Who Gets to Give the Courtier’s Reply?

How fortuitous that the same day I asked people to trust me and do the reading, Yvain (who you may remember from the Natural Law post that launched a thousand ships) has written a post examining the usefulness of the Courtier’s Reply.  You should read the whole thing, but I’m going to cut and paste for a blockquote:

In other words, any version of the Courtier’s Reply strong enough to shut down people who want you to spend the rest of your life reading about reptilian British monarchs is also strong enough to shut down people who are correct and merely want you to have some idea what you’re talking about before bloviating against them.

…The naive answer, that I should read only books on subjects where I assign a high chance I might be wrong, doesn’t really cut it. The whole problem is that the absurdity heuristic doesn’t work that well, and the unreliability of saying “There’s no way I could be wrong on this” just based on my personal judgment is exactly the problem at issue. But total failure to make any judgment at all leads to me reading books about lizard people (which actually sounds kind of fun, now that I think about it).

Right now the best solution I’ve got is to read books in areas where my opinion differs from the opinion of a bunch of other people whom I consider smart and rational. This suggests the preacher should read more books about Darwinism, since all those Nobel Prize winners and biology Ph.Ds believe it. The atheist should read more books about religion, since many people whom one would otherwise judge as smart and rational believe that too. One seems on relatively safe ground rejecting ID, although maybe one should read a book or two just to be sure. And there doesn’t seem to be any point in reading about the Lizard People, except as previously mentioned that it would be hilarious.

I really like Yvain’s post (read the whole thing!) and I wanted to add a couple more proposals for classes of people whose Courtier’s Replies you should take seriously.  (I think his is kinda relevant to finding the right contrarian cluster.  If someone is right about something most humans, and even most smart humans are wrong about, treat their outre opinions a little more seriously).  Here are some other triggers I can come up with.


Even though their model is different, their predictions look a lot like yours.

So you disagree on whatever question one of you wants to Courtier’s Reply on, but both your systems of belief actually output the same results.  Sure, it’s possible that your interlocutor has an invisible dragon in their epistemological garage, but it’s also possible that you do.   Whether or not you take their reading recommendations, it’s probably worth your time to see whether your expectations about the world are flowing pretty directly from your model, or whether you’ve tweaked and kludged it past use to overfit the data you’re sure of.  Reading through your opponent’s material might help during this process, since you want to subject your beliefs to a test that is actually threatening to false beliefs.  So don’t feel relieved if the other side passes the test, too, and don’t feel triumph if you can come up with a black mark for the other side until you check whether your proposition escapes untainted.

It’s hard to figure out how to test which of two similar models are superior.  If you’re doing it based on elegance, you’re liable to get tripped up by changing aesthetic standards.  It’s best to find places where they do differ in their predictions, and you’ll have an easier time doing that if you understand what your opponent’s position looks like from the inside.  Think about how you would convince someone to abandon Ptolemaic astronomy for Newtonian physics (and how someone would get you to give that up in favor of relativity).


You’re in love with them.  I don’t mean this in a fuzzy warm feelings way (though replying to your partner’s book recommendations with “I’m not going to fall for the Courtier’s reply!” is probably a terrible idea in any relationship).  Remember that my model for romantic love is finding someone who makes it easiest for you to be the person you ought to be and vice versa, and my model for marriage is putting constraints on your future self — thinking if you changed enough to not mesh well with your beloved, you’ve gone off track.

So, somehow, this person brings out the best in you, but is wrong about something important.  That’s not a contradiction; something can induce a desired change without being true (a singer knows the mouth is not actually a cathedral, but thinking that helps you make your mouth do whatever hard to put into words thing it’s doing).  But this does seem like a specific instance of the case above: something in their model seems to work really well, so it’s interesting to see how the specific false belief manages to be so right or to coexist with so many true ones.  Plus, like in the case above, it’s a little more likely that you’re wrong than in the generic Courtier’s Reply case, so spend a little effort double checking.


You both respond strongly to certain not-common aesthetics.  This is less a strong signal that you might be mixed up about which of you has made an obvious error, and more just that you might find it  interesting to check how your interlocutor’s beliefs work.  I usually have more interesting arguments after reading a novel than after reading non-fiction because people pull out weirder and more revealing analogies.


