The Problem of Authority


The Problem of Authority:

Following the authority of past thinkers becoming a barrier and limitation

The tendency to give credit of truth to the opinion of a known person (being an authority on a certain subject) - is a tendency based on a fallacy: “Appeal to Authority”.

Science advanced only because it has freed itself from this tendency.  

In his lectures on psychology, professor Daniel Robinson explains that one of the greatest achievements of the 17th century was establishing “The Royal Society” for the pursuit of sciences, which slogan  Nullius in verba: “On authority of no one” – makes it quite clear that the ultimate authority within the Royal Society is going to be the authority of observation and experience – not the prestigious authority of any person. (1)

The same lecture explains that, in the same century, Francis Bacon declared in his work (1620) that science advances by observation and experience, and that he is not hostile to the ancient thinkers, but that if we spend our time revering Aristotle - and he deserves our full respect - then we cannot attain higher knowledge than he attained in 322 BD.  This view signalled a great shift in consulting experiments and methodology rather than the opinion of a genius of his time.

While the ancient thinkers deserve our full respect, their assumptions were based on results of their direct observation by the senses.  Advancement in science, however, extended the capabilities of the senses through instruments and tools, which were developed in time, and helped in obtaining precise measurements.  Methodology and quality of scientific procedures and methods were also refined:

“Galileo’s thought makes explicit a contrast between method and authority.  Aristotle got it wrong when he lacked proper method.  The question is not the genius or authority but of method". (2)

Pleasing authority led the Sun to rotate around the Earth

In his lecture on the concept of frame of reference in physics, prof. Richard Wolfson mentions:

“Aristotle (c 349 B.C.) described a geometric universe with planets and the Sun orbiting Earth in perfect circles”. (3)

It is interesting to know that another Greek philosopher, Aristarchus of Samos (c 230 BD) disagreed with Aristotle’s model and proposed a heliocentric system with the Earth and planets revolving around the Sun (as Copernicus revealed in the 15th century).  

 Aristarchus' correct views were discarded, and the Sun was put on orbit around the Earth for hundreds of years by philosophers who regarded Aristotle’s views as beyond questioning.  This was enhanced also by the authority of the Church, which promoted the view that:  

God sits vertically above Jerusalem”, around which the Sun revolves. (4)

A fierce opposition to the scientific thinking, challenging old knowledge, reached its summit in the example of Galileo, who was attacked by the church authorities of his time:

“The Aristotelian professors, seeing their vested interests threatened, united against him. They strove to cast suspicion upon him in the eyes of ecclesiastical authorities because of contradictions between the Copernican theory and the Scriptures.

They obtained the cooperation of the Dominican preachers, who fulminated from the pulpit against the new impiety of “mathematicians” and secretly denounced Galileo to the Inquisition for blasphemous utterances, which, they said, he had freely invented”. (5) 

Aristotle was unparalleled among philosophers because of the amount of rich and diverse investigations he made.  In general, Greek philosophy can be compared to being the roots of our ‘tree of knowledge’.  However, with the growth of the branches and leaves, a new demand becomes exerted back on the roots of the tree - to expand more and to flexibly extend further, because change in time requires so.

Philosophy is about wisdom, while religion is about authority.

The field of philosophy is all encompassing, while the field of religion is hierarchy-vertical (and exclusive).  Even Descartes, who greatly advanced mathematics and philosophy, did not escape an attempt to persecute him, being accused of blasphemy by a teacher of religion:

“When Descartes was told about the disputations taking place at Leiden, he became concerned immediately about their possible implications for himself.  He accordingly wrote to Heerebrood, 19 April 1647, asking him if he heard local reports that he (Descartes) had ‘written that the idea of our freedom is greater than the idea of God’.

Descartes followed this with a long letter to the curators of the University of Leiden and the consuls of the city, on 4 May 1647.  In his official complaint he acknowledged the freedom of the university to question his philosophy and to arrange disputations in which his opinions were discussed.

 However he did not accept that the professor of theology could accuse him falsely of the ‘most odious and most seriously punishable crime of blasphemy’.  (6)

The great advances in all aspects of science offered by the Western civilisation can be attributed to freeing the mind of the observer from oppression - or from fear from dominating authorities (as clearly implied by the motto of the 17th century Royal Society). 



(1) Lecture 4, The Emergence of Modern Science, Dr. Daniel Robinson, The Great Ideas of Psychology, Disc1, The Great Courses.

(2) ibid, p.15

(3) Lecture 2, p.6 – Modern Science Prof. Richard Wolfson, The Great Courses.   

(4) Physics and Philosophy, Sir James H. Jeans

(5) Galileo Galilei, The University of Oregon

(6) Descartes, A Biography, page 346, Desmond M. Clarke, Cambridge University Press, 2006