Saturday, May 24, 2008

Happy Birthday, Whewell

William Whewell was born on May 24, 1794; so in celebration of the Omniscientist's birthday, a few links:

The Whewell article at the SEP

Some works by Whewell at Google Book:

History of the Inductive Sciences, Volume I

History of the Inductive Sciences, Volume II

The Philosophy of the Inductive Sciences, Volume I

Of Induction, with Special Reference to Mr. J. Stuart Mill's System of Logic

Astronomy and General Physics Considered with Reference to Natural Theology

On the Free Motion of Points, and on Universal Gravitation

The Mechanics of Engineering

The Mechanical Euclid

An Elementary Treatise on Mechanics

First Principles of Mechanics

The Doctrine of Limits, with Its Applications

Conic Sections

An Essay on Mineralogical Classification and Nomenclature

Elements of Morality, Including Polity

Lectures on the History of Moral Philosophy in England

Lectures on Systematic Morality

On the Foundations of Morals

Architectural Notes on German Churches

On the Principles of English University Education

Verse Translations from the German

The Plurality of Worlds

Some works of Whewell at the Internet Archive:

History of the Inductive Sciences, Volume I

History of the Inductive Sciences, Volume II

History of the Inductive Sciences, Volume III

The Christian's Duty Towards Transgressors

Indications of the Creator

Of a Liberal Education in General

Strength in Trouble

The Philosophy of the Inductive Sciences, Volume I

The Philosophy of the Inductive Sciences, Volume II

Trinity College Commemoration Sermon


Six Lectures on Political Economy

Aquinas on the Limits of Virtue II

Acquired virtue does not make us avoid sin always, but only for the most part; for it is also true of natural occurrences that they happen for the most part. It does not follow from this that someone is both virtuous and vicious, because a single action is not enough in a capacity to remove the disposition of a vice or of an acquired virtue. Also, one cannot avoid all sin through an acquired virtue; for acquired virtues do not save us from the sin of lack of faith, or from the other sins that are opposed to the infused virtues.

Thomas Aquinas, Disputed Questions on the Virtues (q. 1, a.9, ad 5), Atkins and Williams, ed. CUP (New York: 2005) p. 57.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Ethics Course

I've been working on the websites for the Ethics course I'll be teaching starting next week, and it occurred to me that, since I put a lot of my other philosophical thought up here, and sometimes get beneficial comments on it, that I might put this up. Courses are constrained by a great many things (e.g., I have to base my syllabus on a master syllabus for the department; and I can only choose textbooks from an authorized list, although I can provide supplementary readings), but I do put a great deal of philosophical thought into course design. The course has two websites, with overlapping but not identical functions:


They are still under construction, with parts missing, but enough is there for one to get the idea. Any remarks, comments, suggestions are welcome.


I was at SeaWorld recently, so I thought I would point out a few organizations that do work related to the preservation and conservation of sea lion populations.

Charles Darwin Foundation

North Pacific Universities Marine Mammal Research Consortium

Ocean Conservancy

The Pacific Wildlife Foundation

The Alaskan Sea Otter and Steller Sea Lion Commission


Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Success and Vocation

You will have to avoid thinking of yourselves as employable minds equipped with a few digits useful for pushing buttons. You will have to recover for yourselves the old understanding that you are whole beings inextricably and mysteriously compounded of minds and bodies.

You will have to understand that the logic of success is radically different from the logic of vocation. The logic of what our society means by “success” supposedly leads you ever upward to any higher-paying job that can be done sitting down. The logic of vocation holds that there is an indispensable justice, to yourself and to others, in doing well the work that you are “called” or prepared by your talents to do.

Wendell Berry

More on the Argument Against Trumping

Alan Rhoda has responded to my criticism of his Trumping argument. (There has also been discussion elsewhere; ocham has some notable links.) First, a clarification:

In addition, it seems to me that Brandon is falsely opposing "authority" and "reason". When I reason, I do on the basis of evidence, of which there different types - empirical, intuitive, and testimonial. An authority is simply a good source of evidence. Thus, in Brandon's example, the physicist is an authority for me because he is, presumably, a very good source of testimonial evidence regarding matters physical. In correcting my thinking he's not giving me evidence over and against my reason. Rather, he's helping me to reason things out more adequately by improving my pool of evidence.