UPDATE: DarwinCatholic has suggested some additional categories

About Leah Libresco

Leah Anthony Libresco graduated from Yale in 2011. She works as an Editorial Assistant at The American Conservative by day, and by night writes for Patheos about theology, philosophy, and math at www.patheos.com/blogs/unequallyyoked. She was received into the Catholic Church in November 2012."

  • http://not-atamelion.blogspot.com Michael H.

    Thanks for the post! I ran into something similar to this the other day in comments regarding your post on Mormon garments. Ubiquitous basically listed a series of points about Mormonism’s origins (many of which were more matters of opinion than historical fact – or were incredibly simplistic versions of history disallowing complexity or multiple perspectives) “proving” that Mormonism was unworthy of consideration. My response was basically, “Read something!” to which the reply came, “Disprove these things and then I’ll read.”

    It seems to me that “read something [that disagrees with your views]” is a fair enough request, and coupled with respect for some signs of expertise (education, for instance) is about as good of a heuristic as you could get. Me, I just try to limit my comments to what I know and qualify them otherwise XD

    That said, as a Yalie and a Mormon, I’m doubly a lizard person, according to Ickes (who I first discovered, oddly enough, in Amman, Jordan).

    • http://prodigalnomore.wordpress.com/ The Ubiquitous

      Read what?

      • http://prodigalnomore.wordpress.com/ The Ubiquitous

        I apologize. I see you did recommend particular reading in another thread. To keep everything on topic, I won’t here respond.

    • http://prodigalnomore.wordpress.com/ The Ubiquitous

      Any explanation of Mormonism which cannot get beyond my childish explanation of its origins is even more childish than my explanation!

      These points, you know, did not seek to “prove” anything. They were merely a very, very low bar set an admittedly simplistic versions of history. Clear that bar without tripping up — that is, have a good argument worth engaging rather than insisting on the raw parity of abstracted agnosticism — and your argument will deserve at least momentary consideration. Unfortunately, insisting that I entertain your Lizard Men because I haven’t seen quite exactly this spin on their Plot to Rule the World is exactly the sort of thing which sustains the Courtier’s Reply as a rule in civilized debate. Distinguish yourself from your less-clever copies, please, especially when I do you the courtesy of identifying them.;

      Certainly at the time of that writing, Mormonism has not cleared even that very, very low bar, as its proponents had so far seemed more interested in the “well-placed nudge” of sophistic reasoning than grappling with inconsistencies and contradictions, so it fits in that category. (For the sake of preventing thread drift, please do not here grapple with the effectiveness or ineffectiveness of Mormonism in dealing with my childish challenge.)

      Summary: Someone who has already tried to engage the arguments — the arguments as represented by the persons holding them — may regard the Courtier’s Reply is toothless and indeed a kind of rhetorical rule-breaking, assuming two things:

      1. His rebuttals are out on the table.
      2. They are still standing.

      • http://www.jrganymede.com Adam G.

        Your argument here is not at all clear. Could you perhaps try to explain it again, maybe using a different example?

        • http://prodigalnomore.wordpress.com/ The Ubiquitous

          Courtier’s reply: You should read more.

          Courtier’s reply is not at all helpful when you’ve already tried to read.

  • Jubal DiGriz

    “Even though their model is different, their predictions look a lot like yours.”
    I find this particular intriguing when applied to politics. Reading past the jargon, a great deal of political discourse from pretty much the dawn of time has been stating X is the path to peace, prosperity, and happiness, and not-X or anti-X is the path to ruination and chaos. Liberals and conservatives (and everyone else) have exactly the same ultimate goals! What’s required then is looking at each potential method of reaching those goals individually and making a determination how feasible each one is.

    What I find very distressing about the level of political discourse in America these days, from city level on up, is the lack of sympathy from opposing actors (in the poli-sci meaning). Democracy can only function well when there’s compromise from disagreeing groups in the intrest of achieving shared goals. It seems more like sports teams now more than government.

    However, the principle of “Even though their model is different, their predictions look a lot like yours” has a very different application when applied to statements that can only be true or false, which Leah’s comparison between Ptolomey’s and Newton’s astronomy is about. As also pointed out though, even when the “true” statement is sussed out, there will always be a relativity theory lurking just over the horizon. Arriving at the “best” conclusion is an open-ended process.

