On Changing the Subject

by Luke Muehlhauser on January 16, 2010 in Criticism of Atheists

soap boxOkay, time for a rant.

It’s not an “angry” rant, because as I type this I’m calm and faintly smiling and listening to Xploding Plastix. Still, this rant will be funnier if you read it in the voice of Lewis Black.

Now that I write a popular blog about philosophy, I’m starting to grok1 what Richard Chappell called The Problem with Non-Philosophers. (Chappell clarifies that by “philosopher” he just means someone with philosophical training, not necessarily a professional academic.)

Chappell lists some sources of frustration when speaking with non-philosophers. For example, non-philosophers don’t understand that philosophy is a form of inquiry, not an exercise in apologetics or trading equally valid opinions.

But today I’d like to rant about two of his other frustrations:

[Non-philosophers] seem incapable of focusing on a particular argument. They don’t realize that the only way to make progress is one step at a time. They tend to want to tackle everything about an issue all at once. So half-way through an argument, they will suddenly demand that you address some completely different point.

…They constantly fail to understand how a point (e.g. an analogy or thought experiment) fits in to a particular argument, and instead insist on applying it more broadly – and then objecting when this irrelevant application fails!

I feel Chappell’s pain. Which is not to say I haven’t inflicted it on others at times. But allow me my rant.

Changing the Subject

When I began to criticize Richard Dawkins’ argument for atheism, many of my readers simply denied my central point that a best explanation for something need not itself be explained. Explaining the logic behind this point didn’t work, so instead I bludgeoned my readers into accepting it by quoting a bunch of major atheist philosophers who accept it as obvious. That seemed to work, as most of my commenting readers stopped trying to deny this basic premise. (This may explain why arguments from authority are so popular even though they are fallacious. They work.)

Others complained that I had misinterpreted Dawkins. They quoted his writing to show that it was plausible to interpret him another way. I accepted this critique, and said that maybe Dawkins didn’t mean to assert that a best explanation must itself be explained. I changed the series title from “Richard Dawkins and Naive Atheism” to “Rescuing Dawkins’ Main Argument for Atheism.”

So that stuff doesn’t bother me. In fact, I quite like it. What annoys me are the dozens of commenters who insisted on changing the subject.

Example One

To illustrate why it cannot be that the best explanation need not itself be explained, I quoted William Lane Craig:

Suppose archaeologists digging in the earth were to come across artifacts looking like arrowheads and pottery shards… it would obviously be justifiable to infer that these artifacts were the products of some lost tribe of people, even if the archaeologists had no idea whatsoever who these people were or how they came to be there.

Similarly, if astronauts were to discover a pile of machinery on the back side of the moon, they would be justified in inferring that these were the products of intelligent design, even if they had no idea whatsoever where this machinery came from or who put it there…

Instead of recognizing this as an illustration of why the best explanation of something need not itself be explained, literally dozens of my readers changed the subject by (1) reading Craig as if he had given an argument for God’s existence, (2) rebutting Craig’s argument, and then (3) saying that their rebuttal to Craig shows that my critique of Dawkins’ argument fails.

This is what Chappell wrote about:

They constantly fail to understand how a point (e.g. an analogy or thought experiment) fits in to a particular argument, and instead insist on applying it more broadly – and then objecting when this irrelevant application fails!

I explained again and again that Craig is not arguing for the existence of God here, he’s just illustrating that a best explanation need not itself be explained. But my readers kept posting as if Craig had given an argument for the existence of God.

Ack!

Example Two

Others seemed willing to admit that the best explanation for something need not itself be explained, but they insisted on changing the subject. Some readers (like Ryan at AIG Busted, whom I read and respect) said my response to Dawkins was “inadequate” because it didn’t fully engage his larger argument from complexity. But of course! In that first post I only intended to show that one of Dawkins’ assertions was false. Only later would I discuss other problems with Dawkins’ argument, for example that it is logically invalid.

Later, I wrote that even when Dawkins’ argument is reformulated to be logically valid, it still misses the mark because it aims to disprove a contingent God, not a necessary one, but of course theists believe in a necessary God. So Dawkins’ argument, if successful, would disprove a God that nobody believes in. Whoopty-do.

