dismiss Fleming’s judgments regarding natural law as “worthless”.

    He’s read Aquinas and St. Alphonsus Liguori. I haven’t even read any of the Gospels.

    4.) Presumably abortion will be ended in those areas of America where Mohammedan immigrants are able to establish shariah. I trust I am not the only person who finds this a feeble consolation.

    5.) If it is a matter of being “pseudoconservative”, then that very charge applies to the leadership of the pro-life movement, which never tires of the futile exercise of trying to advance conservative causes via leftist premises.

    We need not even get into the false Enlightenment language about rights; I have yet to attend a pro-life dinner where at least one of the speakers does not roll out the cant about abortion being equivalent to the slavery of the wicked Southland. Apparently we know abortionists are evil because they remind us of (brrr) plantation owners, and the unborn need liberation via a second coming of Honest Abe.

    This is not to denigrate the pro-life movement, which is comprised mostly (at least when it comes to the rank-and-file) of decent, God-fearing folk. It is to point out that whatever good that movement accomplishes probably has more to do with Providence than with the incoherent strategy and philosophy animating said movement.

    Or to quote my kinsman R. Salyer:

    “Neither an end to abortion, nor an assurance of the rights of the Church can be had until the source of the problem is addressed. We need a new state religion. It is good to remember that the Ancient Martyrs did not die protesting the blood sport of the Coliseum, in the name of the dignity of human life. They died converting Rome to Christ. And then the Coliseum fell of its own accord.”

    While I can’t speak for him, I’m pretty sure Fleming would agree with this. I do, at any rate — and if that makes me a “Worthless Pseudoconservative” then so be it.

    6.) While I fully appreciate what is sometimes denigrated as the “ghetto” mentality, we should also keep in mind that being isolated by a dark, perverse age is apt to diminish one’s powers of magnanimity, and that by its very nature the Information Superhighway fosters what the Ents would call “hastiness”.

    And that’s all I have time to say about that. Again, a most impressive team of writers you all have here.

    • I agree that we should reserve the title Pseudo conservative” for actual impostors and deliberate false teachers. The intention of a pseudo conservative is to destroy conservatism by spreading false doctrine, just as the Antichrist will (is? has?) spread false doctrine in an attempt to destroy the Church. But everyone who disagrees with me is not my enemy, even when they are really mistaken. Perhaps we should call these people Unsound Conservatives, and then do our best to keep their heresies from spreading.

      The title of the post, however, is who do we trust? not who does good work? All of us can recognize good work that has come from the hands of repellant men and women. Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote some good lines, although on the whole he did great mischief. Thus when I read an author like Emerson, I follow Emerson’s advice and employ “self reliance.” If my private judgment approves what he writes, I nod and admire the prose. But I never trust him, and so in the case of disagreement never ask if he may be right and I may be wrong.

    • Dr. Salyer,

      It is an honor to have you comment here, since I regard you as a “teacher” in the above sense, and I thank you for the just rebuke. I was indeed far too harsh to Dr. Fleming, who shouldn’t be dismissed for one bad argument. I would apologize to him, but I”m fairly sure he’s never heard of me, so instead I’ll apologize to all the Orthosphere’s readers.

      In general, I do not agree that an unlettered man like me should not criticize a classical scholar even when I think his reasoning flawed. However, I agree that in such situations the “safe money” is to bet on the person who knows what he’s talking about. As you mentioned, many partisans of the pro-life movement base their arguments on liberal, individualistic nonsense, most likely out of ignorance because they have been given no better vocabulary to express their moral intuitions. However, this deprivation is the fault of the cognitive elite, who have gone over to liberalism almost to a man. The few who haven’t, such as you and my colleagues at the Orthosphere, are very precious. From now on, I’ll try to keep to my own area of expertise.

      • Gosh, I hope this doesn’t mean that you will be constraining yourself only to the subject of physics from now on.

      • Hi buckyinky and Anymouse,

        Thanks for the support. I said I’ll try to stay closer to my field (and avoid embarrassing my Orthosphere colleagues with ill-informed outbursts about politics or religion), but sometimes the temptation is too great, and I’ll probably succumb. (Sort of like when you leave the confessional having confessed to overeating, swearing, or impure thoughts. You don’t intend to commit that sin ever again, but you know it’s likely you will.) Maybe I’ll just have to be much more tentative in such posts.

        Actually, I’m trying to work up the energy to do some science-related writings anyway.

      • Bonald: I like your excursions into theology and politics, and hope to read many more of them. You’re very good at explaining physics, and I imagine you’re an excellent teacher, but it’s hard for me to see the relevance of neutrinos to a restoration of traditional social forms and orthodox religion. Nature is what it is; here we’re concerned with how things ought to be. Also, the suggestion that your post was impertinent strikes me as just a little impertinent. You’re not under a vow of obedience to these guys!

  10. I find it interresting that no-one wrote about this before, but the obvious teacher for Christians should be the Bible. For me it posses all characteristics of the teacher above. I’d say that in the vast majority of the topics, if I am convinced that the Bible has a different view then I do, then my conclusion is that I should change my point of view and in doubt assume that the Bible is correct and my previous idea was wrong. I make a special exception for the survival of the european-descending people as a group. I am not convinced that the Bible says anything that supports that we should struggle to survive as a group, but I think it is our natural right to do so. Just like nearly all other groups do.

  11. Thanks kindly, sir, for the gentlemanly response. I do second those commenters who wouldn’t want you to confine your writing solely to physics — not because I don’t value science (my undergraduate degree is in aeronautics) but because I think there’s a great benefit to cross-disciplinary reflections.

    I’ll be keeping in touch.

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