The Unfinishable Scroll

A Note from the Author: Some false information about me has turned up on the web. Follow this link to get the facts about my background.

Blog home page

Mark Sharlow home page


Frequently Discussed:

Related Reading:

Contents by Year:

Contents by Month:
Thu, 08 Apr 2010

A Final Word on Leprechology and the Courtier's Reply

Recently I wrote two posts debunking two arguments by atheists: Richard Dawkins' comparison of theology to leprechology, and PZ Myers' "Courtier's Reply" argument. I showed that these two arguments are logically unsound regardless of whether God exists. (The same goes for other versions of the leprechology comparison, using fairies, monsters, and the like instead of leprechauns.) In my posts (here and here), I analyzed those arguments at length and in great detail, with a logician's eye. I included a lot of detail because I wanted to pinpoint exactly what is wrong with those arguments.

However, you don't need that much detail, or that many words, to see that the two arguments in question are wrong. All you need is some logic. With the leprechology remark and the Courtier's Reply, Dawkins and Myers are pulling a cheap and very old debating trick: refusing to listen to your opponent's arguments.

It's clear why some of Dawkins' opponents want him to study theology. His opponents think that specific theological teachings and writings contain ideas that undermine Dawkins' arguments. By telling Dawkins to consider some theological points, his opponents are making rebuttals to Dawkins' position - rebuttals that take the form, not of brand new arguments, but of arguments and ideas that already are in the literature.

Instead of hearing these rebuttals and demolishing them, Dawkins simply claims he doesn't need to understand them. This is, in effect, what he is doing when he says he doesn't need to learn theology. He is ignoring these rebuttals instead of showing why they are wrong.

I'm not talking about rebuttals that don't need further attention - like when creationists bring up the same old shallow arguments against evolution. The answer to such repetitive arguments is simple: just say something like "I've already addressed that objection in my writings." These particular objections based on theology aren't like that. They are new objections - ones that Dawkins never addressed in the past. (Obviously he didn't, or he wouldn't be claiming that he doesn't have to understand them.)

In the past, Dawkins has done a splendid job of debunking objections to evolution. In that case, he didn't ignore the rebuttals to his position - he destroyed them. He also has tried to answer many objections to his atheism. Why can't he just do the same thing again, this time with the rebuttals he's currently ignoring? Why doesn't he just understand and refute them? By failing to do this, he leaves atheists and believers alike wondering whether he can refute these objections. He undermines his credibility severely.

You can't settle any debate by plugging your ears and singing to drown out your opponent's arguments. That is what Dawkins is trying, in effect, to do.

That's what Dawkins' avoidance of theology amounts to. The problem is not his disbelief in the theological writings. (As an atheist, he's certainly entitled to disbelieve them.) The problem is that his opponents have offered rebuttals to his arguments - rebuttals that happen to make reference to technical ideas in the theological writings. By deliberately shunning those writings, he is refusing to answer the rebuttals. For all practical purposes, he has resigned from the debate.

From his leprechology remark and similar statements, we can guess what Dawkins presumably has in mind when he handwaves away theology. Since he doesn't believe there is a God, he finds it unnecessary to read books that assume there is a God or that purport to describe God. This reaction seems reasonable from an atheist - until you think about it. Actually, the nonexistence of God wouldn't reduce the need for Dawkins to take theology into account. The reason Dawkins needs to learn some theology is not that God exists or that theology is true. The reason is that his opponents are offering counterarguments to his position - and to grasp those counterarguments, he needs to learn a few ideas from theology. To refuse to answer those counterarguments is to give up the debate. Yet this is what Dawkins is doing by claiming that theology is irrelevant.

He might as well just plug his ears and sing.

