Early in my professional career, I became known as a media “expert,” and learned a glaring truth: every expert parades a slim knowledge in front of a massive ignorance.
It happened like this: I took a job as a spokesperson for a non-profit hospital trade association in California, and at the same time a health care crisis began to develop in the American health care network as a whole. Suddenly, people wanted to know: why couldn’t they get the health care services they needed, and why were those services becoming so expensive, and couldn’t we just reform the entire health delivery system? Gradually, because I was willing to talk publicly about these hard issues, and tried to tell the truth, word got around among the media. When journalists and newscasters and reporters wanted to know something about the American health care system they interviewed me, and I attempted to give them the best explanations I could. I wound up doing literally thousands of interviews—in print, on radio and television, and online, and became a media expert, largely by default.
When that happened, my grandmother’s favorite old saying often came back to me: “Fool’s names and fool’s faces often appear in public places.”
Guess what? I constantly felt foolish because I had no real authority, no M.D. degree, no deep insight or lengthy education in the field. So some of the time, I crammed like an unprepared student before the big test, studied the subject right before an interview, skated right against the edge of my relatively slim knowledge, and tried not to show my massive ignorance. I learned that so-called “experts” or “authorities” often do that, and I soon realized that authority can be a mirage. I learned that people believe what they hear from designated “experts,” even though the experts often wing it, offering opinions as facts. The entire experience made me wary of experts, and even more determined to remain resolutely skeptical about the information I got from most supposedly “authoritative” sources.
If you think about that for a minute, though, you’ll realize that most of what you know comes from someone else’s authority. Much of our knowledge comes to us second- or third-hand rather than first-hand. We have no way of independently verifying everything as true, so we rely, every day, on what others tell us. We form pragmatic, evidence-based judgments about truth because most of the world’s truth falls far outside the range of our direct sensual or intellectual grasp.
Of course, modern life requires a substantial amount of trust in authority. We depend on the authority of others when it comes to our livelihoods, our food, our safety and security, our health, our education, even our recreation. For example: you have a new baby, so you buy a legally-required car seat. Who made it? Who tested it? Who drafted, passed and signed the laws that created such requirements? How do you know—really know—it’s safe? The answer to every one of those questions involves the authority of others, and accepting that authority has become a requirement of life in our complex modern age.
People with significant experience, qualifications or training, those with many degrees after their name, dispense their wisdom and we believe it based on their presumptive knowledge and expertise. We trust the people who build our car seats, our houses, our airplanes, our bridges and our governments with our lives—but they’re not always right, as we know. The experts, it turns out, sometimes get it wrong. Authorities often have conflicting views, so they can’t ever be seen as an infallible criterion of the truth.
In spiritual matters, this problem of authority has often come into conflict with the truth. Religious authorities cite their own traditions and their ultimate spiritual and intellectual wisdom, but then again, religious authorities have often disagreed throughout human history. It might surprise you to know that the Baha’i teachings point this out, saying that reliance on authority and tradition do not necessarily produce the truth:
The third criterion is that of tradition, that is, the text of the Sacred Scriptures, when it is said, “God said thus in the Torah”, or “God said thus in the Gospel.” This criteria is not perfect either, because the traditions must be understood by the mind. As the mind itself is liable to error, how can it be said that it will attain to perfect truth and not err in comprehending and inferring the meaning of the traditions? For it is subject to error and cannot lead to certitude. This is the criterion of the leaders of religion. What they comprehend from the text of the Book, however, is that which their minds can understand and not necessarily the truth of the matter; for the mind is like a balance, and the meanings contained in the texts are like the objects to be weighed. If the balance is untrue, how can the weight be ascertained? – Abdu’l-Baha, Some Answered Questions, newly revised edition, pp. 344-345.
So if tradition and authority don’t work either, what’s left? We’ve already managed, earlier in this series of essays, to cross the senses and the intellect off the list of reliable truth-determining faculties. What does that leave us?
Know, therefore, that what the people possess and believe to be true is liable to error. For if in proving or disproving a thing a proof drawn from the evidence of the senses is advanced, this criterion is clearly imperfect; if a rational proof is adduced, the same holds true; and likewise if a traditional proof is given. Thus it is clear that man does not possess any criterion of knowledge that can be relied upon. – Ibid., p. 345.
But how about revelation, inspiration, or the grace of the Holy Spirit? In the final essay in this series, we’ll look at that source of truth and see if we can rely on it.