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The Courtier's Reply and the Myers Shuffle [Aug. 22nd, 2012|02:44 am]
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I have a huge philosophy-crush on Ed Feser now. His thought processes and his writing are just so clear, and he takes people down for exactly the right reasons - even if I disagree with every single one of his positive conclusions so far.

I was especially interested in his article on the Myers Shuffle.

The debate goes like this: some religious person says something that sounds crazy, as religious people do.

Some atheist says "That's stupid and you are stupid," as atheists do.

The religious person responds: "It may seem stupid, until you understand where I'm coming from. But if you read theology, you'll find that it's actually well supported by a bunch of logical arguments you're just not familiar with, and which are too complicated for me to explain to you right now."

P.Z. Myers has written on this situation, calling the religious person's response "The Courtier's Reply". He asks us to imagine the scene from The Emperor's New Clothes, where the One Sane Man has pointed out that the Emperor is naked. A courtier haughtily replies "You clearly have not read the many books written by the great nobles and scholars of the realm discussing the masterful quality of the Emperor's garments. Once you read through the entirety of the Imperial Tailor's library, then maybe you will be qualified to have an opinion on whether the Emperor has clothes or not."

Prof. Feser (which is, you'll notice, a perfect combination of title and name) makes what seems to me the obvious objection:
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

Now imagine that some of the friends and coreligionists of the fundamentalist preacher I quoted earlier let him know that his “refutation” of Darwinism was completely worthless, that he clearly knew nothing about the subject, and that he really ought to try seriously to understand it before commenting further. Suppose the preacher’s response to this criticism was to dismiss it as providing aid and comfort to the Darwinist enemy, and that since he already knew from his “refutation” that Darwinism was too ludicrous to take seriously, there could be no point in investigating it any further. “After all,” we can imagine the preacher slyly replying, “would you need to read learned volumes on Leprechology before disbelieving in leprechauns?”

Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, and Hitchens would, of course, be outraged by such a dismissal of Darwinism. And rightly so; it would be sheer, question-begging bigotry. For whether Darwinism is really comparable to “Leprechology” is of course precisely what is in question, and anyone who actually knows something about Darwinism knows also that such a comparison would be ludicrous. But the preacher will never know this, dogmatically locked as he is into his circle of mutually self-reinforcing prejudices. In his view, Darwinism must be too absurd to be worth taking seriously, because it cannot solve the chicken/egg “problem” he has posed for it; and the chicken/egg “problem” must be a serious objection to Darwinism, because he already knows that Darwinism is too absurd to be worth taking seriously. He is on a merry-go-round, but insists that it is the rest of the world that is moving. Even Richard Dawkins can see that.

Or maybe not. Because this is exactly the sort of response Dawkins has made to his critics. 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—and precisely what people who actually know something about Aquinas, Leibniz, et al., know to be a suggestion that is simply too stupid for words...

In the very letter to the editor of The Independent in which he makes his “Leprechology” defense, Dawkins whines that his views have been misrepresented and that the “decent” thing for his critics to do would be to read his book before attacking it!

In other words, the absurdity heuristic is less than 100% accurate. In other other words, it's my old talking snakes parable all over again.

Then he goes on the attack vs. Myers:
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."

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.

This analysis of the "give-it-a-name manuever" seems to me entirely correct. I had always thought of it as a mostly virtuous process: I've praised Godwin's Law for exorcising Hitler arguments at a stroke just by giving them a funny name. But Feser is right that if you give the argument a name implying it's the sort of thing no credible person could fall for (like "Courtier's Reply") or that it's associated with naivety and discredited ideas ("the Cartesian intuition") that may be enough to shame people out of making even a good argument.

But leaving the meta-meta-debate to get back to the meta-debate, I still am uncertain what to do with the Courtier's Reply. Feser's anti-Darwinist preacher was clearly incorrect in his decision that he didn't need to read any books on evolution. Myers' hypothetical atheist seems to me to be incorrect in his decision that he doesn't need to read any books on theology. But what if an intelligent design advocate says "We really shouldn't be having this debate until you've read Michael Behe's Darwin's Black Box, and Dembski's Intelligent Design, and three or four more of the most famous Intelligent Design books." For that matter, what if David Icke says "We really can't debate whether the queen is secretly a lizard person until you read my book, The Queen Is Secretly A Lizard Person, $24.99 off Amazon?"