Ryan responded that I was “just as wrong as he was before.” Why? Because theists aren’t allowed to just suppose that God is a necessary being. Apparently, Ryan thinks that the arguments in favor of God being a necessary being fail.

That’s a fine critique to make, but it’s changing the subject. The point is that Dawkins attacks a God that nobody believes in. Whether or not theists have good reasons for believing in a necessary God is another subject.

Think of it this way. If Dawkins or Ryan or somebody else was able to show that God cannot be a necessary being, then that argument itself would disprove the God that most Christians and Muslims believe in. In that case, Dawkins’ argument would be unnecessary and irrelevant. So if you want to argue that God cannot be necessary, then please do so, because that would be a relevant argument to make, whereas Dawkins argument is irrelevant.

But our adventures in changing the subject didn’t end there. I wrote a more detailed post explaining that “Who designed the designer?” is a poor atheistic retort because the best explanation for something need not itself be explained. Happily, Ryan agreed with that point.

Then, even though I had explicitly defined the scope of the “Who designed the designer?” objection I was refuting, Ryan took a different interpretation of the “Who designed the designer?” response and then showed how my rebuttal doesn’t apply to that interpretation.2 Well, duh! I was refuting something else!

Does this remind you of something? Oh yeah…

So half-way through an argument, they will suddenly demand that you address some completely different point.

…They constantly fail to understand how a point (e.g. an analogy or thought experiment) fits in to a particular argument, and instead insist on applying it more broadly – and then objecting when this irrelevant application fails!

Change of Subject Done Right

Of course, parties in a discussion may agree to change the subject if they wish. And here I’d like to give kudos my interlocutor Vox Day, who shows clear signs of philosophical training. I might think some of his conclusions are crazy, but that’s because his premises are crazy, not because his grasp of logic is weak.

In my 6th letter to Vox Day, I explicitly requested a slight change of subject. Even though our debate seemed continuous at a surface level, I went out of my way to explain that my request shifted the grounds on which our debate was to be staged. (See the paragraph that begins with “But what a minute” and the next one.) In his response, Vox further elaborated the nature of the change of subject and then agreed to it.

Instead of applying each other’s points irrelevantly, Vox and I both explicitly recognized a change of subject and agreed to it. If you’re going to change the subject, that is how it’s done, son.

Okay, thanks for letting me have my rant. Now, back to your regularly scheduled programming…

  1. Gotta love that word! []
  2. I have other problems with Ryan’s post, too. See comment #4 over there. []

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{ 38 comments… read them below or add one }

EvanT January 16, 2010 at 9:54 am

Nice article, Luke. I don’t get why so many people got so defensive of Dawkins. It’s not like he’s the best atheism has to show; just the most famous for the time being. He’s bound to make mistakes. I wonder if people fear that if Dawkins’ “God Delusion” is debunked, it will have some sort of impact on atheism as a whole.

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Briang January 16, 2010 at 10:05 am

I feel your pain. I’ve been there. It seems like one can make a simple point, an obvious point, a point which was only made so that one could move on to something more important and instead of saying “I agree, let’s get on with the important stuff,” they argue with the obvious point.

I was trying to explain Descartes “I think, therefore I am” argument to someone recently. The exact same problem came up. He insisted that Descartes was dead wrong. He seemed to be taking Descartes to be making a very strong claim, as opposed to the very minimal claim he was making.

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Briang January 16, 2010 at 10:30 am

EvanT: Nice article, Luke. I don’t get why so many people got so defensive of Dawkins. It’s not like he’s the best atheism has to show; just the most famous for the time being. He’s bound to make mistakes. I wonder if people fear that if Dawkins’ “God Delusion” is debunked, it will have some sort of impact on atheism as a whole.  

