Live Action, lying, and natural law

Several people have asked me to comment on the Live Action controversy.  If you’re not familiar with it, Live Action is a pro-life organization founded by activist Lila Rose (pictured at left), which has carried out a number of amateur “sting” operations intended to expose employees of Planned Parenthood as complicit in providing abortions to minors without parental consent and willing to overlook statutory rape and sex trafficking.  Many conservative Catholics have applauded Live Action, but many others have been critical of their deceptive tactics.  I haven’t followed the story closely, and I am rather sick of the topic of lying given the four long posts I devoted to the subject not too long ago (here, here, here, and here).  But my position should be clear from those posts. 

Following the classical natural law approach to ethics associated with Aquinas and other moralists in the Scholastic tradition, I argued, on both philosophical and theological grounds, that:

1. Lying is always wrong, even if not always gravely so.

2. Broad mental reservations are not lies, and neither are polite expressions such as “You look nice today,” “I’m fine, thanks,” and the like, because the linguistic conventions governing these expressions entail that they are not generally intended to convey one’s actual thoughts and feelings in the first place, but function as mere pleasantries.  Certain kinds of stratagems in war, certain deceptive moves in games, etc. do not necessarily count as lies either.

3. What is essential to lying is deliberately speaking contrary to one’s true thoughts; whether the listener has a right to the truth is irrelevant. 

4. Hence it is wrong to lie even to the murderer who comes to your door demanding to know where to find his intended victim.  It is not wrong to refrain from telling him, or to speak evasively, or to use a broad mental reservation.  But if these ploys do not work, it would be wrong to lie to him.  Not gravely wrong, but still mildly wrong.

5. It is also wrong to lie in wartime.  That certain deceptive practices are justifiable in war does not show otherwise, because lying is not the same thing as deception.  Broad mental reservations, evasive speech, feints, etc. during wartime are fine, but deliberately speaking contrary to one’s true thoughts is always lying and thus always wrong.

6. It is also wrong to lie to children about Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, etc.  Not necessarily gravely wrong, but still wrong, and unwise too insofar as children who find that they’ve been lied to about these matters might reasonably wonder whether their parents have been lying to them about other matters too (religion, morality, etc.).

Please don’t bother commenting on these claims until you’ve read the posts in question, which deal with the stock objections at length.  I’m not going to rehash it all here.

Now, as I say, I haven’t followed the Live Action story closely.  It might be that some aspects of the organization’s tactics are defensible.   I really don’t know enough about the details to say, but as I have noted before, classical natural law theory does not condemn in principle such potentially deceptive practices as the use of broad mental reservations, evasive speech, camouflage during war, and the like (though there may be questions about whether a private organization may take it upon itself to use tactics normally reserved to lawful public authorities).  However, to the extent that the organization’s tactics involved lying – not mere broad mental reservations, evasive speech, disguises and the like but actual lying – they were wrong.  Not gravely wrong, maybe, but still wrong.  That just follows straightforwardly from the principles of natural law theory and Catholic moral theology spelled out in the posts linked to above. 

Don’t get me wrong.  I find that I am incapable of stirring up the slightest outrage at Live Action’s actions.  Their error seems to me relatively minor, a regrettable but (given how much confusion there is about the issue of lying even among faithful Catholics) understandable lapse in judgment committed in the course of furthering a good end.  Planned Parenthood is an evil organization and deserves the trouble they’re now getting.  My heart is with Lila Rose.  Still, my head is with Augustine, Aquinas, and the Scholastic manualists.  We simply may not do evil that good may come, even if the sin is only venial.  (I am, of course, speaking only of the objective moral character of the actions in question.  I would never presume to judge the subjective culpability of Live Action's members.) 

I have been dismayed by the feebleness of some of the arguments I’ve seen put forward on both sides of this issue in the Catholic blogosphere, and by people I respect.  For example, in defending Live Action, Peter Kreeft appeals to our “intuitions,” and while he takes pains to try to avoid the subjectivism that naturally threatens to attend such an appeal, I don’t think he succeeds.  As I have argued before, appealing to intuition is simply bad philosophical methodology.  And as I argued here, it is especially unconvincing when deployed by Christian moralists in defense of lying.   For as Brandon Watson has noted, the specific intuitions Kreeft appeals to have varied even among conservative religious people of the sort Kreeft would presumably take to be the most sound in their moral sensibilities.  (It is also quite rich for Kreeft to accuse Live Action’s conservative Catholic critics of being “more Kantian than Aristotelian.”  As Kreeft well knows, Aquinas thought that it is always wrong to lie, even to save a life.  Indeed, Aristotle himself seems to have thought that lying is intrinsically wrong.  I think it can safely be said that Aquinas was more Aristotelian than Kantian, and I’m pretty sure Aristotle himself was too.)