There was, however, no such opposition in my argument; my argument said nothing about the relation between authority and reason. Indeed, given Alan's original post it was impossible to do so; there was no way of identifying from Alan's post what 'Trumping' was supposed to be, if not simply correction of reasoning by authority, so it would have done nothing for the argument to try to pin down the point. All that was in view was the fact that we correct our reasoning in light of authority, and the limits of such correction.

Now to the rest. Consider Alan's further clarification on Trumping:

What I called 'Trumping' is the practice of seizing upon some particular authority or claim, one that is not itself a deliverance of human reason or understanding, and refusing to submit that authority or claim to rational critique. In other words, the Trumper has a cherished theory or dogma of which he says, "I don't care where the evidence and the argument may go from here on out, I'm going to stick to my theory no matter what."

This is helpful; but it was not in the least the impression conveyed by Alan's post, which put forward Anselm and Helm, and then expanded outward. Much as I often disagree with Helm, this is not a plausible characterization of him, and it is an even less plausible characterization of Anselm.

But let's take this further clarification, and examine it more closely, because it is still not so clear. Trumping is characterized in two ways here:

(1) taking an authority or claim that is not itself a deliverance of human reason, and "refusing to submit that authority or claim to rational critique";
(2) having a cherished theory or position and refusing to regard any evidence and argument on the subject from then on out.

I've slightly modified the exact wording, since, again, Alan's phrasing seems to me to be tendentious, and therefore not suitable to an argument that is attempting to show a problem with the position, rather than simply state it or insinuate it. I've left the second clause of (1) in quotations because I have no clear notion what Alan means by it. All of his explicit examples have simply been of deferring to an authority or principle that one has already evaluated as perfectly reliable in a given field of thought. If this were all that were meant, my criticism in the previous post would apply in spades; but clearly it is not. However, the only thing that can be added to it is refusing to regard any additional reasoning or evidence as relevant to evaluation of the authority or principle in the first place. We will get back to this in a second. What I would like to point out first is that by neither (1) nor (2) do Alan's new examples of Trumping, Lewontin and Hume, count as Trumping. This is not fatal to his argument; but I would suggest that they provide a way of seeing a serious flaw in it.

Let's take Hume first, which is the easier case. Hume's conclusion is, first, a deliverance of reason; he has already by this point given an elaborate, if somewhat tangled, analysis of why we don't and shouldn't accept testimony of miracles unless the evidence for them meets a certain standard, and argues that it has never been the case that testimony for religious miracles meets that standard. The point intended in the Jansenist case (among others) is that even here, which occurs in a civilized nation in modern times, where we have the results of close contemporary investigations and a wide variety of witnesses, the evidence fails to meet that standard. So whatever one's view of Hume's position here, it is not an unreasoned one. Second, Hume doesn't absolutely rule out miraculous events or testimony for them; he just argues that the standard of evidence has to be so high, and testimony in religious matters tends to be so unreliable, that testimony does not suffice to support a religious miracle: we can hear of the miracles at the tomb of the Abbé Paris, or of someone rising from the dead, and reasonably dismiss the report (indeed, his argument is that to be reasonable we have to dismiss the report). Hume's argument is, in fact, a cousin of Alan's own: he, too, is making an argument against the use of trumps, at least of a certain kind (quite explicitly, in fact); indeed, given the way Hume understands miracles and the evaluation of testimony, the Humean could be forgiven for regarded Alan's argument as simply an argument against testimony for the miraculous with rational laws substituted for natural ones.

Lewontin is more easily misinterpreted, and it is unsurprising that he has often been so radically misunderstood, but in the context of the review he is actually making a point, not about how we should view materialism, but how materialism actually functions in scientific thought, because he thinks Sagan (whose work he is discussing) has clearly exaggerated the chasm between materialist and supernaturalist thinking, and thus is playing up what he sees as parallels. The argument is not about trumps; the argument is simply that all of Sagan's attacks on beliefs about the supernatural can, with surprisingly slight modification, be turned against scientific inquiry. The supernatural is absurd, contrary to common sense? So are some obviously scientific claims. Science, unlike the supernatural, makes good on its claims? Yet, on investigation, it often does not, if judged by the same standard. The supernatural involves unjustifiable just-so stories? So, it turns out, does some scientific work. The consubstantiality of the Trinity is absurd, but we are to accept as solid science the duality of light. The point of Lewontin's brilliant criticism is not that materialism is a trump; it's that it's much harder to pin down why materialism is rational and supernaturalism isn't than people like Sagan want to make it, and that that's the reason why the struggle turns out to be so hard. It's not a struggle between the obviously rational and the obviously irrational; it's a much more human struggle between the resentment of people who see themselves as dismissed from the discussion and the hubris of intellectuals who dismiss them as stupid. Even if we make it about the intellectuals Lewontin is criticizing rather than Lewontin himself (as we would have to), it's not a matter of appeal to trumps, but of passions and prejudices and foibles.

