When Truth Serves Power
I see two reasons for being suspicious of truth claims made by authorities, be the authorities religious, political, or otherwise: first, a particular claim may not be true, and second, even if a claim is true and known to be true, it may nonetheless, in being made, buttress the power of the authority making the claim, intentionally or unwittingly on the part of that authority. The whole truth and nothing but the truth has no immunity to being put to ill, self-serving use.
Hence, suspicion of a self-described authority shouldn’t cease just because one knows or believes the authority’s claims to be true, especially if any of those claims pertain to his or her authority to express the truth. We can and should distinguish between the content of a truth claim, the motive behind it, and the consequences of it. When a self-described authority claims to be a mouthpiece for true religion or true philosophy or true politics or true science, they’re likely to receive a quizzical eyebrow from me. Or they would, if I had the facial dexterity to raise just one eyebrow.
I’m not wholly against arguments from authority or arguments that presuppose a truth claim premised on the say-so of some authority; they can be very useful in discussions with interlocutors who accept that authority. However, I’m just cynical enough to think they merit a healthy suspicion, even when I assent to the content of the claim. Power corrupts, and when truth serves power, truth can take on a corrupting influence. This is true in politics, but perhaps even more so in religion, where power-plays invoke infallible divine authority, and turf-wars are fought over holy ground.
(Image: Lord Acton)