November 24th, 2013

On Appealing to Authority

In any debate, it is common to encounter a logical fallacy—an error in reasoning that weakens, if not negates, the individual’s argument. There are many of them, and knowing what they are and how to avoid them can help to strengthen a person’s ability to engage in discussion on any topic.

One such logical fallacy is the appeal to authority, when somebody claims that because a certain authoritative figure has stated that X is true, it therefore follows (without question) that X is true. This claim sidesteps logical analysis of X, instead concluding with certainty that it must be true because it has been affirmed by somebody who claims to know about it. John Locke described it this way: “When men are established in any kind of dignity, it is thought a breach of modesty for others to derogate any way from it, and question the authority of men who are in possession of it.”

In religious discussion, critics often cite this logical fallacy as a reason why Christians—and more particularly Mormons, with their belief in modern-day prophets—are errant for believing things merely because some authority figure has spoken them. Especially in social media discussions, such critics will respond to any scripture or prophetic statement with a dismissive “appeal to authority!” comment, indicating their supposed logical superiority.

These critics do not fully understand this logical fallacy in their liberal citation of it. One philosopher, in a book expounding on logical fallacies, explains it this way:

Appeals to authority are often valid, as when we tell someone to use a certain medicine because the doctor has prescribed it. But appeals to authority can be fallacious, as when we cite those who have no special competence regarding the matter at hand. The fallacy of appeal to authority, therefore, is an argument that attempts to overawe an opponent into accepting a conclusion by playing on his or her reluctance to challenge famous people, time honored customs, or widely held beliefs. The fallacy appeals, at base, to our feelings of modesty, to our sense that others know better than we do.” (S. Morris Engel, With Good Reason: An Introduction to Informal Fallacies, 3rd ed. St. Martin’s Press, 1986)

The fundamental theological claim of Christianity is that God exists and that he is our King and the ultimate authority on any and every matter. Further, all Christians believe that God commissioned (fallible) men to convey his teachings and oversee his church. Thus, at least to some degree, these chosen individuals are authority figures in divine matters, and their words (ancient or modern) are perceived as properly authoritative within their own realm of expertise.

Of course, the difficulty has always lied in discerning when these persons are speaking with authority and when they are voicing their own opinions or “best guesses” in an attempt to best approximate God’s actual will. Clearly, Christ’s followers generally operate on a presumption of authority, and therefore feel comfortable in citing the statements of church leaders as theologically sound and religiously binding. Simply disregarding all such statements as fallacious is incorrect.

Any discussion with a disciple of Christ will inherently include appeals to authority. To the extent that the teaching being cited was given by a person properly authorized to do so, then no logical fallacy is committed. However, if the individual asserts anything approximating infallibility on the part of the speaker (or fails to recognize such fallibility), then a logical fallacy has been committed. In other words, we must recognize that even authority figures may convey teachings or make claims that are not true. This nuanced recognition of and submission to authority is both intellectually and spiritually demanding. Discernment is not an easy task.

In the end, what matters most is establishing the claim of authority and proceeding from that point. Christians assert that God has spoken to man; Mormons assert that he continues to do so. The implications of these claims are important and necessary, though secondary to the fundamental claim that God exists, loves his children, desires their happiness, and therefore communicates his will through chosen individuals to facilitate their return to his presence.

That’s a kind of authority to which I feel perfectly comfortable appealing.

30 Responses to “On Appealing to Authority”

  1. Julie Farnbach
    November 24, 2013 at 9:11 am #

    Fantastic! You just gave me my first argument against our dear superintendent of schools. Thanks!!

  2. Dennis Potter
    November 24, 2013 at 12:36 pm #

    “To the extent that the teaching being cited was given by a person properly authorized to do so, then no logical fallacy is committed.”

    The above statement is inaccurate. According to a standard logic text:

    “It is reasonable to take the word of an authority if

    (i) the authority is an expert on the matter under consideration, and
    (ii) there is agreement among the experts in the area of knowledge under consideration.” (Salmon, Intro. to Logic and Critical Thinking)

    And then most texts (like the above) go on to point out that there also needs to be an agreed upon way to determine who the experts are. Neither condition (ii) above nor this condition on what counts as an expert are satisfied by any appeals to authority in the case of so-called “experts” in religion. Of course, sometimes people that are official authorities can speak authoritatively on what their denomination believes. But since other denominations disagree, this is never a cogent argument from authority to the truth of the beliefs. In religion, there can be no cogent arguments from authority.

    BTW, I’m a tenured professor that teaches logic at a university in Utah. And on this issue, the experts agree. Your characterization is incorrect. 😉

  3. Jeff T
    November 24, 2013 at 3:18 pm #

    “BTW, I’m a tenured professor that teaches logic at a university in Utah. And on this issue, the experts agree. Your characterization is incorrect.”

    Appeal to authority, much?

  4. Phil
    November 24, 2013 at 5:20 pm #

    @Jeff T. Amen! Professor Potter kind of missed the point.

