Sunday, 14 July 2013

Randal Rauser's review of my book Believing Bullshit - my response

A while ago the well-known Christian apologist and blogger Randal Rauser posted a very long review of my book Believing Bullshit on his blog. You can find Rauser’s review here.

While making a few nice comments about the book, Rauser was generally very negative. He posted the same review on the amazon page for my book and gave the book just two stars.

A negative review is fine, of course. However, Rauser’s review is academically poor (it was written in haste, I suspect).

Such is the length of Rauser’s review that I didn’t, at the time, have time to go through all of it, line by line, pointing out the numerous misrepresentations, muddles and errors that it contains. I told Rauser I would get round to responding.

I still don’t have time to respond to Rauser’s entire review in detail. But, being on sabbatical, I have  devoted a couple of hours to dealing with points Rauser made regarding just the first chapter of the book.

Were Rauser’s review more academically robust and interesting, I might have devoted the many more hours required to respond to the rest of it. But the review is poorly argued, and in any case I suspect no one will bother reading the thousands of words of commentary I would have to produce to deal with the entire thing properly. 

The first chapter of Believing Bullshitexamines the dubious way mystery is often appealed to defend belief systems, especially supernatural belief systems (religious and non-religious). Rauser picks up on a later section of the chapter - on the problem of evil and the way in which mystery is sometimes appealed to by theists in order to try to deal with that problem. Rauser writes:

Law then proceeds to identify numerous unjustified appeals to mystery. For example, later in the chapter he turns to Christian philosopher Stephen Wykstra's response to the problem of evil. Wykstra argue that the "the goods by virtue of which this Being [God] allows known suffering should very often be beyond our ken." (Cited in 60) In other words, for Wykstra, the fact that we cannot identify the reasons why God would allow specific evils is not a defeater to the existence of God since we shouldn't expect to be able to identify those reasons. Law retorts that "when loving parents inflict suffering on the child for that child's good, the parents will do their very best to explain to their child that they do care for them and that this suffering is for their own good." (60) But as a rebuttal to Wykstra this point is impotent since it is easy to envision conditions in which parents would not inform their children of the reasons why they suffer. (For example, the child may not be able to understand the reason, or understanding the reason might create a greater emotional burden or....) By the same token, God could have ample reasons for not informing us as to why we suffer specific evils. In short, Law's critique of Wykstra is much too brief and underdeveloped to be of any use. Sadly, this is one of numerous cases where Law's treatment of theistic positions and arguments is cursory to the point of distortion.

Ironically, it’s Rauser that’s here guilty of crude distortion.

First, if you check the book (p59-62) you will see that while my discussion of the Wykstra-type appeal to mystery does indeed include the parent analogy that Rauser mentions above, it also makes two additional, different points against Wykstra, the last of which I clearly flag as the most significant. By failing to mention these other two points, Rauser creates the false impression the only point I make with respect to Wykstra is the parent analogy. In fact my treatment of Wykstra-type appeals to mystery is not nearly as "cursory" as Rauser would have you believe.

The second of the points I make re Wykstra-type appeals to mystery is that there are presumably limits to how much evil can be put down to God’s mysterious ways. I ask, if the world resembled a vast Heironymous Bosch like vision of Hell with not a jot of beauty or happiness, would it still be reasonable for us to say “there’s no compelling evidence here that the world was not created by a supremely powerful and benevolent creator. It is still entirely reasonable for us to believe in an all-powerful, all-good god”. Intuitively not.

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. 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”

In short, Rauser conveniently ignores most of my critique of Wykstra-type appeals to mystery. He omits all mention of what is actually my main objection, picking up instead on a less significant point (the parent analogy).

As a matter of fact, even Rauser’s response to my use of the parent analogy involves a serious distortion. As you can see above, Rauser suggests I have overlooked the fact that sometimes a parent won’t give a child an explanation for why the child is being made to suffer, because the explanation is beyond the ability of the child to understand.

Well I don’t overlook that. In fact, I actually address that issue in the book. I say that such a parent will nevertheless “make some sort of attempt to explain why they are causing this suffering, even if only in the kind of oversimplified terms a child might understand.” They won’t just sit in stony silence, offering absolutely nothing in the way of explanation or even reassurance, while causing their child immense pain.

I then go on to anticipate and deal with the suggestion that God has indeed offered us such explanations and reassurances regarding the suffering he inflicts – they are to be found in the Bible. As I point out, this just raises the question – why are the explanations so unclear and, in any case, “what about the countless generations of humans that suffered before the Bible was written?”

As you can see above, the only other suggestion Rauser makes for why a parent might fail to offer any such explanation or reassurance to their child while making that child suffer horribly is that this “might create a greater emotional burden”.

Really? Think about that for a moment. Is this a situation you find “easy to envisage”? I don’t. I can’t imagine any circumstances in which I would refuse to offer any explanation or reassurance to my child while I was inflicting terrible but necessary suffering on them. But even if Rauser can envisage such a situation, that’s still not enough to get Wykstra off the hook. For what Rauser needs to show is not that there could be, but that there’s quite likely to be, a reason why God will fail to offer any explanation or even reassurance at all to those upon whom he inflicts horrendous suffering.

So, Rauser’s criticism of my discussion of Wykstra-type appeals to mystery to deal with the problem of evil is (i) misleading because Rauser creates the impression that my only response to Wykstra is the parent analogy when in fact that’s the least of my objections (ii) doubly misleading because, far from overlooking a point Rauser suggests I overlook, I actually address it, (iii) weak because the point Rauser does make re the parent analogy is dealt with in the book and (ii) doubly weak because Rauser just ignores my main argument against Wykstra.

In short, Rauser's critique is inaccurate and shoddy. As I say, I think it was written in haste.

