Saturday, January 12, 2013
Ridicule, Representation, and the Courtier's Reply: Why Loftus' position is unstable
This is in reply to the Lowder-Loftus exchange. The thread I was responding to is here.
I think you have an unstable position. If people are anything like me, when they hear ridicule, they instantly look for straw men. The more you use ridicule, the more likely your readers, especially those who have been around a little, are going to assume that you are misrepresenting your opponents in order to get ridicule off the ground. If I were to sit here are ridicule evolution, people at this site would immediately start looking for ways in which I don't understand Darwinian biology. So you have to be ready for that. The easy way out of that problem is to use the Courtier's Reply, essentially saying that "Your position is so ridiculous that I don't even have to bother to do my homework and understand it to see how ridiculous it is." Now, you have indicated dissatisfaction with the Courtier's reply, but with the Courtier's reply, you don't have to worry about how accurately you represent your opponent. I suppose it's possible to ridicule something while making a careful effort at representing it correctly, but I have seen only one person come close to doing that, and even he wasn't completely successful. Normally, this isn't done, and so the person whose position is being ridiculed is going to suspect a straw man, and ninety nine times out of a hundred he will be right. I suppose ridicule might persuade a "low information believer," (the equivalent of a low information voter), and I suppose if you thought the end (of faith) justifies the means, it might be a worthwhile tool. But it strikes me as a dishonest one. As Russell once said in another context, it has all the advantages of theft over honest toil.
But the context here is not exactly the use of ridicule, but the effort to criticize arguments that support a conclusion one believes in strongly. What you seem to be doing in response to Lowder is criticizing him not because his critiques of your argument aren't good, but because he, as an atheist, should be loyal to the cause and not criticize arguments that support your cherished conclusion, atheism. It's like saying to a Christian who has troubling questions "Are you saved? Do you know Jesus? If you were truly born again, you wouldn't be questioning like this." If I hadn't run into Christians who did NOT respond this way to my questions, I might will have ended up believing what you do now.
Fellow Christian philosophers have criticized William Lane Craig's theistic arguments. Suppose you were to find out the Craig had responded to them by saying "Look, you agree with me that Christianity is true, and people need Jesus. My arguments help people see this. You are taking away from the progress of the Gospel when you criticize my arguments, so you shouldn't be doing that." Wouldn't you consider that to be proof positive that Craig was not an honest scholar?
I don't advocate civility in argumentation because it's nice. That's a point that a lot of people miss. I advocate it because incivility is typically correlated with the misrepresentation of opposing views. The correlation isn't perfect, but from what I have seem it's pretty good. So, the more you ridicule my position, the more my straw man detectors will be out in full force.
Relying on ridicule leads logically to embracing the Courtier's Reply. That's why I call your position unstable.