Brandon also rightly takes Live Action defender John Zmirak to the woodshed for Zmirak’s ill-informed farrago of straw men, erroneous historical claims, and accusations of “legalism” – the kind of thing more typical of leftist dissident Catholics than of someone with Zmirak’s reputation for orthodoxy.  Zmirak has also written a follow-up piece and Brandon a further reply.  (Brandon has in fact written a series of posts on lying over the last week or so which you should check out, including discussions of Scotus’s and Cassian’s views on the subject.)

On the other side of the fence, Christopher Tollefsen criticizes Live Action on the grounds that it is “unloving” to “deceive” others, and it seems to me that he (like some other critics) somewhat melodramatically overstates the gravity of the organization’s error.  Since Tollefsen is a Catholic and self-described “natural law” theorist, some readers might think his position reflects traditional Catholic moral theology and classical natural law theory.  In fact it reflects neither (though in condemning all lying, it does overlap with them).  As Chris Kaczor objects in a reply to Tollefsen, Tollefsen blurs the distinction that traditional natural law theorists and Catholic moral theologians are careful to make between lying and deception.  (I discuss the distinction here.)  Lying is always wrong, but deception need not be.  Indeed, as Kaczor points out, to deceive another through the use of broad mental reservation, evasive speech, and other actions short of lying can in the view of traditional natural law theorists and moral theologians be precisely the “loving” thing to do when innocent life can be protected in no other way.

Tollefsen is in fact a devotee of the “new natural law” school of thought, which has nothing to do with the centuries-old natural law tradition associated with Aquinas and other Scholastic moralists, but was invented by theologian Germain Grisez in the 1960s and later developed by legal theorist John Finnis.  (It is also represented by writers like Joseph Boyle, William May, Patrick Lee, and Robert P. George.)  The Grisez-Finnis approach to natural law (or “Grinnis” approach, to borrow David Oderberg’s coinage) begins with an affirmation of the Humean “fact/value distinction” – something Thomists and other Scholastics regard as the central, disastrous error of modern ethical theory – and aims to reconstruct natural law on a basis other than its traditional Aristotelian metaphysical foundation.  Hence, “new natural lawyers” are loath to appeal (as Aquinas and other Scholastic moralists do) to the intrinsic evil of positively frustrating the natural end of a natural faculty – such as the procreative end of our sexual faculties and the communicative end of speech – and they endorse the objections secular writers and theological liberals have directed at this “perverted faculty” approach.  (In fact these objections are aimed at crude straw men and oversimplifications of the traditional natural law position, and it is regrettable that “new natural lawyers” have seen fit to perpetuate such unjust criticisms.)

Sometimes the result is a novel defense of traditional moral conclusions – “new natural lawyers” have, to their credit, been staunch opponents of abortion and defenders of traditional sexual morality – though whether it is an improved defense is another question.  Anxious as they are about being perceived by liberals and secularists to be defenders of the “perverted faculty argument,” Grisez and Co. deploy arguments against contraceptive and homosexual acts which make no appeal to natural function, but which seem, as a result, merely obscure and convoluted.  We are told, for example, that the acts in question “instrumentalize” the body, “disintegrate the acting person,” or fall short of the “one-flesh unity” of marriage.  If this were just an eccentric way of talking about a failure to realize the natural ends of our sexual faculties, then the argument would be intelligible.  But given that “new natural lawyers” eschew talk of nature’s ends for us, it is hard to see precisely what the objection to the practices in question is supposed to be.

