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A double standard

July 21, 2011

Certain atheists reject the idea that they have to consider the best arguments for theism, thinking such arguments ought to be dismissed basically prima facie.  This type of response towards theism has come to be known as the Courtier’s Reply.  The force of the Courtier’s reply towards theism derives from an analogy with something supposedly just as ridiculous such as The Tooth Fairy or The Flying Spaghetti Monster.  The basic idea is this: the concept of theism is so ridiculous that one need not spend any time studying what others have said about such a concept in order to reject it.

So far, so good.

Concurrently, many of these same atheists will regale us with the triumphs and wonders of science, and the scientific method.  It helps us understand the natural world, helps us categorize, make certain predictions, and the like.  Indeed, it seems to me science is a nice thing, at least for those reasons.   But as the saying goes, too much of a good thing may do us harm.  Regarding the scientific method, when admiration turns into infatuation, sloppy thinking results.

Here’s the problem: the shorthand reason offered for holding the scientific method in such high esteem vis-a-vis theism (a false dichotomy in my book, but never mind) usually boils down to: “science works” (for example, see here, here, and here).  However, the justification for that position consists in actually implementing the scientific method: rigorous research, careful thought, refining and even overturning previous theories.  No self-respecting atheist-as-scientist would offer only the dismissive “science works” response when challenged to defend science against theism (again, notwithstanding the false choice here).  Further, no atheist-as-scientist would take seriously anyone who offered an out-of-hand rejection of a particular scientific theory without even understanding the relevant literature first.

But then, why is one justified in putting forth the Courtier’s Reply towards theism, but not the fruits of science?  What (non-question-begging) reasons could the atheist have for this?

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19 comments

  1. I don;t think anything should be rejected out of hand, without even looking at it. But unfortunately, when it comes to religion, a lot of data, if one might call it that, is passed on as unquestionable truth. It is not to be doubted, it is not to be studied and it is never to be considered dis-proven. In many cases, the very idea of applying the scientific method to religion or theism is met with violent protests, so some atheists do tend to be dismissive about it. If you look at it though, you might find more people dismissive about the scientific method than there are those dismissing religion as nonchalantly. 🙂


  2. The force of the Courtier’s reply towards theism derives from an analogy with something supposedly just as ridiculous such as The Tooth Fairy or The Flying Spaghetti Monster. The basic idea is this: the concept of theism is so ridiculous that one need not spend any time studying what others have said about such a concept in order to reject it.

    I think the point is instead that to respond to arguments against theism in general by pointing out that the atheist lacks knowledge of sophisticated theology is to fallaciously appeal to authority. The appeal is fallacious because although knowledge of sophisticated theology may be required for a cogent argument concerning the nature of God in this or that respect, it is not required to mount a cogent argument against the existence of God, provided (and this is a crucial implicit assumption) that there is some core concept of God with which all sophisticated varieties of theism can be expected to endorse.

    But is there such a core concept of God? I think that’s a hard question to answer: on the one hand, the range of God concepts that have been elaborated are astonishing; on the other hand, there is a case to be made that only some few of those elaborated have any substantial number of adherents, and that those few do share a core concept of God. In any case, I think the worth of the Courtier’s reply depend on a positive answer to this question.

    But as the saying goes, too much of a good thing may do us harm. Regarding the scientific method, when admiration turns into infatuation, sloppy thinking results.

    I found this passage interesting, for what it reveals about different attitudes to science. I think the argument that “science works” is most charitably understood as pointing out as implying that science allows us to make accurate predications and retrodictions, and that on that basis a broadly scientific epistemology has won the right to our epistemic allegiance. But if that’s so, then it’s not just the case that science is a ‘nice thing’, whose methods we can use and then put away, but instead that scientific thinking is normatively required wherever and whenever we consent to believe. From this view it would be incorrect to identify uncompromising adherence to scientific methods with sloppy thinking, for on the contrary, it is divergence from scientific method that is epistemically defective.


