Woman thinking black and white

The Scholarly Trick of the Authoritative Plural

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There’s a trick that some people who perceive themselves to be learned use in order to try to gain your respect and trust. But it’s a sham. In this article, I’ll be exposing this treachery and you’ll subsequently never be sucked in by it ever again.

If you listen to a significant number of scientists talking about their work, you’ll often hear the phrase “what we know about…” or “our earliest evidence…” when they are referring to a particular idea or theory.

Have you ever considered what the ‘we’ or ‘our’ in such phrases is referring to?

I believe the plural is being used in an attempt to give weight to an argument, because using it instead of the singular ‘I’ gives the person a kind of authority that comes with the perceived membership of a powerful majority.

But does this powerful majority really exist? How is one admitted into the ‘we’ or ‘us’? Is it when they gain a PhD? Is it when they have written a certain number of books? Does belonging to an academic institution automatically give someone authority and a greater knowledge of Truth — knowledge that gives an individual the right to claim everyone (in a field of study, or even everyone with ‘common sense’) believes a certain thing?

Let us be generous for a moment. I suppose these people who use the authoritative plural have spent time and effort exploring a particular issue. They may have discovered something which they wholeheartedly believe to be true, and they may even believe their view is accepted by a majority of scholars and/or academics in a particular field.

Is this a good enough reason to employ the plural?

What I would venture to suggest is that there is rarely ever consensus among even a few people on any issue. Everything in creation is open to infinite interpretations because God can bring infinite different impressions to our minds when we are considering a certain statement or argument. In most cases, every individual will have a unique understanding of an idea they are exposed to, based on their experience, knowledge, age, education, etc.

When someone says ‘what we know about X’, I believe it is wise to drill down deeper. What is the evidence for the consensus they are implying exists?

Perhaps, for example, someone feels their argument is bolstered by a carefully worded document that has been co-signed by a large number of scholars. Even in this situation, can one be sure that all the scholars interpreted the statement that they signed in the same way? Perhaps some of the signatories misread certain words or phrases, or had a unique and nuanced understanding of a particular idea that appeared in the document. In which case, wouldn’t it be fair to say that the person using the plural is really only speaking for themself, yet trying to create the illusion of consensus?

Allow me to zoom out for some concluding remarks.

I believe all authority is God-given. Authority may be a feeling of self-confidence that lasts for a period of time, but at a different point in time the confident person may find they are actually uncertain about the issue in relation to which they were confident previously.

So it all comes down to present-moment thought and feeling impressions manifested by God. If you’re watching an interview, or a lecture, and a learned person uses the authoritative plural, you should be aware that they are merely presenting their own view, and only their own view at a specific point in time, rather than relaying some absolute Truth that exists out there somewhere in a kind of Platonic ideal realm, or that is held unconditionally by the scientific community (or some other community).

As an associated point, consider this: Do I have knowledge of the order of the alphabet when I am thinking about what to have for lunch? Of course not. Knowledge is not stored up in our brains, as some scientists suppose. In reality, an understanding of any idea or concept depends on God’s omniscience, and on Him making a certain thought appear in a person’s mind in a particular scenario. God also creates the response to any comment in the minds of readers or listeners.

How God’s omniscience works is something I do not fully understand, because at this point in time God hasn’t revealed such lofty knowledge to me. But it seems to me that God must have the most incredible memory.

In Islam, there’s an idea that points to the immensity of God’s omniscience. 

Say [Prophet], ‘If the whole ocean were ink for writing the words of my Lord, it would run dry before those words were exhausted’ — even if We were to add another ocean to it.
(Surah 18:109)

Wow. Can you get your head around that?

I should point out that God’s use of the plural to refer to Himself is exempt from my criticism in this article, because… He’s God.

As a note that may be of interest, when God uses ‘we’ to refer to Himself it’s known as the first person plural of majesty and it’s a literary device found not only in the Qur’an but also in the book on Genesis in the Bible:

Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness”
(Genesis 1:26a)

So there you go.

Cards on the table, what scientists and others are doing when they use the authoritative plural is not such a big deal. I’m not losing sleep over it. But please just be aware that when someone implies consensus via the use of a plural, they are really only expressing their personal view, so you should remain sceptical of their assertion until you are fully convinced on the basis of your own research.

I hope WE are persuaded 😁

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