I think the problem is that people go from accepting a Sunday school version of religion to a Sunday school version of atheism.
The problem is that this isn’t an emotionally neutral ride. Whether people are happy to give up God, or scared, or angry, or disappointed, there’s bound to be some strong emotions involved. Now, call into question someone’s Sunday school atheism, and your bound to stir up all the emotions involved in the leaving of religion in the first place.
If someone’s reason for abandoning religion is solely Dawkin’s book, and I suspect that for many* it is, then challenging that book challenges their reason for rejecting religion in the first place. This is particularly difficult, because, I think many atheists see themselves as making an intellectual decision and overcoming emotional reasons to stay in religion.

* Notice I said many, not all or even most. I’m thinking of the many teenagers who responded to the blasphemy challenge.

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AlexG January 16, 2010 at 10:46 am

Out of interest, Luke, how do you feel about people who have rejected Christianity (or whatever religion) purely because they were persuaded by fallacious arguments presented by the New Atheists? Do you wish they had remained theists, or do you think that they are still better off for coming to the right conclusion for bad reasons?

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Steven Carr January 16, 2010 at 11:53 am

‘Changing the subject’?

Suppose you tried to show that all black things needed a black originator.

But your believe the ultimate originator was white.

The logic would be ‘All black things need a black originator. Therefore the originator cannot be green. It must be black.’

How would you feel if told that you had disproved an originator that nobody believed in?

Nobody believes in the green originator that you have disproved. They believed in a white originator.

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majinrevan666 January 16, 2010 at 12:29 pm

Steven Carr: ‘Changing the subject’?Suppose you tried to show that all black things needed a black originator.But your believe the ultimate originator was white.The logic would be ‘All black things need a black originator. Therefore the originator cannot be green. It must be black.’How would you feel if told that you had disproved an originator that nobody believed in?
Nobody believes in the green originator that you have disproved. They believed in a white originator.  

Not analogous.

If all black things required a black designer, a white originator (god) could not have created a black thing. (contingent, complex object)

No one is arguing that.

The argument is:
P1. Complex, contingent things require a designer.
P2. God is a complex* necessary being.
P3. Necessary beings cannot have designers.
C.Therefore, god is a complex being that doesn’t require a designer.

*For the sake of argument.

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majinrevan666 January 16, 2010 at 12:34 pm

Steven Carr: ‘Changing the subject’?Suppose you tried to show that all black things needed a black originator.But your believe the ultimate originator was white.The logic would be ‘All black things need a black originator. Therefore the originator cannot be green. It must be black.’How would you feel if told that you had disproved an originator that nobody believed in?
Nobody believes in the green originator that you have disproved. They believed in a white originator.  

Not analogous.

If all black things required an explanation, a white originator could not have created a black thing.

No one is arguing that.

The argument is:
P1. Complex, contingent things require a designer.
P2. God is a complex necessary being.
P3. Necessary beings cannot have designers.
C.Therefore, god is a complex being that doesn’t require a designer.

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corn January 16, 2010 at 1:05 pm

It is quite simple, I believe, to deconstruct arguments from a philosophical perspective and demonstrate their unsoundness. However the exercise is chiefly useful if one’s argument is intended to be logically sound. Dawkins doesn’t appear to be proffering a philosophical argument, but rather a rhetorical one. As such, whether it is open to attacks based on its lack of structural integrity is somewhat beside the point.

The rhetorical question is intended, I believe, not to disprove the existence of God but rather to demonstrate that simply saying “god done it” offers no explanatory power. After all, “god done it” is an argument that can be applied to just about any “why” question. If we were to accept “god done it” as an argument to a proper scientific question then we have, in essence, terminated the inquiry without adding to our knowledge. So when theists offer a theological answer to a scientific question by definition the answer can not offer predictive power because the answer “god done it” is inscrutable.

When offered as an alternative to the theory of evolution, I believe a strong case can be made, and a logically consistent argument constructed, to demonstrate that the theory of evolution provides a necessary and sufficient answer to the question of speciation. It provides predictive power and is testable. The answer “god done it” provides none of the above and instead leads to an infinite regress of “the who designed god?” Here is the crux of the difference of opinion, I think. If you believe “god done it” is not only a sufficient answer, but also a strong answer, then there is no need for further explanation. If, on the other hand, you believe the theological response is either insufficient or a weak answer, then it is proper to seek further explanation. That doesn’t make Dawkins’s argument philosophically consistent, but it does make it at least meaningful.

