Friday, June 11, 2010

Once More Into the Muck Heap

Just before leaving town for my wife’s triathlon, I had the pleasure of being targeted by PZ Myers, who responded to my most recent Religion Dispatches essay with his usual blend of name-calling, sophistry, fallacious reasoning, ignorance, and arrogance—all put forward (and received by his avid followers) as if he were presenting a brilliant argument.

I responded at first with a brief post pointing out how deeply Myers misrepresents a key point I make, and then a longer post in which I walked through his essay the way I might in a critical thinking class, identifying examples of pseudo-argumentation and intellectually dishonest rhetorical moves. But I ran out for time (since I needed to pack for my trip) before I ran out of sophistry to critique.

I said at the end of that post that I might return to my critique—but in the intervening two weeks I’ve been preoccupied by the end of an intensive three-week intercession course in ethics (and the heap of grading that goes with it)…and, honestly, I’ve just not been all that motivated to continue such a generally unpleasant and wholly negative task.

But I have a cold. I feel lousy. And that puts me in a pugnacious mood.

So, picking up where we left off last time…


A common failing in novice philosophy papers is that, instead of assessing on the basis of reasons the merits of an idea or argument encountered in an assigned essay, the student resorts to name-calling. That is, the student simply calls the idea absurd or ridiculous and then goes on.

When that happens, I circle it and write the following marginal comment: “Name-calling replaces argument here. Try to charitably reconstruct the author’s thoughts—offer the most defensible interpretation of it that you can—and then pinpoint where you disagree and, most important, why.” Or that’s what I write in response to the first instance of name-calling in their first paper. After that I just write, “Name-calling.”

The persistence of name-calling in student papers is one of the great frustrations of teaching first-time philosophy students. But I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that undergraduate students with no prior exposure to philosophy mistake name-calling for argument. After all, this mode of pseudo-argument is modeled for them all over the place—in the radio diatribes of people like Rush Limbaugh, for example. And in popular incendiary blogs like Myers' pharyngula.

Take, for example, how Myers addresses the most extended quote he extracts from my Religion Dispatches article. This is a quote which comes in the wake of distinguishing between interpretive worldviews (ways of seeing and unifying the whole of human experience) and empirical hypotheses. I note that interpretive worldviews (of which Myers’ metaphysical naturalism is an example) cannot be evaluated in the way that empirical hypothesis can—but that doesn’t mean there’s no conceivable way to decide among them. I note that one thing we need to do with interpretive worldviews is “try them on” to see how well they work relative to one another in terms of coordinating and making sense of the various elements of human experience.

In the passage he quotes, I define theology as the effort to develop and try out alternative theistic worldviews. And I then specify one very concrete requirement that any acceptable worldview has to meet: it must “fit” with experience—including what science teaches us. In my podcast interview with Luke Muelhauser over at Common Sense Atheism, I explain this idea more fully using the famous “duck-rabbit” image. The image is, in a word, ambiguous—you can see it as a duck or as a rabbit. Both ways of seeing “fit” with the material one is presented with in experience. But there are ways of seeing that don’t. Suggest to me that I try to see the image as an elephant balancing on top of a Starbuck’s coffee cup while eating a banana, and I’ll assume you’re either silly or crazy.

Likewise, some interpretive worldviews can be rejected because they are a bad fit with what we encounter in experience. Here, I mention Young Earth Creationism.

In any event, after quoting this passage Myers makes no attempt to charitably restate it in his own words to make sure he has it right. He makes no attempt to pinpoint a specific claim or premise he disagrees with. What he says, instead, is this: “Stark raving naked bullshit.”

The only difference between Myers and my students is that Myers is a bit cruder in his name-calling. But crudeness should not be confused with sound argument.

Unsubstantiated Criticism

But let’s also consider the comment that immediately rides on the coat-tails of this name-calling: “This is what you get when you try to pretend that reality is a ‘worldview’.”

