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Authority Figures: A Debate - by John Prytz

It would be a pretty rare occurrence today for someone,anyone, to publically propose an idea and just rely on himself or herself asthe be-all-and-end-all of authority when it comes to that idea. We usually citeothers as providing inspiration; we cite other authorities who lend credence toour idea and who tend, in part or in full, to back us up. While some might callthat name-dropping, it is just common practice in academic circles; nearrequirement to acknowledge and cite those from who your ideas arose.


Of course it can be inappropriate to cite someone as anauthority figure who is not an authority figure with respect to your line ofinterest, but who is and who is not is not always obvious. Your local bartenderis probably not an authority figure on quantum mechanics, but s/he could be anotherwise unemployed quantum physicist or moonlighting in a second job. Youwouldn't normally associate the Pope as an authority figure in chemistry, butthe current (2017) Pope is. Aristotle was both a philosopher and a biologist.And we relatively recently had an American president who was an authority onnuclear physics and engineering (Jimmy Carter).


The central point here is that before-the-fact, withoutprior knowledge, you can't tell if someone citing an authority figure is anauthority figure in one or more fields or just a layperson. That's a point thatmy long-term theist debating acquaintance from another place, who I'll justaddress as MG, fails to grasp. 


MG and I were discussing some of the philosophicalimplications about arguments for God leading into the nature of the Universeand it’s "In the beginning".


MG - "First you appeal to popular opinion andauthority..."


JP - Doesn't everybody? It's that why you providecitations in your papers and acknowledge the thoughts and work of others. Whenyou present your four “airtight” arguments [for the existence of God] aren’tyou also appearing to the thoughts and work of others? Do I detect some doublestandard here?


JP - And so do you. Here's an exact quote of yours:"I have mentioned some of the best arguments that great philosophersthroughout those thousands of years have used to show God's existence."What's good for you is good for me.




MG - "In anycase, you're appealing to the wrong authorities throughout this post.Cosmologists are not qualified to deal with the conceptual issues undergirdingthe discussion."


JP - Sorry butthis is getting totally ridiculous now. If cosmologists aren't qualified tocomment on the nature of the cosmos they are by actual observation studying,what the state of play is or most likely is, then who the heck is? Armchairphilosophers who couldn't solve Einstein's field equations if their lifedepended on it have zero claim to calling themselves cosmological experts.




MG - "Cosmologists are qualified to studycosmological observations. They are not qualified to deal with the conceptualissues undergirding their field of study."


JP - The idea that cosmologists can't understand and waxlyrical on what might be considered purely philosophical issues with respect tothat particular science is nonsense. Who are you to tell professionalcosmologists what they can and cannot comment on; what they are qualified ornot qualified to comment on when it comes to issues that are part and parcel ofthe very field that they study for an entire career? Really.


MG - "Be honest, are you really impressed by thisbizarre idea that, because space can be "replaced" bymathematics..."


JP - Since space is just a concept, it can be replaced(as it were) with another concept (i.e. - mathematics). You don't have tosearch very hard through the cosmological or general relativity literature (oreven by just using an Internet search engine) to find hundreds of thousands ofreferences to "Einstein's equations" or "Einstein's fieldequations". It's all just Einsteinian math, pure and (well maybe not allthat) simple.  


So, the properties you assign to space are not justexpressed as mathematics, they ARE just mathematics.


There's nothing odd about this. Our video games arenothing but mathematical constructs, so maybe you can figure out where this isgoing.


Run a computer simulation of a photon approaching andpassing a nearby massive object and being deflected from its Newtonian path.Now was their really a photon and a pathway and a massive object and adeflection or was it all just a mathematical construct / mathematicallygenerated?


Grab hold of and read Max Tegmark's (Professor of Physicsat MIT) tome "Our Mathematical Universe: My Quest for the Ultimate Natureof Reality" (Alfred A. Knopf, N.Y.; 2014).




[MG wasn't happy about philosophers not solvingEinstein's field equations.]


JP - You read butyou do not comprehend. Here's my (JP) exact quote. "Armchair philosopherswho couldn't solve Einstein's field equations if their life depended on it havezero claim to calling themselves cosmological experts." Now here is whatyou (MG) said: "You judged that philosophers are unqualified to remark onEinstein's field equations." If armchair philosophers can't solveEinstein's field equations, then they can't really be said to be cosmologicalexperts. I said absolutely NOTHING about them being otherwise unqualified tocomment. But to qualify as a cosmological expert, get professional paperspublished in academic journals, pass judgement on the deeper meanings of whatyou're studying, you've got to have the ability to deal with Einstein's fieldequations. Solving them gives you a handle on giving you the ability tointelligently remark on what the solutions tell you.


MG - "Anyphysical event can be mathematically modeled; that has nothing to do with"replacing" it with mathematics. Max Tegmark is a cosmologist. Hedoesn't have the requisite training to deal with the ultimate nature ofreality. He is doing philosophy, instead of cosmology; and he is doing it froma complete layman's perspective (just like a philosopher would be a totallayman writing about cosmology)."


