The Question of Authority


It is undeniable that today claims made in the name of "science" or "scientific knowledge" enjoy extraordinary authority with respect to the natural world in which we live. If a large chunck of rock and metal  were to fall from the sky in Audubon Park, we would immediately turn to teams of scientists: astronomers, physicists, chemists, mineralogists, and a host of other scientific experts to explain this phenomenon. Whether it is wondering whether a hurricane is going to hit New Orleans or discovering the fate of the Big Bang, finding a cure for AIDS or exploring for signs of life on Mars, we invariably appeal to the judgments of of those individuals who are recognized as the "scientists" who study these phenomena. Indeed, within our culture to label a view as "scientific" is virtually tantamount to commending it as one that any rational person ought to accept.

To admit this much is not be committed to the view that scientists always get it right, much less that the confidence we do in fact place in scientific conclusions is necessarily justified. We recognize that there are often dramatic disagreements and disputes among scientists, sometimes for extended periods of time. Furthermore controversies over the scientific status of the claims made by Marxism, psychoanalytic theory, "creation science," or "scientology" remind us that there have been and continue to be many bitter disputes over whether or not certain bodies of belief which claim the status of "scientific knowledge" are in fact genuine science or "pseudo-scientific" impostors. To make matters worse, any look at the history of sciences cannot hide the fact that it is a path littered with discredited and now discarded views which in their own day were widely accepted by the scientific authorities of the time.

For these reasons it may well be rational for anyone to harbor doubts about this or that piece of alleged scientific knowledge. Nevertheless, despite such reservations, for the most part our whole conception of the natural world and our bodies within it is defined by reigning scientific belief.  We (or at least all "rational" people) believe that there are material bodies which have a location in space and move through it over time according to laws of motion that determine all motion from billiard balls to manned missions to the Moon. We believe that we inhabit the surface of the third planet from the sun, which is itself merely one star among hundreds of millions in our galaxy. We believe our own bodies are composed of various organs which do what medical science tells us they do, and that both human bodies and the natural world they inhabit are made up of the same basic chemical elements which are what scientists tell us they are, and which do in fact behave -at least more or less- as science tells us they behave. All of this our everyday discourse about ourselves and our world clearly takes for granted.

This is a pervasive feature of the contemporary world. That the opinions of the scientist carry ultimate weight among almost all rational people within "western culture" might even be thought a tautology: true by the very meaning of what it is to share the outlook of "western culture." However, we also all recognize that this has not always been so. In earlier periods the authoritative status now accorded the scientist has been bestowed on priests and seers of a variety of religions. And in cultures which evolved independently of Western culture, the authoritative account of the natural world has been -and in some places continues to be- based upon "non-Western" philosophical or mystical world-views.

In spite of its origin in relatively recent times in Western culture, there can hardly be a person alive on this planet whose world has not been affected -either directly or indirectly- by the scientific enterprise, for science gives us not only its account of the world around us, but also informs a mighty technology which has been a principal instrument in welding the interrelations of the "global community" which now embraces and transforms the earth. Not only is our picture of the natural world largely the picture painted by science, but we are also surrounded by devices of our own invention which are often made possible only by scientific knowledge. Indeed, it is no exaggeration to say that our entire world is dependent on and defined by science-based technology, and our actions and investments all -or virtually all- reveal our implicit acceptance of this fact.

The pervasive influence of the authority accorded scientific views, not to mention the effects of science-based technology, has not surprisingly provoked its critics. Surely, the long story of how we have come to develop the complex and detailed contemporary scientific world-view must stand as one of the most profound triumphs of the human spirit; those who have contributed to it are numbered among the greatest geniuses in the history of human creativity. Furthermore it seems hard to argue against many of the practical achievements science has made possible, particularly with respect to the contributions of medical science to human well being and the prediction and control over natural phenomena which might threaten it.

Nevertheless critics often attack the scientific world-view as somehow hostile, or at least indifferent, to human aspirations. Moreover, no one can remain oblivious to the dark side of a technology which brings about the prospect of nuclear holocaust, or the ecological perils of the ozone hole, global warming, species loss, and other such catastrophes, including perhaps ones yet unforeseen. Yet such threats as these even underscore the ubiquity of scientific authority, for it is likely that our best hopes for combating them will depend, at least partially, on scientific studies of such phenomena, tasks in which many contemporary scientists are already widely deployed. However, in spite of the fact that scientific knowledge has been the primary contributor to our awareness of the threats to human well-being caused by our technological powers, the blame for these problems is often placed against the almost unquestioned authority science possesses and certainly has contributed to the craze for mystical, occult, and even irrational beliefs which currently grips our culture.

When we ask why it is rational to belief the current scientific account of the world, we are, in effect asking in virtue of what characteristics do scientific beliefs warrant their "authority" in our culture?  Philosophers call this the "question of authority" (or sometimes "the problem of authority").  One of the chief concerns of philosophers of science has been to develop various philosophical theories intended to justify science's claim to the authority which -as an historical fact- it now possesses.  The history of the philosophy of science can be understood as an on-going debate over how best to devise an adequate "theory of justification" which would presumably not only a) accounts for why scientific beliefs do indeed merit the authority they have, but also b) presents a "model" of how scientific beliefs do actually come to get justified in a way which warrants that authority.

Such a theory of justification would also serve another purpose, so it would serve as a standard or a "norm" for what constitutes proper scientific justification.  As such it could be used to settle debates over what is "good" science versus what is bogus, pseudo-science, and which does not warrant the authority accorded to genuine science.  As such, the philosopher of science can be seen not only as describing how scientific justification actually is achieved, but also as serving a normative role in stipulating how good science ought to be done.

All of this implies that the philosopher who inquires into the human condition must address the question of how the views of science have come to have this role in our culture. In other words, we ask why does science have the cognitive "authority" it has in our world. This can be called "the question of authority." In order to motivate the series of issues with which we will begin this course, it is useful to begin by reflecting on this problem.

Go to A Brief History of Philosophy of Science