Authority V. Objectivity

We all know the difference between when someone hems and haws in answering a question, and when some speaks succinctly and with authority. Our Lord was One who spoke with authority unlike the scribes and Pharisees. This difference between Christ’s way of speaking and teaching (and the apostles for that matter), and the way the Pharisees is the difference between speaking with authority and speaking with an appeal to justification by objectivity. The second seems like a stronghold, but, in effect, neuters itself when analyzed by its own criteria. [If it isn’t subjected to its own criteria, and therefore rejected, it just comes across as pompousness, and we hate it anyway!]

Recently I had a conversation with a friend of mine about an book called The Interaction of Color, by Josef Albers. It is a work on color theory, and is awesome. This friend said that this book was powerful not only for his demonstrations but because he spoke them so pointedly. You were forced to either agree with him, or disagree. Disagreeing, you were then propelled to think about what in particular you disagreed with.  Either way, you could not walk away unchanged, or without a stance on his proposal. [In fact much of what I realized recently has to do with my friend’s words about all this].

The author, on the subject of color, could have easily given statistics, and built a case stating why colors interact the way they do. Yet this would have been lacking the force needed to make the point clearly. In fact, if he were to have gone into a long discussion on what objections might have been made, or why his assumptions were justified empirically (for instance), his conclusion would have been weakened. A dialectic approach would have returned his thesis to nill, as our dismal and conclusive history of philosophy has shown us.

This does not mean I am advocating a discussion-less dogmatism, where objections are disregarded as dead weight. That would be nonsense. Rather I am opposing the traditional scheme we have of knowledge in the West. Objective knowledge is supposedly what we want. We act as if once we make reference to some epistemological buck stopper (e.g. empirical ‘facts’ gathered by scientific inquiry) our knowledge is holy and untouchable. Yet, this is simply a fiction we have sold ourselves at the cost of our judgment. Our faculty of judgment stands in contrast to the goal of Modern Objectivity; intuitive grasp exceeds the reach of objectivity.

Alston, Plantinga, Wittgenstein have all written agaisnt this sort of modern foundationalist approach. Alston’s account is the most powerful. Epistemic Circularity, Alston says, is what we fall under each time we reference some sort of foundational epistemological buck stopper.  To quickly demonstrate this let’s say: Empirical facts are the foundation for every true belief. In order for it to be true that empirical data is the foundation of true knowledge, it also has to be true that data got empirically is reliable. Why would empirical data be thought of as reliable and trustworthy then? Because empirical data is the foundation of true knowledge. So in order for our original assumption to be true, the implications that rely on it must be true. Thus because neither one arrives at a basic fact, niether is objectively true.

In a different way we see that objective knowledge is mythical creature. Often the criteria we use to judge whether a statement is true doesn’t itself hold up to its own criteria. I guess you could call it Epistemic Hypocrisy, (or at least I would). A statement like this “Only knowledge gotten scientifically is true”, is not itself a scientific statement and so loses savor in its own light, (it neuters itself).

So instead I want to propose (and begin working towards), authoritative knowledge. I call it authoritative because it does not attempt to claim ownership of the mythical creature “objectivity”, but claims to derive truth from the One who has authority over all things; our Lord. I know something, not because I can make reference to a long list of empirical facts, but because I live in God’s creation, and by His authority, I trust my senses and my understanding of the world.  My assumption is the trustworthiness of God and the faculties He has given me because I live in His creation.

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3 thoughts on “Authority V. Objectivity

  1. Brendan says:

    How does authority evade the complaint given against objectivity? I see authority and objectivity being closely related: a truth is objective if it exists independently of observation or context, while authority is a statement about why something may be considered an objective truth. The question that you introduce is one of the nature of authority. Your complaint against the scientific method is that it begs the question of its own truthfulness; by definition, its source of authority must lie outside itself, and therefore it can not be the only method by which to obtain truth. This is a valid complaint. But could one not also raise this complaint about the authority of God?

    Van Til provides my favorite answer to this; namely, that Christ is the only self-authenticating authority. All other presuppositions about knowledge undermine themselves, resulting in either irrational thought or a borrowing (whether understood, realized, or otherwise) of Christ’s authority. At its base, the trustworthiness of Christ to which you refer is the only presupposition that does not shoot itself in the head.

    You may enjoy this essay: Van Til: His Logic, Epistemology, and Apologetic

  2. dfrobbins says:

    I couldn’t agree more with what you said. I am not sure I wrote very clearly about what I meant by objectivity and authority.
    Here is what I am thinking: objectivity is certainly real. There is an actual fact of the matter whether or not we know it. It is not our knowing it that makes it true, existent or anything else (against Berkeley). (And in fact, it is God’s knowing it that makes it objective, not ours).
    But usually when someone says ‘objective’ in a conversation, what is meant is not so much the independence of knowledge, but the trustworthiness of that knowledge. Or, the implication of the independence from our judgment (and therefore personal bias), namely that it is trustworthy. The thing I am rejecting is the notion that we are in the judge’s seat deciding which knowledge pass snuff (is objective), and yet our credentials themselves don’t pass snuff (aren’t objective).

    Here I am also using ‘objective’ as the end goal of the project of epistemology. We want beliefs that are trustworthy, and therefore objective pieces of knowledge. What I am suggesting is that since we aren’t in the judge’s seat (despite our efforts in Gen 3 etc.), we aren’t in a position to decide what is and isn’t objective. Rather we are in the position of a delegate of the true judge. We have derived authority to decide and differentiate between two pieces of knowledge because of the authority of the true judge, our Creator whose image we bear.

    So I am with you completely, (at least as far as I understand what it is we are talking about. I hope i didn’t totally miss your point). The issue of God’s authority also being up for questioning is a hard one. Van Til is right, it is only Christ’s authority that isn’t derivative or incoherent.

    Of course, not being guilty of those charges doesn’t make submission to God as final judge compelling…it just removes doubt. Thoughts on what would make it compelling to submit to God as judge?

  3. Brendan says:

    Ah, I see — I have never heard objectivity used to refer to the trustworthiness of a truth, only to its independent existence. I think you’ve read me correctly.

    The issue of submission seems to have a false front of voluntary, acknowledged submission to the judgeship of God. I this sort of submission only ever appears by the mercy of the Holy Spirit. However, the objective nature of truth implies that any person dealing in an actual truth is implicitly submitting to the master of truth.

    Van Til’s explanation of this is that noncompliance is impossible; because all other worldviews collapse, an unbeliever who finds truth can only rationally do so by borrowing the Christian worldview. That this is an unconscious, unperceived borrowing doesn’t matter — it actually provides the starting point for his apologetic.

    Interestingly enough, Van Til placed the Doctrine of Scripture ahead of Christian Epistemology in the “In Defense of the Faith” series. While I’ve only read the former, I think I know the reason for this: the truth of Scripture, as the self-authenticating word of Christ, is the required presupposition to any rational knowledge. Presupposing this is required in order to have any coherent discussion about epistemology.

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