A Whimsical Look at Fallacies: Appeal to Authority -- Part 4: The Limits of Reason

Dear Reader, prepare yourself for mental legerdemain. As you recall, Part 1 of our story tells of Everyman, conditioned from birth to believe the authorities and myths of his tribe, and forbidden, under any circumstances, to think for himself. Prompted by inner doubts and travel restrictions, he steals away in the night to discover the world on his own. In the midst of his wanderings, he encounters countless new tribes with different myths and authorities, whose existence precipitates a profound inner crisis that robs him of his peace of mind. This distress becomes more traumatic as he realizes the full implications of what he has found.

Part 2 depicts a series of epiphanies that transform our hero's view of authorities that cure him of his torment. His shock at the profusion of different authorities, paradoxically, only hastens the cure by having him simply outgrow his problem. We leave him "a sadder and a wiser man" as he ponders the future and his newfound freedom. Part 3 is a philosophical interlude that suggests to students three different ways of avoiding the Plato's Cave of their culture, the essence of Everyman's problem.

In this final episode, let us return in time to offer Everyman an alternative fate to the one that befalls him in Part 2 of our story. This version explores a different outcome, and I shall leave to you which fate you prefer.

So one stormy evening, you undertake a night sea journey to discover how other tribes answer the eternal questions. To your surprise, you find that all of them also are forbidden to think. More surprising still is that they all have different authorities and answers to explain these enigmas, and each tribe believes that all other answers, including your own, are but snares and delusions. Most surprising of all is that all of these peoples, despite their beliefs, seem to be likable, honest, and good human beings. The longer you ponder these revelations, the more do troubling questions arise.

What if you had been born among one of these peoples? Wouldn't you also have believed in their answers as deeply as you now do your own? Wouldn't that mean that what you believe is simply the result of where you were born? That Chance governs all? That Truth is nothing but what you're accustomed to believing is true?

And what if your authorities had also been born among one of these peoples? Wouldn't they, too, have been conditioned to believe in these answers as deeply as they now do their own? Were you and your authorities, then, helplessly trapped in the beliefs of a tribe into which you were born?

What would this say about the truths of your tribe? Were they objectively true, or did they only seem so to you? How seriously should you take these truths if you could just as well have been born into a different tribe with its beliefs and authorities?

Would that mean that one set of truths is as "true" as another? That one set of authorities is as good as another, since everything would be relative to where you were born? That truth is whatever your tribe tells you is true? That authorities are merely a tribe's corporate lawyers, defending the truths of the tribe into which Chance had placed them?

You suddenly recall an old saying from somewhere from a time long ago: "In much wisdom is much grief; and he that increases knowledge increases sorrow." Is this what an education should be about? Not learning myths, but learning to demythologize them; figuring things out for yourself; forsaking authorities who forbid you to think; and leaving your tribe to find your own answers?

You find your head spinning. Why did you ever leave home, so bucolically simple, a Garden of Eden, a Paradise Lost? Pursued by implacable Furies, you are bereft of all peace. For days you are tortured by only one question: Was it possible that all these honest peoples could really be wrong, and that yours alone possesses the Truth?

This inner turmoil continues for weeks until, suddenly, it happens -- your authorities and beliefs seem strangely transfigured. You've arrived in safe harbor to find profound inner peace. You and your people do have the Truth; the others are wrong and misguided! It's now all so clear! Transfixed with certainty, you are filled with emotion!

Why hadn't you seen this before! Why had you doubted? Belief and surrender are the keys to the Kingdom! Your tribe alone, set apart, privileged, pre-ordained for Truth Eternal! You now understand why thinking for yourself is perilous, unsettling, confusing, and wrong. It rejects everything you had ever been taught. It leaves you no certainties. It sets you adrift, with no one to guide you.

Contrite beyond words for having gone your own way, you resolve to become an example to others. You shall follow the ancient ways, trusting your authorities as they watch over you.

Thanks to your crisis, you now possess something precious and rare - critical detachment from those other authorities. You see them objectively in a way impossible for their followers, who believe that theirs is the only true way. You understand why they revere their authorities, who give them security, direction, meaning, and purpose.

You pity these unwitting prisoners, convinced they are free. If by some miraculous intervention they could see themselves as you see them, as inmates in chains, they would laugh you to scorn. However, this will never happen because . . . .

"No! No! No! This just won't do! It's all too far-fetched! No one's this blind! How could anyone who has come full-circle behold the mote in his brother's eye, but not the beam in his own? Dismiss all those other authorities, yet remain blind to one's own?"

And, of course, my friend, I must agree with you. No one has a problem rejecting other authorities, but when they're one's own, ahhh, now that's something quite different! Questioning them would mean the end of one's world! So one puts out one's eyes to avoid what one sees. It's an either/or situation. Either one's own authorities are right or the others are right; but if the others are wrong, then one's own have to be right, forgetting, of course, that they all could be wrong.

However, that's just the beginning. The allure of authorities has nothing to do with rational reasons and everything to do with emotional ones - nostalgic ties for one's past and tradition, the need for belonging and being accepted, and the yearning to become a child once again -- by surrendering to authorities, whom one simply obeys.

One thereby abandons the most terrible burden of human existence -- taking responsibility for one's own decisions. Reason is powerless when dealing with those who fear to grow up. The only response to those possessed by such fear is to calmly move on, for these persons are deaf to rational discourse.