I've taken the trouble to go this long distance around to discuss the actual examples not because I think these examples are especially important to Alan's position, but because they highlight what I think has been a problem with Alan's argument all along: nothing in the arguments given so far is able to distinguish adequately between (1) reasoned deference to an authority or principle evaluated as extraordinarily reliable, such that the authority or principle can be used to identify facts (and, as the saying goes, against facts there is no reasoning); (2) dogmatism due not to an appeal to something as a trump but to simple, ordinary human reasoning turned into inflexible prejudice by human foible and failing; and (3) simple refusal to reason, supported by an authority or principle. Part of what made Alan's first post so confusing, I think, is that it seemed to slide through all three of these. But it's clear that Alan wants the focus to be on (3). And that makes sense: (1) is obviously not a problem, and that (2) is a problem is recognizable on the basis of entirely different principles. I think it turns out to be very, very, very difficult to find clear, real-life cases of (3). Indeed, I think that none of the actual examples Alan has given are even plausible candidates for it. But let's suppose they are common, and consider such cases.

The first thing to note is that not all such cases are irrational. Harriet Beecher Stowe provides a beautiful set of examples in Uncle Tom's Cabin. A theme that is found throughout the book is the danger of refusing to reach a point where you stop inquiry into a matter; and it does a good job of arguing that there are times when it is justifiable to refuse to reason further. This, presumably, is a trump; but as it is very narrowly confined sort of trumping, we will call it a 'minor Trump', as opposed to the 'major Trumps' Alan seems to have in view. When John Bird tries to rationalize his politicking over the fugitive slave question, Mary Bird quickly calls him on it:

"Mary! Mary! My dear, let me reason with you."

"I hate reasoning, John,--especially reasoning on such subjects. There's a way you political folks have of coming round and round a plain right thing; and you don't believe in it yourselves, when it comes to practice. I know you well enough, John. You don't believe it's right any more than I do; and you wouldn't do it any sooner than I."

What Senator Bird calls 'reasoning' is simply extending an inquiry well past its due date; this is not rationality, it's rationalization. It's reason's form of stalling. And Senator Bird very shortly after his exchange with his wife proves by his actions that she was on to something, because face to face with an actual slave, his conscience won't let him obey the law he had argued and voted for. He had known from the beginning that the fugitive slave law was wrong, and that those who refused to return fugitive slaves were in the moral right; but instead of stopping there, like Mary, and fixing it as a "plain right thing," he weaseled around it like a politician. But when push came to shove, he found he couldn't in good conscience treat it as anything other than a "plain right thing". Uncle Tom's Cabin is in great measure a book arguing against moral wishy-washiness -- and this wishy-washy vice comes about, as the book presents it, from refusing to recognize that some things are just "plain right things" and that when you reach them, you have reached all you need to know; and those who go farther inevitably become "swayed and perverted" by sophistry. In Stowe's view only a sophist refuses to draw an inquiry to a close; rational people will always look for something that they can from then on out take as solid.

Of course, Uncle Tom's Cabin is fiction; although any argument that clearly put the Senator in the right and Mary in the wrong would be just begging to be torn apart. But moral issues are a major problem for those who refuse to allow a rational end to inquiry, a point where reason can just take a conclusion as a "plain right thing" and hold that everything that argues against it is, and must be, merely sophistry. It sounds good to say, "We should never let principle trump inquiry." It's not so clear, though, that it's rational to say, "We should keep an open mind about slavery or genocide, because perhaps, just perhaps, inquiry will turn up sound arguments in its favor." It sounds good in the abstract to refuse to allow Trumps. But on moral matters everyone sooner or later reaches a line they will not cross for all the cleverest and most compelling argumentation in the world. The idea being this: show me someone who allows no minor Trumps and I will show you one who twists and turns on every wind of clever sophistry that comes along, because that's a person who will never recognize anything as a "plain right thing".