  5. Michael Towns
    November 24, 2013 at 6:09 pm #

    This topic leads to my favorite fallacy: the fallacy fallacy, or the idea that just because a “fallacy” matches the description of an apparent fallacy, doesn’t mean that it is a de facto fallacy.

  6. Joni B
    November 24, 2013 at 6:33 pm #

    I appreciated Dennis Potter’s comments. However, his conclusion of inaccuracy is simply a misunderstanding of Mormon Theology.

    If you look at all religions in general, there seems to be no “agreement among experts in the area of knowledge under consideration;” nor any “agreed upon” method to determine who the experts are. Therefore it seems that in religion “there can be no cogent arguments from authority.”

    In Mormon Theology, the Priesthood Authority is an ordination traced back to Christ, or the apostle’s whom Christ called during his earthly ministry.
    In this sense, Mormonism has established method to determine who the experts are within its own religion. In that context their are cogent arguments from authority and:

    “Any discussion with a disciple of Christ will inherently include appeals to authority. To the extent that the teaching being cited was given by a person properly authorized to do so, then no logical fallacy is committed.”

  7. Dennis Potter
    November 24, 2013 at 7:32 pm #

    In pointing out that I am actually an authority on logic I was not being in any way inconsistent or making the mistake of a fallacious appeal to authority. The point is that there are cases where an appeal to authority is legitimate and cases where it is not. In an area of study where there is a solid standard for determining who counts as an expert and where the experts are not divided by disagreement, then a legitimate appeal to authority can be made (this is true on this particular issue in logic). But in areas where one or the other of these conditions doesn’t hold, then an appeal to authority is always fallacious. And this author is mistaken in his thought that this is not true of appeals to religious authorities. The author of this article writes about something that he is ill-informed about and he should be more careful.

  8. Dennis Potter
    November 24, 2013 at 7:43 pm #

    Also, my point was about the nature of the argument from authority and not about the nature of Mormon theology. In fact, I said nothing about the latter.

    “In Mormon Theology, the Priesthood Authority is an ordination traced back to Christ, or the apostle’s whom Christ called during his earthly ministry. In this sense, Mormonism has established method to determine who the experts are within its own religion.”

    Even if this is a correct assessment of what LDs Mormons say about authority, inferring that this means that there are well-established “experts” on Mormonism is silly. There are different Mormon groups (LDS, CofC and FLDS) who have different authorities. And the different groups won’t agree on who counts as an expert. This fact makes it logically fallacious to appeal to an authority even to determine the true content of Mormon belief.

    But even if this were not true, even if there were experts that could authoritative determine what actually counts as Mormon belief, it would not follow that they could authoritatively determined what counts as the truth about the ultimate nature of reality and human purpose. For there are still religious leaders from other traditions (e.g. Buddhists) who disagree with Mormons. And so, even if Mormon leaders can speak authoritatively about what constitutes Mormon thought, they cannot speak at all authoritatively on what the ultimate truth about reality and human destiny is. The original point stands either way.

  9. Dennis Potter
    November 24, 2013 at 7:57 pm #

    Michael Towns: You are right that one must be careful not to think that an argument has been refuted by the mere fact that it fits the form of a fallacy. For any argument fits the form of the following fallacious argument: p/q. The question is always whether there is another valid argument form that it does fit. But it is important to note that we are not talking about a specific argument here. The author of this blog did not offer a specific argument from authority. Instead, the author tries to defend the use of appeals to authority in religious matters and to do so he uses an erroneous characterization of what counts as an acceptable vs. a fallacious argument from authority. So, since I haven’t accused him of making a fallacious argument from authority, but rather merely have corrected his inaccurate characterization, I cannot (logically speaking) be guilty of committing the fallacy of fallacies. Also, any time that someone is supposed to have committed the fallacy of fallacies (which is actually an instance of the straw man fallacy), then the challenge is to the defender of the argument to show that the argument doesn’t have the form it is characterized as having. You didn’t do this. So, again your charge misses the mark.

  10. Ron
    November 24, 2013 at 9:51 pm #

    “Even if Mormon leaders can speak authoritatively about what constitutes Mormon thought, they cannot speak at all authoritatively on what the ultimate truth about reality and human destiny is.”

    Unless they can. You can believe that truth is not truth, but that doesn’t make you right. Granted, on the basis of a logical argument alone, it is correct to go so far as to say that Mormon “Authorities” cannot assert “special truth” against logical, known facts. However, you didn’t say that. You said quite plainly that “Mormon leaders cannot speak at all authoritatively on what the ultimate truth about reality and human destiny is”. Basic conditional logic destroys your assertion.

    Goes like this: If God exists, and Mormon prophets are called of God, then they have the most perfect and indisputable authority on the matter of truth.

    “Of course, sometimes people that are official authorities can speak authoritatively on what their denomination believes. But since other denominations disagree, this is never a cogent argument from authority to the truth of the beliefs.”