  3. Hi hbhatnagar,

    But unfortunately, when it comes to religion, a lot of data, if one might call it that, is passed on as unquestionable truth.

    True enough, but how is this relevant? Just because certain proponents don’t like to answer questions about claim X doesn’t mean the claim shouldn’t be investigated, right?


  4. Hi TaiChi,

    I think the point is instead that to respond to arguments against theism in general by pointing out that the atheist lacks knowledge of sophisticated theology is to fallaciously appeal to authority.

    I think it’s worse than that. Case in point:

    1. Dawkins mangles the ontological argument when trying to respond to it.
    2. Others point out he doesn’t understand the argument, therefore he is arguing a straw man.
    3. Dawkins defenders come to his rescue by invoking the Courtier’s Reply: the concept of God is so ridiculous one doesn’t need to understand the ontological argument to dismiss it – the ontological argument.

    This seems to me plainly question-begging.

    But is there such a core concept of God?

    Good question – I don’t have much to offer here. A starting point would be to investigate your own intuitions about the existence of God.

    I think the argument that “science works” is most charitably understood as pointing out as implying that science allows us to make accurate predications and retrodictions, and that on that basis a broadly scientific epistemology has won the right to our epistemic allegiance.

    Really? I can think of many truths that can’t be known through the scientific method, such as moral truths and first-person knowledge of myself. I believe I have more justification for certain first-person knowledge of myself than I do the knowledge that special relativity is true, so my undivided allegiance to the scientific method should be abandoned.


  5. To your general point, it seems that every day I see some brave superhero of science attempting to debunk a philosophical argument and, in the process, proving that he knows nothing about philosophy. II can’t understand why they don’t just say “metaphysics is irrelevant to me; I refuse to engage”. At least that would an honest position. Instead, they fumble around and make asses of themselves, all the while braying about how physics “beats” metaphysics.

    Really? I can think of many truths that can’t be known through the scientific method, such as moral truths and first-person knowledge of myself.

    I agree with TaiChi on this point. The broadly scientific epistemology is roughly the same way that we get past solipsism, and has indeed earned our allegiance.

    If your point is that there are some things that empiricism cannot answer, which logic and reason can answer, that’s fine. But there is absolutely no need to attempt to discredit empiricism. It’s not as if empiricism is mutually exclusive with other means of inquiry.


  6. Reidish,

    Again, I think the point of the Courtier’s reply is to point out a certain sort of fallacy, that of assuming that familiarity with the vast literature on the nature of God is required for arguing against the existence of God. I don’t think that the point of the Courtier’s reply is simply to dismiss theism without argument, nor do I think that it is supposed to dismiss all arguments for theism without arguments. If it’s been so used, then it’s been misused.

    3. Dawkins defenders come to his rescue by invoking the Courtier’s Reply: the concept of God is so ridiculous one doesn’t need to understand the ontological argument to dismiss it – the ontological argument.

    This seems to me plainly question-begging.

    I think these people misunderstand the Courtier’s reply: I’d be criticizing them, rather than the reply. We have our fair share of idiots too, you know.

    Good question – I don’t have much to offer here. A starting point would be to investigate your own intuitions about the existence of God.

    You think I have intuitions about the existence of God? That’s amusing.

    Really? I can think of many truths that can’t be known through the scientific method, such as moral truths and first-person knowledge of myself. I believe I have more justification for certain first-person knowledge of myself than I do the knowledge that special relativity is true, so my undivided allegiance to the scientific method should be abandoned.

    Well, I take it that a broadly scientific epistemology does not preclude first-person knowledge, and for the very good reason that the first-person experiences of scientists are required as data for the scientific method. As for moral knowledge, it is a matter of considerable debate whether it can be acquired through science. But I do think that if it can’t be so acquired, and if we are in the end forced to go with intuition or to go without, then I think we should go without.


  7. Hi JSA,

    If your point is that there are some things that empiricism cannot answer, which logic and reason can answer, that’s fine.