Nor do you have to go so far as practical ethics to find such things; every foundationalist of any sort has a Trump in the sense of a principle beyond which no further reasoning is to be had. That's what a first principle is: it's the grounding terminus of inquiry, beyond which it is futile to argue. Descartes reasons down to a first principle; end of the line. Everything else must presuppose that, no argument can possibly overturn it. Spinoza does the same in the Ethics; same thing. If there are foundations there are places where one should just that particular line of inquiry and go on to other things. Nor do you even have to be a rationalist to reach such a starting point; Hume thought, and thought rightly, that it was absurd to ask whether bodies exist. Obviously they do, and anyone who pretends to consider seriously whether they do or not is simply lying. The only questions that are reasonable on the subject of bodies are questions that presuppose that they exist. Minor Trump. And surely none of these are irrational, or inconsistent, or problematic in the way suggested by Alan's argument.

Of course, if one accepts, as any rational person must, the existence of such minor Trumps, the question follows whether it could possibly be rational to accept the existence of a major Trump. And it is not so clear what the answer would be, for we seem to have no clear notion of a major Trump, i.e., of Trumping in Alan's sense. A major Trump couldn't differ from a minor by the size of the ground it covered, because there appears to be no principled cut-off. Taking description (2) from above as wholly adequate, there is no reason why a major Trump should be disallowed if a minor one is allowed. But description (1) adds another element that might perhaps make up the difference: it refers to an authority or claim that is not itself a deliverance of human reason. It isn't quite clear what this would mean. Clearly in some sense every claim is going to be a deliverance of human reason; even if God tells me, "Stop reading blogs and become an itinerant beggar," my taking that command up as a principle would be an act of human reason. The most natural reading of it is to say that it is confining the matter to claims that are inconsistent with human reasoning. This does give you a reasonable enough conclusion -- you should not guide your (human) rational inquiry on the basis of principles inconsistent with human reasoning -- but not, I think, what Alan is going for. One might try to read it as talking about claims that are held irrationally from the get-go. And that, too, gets us something plausible: you should not govern your reasoning on the basis of irrationally-held claims. But that's also not so helpful, and doesn't fit very well with any of Alan's arguments (and certainly not with his examples). So I don't see any way out here.

The whole argument, as I said in the first post, strikes the ear very nicely, and it sounds plausible. Certainly a great many people have found it an attractive line of reasoning. But when we look at it more closely, we find that there does not appear to be any consistent and plausible analysis for it. The words are associated with what seem to be the right words, but when we try to see how they are put together, we don't seem to come up with anything of substance. And it seems to me that the attraction the argument has to many intelligent people says less about the integrity of the argument and more about the muddled values of the time; we're big on words like Reasoning and Inquiry and not so big on reasoning through and inquiring into what they would actually require. The cliché takes so much less effort. As I said before, what rational person wants to argue that there are principles that "Trump" reason and inquiry? But that's just the sound of the words; what we really need to know is what we mean when we are talking about "Trumping", and it seems to me that Alan's clarifications and examples have not made his original argument stronger, but instead shown it more and more to be problematic.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Aquinas on the Limits of Virtue

The rebellion of the aggressive and sensual parts against reason cannot be quelled entirely by means of virtue; for since through their own nature those parts aim at what is good according to the senses, they sometimes conflict with reason. It could possibly happen, though, by means of divine power, which can even change something's nature. In any case, the rebellion is reduced through virtue, insofar as the powers in question become accustomed to obeying reason. Then they have what they need for virtue, from something outside, i.e. from the rule of reason over them. In themselves, however, they retain something of their own movements, which are sometimes contrary to reason.

Thomas Aquinas, Disputed Questions on the Virtues (q. 1, a. 4 ad 7), Atkins and Williams, ed. CUP (New York: 2005) p. 25.

The Victory of an Unjust Death

I was pulled up short a bit by this news story from London:

Jimmy suffered fatal cuts to his neck with glass following a row as he went to buy a lottery ticket in Lee, south east London, on Saturday morning.

When Jimmy, a devout Catholic, declined a challenge to fight, his attacker smashed down the door of the Three Cooks Bakery and picked up an advertising board which he wielded inside.

Jimmy, a pupil at St Thomas More Catholic Comprehensive in Eltham, died at the scene in front of his brother, becoming the 13th teenager to be murdered in London so far this year.