    It seems you’re projecting a whole lot here. You lick the tip of the point so as to be able to declare “safe!” when an attack rebuts your overarching assertion, but in reality it’s a pre-emptive deflection so you can claim unbias. I think it’s safe to say that Connor, as the author of “Latter Day” books and a notable figure of political action with an LDS spin, is speaking of “authority” and “discernment” with regards to those debating issues within the realm of LDS theology. Of course, the LDS population unapologetically claim the title of God’s full truth, but that doesn’t seem to be the context of his post at any rate.

    Or to put it another way, just because Star Trek cannot be logically proven as true does not mean there are not prevailing authorities on Klingonese.

  11. Worzt
    November 24, 2013 at 10:27 pm #

    Mrs. Potter, I’m SO not an expert on the topic but, I was thinking, you say that in the religious context, “appeal to authority” can not be used correctly because, mainly, there is no conscensus as to what an expert should be? IF I understand (granted my english is LOUSY), there are 2 (or 3) criteria to either approve or disregard the argument, right?, and you say, we don’t fit in any?

    I would say, IF we are precise we can have #1, sure, saying “mormon” is “vague” (however, we could do numbers, to realize LDS church is the widest of the few churches coming from the mormon movement, though, more on “numbers game” later) but it’s kind of solve if we specify LDS, claiming the authorities to be especifical at that branch, though I agree, the broader you want to go, the harder would be to have proper recognition of your authority.

    as for #2, I wonder, are there many instances in which there is a conscensus on what an “expert” is? you say there is no conscence to avail, say, an LDS apostle as an authority, because there other mormons of diferent denomination that do not agree? if so, I know no numbers officially but again, a lot of the movements, don’t even adress themselves as mormon anymore (and there were few to start with) and LDS is (as for numbers) quite significant compared to the others, but I’m not sure, I’m guesing numbers mather on this when I read “agreement” since I believe very FEW things have a TOTAL agreement, and those, (since EVERYBODY agrees) logically are not even argued (even if they are wrong), but I can’t think of many to fit this description, even most science is based on concepts “widely though not universally accepted”, so, if it is a numbers game, how big the numerical advantage have to be among those who consider someone an authority and those who doesn’t in order to be accepted? because if it is not a numbers game, then well, you can not even quote Darwin in a class of biology because MANY have talked about the origin of life and even in the more especific subclass “evolution”, his is not the only theory, and no argument ’till now is definitve (hence they are all theories instead of law) so most people can only say “I agree with Lamarck more”, and quote the author of their like, and that is SCIENCE, hence my question, which field can easily use appealing to authority easily?

    I find 3 to be interesting and possibly useful for, IMO, you set 3 and can evaluate 2, and thus decide on 1, and honestly had never heard that but makes sense, but what would the criteria be? again, numbers? I guess evidence or trials and results are the best, but many things can not have definitive answers (again, even on science), there is kind of evidence to agree with Darwin’s claims, but also kind of evidence (physical even) to agree with Joseph Smith’s claims (Word of Wisdom comes from the top of my head), none of the two can be totally demonstrated to be 100% RIGHT, well no one can, and the “appeal to authority” has that contemplated, and Smith himself aknowledge SOME of his actions inspired and the rest are Joseph’s falible ones, so he kind of agreed with this article, but now another wuestion, I was like “Edison is famously know of having found 100 (don’t remember the number) ways of NOT making a light bulb before finding the one” here MANY failed attempts have not diminished Edisons rep as a scientis, then falibility is also not a criteria to see if they can be authorities to appeal to, so what then CAN be?

  12. Worzt
    November 24, 2013 at 10:44 pm #

    sorry, I think it was MR.*

  13. Worzt
    November 25, 2013 at 12:09 am #

    another thing, I had not consider until reading the comments, but, you say that even if there is a proper conscensus as to who is an authority on a given field,, as you put it “it would not follow that they could authoritatively determined what counts as the truth about the ultimate nature of reality and human purpose”, I guess many people on many areas of knowledge including science and scociology and sure, religion, had kind of (or exactly) made that claim, but I don’t think that’s their claim must of the time, or at least not what they focus inmainly, but maybe, while having a godd point, your views are a little narrow? I mean, once could infere (sure, it was not there, but let me that “feeling”) that you may be impliying that a “mormon expert” can be authoritative in mormon doctrine, and ABSOLUTELY in NOTHING else, that could be double flawed since:

    A) LDS leaders are usually not studied in religion (having other profesions instead) so “religious doctrine” is not the area where they are “academically formed”, I mean of course they do study a lot and KNOW about our scriptures and teachings, but there was no Book of Mormon mayor at college, so they are not like “postgraduated” on it, but more importantly is…

    B) the oposite thing, Brigham Young, while a mormon leader, and for what I know, not really academic (and at his time even the topic of “doctrine” was in development phase) is not only an authority in the church, he also had a lot to be learn about logistics for instance and having been the first gobernor of Utah (I am not from the US so don’t know a lot about it) I guess also a political authority at his time, and you may say “three different ‘masters’ and unrelated, he happened to be all 3 things” but actually, the gobernor and expert-in-logistic thing came out of the religious-leader one, and he was, acording to himself, first and foremost a mormon leader and then the rest of himself.