Someone might argue that we can debunk God without knowing theology, on the grounds that God is a supernatural creator and any kind of supernatural creator is implausible. Perhaps this is what Dawkins was thinking when he chose to ignore theology. However, this argument doesn't help Dawkins in the least. Most religions teach that God is a supernatural creator - but that isn't their definition of God, or even the most important part of their idea of God. Most religions regard God first of all as a supremely good or perfect being, or as the most complete or all-encompassing possible being. This means that if the supernatural creator were debunked, the religions (except for the fundamentalist sects) could consistently go on believing in God! If the religions had to drop the belief that God is literally a supernatural creator, they still could believe in a supreme being. They would have to change some of their doctrines, but the most important part of their idea of God would survive. No doubt this change would come as a shock to many believers. However, the believers could go on worshipping God just like before. In fact, some believers seem to have made this change already. One sometimes meets Christians who believe that the universe probably had natural causes, but that the event of creation nevertheless reflects the glory of God. Most religions teach that God is a supernatural creator - but a "God" defined as supernatural creator, and as that alone, has little to do with the God of religion.

Also, there are philosophical ideas of God that don't involve a supernatural creator in the first place. (I don't only mean a poetical pantheism that relabels the physical universe as God. I mean alternative concepts of a real supreme being.) I've written about these elsewhere (here, here and here, for example), so I won't repeat them all here.

By defining God as a supernatural creator and ignoring other parts of the idea of God, Dawkins has created a God concept that is almost useless for him to debunk. At most, he's proving that God, if there is one, is not a supernatural creator. Even if he were right about that, it would not imply that there is no God. How could he fix his argument? Use a definition of God closer to the ones the religions really use. And to find out what they use, he would have to study a little bit of (gasp!) theology.

Needless to say, none of what I have written here is an argument for the existence of God or against atheism. You can be an atheist and still recognize that leprechology-type arguments and the Courtier's Reply are bunk. I have only shown that these two particular lines of argument are useless. In view of the popularity of those arguments among Dawkins' followers, this may be an important point to make.

Richard, stop playing with the leprechauns and hit those books!

posted at: 00:28 | path: /religion/atheism | persistent link to this entry

Fri, 02 Apr 2010

The Courtier's Reply Exposed: Why Dawkins Still Needs Theology

Critics of Richard Dawkins' atheism sometimes claim that Dawkins should pay more attention to theology in his arguments against God. I've already written about this criticism in an earlier post, where I showed why the critics are right. The reason they are right doesn't depend on whether theology is true or whether there is a God. The reason is that theological writings, whether right or wrong, tell us what religions mean by the word "God." You can't debunk God rationally if you don't bother to learn what the word "God" means. To debunk the God of a religion, you have to at least know what believers in that religion mean by "God." If you don't know that, then you don't even know what kind of being you are trying to debunk. In the worst case, you might not even know what kind of evidence counts as evidence for that being. Your knowledge of science won't necessarily help you out of this quagmire, because when you argue against God you really won't know what you are talking about. This is the case regardless of whether there's any truth to theology. Atheists have to face this fact just as much as believers do. For further details, read my earlier post.

The claim that Dawkins needs to consider theology boils down to the claim that you can't debunk something unless you know what that "something" is. In other words, you should know what you're talking about before arguing against it. This standard seems reasonable - but it didn't stop Dawkins. Nor did it stop his fellow atheist PZ Myers from inventing the "Courtier's Reply." [1]

The Courtier's Reply is a takeoff (pun intended) on the well-known story of "The Emperor's New Clothes" from the writings of Hans Christian Andersen. In the original story, a boy notices and says that the Emperor is naked, even though almost everyone else believes (or pretends to believe) that the Emperor is dressed in invisible clothes. In the Courtier's Reply, an imperial courtier says that Dawkins shouldn't call the Emperor naked without first studying complicated writings about the Emperor's wardrobe. The main point of the Courtier's Reply is that you don't need to study detailed writings or doctrines about something unreal (the Emperor's clothes, or in Myers' opinion, God) to decide that it's unreal.

Judging by the internet traffic, the Courtier's Reply seems to have impressed a lot of Dawkins' camp followers. However, if you actually think about Myers' argument instead of just believing it, you find that it's a hopelessly bad argument. I've already said what's wrong with it in my earlier post. Here I'm going to analyze Myers' argument at length and in gory detail - enough detail to show exactly how the trick is done.

First a bit of terminology. From now on I'll call Myers' story about what the courtier said the "Courtier's Reply." I'll call Myers' argument against Dawkins' critics, based on the Courtier's Reply story [1], the "Courtier's Reply argument."

