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February 17th, 2012 @ 3:27 pm by Kevin
I’ve been having a protracted debate with a Catholic friend of mine lately about the issue of authority. The crux of our argument has to do with the basis on which we can claim to say we have true knowledge. My friend accuses me, a Protestant, of being my own highest authority. He would rather see me adopt a position where I submit to the authority of the Catholic Church, which he believes to be the only legitimate manifestation–or perhaps the fullest representation–of the Church Jesus founded.
I’ve responded by arguing that even if he chooses to submit himself to the Catholic Church, he made that decision based on his assessment of certain arguments in favor of the Catholic Church’s privileged status. No one made that decision for him. So even though he has chosen to submit to the authority of the Catholic Church, ultimately, he is still his own highest authority, because it was his assessment of the facts that led to that decision. Therefore, we are in the same epistemological position–that is to say, we are both our own highest authority when it comes to belief formation. And I really don’t see a way out of that situation.
In response, my friend essentially accused me of being a relativist, of believing that truth is dependent on my acceptance or rejection of it. I disagreed, arguing that I do believe in objective reality. I just don’t see a way for any of us to experience it objectively, seeing as we are all subjective beings with a limited point of view.
That brought us to the point where my friend argued that if we both believe in objective truth, but we disagree on the nature of that truth, one of us must be wrong and the other right. The fact that our perspective on objective truth would be different is not disputed. What is disputable are the reasons we ended up with different perspectives.
I agree, but the question is, how do we settle such arguments? Is there any way to declare a definitive winner? This is an edited version of my response to that question:
The other option is that BOTH of our perspectives could be wrong–and both of them could be right. But once again, what is the objective standard against which we can measure the accuracy of our positions? Because even our ability to measure our POV’s by that standard will be hampered by our limited perspective, which is constantly changing due to the inflow of new information.
For example, how fast am I moving right now? The only way to answer that question is, relative to what? Relative to my desk, I’m sitting still. Relative to the sun, I (and everyone else on earth) is moving through space at a rate of 107,300 km/h. So both statements appear to be correct from different points of view.
From my point of view then, it seems quite reasonable to say I’m sitting still at my desk. But if you asked an astronaut observing my movement from space using some kind of super-powered telescope, he would argue I’m living under an illusion of stillness created by the fact that the desk is moving through space at the same speed I am.
The point is, neither perspective negates the objective reality of me sitting here at my desk or the earth moving through space. But our different perspectives on this objective reality has a hugely distorting effect.
So in the case of the astronaut and me, you could say we’re both wrong, and we’re both right.
This illustration may seem like it’s light years away from the hell debate, but I thought it would be helpful as we think through how so many intelligent, educated and fair-minded people can disagree so strongly about such issues.