For that matter, what if you read, let's say, ten intelligent design books, debate with the original ID advocate, and then the next ID advocate you meet says "Oh, you're still a Darwinist? I'm not surprised. Those were some crappy books you read. And your real problem seems to be your continued belief in transitional fossils. Here are five books on the nonexistence of transitional fossils you need to read, and of course if you don't read them you're not qualified to hold this debate." This seems like potentially an especially big problem in theology, where there are a bunch of different theologians with very different ideas and of very different quality, many of whom are really hard to understand, and where any given religious person may think that only a few of them are valuable.

...but then, suppose the preacher reads a couple of really crappy pop sci books on evolution, dismisses the whole idea based on a few errors that seem to genuinely be in his sources, and when you politely recommend a better book says "Ha! I already read a bunch of books on evolution, they were stupid, and now you're trying to shut me up by forcing me to read even more books! There are so many books on evolution that I can never read all of them; therefore you're just going to continue refusing to debate me."

In other words, any version of the Courtier's Reply strong enough to shut down people who want you to spend the rest of your life reading about reptilian British monarchs is also strong enough to shut down people who are correct and merely want you to have some idea what you're talking about before bloviating against them.

So there's the long-winded statement of the problem. What's the solution?

I think it starts with the realization that this isn't really about debating. The only rule for debating is that both parties consent. If you want to debate a creationist who knows nothing about evolution and refuses to learn, go ahead. If you don't, that works too. There's some point in being upset if people then start considering that person an expert on evolution (which seems to be Feser's problem with Dawkins), but aside from shouting "NO HE'S NOT!" really loud there's not much you can do anyway.

The real issue here seems to be not interpersonal conflict, but personal development. Given that I want to be right about as many things as possible, but reading books is costly in time and money, how do I best allocate my resources?

The naive answer, that I should read only books on subjects where I assign a high chance I might be wrong, doesn't really cut it. The whole problem is that the absurdity heuristic doesn't work that well, and the unreliability of saying "There's no way I could be wrong on this" just based on my personal judgment is exactly the problem at issue. But total failure to make any judgment at all leads to me reading books about lizard people (which actually sounds kind of fun, now that I think about it).

Right now the best solution I've got is to read books in areas where my opinion differs from the opinion of a bunch of other people whom I consider smart and rational. This suggests the preacher should read more books about Darwinism, since all those Nobel Prize winners and biology Ph.Ds believe it. The atheist should read more books about religion, since many people whom one would otherwise judge as smart and rational believe that too. One seems on relatively safe ground rejecting ID, although maybe one should read a book or two just to be sure. And there doesn't seem to be any point in reading about the Lizard People, except as previously mentioned that it would be hilarious.

Of course this has problems of its own, like that one's definition of "smart and rational" is always at least a little influenced by "do they agree with me about stuff". Here I can only appeal to certain universal criteria, like high IQ, successful achievements in some difficult field, ability to change their mind on other subjects when proven wrong, and eyeballing how much bias they're likely to have.

The second problem is that it fails the original case - the courtier responding that of course the Emperor has clothes, and if you're so stupid as to not understand that, you need to read more books on courtly fashion. After all, everyone else in the Empire is acting as if the Emperor had clothes on.

But...actually, wait a minute. Let's say this actually happened. Forget this vague Emperor of Nowhere. Let's say that President Obama gives the State of the Union naked. No one seems to mind or notice. The Democrats politely clap after every few sentences as usual, the Republicans politely boo as usual, but when asked they say it's because he's an evil freedom-hating socialist and not because of any unusual attire. In the newspaper the next morning, a few journalists complain that he used misleading figures about the tax rate, a few others say that he made a made a minor gaffe towards the end, but none of them mention anything odd about his dress. So you go to the White House Press Secretary, and as politely as possible, you say "Excuse me, but, uh, was President Obama naked during his SotU speech last night?" And the Press Secretary says "Ah...that's actually a known phenomenon, thinking the President is naked when really he isn't, here's a book about it called Why A Few People Sometimes Think The President Is Naked, Even Though He Really Isn't." And you say...

"Ha! I'm not even going to read the book! I know nothing useful could possibly be in it!"

Really? Because me, I would be dying to get my hands on that book. There are so many interesting things that could be in it - some kind of optical illusion based on the angle of the TV camera, some weird tradition for the President to wear skin-colored suits, maybe some pranksters broke into the TV station and used some software that Photoshopped the image feed in real time, maybe it's a common form of hallucination in people who have strong feelings about the President.