As it were, I think Dawkins’s rhetorical argument is also weak but that’s another story altogether.

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John D January 16, 2010 at 1:14 pm

It will be interesting to see how this comments-thread develops. Irony-meter at the ready!

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drj January 16, 2010 at 1:19 pm

Briang: If someone’s reason for abandoning religion is solely Dawkin’s book, and I suspect that for many* it is, then challenging that book challenges their reason for rejecting religion in the first place. This is particularly difficult, because, I think many atheists see themselves as making an intellectual decision and overcoming emotional reasons to stay in religion.

I think that this is a fair characterization in a lot of cases.

On the other hand, I see a lot of atheists who simply seem very eager to toss Dawkins et al. to the wolves, in attempts to seem like overtly fair-minded super-philosophers.

Sure, he’s often sloppy, and doesn’t have all the rigor and precision of an analytical philosopher – so if you have those sorts of expectations of him, your going to be sorely disappointed. But there’s no need for the super-philosophers to be so eager to disassociate from him either. His stuff is approachable and not anywhere as near as bad as guys like Craig or Plantinga or even some big atheist names would suggest. I think we saw that in the series of posts about explanations.

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John D January 16, 2010 at 1:20 pm

Also, I can’t help but point out that philosophers are pretty good at changing the subject themselves. This is certainly the case in the literature on free will: people are constantly talking past one another. Some are talking about metaphysics, some are talking about morality and some are talking about the existential impact of certain ideas. Disentangling the threads of argument is nigh on impossible.

Which is why I claim to have no opinion on free will.

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lukeprog January 16, 2010 at 1:30 pm

AlexG,

Anytime someone is lucky to have happened on correct beliefs that’s a good thing, but I that doesn’t mean I encourage stumbling onto one’s worldview.

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lukeprog January 16, 2010 at 1:32 pm

John D,

And in meta-ethics, too. Lots of talking past each other in meta-ethics.

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TaiChi January 16, 2010 at 2:07 pm

EvanT: I wonder if people fear that if Dawkins’ “God Delusion” is debunked, it will have some sort of impact on atheism as a whole.  

The God Delusion doesn’t just critique God, it also offers a certain picture of what an atheist is. So those who are convinced by the book take their identity from it as well, and are quite naturally concerned to defend it as they would themselves.
I can’t claim credit for the insight, though: http://barefootbum.blogspot.com/2007/04/atheist-identity-politics.html

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oarobin January 16, 2010 at 2:14 pm

Luke i agree with your arguments against the “a best explanation for something need not itself be explained” and the “Who Designed the Designer?” arguments as presented by you.
The question i have is that does it accurately represents dawkins argument?

following is a longer excerpt from The blind Watchmaker, page 141 which started the discussions.
Do you think that your summary accurately conveys the argument below.

So, cumulative selection can manufacture complexity while
single-step selection cannot. But cumulative selection cannot work
unless there is some minimal machinery of replication and replicator
power, and the only machinery of replication that we know seems too
complicated to have come into existence by means of anything less
than many generations of cumulative selection! Some people see this
as a fundamental flaw in the whole theory of the blind watchmaker.
They see it as the ultimate proof that there must originally have been a
designer, not a blind watchmaker but a far-sighted supernatural
watchmaker. Maybe, it is argued, the Creator does not control the
day-to-day succession of evolutionary events; maybe he did not frame
the tiger and the lamb, maybe he did not make a tree, but he did set up
the original machinery of replication and replicator power, the original
machinery of DNA and protein that made cumulative selection, and
hence all of evolution, possible.
This is a transparently feeble argument, indeed it is obviously self-
defeating. Organized complexity is the thing that we are having
difficulty in explaining. Once we are allowed simply to postulate
organized complexity, if only the organized complexity of the DNA/
protein replicating engine, it is relatively easy to invoke it as a
generator of yet more organized complexity. That, indeed, is what
most of this book is about. But of course any God capable of in-
telligently designing something as complex as the DNA/protein rep-
licating machine must have been at least as complex and organized as
that machine itself. Far more so if we suppose him additionally
capable of such advanced functions as listening to prayers and for-
giving sins. To explain the origin of the DNA/protein machine by
invoking a supernatural Designer is to explain precisely nothing, for it
leaves unexplained the origin of the Designer. You have to say some-
thing like ‘God was always there’, and if you allow yourself that kind
of lazy way out, you might as well just say ‘DNA was always there’, or
‘Life was always there’, and be done with it.

