02/25/2016 08:37 am ET Updated Feb 25, 2017

A Whimsical Look at Fallacies: Appeal to Authority - Part 1: The Myths of the Tribe

Once upon a time in a faraway land, there dwelt a people who never succeeded in quite growing up. From the time they were children until they bade adieu to this world, they were told that the big questions of life were so profound and mysterious that no mind could reach the bottom of them.

They were also taught that they were so steeped in corruption, so wayward and shallow, so benighted and bloated by worldly distractions that they could never be trusted to arrive at the truth. They could only depend on their learned authorities, who alone could unravel life's cosmic enigmas.

So all-pervasive and ingrained was their sense of obedience that the greatest wrong was to think for themselves. Error lurked everywhere, and only by hearkening to these tribal sages could they hope to keep to the one true way. The highest wisdom was to distrust themselves and to trust these authorities.

Cultivating one's mind was expressly forbidden. The reading of books was especially dangerous since it promoted introspection and a critical mind. What was the point of reading, after all, since they already possessed all the right answers? Nor could they secretly meet to consider questions "beyond their ability."

The time-hallowed way to prevent such behavior was always to keep busy. Their lives were so consumed with trivialities that many forgot the important things, so practiced were they in escaping themselves. There was much hustle and bustle and buzzing about, and a stranger would have mistaken their busyness for a human beehive or an industrious colony of worker ants.

Seekers of knowledge could approach the authorities to learn the answers to whatever perplexed them in their earthly sojourn of threescore and ten. One had simply to listen and depart from these oracles refreshed and enlightened.


Now, I wouldn't want you to rush to judgment about this curious folk. You have only to retrace their steps to understand what had reduced them to this pitiful state. Just imagine that from the time you were young you were told that your mind was darkened and your will was weakened by some ancient calamity. You weren't really sure what all of this meant, but it filled you with such dread and foreboding that it cast a shadow over your childhood.

When you've always been taught that your mind is twisted and your will is diseased, it's only natural that such warnings produced the very imaginings they were warning against.

You could never understand why these adults never wanted you to have an inner life, but, instead, stuffed you full of inscrutable answers to questions you neither understood nor asked.

Even at school, you were always made to think as a group, always forbidden to question, and never allowed to think for yourself. What mental life you had would keep you on the surface of things because, you were told, there was nothing else.

Nor were you allowed to ask a question that started with "why." You were made to feel that this was a sinister and loathsome word that struck terror in everyone, except in children, of course, since "why" was always their favorite word. Especially abhorrent were questions like: "Why must I believe whatever I'm told?" Or, "Why must a story have only one meaning?" when every child knew that it had as many meanings as there were children who read it.

Imagine that all of your friends were also brought up in the selfsame manner with no "secret garden" to be their refuge whenever they wanted to dream and wonder, to figure out the world for themselves, or to be alone to commune with themselves. You had only to look at children to see that they were burdened with sadness.


Now, lest you think that all these adults were evil ogres, you must remember that they, too, had a similar childhood, and that you were reaping what their parents had sown.

In fact, had they departed by one jot or tittle from the prescribed ways, they would have been remiss in their duties of raising their young. In a word, you were living in a paradise of sincere, loving, and well-meaning robots.

You were the beneficiary of that same mistrust learned from their parents in a ritual of self-fulfilling inevitability. Never could they permit you to venture beyond their world's circumscribed limits that prevented you from visiting the Land of Contagion that would only endanger the traditional ways.

Nevertheless, you and your friends were eager to visit this realm, since there had always been whisperings of a mysterious Tree of Forbidden Fruit, the only source of meaningful knowledge that came of making one's own mistakes in order to become a mature human being.


So one stormy evening, you all undertook a night sea journey to discover what other peoples thought about the questions of life. To your surprise, you found that all of them also were forbidden to think, but that wasn't all.

They all had different authorities and different answers, and each believed that all other answers, including your own, were snares and delusions. Even more surprising was that all of these peoples seemed to be likable, honest, and good human beings.

The longer you pondered these revelations, the more did troubling questions arise. What if you had been born among one of these peoples? Wouldn't you have believed in their answers as deeply as you now do your own?

Wouldn't that mean that what you believed was simply a matter of chance?

Was "Truth," then, nothing but what you're accustomed to believing is true?

What if your authorities themselves had been born among one of these peoples?

Did everything depend on where you were born?

Were you and your authorities "trapped" within the beliefs of your tribe?

If so, what would this say about those beliefs?

Were they objectively true, or did they only appear so to those of your tribe?

Should you take your beliefs seriously?

Is one set of beliefs as true as another?

Is one set of authorities as good as another?

Are authorities a tribe's corporate lawyers, who defend the beliefs of the tribe into which they are born?

Suddenly, you recall an old saying by someone from somewhere thousands of years ago: "He that increases knowledge increases sorrow."

Is this what education is really about? Figuring things out for yourself, forsaking authorities who tell you you're wrong, and setting sail into unknown seas?

Does everyone and everything in your culture teach you to believe in the myths of your tribe?

Is an education the process of demythologizing these myths and thinking for yourself?

You find your head spinning. Why did you ever leave home where everything had been so bucolically simple?