Caleb Cohoe is an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Metropolitan State University of Denver. His areas of research interest include ancient philosophy, medieval philosophy, and the philosophy of religion. He works on a number of different topics related to the philosophy of religion, including the nature of epistemic authority, the relationship between divine and human agency, divine simplicity, and theories of personal identity and survival. He received his PhD in Philosophy from Princeton University in 2012. His dissertation examined Aristotle’s theory of understanding and its implications for his conception of the human being. He received his undergraduate degree in Liberal Arts from Thomas Aquinas College. His articles have appeared in Faith and Philosophy, Phronesis, British Journal of the History of Philosophy, and Philosophy Compass. He and his wife Samantha have three lovely children: Isaac, David, and Una.
When should I trust the experts? This question comes up repeatedly both in our individual lives (What’s the right course of treatment for my childs illness? Is now a good time to buy a house?) and in societal deliberation. Many of the major issues facing us today, including dealing with climate change, structuring the financial system, and managing access to health care, centrally revolve around what we should make of the views of experts. Our capacity to access the opinions and testimony of others and to find and examine the evidence relevant to any question has never been greater, thanks to technological revolutions in communication and increasingly open societies. At the same time, these new technologies and more fluid social structures allow us to find support for any view, no matter how epistemologically indefensible or morally reprehensible. Many members of our society also seem increasingly suspicious of any kind of authority or expertise. It is also clear that (supposed) experts can be wrong. On a number of occasions, the views of those considered to be experts have supported harmful and morally reprehensible practices, such as racial and ethnic discrimination, trans-orbital lobotomies, and forced sterilizations.
My project examines the need for and basis of intellectual and practical authority. I argue that intellectual deference, an appropriate respect for the intellectual or practical standing of certain people and communities, is a necessary component of the virtue of intellectual humility. I examine two key questions about intellectual deference: first, what sort of evidence is needed for the acceptance of some person or community as an authority? Secondly, under which conditions should you respect someones authority and to what extent should this authority be respected?
I offer a general account of the necessity and value of intellectual deference, maintaining that we often encounter cases when, according to our own standards, our beliefs will be better formed if we defer to someone else. We should, in such cases, autonomously accept authority. However, I argue that we are not always epistemically obligated to change our position to match that of the experts.
I develop and defend a distinction between two different kinds of epistemic authority: technical expertise and wisdom. While technical expertise often suffices for epistemic authority in a given domain, I argue that this kind of epistemic authority should only be respected when I can be reasonably confident that the expertise is being rightly applied within the relevant domain. This expertise is also more authoritative in advising us on means to achieve our goals than in setting these goals.
I maintain that we should adopt a stronger deference to people and communities who display evidence of wisdom. When we find those who have a better understanding of the nature of reality and the purpose of human life, we should be willing to defer to their beliefs preemptively. I explore the implications of my account for questions about whether we should treat certain scientific or religious communities and traditions as authoritative and whether their authority involves wisdom or only technical expertise.