Wednesday, December 14, 2011


Tired Luskin

Well, well ...

Casey Luskin has topped himself in the irony-meter-slaying department. Regular Casey watchers will know just what a high bar that is.

Luskin is kvetching about Richard Dawkins' latest book, The Magic of Reality: How We Know What's Really True. You see:

The stated purpose of The Magic of Reality is to help kids understand both the content and nature of scientific knowledge. The real purpose is to get them to disbelieve in anything supernatural and to associate traditional religious beliefs with wacky superstitions that few have even heard of.
But we all know that Intelligent Design is all about science, not religion ...

But that's not the irony.

Then the Gofer General of the Discoveryless Institute, known far and wide for his towering scientific knowledge, whips out his philosopher's hat and pronounces:

Dawkins then feeds kids shaky logic about why they should never believe in miracles. Taking the tired old Humean approach, he claims that if someone seemingly trustworthy tells you about a miracle, your first inclination should be to believe the person is lying because "the 'miracle' of their lying would still be a smaller miracle than the [miracle] they claimed..." (p. 255) But doesn't this simply assume that miracles don't happen?

Uh ... no. It's an argument based on experience. Based on our experience, miracles are, at the very least, rare. Also based on our experience, people lying, being mistaken and engaging in self-delusion is, at the very least, common (hence Dawkins' examples of "wacky superstitions"). Therefore, when rationally considering the accounts of others or even of our own experiences, the presumption should be that "miracles" are very much less likely than that someone, ourselves included, is lying, mistaken or self-delusional.

While there is great irony in Casey (whose logical and philosophical abilities are, at the very least, rare) proclaiming that the arguments of David Hume (whose logical and philosophical abilities are, at the very least, common) to be "tired," that's still not the megadose.

Here it comes:

Those who are familiar with the law will immediately recognize what Dawkins is doing: he's trying to exclude evidence from consideration whenever it challenges his case. He's acting more like a lawyer who's been paid by a party to vigorously defend one particular position than someone who is dispassionately seeking truth.
Woo Hoo! Casey Luskin, a lawyer paid by the DI to vigorously promote the overthrow of "scientific materialism" and restore "a broadly theistic understanding of nature," is accusing others of doing exactly what his own job description is.

There is more that could be said about Luskin's "argument" and even Dawkins' but, really, why bother after that?

I found that teaching Hume's "On Miracles" very difficult, because the students are immensely reluctant to read carefully. They tend to fail to notice that

(a) the argument is directed against miracles that are believed in on the basis of testimony alone;

(b) Hume defines a miracle as an even that is so unusual that one cannot even explain it on the basis of analogy with anything in one's experience.

Here's an example Hume gives: an Indian prince is astounded when he's told that water becomes solid when it becomes very cold. He finds this extremely hard to believe. But, he is familiar with the general fact that temperature is correlated with state, e.g. in the case of metals. So he's being asked to imagine that water is like iron, in a way that he's never conceived of before, but the possibility of his constructing such an analogy means that ice is not "miraculous" for him, only (in Hume's terms) "marvelous".

I'm not surprised that Luskin is as tone-deaf to these subtleties as many of my students are. But my students are, by and large, educable. I'm not sure I can say the same for Luskin. I'm sure he's had his errors pointed out to him many times.
I'm sure he's had his errors pointed out to him many times.

Oh, yes ... but his usual reaction is that he is being dissed (which, of course, he is, but not for the reason he thinks) but never to wonder if he is just ignorant. An occupational hazzard of those who think all truth is wrapped up with a bow in a single book.
Doesn't a judge exclude certain kinds of evidence? If a witness says, "I know it was the defendent because I saw it in a dream..." I rather doubt his identification would be allowed. Or "By some miracle, my fingerprints appeared on the murder weapon."
Both sides of the case are bound by the same rules.
Doesn't a judge exclude certain kinds of evidence?

Oh, sure. And, while the "testimony of a [supposedly] sane, credible witness" would probably be allowed, that testimony could freely be attacked by the other side, which is what Dawkins is doing. And, of course, there are no witnesses of Jesus' alleged miracles, as the Bible is, at best, inadmissible double hearsay.
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