On Generalizing about the Other Side’s Dishonesty and Ignorance

Randal Rauser and Chriss Halquist have been exchanging a series of posts about the alleged dishonesty and igorance of apologists. (See Randal’s latest post here.)

If Randal’s post is an accurate summary of the exchange with Hallquist–and I have no reason to doubt that it is–then my technical judgment of this exchange can be summed up in one word: “ouch.” With all due respect to Christ, Randal’s post seems to be a very solid critique.

So What? Why This Matters

The Hallquist-Rauser exchange is a perfect example of why I avoid debates about whether other people are rational, irrational, dishonest, ignorant, etc. In general, it seems to me that such claims are very difficult to defend and, much more important, they are a distraction from the core question of whether their beliefs are true. But I am getting ahead of myself. Let’s go through, step-by-step, why I think Rauser’s critique succeeds.

Overview

Thinking out loud, here is what I propose.

(a) Come up with some generic criteria, method, or approach for justifying the claim that a person (any person) is “ignorant or dishonest” about subject S.

(b) Apply that generic criteria to McDowell, Craig, and Plantinga on the theistic side.

(c) Justify a statistical generalization about theistic apologists.

(d) Apply that to Hallquist, Parsons, and Dawkins on the atheistic side.

(e) Justify a statistical generalization about atheistic apologists.

How to Correctly Reason about Ignorance or Dishonesty

So let’s start with (a). The following is a logically correct argument form which can be used to establish that a person is ignorant or dishonest when making some claim.

(1) Person P sincerely made statement S about topic T.

(2) S is false.

(3) There is no way that someone could sincerely make statement S without being dishonest or ignorant about topic T.

(4) Therefore, person P is dishonest or ignorant about topic T.

The key point about premise (1) is the word “sincere.” That eliminates sarcasm, hypotheticals, etc. (2) is straightforward. If S is true, then the fact that person P said S can hardly be used to justify the claim that P is dishonest or ignorant about T. (3) also seems straightforward — we need premise (3) to eliminate the possibility that S is something about which competent authorities may disagree. Finally, (4) follows if (1), (2), and (3) are true.

The Alleged Dishonesty of Christian Apologists

Let’s now move onto (b). For Josh McDowell (JM), this would look like this.

(1) Josh McDowell sincerely made statement S1-Sn about topics T1-Tn.

(2) S1-Sn are false.

(3) There is no way that someone could sincerely make statements S1-Sn without being dishonest or ignorant about topic T1-Tn.

(4) Therefore, Josh McDowell is dishonest or ignorant about topics T1-Tn.

Similar arguments would be needed for William Lane Craig (WLC) and Alvin Plantinga (AP).

Generalizing about Theistic Apologists in General

Let’s assume, but only for the sake of argument, that all of those arguments work: JM, WLC, and AP are all “dishonest or ignorant” about one or more topics they’ve addressed. That brings us to (c). How would we justify the move from (b) to (c). The only logically correct answer would be to justify a very specific kind of premise known as a “statistical generalization.” The general form of a statistical generalization looks like this.

Z percent of F are G.

So, presumably, what Chris wants is to justify the following statistical generalization.

(CHG) Most Christian apologists are dishonest or ignorant about topics T1-Tn.

That Chris is committed to CHG seems plausible, since in his original “Why They Don’t Believe” post, Chris wrote:

“Seeing the ignorance and dishonesty of Christian apologetics (sometimes I can’t tell which it is; sometimes I’m sure it’s the latter) pissed me off. That’s why I’ve spent a great deal of my time working to counter it.”

In my opinion, if Chris can justify the claim that JM and WLC are “dishonest or ignorant” about topics T1-Tn, that would go a long way towards justifying the statistical generalization I’ve dubbed CHG. This is because JM and WLC are representative of Christian apologists. (For reasons I won’t defend here, I don’t classify AP primarily as a Christian apologist.)

The Alleged Dishonesty of Atheist Apologists

So let’s turn to (d): apply the generic criteria for demonstrating dishonesty and ignorance to Chris Hallquist (CH), Keith Parsons (KP), and Richard Dawkins (RD).

Randal Rauser would need to defend an argument like this.

(5) Chris Hallquist sincerely made statement S1-Sn about topics T1-Tn.

(6) S1-Sn are false.

(7) There is no way that someone could sincerely make statements S1-Sn without being dishonest or ignorant about topic T1-Tn.

