Response to Randal Rauser’s response to my response to his shoddy review…

Randal Rauser has responded to my suggestion that his review of my book Believing Bullshit was pretty shoddy (though not as shoddy as Martin Cohen’s in the THES). Go here.


Understandable, I suppose. By combining selective quotation, misdirection and quite a lot of bluster, Rauser is quite successful at generating the impression I have been unfair to him.


A preliminary point re not responding to Rauser’s entire review. After disclaimers about what follows being nothing personal, Rauser moans that I only respond to 10% of his review. Sure I did. Because it is, to use Rauser’s own description of it, “bloated”.


I didn’t cherry-pick which bit to respond to. I just started at the beginning of the review and kept going till I felt I had expended enough effort in terms of hours and word count. Given the way Rauser packs in the muddles, misrepresentations, bad arguments, etc. it took me 2,500 words to unpack what was wrong with just the first 10% of Rauser’s review. I stopped at that point. I thought that pretty reasonable and am sorry if Rauser thinks otherwise.


In addition here are another 2,750+ words dealing with Rauser’s defence of just that first 10% of his review. So that’s 5,250 words I have now written (and we know what’s coming next, of course). Looks like full response to Rauser’s review will probably require I write at least 50k words. More than my entire doctoral thesis.


So to business. It seems to me Rauser makes three main points re my response, which I have attempted to gloss below (numbered, in bold).


1. Rauser claims he didn’t misrepresent me, and did deal with my main argument, re Wykstra-type appeals to mystery (if not in his actual review).


First, I pointed out Rauser criticises my objections to Wykstra-type appeals to mystery to immunize theism against the problem of evil, which he dismisses as “cursory” and “impotent”. In my response, I point out, accurately (Rauser has not disputed this), that Rauser actually mentions only the first of three criticisms that I make, the last of which I clearly flag as the most important. So Rauser makes my treatment look much more cursory than it is by failing even to mention, let alone deal with, my main argument. Moreover, I point out his attempt to deal even with the criticism he does mention fails.


So here’s Rauser’s response to my response:


“So ultimately Law is complaining because I failed to address his point on the evil God. As far as objections go, this is the very definition of ironic since I wrote an article responded to his evil God hypothesis the very day after I published this review. That article, titled “Stephen Law’s Evil God Hypothesis,” began like this: “There were a number of points that Stephen Law made in his book Believing Bullshit which I didn’t have time to address in my already bloated review. One of those was his so-called “Evil God hypothesis” (henceforth the EGH), a clever, if abortive, attempt to undermine theodicies (see pp. 24-27).” I then go on in the article to offer a rebuttal to this argument. So Law accuses me of distorting his argument by failing to address a point he made when I devoted a subsequent article (a day later) to that very point, a fact that he never mentions here. This isn’t just ironic. It’s downright hypocritical.”


I now encourage you, dear reader, to check two things. First, check what my main objection re Wykstra actually is. Interestingly, even though I quote it myself in my response, Rauser chooses not to quote my actual objection, but merely a passage running up to it that mentions the evil god challenge. He quotes just this preamble:


“The third point I make, which relates to the second, and which I explicitly say is the most significant of the three points, is that the same sort of appeal to mystery can be employed to defend belief in an evil god against the evidential problem of good.”


Below, directly following the above passage, is the actual objection re Wykstra-type appeals to mystery:


“I point out, what most of us intuitively recognise, that ‘we are justified in supposing there’s no evil god on the basis of the amount of good we observe. There are limits to the amount of good that can be put down to an evil god’s mysterious ways, and those limits are clearly exceeded by what we see around us’”


That’s the part Rauser chooses not to quote. As we saw, Rauser claims he deals with this objection in a blog post he posted the next day.


Untrue. Go check yourself. Rauser’s blog post is here:


Here is the  thing to notice re that other blog post. What Rauser does in that other post is suggest that the EGC merely shows, at best, that belief in an evil god can be defended by reverse theodicies. But that’s not to give us any positive reason to think there is an evil god, as there is reason to think that there is a good god (according to Rauser). But to say that about the EGC is not to address my objection above. My objection above is not that an appeal to mystery might similarly succeed in immunizing the evil god hypothesis against the problem of good, but rather that it clearly does not succeed, and thus, by analogy, nor does it succeed in immunizing the good god hypothesis against the problem of evil. Please note that this objection is never even mentioned by Rauser in his other blog post, let alone addressed.


[[Incidentally, Rauser’s other blog post also involves a fairly gross misrepresentation (spot a pattern here?) There, Rauser says I think theodicies are arguments for the existence of God – which is a “glaring misunderstanding of what theodicies attempt to do” – and that the evil god challenge (EGC) relies on that misunderstanding. Nope. That’s all wrong.]]


So, my complaint that Rauser misrepresents my critique of Wykstra-type appeals to mystery by failing even to mention let alone address my main criticism still stands. It stands even if we take a step back and include the contents of his other blog post.