In the case of lying, Tollefsen bases his argument on an appeal to the “great good” of “unity” between one’s “inner self” and one’s “appearance in the world.”  If what Tollefsen meant were that lying directly frustrates the natural end of speech and other communicative behavior, and is thus (given the Scholastic account of the metaphysics of value) inherently bad in a way that merely refraining from communicating is not – which is Aquinas’s objection to lying – then it would be clear enough what the problem is supposed to be.  This would make it intelligible why “unity” between a person’s “appearance in the world” (i.e. his communicative acts) and his “inner self” (i.e. what he is really thinking) is a “great good.”  But since Tollefsen, like other “new natural lawyers,” rejects such “perverted faculty” arguments, we seem left, here as in the case of “Grinnis”-style arguments about sexual morality, with mere high-falutin’ jargon – which, though some apparently find it inspiring, does not provide an actual rational justification for natural law conclusions.

Of course, “new natural lawyers” do attempt to ground their overall approach in a theory of the “basic goods.”  To the theory’s critics, though, the list of basic goods (which varies somewhat from writer to writer) itself seems arbitrary, formulated precisely so as to guarantee that certain desired conclusions will be reached and certain others will be ruled out.  Since (unlike traditional natural law theory) the “new natural law” lacks a foundation in an independently motivated metaphysics of human nature, this charge is hard to rebut.  To be sure, in recent years some members of the “Grinnis” school have incorporated into their arguments concerning sex and abortion the notion that only sexual acts of the “reproductive type” can facilitate a “one-flesh union,” a critique of the “body-self dualism” they take to underlie liberal views on sexuality, and considerations about the biology of the fetus.  Needless to say, this sounds very much like the traditional natural law theorist’s position that our sexual faculties have a natural end, that human nature is properly understood in Aristotelian hylemorphic (rather than either Cartesian or materialist) terms, and that ethics must be grounded in part on facts about human biology.   Yet Grisez was supposed to have provided a way to formulate natural law theory without such “factual” and Scholastic metaphysical premises!   So what is going on here? 

The answer, in my view, is that the project of the “new natural lawyers” is inherently deeply unstable.  The point of the theory from its inception has been to provide an alternative philosophical foundation for Catholic moral teaching, especially concerning sexuality.  But it is very difficult – I would say impossible – to defend traditional sexual morality without treating biological facts as normative.  And that requires attributing to biological phenomena essences in virtue of which they point inherently to certain ends; that is to say, it requires attributing to them something like Aristotelian formal and final causes.  Hence references to “acts of the reproductive type,” to “the language of the body,” and the like keep finding their way into the arguments of “new natural lawyers” – language which seems at best metaphorical and at worst unintelligible unless understood as a roundabout way of referring to the formal and final causes of biological phenomena.  Yet writers like Grisez and Finnis, officially committed as they are to the Humean “fact/value distinction,” have for decades been badmouthing traditional Scholastic natural law theorists for committing the so-called “naturalistic fallacy” in grounding ethics in Aristotelian metaphysics.  The attempt of the “new natural lawyers” to square this circle – to smuggle in a bit of disguised Aristotelianism after all, under the Humean radar – results in obscurantism and incoherence. 

The results of the “Grinnis” approach are in some cases not only obscure, but decidedly untraditional.  For example, “new natural lawyers” often hold, not only that it is better not to impose the death penalty (something many Catholic moralists have held over the centuries, Pope John Paul II being the most famous example), but that the death penalty is always and intrinsically immoral – a claim that is simply incompatible with biblical revelation, traditional Catholic moral teaching, and traditional natural law theory.  (Tollefsen and I debated this issue several years ago when we were co-bloggers at the now defunct Right Reason group blog.  You can find his statement of his position here and my reply here, courtesy of the Wayback Machine.)

Tollefsen’s conflation of lying and deception is of a piece with his conflation of intentional killing and murder.  And just as the latter conflation implies a kind of quasi-pacifism – Grisez and Co. hold that it is wrong even in a defensive war ever to intend to kill attacking enemy soldiers (one may in their view at most foresee and allow their deaths as an unintended side-effect) – so too the former conflation implies a radical restriction on “practices of undercover work, espionage work, and other forms of journalistic, police, and governmental work,” as Tollefsen acknowledges in a reply to Kaczor.  Tollefsen does not elaborate, but it seems likely that he would have to condemn as “unloving” many deceptive practices that do not involve lying and which have been considered justifiable by traditional natural law theorists and Catholic moralists.  (In fairness to Tollefsen, he does tell us in another follow-up article that he thinks that certain methods employed by police in infiltrating gangs and busting drug dealers can be justifiable.  He does not tell us, though, whether all of the kinds of broad mental reservation and evasion allowed by traditional natural law theory are sufficiently “loving” or conducive to the “unity” of the “inner self” with one’s “appearance in the world.”)