    In a manner of speaking, that was the essence of my point to TaiChi, yes. Consequently, that means we do not owe our undivided allegiance to the scientific method.

    But there is absolutely no need to attempt to discredit empiricism. It’s not as if empiricism is mutually exclusive with other means of inquiry.

    I agree on both counts. My aim would not be to discredit empiricism (that wasn’t my aim with this post), but rather to properly relegate it – to assign it to its proper place.


  8. TaiChi,

    I don’t think that the point of the Courtier’s reply is simply to dismiss theism without argument, nor do I think that it is supposed to dismiss all arguments for theism without arguments. If it’s been so used, then it’s been misused.

    Well perhaps it’s a judgment call whether it has been misused. I think Myers, Dawkins, and Coyne would be purveyors of such misuse. Dawkins devoted a large part of The God Delusion responding to straw men versions of the ontological and cosmological arguments, for goodness sake. It is not a reply, but rather a retreat, to say one doesn’t need to understand such arguments in order to reject their conclusion – when it is the very arguments which are under consideration.

    You think I have intuitions about the existence of God? That’s amusing.

    I aim to please. In spite of your denial, I think we all have such intuitions – Scripture speaks clearly to that. I grant you probably couldn’t give a whit about what Scripture says, of course.

    Well, I take it that a broadly scientific epistemology does not preclude first-person knowledge, and for the very good reason that the first-person experiences of scientists are required as data for the scientific method.

    Interesting. I would say that propositions properly deduced with a scientific epistemology are necessarily third-person – you don’t agree? First-person experiences are compatible with knowledge obtained with the scientific method, but are of a different kind.

    As for moral knowledge, it is a matter of considerable debate whether it can be acquired through science. But I do think that if it can’t be so acquired, and if we are in the end forced to go with intuition or to go without, then I think we should go without.

    Where is this debate occurring where it is presumed possible to traverse across the is / ought gap? As to your other point, all that I can say is: I admire you for being consistent, TaiChi.


  9. Dawkins devoted a large part of The God Delusion responding to straw men versions of the ontological and cosmological arguments, for goodness sake.

    He devotes a whole 8 pages, out of 374. That’s not very much, and certainly not enough to indicate that he intended to do much more than give a sketch of the arguments and point to the usual replies. But you’re absolutely right that the arguments he examines are not the best specimens.

    I aim to please. In spite of your denial, I think we all have such intuitions – Scripture speaks clearly to that. I grant you probably couldn’t give a whit about what Scripture says, of course.

    Aside from scripture, do you have any reason at all to think that atheists have intuitions about the existence of God? Specifically, is there anything about the way atheists act or talk that you suspect would not obtain were they to lack the kind of intuitions you think they have?

    Interesting. I would say that propositions properly deduced with a scientific epistemology are necessarily third-person – you don’t agree? First-person experiences are compatible with knowledge obtained with the scientific method, but are of a different kind.

    I don’t know whether to agree or not, since I’m not sure what counts as a first-person proposition. I’m not even sure there could be such things, since I’m fairly wed to the view that truth is non-relative. (Certainly there are first-person experiences, and propositions describing those experiences, but I take it that the latter are of the form “S experiences A”, and these appear to be third-person propositions). If you could point me at some literature which explains this, I’d be interested.

    “Where is this debate occurring where it is presumed possible to traverse across the is / ought gap? As to your other point, all that I can say is: I admire you for being consistent, TaiChi.”

    For the record, I don’t think that there is an is/ought gap: there would only be such a gap if non-cognitivism were true, since on both realism and anti-realism, ought statements are to be interpreted as having truth-conditions, and are therefore descriptive in the end, whether or not those truth-conditions obtain.


  10. It’s implied above, but I should probably add: I don’t think non-cognitivism is true to the semantics of moral propositions, which is why I think either realism or non-realism is true.


  11. He devotes a whole 8 pages, out of 374. That’s not very much, and certainly not enough to indicate that he intended to do much more than give a sketch of the arguments and point to the usual replies.