What’s really going on here? Having been caught red-handed misrepresenting me and ignoring my main argument regarding Wykstra, Rauser says he deals with it in the other post because he deals with the EGC in the other post. Chances are, most casual readers will be bamboozled by the reference to the evil god challenge in both places into supposing that Rauser has indeed dealt with my main Wykstra point in his other post. Rauser’s bluster enhances the illusion. But the fact is, Rauser doesn’t deal with my objection in the other post (I don’t say the bamboozling is deliberate btw. I suspect he has bamboozled himself too)


But really this is all bye-the-bye because if Rauser writes a review misrepresenting the contents of my book, and I complain about it, it’s no excuse for Rauser to exclaim. “Huh! I corrected that misrepresentation in another post.”


As we’ve seen, Rauser didn’t correct the misrepresentation in the other blog post. Obviously, no one reading the other blog post is going to think, “Ah, so Rauser missed out Law’s key response to Wykstra. Good of him to say that now”, are they?


But even if Rauser had clearly corrected the misrepresentation, that wouldn’t alter the fact that my complaint that Rauser’s review misrepresents my argument is entirely justified.


2. I don’t (properly? at all?) acknowledge in the book that atheists, etc. can be guilty of making these dodgy moves too.


In my response to his review, I point out Rauser doesn’t make clear that I say that atheists, etc. can and do make these dodgy moves too. He gives the impression I think atheists are entirely immune. Which is untrue. Rauser quotes me responding thus:


“Anyhow, let me first point out that I say very clearly in the book that atheists etc. are also prone to such dodgy moves…. Someone reading Rauser’s review might well conclude I assume that naturalists, atheists etc. are immune. I don’t assume that.”


Rauser then immediately adds, sarcastically:


“Yeah, great. Let me quote again a passage I cited in my original review. There Law states the book is aimed: “to help immunize readers against the wiles of conspiracy theorists, cultists, political zealots, religious nutcases, and promoters of flaky alternative medicines by setting out some key tricks of the trade by which such self-sealing bubbles of belief are maintained.” (11) Funny, I don’t see atheistic zealots or naturalistic nutcases mentioned. Everyone listed here is part of the out-group.”


Rauser’s “in-group” are the atheists, humanists, naturalists, etc. Well, obviously many atheists can be political zealots, some humanists are promoters of flaky alternative remedies, and some naturalists are indeed conspiracy theorists. So I’m obviously not suggesting the members of these groups are immune.


But I guess what Rauser is getting at is that atheism and naturalism are not themselves mentioned as being IBHs in the above quotation from p.11. But then neither are mainstream religions. This early section is intended only to give some fairly unambiguous examples of intellectual black-holes that most of us are likely to recognise as such. The above passage obviously does not commit me to the view that only these groups employ such strategies (immunizing appeals to mystery, etc.) in defence of their group-beliefs, as I go on to explain two pages later:


“almost all of us engage in these strategies to some extent, particularly when beliefs to which we are strongly committed are faced with a rational threat. And in fact there may be little wrong in using some of them in moderation”. What transforms a belief system into a black hole is the extent to which such mechanisms are relied on in dealing with intellectual threats and generating an appearance of reasonableness.” (p.13)


So, I make it clear in the book that I think we’re pretty much all vulnerable to these dodgy moves – including atheists and naturalists, and even to, some extent, about their own atheism, naturalism, etc. What concerns me, as I say, is the extent to which belief systems rely on them. And it seems to me that conspiracy theorists, cultists, religious zealots, etc. are very much more prone to this sort of thing than are most.


What really bothers Rauser, of course, is that, while I obviously don’t say that every religious belief system is an IBH (which I make explicit on p.13), I do consider religious belief systems rather more prone to becoming IBHs than is the average belief system. I give many examples of how many (if not all) religious belief systems do regularly appeal heavily to various of the eight suspect mechanisms covered in the book. I provide a breakdown at the end of the book illustrating how two varieties of religious belief system in particular (entitled a certain sort of “sophisticated” theology and my evangelical friend’s beliefs) qualify as IBHs. In addition, I explain why other religious belief systems such as Young Earth Creationism and Christian Science also qualify. I also explain in the introduction why a belief in gods (and also ghosts and other invisible agents), in particular, is likely to be more prone to drifting into IBH than is the average belief system. [pp. 15-19]).


I consider it pretty obvious that religious belief systems, as a broad category, are rather more prone to drifting into (sometimes dangerous) IBH territory than is your average belief system. Even many religious people recognize this. Of course they don’t think of their own variety of religious belief as an IBH (and it may not be). But they will point to various cults, Young Earth Creationism, Christian Science, Mormons, Ancient Religions, Scientology, Bible Innerancy, the Taliban, etc. etc. and say “Er, well, yes, of course those varieties of religious belief are pretty darn unreasonable and in many cases loopy!”


We all recognize, or should recognize, that religion possesses a gobsmacking power to get otherwise smart, well-educated people to believe absurd things – witness the 45% or so of U.S. citizens who believe the universe is just 6,000 years old and that this is good science.