This comment isn’t exactly name-calling, but it’s not much better. While it has the rough shape of an objection to my ideas, I really have no idea how to flesh out the objection. Presumably he means to say that my thinking is at some point (where?) premised on falsely equating reality with a worldview, and that this leads me to embrace a conclusion (what?) that is false. I certainly don’t accept this strange identification, and so would be quite surprised to discover that in some way my thinking presupposes it. But since Myers makes no effort to show how and why my thinking presupposes it, I’m just left scratching my head.

In fact, there is good reason to suppose, given what I say in my essay, that I don’t equate reality with a worldview. After all, the whole point of the essay is to address how we can go about assessing alternative worldviews. Why would we need to assess alternatives to decide which is better if reality simply were a worldview? The task of assessment supposes that there is a truth “out there” that we are trying to align our beliefs with. The challenge is to figure out what that truth is when you’re dealing, not with testable hypotheses, but with holistic understandings of the basic nature of reality. Is reality exhausted by what scientists can study empirically, or is there more? The main point of my essay is that we shouldn’t blindly assume that one answer or the other is correct—but since we can’t answer the question through scientific or broadly empirical means, we need a different approach…one that, I think, cannot ignore theology.

But all of this is obviously premised on a distinction between worldviews and reality. Myers can get away with accusing me of equating the two only because he has failed to carefully and charitably reconstruct my thinking. He just flippantly throws out the criticism without any clarification or explanation of why one might be justified in thinking it fits. Maybe on some level he knows that it doesn’t fit, and that’s why he fails to explain the charge. Better to offer a free-floating objection and hope that some of your readers will buy it than to explain the objection enough to make clear how erroneous it is.

Ironically, I think Myers actually does falsely identify reality with a ‘worldview.” To be more specific, he confuses his own naturalistic worldview with reality. I say this because it seems like the most plausible explanation for a number of the assertions he makes in his response to me.

For example, he says, “Theologians seem to have decided that truth is optional and irrelevant.” The only evidence he offers in support of this charge, however, is the fact that theologians are wrestling with elusive matters that fall outside the limits of science and its powerful methods of empirical testing. But why does that amount to treating truth as optional and irrelevant? I can understand why he would say this if he equates his naturalist worldview with reality. If you do that, then you will think that what exceeds the scope of scientific study isn’t real. And this seems to be what Myers is doing: he identifies “reality” with what his naturalistic worldview posits, and so treats theologians who aren’t prepared to accept this naturalism as being indifferent to truth.

Likewise, he says of me that “abandonment of the truth is the heart of his argument.” But how can he say this, given that I am advocating a quest for ultimate truth that involves an open-minded consideration of alternative holistic worldviews? Well, the most plausible explanation as far as I can tell is this: when I argue that we need to comparatively examine alternative holistic interpretations of experience, I am clearly saying that we shouldn’t just blindly and dogmatically adopt the naturalistic one. And if you happen to identify this naturalistic one with reality, then you might mistake a resistance to dogmatic acceptance of naturalism for a rejection of reality.

Now this is just suggestive rather than conclusive. That is, I’ve shown that some of the puzzling things he says make sense once one sees him as dogmatically identifying his favored (unfalsifiable) worldview with truth. But there might be another way to understand these statements. For example, he might have just been blathering self-importantly without giving any thought to whether his words actually make sense. But at least here I’ve given some reason to suppose that Myers is guilty of the false identification that he accuses me of making. Myers offers no such reasons—and, in fact, couldn’t do so were he to interpret my argument charitably, since any attempt to do so would reveal that my argument is premised on the opposite of what he accusing me of assuming.

Rhetorical Questions Obscuring Questionable Assertions

When I teach critical thinking, one of the things I point out to my students is how rhetorical questions often conceal weaknesses in an essay or argument. This is not to say there is never a place for rhetorical questions. But when you stumble across them it’s often a good idea to translate them into their corresponding assertions and then ask whether there is good reason to believe that the assertion is true. After all, that’s what a rhetorical question is—an assertion in the form of a question. You are asking a question whose answer you take to be obvious.

But here’s the problem: Sometimes the answer isn’t obvious. Sometimes the question ought to be treated as a legitimate question. And sometimes writers know (sometimes only on an intuitive level) that if they assert something outright in an essay people will pause and wonder, “Is that true?” But a rhetorical question will roll right past them, and the intended assertion will slip in the back door, so to speak, without ever being examined. And this is especially useful if the writer really has no idea whether the assertion is true or not.