  • Alex Godofsky

    Can I add an additional criterion? “When the answer will actually affect your life.” I find astronomy somewhat interesting and entertaining, so I spend effort learning about it, but there’s almost no chance the answer will ever actually matter to me. Probability has substantial relevance to my job AND I find it interesting, so I spend a lot more effort getting it right. Olympic gymnastics? Nope, not gonna worry about it.

    Religion? Well, in theory a lot of the logical propositions associated with various religions have ethical implications – important ones – but in practice it really doesn’t look like my atheist friends and religious friends behave all that differently. The variation in metaphysics is much larger than the variation in behavior. That’s true in my own life, too. I’ve made large updates to my metaphysics, but much smaller updates to my behavior. So it seems like religion/metaphysics is more like astronomy than probability; a personally entertaining intellectual challenge, a hobby I can share with like-minded friends, but not something to get too emotional about.

    The conclusion is that I would accept the challenge to read more into a subject if I thought it would be fun or useful, but not if it would be really boring and not-useful, regardless of whether this procedure optimally drives my beliefs towards the truth.

    • http://delphipsmith.livejournal.com Delphi Psmith

      “When the answer will actually affect your life.”… So it seems like religion/metaphysics is more like astronomy than probability…

      The response from the religious side would probably be, “What could possibly affect your life more deeply than the ultimate — and permanent — destination of your soul???” :)

      • Alex Godofsky

        Oh, absolutely. If the knowledge that XYZ behaviors or thought patterns will make you more likely to suffer eternal damnation, etc. then avoiding those behaviors or thought patterns is a pretty good idea and figuring out which (if any) religion is right is worth a fair amount of attention. I just observe that my non-religious friends don’t actually act much differently from my religious friends – so it looks like the vastly different metaphysics and ethics are just alternate justifications for the same thing. In that case, it doesn’t matter which is right.

        • Mr. X

          “so it looks like the vastly different metaphysics and ethics are just alternate justifications for the same thing. In that case, it doesn’t matter which is right.”

          I don’t think that follows. The reasons for why you do something are if anything more important than what you do. E.g., there would be a difference between snacking on some communion wafer when you’re peckish because you don’t know about Christianity and so don’t realise its significance, and snacking on some communion wafer in order to shock and offend your local vicar; or between giving money to a charity because you want to help others and giving money to a charity because you want to show off your wealth and generosity; or between not stealing because you think stealing is wrong and not stealing because you’re worried you might get caught. In all these examples the two actions might seem identical to an outside observer, but I think most people would agree that there’s a significant moral difference between them.

      • leahlibresco

        Heck, you don’t have to get up to the afterlife to be salient. Religion and metaethics have ethical implications, which are pretty darn important for everyone.

        • Alex Godofsky

          From what I’ve seen so far you seem to be a rare counterexample to my observation that metaphysics/ethics is a rationalization for morality, not part of its derivation. I think it’s true for most people, though.

          … I am getting off-topic, though. Sorry.

    • Jubal DiGriz

      Astronomy has affected MY life pretty profoundly. For just two very recent examples, 2 weeks ago I was stargazing on the beach with several friends watching an annual meteor shower, marveling at how clear the Milky Way was, and pondering the chances of anyone looking back at us. And I’ve been on pins and needles with every update from the Curiosity rover, sharing details with friends and delighting in the few minor discoveries already.

      What a terrible, terrible world it would be if the only things that affected our lives were practical. And I think those experiences would have been significantly diminished if, say, I was looking for UFOs instead on the beach or pyramids from the Curiosity photos. True things are awesome.

  • http://last-conformer.net/ Gilbert

    I’d add “if you care a lot about the contentious belief and they are the most interesting opponent available”.

    Basically we shouldn’t trust ourselves to come up with good counterarguments to our most cherished beliefs. So it makes sense to listen to intelligent people with opposite biases. Their belief systems will have glaring holes, but they are most likely to know about the weak points of our own belief systems.

    • http://delphipsmith.livejournal.com Delphi Psmith

      I think this is a good point, and maybe the best reason of all to read opposing viewpoints to one’s own. We all tend to have blind spots relative to our most deeply-held beliefs, so looking elsewhere for cogent and thoughtful criticism or counterpoint makes all kinds of sense.

