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Here it is, the infamous post

October 5, 2009

Thankfully, Patrick saved the post and the comments aftewards. Ok, after rereading it, I completely see the sick addled brain that wrote it. Sigh. Ah well. It could have been funny.  Anyway, enjoy (or cringe)

Why the “Courtier’s Reply” is Skubulos.from The Thomas Society by thomas2026

Awhile ago, someone asked me (I think it was Johan) to elaborate on what I thought about the Courtier’s reply by PZ Myers. It’s a good question and I had to think it through a bit.

Well, I think you can see what I think from the title of this post. But, here is why.

For those of you who may not know, the “Courtier’s reply” is a cleverly worded satire on attacks of Richard Dawkins juvenile understanding of philosophy, theology and history. The CRwas written by PZ Myers. I won’t give a full quote, but if you go to PZ’s blog, you can read the whole context of his statement. Essentially, PZ responds to Dawkin’s critic’s by going further with Dawkin’s reference to the parable of the Emperor with no clothes. That is, Dawkins wants to stand up to people who don’t believe in God by pointing out there is no proof and therefore equating arguments for God’s existence with the story. So, PZ extends this by answering Dawkins’ critics by making sarcastic remarks about the Courtier’s reply, that is, those who would defend the emperor against the child who pointed out there are no clothes. That is, the child hasn’t read the best arguments on why the Emperor does have clothes, so the child must be mistaken.  

Clever right? Of course it is, except for the fact it commits a number of different logical fallacies. Logic governs the way we argue. And while I will hand it to PZ for a great piece of writing, his argument is skubulos. So, let’s look at each fallacy that PZ commits and show the Courtier argument (such as it is) has no clothes. It has all the pomp and circumstance of a good argument, but it’s actually a big fail.

Here are the major fallacies of the argument:

Begging the Question: This fallacy is one of the most frequently committed fallacies when people argue. Basically, someone can make an argument that’s on what they  assume to be true. For example, I can argue That the Cardinals say they are the best baseball team ever. Whatever the Cardinals say is true, is true. Therefore, the Cardinals are the best baseball team ever.

In the Courtier’s reply, we basically get this argument. Beliefs about God are like the story with the Emperor with no clothes. The Emperor with no clothes is always an accurate example of good logic. Therefore, God must not exist. As you can obviously see, this has all kinds of problems. The first two premises beg all kinds of questions, arugments and discussions. None of those statements are evident in themselves and further, raise serious arguments about their validity. So, PZ’s argument is a big fail here.

If that where the only fallacy this reply committed, we could just leave it there. But there is more.

The Courtier’s reply also commits the fallacy of weak analogy in comparing the arguments for God existence are like the story of the Emperor with no clothes. It’s possible you could make the argument there are some similarties, but they are weak at best. A person has to make the case the two are analogus and I would argue that’s pretty tough to do.  But regardless, the point is whether the original analogy works in the first place. Therefore, the Courtier’s reply crosses the logical boundaries and get’s five minutes for weak analogy.

And finally, the Courtier’s Reply commits the fallacy of the Complex Question. It can best be summed up this way. Someone could come up to me and ask this question, “So, when did you stop beating your wife and kids?” My first reaction would be to stare at them with incredulity. The second, hopefully, would be a reasoned reply, “Um, well, I have never actually started beating beating my wife and kids, so I can’t really stop, can i?”  The statement by said stupid person leaves no reason for me to protest that I never beat my wife and kids. It just makes the assumption and runs with it, not getting the fact that the reality of situation is much more complicated.

This is the case with nature of God, the way we know things and how we discover truth. The reality is much more complicated and therefore, the argument is false. It makes simplistic assumptions and statements that are deeply suspect, if for no other reason it shows a serious lack of scholarship in the areas of philsophy, history and theology. Just because PZ doesn’t want to take the time to understand the arguments doesn’t mean they have no validity.

But, I have to give it up to PZ. I laughed at the original analogy. It’s funny. But, the argument behind it is a big fail.

Comment on Why the “Courtier’s Reply” is Skubulos. by AdamKfrom Comments for The Thomas Society by AdamK

The Courtier’s Reply is not an argument that god does not exist. If it were, he might be begging the question, but it is not, so he isn’t, and such a charge is unwarrented.

It is an argument against the charge that atheists cannot make a case unless they have studied theology.

(And many have done so; for example, John Loftus: )

Comment on Why the “Courtier’s Reply” is Skubulos. by thomas2026from Comments for The Thomas Society by thomas2026

I realize it’s not argument for God’s existence and I think that I state clearly I understand the point being made.