Rauser then continues:

As one reads the chapter one is led to wonder how Law would react to naturalists, atheists and skeptics who appeal to mystery. Consider atheist philosopher Colin McGinn. McGinn argues that many of the most recalcitrant problems in philosophy such as the mind brain problem may simply be beyond our ability to understand (they really are mysteries). Moreover, he argues that we should expect such mysteries given that we are finite, fallible evolved creatures. McGinn certainly makes a reasonable case for our cognitive limitations. Why would we think that we can necessarily understand all the deepest problems of existence? But if it is reasonable for the atheist to play the mystery card when it comes to something like the problem of consciousness then why is it not reasonable for the theist to do so when it comes to the problem of evil?

I enjoyed this reference to Colin McGinn as I’m a fan of his. In fact I was taught briefly by McGinn while I was at Oxford (in fact in our first tutorial I saw the classic paper on mysterianism to which Rauser is alluding on McGinn’s desk with a rejection letter from a philosophy journal – which goes to show that even classic papers like that can be summarily rejected).

Anyhow, let me first point out that I say very clearly in the book that atheists etc. are also prone to such dodgy moves (it’s not the content of the belief system that makes it an intellectual black hole but the manner in which it is defended etc. – thus any belief system can become an intellectual black hole, atheism included). Someone reading Rauser’s review might well conclude I assume that naturalists, atheists etc. are immune. I don’t assume that. Nor do I believe it (though I do believe, and have argued, that religious belief systems are particularly prone to these sorts of immunizing appeals to mystery).

Secondly, I am very clear in the book that of course it’s legitimate to appeal to mystery on occasion. Indeed, I acknowledge that some things may be in principle unknowable. Here’s the conclusion of the mystery chapter:

Mystery, as such, is no bad thing. Pointing out mysteries can be a valuable exercise – firing up our curiosity and getting us to engage our intellects. Nor is there anything wrong with acknowledging that some things may forever remain a mystery, may even be in principle unknowable.

Sometimes it’s also reasonable, when faced with a problem case for an otherwise well-established theory, to put it down as a mysterious anomaly. If on countless occasions an experiment has confirmed water boils at 100 degrees C, the fact that on one occasion it appeared not to may quite reasonably be put down to some unknown factor. If we can’t discover what went wrong, it can be reasonable for us to just shrug and move on – putting the freak result down to some mysterious problem with the set-up (a faulty thermometer, perhaps).

It’s also often reasonable, when we have a theory that works but we don’t fully understand why it works, to say, “Whythis happens remains, for the moment, a mystery. But we know it does”. We might have strong evidence that smoking causes cancer, say, long before we understand why it does so.

So the appeal to mystery has its proper place, even in science. What I object to is the way in which the appeal to mystery is increasingly relied on to deal with what otherwise would appear to be powerful evidence or arguments against certain beliefs, particularly beliefs in the supernatural. Whenever mystery is erected as a barrier to rational inquiry, a barrier that says, “You scientists and philosophers may come this far armed with the power of reason, but no further – turn back now!” we should be concerned, particularly if no good reason is given for supposing science and reason cannot, in fact, take us further. The more we appeal to mystery to get ourselves out of intellectual trouble – the more we use it as a carpet under which to sweep inconvenient facts or discoveries – the more vulnerable we become to deceit: to deceit both by others and by ourselves.

So, yes, some things may be in principle be beyond our comprehension, and yes it can sometimes be legitimate to appeal to mystery. As you can see, I very clearly spell all this out in my first chapter (though you’d be hard-pressed to guess it from Rauser’s review).

What I object to, pretty clearly, is not the suggestion that some things might be in principle mysterious and unknowable, but rather the way in which mystery is increasingly appealed to in order to immunize what we believe against evidence and arguments to the contrary.

Now, we can agree that consciousness is a baffling phenomenon - perhaps necessarily so, as McGinn argues. But the point is consciousness is a problem for everyone – atheists and theists, naturalists and non-naturalists. There’s a thorny puzzle here whichever side of these various fences you sit. It’s not a problem that favours one side over another.

Some “problems” in science and philosophy are simply puzzles – we can’t figure out the solution to a puzzle or answer to a question. The problem of consciousness is an example.

Other “problems” are different. They are problems for a particular belief system – problems in the sense that they constitute a very significant intellectual threat to the belief system (and not to its negation). That’s a very different sort of “problem”. It’s a “threat” problem.

Theists recognize that the problem of evil is a threat-type problem. It’s not a problem for atheists. It’s not any sort of threat to what atheists believe. But it is a very significant problem, and is of course widely recognized to be such a problem, for theists like Rauser. It’s a problem precisely because the amount of evil we observe appears more than enough to render belief in an all-powerful and all-good deity highly unlikely.

Some theists (like Wykstra) appeal to mystery in order in order to immunize what they believe against this evidential threat. I point out that this is an example of a more general practice when it comes to what appears to be evidence against supernatural belief. I give non-theistic examples too (concerning crystal healing, ESP)

So does Rauser have a point re the use of mystery to deal with the problem of evil?

No. He just muddies the waters by muddling up different sorts of “problem”. The analogy Rauser draws between the problem of evil and the problem of consciousness is false. The problem of evil is a threat-type problem for his brand of theism. And increasingly to appeal to “mystery” in order to immunize theism against such an intellectual threat is, I suggest, a clear warning sign of an intellectual black hole. Nothing Rauser says here suggests I am mistaken about that.

So that’s what Rauser has to say about my first chapter. His review of that chapter is inaccurate, muddled, and sets up straw men. The rest of Rauser’s review of Believing Bullshit is equally academically shoddy. But, as I say, I lack the time or the patience to go through and respond to his similar commentary on the other seven chapters.

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