      • Bo Tait

        Completely agree. That’s the whole reason I read this blog.

  • Irenist

    I notice that the very first belief Yudkowsky looks for in attempting to find the right sort of contrarian cluster is atheism. Looks like you’re not the right sort of contrarian anymore, Leah.

  • Otavio

    Hi, Leah. Have you ever read Chesterton’s Father Brown stories? They are great and very fun (like Chesterton often is). Anyway I read the Blue Cross from the Innocence of Father Brown and I read a part that, as a reader of your blog (a brazilian reader BTW), made me think of you. Hope you enjoy it and read the whole story later:

    ” ‘Reason and justice grip the remotest and the loneliest star. Look at those stars. Don’t they look as if they were single diamonds and sapphires? Well, you can imagine any mad botany or geology you please. Think of forests of adamant with leaves of brilliants. Think the moon is a blue moon, a single elephantine sapphire. But don’t fancy that all that frantic astronomy would make the smallest difference to the reason and justice of conduct. On plains of opal, under cliffs cut out of pearl, you would still find a notice-board, `Thou shalt not steal.” “

  • http://ereadingromanticism.wordpress.com Bernadette

    I have mixed feelings about the Courtier’s Reply. While it can easily lead to a infinite regression (“OK, so you’ve read X, but how can you possibly have an informed notion about X unless you read the works of Y, Z, and A which were so influential to X’s work!”), the reply—or at least recognizing the potential validity of the claim of having “not read enough”—works against too-easy assumptions of knowledge and mastery.

    I think that for the Courtier’s Reply to be deployed effectively (and fairly) it should be used in an environment that aims to continually “open up” a question or a field, rather than in an environment where there is a static, unquestioned “mastery” that is regarded as both necessary and possible.

    To draw in an example from a field that I have some familiarity with (and which, I realize, may be anathema to many of the more analytic philosophy-inclined folks around here), I find Jonathan Culler’s comment (in The Literary in Theory) on reading and mastery in literary and critical theory to be useful:

    one may resist theory because of the fear that to admit to the importance of theory would be to make an open-ended commitment, to leave oneself in a position one could never master, whose very nature is simultaneously to present mastery as a goal (you hope that the theoretical reading will give you the concepts, the metalanguage, to order and understand the phenomena that concern you) and to make mastery impossible, since theory is itself the questioning of presumed results and of the assumptions on which they are based. Of course, this unmasterability of the domain is true in literature these days as well; one can no longer be quite sure what it is acceptable not to have read. (79)

    All of which is to say, I’m much more likely to take seriously the Courtier’s reply if it comes from someone who (1) understands how fraught it is and (2) doesn’t present it as evidence of their own complete “mastery” or prescribe it as a route for me to achieve my own unquestioned “mastery,” but instead recognizes it as doing “the work of critique” in a much broader sense.

    • deiseach

      The reason I don’t find the “Courtier’s Reply” to be an all-conquering riposte is that, well, the situation happened back when Darwin’s Bulldog and Soapy Sam were having at it.

      Now, whether or not Bishop Wilberforce ever did actually ask Professor Huxley if it was through his grandfather or his grandmother that he claimed his descent from a monkey, there’s no doubt that the popular misrepresentation of Darwinism was that “humans are descended from apes” and the common-sense view (“anyone can see the Emperor has no clothes on!”) was that look at them and look at us, a monkey looks nothing like a man, indeed it was (and is) considered a racist insult to compare any human as being ape-like or an intermediate stage between ape and true human.

      A Darwinist saying “You don’t understand the argument at all, read “On The Origin of Species” to see what Dr. Darwin’s theory is in reality” could be dismissed as a Courtier’s Reply in that instance. Who needs to read some technical bafflegab about a plain matter of simple, visible reality?

      Isn’t it like telling us that our instinctive reactions are sometimes wrong, and that counter-intuitive explanations are in fact the right ones? Who are these Courtiers telling us to change our minds about the earth going around the sun?

      • http://delphipsmith.livejournal.com Delphi Psmith

        RationalWiki says, Perhaps a distinction between a Courtier’s Reply and a genuine accusation of ignorance is that the latter normally has an intent to enlighten…while the former is a short-circuit on debate by implicitly claiming expertise that should simply be taken for granted and not questioned in its claims. Suggesting that someone who blatantly misstates what evolution is about go and read a bit on it is entirely reasonable (though I agree there are probably less impenetrable authors for the lay reader than Darwin!).