(8) Therefore, Chris Hallquist is dishonest or ignorant about topics T1-Tn.

Randal would need to defend the same kind of argument concerning KP  and RD. Randal would surely say that he has defended such arguments.

Generalizing about Atheistic Apologists in General

Let’s assume, but only for the sake of argument, that all of those arguments work: CH, KP, and RD are all “dishonest or ignorant” about one or more topics they’ve addressed. That brings us to (e). How would we justify the move from (d) to (e)? Again, the only logically correct answer would be to justify a very specific kind of premise known as a “statistical generalization.” The general form of a statistical generalization looks like this.

Z percent of F are G.

So, presumably, what Randal wants is to justify the following statistical generalization.

(RRG) Most atheist apologists are dishonest or ignorant about topics T1-Tn.

Similar to what I wrote in my last comment about (CHG), the crucial issue here is whether Randal can justify generalization about “atheist apologists” on the basis of conclusions about individual apologists, such as CH, KP, and RD. (I am assuming, but only for the sake of argument, that CH, KP, and RD are primarily classified as atheist apologists.)

Chris protests that Randal’s inference to (RRG), for reductio, is unwarranted. He writes:

I certainly don’t have the stature in the atheist community that McDowell, Craig, and Plantinga have in the atheist [sic] community, and it would be a stretch to claim that Parsons does.(And yes, stature is relevant here, because

Unfortunately, it looks like Chris’s comment about the relevance of stature got cut off. But I think I can see where he is headed. Stature is relevant insofar as it is an indicator of whether an apologist is representative of the apologetics community to which they belong. And McDowell and Craig are surely representative of Christian apologists in the relevant respects.

But what about “atheist apologists”? Are CH, KP, and RD representative of atheist apologists in general? (Again, I am assuming, but only for the sake of argument, that CH, KP, and RD can be primarily categorized as atheist apologists). Chris is correct that both he and KP do not have the analogous degree of stature among atheists which JM and WLC enjoy among Christians. But, by itself, that doesn’t defeat (RRG). So I don’t see how Chris’s point about stature does anything to avoid the force of Randal’s reductio.

In my opinion, the best route for Chris to take is to deny the truth of RRG by showing it is either unjustified or by providing independent evidence that it’s false. Of course, in doing so, my prediction is that he will directly or indirectly undermine his own generalization (CHG). So Randal’s reductio will still have bite. 

About Jeffery Jay Lowder

Jeffery Jay Lowder is President Emeritus of Internet Infidels, Inc., which he co-founded in 1995. He is also co-editor of the book, The Empty Tomb: Jesus Beyond the Grave.

  • https://docs.google.com/document/d/1al-RuUEVxHk3ldQQC8o0U5ES3T7MfnmxdaKjVAl0Zzc/pub Angra Mainyu

    I haven’t been read the exchange between Chris Hallquist and Randal Rauser, so I have no comments on that particular matter, but as a side note on arguments about an opponent, and as a general consideration, my impression is that if someone aims at arguing about the opponent, perhaps in many if not most cases they should add “or is being irrational” to the menu.

    Else, it’s often going to be very difficult to see why “There is no way that someone could sincerely make statements S1-Sn without being dishonest or ignorant about topic T1-Tn.”

    For instance, what if a person knows about T1-Tn, and is being sincere, but – say; there are other potential causes of irrationality – due to their emotional commitment to certain ideology (religious or otherwise), he or she is being irrational about the specific cases of S1-Sn?

    A commitment like that may be caused by different factors, such as some of the features of the ideology in question that may be very appealing to a person, issues such as having invested a lot of time and effort defending an ideology, having a certain social status in the relevant social group, etc., or a combination of such factors.
    Also, that kind of commitment may lead to irrational assessments in the cases of people with considerable knowledge of related topics, and also intelligence, and who aren’t being dishonest about the specific matters at hand (unless, perhaps, one construes the term “dishonest” in a very broad way and argues that irrationality involves some intellectual dishonesty, but I don’t get the impression that that is the concept of “dishonest” that we’re talking about in this context).

    Granted, in some cases the “is being irrational” option may be ruled out in favor of dishonesty based on some pieces of evidence, but at least in my view, frequently that is not the case. To be clear, I’m not saying that arguing that the other person is being irrational (or one of the previous options) is usually easy, either. But what I’m getting at is that that’s often another option, and it may well be overlooked in arguments revolving only about ignorance or dishonesty.

