This temptation was quickly dispelled as I skimmed through the hundreds of comments by his legions of yes-men who praised him for his masterful “take-down” of this hapless Reitan character. And then my eye was caught by one comment I’d missed during the last go-around. Here’s what the commenter says:
Brilliant essay. But what keeps bothering me is... will Reitan ever read this?At first it just made chuckle, that someone could make such a dogmatic (and erroneous) assumption. After all, I’d not only already read Myers’ critique, I’d written a quick response in which I zeroed in on a key instance of Myers’ willful mischaracterization of my point (a mischaracterization that is crucial to his entire “take-down” of my essay).
Does he just post something like this then blissfully wander away in
ignorance? These people never, ever, EVER seem to respond to such high
quality critiques. Oh, sure, they love to respond to some idiots ripost, but
when its good...never.
How do they do that? How do they remain so detached from ever thinking about their position, what they wrote? I cannot understand being so purposefully ignorant.
But I am now tempted to offer something more substantial—the sort of thing I might do in a critical thinking class (a kind of “spot the fallacies and sophistical argument-surrogates” exercise). Unfortunately, the piece is so riddled with problems from this perspective that to treat all of them would take more time than I have. So, this may have to be the first post in a series...if I have the energy to persist in an exercise of this sort.
Warning: This post is a bit more prickly than usual for me. In any event, here we go.
Let me begin with the very same part of Myers’ essay that I addressed in my last post. Myers, to his credit, quotes here a substantial chunk of my essay—the chunk in which I say the following:
But belief in God isn't primarily a belief about the contents of the empirical
world. It is, rather, a certain holistic interpretation of our experience, one
that offers an account of the meaning and significance of the empirical world
and the lives we lead within it. To believe in God is to understand the world of
ordinary experience in terms of an interpretive worldview that posits the
existence of "something more."
He then immediately follows it up with these words: “Let me clarify that for you, Dr Reitan. You are saying that religion is a nice fairy tale that makes you feel good.”
Since I’ve already pointed out in my previous post just how far off the mark this supposed summary of my meaning happens to be, I won’t repeat that here. What I want to stress here is the sophistical argumentative strategy that is employed. Rather than attempting to restate the author’s actual thinking and critically assess its merits, he immediately offers a caricature.
But not just any caricature. Rather, he jumps to the strangest sort of caricature one can imagine—one in which the substantive content of the caricature has so little to do with what is actually stated in the quote that it doesn’t seem to even be a caricature of the quoted passage at all.
Let me help Myers out a bit. What he says here—“Religion is a nice fairy tale that makes you feel good”—could actually be used as a caricature of some of the things I actually do say in my book and elsewhere. When I characterize the concept of God as that whose existence would fulfill the “ethico-religious hope” (the hope that the universe is not pitilessly indifferent but is in some fundamental way on the side the good), and I then endorse a pragmatic understanding of “faith” as the decision to live as if a hoped for possibility is true, these ideas might be (unfairly) caricatured in the terms Myers uses.
But using this "believe it because it's a feel good fairy tale" notion to caricature the passage he quotes from the RD essay is akin to using a political cartoon of Barack Obama (in which his ears are larger than his head) as a caricature of Hillary Clinton.
Let me put it baldly: Caricaturing what others say is unsound. It replaces careful argument by offering an up oversimplified straw man for mockery, leaving the more nuanced actual view uncritiqued. But using a caricature that doesn’t even resemble what is being mocked is not just unsound, it exemplifies an utter indifference to engaging seriously with what is being said. Myers can get away with this kind of thing only because his target audience is a crowd of followers eager to cheer him on. From the standpoint of an outsider, one is left scratching one’s head in utter bewilderment.
Leaving Important Stuff Out for the Sake of Creating a False Impression:
In the opening of his riposte, Myers says the following:
What Reitan does in his essay is an interesting sidestep. He acknowledges that there are two kinds of theologies — "apologetic theology", which attempts to address the reality of god's existence, and the misleadingly named "substantive theology", which he claims is about the operational consequences once we've assumed god's existence — and he simply waves away apologetic theology for now. He still claims there's good reason to believe, but it's not the topic here — it's exclusively about whether we canFirst of all, I should point out that he doesn’t exactly get me right when he says that I “claim there’s good reason to believe”--that, in effect, apologetic theology succeeds. In a sense, of course, I do claim this—but not in this essay, and almost certainly not in the sense he has in mind (since the sense in which I hold belief to be reasonable includes some observations about the nature of rationality that presuppose the kind of distinction between interpretive worldviews and empirical facts that Myers fails to understand and so simply ridicules).
dismiss "substantive theology", which is what the Courtier's Reply argues.