    on a different idea, Edison example, you could regard him as an “inventor” but like, DaVinci for instance, I doubt they would regard them as “one trick dogs”, since their “authority” is diversified but at the same time not-that-focused, so it is wierd, here those last two are actually benefited by a broader definition, if you would say “is Edison an authority on electricity?” the answer would be NO, just like if you ask about DaVinci on engineering, but while not authorities on THOSE individual topics, every one of their ‘focusing areas’ ADD to their authority of “inventors”, I personally would accept DaVincy as an authority on many topics even if he is not “especialized” on them, but here, I’m sure it is wrong, but many people would take him as “an authority”, kind of the way Madonna does not need a last name, you don’t need to say “an authority on painting”, he is just GENERALLY a figure of authority in both arts and science (granted not a lot in science today but still to be recognized, and even more at his time). (MAYBE you could make “independent” the ‘inventor thing’ from whichever science they are inventing upon, making “inventor” a cathegory APART from math, electricity, engineering and so forth, but I think it may be like saying that one with superskilled hands can be both a surgeon and a paintor, because the choosen field is independent of the skills he use and have and furthermore, he doesn’t need to undertand the disciplines to perform on them now the he has the manual ability)

    in the case of mormon leaders I think it is mainly kind of like DaVinci, for instance apostle Nelson is a heart surgeon, and Bednar an educator, and both claim their career have influenced them and helped them in forming their religious-leader persona, what I try to say is, in most instances, LDS leaders try to bring MANY disciplines to the table and use them FOR THE CHURCH instead of trying to go the other way around like you say, trying to use the church to “define” the world.

    very few times I have seen the church “crossing lines” of authority, again, comes to my mind the Word of Wisdom, with Smith being not a medical doctor, nor a chemist and going forth to say “tobacco, alcohol, other -adictive- (I believe the term “adiction” hadn’t even been invented then) substances are to be avoided”, if you let it THAT way, no more explanation, then it is not only illogical, but idiotic to regard his opinion as worthy of your attention, it is now, and like 1000 times more awful THEN, but then you go to read the whole advice, LOOK, the church is NOT about “accept my word”, never had, sure some bishops for instance can have this way of “leadership” but is not what we preach, he went to say “if you do X, you will see that Y happens, TRY it”, and that is true in everything we preach, we don’t expect people to blindly agree, we actively invite them to try it, now even TODAY while having agreed with Smith on tobacco, wine is still ARGUED as good in little dosification (but I’m sure eventually science will come clean to say “it is actually because of the antioxidants of the fruit, not because of the alcohol”), and caffeine is still perfectly accepted in daily use (again, science would aknowledge it is WISE to avoid its daily use, but some medications would loose a lot of its market if people stopped the daily consumism of caffeine, my brother has a condition in which he is prone to headaches but he usually eliminate a pain with a cup of green tea, since he doesn’t need the extra caffein from pills, since his body had not gotten used to it), but I believe the Word of Wisdom to be ACCURATE, and well, WISE, SURE, “Smith said it” is far from a good reason to consider the argument, and science will hesitate to accept it for the avobe mentioned reasons, but there is scientific evidence if you look for it, but the point of “appeal to authority” is that we use it when we orselves are NOT knowledged on the mather, sure if we don’t really know about it we probably shouldn’t be arguing about it, but is not like “I don’t know anything about about fitness so I would avoid even trying to lead a healty life” (I believe this is WHY we sometimes resort to appealing of authority?), the key is THAT, trying it, sure if scientists say “?273.15°C is the lowest possible temperature” (BTW it is actually called ABSOLTE zero but many great minds “accept it as such, but aknowledge it is VERY likely not the case” so here is a conscensus of the MOST widely accepted there are, and it also VERY likely not right) we can NOT try and prove them wrong, LITERALY, we can not, so all we have is the appeal to authority to go by, but many things, and this is specially true in the LDS church (actually I believe it TRUE for Christianism in general), are like that “try it an see”, and more or less EASY to try, so yeah, SOMETIMES a leader of my church would be like, declaring something OUTSIDE of their area of apparent expertise, but must of those times it will come with “don’t trust my word for it, TRY it”, and here I go bold and say, while not a chemist, nor a doctor, Joseph Smith SHUOLD be THE authority in regard of the use of alcohol, tobacco, caffeine, and well, anyone looking for a fitness way of life would probably benefit more from the WoW than from any other “guru” or even doctored scientist, sure, not studied in the mather, but has generations of people living way above the media in age and reaching old years remaining physically capable backing up his claims, really, he SHOULD be an authority, but he clearly is not, so again, what then makes someone worthy of being considered an authority?


