On the Reply to the Courtier

Some of the internet’s atheists seem to think that they’ve come discovered a new kind of informal fallacy, which they call the courtier’s reply. It was originally defined by means of a fable, and the best foundation for discussion of it would be to give that fable here:

I have considered the impudent accusations of Mr Dawkins* with exasperation at his lack of serious scholarship. He has apparently not read the detailed discourses of Count Roderigo of Seville on the exquisite and exotic leathers of the Emperor’s boots, nor does he give a moment’s consideration to Bellini’s masterwork, On the Luminescence of the Emperor’s Feathered Hat. We have entire schools dedicated to writing learned treatises on the beauty of the Emperor’s raiment, and every major newspaper runs a section dedicated to imperial fashion; Dawkins cavalierly dismisses them all. He even laughs at the highly popular and most persuasive arguments of his fellow countryman, Lord D. T. Mawkscribbler, who famously pointed out that the Emperor would not wear common cotton, nor uncomfortable polyester, but must, I say must, wear undergarments of the finest silk.

Dawkins arrogantly ignores all these deep philosophical ponderings to crudely accuse the Emperor of nudity.

Personally, I suspect that perhaps the Emperor might not be fully clothed — how else to explain the apparent sloth of the staff at the palace laundry — but, well, everyone else does seem to go on about his clothes, and this Dawkins fellow is such a rude upstart who lacks the wit of my elegant circumlocutions, that, while unable to deal with the substance of his accusations, I should at least chide him for his very bad form.

Until Dawkins has trained in the shops of Paris and Milan, until he has learned to tell the difference between a ruffled flounce and a puffy pantaloon, we should all pretend he has not spoken out against the Emperor’s taste. His training in biology may give him the ability to recognize dangling genitalia when he sees it, but it has not taught him the proper appreciation of Imaginary Fabrics. *

So, what is the story saying? Here are two perfectly reasonable complaints that seem to be being made here.

First, it’s objecting to what we might call an argument from the absence of authority. Richard Dawkins has not studied philosophy and theology under Bill Wood at Oriel, therefore Richard Dawkins is wrong. Obviously, this is a terrible argument. You don’t need a degree in theology, or to have read a set list of books, to be able to defend a particular philosophico-theological position (though of course, it doesn’t hurt to have done so). If you do defend such a position, then the appropriate way for someone to criticise your position is to attend to your arguments, and not to point out that you lack such and such a qualification. Of course, ‘attending to your arguments’ might fairly involve pointing out ignorance of an established literature relevant to your arguments, or criticism of your interpretation of some thinker or theory. Might. I for one am forced to wonder how many of Dawkins’ critics have really relied upon a crude argument from the absence of authority, rather than, say, attending to Dawkins’ arguments in one or other of the ways mentioned above.

Alternatively, one could be making a relevancy objection. Suppose you’ve critiqued Aquinas’ five ways, and I complain that you haven’t discussed Moltmann on hope. My complaint, you are perfectly justified in supposing, is completely off-base. What Moltmann says about hope just isn’t relevant to a discussion of Aquinas’ five ways, or if it is relevant, that’s surprising, and the relevance would have to be carefully demonstrated by me, the complainer.

In practice, when applied to the question of Dawkins the objection is usually this. Dawkins is criticising the view that there is a deity. People often complain that he doesn’t take into account very specific debates about a putative deity’s nature, will, and interactions with humanity, but those debates are irrelevant to his critique, which simply concerns the existence of some deity or other. I would simply note, as I have already suggested, that questions of relevance are not particularly straightforward. The five ways example is a very specific one. But the project of Dawkins et al is very broad. A lot of the time Dawkins is saying that religion is inherently silly, or a cause of great evil, or a virus of the mind etc etc. If you’re making accusations at that level of generality, almost anything vaguely theological turns out to be relevant.

Finally, we come to the unreasonable complaint that is being made. Suppose we suspect that many of Dawkins critics aren’t making the crude argument from the absence of authority, and that given the breadth of Dawkins’ project, Moltmann’s theology of hope and much else besides really is relevant to his argument. Then, what is the of crying ‘Courtier’s reply!’? I’m afraid to say that what it’s doing, in that case, is simply begging the question. Return to the fable. Whoever cries ‘courtier’s reply’ has assumed that the emperor has no clothes. But this is just the point at issue. For example, I think that some versions of the cosmological argument constitute items of clothing, in this sense. Terry Eagleton seems to think that Moltmann’s theology of hope constitutes an item of clothing (I suspect that Mr. Moltmann himself may be rather scantily clad, but that’s another matter, and in truth I know little about his work on hope). If they are not items of clothing, it is up to Dawkins and his defenders to show that they are not, rather than simply assert (or, perhaps worse, imply) that they are not.

*The name of Richard Dawkins is, in effect, used by synecdoche for the whole New Atheist movement throughout.

*P.Z. Myers – http://scienceblogs.com/pharyngula/2006/12/24/the-courtiers-reply/

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