JP - Hey, don'ttell me. Email him at MIT and tell him what you think. I think I know whathe'll think of you and it's not going to be pretty. You really do seem tocontinue to set yourself up as some sort of judge on what someone else can andcannot comment on. How do you KNOW that Tegmark hasn't also academicallystudied philosophy? And even if he hasn't, that doesn't mean that he hasn'tconsulted with professional philosophers in framing his version of reality. Ifyou don't know of what you speak of, keep quiet!




MG - "Youjudged that philosophers are unqualified to remark on Einstein's fieldequations. For precisely similar reasons, cosmologists are unqualified toremark on the conceptual issues undergirding their field."


JP - The Dutch artist M. C. Escher knew absolutelybugger-all about mathematics yet many of his art works are full of the sorts ofimages that are inherently mathematical. Just because you are notformally trained in X doesn't mean you are unqualified to produce the relevantgoods when it comes to X.    




MG - "I doubtyou would be equally accommodating if a philosopher tried to speakauthoritatively on matters of hard science."


JP - You seem tobe under the impression that it is impossible for a hard scientist to knowtheir way around philosophical issues or that a philosopher can't understandhard science. Many authors who write about the philosophy of science havequalifications in both areas. Really!




MG - "I'm not the one who said philosophers areclueless about Einstein's field equations, JP. You said that. And I agreed withyou. It is not their field.


JP - Here's my (JP) exact quote."Armchair philosophers who couldn't solve Einstein's field equations iftheir life depended on it have zero claim to calling themselves cosmologicalexperts." You will note that Inever said ALL philosophers are clueless. In fact I also never used the word"clueless".


MG - "Likewise, the conceptual underpinnings ofcosmology are not a cosmologist’s field."


JP - That doesn't of necessity mean that they aren'tqualified to wax lyrical on the issue.




MG - "You yourself quoted Max Tegmark as an expertin something he is not qualified or authoritative in at all."


JP - I didn't quote Max Tegmark at all. I just cited hisbook. And you haven't yet explained how you KNOW Max Tegmark is not qualifiedas an expert regarding the text in the book he has written. Are you some sortof expert on the life and times of Max Tegmark? Further, I find it mostappalling that you seem to set yourself up as some sort of absolute and finalauthority figure regarding who is allowed to comment on what. That's even morethe case since you seem to set yourself up as an authority figure on nearlyeverything, from philosophy / metaphysics to cosmology; from theology tophysics; from computing to mathematics.




MG - "I said cosmologists don't have the requisitetraining to speak authoritatively about philosophical issues (any more thanthey do about biological, geological, or political issues)."


JP - I assume that you have not investigated the actualeducational background of each and every cosmologist who has addressed some thephilosophical issues surrounding cosmology. I assume that you have notinvestigated the actual educational background of each and every philosopherwho has addressed some of the cosmological issues that modern cosmology hasbrought up. I assume that you have no idea whether any cosmologist hasconsulted with philosophers or whether any philosophers have consulted withcosmologists. In other words, you're assuming a position about which you knownothing.


While on that subject, I find it absolutely amazing thatyou seem to set yourself up as an expert or authority figure in just aboutanything and everything, from philosophy / metaphysics to cosmology; fromtheology to physics; from computing to mathematics. Further, I find it amazingthat you seem to think that you're always right and that everyone else whodoesn't agree with you just has to be wrong.


Okay, enough is enough on this specific issue. I'll citeas an authority figure anyone I care to if I feel they qualify as an authority.You're free to do the same.




MG - "I said cosmologists don't have the requisitetraining to speak authoritatively about philosophical issues (any more thanthey do about biological, geological, or political issues)."


JP - Just in caseyou've never actually read a non-fiction book, you'll usually find an"acknowledgments" section where the author(s) acknowledge relevantinput by others. So in other words, even though it might be (for example) Tegmark'sbook, lots of others made contributions, all acknowledged by Tegmark.




MG - "On the matter of authorities: The logicalfallacy is citing someone as an authority on a topic just because they are anauthority on some other topic."


JP - That may or may not be a fallacy depending on eachand every individual situation. Until you ACTUALLY establish the bona-fides ofthe individual situation in question, you can't pass judgment. I rather suspectthat was the case when you dumped down on Max Tegmark. You didn't actuallyinvestigate first, rather you just shot from the hip (i.e. - shoot first; askquestions later). You know NOTHING about Tegmark's abilities / qualificationswhen it comes to philosophical issues yet you let bullets fly as if youdid. 




MG - "You're still missing the point about appealingto an authority."


JP - No I'm not. I said each and every case had to bejudged individually and on its merits. I also said people do not tend to waxlyrical in the public arena just off their own bat. They prepare themselves andoften bounce their thoughts / ideas off of others. The days of an authoritybeing a lone ranger are well behind us. You'll note that many published papersare co-authored by numerous individuals. Further, a "degree" is notof necessity the be-all-and-end-all of becoming an authority in some area. Ithink that's now more than enough discussion on this point. 

Science librarian; retired.

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