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Conversational Atheist January 16, 2010 at 2:42 pm

I pray that we can quickly come to an understanding on this issue.

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lukeprog January 16, 2010 at 2:57 pm

oarobin,

I’ve already conceded that ‘who designed the designer’ may not be the best interpretation of Dawkins’ argument, and I then moved on to show why it is logically invalid.

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Beelzebub January 16, 2010 at 4:19 pm

btw – VD has responded to your last letter, if you didn’t know.

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Steven Carr January 16, 2010 at 4:37 pm

‘[Non-philosophers] seem incapable of focusing on a particular argument. They don’t realize that the only way to make progress is one step at a time.’

CARR
Well, probably a scientist like Dawkins does not realise that the way to make progress in our understanding of what is true or false is to follow the methods of philosophers.

This is why philosophy is solving one problem after another at a rate of progress that scientists can only envy, as they flounder around, unable to find a methodology which can match the enviable success rate of philosophers.

DAWKINS ‘I am against religion because it teaches us to be satisfied with not understanding the world’

CRAIG ‘I have the best explanation. God did it.’ (I paraphrase)

LUKE
‘To illustrate why it cannot be that the best explanation need not itself be explained…’

CARR
The best explanation does need to be explained. That is
science.

Is there any phenomonen which does not have already have a best explanation?

Obviously not. All phenomena have an explanation, no matter how bad, and one of those must be the best.

So if all phenomena already have one explanation which is the best one we have come up with, should we stop looking for a better one?

This is what Dawkins complains about when he says ”I am against religion because it teaches us to be satisfied with not understanding the world’

For example, the best explanation of the Easter Islamd statues is that human beings created the statues.

Of course this explanation explains nothing , even if it is the best one we have.

The best explanation is often the same as saying that something is unexplained.

So Dawkins wants more than the best explanation.

And if philosophers complain that scientists aren’t happy with the best explanation, who cares?

It is not philosophers who make progress in understanding the world.

Once philosophers work out if determinism is true or false then they can begin to lecture scientists like Dawkins on how to make progress.

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Jeff H January 16, 2010 at 4:40 pm

They tend to want to tackle everything about an issue all at once. So half-way through an argument, they will suddenly demand that you address some completely different point.

Well yeah, but Luke, you can’t even explain where morals come from, so why should we believe that we came from monkeys? And on top of that, your face is ugly!

Lol alright, so maybe I’m not so good at staying on topic either. But when I read this I was immediately reminded of the gazillion creationists who do this literally all the time, to the point where I feel like there’s some manual floating around about how to deflect arguments for evolution that I’ve been missing out on. You try to explain the evidence for evolution, and suddenly they’re talking about abiogenesis and the beginnings of life. In the middle of trying to explain how these are two separate issues, suddenly they turn to talking about the Big Bang and the beginnings of the universe. When you try to answer how God doesn’t provide a good explanation for that, suddenly they start talking about morals. And when you try to answer how atheists still have morals, they return to evolution and claim that it can’t provide any morals. Rinse. Lather. Repeat.

So I share the frustration. It takes a disciplined mind to really deal critically with philosophical arguments. And being obsessive about how things are worded and phrased probably helps too, lol.

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Ryan January 16, 2010 at 5:37 pm

I’ve responded to this issue once again. I’ve scheduled my blog to post my response early in the morning on 1/17/10

At Conversational Atheist:

“I pray that we can quickly come to an understanding on this issue.”