(If someone had abducted your wife and taken her identity, and it obviously was a different person, and some doctor handed you a book called Introduction to the Capgras Delusion, would you read it?)

In any case, it would seem prudent to at least have some idea what's going on before breaking into a national news station and shouting on live TV "THE PRESIDENT HAS NO CLOTHES!" And this would be a thousand times more true if, rather than it being something obvious to the senses like the sartorial status of the President, it was something that actually required a sort of complex chain of logical reasoning.

PS: Feser's Scientist - Skeptic Dialogue

PPS: The only other acknowledgement of this problem I was able to find was one on RationalWiki, which helpfully points out that the Courtier's Reply is a "fallacy" and "a form of intellectual bullying". Then they go on to qualify that by saying that sometimes people use it against liberals or atheists, which is a "misapplication" because in those cases the people who use it are just "ignorant loud-mouths too vain to listen to other people". The distinction is that their opponents are clearly just using it "to shut down debate" but their friends are just as clearly using it "to enlighten", which might be a useful difference if they had posted it on its own instead of offering a helpful guide to which side invariably used it with which intent. Overall, my response is a big ಠ_ಠ

[User Picture]From: avanti_90
2012-08-22 08:48 am (UTC)


I thought you were joking about the lizard thing until I googled it. Now... I don't know what to think. Lizard people? Really?
[User Picture]From: amuchmoreexotic
2012-08-22 10:31 am (UTC)


Louis CK confronted Donald Rumsfeld with the lizard allegations, to hilarious effect.
[User Picture]From: ciphergoth
2012-08-22 09:18 am (UTC)


I suspect you're right that there's a problem here, but I don't think this is fair to what people say about the Courtier's Reply. The problem is that much of what we're expected to be familiar with in order to reject religion is not arguments for the existence of God, nor indeed discussion of why disbelief exists, but discussion that starts from the premise that the Christian God exists and asks about its consequences. The reading that the courtier is recommending isn't "Why the Emperor sometimes looks naked when he isn't", but a discussion of exactly what some people have inferred that he is wearing; discussion that won't help settle the question of whether he's clothed at all.
From: swimmy
2012-08-22 05:53 pm (UTC)


Yes, that was my first thought. I don't see how most theology texts can get one from "god doesn't exist" to "god exists." Apologetics texts, yes, because they're focused on discussing the existence rather than the character of god.

And of course the New Atheists have read apologetics and they find it generally silly, which it usually is. If Aquinas is a particularly good apologist as well as theologian, defenders should be pointing to chapters about that topic, not Aquinas in general. It's not as if our fundamentalist preacher will be helped by a volume about the evolution of the blood clotting cascade without first understanding why someone would believe simplified cascades in non-human animals is evidence for evolution in the first place. He could just be like Casey Luskin, and proclaim all clotting cascades irreducibly complex even after having just been shown that you can remove parts from the human cascade.

Not that Dawkins shouldn't learn more philosophy or apologetics. The God Delusion is a pretty bad book for more reasons than lack of knowledge of theology.
Re: I can't resist - (Anonymous) Expand
[User Picture]From: hentaikid
2012-08-22 10:05 am (UTC)


It seems like the Dunning-Kruger effect applied to phylosophical discourse.

Another option rather than studying everything of course is to find a reliable expert and ask him, this is what Dawkins does with Dan Dennet - I think it's in this talk where he asks him if he needs to study theology, and the answer is something along the lines of "No, it's mostly noise"
[User Picture]From: amuchmoreexotic
2012-08-22 10:20 am (UTC)


I haven't read Aquinas and Leibniz - here are some reasons why Feser's argument isn't going to convince me to bother.

1. Most books aren't like timed-release pills which need to be swallowed whole to be effective and must never be chewed or crushed. If Aquinas's writings contain a particularly good idea that could persuade me to take Christianity seriously, that idea would have been summarised in popular works, the key passages quoted, and so on - if I heard about such ideas and found them compelling, I would then consider reading the original.

In fact, I was indoctrinated in Christian ideas from ages 5 to 18, and I hear a (mainly Christian) religious propaganda slot every day on the radio, so you'd think these killer ideas would have come up.