The Courtier's Reply argument depends on an analogy between two assertions:

  1. The assertion, made by critics of Dawkins, that you need to read up on theology before you can decide rationally whether God exists.
  2. The assertion, made by Myers' fictional courtier, that you need to read up on the Emperor's clothes before deciding whether the clothes exist.

The second assertion obviously is false. The boy in the story can decide whether the Emperor has clothes without referring to any detailed writings about the alleged clothes. The Courtier's Reply argument suggests that one can decide about the existence of God the same way - without absorbing any detailed writings about God.

The analogy between the two assertions is extremely weak. Why? Because the two decisions involved - deciding whether the Emperor's clothes exist, and deciding whether God exists - require background knowledge of very different kinds.

To see what this means and why it's important, consider the following four points about the decision that the Emperor has no clothes.

  1. The required decision is about the existence of the Emperor's supposed clothes.
  2. To decide whether the Emperor has clothes, you need some knowledge. The first thing you need to know is what clothes are - or in other words, what the word "clothes" means. If you don't have a clear idea of what clothes are, then you can't decide with confidence that the Emperor has them or doesn't have them. For example, what would happen if the boy in the story thought "clothes" meant "pigtails," and the Emperor was naked but had pigtails? The boy would conclude that the Emperor has clothes - but that conclusion would be wrong. In general, you can't decide rationally whether something exists (or whether there is evidence for something) unless you know what that "something" is. You need to know what entity it is that you're trying to decide about.
  3. For most of us, including the boy in the original story, this need for background knowledge is not an obstacle. Why? Because we already know what clothes are! We have a working knowledge of clothes that lets us tell whether someone is wearing them. We acquired that knowledge from the culture in which we grew up. Even without an exact definition, we know well enough what the word "clothes" means.
  4. If you know what clothes are, it's easy to figure out how to detect clothes on a person. If you look at a person's body (or touch it if necessary) and find no clothes there, then you can safely assume that the person does not have clothes on. We can assume this because clothes, whatever else they might be, are physical objects that cover parts of the body.

Now consider what happens when we change these four points by replacing the Emperor's clothes with God.

  1. The required decision is about the existence of a supposed being known as God.
  2. To tell whether God exists, you need some background knowledge. The first thing you need to know is what the word "God" means. Once again, you have to know what something is supposed to be before you can decide whether it exists. Just as with the word "clothes," if you don't have a clear idea what "God" means then you can't decide rationally that there is, or is not, such an item as God.

    So far, the decision about God seems to work the same way as the decision about the Emperor's clothes. But...
  3. Point 3 is where the analogy falls apart. Here's the problem. Practically everyone has a very good idea of what clothes are - but most people do not have a very clear idea of what the word "God" means in the world's religious teachings. Whether we believe or disbelieve, most of us have an idea or mental picture of God that doesn't reflect what the word "God" actually means in religious thought. The mental picture of God that some of us picked up in church doesn't give us the whole story. This limitation affects believers and unbelievers alike - and even those fanatics who claim to know all about God. I'll say more about this in a moment.
  4. For point 4, the analogy falls apart again. Even if we knew what God was supposed to be, we might not know automatically how to determine whether there is a God. For all we know, God might be much harder to detect than are clothes. (The idea that something important might be hard to detect is not silly. Some physical particles and forces are very hard to detect. In mathematics, you can't prove a theorem by "detecting" anything; there are other ways to know whether a theorem is right.) In this respect also, God is not like clothes.

Point 3 about God is the most important point, and also perhaps the most surprising. This point needs some explaining. It isn't nearly as radical as it sounds. I'm not claiming that most people lack an idea of God. Needless to say, most people have a concept or mental picture of God, and can explain to you what they mean by the word "God." However, an individual person's mental picture of God usually is not the same as what that person's religious tradition, or any other tradition, means by the word "God." I've already explained this in my earlier post, so I won't repeat it all here.