    • ctcss

      “A commitment like that may be caused by different factors, such as some
      of the features of the ideology in question that may be very appealing
      to a person, issues such as having invested a lot of time and effort
      defending an ideology, having a certain social status in the relevant
      social group, etc., or a combination of such factors. ”

      But since something like this could also apply to either side, just as the other options do, doesn’t Jeff’s point still stand? It’s still problematic making such a case against whoever is on the other side and it may be best to avoid such characterizations.

      • https://docs.google.com/document/d/1al-RuUEVxHk3ldQQC8o0U5ES3T7MfnmxdaKjVAl0Zzc/pub Angra Mainyu

        I wasn’t commenting on Jeffery’s point in particular, but making some points about cases in which someone is arguing about the person on the other side.

        That said, and to address your point, I think that the matter is not that simple, for example when it comes to moral claims. For instance, there are plenty of times when the accusation is that some people on the other side are behaving immorally. But those people assert that that is not so.

        Now, if they’re not being dishonest and they actually believe that they’re not behaving immorally, and they incurred no irrationality in making their moral assessments (which, say, are based on their ideology), then they’re acting upon rationally held moral beliefs. It would be hard to see what their fault is, at least in most cases. But there are plenty of cases in which people behave immorally based on their ideology, religious or not (I could give examples, but I would probably be able to tailor them better if I knew more about your beliefs, so I’ll wait for now).

  • https://docs.google.com/document/d/1al-RuUEVxHk3ldQQC8o0U5ES3T7MfnmxdaKjVAl0Zzc/pub Angra Mainyu

    Jeffery,

    On the issue of Randal’s objections, I think he makes some good points, and some less so. Unfortunately I can’t get into a detailed debate, but for example, Randall says:

    “Similarly, he writes, “it offers no explanation of what caused this mysterious, infinite, causal series, and this it is really a pseudo-explanation.” But I could just as well complain that Randal offers no explanation of what caused this mysterious all-powerful creator.”

    There are at least three problems in these two paragraphs, but I’ll focus on the most glaring. Chris says that God is “a pseudo-explanation” because the theist “offers no explanation of what caused the mysterious all-powerful creator.” Really? Chris is supposed to have a background in philosophy and he offers the “What caused God?” retort?

    But Chris may well be aware of the fact that theists claim that God is necessary (or Aquinas’ claims, etc., though Aquinas’ metaphysics is not so common among theists these days), and reject the view that an appeal to necessity (or other theistic claims, and particular Randall’s claims) would be explanatorily successful.

    Anyhow, regarding the issue of stature:

    Chris is correct that both he and KP do not have the analogous degree of stature among atheists which JM and WLC enjoy among Christians. But, by itself, that doesn’t defeat (RRG). So I don’t see how Chris’s point about stature does anything to avoid the force of Randal’s reductio.

    While I do not know how Chris intends to use it, a potential route seems to be as follows:

    “Even if CH, KP and RD are generally ignorant or dishonest, there is no good reason (given the evidence provided so far) to think that a majority of atheists (even those who argue for atheism) generally agree with their arguments and/or use similar ones, etc.

    On the other hand, given the widespread approval
    of WLC, AP and JM and more precisely their arguments among Christian apologists, if the three are generally dishonest or ignorant when doing apologetics (or their apologetics arguments are, etc.), then it seems plausible that their dishonesty and/or ignorance is also widespread.”

    Alternatively, Chris might want to add ‘or being irrational’ to the list of options.

    Of course, this route can also be challenged on different grounds; I’m just speculating about potential lines of argumentation based on the ‘standing’ issue, not trying to defend that as a claim. I don’t know what Chris will argue, though.

  • L.Long

    I just read Loftus’ response to this discussion, and his major complaint is that you can’t call the apologists ‘dishonest’ as they are just totally delusional.
    But other than their disgusting influence on others, who cares.
    Gawd? No Gawd? both are BS. SHOW me some solid evidence then we can talk till then …. PURE BS. Gawd is irrelevant! Science shows how things are going and there has NEVER been a verifiable, repeatable evidence of the rules of science being violated…ya know a miracle. Till then – again pure BS.

  • Steven Carr

    Surely if it’s perfectly acceptable for leading atheists to accuse people of rape in a blog post, it must also be acceptable for them to accuse people of dishonestly presenting fallacious arguments.


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