If I had to debate a preacher spouting the chicken-egg argument, my reaction wouldn't be to insist that he has to read The Origin of Species (which I haven't read either) and The Selfish Gene and five other books - it would be to explain that eggs came first, and chickens gradually evolved from other egg-laying creatures, and briefly summarise the evidence from fossils, natural history and so on. I don't expect that would convert the preacher to Darwinism, but it would probably get him to raise a different objection and abandon the chicken/egg argument.

Now maybe you could argue that theology books *are* like timed-release pills, only comprehensible as a whole, and my dismissing Aquinas is like someone who opens an advanced text on quantum mechanics and dismisses it as gibberish because they haven't studied the requisite maths. However, it seems from what theology I've read that the texts aren't like that. Different authors may try to refute each other, but they tend to invent their own concepts and terminology rather than relying on some shared system of notation analogous to maths.

2. When religious people say things which sound stupid to me, they don't seem to be derived from the works of Aquinas, Leibniz etc. Take the current flap about Akin's ideas about abortion/rape. Fred Clark, a progressive Christian, has demonstrated that abortion wasn't a big issue among Republicans until the 1970s. It was raised because it was a useful distraction from the way both US parties only serve the interests of the very rich, not because it is a core Christian value. The justifications US evangelicals give for being against abortion are usually a couple of oblique references to babies in the Bible, not arguments from Aquinas.

3. Religious people's stupid statements make predictions outside the realm of theology, which turn out to be false. Maybe Akin thinks humans have a mechanism to prevent pregnancy from rape because of his Leibnizian philosophical framework, or maybe it's for some other reason. But since the medical evidence indicates that's not true, why would I trawl through a load of theology books to see if one of them mentions something about womb toxins?

Why isn't my refusal to read Leibniz in this case just as bad as rejecting the book in your naked Obama story? In your story, the consensus of the people best placed to spot that the President is naked is that he isn't naked. If most people agreed he was naked, and a team of expert tailors had run tests showing he wasn't wearing clothes, but the press secretary handed you a book called Why It's Impossible For The President To Be Naked: Lessons From Leibniz, then you would probably be justified in ignoring it.

4. Christian theology contains logical arguments, but also Biblical exegesis. If I don't accept the arguments that the Bible is divinely inspired or a source of particular wisdom, then why would I want to read writers who take that as a given?

Edited at 2012-08-22 10:23 am (UTC)
[User Picture]From: amuchmoreexotic
2012-08-22 10:29 am (UTC)


4a) If I was talking to someone who was a Young Earth Creationist and didn't accept evolution, it would be silly to deride them for not having read widely in some specialist field where evolution is taken for granted. If they said "if evolution is true, which came first, the chicken or the egg?", and I said "get back to me when you've read these nine books on phyletics", they'd be justified in suspecting that I was trying a Courtier's Reply because I didn't have a good answer.
[User Picture]From: lastconformer
2012-08-22 12:04 pm (UTC)


The fundamentalist preacher Feser talks about is not a priest and wouldn't want to be called one.

By contrast an Anglican "priest" would feel slighted by my scare quotes and you probably don't want to sort out who thinks whom fake when you think it's all fake anyway. But fundamentalist Protestants don't think Christianity features special priests and their pastors don't identify that way, so calling them priests annoys both them and us.
[User Picture]From: marycatelli
2012-08-22 01:09 pm (UTC)


There is of course the necessary stance of being agnostic on a whole heck of a lot of issues. In which it is wise to avoid debate.

A precept as old as Plato's Apology.
[User Picture]From: Julia Wise
2012-08-22 02:24 pm (UTC)


I enjoyed the post. One quibble, though:

Neither Meyer nor the original fable identify the truth-teller as the One Sane Man. In the story, the whistle-blower is a child (no gender given in the original Danish) who speaks the truth out of simple ignorance.

I cringe a little every time I read about men as the default (especially as the default Sane Person). Let's not invent masculine terms for sane people when there's no reason the concept should be gendered at all.
[User Picture]From: squid314
2012-08-22 08:47 pm (UTC)


I am referring to (although I misquoted the name of) the Official TVTrope "Only Sane Man".
From: (Anonymous)
2012-08-22 03:19 pm (UTC)