Take, for example, the following string of rhetorical assertions made by Myers in his response to me:

So, tell me, Dr Reitan: are theologians working on a grand project to reconcile Christianity and Islam? Even Protestantism vs. Catholicism? Is that too much, should we narrow our goals to resolving smaller sectarian differences, like the Wisconsin vs. Missouri synods of the Lutheran church? Which particular sect has the worldview most consistent with experience?

Here, a string of rhetorical questions are introduced that are clearly intended to be assertions in disguise. So let’s consider these assertions. The first is that no theologians are working on grand projects of inter-religious reconciliation. Is that true? No. The second is that theologians are not working on reconciling differences between Protestantism and Catholicism. Is that true? No. The third is that no theologians are working on more nuanced theological disputes between closely related religious denominations or sects. Is that true? No.

Consider the first of these questions. There has been a rich strain of theology over the last two centuries that takes very seriously how we should approach the fact of rival religious worldviews. This stretches at least back to Schleiermacher, who took the question very seriously. Some theologians since then have sought a synthesis of diverse religious traditions under the rubric of a more comprehensive theology. For an example of a Christian effort along these lines, one might consider R.C. Zaehner’s At Sundry Times.

Others have attempted to build the case that all world religions can be reconciled when they are seen as different culturally and historically located responses to an experience of the transcendent—that they are, in effect, culturally meaningful metaphors aimed at aligning us with ultimate reality, and should be evaluated pragmatically in terms of how well they work at jarring us out of our self-centered existence and into a “reality-centered” one. Of course, anyone who knows anything about theology knows that I’m describing John Hick’s work here—but, of course, Myers knows nothing about theology. He just flings rhetorical questions from his own well of ignorance.

Of course, that theologians are wrestling with these issues doesn't mean that they've successfully resolved them--but this relates to the last of Myers’ rhetorical questions, which is a bit different from the others. He asks, “Which particular sect has the worldview most consistent with experience?” Here, the hidden assertion is not a particular answer to the question, but rather (I'm pretty sure) a claim about the unavailability of an answer. In effect, he’s stating that there is no way to know which worldview is best, because there are no standards for assessing worldviews or methods for going about trying to ascertain which worldviews offer the best “fit” with experience as a whole.

Is that true? If so, then Myers should give up his confidence about naturalism. He should probably become an agnostic and say, "There's no way to know what ultimate reality is like, so let's stop trying to come up with accounts of ultimate reality and instead just answer the questions we can answer." While I think that's a defensible position to take, I’m not convinced that human beings can't make any headway in choosing among worldviews--and I certainly don't think we should just assume in advance that there is no way to make such headway.

The problem, of course, is that even if we can begin to sketch out criteria according to which worldviews might be assessed--such things as pragmatic impact, explanatory power, power to coordinate and unify diverse dimensions of experience, fit with empirical facts, simplicity, etc.--the assessment of worldviews will not be a straightforward thing. It will be hard. As I put it in a comment on my last post about Myers,

…differences in the meaning of an experience under one worldview or another does not rise to the level of either verification or falsification--that is, worldviews are not verified by their capacity to explain a feature of experience, nor are worldviews falsified by the fact that they need to explain AWAY an experience. And so, we might say, that the process of deciding on a holistic interpretive worldview is more art than science.

But to say this is not to say that there can be no headway in deciding among worldviews (or at least narrowing the field of options by excluding some), or that the struggle isn’t necessary and worth it, or that simply assuming the truth of naturalism is an adequate surrogate for engaging in that struggle. And I don’t see how we can engage in that struggle by ignoring those theologians and philosophers who have made it their life’s work to engage in it.

Once again I find myself running out of time and energy before I’ve run out of sophistry to critique. But at this point, it’s probably sufficient to say “And so on.”


  1. Hi, Eric-

    Sorry about your cold, and about this unpleasantness from Myers.