  14. Dennis Potter
    November 25, 2013 at 5:36 am #

    Ron: “You can believe that truth is not truth, but that doesn’t make you right.”

    This is a very insightful comment. 😉 It is true that the fact that someone believes something doesn’t entail that it is correct. And, in fact, that is generally speaking the case. And indeed that is the point here. Generally speaking, someone’s opinion is not a reason to believe something. The problem with Mormonism (and other similarly authoritarian religions—Buddhism doesn’t fit this) is that this is all you have to go on: the word of the authority. And since appeals to authority can’t work where there is no accepted standard for determining who counts as an authority and there is disagreement among the authorities.

    “Granted, on the basis of a logical argument alone, it is correct to go so far as to say that Mormon “Authorities” cannot assert “special truth” against logical, known facts. ”

    I have no idea what that sentence is supposed to mean.

    “However, you didn’t say that. You said quite plainly that “Mormon leaders cannot speak at all authoritatively on what the ultimate truth about reality and human destiny is”. Basic conditional logic destroys your assertion.”

    Basic conditional logic destroys my assertion? I’m not sure what that is supposed to mean. My claim is simple. Appeals to authority require three conditions: (i) the appeal is made in a field for which there is a general consensus about what counts as an authority (e.g., mathematics, biology, physics), (ii) the authority appealed to must count as an expert in this field, and (iii) the authorities/experts agree on the point on which the authority speaks in the given appeal to authority. This doesn’t hold in the case of the question of the truth of religious claims (i.e., claims about ultimate reality and human purpose) since (i) and (iii) don’t hold in any religious case. This argument is an appeal to the authority of logic textbooks, on which the textbooks agree. It has nothing to do with “conditional logic” (I guess you mean the “logic of conditionals”—so, are you talking about the material conditional or a relevant conditional? You are being way too imprecise to make any actual sense.)

  15. Dennis Potter
    November 25, 2013 at 5:43 am #

    I don’t feel that any of the interlocutors here are being careful enough or have enough formative background to carry on a productive conversation about this topic. This is yet another example of how blogging culture is decreasing the quality of intellectual discourse. The fact that such a mis-construal of basic logical principles can pass for “critical thinking” about the issue and that there are plenty of pseudo-intellectuals with no real understanding of the matter that will try to defend such a misrepresentation just depresses me. And so, I am not going to waste any more time here.

  16. chris
    November 25, 2013 at 9:36 am #

    Dennis makes sense to me. You can appeal to an authority to settle a dispute over the answer to a calculus problem, where the answer might not be plain to the two parties in disagreement.

    But you can’t appeal to LDS authority to settle a dispute about continuing revelation with a Baptist. That much should be obvious.

    In the church, we’d like to even believe we can appeal to authority to settle a dispute about what we should believe about XYZ. This is most certainly not always the case. Sometimes it is — the authorities teach X about the law of chastity so we can appeal to their authority, in the realm of church members, as to what LDS should believe and practice.

    But when we change the subject to the proper role of government, we can make some appeals to authority and not others. And there is a larger gray area in certain areas. If at that very least, that gray area is there because modern church authorities often refuse to speak on particular issues, for reasons they do not readily clarify.

    In short, I’m not sure what’s controversial about what Dennis is saying. Nor do I understand why we have to lament the quality of any particular “interlocutors” discourse.

    To prove my latter point, I’ll appeal to several authorities, who are far more noteworthy than Dennis or I will ever be:

  17. iimx
    November 25, 2013 at 4:37 pm #

    The discussion would take a different direction if it was expanded to include appeals to authority in other traditions. Like the Koran in Islam, various Hindu scriptures, and experiences in the Pagan traditions. Is there anything that can side step any appeal to authority? Like a direct testing of anything spiritual? Something that can be objectively demonstrated?

  18. iimx
    November 25, 2013 at 5:19 pm #

    There is a difference between general Christian Apologetics, and LDS specific Apologetics and appeal to authority. What sets the LDS belief apart from those? I think there are Christians that claim revelation, and god speaking to them with particular words of knowledge for the congregation. Islam is based on additional revelation from the Koran. Modern wiccans and spiritualists receive remarkable manifestations for guidance in their life. Some even experience physical materializations of objects via teleportation, or even physical manifestations of spirits. What sets the LDS faith apart? (as I believe that the LDS people believe they are apart and unique true)

  19. outsidethecorridor
    December 1, 2013 at 9:28 am #

    I appreciate this discussion. A week ago or so I came on and wrote something out and lost it, because my name was no longer in the system–

    wow, I got lost.

    As I have gotten older . . .

    (settle in for boredom, kind people)

    I have come to see how fallible humans are. There is a lot of diversity among LDS/Mormons about all of these things.

    Ultimately, God is the only authority.

    Finding God is a full-time job. It helps to have a foundation, and I take the Book of Mormon for mine, but in spite of having produced/translated/found the Book of Mormon, Joseph Smith was still a human.

