Practical Appeals to Experts


Something that came up in a discussion I had today.

I have a tendency to see the world in a very "vertical" manner. On any given are of skill/knowledge, I tend to place people above and below myself instead of assuming we are all equals. I have found that people score above me in some things and below be in others, which makes ranking people overall pretty much impossible, and thus fits with my (preconceived?) view of the world. We could, perhaps, call this weak equality, although unrankability might be more accurate.

I don't know to what degree other people think this way, as society seems to prefer a distinctly stronger form of equality. Or possibly there is some completely different system that most people use. There are a lot of good ideas in the world, and I suspect that I only know a small fraction of them.

I do, however, have a way to apply my worldview (all right, worldview is usually a broader term, but you know what I mean). If I am faced with a question I don't already know the answer to and I have an expert (someone who I am confident knows a lot more than I do) nearby, I can just ask him/her instead of trying to work it out myself. A lot of people apply this idea to obscure knowledge (or, increasingly, use the internet). What I think I do differently is that I (as far as I can tell) apply to to practical things more often. Those of you who have spent a lot of time with me have probably heard the question "If I knew what you were talking about, would I regret it?". I also apply it to more complex questions, although I usually have few experts there.

I don't notice other people doing this a lot. This may because said people know more answers. Or maybe they just make it up as they go. Or maybe I am not the right person to ask (outside a few factual areas) and I am just too clueless to notice them asking each other. That is certainly possible, and considering pride, probably more likely than I think. But I wonder if this is something people are missing out on.

Note that people you know here includes people who have written books (and internet posts, etc.) about your question. Assuming you remember what they said or can find it again, of course. They're no use otherwise.

Special Case: God

Assuming there is a God (of the big-G variety, although this probably applies to small-g gods as well), it seems reasonable that said God could be considered the best expert on everything. The downside of this is that God is not exactly talkative these days. I don't know of any religions that dispute this, but if you do, I am always happy to learn. This leaves 3 ways I know of getting God's opinion on a question:
  1. Do something that normally produces random results and hope that God will stick meaning in them. I know this was used in ancient Israel (casting lots) and in the Middle Ages (trial by ordeal), and I assume this also happened in a lot of other ancient places. These days, however, the technique has mostly fallen out of favor as people have stopped believing that God will actually answer instead of leaving it random. As far as I know (with no research because it's late), there is also no rigorous empirical evidence that this still works (or ever did, but conducting experiments in the past has certain practical problems so we shouldn't expect any either way).
  2. Read old records (commonly called holy texts or scripture) of what God said sometime in the past. In this case, you need to establish that God wrote, dictated, or inspired (i.e. God sort of gave the meaning without the exact words) the original. Then you need to ensure that you have an accurate copy (you can skip this step if you're a Muslim) and that you are understanding it correctly. On top of that, the text will often not address your exact issue, so you will need to find something analogous and figure out how to apply the parallel. There are times when you get an exact match (e.g. thou shall not commit murder), but it is not as common as you might guess.
  3. Attempt to piece together a subtle message from clues like unusual events in your life, ordinary things that seems to jump out at you, and persistent and apparently-originless thoughts in your head (called listening to what God is telling you). The tricky problem here is false positives (i.e. thinking you have found something when it was really just a coincidence). Claimed detection rates among people I know range from none ever to a few in a lifetime to (at least) one every week (that's how often I asked). I don't know if this is caused by more messages being sent to some people, some people missing more, some people thinking they heard more than they did, or some combination of the three. There is also the problem that, even if God is telling you something, it is probably about something He thinks you need to know instead of the question you are wondering about.
You can also attempt to determine God's will by reading things written by experts (such as Catholic encyclicals). However, this intermediate step reintroduces all the dangers associated with human experts (bias, ignorance, dishonesty, etc.), and so is better considered with that case.

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