Surrebuttal to The Courtier’s Reply

In Christianity & Atheism on June 25, 2010 by thesignalinthenoise Tagged: , ,

Richard Dawkins & P.Z. Myers

Much criticism of The God Delusion (and Richard Dawkins in general, who claims that religious faith is one of the world’s great evils and is analogous to the smallpox virus, though more difficult to eradicate. ) is similar to that offered by Allen Orr in The New York Review of Books:

The result is The God Delusion, a book that never squarely faces its opponents. You will find no serious examination of Christian or Jewish theology in Dawkins’s book (does he know Augustine rejected biblical literalism in the early fifth century?), no attempt to follow philosophical debates about the nature of religious propositions (are they like ordinary claims about everyday matters?), no effort to appreciate the complex history of interaction between the Church and science (does he know the Church had an important part in the rise of non-Aristotelian science?), and no attempt to understand even the simplest of religious attitudes (does Dawkins really believe, as he says, that Christians should be thrilled to learn they’re terminally ill?).

Indeed, Alister McGrath maintains that Dawkins is “ignorant” of Christianity and therefore unable to engage religion and faith intelligently. Dawkins’ God: Genes, Memes, and the Meaning of Life. Oxford, England: Blackwell Publishing. p. 81 (2006). In reply, Dawkins asks “do you have to read up on leprechology before disbelieving in leprechauns?” Ever anxious to be seen sucking up and racing to the defense of Professor Dawkins, my favorite sycophant P.Z. Myers crafted The Courtier’s Reply to deal glibly with criticisms like those offered by Orr and McGrath (it’s even endorsed by Saint Richard himself — he quotes it at length in the preface to the paperback edition of TGD too):

I have considered the impudent accusations of Mr Dawkins with exasperation at his lack of serious scholarship. He has apparently not read the detailed discourses of Count Roderigo of Seville on the exquisite and exotic leathers of the Emperor’s boots, nor does he give a moment’s consideration to Bellini’s masterwork, On the Luminescence of the Emperor’s Feathered Hat. We have entire schools dedicated to writing learned treatises on the beauty of the Emperor’s raiment, and every major newspaper runs a section dedicated to imperial fashion; Dawkins cavalierly dismisses them all. He even laughs at the highly popular and most persuasive arguments of his fellow countryman, Lord D. T. Mawkscribbler, who famously pointed out that the Emperor would not wear common cotton, nor uncomfortable polyester, but must, I say must, wear undergarments of the finest silk.

Dawkins arrogantly ignores all these deep philosophical ponderings to crudely accuse the Emperor of nudity.

Personally, I suspect that perhaps the Emperor might not be fully clothed — how else to explain the apparent sloth of the staff at the palace laundry — but, well, everyone else does seem to go on about his clothes, and this Dawkins fellow is such a rude upstart who lacks the wit of my elegant circumlocutions, that, while unable to deal with the substance of his accusations, I should at least chide him for his very bad form.

Until Dawkins has trained in the shops of Paris and Milan, until he has learned to tell the difference between a ruffled flounce and a puffy pantaloon, we should all pretend he has not spoken out against the Emperor’s taste. His training in biology may give him the ability to recognize dangling genitalia when he sees it, but it has not taught him the proper appreciation of Imaginary Fabrics.

To put it mildly, I am not impressed with Peezy’s The Courtier’s Reply. Here’s why.

1. Peezy encourages intellectual ignorance. Essentially, Peezy’s claim boils down to the bare assertion that it’s stupid to believe in God because His non-existence is so obvious. He makes this claim notwithstanding centuries of gifted thinkers who came to a different conclusion and who made careful arguments in support of their ideas. Is it ever a good idea to remain willfully ignorant (and to rejoice in that ignorance) in the face of tightly argued opposition? I think not.

Dawkins begins The Blind Watchmaker by conceding a noteworthy point. “Biology is the study of complicated things that give the appearance of having been designed for a purpose.” He even goes on to suggest that anyone before Darwin who did not believe in God was simply not paying attention. Thus, if one’s conclusion is based solely upon what is seemingly obvious and intuitive, evolution is patently ridiculous. In that context, we’re perfectly reasonable if we conclude that there are clear signs of functional design in nature — for example, that eyes were built for seeing — and that evolution is thus ridiculous on its face.

Based upon the intellectual laziness postulated by The Courtier’s Reply, seeing that “obvious” design is an appropriate end to the discussion and, accordingly, there is no obligation even to consider (much less analyze and refute) Darwin and his intellectual progeny. But doing so, as with Dawkins and Myers concerning the God question, would be nonsensical and silly. What seems obvious ain’t necessarily so.

2. Peezy enables intellectual arrogance. Karl Popper famously encouraged a sort of charity principle when examining and interpreting works with which one disagrees. The idea is to put the other side in as favorable a light as possible to begin the discussion. That way, one is looking at the best the other side has to offer before opposing it, requiring the best available counters. Popper even advocated the strengthening of an opposing position before criticizing it for the sake of ultimate understanding. Myers and Dawkins see no need for such charity, despite the obvious benefits to such an approach described by Popper. Such arrogance is unbecoming, obviously. But more importantly, Myers and Dawkins neglect an obvious and crucial point of critical thought (also emphasized by Popper) — we may well be wrong. If Myers and Dawkins are so sure of themselves, they should be more than willing to meet the best arguments of theism charitably and directly. Arrogant dismissal simply doesn’t cut it.

3. Peezy epitomizes intellectual laziness. An atheist may reasonably conclude that there is not sufficient evidence of and that there are no good arguments for God. That atheist may even conclude that God’s non-existence is obvious, say so strongly and base that position entirely upon theism’s purported failure to carry its burden of proof. But writing a book about the subject demands more. Good scholarship means meeting the other side(s) carefully and fully. The intellectual laziness of demolishing strawmen and then declaring victory simply isn’t good enough, especially for a quality scholar like Dawkins (even when writing in an area of abject ignorance).

4.  Finally, Peezy endorses intellectual impracticality.  Quite obviously, in any formal disputation, one making the affirmative claim bears the burden of persuasion.  Accordingly, in the usual course, one making God claims bears the burden.  However, these procedural niceties don’t really apply in everyday life.  Especially when one is seeking to overturn a dominant paradigm (such as the existence of God), the one seeking to do the overturning bears a practical burden of persuasion unrelated to the formal burden.  Simply put, if you want your minority position to rule the day, you need to convince people that you’re right.  Standing pat and claiming a win by default (“You didn’t bear your burden of persuasion!“) isn’t going to cut it.

So please try again, Peezy. Maybe you’ll make a decent case (and cover your “dangling genitalia”) next time.


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