    Turning humans into something divine is a very controversial thing–

    Only the Divine is Divine.


    authority is a very controversial thing, and I have come to see how arrogant it is for LDS to believe they/we have ‘it all’–

    many of *us* are very Zoramite in our beliefs–

  20. Lilli
    December 1, 2013 at 11:11 am #

    Your point is the very thing on which the LDS Church rests on. Ever since Wilford Woodruff claimed that God would never let prophets lead the Church astray, people have stopped questioning their words and stopped ‘proving all things’ and just assumed that if a prophet said or did something, and especially put it in the scriptures, then it was surely true.

    When you realize that what WW said is not true, but just a falsehood that he and many other leaders of other religions use to encourage blind obedience, then you start to question, as we all are commanded to, everything said & done in the Church, especially by Prophets, for the scriptures warn that their will be many false prophets among us, deceiving everyone, except a rare few.

    When people actually look into the false claim ‘that prophets can’t lead us astray’, they find that indeed prophets can and many have been wrong and led people & whole churches astray throughout history. We can quickly learn by study that prophets often fall and lead unthinking and unproving people with them. And God allows this for this life is a test to see who can be deceived, even by false or fallen prophets.

    Even ancient prophets who were wrong in the scriptures still lead people astray today, for many just accept that if it’s in the scriptures then it must be true, for they believe ancient prophets were infallible or translation was infallible, both being false.

    People fall for the idea of ‘prophets can’t lead us astray’ because it appeals to the natural man, it’s much easier than having to read, study and prove all things ourselves. Most like the idea of playing ‘follow the leader’ to heaven, for it takes most of the responsibility off themselves and they can just blame a prophet if they get off course. Never mind that the scriptures and history are full of warnings about being led astray by false or fallen propehts, and much proof of even the best of prophets falling or leading many many people astray. But no one bothers to study all that, for they believe it’s impossible. Satan’s perfect ploy.

    The best and only authority Christians can really site is Christ in the New Testament, realizing that even his words may not be translated correctly, despite that he and his teachings were perfect, which no one else in history can claim. The buck stops with Christ. If any prophet, person or even scripture contradicts Christ’s exact words, then they cannot claim to be a follower or preacher of Christ.

    Christians are commanded to test & prove everything & everyone against the exact teachings of Christ in the New Testament. For that is the best and only authority any of us have to try to prove anything.

    Many say the Holy Spirit is the best authority, and though true, the problem is that most people, even all prophets at times, are lead to believe false revelation from false spirits, assuming their revelation came from the Holy Spirit. Thus one cannot just say they know because the Spirit told them. We need a more concrete proof, which would be the words of Christ, which easily reveal all truth from error when studied closely.

  21. Jim Davis
    December 4, 2013 at 1:27 am #

    At the risk of appearing fallacious, this Ensign article written by Gerald Lund specifically addresses the epistemological questions dealing with HOW we know what is true:

    Am I citing this authority to establish a point or am I pointing to his good sense? My answer might be both. In the article he writes about the four traditional ways in which people establish what is true:

    1) Authoritarianism-truth is established through parents, teachers, leaders and other experts.

    2) Rationalism- truth is established through reason and logic.

    3) Pragmatism- truth is established through what seems to work.

    4) Empiricism- truth is established through observance or personal experience.

    Lund asks which of these systems Latter-Day-Saints subscribe to and points out that we subscribe to all of them. But he adds a fifth: divine revelation. As far as establishing truth for ourselves go, I don’t see anything wrong with appealing to authority, using reason, pointing out what works or explaining what our personal experiences are as long as those things are backed up with our own personal light. Any of these things alone (without a personal confirmation of the Spirit) are weak and could likely be false. Look at each of the four systems by themselves and you can see how if we are unbalanced in how we establish what is true in our minds that we can easily be duped. Another issue, though, is that these can be deceptive. That’s why it’s crucial to recognize the Spirit so that we can receive our own confirmation.

    Although I think I agree with the message of this article (that appealing to authority as our sole weapon to combat falsehoods is a bad idea) I’m worried that this article will be taken incorrectly by some. For example, I can see many people being mistaken that any time an “authority” is cited that they automatically shut out any potential light from the message from passing their ears and finding its way into their soul. Kind of like plugging their ears and yelling “lalalalalala” at the instant an authority is cited. I’ve already seen this since this article was written and it’s concerning. Were Nephi, Abinadi, Alma, Mormon, Moroni or Christ Himself at fault for appealing to authority? I don’t think the problem is citing authority. I think the problem exists when authority is cited to end to the discussion or when it’s our sole source of truth. “Because I said so” comes to mind as an unhealthy authoritarian argument.

    When it comes to how we conduct spiritual discussions I believe Gerald Lund made a good point. In reference to Alma’s encounter with Korihor he writes:

    “The first thing to note is that Alma does not get into philosophical debate with Korihor. He doesn’t allow himself to be pulled onto the ground that Korihor tries to define as the area of debate. There is a great lesson in that. We combat false philosophies with revelation and true doctrine, not academic debate.”

