Catholic Culture Overview
Catholic Culture Overview

Epistemic Authority: Preferring the True and the Good to the Self

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Feb 13, 2013 | In Reviews

Catholics who have made a deep commitment to their faith find the modern world puzzling. Every time they try to argue a position they are met not so much by counter-arguments as by ridicule. This ridicule takes the form of dismissing out of hand all those who permit a religious authority to “control their lives”. And so Catholic puzzlement arises from simple incredulity: How can anyone be so foolish as to refuse religious authority on principle?

A close examination of modern culture reveals a startling emphasis on autonomy. The most important modern value is the ability to be whatever you want to be, to act however you want to act. The result is that complete personal independence is seen as the ultimate good, and modern men and women are exceedingly reluctant to accept constraints on their own self-directed self-realization. We might call this the theology of desire. My goal, my good, and my god are, in the end, whatever I myself want them to be.

But serious Catholics do not think that way at all. For the Catholic, the most important value is to live according to what is objectively good, that is, according to truth. This alone can lead to personal fulfillment and happiness. We may call this the theology of authority, for truth is something that already exists independently of a person’s desires. Truth imposes itself on our minds and hearts with authority, because it alone can guarantee that we live in accordance with the good. Truth is something we need in order to be happy. My goal, my good, and my God are, in the end, whatever the inherent authority of truth reveals them to be.

The two stances lead to very different reactions. The quintessential modern person responds to statements about truth with instinctive defensiveness. The cardinal sin is for anyone to tell such a person what to do. Nobody has that right (except, of course, those who insist that others abandon their commitment to truth, but this is not the time to press inconsistencies). Those who seek to explain transcendent principles of moral behavior, for example, are to be rejected as wrongheaded and even abusive, since their viewpoint does not concur with “autonomous” modern desires.

Meanwhile, the committed Catholic will rejoice each time anyone enlarges his or her understanding of the truth. Apart from occasional or initial reactions arising from faults we all share, such as pride or jealousy, the Catholic is grateful to all who enable him to live more fully in accordance with the truth. This, in fact, is a key aspect of spiritual growth. It is the very reason why Catholics emphasize such things as spiritual reading, and also the need to incorporate truth into their theology and philosophy wherever it can be found.

Epistemic Authority

Now we have all experienced this difference, even if it does not apply so starkly, on either side, to everyone. We have all felt that our attempts to convey truth were like talking to a brick wall. While most modern secularists will commit themselves easily enough to whatever beliefs, attitudes, behaviors and causes they (believe they) have chosen for themselves, they will automatically resist and even condemn anyone who attempts to introduce them to particular truths that challenge those beliefs, attitudes, behaviors and causes.

Some of this is inherent in all of us. We do not like to be corrected, especially if acceptance of correction would put us in an unfashionable minority, and therefore reduce our worldly status. But there really is something very different about how the typical modern secularist looks at these questions. Broadly speaking, this difference consists in making a kind of philosophical virtue out of what is ultimately a false understanding of autonomy. Unfortunately, this mistaken virtue results in an incoherent view of epistemic authority—that is, an incoherent approach to the problem of human knowledge or belief about reality.

What makes this incoherence difficult to address is that both the modern secularist and the Catholic actually have the same starting point. Every human person really ought to decide what he or she is going to believe. For the purposes of this discussion, I will be using the terms “knowledge” and “belief” interchangeably. What we think we know is simply what we believe, on greater or lesser evidence, about reality. When a particular bit of knowledge or a particular belief is accurate, it means we possess the truth of that particular matter. And truth is simply the mind’s conformity to reality.

In any case, as I said, both the Catholic and the modern secularist understand that at our core each of us operates as a sort of “executive self” who must determine what we are going to trust in terms of knowledge and belief, and this selection process is inescapably rooted in our fundamental trust of ourselves as beings who actually can know. This, for example, is the basis for the Catholic doctrine of the supremacy of conscience. It is not certain that we will possess a perfect knowledge of the Good, but it is certain that, having conscientiously attempted to know the Good as well as we can, we absolutely must act in accordance with our understanding of it.

The great difference between the Catholic and the modern secularist is that the modern secularist believes he must trust nobody else in his acquisition of this knowledge—that trusting any epistemic authority outside the self is actually a violation of his own autonomy, very close to what Catholics would call a sin. If this is an error (and it is), how do we go about correcting it? As I have already observed, arguing with the modern secularist, who is almost congenitally addicted to this notion of epistemic autonomy, is very much like talking to a brick wall.

Fortunately, there is a solution. In the nick of time, along comes Linda Trinkaus Zagzebski, a professor at the University of Oklahoma, and in particular an epistemologist, which is someone who studies how it is that we know things. In her new book from Oxford University Press, Epistemic Authority: A Theory of Trust, Authority, and Autonomy in Belief, Zagzebski sets out to lead the modern secular thinker from trust in self to a more comprehensive recognition of the nature of epistemic authority.