        When advising someone to read on topic X, you don’t have to send them to the original founders of topic X, just authors where it’s expounded correctly. Most people who want to learn math don’t start by reading Euclid.

        • deiseach

          You see, what is necessary is that the person being told “You should read up on X” is willing to do so, or accept that he/she may not be in possession of all the facts, or could be wrong about this particular topic. I wouldn’t dare tell Professor Myers that I knew just as much as he did in his field of expertise, but when it comes to theology (or art, or poetry, or how to cook a souffle), being a qualified scientist with a degree and teaching in a university doesn’t make you any more of an expert than the guy who left school at seventeen to work as a mechanic.

          If the basis for the Courtier’s Reply is that “Religion is so obviously, plainly, self-evidently wrong and not at all what it claims to be, so I or you or we or they don’t need to read books by X, be familiar with the arguments put forward by Y, or investigate the claims of Z”, then treating the person who says “There is more to the case than the surface appearance” as a sycophantic courtier and the person refusing their advice as a sturdy bastion of common sense who is not going to engage in the tail-chasing of reading obscure technical works that obscure the plain facts is rather like the anecdote of the cardinal who allegedly refused to look through Galileo’s telescope .

          Maybe the Emperor really has no clothes on, or maybe your eyes need testing.

        • http://last-conformer.net/ Gilbert

          I don’t think that distinction is reliable either. On one side people who want us to read up on lizard people may well have an honest if misguided intent to enlighten. And on the other side the stick physicist in this xkcd classic is correctly advising the stick philosopher to take his authority for granted.

          • deiseach

            Well, I think that if someone genuinely believed that the Royal Family were lizard people from another planet, I might read at least something to see why on earth they would think such a thing.

            Once you know that David Icke was a goalkeeper (in association football or “soccer”), then it all makes sense – everyone knows goalies are crazy.


    • Jubal DiGriz

      True, the Courtier’s Reply isn’t a be-all-end-all. I think it is valid though if the discussion requires a certain level of knowledge- it really is important to have read the relevant bits of “The Origin of Species” in order to make a coherent comment on whether or not Darwin thought humans were descended from apes. To answer the question more generally, the minimum would be to have taken a high-school biology class or read a book about evolution. To answer the question in a “common sense” fashion, no education is required at all. I see the best application of the Reply as establishing the minimum for a good discussion, not a high bar of mastery.

  • Dominic

    I didn’t get past Black Adder. Sorry.

  • http://prodigalnomore.wordpress.com/ The Ubiquitous

    Leah: At the risk of overrunning another thread with, well, ubiquity, know that Ed Feser wrote a blog post on “the metaphysics of bionic implants” in which you might be interested.

    • leahlibresco

      Oh, believe me, I’ve flagged it!

  • CBrachyrhynchos

    It’s my experience that both the courtier’s reply and “go read this” are often used in bad faith by both atheists and our critics. The central problem I see here is that religion and atheism, like most other areas of human experience, have long ago outgrown our ability to comprehend more than a handful of specialized areas.

    On the one hand, the Courtier’s Reply strikes me as a usually false generalization. Both the argument that all religion can be rejected for the foibles of superstition, and all atheism can be rejected for the foibles of Dawkins/Harris/Hitch strike me as unreasonable.

    On the other hand, you can’t do theology, religious studies, or philosophy without some degree of specialization. Rejecting another person’s opinion because he or she is exploring a different body of theory and is relatively ignorant of your own strikes me as equally a problem. Most online theological debates strike me as flawed because the two parties are debating two radically different things.

    • Steve

      I don’t think we have outgrown the ability to understand what it means to be an atheist. It’s a position that’s relatively easy to explain and understand. There is no god. Done. While there are books worth reading that support such claims and help properly articulate the atheist position, many such works are simply responses to weak religious arguments that simply don’t hold up to scrutiny.

      I find criticisms of Dawkins arguments that dismiss him because he can’t quote scripture or hasn’t read this book or that book to be simply silly. If his position was ‘Superman doesn’t really exist’, the fact that he isn’t an avid comic reader really bears little weight on the discussion. While his area of expertise is biology (a fact that doesn’t seem to matter to those who refuse to consider what he has to say about Darwin) he doesn’t need to hold a PHD in astrophysics to claim the earth is round. Certain matters should fall within an accepted realm of common sense and don’t necessarily require a high degree of study to be able to speak about them.