    You’re right, and I was wrong to say “large part”.

    Aside from scripture, do you have any reason at all to think that atheists have intuitions about the existence of God? Specifically, is there anything about the way atheists act or talk that you suspect would not obtain were they to lack the kind of intuitions you think they have?

    No, although I probably haven’t studied atheists enough to say confidently either way.

    I don’t know whether to agree or not, since I’m not sure what counts as a first-person proposition. I’m not even sure there could be such things, since I’m fairly wed to the view that truth is non-relative. (Certainly there are first-person experiences, and propositions describing those experiences, but I take it that the latter are of the form “S experiences A”, and these appear to be third-person propositions). If you could point me at some literature which explains this, I’d be interested.

    Truth is indeed non-relative. Let me define a “first-person proposition” (and maybe this is an idiosyncratic usage of the terms, causing confusion between us) as any proposition containing the first-person indexical.

    In contrast, consider the following:
    Reidish and TaiChi both walk into a room. Reidish and TaiChi both sit down. Reidish and TaiChi both drink coffee.

    Those are all “third-person propositions” – the type that can be verified with a scientific epistemology. But the proposition “I walk into a room”, technically speaking, cannot be. That is because there is no first-person indexical in the scientific parlance. Application of the scientific method is not sufficient for me to know that I walked into a room – that is, to establish the identity between Reidish and I.

    For the record, I don’t think that there is an is/ought gap: there would only be such a gap if non-cognitivism were true, since on both realism and anti-realism, ought statements are to be interpreted as having truth-conditions, and are therefore descriptive in the end, whether or not those truth-conditions obtain.

    Ah, but it is the referent of such propositions that is really at issue with regard to the is/ought gap, is it not?


  12. No, although I probably haven’t studied atheists enough to say confidently either way.

    No, I suppose not. I suspect the same is true of most if not all theists who have that opinion, but I would wish that your grounds for presuming me insincere would be less tendentiously supported.

    Those are all “third-person propositions” – the type that can be verified with a scientific epistemology. But the proposition “I walk into a room”, technically speaking, cannot be. That is because there is no first-person indexical in the scientific parlance. Application of the scientific method is not sufficient for me to know that I walked into a room – that is, to establish the identity between Reidish and I.

    Gotcha. Yes, I agree that first-person statements have no place in scientific discourse. But I’d maintain that the third-person description sketched by science doesn’t necessarily leave anything out of our description of reality. I take the view that first-person statements exploit one’s place in the world in describing a third-person reality, but that this only amounts to a difference how the world is represented, not in what is represented. The statements..

    A. TaiChi walked into a room.
    B. I walked into a room

    ..both represent the same fact about the world. The latter, however, expresses the fact in a manner which only I could be in a position to. So too with the statements..

    C. At time t, and location {x,y,z}, there exists a computer.
    D. That [pointing to an object time t, and location {x,y,z}] is a computer.

    .. which are examples of the same phenomenon: the former can be said anywhere, whereas the latter exploits a particular context, and will not hold true outside of that context, since “that” will designate something else in another context. Different contexts provide different representational resources, expressions with indexicals utilize the resources available to describe ordinary third-person facts about the world.

    Ah, but it is the referent of such propositions that is really at issue with regard to the is/ought gap, is it not?

    I’m not quite sure what you mean – I’m inclined to just repeat myself, but you’re obviously after something else. Can you clarify?


  13. …but I would wish that your grounds for presuming me insincere would be less tendentiously supported.

    Yet, I think I’ve observed atheists sufficiently to say that they hold intuitions generally in very low regard as veridical tools. As such, is it so remarkable for me to believe you simply haven’t paid yours due attention? You just admitted on this thread that you would rather deny that moral knowledge is obtainable than trust any intuitions about it. That seems like a tremendously high price to pay for denying the veridical nature of at least certain intuitions, so I conclude you hold them in very low regard, and are likely to ignore them typically.

