Wednesday, August 17, 2011
Emperors, Clothing, and the Courtier's Reply
I think the Courtier's Reply can be effective in certain contexts. Let's take the Emperor's Clothes case. If I someone says that the emperor has clothes on even though he appears naked, and he runs through a long list of different types of invisible fabric that he's wearing, of course, that doesn't cut any ice. If, for some reason, he has an argument for why, in spite of the fact that the emperor appears naked, he nonetheless really does have clothing on, and is attempting to offer an explanation as to why this might be, then at the very least you've got to get the argument right. Granted, you could use a G. E. Moore type response, (it's evident to the senses that the king is naked, and that is more evident than any reason we might have for thinking he is clothed), but what you can't do is straw-man the argument in defense of the emperor's clothes.
For example, if I don't believe that angels exist, it seems to me that I can hold that belief without knowing a lot of angelology, or being able to distinguish between different types of angels, etc., if I have good reason to believe that there aren't any angels. However, if someone has an argument for the existence of angels, then I can't use this as an excuse to misrepresent the argument. I have to get it right, if I am to be credited with actually refuting it. I can't get away with presenting a cosmological argument that says "Everything's got to have a cause, so the universe has to have one, too."
Similarly, if I am defending an argument from evil for atheism, then I had better know what the theistic responses are and get them right. Otherwise, I'm just straw-manning.