      Claiming there is a god (which is really the claim that requires evidence, not the claim that there most likely isn’t one) requires a tremendous body of evidence. Personally I find a passionately dispassionate examination of the natural world and the evidence it provides offers the most compelling arguments and claims for how the world works, and such explanations do not require the actions of a willfull, deliberate supernatural being, whose existence is much easier explained as the product of human imagination. While there remain gaps in the scientific explanation of the world (and this certainly is where people who make supernatural claims retreat and hide), it still seems that at every turn scientific claims simply wreck religious claims as they are verified and reverified ad infinitum.

      To me, conversations about Adam & Eve might as well be about Lois & Clark. I could discuss the stories and myths in terms of their historical value (as they say a a bit about the mindset of people who wrote the stories). I could discuss them as a literary critic would and even extrapolate elements that might be worthy of a metaphysical or metaethical discussion, but at the end of the day it’s not within my ability to pretend only one of these stories are a contrived fairy tale.

      In my view, the Courtiers Reply to an atheist in matters of religious debate is only appropriate when discussing literal details of a specific belief system, rather than the truthfullness of their claims. For instance, you can tell someone to ‘go read up’ if they say Christians think Jesus was born on Jupiter or that Superman was a Vulcan rather than a Kryptonian. Suggesting atheists ‘read up’ on something that doesn’t offer additional (or any) empirical evidence for gods existence is probably a waste of time.

      • Mr. X

        “I find criticisms of Dawkins arguments that dismiss him because he can’t quote scripture or hasn’t read this book or that book to be simply silly. If his position was ‘Superman doesn’t really exist’, the fact that he isn’t an avid comic reader really bears little weight on the discussion.”

        That depends on the nature of the arguments. If you’re going to argue, as Dawkins does, “Christian theology is silly/self-contradictory/so bad that teaching it to children is more damaging than molesting them,” then you probably ought to have a reasonable idea of what Christian theology actually says. If you try and make the argument despite clearly not knowing much about Christian theology, it’s perfectly reasonable for me to say “Sorry, you clearly don’t know what you’re talking about, so I can’t take your arguments on this subject very seriously.”

        • Steve

          If he claims there are self contradictory elements within Christianity without stating what they might be or incorrectly cites such examples then yes, you’d be within your rights to tell him to read up. This seems like something that falls well within the guidelines I laid out in my previous post of appropriate times to use the Courtiers Reply against an atheist.

          If he claims there are self contradictory elements within Christianity and he points out what they are, his claims stand regardless of him being an expert until additional evidence comes up to refute his position. In this case the Courtiers Reply wouldn’t apply as a valid response.

          If he claims Christianity is ‘silly’, he again doesn’t need a PHD in divinity studies to say something of that nature. It’s a judgement, based on the view that all beliefs of an evidence-less god, the stories centered around such beliefs and the sometimes senseless conclusions drawn by people from such things are silly.

          If he feels indoctrinating children into the belief that they will burn for eternity if they don’t follow an outdated often bizarre set of guidelines is a form of harmful violating brainwashing worthy of comparison to other forms of violation, that seems to be an opinion that is fair to have, even if it bothers you.

      • http://last-conformer.net/ Gilbert

        Well, if his position was that Superman doesn’t exist and his argument was that there is no tax record for Bruce Wayne, telling him to read a few more comics would actually be an adequate answer.

        • Steve

          Yes… the factual error of mixing up Superman with Bruce Wayne (or that he’s a Vulcan) would warrant a response of ‘go read more comics’

        • Alan

          It would be a nice response that scores points in front of a crowd – but not really an adequate one. Getting the details of the story wrong doesn’t really matter to the substance of the argument – unless you offer something (even something to read) that provides evidence that Superman or Clark Kent does exist that he confused two different stories is irrelevant.

          • Mr. X

            “Getting the details of the story wrong doesn’t really matter to the substance of the argument”

            Erm, yes it does, because the argument is based on a false premise (namely, that Superman’s everyday identity is Bruce Wayne), so you can’t trust its conclusion.

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