Other criteria besides the number of of nobel prizes received and highest IQs reached by proponents of a view might be
* how often people independently discover the view without knowing about it in advance
* how often people change their minds about it after first being convinced that it's false
* how much do people stick to the view in the face of social pressure
* how relevant this quote seems to be: "I know that most men, including those at ease with problems of the greatest complexity, can seldom accept even the simplest and most obvious truth if it be such as would oblige them to admit the falsity of conclusions which they have delighted in explaining to colleagues, which they have proudly taught to others, and which they have woven, thread by thread, into the fabric of their lives."
[User Picture]From: drethelin
2012-08-22 03:58 pm (UTC)


Can't we just draw the line at usefulness? If someone claims to be able to combine a few elements to generate huge amounts of power, this is implausible. On the other hand, if people can read some dozens of books on physics and chemistry and construct a uranium powerplant, then we can believe them. My problem with theology and much of philosophy is that the reams of writing you're asked to read don't actually lead anywhere but where you started. Theologists point to a bunch of books you should read to understand theology, so that you will agree with the original point that was made, and which people came to entirely without theology. Apologetics is a waste of time.

Then again if you don't believe in the importance of practical evidence this argument won't sway you.

Also rationalwiki is terrrrrrible.
[User Picture]From: marycatelli
2012-08-22 05:01 pm (UTC)


define "usefulness" as used in that sentence.
[User Picture]From: ipslore
2012-08-22 05:12 pm (UTC)


This is a problem with the Reply, yes. Sometimes the suggested reading is legitimate background material, and sometimes it's bullshit, apologetics, slick-sounding rationalizations, etc; and it can be hard to tell the difference.

Also, I think it's fair to say that if you spend ten years studying Aquinas, reading the commentaries on him, immersing yourself in his worldview and assumptions and so forth, you're more likely to come out the other end agreeing with Aquinas, regardless of whether his arguments are valid or not; you'll tend to unconsciously 'buy into' Aquinas's premises, even if consciously you reject his conclusions. While on another hand, "I refuse to read Aquinas! You're just trying to brainwash me!!" is obviously a rubbish argument. I'm not sure where the line between those is, though.
[User Picture]From: maniakes
2012-08-22 05:55 pm (UTC)


My recommendation would be that if you're interested in trying to persuade people they're wrong, you'd be well-advised to:

1. Study arguments in favor of the views you want to persuade people against, especially the best-regarded and most persuasive arguments you can find, in order to a) check to see if it's not actually you who's mistaken, and b) know enough about the good arguments for the position to be able to respond constructively to them.

2. Know the arguments for your own position well enough that you can summarize them persuasively to someone who's never been exposed to them, without needing to refer people to books they're unlikely to read at your mere say-so.
From: joshuazelinsky
2012-08-22 09:50 pm (UTC)


There may be two versions of the Courtier's Reply. One version is the more general version in question here. In which case Feser's and your analysis seem accurate.

But the most common context where the Reply is applied is a distinct situation. That situation arises when the problem is in essence that the argument being made assumes radically different premises and tries to pretend that the consequences of those premises somehow matter. The most common version of this is when someone is discussing the existence of God, and the defense claims that in order to discuss it one needs to be familiar with all sorts of works which aren't even defending that claim but rather are starting with it as a premise and working from here. That's in fact the case for the vast majority of theology- it assumes some form of divine. So arguing about it isn't that helpful.

The analogy would be if one is arguing with a follower of David Icke and he insists that you can't discuss things until you've read a book discussing the reptillian overlords ' longterm plan, and that book starts with a premise that the reptillian overlords exist. The analogy here is to books discussing the details of the Emperor's clothes that simply take for granted that the Emperor exists.

The conclusion one might draw from this, is that it is reasonable for the theologian to ask that people be familiar with arguments for the existence of God, and that shouldn't be labeled a Courtier's Reply. At the same time, it isn't unreasonable for David Icke to actually want you to be familiar with the basic arguments for his belief before you start arguing against it.

[User Picture]From: squid314
2012-08-23 05:54 am (UTC)


See my response to ciphergoth at

Of course, if the theology in question is totally irrelevant, then yes, it's bad.
[User Picture]From: pw201
2012-08-23 04:19 pm (UTC)


There's perhaps a more precise version of what Feser may be about than telling him that he's using the Courtier's Reply: what Adam Lee refers to as The Apologist's Turnstile, the idea that, to be epistemically rational, someone should do much more serious research to reject religion than they would need to do to accept it. I think we'd need a reason to accept that kind of asymmetry. (I guess Plantinga tries to provide one, for example, but I don't know whether Feser is down with Plantinga: they're pretty far apart, theologically.)