Hence, though the “new natural law” position is commonly regarded as conservative (and in some of its applications is conservative), it leads in other cases to what Tollefsen has called “liberal and progressive” outcomes, and certainly to outcomes that depart from traditional Catholic and natural law teaching.  My own view is that these outcomes and the novel premises they are based on are philosophically and theologically highly dubious – and pastorally unwise too, leading as they do (in the ethics of killing and deception, as we have seen here, but in other areas too) to a kind of otherworldly rigorism.   One of the great achievements of the Scholastics was to provide an Aristotelian corrective to the Platonic austerity of earlier writers, leading moral theology in a more sober, humane, and realistic direction.  It is no surprise that the “new natural lawyers,” in abandoning an Aristotelian metaphysics of human nature, have in some respects returned to something like the rigorism of the earlier writers.  In any event, it is important to emphasize that their novel conclusions are applications of Grisezism rather than of Thomism, traditional natural law theory, or traditional Catholic moral theology. 

[For criticism of the “Grinnis” school from the point of view of traditional natural law theory, see: chapter 5 of my Aquinas; David Oderberg’s paper “The Metaphysical Foundations of Natural Law”; the first edition of Ralph McInerny’s Ethica Thomistica and chapter 9 of his Aquinas on Human Action; Anthony Lisska’s Aquinas’s Theory of Natural Law; Henry Veatch’s “Natural Law and the ‘Is’-‘Ought’ Question,” in Swimming Against the Current in Contemporary Philosophy; and Russell Hitinger’s A Critique of the New Natural Law Theory.  Chapter 5 of Aquinas also contains a general defense of traditional natural law theory; and for a defense of the traditional natural law approach to sexual morality in particular, see chapter 4 of my The Last Superstition.]

In summary, then: First, to the extent that Live Action’s methods involve broad mental reservation, evasion, and the like, those methods may be morally defensible (though there are questions about whether Live Action usurped the prerogatives of lawful public authority, which I have not considered).  Second, to the extent that these methods involve actual lying, they are wrong and should not be used.  Third, it seems to me that Live Action’s resort to lies was probably only venially sinful rather than gravely so.  Fourth, the remedy to the woolly thinking exhibited by some commentators on both sides of this intra-Catholic debate is to return to the clarity, rigor, and sober realism of the Scholastic tradition of natural law ethics and moral theology


Can we make sense of the world?

Is reality intelligible?  Can we make sense of it?  Or is the world at bottom an unintelligible “brute fact” with no explanation?  We can tighten up these questions by distinguishing several senses in which the world might be said to be (or not to be) intelligible.  To make these distinctions is to see that the questions are not susceptible of a simple Yes or No answer.  There are in fact a number of positions one could take on the question of the world’s intelligibility – though they are by no means all equally plausible.

Consider first the distinction between the world’s being intelligible in itself and its being intelligible to us.  Suppose there is, objectively speaking, an explanation of why the world exists in the way it does.  Whether we can grasp that explanation is another question.  Perhaps our minds are too limited to discover it, or perhaps they are too limited to understand the explanation even if we can discover it. 

Might we turn this around and suggest also that the world could be intelligible to us but not intelligible in itself?  This proposal seems incoherent.  If the world is not intelligible in itself, how could it be intelligible to us?  To be sure, we might think that we’ve grasped some explanation even when we haven’t, but that is not the same thing.  That would be a case of its merely seeming intelligible to us while not really being intelligible in itself, not a case of its really being intelligible to us while not really being intelligible in itself (whatever that could mean).  So we have an asymmetry here: While something could be intelligible in itself but not necessarily intelligible to us, if it really is intelligible to us – and doesn’t just seem to be – then it must also be intelligible in itself.

A second distinction we might draw is that between the world’s being thoroughly intelligible and its being only partially intelligible.  This distinction is an obvious one to draw if we think in terms of intelligibility to us.  For it might be that the world is intelligible in itself but, while not entirely intelligible to us, at least partially intelligible to us.

Might the world be partially (but not thoroughly) intelligible in itself?  Philosophers like Bertrand Russell and J. L. Mackie seem to think so, insofar as they think that we can explain various natural phenomena in terms of the laws discovered by empirical science, but hold also that the most fundamental level of laws cannot itself be explained, and must be regarded as a brute fact.  For the reasons given above, however, it would seem incoherent to hold that the world is thoroughly intelligible to us while only partially intelligible in itself.  If it is only partially intelligible in itself, it could only ever be partially intelligible to us.