But of course, even if religious belief systems are prone to drifting into IBHs, that doesn’t establish atheism isn’t similarly prone. It’s here that Rauser now seems tempted to strike…


3. Atheists also (routinely?) appeal to mystery to counter evidence/arguments against what they believe – example Colin McGinn – and Law doesn’t say there’s anything wrong with them doing so. Yet Law doesn’t class atheism, etc. as an IBH/bullshit. Bias! Double standard!


Rauser cites philosopher Colin McGinn, who says the philosophical problem of consciousness may be necessarily insoluble due to our cognitive limitations (McGinn argues for this in fact). Well, yes, here is one philosopher, who is an atheist, and who argues that a particular philosophical problem may be necessarily insoluble.


But note, first, McGinn is not an example of an atheist making an appeal to mystery in order to immunize atheism against a seemingly powerful counter argument/evidence. Atheism never gets a mention by McGinn, as far as I remember. McGinn is concerned with naturalism.


So, just to be clear, note that Rauser has not come up with an example of an atheist trying to deal with a significant evidential threat to atheism by appealing to mystery. (Indeed, even the sub-problem of consciousness specifically for naturalism is not a problem for atheism as atheists need not be, and many are not, naturalists – I’m not,).


Now, I pointed out in my response to Rauser’s review that the problem of consciousness per se does not favour anti-naturalism over naturalism or theism over anti-theism because both sides in these debates find consciousness deeply problematic. In his response to my response, Rauser now points out that these different philosophical positions find consciousness problematic for different reasons (which of course I knew), and that naturalism does face a particular intellectual threat that McGinn is indeed trying to deal with by appealing to mystery. That’s Rauser’s point.


So Rauser does not deny that the problem of consciousness per se does not constitute any sort of argument against naturalism or atheism in the way the problem of evil constitutes a seemingly very powerful argument against Rauser’s brand of theism. That’s good. It’s true.


But Rauser does want to say that McGinn is here trying to defend naturalism against a sub-problem of consciousness that is specifically a problem for naturalism. Is that an illegitimate appeal to mystery? Rauser’s point, I suppose, is that, if I am to be consistent, I must say that it is illegitimate, but I don’t/won’t say that it is illegitimate and indeed it isn’t illegitimate. Double standard! That’s Rauser’s objection.


But of course I might say it is illegitimate. Depends on the details. Suppose McGinn makes a reasonable case for saying this sub-problem of consciousness is necessarily unsolvable. That’s Rauser’s view, as we’ve seen. Rauser says, “McGinn certainly makes a reasonable case for our cognitive limitations”. Such a case could then contribute significantly to a larger case for saying McGinn’s appeal to mystery is legitimate. I agree with that.


However, my point with respect to Wykstra’s appeal to mystery is, precisely, that Wykstra doesn’t make a reasonable case for it. And indeed the move is intuitively highly implausible. That’s why I suggest it’s illegitimate. So, no lack of consistency from me there.


On the other hand, suppose that as a response to the sub-problem of consciousness that is a problem specifically for naturalism McGinn’s move ise dubious. If McGinn’s case for saying the problem is likely to be unsolvable given naturalism turns out to be poor, then his appeal to mystery is indeed suspect. Further, if McGinn were to make a whole bunch of similar immunizing, mystery moves in order to defend naturalism without justifying them, then, yes, McGinn’s version of naturalism would now be looking like an IBH. That’s exactly what I would then say about McGinn’s brand of naturalism. And it would be the right thing to say, not the wrong thing to say.


So Rauser’s got no argument against me here. I’m not in any sort of trouble with McGinn.


Rauser may still say, “But why did you not mention naturalism in your book? Why did you not expose it as an IBH? Bias!” Well I don’t attempt or pretend to cover all varieties belief systems that are, or are close to being, intellectual black holes. There are possible scientific examples I don’t mention (string theory?). There are economic examples too (which I regret not mentioning, actually – given the way our economy has just been trashed by what is, surely, an intellectual black hole of the economic variety). There may be philosophical examples as well. Rauser can argue if he likes that belief in naturalism has, in certain quarters at least, become an IBH. I’d have no particular problem with that as I’m not a naturalist. Same might well be true of dualism. I didn’t mention that either, did I? Bias? Obviously not.


So, to sum up, Rauser presents no case here for saying atheism is any sort of IBH, or even come up with one example of an atheist making a dodgy appeal to mystery in defence of atheism (though I don’t doubt they exist). Nor am I guilty of any obvious double-standard or bias in not including naturalism and atheism in my list of obvious IBHs (I didn’t include mainstream religions or dualism either). Nor is it true that I say atheists (and naturalists) are immune either to making such suspect moves or falling into IBHs, as Rauser’s original review suggested. Nor does McGinn’s position constitute any sort of counter-example to or problem for anything I say in the book.


That’s another 2,750 words. So I have now devoted over 5,250 words to dealing with just 10% of Rauser’s review… Jeez.

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