:-D

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Jan Cerny January 16, 2010 at 6:25 pm

Okay, I’m a poor non-philosophy major, here.
WHY does the best explanation for something not require explanation? What do you even mean by “best explanation?”

To go to the examples from Craig, if I saw precolumbian artifacts somewhere, I’d want to know what people made them and how they got there. If I saw non-Apollo artifacts on the moon, I’d definitely be curious about their origin. Saying “astronauts put them there” or “aborigines put them there” is an extreme example of premature curiosity satisfaction. Inquiry STARTS with the assumption of intelligent designers; it does not conclude.

Asking how God got there in response to “God did it” seems to me perfectly legitimate.

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lukeprog January 16, 2010 at 6:31 pm

Jan Cerny,

Please see Who Designed the Designer?

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Eric January 16, 2010 at 9:03 pm

Steven Carr’s last post exemplifies the problem Luke was ‘ranting’ about while attempting to repudiate it. (That’s obvious to everyone, no?) But hey, when even Justin Brierley can’t mention Carr’s name without chuckling, what should we expect? ;)

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ColonelFazackerley January 16, 2010 at 11:50 pm

Luke
I was vaguely unsettled by Dawkin’s argument when I read TGD. I had not bothered to think it through. Thanks for taking the time to explain why it fails.

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Briang January 17, 2010 at 10:53 am

Jan Cerny: columbian artifacts somewhere, I’d want to know what people made them and how they got there. If I saw non-Apollo artifacts on the moon, I’d definitely be curious about their origin. Saying “astronauts put them there” or “aborigines put them there” is an extreme example of premature curiosity satisfaction. Inquiry STARTS with the assumption of intelligent designers; it does not conclude.

Your right that we may want to inquire further about the origin of the artifacts. If we found non-Apollo artifacts on the moon, we would certainly want to know more about who put them there. Was is a secret space mission by humans or an extraterrestrial intelligent life? What Luke and Craig are saying is that we don’t need to answer this further question to know that the artifacts were put there by someone. Suppose we could positively rule out human design. We could naturally assume extraterrestrial intelligence. But where did they come from? How did they get to the moon? Of course we should try to answer those question, but we don’t have to wait for those answers to role in to draw the inference that the artifacts were put there by non-human intelligence.

The same is true with God. If we can reasonably conclude that the universe is designed by God (or more modestly by some intelligent designer), we’re going to want to know more about the designer. However, we need not resolve all the questions about God’s nature and origin in order to say we have the best explanation. This doesn’t mean that we should stop inquiry once we get to God. As much as I’d like to see atheists come to believe in God, I would be devastated if they stopped their inquiry at that point. Don’t you want to know what God is like? Don’t you want to know if he has ever tried to communicate with us humans? Don’t you want to know if he has made an afterlife possible for us? Do any of the various religions have access to this information?

Coming to belief in the existence of God, isn’t the end of inquiry, but the beginning. Mere belief in God is the tip of the ice burg. All that is being argued about explanations requiring explanations, is that one need not see the whole ice burg to believe in the tip.

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Nullifidian January 17, 2010 at 11:42 am

Later, I wrote that even when Dawkins’ argument is reformulated to be logically valid, it still misses the mark because it aims to disprove a contingent God, not a necessary one, but of course theists believe in a necessary God. So Dawkins’ argument, if successful, would disprove a God that nobody believes in. Whoopty-do.

Ryan responded that I was “just as wrong as he was before.” Why? Because theists aren’t allowed to just suppose that God is a necessary being. Apparently, Ryan thinks that the arguments in favor of God being a necessary being fail.

That’s a fine critique to make, but it’s changing the subject. The point is that Dawkins attacks a God that nobody believes in. Whether or not theists have good reasons for believing in a necessary God is another subject.

This all reminds me of the discussion in Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum.

“Plenty of morons’ books are published, because they’re convincing at first glance. An editor is not required to weed out the morons. If the Academy of Sciences doesn’t do it, why should he?”

“Philosophers don’t either. Saint Anselm’s ontological argument is moronic, for example. God must exist because I can conceive Him as being perfect in all ways, including existence. The saint confuses existence in thought with existence in reality.”