    Yes, I agree that first-person statements have no place in scientific discourse. But I’d maintain that the third-person description sketched by science doesn’t necessarily leave anything out of our description of reality.

    I agree it doesn’t necessarily leave anything out of our description, it just happens to. In the case of persons, which is the example we’ve been discussing, it does: namely, the method by which I know that I am the object in question.

    Different contexts provide different representational resources, expressions with indexicals utilize the resources available to describe ordinary third-person facts about the world.

    Of course, but my point has been that the “resources available” are more than the tools of the scientific epistemology.

    I’m not quite sure what you mean – I’m inclined to just repeat myself, but you’re obviously after something else. Can you clarify?

    I mean that the natures of the truth-conditions are of a different kind: descriptive versus prescriptive.


  14. Yet, I think I’ve observed atheists sufficiently to say that they hold intuitions generally in very low regard as veridical tools. As such, is it so remarkable for me to believe you simply haven’t paid yours due attention?

    Holding intuitions in low regard, ignoring intuitions – these things are different to not having intuitions at all, since in the former two one must be conscious of intuitions which one depreciates or ignores, whereas in the latter it is not possible for one to be conscious of the intuitions, as one doesn’t have them.

    You just admitted on this thread that you would rather deny that moral knowledge is obtainable than trust any intuitions about it. That seems like a tremendously high price to pay for denying the veridical nature of at least certain intuitions, so I conclude you hold them in very low regard, and are likely to ignore them typically.

    I’d rather deny moral knowledge than stand dogmatically on my intuitions, yes. Isn’t that the reasonable position? As for the price of denying intutions, the phrase reminded of a quote from David Lewis, too lengthy to reproduce here, so I’ve posted it on my blog.

    I agree it doesn’t necessarily leave anything out of our description, it just happens to. In the case of persons, which is the example we’ve been discussing, it does: namely, the method by which I know that I am the object in question… Of course, but my point has been that the “resources available” are more than the tools of the scientific epistemology.

    The shift from discussing ‘first-person propositions’ to discussing ‘method’ makes obscure to me just what point you’re pushing, but if I have to guess, I’d say it has nothing to do with indexicality at all. Rather, what you seem to be worried about is that a third-person (or absolute) conception of the world leaves out experience.
    Well, I’m afraid I have little to say on that matter, as I haven’t studied it. I do think that a mature science of consciousness will be able to say in detail what it is for there to be animals with the capacity for consciousness, and that if so, there is no reason why a detailed description of a particular animal that was conscious would leave out experience – of course it would be true that the animal’s experience would not be a description of the experience from a first-person point of view, but that in no way prevents it from being a description of the experience nevertheless. Or so I say, not having investigated the matter in any detail.

    I mean that the natures of the truth-conditions are of a different kind: descriptive versus prescriptive.

    I don’t understand what the truth-conditions for prescriptive statements would be. “Go to school” is neither true nor false, but if it had truth-conditions, then it would be either true or false, hence “Go to school” does not have truth-conditions, and the same goes for prescriptions in general. On the other hand, I have an inkling of what the truth-conditions of evaluatives might be, but I take it that if they have truth conditions, then evaluatives would be a subset of descriptions, and so is/ought would be a false dichotomy.


  15. Holding intuitions in low regard, ignoring intuitions – these things are different to not having intuitions at all, since in the former two one must be conscious of intuitions which one depreciates or ignores, whereas in the latter it is not possible for one to be conscious of the intuitions, as one doesn’t have them.

    To which I say: it is possible for us to not be able to tell the difference between the two (non-existence versus depreciation/ignorance) without due attention being paid.

    I’d rather deny moral knowledge than stand dogmatically on my intuitions, yes. Isn’t that the reasonable position?

    No, it doesn’t appear reasonable at all, excepting perhaps the “dogmatic” bit. To quote Lewis back to you:

    “If our official theories disagree with what we cannot help thinking outside the philosophy room, then no real equilibrium has been reached. Unless we are doubleplusgood doublethinkers, it will not last. And it should not last, for it is safe to say that in such a case we will believe a great deal that is false.”