Comment on Why the “Courtier’s Reply” is Skubulos. by AdamKfrom Comments for The Thomas Society by AdamK

If you understand the point being made, than apparently you don’t understand that you cannot attack a piece of satire by accusing the author of a logical fallacy.

Comment on Why the “Courtier’s Reply” is Skubulos. by thomas2026from Comments for The Thomas Society by thomas2026

Um, actually, I think I can and did. The Satire and original point by Dawkins is used as an argument, so it can be addressed that way.

Comment on Why the “Courtier’s Reply” is Skubulos. by Chris Milroyfrom Comments for The Thomas Society by Chris Milroy

You might want to think this through a little more.

PZ is essentially framing the issue as follows:

1) Dawkins: There is no evidence to support the existence of God. (The clothes do not exist.)
2) Critics: Dawkins hasn’t read X arguments that detail the nature of God and other theological details. (The clothes have X properties.)
3) PZ: The critics do not address the fundamental lack of evidence for God. (If the clothes don’t exist, statements about their properties are meaningless.)

If anything, PZ was accusing *Dawkins’ critics* of begging the question. By the way, begging the question is not, like in your Cardinals example, accepting an argument from authority. It involves assuming your conclusion is true and using that assumption to provide “evidence” for the truth of your conclusion.

I’m rather disappointed at the combative tone of this post. This blog has avoided that thus far, and that’s one of its primary attractions to its (a)theologically diverse following. To whoever wrote this piece, please recognize that this blog functions as the starting point of discussion, rather than as a place to make a rambling argument and then curtly respond to comments.

Comment on Why the “Courtier’s Reply” is Skubulos. by thomas2026from Comments for The Thomas Society by thomas2026

I really don’t see how I was being combative in either case. I didn’t call anyone a moron or stupid. In fact, with Dawkins and Myers, I went out of my way to say that it was clever and funny. So, I’m not really seeing your case for this one. With Adam, I just simply made the point that I thought he was wrong. Adam will be the first to tell you he likes to get a bit rowdy. We have a good understanding of each other. I didn’t take personal offense to his comment and I doubt he took offense to mine. If he did, then I certainly apologize to him.

Plus, I’m well aware of what begging the question is. The Cardinals example was a modified version from a logic textbook. It can be used as an example of the fallacy of appeal to authority, but it also doubles as questioning whether the statements are not assuming a bunch of questions. So, the example works.

Finally, all three of your statements actually illustrate the nature of begging the question quite well. Questions such as what is the nature of evidence, the nature of what science can and can’t do, and who gets to decide such things. Dawkins assume we all agree with him that there is no evidence for God’s existence when many of us would say, well, what do you mean by that? If you mean that there is no hardcore, scientific testifiable evidence for God, we would say fine, we agree. But, then, we would also say, that such knowledge is the only way to know things either. So therefore, Dawkins argument is simplistic to say the least.

Comment on Why the “Courtier’s Reply” is Skubulos. by Matheusfrom Comments for The Thomas Society by Matheus

But it’s not simplistic. What do you call hardcore evidence? What is softcore evidence, and do you have ones of those for god?

It’s just weird if you think that, christians spend most of their life praising god and his works and spreading his word, but if god existed or not, they couldn’t tell the difference! How absurd is that, their life would be exactly the same! And it’s THE most important thing in their life…
I wouldn’t want to live like that, so I don’t ;)

Comment on Why the “Courtier’s Reply” is Skubulos. by Ryanfrom Comments for The Thomas Society by Ryan

I feel like you missed the point on this one. Maybe reconsider what the Courtier’s Reply is actually a reply to, and then rewrite with a little less indignation and rhetorical snark.

Comment on Why the “Courtier’s Reply” is Skubulos. by thomas2026from Comments for The Thomas Society by thomas2026

Once again, I understand completely what the Courtier’s reply is a response to. This is why I don’t agree with it.

Im really not getting where you all are getting the indignation part.

Rhetorical snark? Well, I think I’ll own up to that one. Why is it you all get uptight when I use a little humor and sarcasm?

Comment on Why the “Courtier’s Reply” is Skubulos. by Ashfrom Comments for The Thomas Society by Ash

I’m sorry for being a grammar nazi, but parts of this are so badly written I’m not sure what you’re trying to say. You may have a point, but i’m not understanding it.
Your ‘for example’ of begging the question is actually an example of circular logic. You know what ‘begging the question’ is, it’s the example you give for the ‘complex question’ – i.e. it starts with an implicit assumption that you expect will be agreed with. The CR does not start with the assumption that there is no god/s, although you could argue the point that it starts with the assumption that god/s should be provable. And, frankly, this seems like an assumption most Christians would concur with.