    I think that reasoning applies to some of the comments above.

  22. Darrel
    December 4, 2013 at 1:49 pm #


    I appreciate that reference and found the insight on that chapter of scripture enlightening.

    However, some of what he says is flawed. For example, “We combat false philosophies with revelation and true doctrine, not academic debate.” This is gleaned from Alma’s response to Korihor. Lund himself established that “Korihor’s argument that ‘ye cannot know of things which ye do not see’ (Alma 30:15) reveals his epistemology—his system of determining truth—to be primarily empirical, or based on observation and use of the senses.” Alma saw the foundation of Korihor’s argument and showed it’s flaw, and therefore the whole of his philosophies. This is far from avoiding academic debate, but rather it uses all knowledge (spiritual and intellectual) to provide the resources to master our perception of truth. I also find it funny that his entire article attempts to use academic knowledge to explain and combat this false philosophy. I’m not saying his message is useless, but I think he’s a little off on this point.

    Further, there’s something to be said about our epistemological foundation. This is something that I’ve been interested in for a while but haven’t quite found the solution. The comments for this article illustrate the large gap between spiritual faith (revelation) and empirical or rational evidence. For example, I agree with what Dennis Potter has said – on a purely intellectual basis. However, when my personal SPIRITUAL experience is taken into account, I know that God is our Father, Christ is our Savior, the Book of Mormon is true revelation, and Thomas Monson is a true prophet. With this knowledge, I can personally define what an “authority” on the topic is, and narrow my expert population to include only those who have the prophetic mantle through the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. By so doing, all requirements to appropriately using an appeal to authority are satisfied. The problem with this is that I used my personal knowledge as the foundation of my reasoning, which no one else has experienced and therefore cannot use. As such, we’re left without the means to define what an expert is for the universal case.

    Dennis, how do you define an expert in the topic of religion? I think this is the big difference between your approach and Connor’s: you define an expert on religion as one who claims to be so through study or training in their avenue of belief. Therefore, the population of experts is large enough that they will never agree and no appeal to any authority on religion is valid. Connor defines an expert based on his personal beliefs, therefore agreement is definitely possible on many topics, but only valid within the community that shares the beliefs that were used to define what an expert is.

    So there are two main questions that remain in order to validate the use of an appeal to authority on the topic of religion: how is extrasensory knowledge validated in the rational sense? and how are the experiences of an individual appropriately applied to universal reasoning?

    Like I said, I’m still learning and reading a lot to try to make sense of this, but these are points I see as paramount in this discussion.

  23. iimx
    December 5, 2013 at 2:54 pm #

    Darrel, excellent critique. It can be difficult to pass along spiritual experiences to another person, as much as one would like. Extrasensory knowledge is interesting terminology. Would that account for personal revelation that LDS and others claim? I’ve experienced some interesting phenomena which may or may not happen to anyone else. It has not lead me to the LDS faith however. So, it would be my experience against someone elses experience.

    The closest objective evidence I have ever heard of is by a Christian. He states that he would immediately turn away from the Christian Faith if the physical body of christ was ever found. This is because Paul states that christian faith would be useless without the resurrection of christ (1 Cor. 15:14) The problem I have with that is that its negative evidence. Destruction of the body could also account for another reason a body is not found. (rather than a resurrection and ascension into heaven)

    Another problem would be proper identification of the body. Most people would not recognize his body if it was actually found. The book “An Irreverent Curiosity” by David Farley addresses some interesting issues around positive evidences for faith. Mainly the problem of finding relics of saints and christ which are said to have ascended into heaven. So, they are left with baby teeth, locks of hair, stale bread, milk, and the Holy Prepuce, fragments of the cross etc…. All of which could have been from other sources.
    I am not aware of any relics associated with the LDS faith, but perhaps there are some some where?

  24. Jared Clark
    December 8, 2013 at 12:31 am #

    FYI, I think this quote applies to the subject matter:

    Those who are subject to vulgar infatuation may exclaim: “Montesquieu has said this! So it’s magnificent! It’s sublime!” As for me, I have the courage of my own opinion. I say: What! You have the nerve to call that fine? It is frightful! It is abominable! These random selections from the writings of Montesquieu show that he considers persons, liberties, property — mankind itself — to be nothing but materials for legislators to exercise their wisdom upon.

    Frederic Bastiat, The Law

  25. Nick
    December 9, 2013 at 9:43 am #

    Dennis Potter said it best: “In religion, there can be no cogent arguments from authority.”
    This whole post is ridiculous.

  26. Darrel
    December 9, 2013 at 1:36 pm #


    Yes, there is a relic for the LDS faith: The Book of Mormon. Positive evidence of the reality of a religion’s claims are, I think, beside the point here. Even positive evidence cannot supply extrasensory knowledge. What is relevant are the principles which are derived from personal extrasensory knowledge and how they can apply to others, not necessarily receiving and validating such knowledge (although that is an important topic). As it stands, many have different convictions and beliefs that stem from their spiritual experiences (like the phenomena you have talked about). How do we properly apply these moral standards to a society made up of people that have experienced various “phenomena”?