More charitably, perhaps Feser might say that he's not talking about a norm of rationality but rather a norm of debate: people writing books ought to do some research and not present straw-man versions of their opponents' arguments. I think I'd have some sympathy with that view. To the extent that Dawkins claims to be presenting Aquinas's argument and gets it wrong, Dawkins has failed to do what a good debater should do.

As far as personal development goes, I've been puzzling over this after reading your posts, too. There are smart people who believe almost anything, so I'm still not sure where to start. Aristotlean metaphysics is available to you because of Leah's association Less Wrong. Does this mean it is more likely to be correct than other options?

[User Picture]From: jordan179
2012-08-23 05:41 pm (UTC)


... what Adam Lee refers to as The Apologist's Turnstile, the idea that, to be epistemically rational, someone should do much more serious research to reject religion than they would need to do to accept it. I think we'd need a reason to accept that kind of asymmetry.

To play Deva's Advocate (tm) :) ...

The vast majority of humanity believes in a god or gods. This has been true for as far back as we have history. To thus assume gods to be real based on this would be a variant of the Appeal to Popularity Fallacy, but it does command some attention.

One possibility for this might be that gods are in fact real and humanity has noticed this at a level which cannot easily be put into explicitly-rational terms. Another possibility is that the tendency to believe in gods is either hard-wired into the human brain or so culturally-advantageous that atheist cultures tend to be outcompeted by theist ones.

Either could be true. Neither, however, affords us with actual proof of the existence of any gods.

("Deva" is Vedic/Hindi for "god.")
[User Picture]From: jordan179
2012-08-23 05:37 pm (UTC)


I have very serious problems with Godwin's Law, since its main application seems to be to disallow any analogies between Hitler/the Nazis and any other individual or ideology. This makes no sense, as Hitler was in fact a man as other men, and Naziism an ideology as other ideologies. An evil man and an evil ideology, to be true, but there is nothing inherent in the nature of either men or ideologies which prohibits their being evil. And in disallowing such analogies, we blind ourselves to our perils: Hitler and the Nazis should serve to us as a huge historical wake-up call as to the potentially vast danger of evil men and evil ideologies.

I've repeatedly seen Godwin's Law invoked in defense of seriously wishful thinking, as in:

A: "We are safe in the current world: there are no serious international threats to peace."

B: "What of the rise of Islamofascism and the development of atom bombs by Muslim Terrorist States? Isn't that analogous to the rise of Naziism and the re-armament of Germany in the 1930's?"

A: "Aha! Godwin's Law! You're automatically wrong! I don't have to listen to you!"

B: "But ..."

A: "La la la! I can't hear you!"

And so on.
[User Picture]From: squid314
2012-08-25 04:02 am (UTC)


I think the general problem is that calling an ideology evil is usually assuming the conclusion.

Your argument, which assumes that both you and your interlocutor find Islamism evil and you're just debating whether evil organizations can be dangerous, seems on firm ground.

But if you were arguing with someone who thought Islam wasn't evil, and you were to say something like "I'll bet you would have said Hitler wasn't evil either", then you're assuming the conclusion by implying that Islam is as obviously evil as Hitler so anyone who rejects the evil of one must reject the evil of the other.

The other way it's used is as a form of Worst Argument In The World - eg "Eugenics/gun control/etc belongs to the category of 'Things favored by Hitler', therefore it is evil."

I think that it's sufficiently easy to reframe good arguments in non-Hitlery terms that Godwin's Law is still valuable.
[User Picture]From: grognor
2012-08-24 12:45 pm (UTC)


You have, in the discussion of choosing which books to read about if you might be wrong, a restatement of the "Whence our Bayesian priors?" problem, which as far as I know is still radically unsolved except by Solomonoff Induction and lol good luck using Solomonoff Induction, lol. You suggest going by beliefs held by other humans who are smart and rational, but then you only have as much confidence that the topics you choose are worth reading as you do in other people's rationality.

I don't know whether people in general are better at picking topics to study or judging other people's rationality and I have no intuition on the matter. (I had one, but then it went away when arguments in both directions started flowing in.)
From: Alex Rozenshteyn
2012-08-24 03:40 pm (UTC)

Resource expenditure and relation to bandit algorithms


This may be a stretch, but I was reminded of this blog post on the superiority of bandit algorithms to A/B testing ( when you mentioned the need to optimize time expenditure. I don't think that the theory is directly applicable, but the idea of using your expectation of truth as a factor in computing expected utility from reading certain books and deciding based on a back-off seems like at least a step in the direction of coming up with a rational behavior.
[User Picture]From: reddragdiva
2012-08-25 08:34 pm (UTC)


As several have noted above, I think you and Feser are attacking a version of the Courtier's Reply that wasn't actually what Myers coined it as, nor that many are using.