“True, but Gaunilon’s refutation is moronic, too. I can think of an island in the sea even if the island doesn’t exist. He confuses thinking of the possible with thinking of the necessary.”

“A duel between morons.”

“Exactly. And God loves every minute of it. He chose to be unthinkable only to prove that Anselm and Gaunilon were morons. What a sublime purpose for creation, or, rather, for that act by which God willed Himself to be: to unmask cosmic moronism.”

“We’re surrounded by morons.”

“Everyone’s a moron—save me and thee. Or, rather—I wouldn’t want to offend—save thee,”

“Somehow I feel that Gödel’s theorem has something to do with all this.”

“I wouldn’t know, I’m a cretin.”

While I’m not a professional philosopher (almost a contradiction in terms), I do encounter similar stuff myself from time to time. I critiqued some climate change denialist’s argument that climatology wasn’t a proper science because the subject of its inquiry couldn’t be isolated and tested by telling him that this smacked of positivism, which was idiosyncratic and old-fashioned even half a century ago.

Said person proceeded to dispute my critique by saying that he thought himself to be non-positivist, even anti-positivist, because he was explicitly taking the position that scientists weren’t right all the time.

*sigh*

Needless to say, “scientists are always right” is not among the core or even ancillary beliefs of the Vienna Circle, and they were quite prickly and critical toward scientists who happened to disagree with positivism.

This person then went on to confirm that he was thinking in positivist terms by explicitly stumping for verificationism, all the while attributing this view to Popper! Popper was a true anti-positivist who formulated the falsification principle as an explicit critique of the positivists’ verificationism. These people kept their respective sandboxes segregated and anyone who wants to invoke them should do the same.

He then wrapped this up by saying, in response to my example that evolution was another science that didn’t fit his naïve criteria, that he had been reading David Berlinski (!) and found Berlinski’s ‘skepticism’ about evolution warranted.

And then I gave up. I’ve had too many conversations with superficially educated people to think that there’s a hope in hell of my making any headway here.

In many ways, that’s one of the dangers of Dawkins’ influence. Like Berlinski, he has just enough knowledge and intellectual heft to make himself appear plausible to the superficially educated reader.

I had suspected from the first that The God Delusion was going to be a bad book, based on having read him and hearing him speak on religion, so I avoided reading it. This is not my field, so I feel no compunction about saying that if I want to read bad arguments against the existence of God, then I’ll just drag out a copy of George H. Smith’s Atheism: The Case Against God. I leave the business of critiquing bad arguments up to those who pursue philosophy as a calling, and I’m very grateful to you for how much thought you’ve put into this.

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lukeprog January 17, 2010 at 12:38 pm

I remember the “I’m surrounded by morons” line from Disney’s Lion King. Does it originate here, in Umberto Eco, I wonder? Probably not…

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Alex January 17, 2010 at 1:23 pm

I accidentally stumbled across something from Graham Oppy that might be of interest here. Can’t say that I’ve thought about the point enough to see whether it’s sound and if so, whether it does anything to rescue Dawkins:

http://www.infidels.org/library/modern/graham_oppy/review-m.html#intro

(see paragraph 3 of the section on cosmic fine-tuning)

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John D January 17, 2010 at 3:37 pm

Alex,

Nice link. And good points made in one short paragraph.

Some of Oppy’s book reviews on Internet Infidels are top notch. Quite like the one on Reason for the Hope Within, for instance.

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Nullifidian January 17, 2010 at 3:55 pm

lukeprog: I remember the “I’m surrounded by morons” line from Disney’s Lion King. Does it originate here, in Umberto Eco, I wonder? Probably not…  

I would seriously doubt it, even though Foucault’s Pendulum predates The Lion King. In Eco’s book, Jacopo Belbo is explaining his categorization of humanity to Casaubon, a young doctoral student doing his thesis on the Templars.

In Belbo’s system, everyone can be broken down into four types:

The first are cretins, who sort of slobber and stumble and therefore never submit to publishing houses (Belbo is an editor at a scholarly press that has a vanity press as a sideline).