    The more I learn, the more I realize how honest common people are. The one thing I cannot discount is their experience. Interpreting and applying experiences is the effort of wisdom, which is up for contest; but the experiences that make up our glimpses of eternal truth cannot be discounted. As such, the truth in the experience you’ve had probably contains a truth I know or will eventually learn (assuming life continues after death as will my learning); and am therefore open to hearing it because I doubt a true, raw experience would contradict the knowledge I have gained through my own experiences. A bit of a correction in your usage, though: my experiences have not lead me to the LDS faith, they’ve led me to knowledge. The LDS faith is a means to an end, not the end itself. The LDS faith facilitates these experiences, and the strength to adhere to them.

    This, I believe, is all relevant: an appeal to authority will by no means gives you knowledge, it will only tell you what another has concluded from their experience. These conclusions may or may not be correct, which is why an appeal to authority is NEVER sufficient for sure knowledge. This applies to everything. However, as finite beings our existence is made more efficient by using it: medicine, education, academia, and even religion. This appeal is only to be made when gaining personal knowledge is either impractical or impossible; but it’s still only a substitute for the real thing. As such, “In religion, there can be no cogent arguments from authority.” I would add any other usage besides religion as well. It may be most difficult with religion, since the burden of proof lies in an extrasensory experience concerning a universal truth that no mortal man can claim to have in entirety, but still applies to the same restrictions. This is why I asked the question: if we can validate such experiences into the empirical realm then a religious appeal to authority would be appropriate within the context of the knowledge gained to everyone. Otherwise, an appeal to authority would only be appropriate within the population that has had experiences to sufficiently define the source as an expert.

    As far as I can tell, there is no way to do so. The only thing reason can do is prove that it exists, but it cannot glean any particular principles from it. Therefore, we are left with the latter condition.

  27. iimx
    December 10, 2013 at 5:27 am #

    Darrel, Properly speaking a relic is the remains of a saint, sage or person. Or a relic might be remains of a special event, or some item that a person used, like clothing. Properly speaking scriptures are not generally thought of as being relics. For instance I have never heard of the Bible being called a relic, or the Gita, or Buddhist writings.

    An example of an LDS relic might be something mentioned in the BOM, like the sword of laban, or the Liohona, or perhaps the stones of Jared. (ether 6) These would dramatically increase the faith by providing physical evidence or a reminder. I would consider the actual golden plates a ‘relic’ if these were in the possession of the church and were available for viewing, especially if ‘phenomena’ were associated with them.

    There is at least one example in the Bible of a miracle associated with the remains of a person. (2 Kings 13:21) Oddly enough even the shadow of peter might be called a relic. (Acts 5:15) Christs tassel on his cloak (Mt 14:35-36; cf. Mk 6:56; Lk 8:43-44) Although these are all probably activated by the amount of faith a person has.

    Christians generally appeal to the authority of authors in the Bible to define teachings and practices of the faith. These define what christians believe.

  28. Darrel
    December 10, 2013 at 12:45 pm #

    iimx, I see what you’re saying, and it seems strange to identify the Book of Mormon as a relic. This is getting off the topic for this post, but to explain myself I will be brief. Of all the visions and true relics that Joseph Smith was familiar with, one of the products of it all was the Book of Mormon – that he translated it. It is a relic in that you can read it with the mindset of trying to fathom how someone with 2 years of formal education and could barely write a coherent letter could produce such a work within a year’s time. As such, it can serve as a physical “proof” of what he claimed.

    But again, that doesn’t mean that if you do read it in this context that you will gain faith to those ends. It requires a personal spiritual foundation related to the book in order to know (here I use “know spiritually” and “faith” interchangeably) that it is what it says it is. Even if I had the gold plates it would not be sufficient to prove the reality of its truth, because it is empirically observed.

  29. iimx
    December 10, 2013 at 3:49 pm #

    Darrel, Rereading the original thread, all I can say is that Christians generally accept the writings of Paul, peter, matthew etc…as authorities on spiritual subjects. I am not aware of any ‘off the record’ remarks by Paul or ancient writers. Thats a distinction I think that Connor fails to make. Where as the LDS faith seems to have off the record remarks by various leaders, or personal opinions. The equal is probably things spoken by mistake by christian pastors in off moments. But there are not many that claim the special title of prophet outside of the LDS faith.

    The only foundation I know of, as a prerequisite to reading spiritual material is openness and the desire to know. Which at times can be very difficult, as preconceptions may get in the way.

  30. log
    December 25, 2013 at 11:21 am #

    I am going to disagree with Brother Potter and claim that appeals to authority are in all but one case fallacious in the sense that appealing to authorities cannot render the truth of the propositions under consideration assertible.

    That one exception is an appeal to God, who gives knowledge via sensory data; only knowledge is assertible, even if not publicly demonstrable.

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