Zagzebski’s thesis is that epistemic autonomy is quite simply incoherent. It is therefore irrational to maintain that a person who is conscientiously committed to knowing anything ought to prefer to rely only on what he can determine, by whatever means, for himself. Nor can we maintain that knowledge has a greater value if it is autonomously determined, in this narrowest of senses, rather than taken on trust from another.

Summarizing the Argument

The beauty of Zagzebski’s contribution is that she does not argue from the plausibility of this or that authority to make her point; she argues from the initial fact, which I have already noted, that we trust ourselves as legitimate sources of knowledge. Again, knowledge is a collection of beliefs about reality; and knowledge is truth when those beliefs are, in fact, correct.

Zagzebski develops her argument slowly, carefully and very precisely over some 250 pages, but obviously I cannot do the same thing here, so a brief summary must suffice. Essentially, the argument is that if we trust ourselves epistemologically, then we must trust our observation that other persons typically have the same sorts of capacities we have (whatever it is we trust about our ability to know things). We will judge that some are less gifted or less committed to a conscientious use of their faculties, but honesty will compel us to recognize that others are more gifted and more committed—or perhaps simply better positioned to be right about something, which we righty call being in a position to know.

If we accept this, we must consider the testimony of those with similar epistemic credentials as a reason for believing something, though not necessarily an overriding reason given all of our other “inputs”. But the case for acceptance of the testimony of others gets stronger if we make a conscientious judgment that a particular testimonial source is more likely to enable us to adopt true (correct) beliefs than if we were to rely on our own energies and abilities. A source which significantly improves our chances of adopting correct beliefs, beliefs which will survive our deepening reflections over time, becomes for us a legitimate authority—in this case an epistemic authority, as opposed (say) to a political authority.

However, there is one circumstance and one circumstance only in which we would not feel it appropriate to enhance our knowledge through the testimony (and hence the epistemic authority) of others. That one circumstance is if we assume that our beliefs have greater epistemic value (that is, our knowledge as knowledge is somehow better) if we acquire it for ourselves—so much so that we would be correct in avoiding the reception of knowledge from other sources.

Of course, nobody really lives like this, but it is the loosely held and often very convenient position of many modern secularists, whom Zagzebski terms epistemic egoists. And when she examines the position of epistemic egoism, she finds that knowledge itself obviously has no greater value if it is obtained one way rather than another, for the knowledge is the same. Some methods of pursuing knowledge may, of course, bring other benefits, such as a more detailed examination, a greater exercise of our faculties, a deeper apprehension of wrong turns and mistakes, and so on. But as far as the knowledge itself goes, we cannot value it more because we have found it all on our own unless it is really, in fact, the self and not the knowledge on which we are placing the emphasis.

This means, Zagzebski concludes, that we have caught the epistemic egoist in the act of choosing a sort of selfishness at the expense of knowledge or truth, the mind’s conformity to reality. The value of this conformity is not determined by the kind of process used to attain it. It is the mere conformity which constitutes truth. If we prefer only what we can determine completely on our own, it simply means we do not value the mind’s conformity with reality more than we value our own independence. We would rather be locked in an eternal self-absorption than actually know anything. In practice, this means that we will generally prefer our desires to reality, and when it comes to beliefs about reality, knowledge of reality, or truth, this position is in fact epistemically incoherent.

Zagzebski does not stop here. She carefully explores the nature of testimony (any sort of human witness or indication of the nature of some reality) and the reasons we may have to trust it. She rightly extends the concept of epistemic authority beyond well-placed individuals (those who are both smart and conscientious, those who are better placed than we are to know certain things, those who have clearly developed a special expertise, etc.) to communities which serve to preserve, organize and gradually extend knowledge. One thinks, for example, of a scientific community or an academic institution. And she also extends the concept of epistemic authority to the traditions which shape such communities, and over which such communities preside.

Zagzebski further distinguishes between first-person acceptance of authority and what we might call third-person acceptance, which views authority more objectively and accords to it the right to command epistemic obedience. In other words, in the sense that I conscientiously determine I am more likely to get at the truth by following some person’s testimony than by working things out on my own, I am amply justified in accepting that person’s epistemic authority. But viewed another way, if it can be reasonably established as a matter of fact that people generally are more likely to end up with true beliefs by following some authority rather than working things out for themselves, then that authority actually has an objective right to epistemic obedience. It can, in some measure, command belief, and we are at fault if we do not obey this command.