The second are fools, who also never submit to publishing houses, because all their talents are derivative. The fool is a person who is always putting his foot in his mouth. According to Belbo, “a fool is a Joachim Murat reviewing his officers. He sees one from Martinique covered with medals. ‘Vous êtes nègres?’ Murat asks. ‘Oui, mon général!’ the man answers. And Murat says: ‘Bravo, bravo, continuez!’ And so on.” According to Belbo, in their best incarnation they become diplomats, because putting one’s foot in one’s mouth when someone else has screwed up helps change the subject.

The third are morons. Morons are people who display the rudiments of logical reasoning, but somehow it never quite works (hence the discussion of St. Anselm and Gaunilon).

Lastly, there are the lunatics who are morons “who don’t know the ropes”. They’re all about their fixed ideas, leaping from thread to thread, using whatever supports their obsession. 9/11 Truthers are good examples of lunatics, as defined here. And sooner or later, according to Belbo, they always bring up the Templars.

Not only does this categorization work as a first approximation of the publishing industry, it also works for most discussions on the internet. *grin*

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cl January 17, 2010 at 4:00 pm

The point is that Dawkins attacks a God that nobody believes in. Whether or not theists have good reasons for believing in a necessary God is another subject.

Bravo! I agree one thing at a time is the best way to go.

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Tony Hoffman January 17, 2010 at 4:07 pm

Luke: The point is that Dawkins attacks a God that nobody believes in. Whether or not theists have good reasons for believing in a necessary God is another subject.

Just a side note, but I wonder how many people who call themselves theists could tell you what a necessary god means, or would be able to put forth a defense of their god from Dawkin’s challenge on the lines that their God is necessary, etc.

I would guess that Dawkins merely wrote a popular book that picks at the low hanging fruit — those who are not trained to defend their faith with more sophisticated philosophical arguments.

That being said I though the God Delusion was one of Dawkin’s weakest books. He did set a pretty high bar with The Selfish Gene, however, so a failure to re-attain that standard is pretty understandable.

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Boz January 18, 2010 at 1:13 am

Luke, thanks for the series explaing why this argument(what caused god) fails. I had previously accepted this argument as accurate, and you have changed my mind.

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lukeprog January 18, 2010 at 6:36 am

Great to know, Boz! Thanks for chiming in.

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Tony Hoffman January 18, 2010 at 4:24 pm

Boz: Luke, thanks for the series explaing why this argument(what caused god) fails. I had previously accepted this argument as accurate, and you have changed my mind.
Luke: Great to know, Boz! Thanks for chiming in

But now I’m confused. I just looked at a link you provided today (36 Arguments for the Existence of God (And their refutations) at: http://www.edge.org/3rd_culture/goldstein09/goldstein09_index.html ) and #1 is the Cosmological Argument. On this site, Flaw 1 is:

FLAW 1: can be crudely put: Who caused God? The Cosmological Argument is a prime example of the Fallacy of Passing the Buck: invoking God to solve some problem, but then leaving unanswered that very same problem when applied to God himself. The proponent of the Cosmological Argument must admit a contradiction to either his first premise — and say that though God exists, he doesn’t have a cause — or else a contradiction to his third premise — and say that God is self-caused. Either way, the theist is saying that his premises have at least one exception, but is not explaining why God must be the unique exception, otherwise than asserting his unique mystery (the Fallacy of Using One Mystery To Pseudo-Explain Another).

So how is “Who caused God?” better than Dawkin’s retort “Who designed the designer?” and do you disagree with the argument for the Flaw as described above?

Or maybe you just like the list of 36 arguments and their refutation (thanks for that, btw), and didn’t mean to imply any endorsement.

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lukeprog January 18, 2010 at 4:27 pm

Tony Hoffman,

I didn’t say I agreed with everything on the ’36 Arguments for the Existence of God’ page.

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Tony Hoffman January 18, 2010 at 5:02 pm

Luke,

Fair enough — that’s why I asked, and why I wondered if you included the link because you just like the list.

Which is big fun, I have to say again. Man, there are like 4 times more crazy arguments there than I even knew existed.

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