Sunday, October 3, 2010

Authority: Obvious Aspects and Odd

The establishment of an authority begins with a discovery—that something is true, that some arrangement or behavior has been found to be efficient, useful, and reliable. Next comes its confirmation. More and more people test this observation on their own; they confirm it for themselves. Their collective experience is the authority. Once it exists, those who accept it no longer need to test the observation—but, of course, they can if they wish.

At one extreme authority appears as common sense. We know that night follows day; we don’t retire nights in great anxiety wondering if we shall wake again. Hot stoves will burn us. At the other, bolstered by the experience of huge numbers over vast periods of time, they appear as wisdoms. The first eleven verses of Ecclesiastes (link) present a wonderful mass of such. You don’t believe the Preacher? Just stick around. In the center, between these two extremes, reside all manner of authorities that usually originate with one or a few persons, come to be believed and obeyed by many without personal confirmation. That’s where the oddities of “authority” appear.

These oddities are visible when parts of this complex thing, authority, are separated out and are confused with the totality. The originators of authority will tend to become famous, thus many, many people will come to know their name and fame. This feature, if separated from any observation or discovery at all, produces celebrity. Celebrities then speak with great authority on matters they know nothing more about than John or Jane Doe—but they’re celebrities, hence many people feel confirmed.

The oddest forms of authority arise when the observations underlying the authority are taken out of context, are not really understood, or they are thought to be in one category when, in fact, they belong into another. The example I would offer here is Einstein’s notion of gravity. It relies on entirely untestable assertions, namely that there is such a thing as space-time—and that material mass can cause space-time to curve. There is nothing wrong with philosophical concepts expressed as mathematical relations. Here what matters is the consistency of the terms and the logic of the math. But it is strange indeed to apply a mathematical relation ship to something like gravity, which is a matter of tangible experience.

Space, thus extension, appears to me to be an aspect of matter. Time, thus duration, is not commensurable in any way with extension. Time, as change, has to do with energy—something that causes change—not with extension. But space and time, s and t, can be conceptually manipulated in equations. To fuse these two into a single complex layer of some sort called the geometry of the universe is an imaginative creation—much like the tooth fairy. Shall we call it tf? To say that the mass of matter causes the tooth fairy’s pleasing curves is equally imaginative.

Here we have, I would propose, is a nice example of the “etherialization” of the physical—common in times when culture is in transition; the same thing happens in reverse in other times: the transcendent is then “materialized.”

The sun also rises. Yes, sir. I’m there with you, Preacher. All the rivers run into the sea, but the sea is not full. Yes, sir. Give me the old-time authority. I’ll reserve judgment on the new—even if Glenn Beck happens to confirm it.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting post. It is different with this argument in about the third paragraph.

    I'll have to ponder this idea of the etherialization of the physical.