What I do claim in the RD essay is that Dawkins hasn’t adequately addressed apologetic theology. It is true, of course, that I do not explore that point in the RD essay. But neither do I merely wave it away. Rather, I point out that since I’ve written an entire book in which large portions are devoted to making this point, I will focus on another point here. In other words, I say that there are two points to be made. One point I’ve already addressed at length, but the other still needs addressing. And so I will (start to) address it.
This certainly changes the significance of my exclusive emphasis on substantive theology. Rather than it sounding like I’m "sidestepping" and "waving away" a crucial issue because I don’t know how to address it, it becomes clear that I’m filling in a blank among things that I haven't yet addressed. But the former is more derogatory and more likely to make me sound like the kind of slippery hack Myers likes to caricature theologians and theistic philosophers as being. And so he goes with that.
And since my reasons for not taking up apologetic theology here don't have bearing on the strength of my argument for substantive theology in any event, insinuating (for argumentative effect) an erroneous negative account of those reasons amounts to the ad hominen fallacy.
Of course, it could be that Myers just wants to avoid helping to sell copies of my book--and that's why he left out mention of it. And once it was left out, he noticed that doing so enabled him to make a false impression that would illegitimately serve his rhetorical purposes...and jumped at the opportunity.
Skipping the Hard Stuff and Launching Headlong into Mischaracterization:
A bit further on, Myers attempts to summarize a key part of my argument in the following way:
He tries to claim that theology is just like naturalism, equally unjustifiable
and ultimately arbitrary, and simply a matter of convenience and compatibility
with our personal philosophies. We have to "try on" different philosophies about
the universe in order to determine which one fits, as if the universe is a rack
of clothes with different sizes for different folks, and we have to each pick
and choose to determine which universe is best for us.
Notice here that he makes no effort to explicate why I'd say that “theology is just like naturalism”—which isn’t what I say, by the way. What I say is that theistic worldviews, insofar as they offer a holistic interpretation of the facts rather than making factual claims, are in the same category as metaphysical naturalism: both make a claim about reality that can’t be tested empirically. In other words, if you’re presented with two rival claims—one holding that what is empirically observable exhausts what’s real, the other holding that it doesn’t—you can’t decide between them by appeal to empirical evidence. Empirical observation cannot determine whether there is more to reality than what is empirically observable.
Since this point is so obviously true--and since it implies immediately that naturalism is an empirically unfalsifiable worldview, and hence implies immediately that Myers is committed to an empirically unfalsifiable worldview--it's no wonder that Myers makes no attempt to seriously address this point. Rather, he just (mis)states it in a dismissive tone. The use of dismissive tones in lieau of argument is a standard sophistical tactic which critical thinking teachers warn against and Myers uses repeatedly as if it were a virue. It is not. It is an intellectual vice.
And when that vice is committed, it's often the case that it is being used to mask a weakness in someone's position. Given Myers' insistence both that nothing that defies empirical testing should be embraced and that metaphysical naturalism is true, it's no wonder he resorts to mockery when it's pointed out that metaphysical naturalism defies empirical testing.
He then proceeds quickly to mischaracterize my position, by stating that I conceive of alternative worldviews as “equally unjustifiable and ultimately arbitrary,” comprising a kind of “rack of clothes” from which we are all free to choose “which universe is best for us.”
Of course, choosing worldviews isn't the same as choosing universes. The universe is what it is. A worldview is a holistic understanding and interpretation of it--one which either fits with reality or doesn't, but one whose fit can't be tested empirically. Here, Myers entirely misses the crucial point, which is that I am in this essay attempting to sketch out a broad strategy for investigating the relative merits of something—which worldview we should embrace—that cannot be investigated through the empirical methods exemplified by the sciences.
Admittedly, it is not possible to offer in such a short essay a fully developed picture of this alternative method. If Myers were dissatisfied with the account of this method and desired a fuller picture, it would be fair to ask for more information—whereupon I might direct him to Hegel’s work (not that he’d read it).
But in a short essay one has to content oneself with modest points, and the modest point I was making was this: if there is one clearly necessary feature possessed by any strategy that is going to have any hope of helping us decide which worldview best captures the fundamental nature of reality, that necessary feature is this: a willingness to seeing how the world looks, how experience fits together, under the most carefully developed alternative worldviews. And that requires reading substantive theology.
Myers never engages with this central claim. Instead, he attributes to me a kind of crass relativism to which I do not ascribe. Either this is the result of a failure to read carefully and charitably, or it is the result of a willful misrepresentation. Either way, it is a poor example of sound critical engagement with the views of others. But why engage seriously and thoughtfully with the views of others when you just know you’re right and you’ve got legions of fans who will call your most sophistical prose a work of genius?
Unfortunately I’ve run out of time before running out of sophistry to critique (heading out of town for the long weekend). Since there are a few more whoppers in Myers' post, I may take them up when I get back. But this wholly negative exercise is tiring, so I might not.