Thursday, 1 April 2010

The Courtier's Reply

The "new atheists" for better or worse are now part of the mainstream discussion on the role of religion. One of the main criticisms that flows from the injection is one of lazy scholarship. The new atheists either through ignorance, intellectual laziness, or even dishonesty when addressing the question of God. They aren't engaging with theologians.

PZ Myers came up with a brilliant retort: The Courtier's Reply. And the idea really does resonate, instead of getting involved with the inner workings of the discipline, it's decrying the discipline as vacuous. Philosopher Edward Feser in a recent article has this criticism of it as an argument:
[S]uppose 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 seems to be pointing out the worst possible intellectual sin, making an argument from ignorance. And Feser is correct, if someone were to dismiss evolutionary theory without understanding it there would be outrage from biologists. Yet here atheists are doing the same with arguments surrounding the existence of God.

I think Feser is making a false equivalence here, and in doing so missing the point that Dawkins et al. are trying to make. To illustrate this point, I'll once again turn to the idea ofnon-astrology.

Ignoring my horoscope
I really don't know much about astrology at all, yet I reject it for similar reasons to The Courtier's Reply. Feser's same objection could apply, how do I know that something is there if I haven't really looked into it? I'm dismissing it on principle and here I don't think I'm alone.

I would be willing to bet that most people who are non-astrologers like myself are so because they find the idea of astrology absurd. When horoscopes are printed in a newspaper, they wouldn't be checking their star sign and then keeping track of the number of hits and number of misses printed in the column each week. Instead, I would be willing to bet that most people who reject astrology have not put much thought into it at all!

Any objections I would make to astrology have nothing to do with the inner workings of astrology. I would object to astrology on the lack of causal mechanism - that in a universe where celestial objects move relative to us by fixed laws, it doesn't follow that such movements could determine human affairs. I think that any correlation between what is said and what happens can be explained by coincidence, selective bias and ambiguity.

To be clear, I am not dismissing astrology on its own terms. I am dismissing the need to argue astrology on its own terms because I think it fails the need to be taken seriously to begin with.

False equivalence
All lines of inquiry aren't considered equal, nor should they be. Just by the nature of being, there are an extraordinary number of beliefs or lines of inquiry that we reject implicitly or explicitly without digging deep into the line of inquiry itself.

Take alternative medicine and the metaphysics that comes along with a lot of it. Now as a sceptic I might suggest that acupuncture works no better than a placebo treatment. From that I would quite reasonably (in my mind) conclude that acupuncture is a placebo treatment. It's utter failure to be distinguished from a sham treatment demonstrates the causal mechanism behind the treatment explaining that it will work.

Much like the validity of acupuncture, the validity of evolutionary theory is wrapped up in the question of empirical evidence for it. If one is going to dismiss evolutionary theory without so much as an appeal to the evidence, they are making a category error. Meanwhile, if someone were to question why I haven't read about qi flows when instead I cite a study showing there's no statistical effect for acupuncture treatment then I would argue that they are asking the wrong question.

The false equivalence in the analogy Feser draws is he's comparing a discipline where understanding the fine details is central to being able to refute that to a discipline which is contended it is not important to understand those central details. That is the essence of The Courtier's Reply. The question is whether the notion of God falls into the category of valid arguments.

The validity of the discipline
Just as I would expect an astrologer to present an argument to give legitimacy to the discipline, I don't expect theists to roll over and concede they have nothing. Perhaps there is legitimacy in philosophy, that there is the necessity of taking particular arguments seriously.

Lets for the sake of argument concede that Aquinas' Five Ways are valid. Does this get us to the Christian God - one that has a keen and vested interest in our world? Does it give us a grounding for morality? Does it mean there is an afterlife? Does it mean that God came down to earth and got himself born as a man only to die and then ascend to heaven? In other words, does it follow that if Aquinas' arguments hold that God as it is known exist? I can't see how it follows.

From what I can gather, the "new atheist" conjecture is that God as an idea isn't one that is the product of logical argument but one that is wound up in the fabric of the universe and intervening in the affairs of humanity. The prayer-hearing, bible-writing/inspiring, miracle-producing, cosmic-tuning, life-creating, moral-teacher that is a real presence in the universe. And it is this God, one that is subject to the realm of science they are rejecting.

The obvious objection is that God is beyond science, and thus not subject to testing. Then what of an interventionist deity if it's beyond the realm of measurable? Claims made about God are claims about reality, claims made about God's nature come from our understanding of reality. What does it mean to say "God loves"? Can any of us actually talk about love without referring to experience? If science can measure how love works in the brain, surely that reflects on any metaphysical claim about the nature of God. When I'm told that Jesus loves me, are there neurochemical signals to the brain lighting up particular pathways in the mind of God as there would as if I was talking about loving my wife?

The arguments Dawkins et al. are making aren't philosophical arguments. They are scientific arguments, looking at how the universe works and from there (tentatively) concluding that God is an unreasonable proposition.

A weak response
I think Feser is using the Courtier's reply incorrectly there. If Dawkins did make weak objections to Aquinas' Five Ways (it was a popular book for a popular audience, though that doesn't excuse flat-out misrepresenting the arguments at hand), then it should be criticised as such. But using The Courtier's Reply in that context is wrong, the reply is to accusations of not taking theology seriously.

The argument is that the whole premise is faulty, much like astrology. One doesn't need to learn its inner workings when the basic ideas behind it are untenable. The job for the astrologer is to show that there is validity to the concept to warrant looking at it internally, and I would say that theists have the same burden. Why should concepts like theodicy or questions regarding the afterlife be taken seriously? Until that is adequately answered, there's always The Courtier's Reply. For Aquinas' arguments however, that's a different story entirely.


Monado, FCD said...

Excellent points. I knew that the reply to the Reply was silly but hadn't taken the time to tease out why.

Harris Tweed said...

One other thought, Isaac Newton, probably one of the smartest people to have ever lived (if not THE smartest person), wrote over a million words on the subject of alchemy. All physicists and chemists can and often do reject alchemy outright without ever having read a single sentence of Newton's thoughts on the subject. Modern thought has come at difficult subjects from different directions than ancient thought. One need not be well versed in every single nonsense idea that man has ever devised in order to speak intelligently on a given subject.

Great post.