With these distinctions in mind, we might identify the following possible positions on the question of the world’s intelligibility:

A. The world is thoroughly intelligible in itself and thoroughly intelligible to us: We might call this the “strong rationalist” position.  Very few philosophers seem ever to have held it, but Parmenides might be an example of someone who did. 

B. The world is thoroughly intelligible in itself but only partially intelligible to us: We might call this the “moderate rationalist” position.  It was the view of Plato, Aristotle, and Aquinas and seems to have been the position of the continental rationalist philosophers.  (The word “rationalism” is, of course, used in many senses.  Aristotle and Aquinas were not “rationalists” in the “continental rationalist” sense of being committed to innate ideas.)  The continental rationalists were not “strong rationalists” in our sense, insofar as none of them seems to have held that the world is thoroughly intelligible to us.  For example, Descartes did not think we could fathom God’s purposes in creating nature as He did; Spinoza thought that we know only two of the infinite attributes of the one infinite substance, viz. thought and extension; and Leibniz did not think our finite monads had the clarity of perception that the infinite monad that is God has.

C. The world is thoroughly intelligible in itself and completely unintelligible to us: It is not clear that anyone has ever actually defended this position.  “Mysterian” naturalists like Colin McGinn and Noam Chomsky would not be examples of philosophers taking this position, because while they claim that there might be some aspects of reality that we can never understand, they don’t claim that this is true of every aspect of reality, or even, necessarily, that it is thoroughly the case with respect to any aspect.  Their position would seem rather to be a variant on either B above or D below.  Nor would the even more skeptical naturalisms of Heraclitus, Hume, or Nietzsche seem to be instances of C.  If you’re going to present a theory to the effect that metaphysics is a mere projection of human psychological tendencies, or an expression of a will to power, or whatever, then you are implicitly claiming that at least part of nature (namely us and our tendency toward metaphysical theorizing) is at least partially intelligible.  These thinkers too seem committed instead to some variation on either B or D.

D. The world is only partially intelligible in itself and only partially intelligible to us: As indicated above, this seems to be the view of naturalistically-oriented philosophers like Russell and Mackie, who believed that science gives us real knowledge of the world but that the fundamental laws of nature in terms of which it explains all the others are brute facts that cannot themselves ultimately be made intelligible.

E. The world is only partially intelligible in itself and completely unintelligible to us: As with C, it is not clear that anyone has ever actually defended this position. 

F. The world is completely unintelligible in itself and completely unintelligible to us: Once again, this does not seem to be a position that anyone has actually ever held.  And once again, thinkers who might seem to have held it can be seen on reflection not to have done so.  For example, Gautama Buddha might seem to be an example of a thinker committed to F, but he really wasn’t.  For even to hold (as the Buddha did) that there is no abiding self or permanent reality of any sort is to make a claim about the world that is intended to be both intelligible and true.  And even to recommend (as he also did) against indulging in much metaphysical speculation in the interests of pursuing Enlightenment is to presuppose that there is an objective, intelligible fact of the matter about what would hinder Enlightenment.  The Buddha too seems in fact to have been committed to something like a variation on either B or D.

Indeed, it is very difficult to see how one could defend either the view that the world is completely unintelligible in itself or the view that it is completely unintelligible to us.  For how could such a view be defended?  If you give an argument for the conclusion that reality is unintelligible in itself, it would surely have to rest on premises about reality.  You would be saying something like “Reality is such-and-such, and therefore it is unintelligible.”  But however you fill in the “such-and-such,” you will be referring to some intelligible feature of reality, or will in any event have to do so if your argument is itself going to be both intelligible and convincing.  And in that case you will in effect have conceded that reality is not after all completely unintelligible.  By the same token, if you give an argument for the conclusion that reality is unintelligible for us, then you will have to appeal to premises either about some intelligible feature of reality itself, or about our cognitive faculties – which are themselves part of reality – and in that case you will, once again, have implicitly conceded that reality is at least partially intelligible.