Our prayers go with Jimmy Mizen and his family. And Jimmy is in heroic company; as Lady Philosophy tells Boethius:

Surely you don't think that now is the first time that wisdom has been attacked and imperiled in the court of unrighteous custom? Surely in the court of the ancients as well, even before the era of our beloved Plato, we often fought the great fight against the insolence of stupidity; and though he himself survived, his teacher Socrates won the victory of an unjust death....But if, because they happened in a foreign land, you don't know the exile of Anaxagoras, the poison of Socrates, or the torture of Zeno, still you could have known about Canius, Seneca, Soranus, and others like them -- their memory is neither very old nor very obscure. What dragged them down to disaster was nothing other than the fact that, because they were established in our ways, they were seen to be utterly unlike the unrighteous and their enthusiasms.

Boethius, Consolation of Philosophy Book I, Prose 3 (Relihan translation).

Monday, May 19, 2008

Kail on Malebranche and Hume

P. J. E. Kail has a nice article on Malebranche and Hume at the European Journal of Philosophy (which can be accessed for free; hat-tip). I'm not sure it really tells us anything that wasn't already pretty obvious, but it's a great summation of a number of important features of the relation between the two. My only criticism would be that Kail repeatedly talks about something he calls the "Augustinian preoccupation with error and sin" without ever once saying what it is, showing that it is Augustinian, or proving that it does, in fact, have the role in shaping Malebranche's philosophy that he attributes to it. I would argue that (1) what is genuinely Augustinian in Malebranche's philosophy is something else entirely than a 'preoccupation with error and sin'; (2) Kail exaggerates the extent to which the science of the mind is shaped by this preoccupation rather than what Hume somewhere calls the 'Cartesian philosophy of the brain'; and (3) that the strong link between error and sin is not a major shaping factor in Malebranche's philosophy at all, but an incidental result of Malebranche's unusually strong rationalism. But that would be a long argument; the article overall is quite good.

Pinker on Dignity

Steven Pinker recently had a very poorly argued essay on the moral notion of human dignity. Given that the version he primarily had in view, that of Leon Kass, isn't exactly well argued itself, I'm not quite sure how he managed to maul the objection to it so badly, but perhaps it's a case of opponents beginning to reason too similarly to their opposition. He argues that there are three reasons why dignity is an inadequate notion for the moral work people try to make it do:

First, dignity is relative. One doesn't have to be a scientific or moral relativist to notice that ascriptions of dignity vary radically with the time, place, and beholder. In olden days, a glimpse of stocking was looked on as something shocking. We chuckle at the photographs of Victorians in starched collars and wool suits hiking in the woods on a sweltering day, or at the Brahmins and patriarchs of countless societies who consider it beneath their dignity to pick up a dish or play with a child. Thorstein Veblen wrote of a French king who considered it beneath his dignity to move his throne back from the fireplace, and one night roasted to death when his attendant failed to show up. Kass finds other people licking an ice-cream cone to be shamefully undignified; I have no problem with it.

Second, dignity is fungible. The Council and Vatican treat dignity as a sacred value, never to be compromised. In fact, every one of us voluntarily and repeatedly relinquishes dignity for other goods in life. Getting out of a small car is undignified. Having sex is undignified. Doffing your belt and spread- eagling to allow a security guard to slide a wand up your crotch is undignified. Most pointedly, modern medicine is a gantlet of indignities. Most readers of this article have undergone a pelvic or rectal examination, and many have had the pleasure of a colonoscopy as well. We repeatedly vote with our feet (and other body parts) that dignity is a trivial value, well worth trading off for life, health, and safety.

Third, dignity can be harmful. In her comments on the Dignity volume, Jean Bethke Elshtain rhetorically asked, "Has anything good ever come from denying or constricting human dignity?" The answer is an emphatic "yes." Every sashed and be-medaled despot reviewing his troops from a lofty platform seeks to command respect through ostentatious displays of dignity. Political and religious repressions are often rationalized as a defense of the dignity of a state, leader, or creed: Just think of the Salman Rushdie fatwa, the Danish cartoon riots, or the British schoolteacher in Sudan who faced flogging and a lynch mob because her class named a teddy bear Mohammed. Indeed, totalitarianism is often the imposition of a leader's conception of dignity on a population, such as the identical uniforms in Maoist China or the burqas of the Taliban.