    The shift from discussing ‘first-person propositions’ to discussing ‘method’ makes obscure to me just what point you’re pushing…

    It seems to me it is all one and the same issue. Nevertheless, evidently I’m not expressing it well, so I shall put it to rest for the time being.


  16. To which I say: it is possible for us to not be able to tell the difference between the two (non-existence versus depreciation/ignorance) without due attention being paid.

    It is possible for an external observer of the intuiter not to be able to tell the difference. To say that the intuiter can adopt an intentional stance such as holding in low regard or ignoring toward an intuition without being aware of it is to misuse these expressions. The difference comes out in moral philosophy: I am at fault if I ignore the the child drowning in the lake and do nothing, but I am not at fault if I am unaware of the child’s drowning in the lake and do nothing. There is no overlapping case in which I am both unaware of the child’s drowning in the lake and ignore it, about which there might be contention as to whether I am at fault.

    To quote Lewis back to you..

    I’ve no problem thinking that of moral anti-realism as true in ordinary life. To consistently maintain skepticism regarding the external world, or relativism regarding pretty much anything – these I find practically unbelievable.

    It seems to me it is all one and the same issue. Nevertheless, evidently I’m not expressing it well, so I shall put it to rest for the time being.

    Again, if you find some perspicuous literature on this, please pass it on. Thanks.


  17. Again, if you find some perspicuous literature on this, please pass it on. Thanks.

    What I’m getting at is something like this:

    http://instruct.westvalley.edu/lafave/nagel_nice.html


  18. It is possible for an external observer of the intuiter not to be able to tell the difference. To say that the intuiter can adopt an intentional stance such as holding in low regard or ignoring toward an intuition without being aware of it is to misuse these expressions.

    I’ve thought about this, but I still think it’s applicable. In this way our intuitions can be like memories: just because you are not simultaneously aware of all of them, or can summon them only in certain contexts/conditions, doesn’t mean you don’t have them.


  19. I’ve read the Nagel paper, but its probably time for a reread, so thanks.

    I’ve thought about this, but I still think it’s applicable.In this way our intuitions can be like memories: just because you are not simultaneously aware of all of them, or can summon them only in certain contexts/conditions, doesn’t mean you don’t have them.

    Even so, it still wouldn’t be correct to describe someone immediately unaware of a latent intuition as ignoring that intuition or holding it in low regard, anymore than it would be correct to describe someone immediately unaware of what they had for breakfast as ignoring their memory of breakfast or holding the memory in low regard.
    But this is probably a side-issue*. The possibility that I have latent intuitions of which I am unaware is still plausible whether or not we describe this in a way that (my view) tends to make non-believers culpable for their lack of belief. And in that case my sincere denial of intuitions about God would be compatible with your scriptual knowledge. I think that’s correct so far as it goes, but I still find it odd. My reason is that I would’ve thought the point of God providing us with intuitions of his existence and nature** would be so that we would be aware of his existence and nature. But if these intuitions are non-luminous, then they don’t appear to fulfil that purpose very well:

    (i) The idea suggests that intuitions regarding God will make themselves known in the right (mind)set and setting. But then our knowledge of God seems to become a function of chance, since the right set and setting may not come along. So people may miss out on what seems to be something of utmost importance to their lives.
    (ii) Even if everyone did happen to become conscious of their God-intuitons, it would still seem to be that certain people would go without this knowledge for substantial amounts of time, during which they would go without potentially life-changing knowledge.

    So, I guess that’s why I’d expect to know about these latent intuitions if I had them: if they are to fulfill the kind of purpose I think they’re for, I would be aware of them.

    * Apologies for picking up on this rather than your main point.

    ** I say “existence and nature”, but I don’t actually know whether scripture supports the latter. I plead a Catholic upbringing.



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