In the Courtier’s reply, we basically get this argument. Beliefs about God are like the story with the Emperor with no clothes. The Emperor with no clothes is always an accurate example of good logic. Therefore, God must not exist.

I don’t understand this. You seem to have got the argument (if god/s cannot be proven, there is no point arguing the details of theology, since they are frippery attached to an unprovable concept) yet you seem to be implying that this analogy HAS to be good logic, therefore Dawkins/Myers are using this good logic as PROOF god/s do not exist. This is not the case.
Personally, I’d claim that every analogy is weak, since it can (at best) only parellell the case it is addressing; however analogies are certainly useful in making crude points. If you think this analogy fails on the understanding I give in brackets above, can you state why?

It makes simplistic assumptions and statements that are deeply suspect, if for no other reason it shows a serious lack of scholarship in the areas of philsophy, history and theology.

This is why I suspect you didn’t really understand what the CR addressess; it simply states that without proof for god/s (the emperor’s clothes), there is no point getting into the thousands of different justifications for why such a concept should be taken seriously (the theology of imaginary fabrics). Thus, when Dawkins talks about the lack of evidence for god/s, it matters not a jot whether he has a lack of education in philosophy, history and theology.
Perhaps, to prove me wrong, you could instead state some of these arguments PZ doesn’t understand for our clarification?
I think, perhaps, you meant to aim this comment at the philosophy of knowledge. Even if you didn’t, I wouldn’t mind reading that as a post…

10 Comments leave one →
  1. AdamK permalink
    October 5, 2009 1:05 pm

    Bravo, Jonathan!

    I should note that although Jonathan and I disagree on occasion, I admire him for reasons that for me have nothing to do with religion and that for Jonathan, I suppose, have everything to do with it.

  2. Ash permalink
    October 5, 2009 1:19 pm

    Good catch Patrick, nice one Thomas for putting it back up. Now re-cage the hounds and demand they give your leg back.

  3. ferret wrangler permalink
    October 5, 2009 3:16 pm

    Dang it, I told you to feed the hounds biscuits not body parts. It’s your own fault, young man.

  4. Johann permalink
    October 6, 2009 1:43 am

    *tips hat* Well done. =)

    On an entirely unrelated note, a classmate and I started up a branch of the SSA on our campus this semester, and today was our first meeting. Pretty excited about that, even if I’m not sure where I’m supposed to fit sleep into my schedule. 😉

  5. thomas2026 permalink*
    October 6, 2009 8:02 am

    Nice. Come have me speak! The SSA will help pay for it. 🙂

  6. Ray S. permalink
    October 6, 2009 10:15 am

    Interesting that you would choose a comment in this thread as a plea for a speaking engagement. Hopefully it will work out for you.

    I saw the original posting but did not have time to comment then. Sometimes real life must take precedence. Fortunately others engaged the subject.

    The Courtier’s Reply is all about a subtlety that swings the obvious observation to a non-obvious conclusion. For a person like me who sees no obvious evidence for a god, it’s hard to understand why a god evidenced in a nuance should be worshiped.

  7. Johann permalink
    October 6, 2009 10:45 am

    Ray? I think you’re seriously misreading Jonathan if you read that as “please hire me”. =P Leave some room for humor, even if the discussion hasn’t been very humorous lately.

  8. thomas2026 permalink*
    October 6, 2009 10:49 am

    Uh, Ray, for your information, if Johann were to have me come speak, I wouldn’t get any speaker’s fee. As a member of the Secular Student Alliance’s speaker’s bureau, I wouldn’t charge anything to speak to Johann’s group. Just thought you ought to know.

  9. October 6, 2009 1:28 pm

    Good form indeed, reposting this with the comments. I think Chris Milroy’s concise 3 point summary explains my own objections. I don’t think the main purpose of PZ’s writing was to make a logical argument at all, but to convey a sense of how an atheist often FEELS when presented with many of the supposed arguments for God’s existence.

    On the other side of things: For fans of PZ to complain that a blog posting is “snarky” or “sarcastic” or “combative” seems quite silly! No one can deny that PZ is all of those, and proudly so. (He IS always very clear and well-written however… )

    Also: Welcome to the internet.

  10. Ray S. permalink
    October 6, 2009 2:44 pm

    For the record, I don’t think ‘speaking engagement’ requires a payment of any kind. My notice was simply that of interest that Jonathan would choose a thread in which he is roundly criticized for his blog post (certainly a form of speaking) to offer his services as a speaker.

    I hold any sort of public or group speaking to require a higher level of clarity and organization to the presented material. A reader can always easily back up to parse the words. A listener cannot do this unless listening to recorded material. I think I can safely say this post has not been Jonathan’s best work. Perhaps another post would highlight his speaking skills more.

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