    "He asks, “Which particular sect has the worldview most consistent with experience?” Here, the hidden assertion is not a particular answer to the question, but rather (I'm pretty sure) a claim about the unavailability of an answer. In effect, he’s stating that there is no way to know which worldview is best, because there are no standards for assessing worldviews or methods for going about trying to ascertain which worldviews offer the best “fit” with experience as a whole."

    You might want to be honest here and admit that theism is not really trying to best fit our experience as a whole in an observational sense. If that were true, then theologians would be scientists. What theists are doing is creating a story that goes way, way beyond our experience in a way that satisfies far deeper participatory issues of psychology, such as a need for belonging, supporting a patriarchal system that has traditionally been judged as the best social organization, answering our natural but mistaken superstitions, sponsoring cleansing and bonding rituals whose deep-seated attraction has outlasted their original rationales, etc.

    In short, it is not our experience that religion attempts to address, but the gestalt of the human condition, which requires a great deal of creative input quite apart from a bare analysis of our position in the cosmos.

    We may very well need these psychological services to various extents for our individual and collective happiness, but claiming that the theology that sponsors them also supplies knowledge about the facts of existence, our cosmic history, the ultimate reality, etc. is not only wrong, but quite beside the point. What it knows and studies is our psychology, and if that psychology requires a bit of flummery in the form of certainty of ultimate realities, contact with a living god, etc., that remains a psychological insight, not an analytical one.

    This is what neatly accounts for the varieties of religion, compared to the unity of science, since participatory psychology is also power politics, and gets entangled in issues of tribalism, narrative dominance, meaning creation, cultural leadership, and so forth in ways that pure analysis, staked empirically, tends not to, when done well.

  2. Burk--This is well articulated and represents a plausible position that I can ALMOST agree with.

    A couple of key points of disagreement need to be noted, however. First, I don't want to reduce experience to experience in an observational sense--and I don't want to say that the only experience with evidential value is experience in the observational sense.

    I think the problem of the criterion (What counts as a compelling reason to believe, and on based on what reasons do we believe that it counts as a compelling reason to believe?) comes into play here. You operate (I think) on the assumption that what we might call empirical observation is the only kind of EXPERIENCE with evidentiary value--that is, the only kind of experience that offers a good reason to believe certain things to be the case about reality. You may (and probably do) also acknowledge the existence of certain non-experiential reasons to believe, but we'll set that aside for now.

    In any event, for me the problem of the criterion is huge, and my approach to addressing it is influenced deeply by my reading of Hegel--so I'll just leave that issue for now with a promissory note to devote some future posts to my understanding of Hegel's critical engagement with the enlightenment.

    In any event, what you aptly call "the gestalt of the human condition" is (with appropriate qualifications) what I have in mind as providing the material against which alternative worldviews need to be tested. But I lend to elements of that gestalt an evidentiary value that you don't--but not an evidentiary value that we can harness directly in the way that scientists do empirical evidence.

    This is not to say that I lend evidentiary value to everything that you locate within the rubric of the gestalt of the human condition. Rather, it is to say that I see the question of what has evidentiary value as more open than you do. I agree that for the kinds of inquiries scientists pursue, only empirical observations have the sort of evidentiary value amenable to the scientific method. But I think there are other methods of inquiry for which other experiences offer a different kind of evidentiary significance.

    I do agree that there is a great deal of creativity that is an intrisic element of speculative theology and philosophy. And if these disciplines involved nothing more than that, then it would amount to just "making stuff up." But I think there is more--but again I'll content myself with a promissory note at this point, since I can't do justice to it in a comment.

    Finally, I agree that much of what goes by the name of religion involves embracing a story that goes far beyond what is needed in order to understand experience, but rather serves social and personal needs. But here I'd make two points. First, the decision to live in the light of such a story should not be confused with knowledge claims--and so long as that confusion isn't made, and other conditions are met (which I discuss in my book), this decision can be legitimate.

    Second, there is a difference between adopting a religious narrative by which to live and doing theology. The latter is more about using these religious stories as a springboard towards a deeper understanding of the world--or at least it can be that, if it operates as part of a broader Hegelian method of inquiry rooted in the problem of the criterion--and so I end with another promissory note...