Saturday, June 19, 2010

Jesus Fibbers, Sophists, and Inner Peace

A friend of mine called my attention to this article from the Huffington Post, in which Karl Giberson confesses not so much to telling lies in his print and online clashes with the new atheists, but to engaging in creative namecalling (he even confesses to spending time trying to come up with clever put-downs).

Given my recent exchange with PZ Myers, I was particularly interested in his brief comments about his own clashes with Myers, and the following remark: "I recommend against verbal swordfights with PZ Myers -- you can't win."

I immediately wondered what he meant by "verbal swordfights." Presumably, given the topic of the piece, he meant exchanges of clever sophistry and put-downs, as opposed, say, to well-thought out arguments that engage fairly with one's opponents' thinking.

And here, as I contemplate Myers, I find myself sorely tempted to do what Giberson confessed to doing and which he recommends against doing in relation to Myers. All sorts of slams against Myers are flying through my head--and, ironically, they are triggered by Myers' own propensity to rely on clever slams and my own philosopher's outrage against the intellectual vices that such reliance on slams epitomizes. In short, my moral outrage against Myers' pseudo-reasoning triggers in me a nearly irresistible desire to engage in it myself.

I should note, I think, that to name what Myers does "sophistry" and "pseudoreasoning" is not itself to engage in the same if one has taken the time to pick through Myers writing to identify instance after instance of argumentative tactics that forego actual fair and sound argumentation in favor of fallacious arguments, misrepresentation, and the like. Since I have done this in a recent sequence of posts (here, here, and here), to say that his writing routinely resorts to pseudoreasoning is to apply a description that has been shown to fit--which is the antithesis of pseudoreasoning.

But what I'm tempted to do goes beyond simply noting that much of Myers writing is sophistry. In fact, the temptation is so strong that I have already written and erased from this post half a dozen colorful and (I dare say) clever slams of Myers. I indulge in them for a moment and then delete them because it would be sinking to Myers' level (I actually had to rewrite that last phrase, since something much more vivid danced off my keyboard than "sinking to Myers' level"). I can't tell you how many low blows I deleted before posting the final versions of my responses to Myers. And I'm sure I didn't keep them all out of the final versions. After all, the whole exercize was motivated by something less noble than a desire to warn readers against the kinds of rhetorical tactics that take the place of argument. I wanted Myers to look bad.

And so, in my own way, I was allowing myself to be drawn into Myers' kind of personal-attack-approach to disagreement. And the fact is that I think I could be pretty good at it. If I let myself go there--if I really indulged the impulses that shape Myers' writing--a part of me almost believes that, contrary to what Giberson says, I could actually win.

But in the process, I would be indulging things in myself that I not only view to be intellectual vices but that would stir me up inside, being a source of ongoing inner unrest rather than the internal peace I seek.

And as I think about what it would take to do what Myers does day in and day out, so effectively that Giberson feels called to warn people against taking Myers on in those terms--as I think about what parts of his character Myers needs to indulge, I actually do feel for him. Because I've flirted on the edge of just that emotional space on many occasions. And while there is a thrill associated with it, there's also a deep personal cost.


  1. I agree - sounds fun, but ultimately not worth it. Better to model a better way of dialog than getting down into it with the Myers and Rush Limbaugh's of the world.

  2. First of all I must congratulate you for your book. Although I am not a theist and disagree with you on some important issues I must say that I enjoyed your book enormously. Definitely one of the best books I've read for a while and I believe I learned a lot about your side of things. Your blog is also very interesting, particularly so the ongoing series on naturalism and noumenal reality and all: it may be the first time I read something really intelligible about this and, I have to say, this is fascinating.

    You write about the temptation of street fighting with Myers (and others). Please don't. Then, there would be no point reading you at all. If I wanted to watch dogs barking at each other, I would find much better stuff on TV - and, besides, in full color!

    Your book and blog show great understanding of the issues, seriousness, clarity of thought and, as far as I can see, intellectual honesty and fairness towards opposing views - all this to a high degree. This is why I am here. Thanks for the effort you put into this.

  3. JP--Thanks for the kind words. And I will continue to resist the temptation to bark at Myers.