What's the upshot of all this? Here it is: To understand what the word "God" means to real people (not only yourself but others too), you probably have to learn something that isn't part of your present knowledge. It isn't enough to take the mental picture of God you picked up in Sunday school and run with it. If you're like most people (even scientists), you have to learn something new. You need to learn ideas that you don't pick up automatically in church, in school, at atheist meetings, or in everyday life. Of course, if you want to be careless, you can take an oversimplified mental picture of God, debunk it, and claim that you have debunked God. (Some people do that.) But if you want to make a careful argument about that conjectural being called "God," you have to study what real people mean by that word. These people aren't limited to the silly Bible-chuckers and addled "theologians" that Dawkins carps on. There also are a lot of serious religious scholars out there - scholars who actually think, and think hard, about religious issues. And one way to find out what God this group believes in is to read some theology.

Now we can see what's wrong with the Courtier's Reply argument - and why atheists, like everyone else, should ignore it. To figure out whether the Emperor has clothes, you don't have to learn anything new. To figure out whether there's a God, you probably do have to learn something new. You need to learn what people actually think God is. The best way to get that knowledge is by reading something - and what you read should include some theology. You don't have to believe theology. You don't have to be an expert on theology. In fact, you could read books on the philosophy of religion instead of on theology, and probably pick up all the theological ideas you need. (Philosophers of religion try to analyze religious and theological ideas rationally.) But whatever you read, you do need some of those theological ideas.

In case anyone missed it, I'll say it again: you don't have to believe theology to learn something from it. You can think theology is utter claptrap if you like - but you can't run away from the fact that theology cues us in to the meanings of religious terms. The Courtier's Reply argument suggests that if you take theology seriously, you are nothing but a fawning servant of religion. That is nonsense. Theology can be of interest to atheists and believers alike - not because it's true, but because it tells us something important about what people believe.

Now I will propose my own variation on the Courtier's Reply. This version takes into account the fact (apparently missing from the arguments of Dawkins and Myers) that you actually have to know what you're talking about before you can make a rational decision about a conjectured item's existence.

A boy comes from an island where everyone wears a loincloth - and that's all they wear. For this boy, a loincloth isn't just one form of clothing - it is clothing. For him, the word for loincloth also means clothes. The language of his island has a word for loincloth, which is the only word in that language for body covering. (In this boy's experience, there is no difference between the two.) Because of his past experience, if he saw a shirt, or trousers, or socks, he wouldn't label them as clothes. He is not stupid - in fact, he's rather smart - but he has a very limited idea of clothes, because nobody in his land ever wore any clothes besides a loincloth. In fact, the people there don't have the words to distinguish between loincloths and clothing in general.

This boy comes to visit the emperor of a country where people wear complicated outfits. This emperor doesn't wear a loincloth. For now we won't bother to say exactly what he wears. He might be wearing trousers or a kilt - or less. The important thing is that he does not wear a loincloth.

The boy says: "Hmm. The Emperor has no clothes on!"

Upon hearing this, a courtier takes him aside and says:

"Wait a minute. You came from a country where they have a very narrow idea of clothing. In your land, they don't even have separate words for clothes and for loincloths. So, allow me to inform you about what the word 'clothes' means to people elsewhere who use that word and its equivalents.

"You are right in using the word 'clothes' to refer to a loincloth, but there also are other forms of clothes. It's true that the Emperor has no loincloth, but don't decide too hastily that the Emperor has no clothes. You don't yet have a general idea of clothes, or even a decent rough-and-ready mental picture of what clothes are. Thus, you are premature in deciding that the Emperor has no clothes.

"One way to learn what clothes are is to read our books about the Emperor's clothes. You don't have to believe everything in those books, or even anything. Just use them to learn what people mean when they talk about "clothes." Another way is to wander around in the empire for a while, talk to people, and pick up what different people mean by that word. And there may even be other ways to learn what you need.

"I'm not going to tell you whether you should think the Emperor has clothes. Read, discuss, and learn the general idea of clothes first. Then decide for yourself!"




[1] PZ Myers, "The Courtier's Reply," in Pharyngula (blog), 12/24/2006. ( Accessed 2/13/2010.


posted at: 23:54 | path: /religion/atheism | persistent link to this entry


   © 2008–2013 Mark F. Sharlow — privacy and legal notices


    Powered by Blosxom