Thursday, March 25, 2010


Gauntlet Down

Uh, oh. Edward Feser has some mean things to say in a piece entitled "The New Philistinism" at the blog of the American Enterprise Institute:

I once heard a fundamentalist preacher "refute" Darwin by asking rhetorically: "What came first, the chicken or the egg?" He didn't elaborate. But he did chuckle disdainfully, and since his audience of fellow believers did the same, no elaboration was necessary. They all "knew" that he had just posed a challenge no Darwinian could possibly answer, and that was enough. None of them had ever actually read anything any Darwinian had written—and I highly doubt the preacher had either—but never mind. What would be the point? They "already knew" such writers could not possibly have anything of interest to say, in light of this "fatal" objection to evolution. ...

[P]hilosopher John Searle once criticized eliminative materialism—a bizarre theory propounded by some contemporary philosophers according to which the human mind does not really exist (don't ask)—for the dishonest way in which its adherents often respond to their many critics:

Another rhetorical device for disguising the implausible is to give the commonsense view a name and then deny it by name and not by content. Thus, it is very hard even in the present era to come right out and say, "No human being has ever been conscious." Rather, the sophisticated philosopher gives the view that people are sometimes conscious a name, for example, "the Cartesian intuition," then he or she sets about challenging, questioning, denying something described as "the Cartesian intuition"… And just to give this maneuver a name, I will call it the "give-it-a-name" maneuver. (4–5)

Well, the New Atheists have incorporated this "'give-it-a-name' maneuver" into their own rhetorical bag of tricks, and the name they've chosen is "The Courtier's Reply." The label comes from Dawkins' fellow biologist and atheist P.Z. Myers, and it refers to an imagined defense a court sycophant might give of the naked emperor of Hans Christian Anderson's famous story: "Haven't you read the detailed discourses of Count Roderigo of Seville on the exquisite and exotic leathers of the Emperor's boots?" etc. The idea is that complaining about a New Atheist's lack of theological knowledge is no better than the courtier's complaint that the naked emperor's critics haven't read the works of Count Roderigo. In other words, it is just the same old question-begging "Leprechology" and "Pastafarianism" pseudo-defense, now tarted up with a clever marketing tag.

How does it work? Well, suppose you confront a New Atheist with the overwhelming evidence that his "objections" to Aquinas (or whomever) are about as impressive as the fundamentalist's "chicken/egg" objection to evolution. What's he going to do? Tell the truth? "Fine, so I don't know the first thing about Aquinas. But I'm not going to let that stop me from criticizing him! Nyah nyah!" Even for a New Atheist, that has its weaknesses from a PR point of view. But now, courtesy of Myers, he's got a better response: "Oh dear, oh dear … not the Courtier's Reply!" followed by some derisive chuckling. One's intelligent listeners will be baffled, wondering how shouting "Courtier's Reply!" is supposed to excuse not knowing what one is talking about. And one's more gullible followers—people like the faithful who have been buying up The God Delusion by the bushel basket—will be thrilled to have some new piece of smart-assery to fling at their religious friends in lieu of a serious argument. In the confusion, the New Atheist can slip out the back door before anyone realizes he hasn't really answered the question. Call it "the Myers Shuffle," and feel free to fling that label back at the next fool atheist who thinks yelling "Courtier's Reply!" should be enough to stop you in your tracks.

Feser goes too far but I've never understood how people who value rational thinking and discussion could mistake ridicule for an argument.

This bit from Feser's article,

"'After all,' we can imagine the preacher slyly replying, 'would you need to read learned volumes on Leprechology before disbelieving in leprechauns?' ... Indeed, the “Leprechology” line was in fact uttered by Dawkins himself, in reply to the suggestion that he should learn something about theology and philosophy of religion before commenting on it. Similarly, in the preface to the paperback edition of The God Delusion, he says: 'Most of us happily disavow fairies, astrology and the Flying Spaghetti Monster, without first immersing ourselves in books of Pastafarian theology.' Yet whether the work of Aquinas, Leibniz, et al., is really comparable to 'Leprechology' or 'Pastafarianism' in the first place is precisely what is in question ..."

reminds me of a similar argument made by John Lynch back when he was on ScienceBlogs:

"Dawkins needs to first prove the equivalence of theology [X] and "fairyology" [Y]before he can use his stock reply to deflect criticism. Importantly, to establish this equivalence one needs to know what theologians are actually writing - and that involves reading the theological writings of believers and the writings of philosophers of religion."

I'm inclined to say that the major weakness, and IMHO the defining weakness of the New Atheists, is that they are far more committed to anti-theism than to critical thinking, and the article by Feser shows this weakness being exploited even by the not-so-rational folks of the AEI.
So are we insisting that people who criticise science for promoting a materialist world view should learn something about all the sciences first? Perhaps philosophy as well?

Yes, 'The Courtier's Reply' is a rhetorical tactic. But does work as an analogy? It does challenge a common style of the argument put forward by believers - "Because there is a God, this is true... this is true... this is true, so I believe in God".
Nope, the Courtier's Reply has nothing to do with circular arguments by theists. It solely deals with complaints (often by more philosophically-minded atheists) that the "Affirmative Atheists" make philosophically crude arguments based on their ignorance of "sophisticated" theology. The complaint (at least partly justified) is that the atheists who make this "argument" show no signs of knowing theologic arguments, "sophisticated" or not.
Also, one of the big problems with the Courtier's Reply is that arguing for atheism is likened to a simple act of pointing to something in plain view, but actual arguments for atheism are far more indirect and in practice require at least some knowledge of religious claims.
So are we insisting that people who criticise science for promoting a materialist world view should learn something about all the sciences first? Perhaps philosophy as well?

I certainly would. I would regard someone bloviating about the evils of sciences without actually knowing any science (or philosophy of science) to be as foolish as someone bloviating about how stupid Aquinas was without actually having read Aquinas.
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