Sunday, August 28, 2011

The Fixation of Belief: The Method of Authority

So far I've suggested that we act based on our beliefs and that those beliefs that address either matters of Fact (Truth or Falsity) and matters of Value (Good and Bad). Peirce argues that we "fixate" our beliefs in four different ways. All of these methods have advantages and disadvantages. Among humans, the most common method for fixating our beliefs is based on authority. Let's take a close look at it.

Given our natural propensity to live in groups and organize those groups, hierarchically, based on leadership and followership, we all fixate at least some of our beliefs based on the "authority" of others. The hallmark of any authority is that we trust them! Given our longstanding attraction to religious authority, many neuroscientists argue that our brains have been programmed by biological evolution to believe in a God, trust God, and obey God. Hence, the question of whether the pronouncements of religious authorities are True or Good is settled based on whether we trust that the authority is truthfully interpreting the pronouncements of God. If we trust an authority we tend to believe them and willingly give them power over us. Worldwide, most human beliefs are fixated based on the religious authority. God is the supreme religious authority. Sometimes religious authority is based on what leaders of the past have written in the form of "sacred texts." But usually, religious authority is based on how contemporary religious leaders interpret those sacred writings. Thus inquiry into the Truth or Goodness of the pronouncements of religious leaders is about "who they are" not "what they say." Today we know a lot more about the psychological basis for trust in authorities than Peirce knew. For example, we know that most of us will do things that we ordinarily wouldn't do when we are told to so by trusted authorities. The Holocaust and the Jonestown Masssacre are prime examples.

Today we all trust many different authorities: physicians, scientists, journalists, and celebrities. Although Peirce doesn't say much about it, there are more and less trustworthy authorities. I trust my family physician because I've known him for 20 years and because he has taken good care of me and my family. For libertarians the most pernicious form of authority is government. One of the most serious problems we have here in the United States is that the vast majority of Americans do not trust our government? Why because it hasn't taken very good care of us for a long time. Libertarians argue that government tends to take care of itself and its cronies, often at the expense of the rest of us. If we don't believe what the government says, it forces us to submit to it's edicts, whether we believe those edicts or not.  

Today, many political scientists question whether its possible for us humans to escape from the influence of various authorities. Peirce was a realist, which means that he believes it is at least possible to base our beliefs on something other than authority. But he might be wrong. It may be the case that Truth is nothing more than what the prevailing authorities say is True and that Truth is "socially constructed" based on the self-interest of leaders. Maybe Truth is "manufactured" by those who hold power over us and not really discovered?                       


Thomas McClanahan said...

Nice! I liked it. I think this is why we are so split when it comes to politics as well. We've either been failed by a particular party too many times or we've seen how they have failed others.

Milk Tea said...

Thank you for posting this! Definitely allowed me to further understand peirce's philosophy! It's ironic that human nature naturally follows "God." Do you ever wonder if it is biological or learned...

-phil 100 student