The same is true of the authority of communities we may choose to follow or join. Zagzebski carefully expresses the relevant theorem:

The authority of my community is justified for me by my conscientious judgment that I am more likely to believe the truth and avoid falsehood if I believe what We believe than if I try to figure out what to believe in a way that is independent of Us.

Up until now, we have been talking of any sort of belief about, or knowledge of, reality. Specifically moral and spiritual authority obviously rests upon a proper understanding of how it is we know (acquire beliefs about) anything at all. But Zagzebski goes on to devote a whole chapter to moral authority, and another chapter to religious authority. In the latter discussion, she considers the various ways in which authoritative religious traditions are transmitted, citing historical examples and ending by explaining the Catholic principle of authority, which essentially consists of a tradition protected, transmitted and interpreted in a unitary manner, by exactly one bishop.

Authority Reconsidered

As it turns out, Linda Trinkaus Zagzebski is a Catholic. She mentions this here and there in considering various examples of epistemic authority. Starting with her observation that our trust in ourselves is pre-reflective—that is, it is built into our very nature—Zagzebski argues patiently but inexorably, and with full scholarly notes, that we all have not only a need but an imperative to trust all the epistemic authorities we can conscientiously identify. It is a dense and careful work most suited to academics. But serious Catholics will benefit from this study. As a side note, they will also sense the Catholicism of the author, and so they will recognize once again that there is no such thing as a coincidence.

This brings us back to my introduction. What Zagzebski patiently argues from first principles is exactly what the serious Catholic thinks when he is being ridiculed by the modern world: In matters touching the ultimate meaning of life, we are very foolish indeed if we refuse to give serious consideration to the existence of epistemic authority—to the existence of an authority which can actually command belief. To claim to rely exclusively on the autonomous self is not only impossible. It is also intellectually bankrupt. To repeat Zagzebski’s term, it is incoherent.

And yet it is just this conscientious evaluation of authority that the modern person does refuse. It was Chesterton, I think, who observed that the problem with the modern practical atheist is not that he will believe nothing but that he will believe anything. He will sit at the feet of fashion and proclaim himself a free-thinker. He will believe the scientist and the politician, the Hollywood star and the Twitter feed, the novelist and the moviemaker, the leaders of the popular set he wishes to join, or even whoever or whatever tickles his senses and appeals to his vanity. And from all of these things he will cobble together an utterly incoherent “system” of belief along with a very convenient morality du jour.

But he would rather preserve misguided desires than learn of the Good; he would rather assert his ego than recognize the authority of reality over what it actually means for him to know. Aided by certain favorite philosophical trends, he has even convinced himself that his integrity requires exactly this. And so he makes a virtue out of a folly. Though he might well accept the authority of the self-proclaimed prophet or the popularly elected king (and perhaps anyone else who properly appeals to his own momentary flights of fancy), he will never under any circumstances believe the priest. He will not even ask whether there is any reason to believe the priest. For the priest represents the one thing he cannot select or twist to suit himself, the one thing to which even epistemic egoism must eventually yield. The priest represents God.

But the Catholic, often instinctively and without much formal study, comes at all of this from the other end. He argues that if there is a God who cares about the goodness of our behavior (as we perceive through our common sense, formed through nature and conscience), then this God must care about us, and so we should expect Him to reveal Himself to us. The Catholic next argues that in looking for such a revelation, he has found a disclosure in Jesus Christ that cannot be explained apart from Divine power. He further argues that such a disclosure is useless if it cannot be preserved intact, passed on and rightly understood, and so it is particularly wonderful that this Christian disclosure provides a mechanism for such preservation, in the form of a hierarchy headed by exactly one bishop, who has been given by God a special epistemic authority.

Finally, he argues that there is no way to be sure about these most important things—these keys to human fulfillment and happiness—unless they are revealed and somehow guaranteed. Therefore, it is exceedingly foolish and short-sighted to dismiss the authority of the Church, and particularly the Petrine authority, without a most careful and open-minded investigation. The teachings of this authority should never be dismissed with contempt, as if the very idea of authority is a disservice to truth. Nor should they be dismissed—may God help us all—only because we did not make them up ourselves.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

Sound Off! supporters weigh in.

All comments are moderated. To lighten our editing burden, only current donors are allowed to Sound Off. If you are a current donor, log in to see the comment form; otherwise please support our work, and Sound Off!

  • Posted by: littleone - Feb. 28, 2013 2:18 AM ET USA

    Thank you very much.Somewhere along the way in Catholic school,I learned the most freeing,interesting thing."Truth cannot conflict with Truth."This has always meant that when things don't add up,I educate myself,and the confusion ends-Confusion being a feeling,oft remedied by sufficient facts.Now in the realm of the passions, confusion can rein when,for example,Loss/Grief and Relief are partners.I imagine that is why I am a therapist!Thank God!From where might that Truth thing have come,please?