If we actually took the first of these points seriously, we would have to take it as an argument that all morality is relative. Ascriptions of any moral notion vary radically from place to place, time to time, culture to culture. This is utterly irrelevant to evaluation of any of them. Not all such variations are equally rationally supportable, or equally conscientiously sustainable, and it is at this that a reasonable inquiry into the value of a moral notion will look.

Moreover, Pinker is clearly equivocating in both the latter half of the first point and the whole of the second point: nobody thinks that strange clothes or a medical exam are a violation of any moral notion of dignity, because they are not even relevant to the subject. There is no identifiable sense in which having sex is morally undignified; indeed, not being a prude like Pinker, I would deny that having sex is undignified in any rationally sustainable sense. The security example is better: clearly the example does at least border on issues of human dignity, which, of course is why we keep a close eye on security procedures. Nor does it take any great acumen to recognize that "getting out of a small car" is not undignified in any sense relevant to the discussion; Pinker is being sloppy, thinking he can just throw things out there without critical examination. It doesn't take much to discover that Kass often is guilty of the same sloppiness, but that, of course, doesn't excuse Pinker in the least.

The third point, which would have been really interesting if Pinker had bothered to make use of any reasoning skills to develop it, manages to flop on both accounts. Ceremonial dignity is palpably a different sort of dignity than the dignity of someone treated with moral respect (no one thinks that hosting the Olympics proves that Nazi Germany had even a minimal respect for human dignity); and even if it weren't, the fact that despots try to wrap themselves in it tells us nothing about whether the notion of moral dignity is dangerous. Despots wrap themselves in any moral notion available: what this shows is not that every moral notion is dangerous but that despots are hypocrites trying to manipulate the masses. What this calls for is not rejection of the moral notions despots use, but a greater insistence on the difference between the merely superficial imitation of them and the substantive application of them.

He does have one genuinely interesting argument in the whole piece:

A free society disempowers the state from enforcing a conception of dignity on its citizens. Democratic governments allow satirists to poke fun at their leaders, institutions, and social mores. And they abjure any mandate to define "some vision of 'the good life'" or the "dignity of using [freedom] well" (two quotes from the Council's volume). The price of freedom is tolerating behavior by others that may be undignified by our own lights. I would be happy if Britney Spears and "American Idol" would go away, but I put up with them in return for not having to worry about being arrested by the ice-cream police. This trade-off is very much in America's DNA and is one of its great contributions to civilization: my country 'tis of thee, sweet land of liberty.

Ok, well, cut out the equivocation with Britney Spears again. But when we avoid the obvious equivocation on 'dignity' running throughout Pinker's essay, the argument turns out to be not so clearly sustainable. After all, the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights, the Fourteenth Amendment: most people look at these not as 'disempowering the state from enforcing a conception of dignity on its citizens' but instead as protecting the dignity of its citizens. An interesting line of thought, but one that requires more rational development than Pinker deigns to give it.

What gets me about the whole thing is that most of the piece is really rhetorical puff whereby Pinker tries to associate himself with reason and critical thought (and his opponents with the lack of both), but in which he clearly has not taken the time or trouble to engage in either. Everyone, including Pinker himself, deserves better from him than they get here.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

'The Theologian's Fallacy'

Alan Rhoda has a post at "Alanyzer" called The Theologian's Fallacy arguing that it is incoherent to hold that "the authority of the Bible always trumps human reason when the two come into conflict". The argument is that if the person who holds this also holds that it is possible that one could be mistaken about the status of Scripture (or whatever else) "as a source of absolute and infallible Truth" there is some sort of contradiction:

At this point the Trumper is caught in a bind. On the one hand, his own aspirations to intellectual humility encourage him to answer with a 'yes'. Human fallibility is too familiar for us to dismiss such possibilities out of hand. On the other hand, the Trumper's preparedness to use his Trump as a Trump, if necessary against even the best that human reason and inquiry can muster, requires him to say 'no'. After all, once a person genuinely admits that it is possible for him to be mistaken about a Trump, it ceases to function for him as a Trump. But how could one honestly answer 'no' to this question without committing the sin of intellectual pride? There is a way - the Trump must be self-authenticating in the highest possible degree, such that its status as Truth is at least as obvious (to those who are sufficiently prepared) than the most secure deliverances of human reason and inquiry.