(And that RationalWiki article is one of our worse efforts. There are a number of people who need their fingers broken so as to discourage them from attempting to write in article space under any circumstances.)

Tangentially, I'm trying to track down the origins of the phrase "sophisticated theology" as used in the skepticsphere. Needs proper referencing, otherwise I think it's getting there.
[User Picture]From: reddragdiva
2012-08-25 08:54 pm (UTC)


... and I've just reread that last link and see that I myself summarised the Courtier's Reply as something very like the version you and Feser attack. So, er, that'll be me being completely wrong then. *cough*

That said, if I were to attempt to answer why it's less valid for a creationist to say "Courtier's reply!" to an evolutionist than the other way around, I'd probably construct something along the lines of science having a much better track record of predictions and tangible results than theology. I think this will hold from the perspective of a bounded rationalist receiving evidence through the senses.
[User Picture]From: cartesiandaemon
2012-08-27 06:46 pm (UTC)


I think the difference is, when I hear an explanation about physics, reasonably often, I discover something that previously seemed absurd to fit within a simple self-consistent framework reasonably consistent with my understanding. But when I hear explanations about theology, I often discover interesting stuff, but stuff about taking claims about the supernatural as literally true just seems more tangled and meaningless the more I learn about it.

Now, there are false positives and negatives in both directions: sometimes I have a fatuous understanding of physics that seemed consistent but wasn't; and surprisingly often, an intelligent non-physicist is exposed to flawed explanations of physics and forms a reasonable but flawed belief that the whole thing is bunkum.

But in general I seem to have a reasonable heuristic for distinguishing between "worth reading" and "bullshit", and we can refine that intuition a lot, and there's no one answer, but there's no magical difference between "valid" and "invalid" courtier's replies, just that some are right and some are wrong, and we (I think) learn to a certain extent to distinguish them.
From: (Anonymous)
2012-10-06 11:01 pm (UTC)


"But that's rarely the case; the demand for Klansmen and creationists to pick on and be heroic against is much greater than the supply."

So...the market price for Klansmen....goes...up...?
From: antialiasis
2012-12-02 09:19 am (UTC)


This is a few months old, but this hasn't quite been raised before:

I'd be suspicious of any argument that goes simply, "You don't know what you're talking about because you haven't read this book." If the book really is relevant to my argument, my opponent (who presumably has read it) should be able to briefly summarize what ideas in the book invalidate my argument; they can point to the book as further reading, but telling me to read a book without explaining why the book shows my argument to be false is highly suspect. If I was in the naked-president situation, I would be somewhat pacified by the fact he has at least explained it as a known phenomenon where this happens to some people, but I would still wonder why he isn't giving me something more precise before throwing a book at me: as you said, is it a psychological phenomenon? Is there something special about the President's clothes? I should get at least a substantial taste of why the book shows me to be wrong to convince me that it's worth my time. If the book really does contain a devastating blow to my argument, it is reasonable to expect that someone who has read it and believes it is devastating to my case can explain where it's coming from.

In all the time I've read comments on the writings of new atheists, I have never, ever seen one of the "ugh, they need to learn some real theology" complaints actually be followed by an example of the kinds of theological ideas that the new atheists are missing. Very occasionally it references a specific author or book or "X's writings on Y", but it never, ever, ever goes on to explain what X wrote on Y that demolishes the new atheists' case. Never, ever. And that's highly suspicious from a rational point of view.

When creationists dismiss evolution by obviously misunderstanding how it works, the opposition frequently gives them a basic 101. It's not hard to counter the chicken-and-egg preacher, or at least begin to explain why it is wrong to a point where the preacher (were he rational) should realize he's been misunderstanding the issue and that the book may be worth reading. Hell, even the fundamentals of quantum mechanics can be explained without deferring to a book. If the reply is just "You haven't read X", making no substantial argument or explanation of what kinds of things X says that demolish my claims, I can only assume the argument is being advanced in the hope of shutting me up.

Edited at 2012-12-02 09:21 am (UTC)