The key movement here, "once a person genuinely admits that it is possible for him to be mistaken about a Trump, it ceases to function for him as a Trump," is very obscure, but there is clarification in the comments:

Sure, the epistemic possibility that one is wrong about a Trump does not imply that he is in fact wrong about the Trump. But to acknowledge that possibility as a genuine epistemic possibility and to continue to use that source of authority as a Trump is performatively inconsistent. To use something as a Trump one has to act as if the epistemic probability that the Trump is false is zero, whereas to acknowledge the possibility that the authority is mistaken is to take the epistemic probability that the Trump is false to be non-zero.

The argument sounds superficially good -- after all, who wants to go around supporting the "Trumping" of reason and inquiry? But the more I think about it, the more I think the argument is obviously wrong, and will not stand close examination.

What Rhoda calls "Trumping" is in fact simply a tendentious way of saying "correcting one's own reasoning on the basis of authority"; and the Trumper Rhoda particularly has in mind is someone who says that on matters where Scripture speaks plainly and "indubitably opposes our understanding" we should, in fact, correct our own reasoning on the basis of that authority. Much of Rhoda's argument appears to be an equivocation between "Trumping" in this sense and "Trumping" in some other sense that's never quite defined. Because if we consider "Trumping" in this non-tendentious sense, we find that the argument rejects far, far too much.

Suppose that I am reasoning about quantum physics. The argument looks flawless to me. And someone I recognize as an authority on quantum physics hears me out and tells me that my argument, however clever, is wrong, and simply overlooks some key features of quantum physics, or confuses some key features with other things entirely, or what have you. We would normally say that it would be irrational for me not to correct my reasoning light of that authority, unless we had clear, positive reason for doing so -- i.e., clear, positive reason for thinking that either our authority has misunderstood our argument, or has put forward a view that we know to be rejected by many authorities on quantum physics, or some such. Now along comes someone who has read Rhoda's post, we'll call him Rhoda2, and he puts the following questions to me:

R2: (1) Do you value truth?

A: Of course.

R2: (2) Do you value your authority as an authority?

A: Of course.

R2: (3) Is it possible that you could be mistaken about the value of your authority as an authority?

A: Of course.

R2: Then you are caught in a bind. Your preparedness to use your authority as an authority to correct even your best reasoning on the subject requires you to say 'no'. Once you admit that it is possible for you to be mistaken about an authority that suffices to correct your best reasoning on a subject, it ceases to function as such an authority.

A: The fact that I may be mistaken about such an authority does not imply that the authority is, in fact, not an authority.

R2: Of course, not. But to acknowledge that possibility as a genuine epistemic possibility and to continue to use that authority as an authority sufficient to correct your best reasoning on a subject is performatively inconsistent. To use something as an authority sufficient to correct your best reasoning, you have to act as if the epistemic probability that the authority is false is zero, whereas to acknowledge the possibility that the authority is mistaken is to take the epistemic probability that the authority is false to be non-zero.

It is clear at this point that Rhoda2's argument has gone completely off the rails. For one thing, there is no performative inconsistency with acting as if something is simply certain even when it is known that there is some probability that it is false; as even Locke knew, it is unreasonable not to act as if the sun will rise tomorrow even though you know that there are genuinely possible scenarios in which it won't. The only question here is whether it is reasonable to reason and act on the basis of a presumption known not to be perfectly certain; and obviously it is. But even setting that aside, it's clear that Rhoda2's argument would require that we never correct our reasoning on the basis of authority; and we have a name for people who do this: crackpots. They are the sorts of people who will not correct their best reasoning on, say, quantum physics, or biology, or whatever else, no matter how many authorities, no matter how eminent, no matter how qualified, tell them they have the wrong answer. And an argument that requires us all to be crackpots is an argument obviously to be rejected.

I think Rhoda has the idea that somehow it is the strength of the authority that is key here (it is emphasized a number of times in the argument). But the strength of the authority is simply its quality; and there is certainly no reason to think that as our assessment of the quality of an authority goes up our recognition of it as an authority should go down. On the contrary, our recognition of it as an authority should go up as our assessment of its quality goes up; and this is a correlation unaffected by the probability that we could be wrong in our assessment unless that probability shows that we are probably wrong in our assessment (in which case we would presumably change our assessment). Merely being possibly wrong is not enough: no one in their right mind will reject a conclusion, or refuse to act on a conclusion, merely because it is possible that they are wrong. Even Descartes refused to countenance that possibility.