So, D would seem to the closest one could come plausibly to claiming that reality is unintelligible.  But I think that even D is not really coherent.  Suppose I told you that the fact that a certain book has not fallen to the ground is explained by the fact that it is resting on a certain shelf, but that the fact that the shelf itself has not fallen to the ground has no explanation at all but is an unintelligible brute fact.  Have I really explained the position of the book?  It is hard to see how.  For the shelf has in itself no tendency to stay aloft – it is, by hypothesis, just a brute fact that it does so.  But if it has no such tendency, it cannot impart such a tendency to the book.  The “explanation” the shelf provides in such a case would be completely illusory.  (Nor would it help to impute to the book some such tendency after all, if the having of the tendency is itself just an unintelligible brute fact.  The illusion will just have been relocated, not eliminated.) 

By the same token, it is no good to say “The operation of law of nature C is explained by the operation of law of nature B, and the operation of B by the operation of law of nature A, but the operation of A has no explanation whatsoever and is just an unintelligible brute fact.”  The appearance of having “explained” C and B is completely illusory if A is a brute fact, because if there is neither anything about A itself that can explain A’s own operation nor anything beyond A that can explain it, then A has nothing to impart to B or C that could possibly explain their operation.  As the Scholastics would say, a cause cannot give what it does not itself have in the first place.  A series of ever more fundamental “laws of nature” is in this regard like a series of instrumental causes ordered per se.  The notion of “an explanatory nomological regress terminating in a brute fact” is, when carefully examined, as incoherent the notion of “a causal series ordered per se in which every cause is purely instrumental.”  And thus Mackie’s and Russell’s position is itself ultimately incoherent. 

The only truly coherent positions one could take on the question of the world’s intelligibility, then, are A and B.  And A is, needless to say, not very plausible, even if coherent.  So, some variation on B seems to be the most plausible view to take on the world’s intelligibility.  Why do people bother with D, then?  The answer is, I think, obvious.  It is very hard to affirm either A or B without committing oneself either to classical theism or pantheism.  For once it is conceded that the world is at least in itself completely intelligible, it is hard to see how this could be so unless the most fundamental level of reality is something absolutely necessary – something that is not a mixture of potentiality and actuality but rather pure actuality (as the Aristotelian would say), something which is in no way whatsoever composite but absolutely metaphysically simple (as the Neo-Platonist would say), something which is not a compound of essence and existence but rather subsistent being itself (as the Thomist would say).  However one elaborates on the nature of this ultimate reality, it is not going to be identifiable with any “fundamental laws of nature” (which are contingent, and the operation of which involves the transition from potentiality to actuality within a universe of things that are in various ways composite).  One might still at this point dispute whether the ultimate reality is best described in terms of the theology of classical theism or instead in terms of some pantheistic theology.  But one will definitely be in the realm of theologyrational theology, natural theology – rather than empirical science.

If one wants to maintain a defensible atheist position, then, one has to try to make something like D work, as Russell and Mackie (and my younger self) did.  One has to claim with a straight face that the world is intelligible down to the level of the fundamental laws, but beyond that point suddenly “stops making sense” (as Talking Heads might put it).  For one has to say, not that the world has some ultimate explanation that is non-theistic, but rather that it has no ultimate explanation at all.  And in that case one can hardly claim to have provided a more “rational” account of the world than theism does.  To paraphrase what Copleston said to Russell, if you refuse to play the explanatory game, then naturally you cannot lose it.  But by the same token, it is ludicrous to claim that you’ve won it.


To a louse

O wad some Pow'r the giftie gie us
To see oursels as others see us!

Robert Burns, “To a Louse”

It never ceases to amaze how Richard Dawkins, P. Z. Myers, and their clones in the blogosphere routinely display exactly the sort of ignorance and bigotry of which they haughtily accuse their opponents.  How might one get them to see themselves as others see them?  Perhaps the way Nathan got David to see that he was guilty of adultery and murder.  Let’s give it a try.  If you’re a “New Atheist” type, consider the following hypothetical exchange between a scientist and a science-hating skeptic:

Skeptic: Science is BS.  Physicists believe in these things called “quarks,” which are little flavored particles that spin around and work like magic charms.  Their evidence is that they read about them in a James Joyce novel.  Some of them think the universe is made up of tiny shoelaces tied together, though they admit that they have no evidence for this and have to take it on faith.  Einstein said morality is all relative – which is why he stole his ideas from this guy who worked in a patent office, and why Richard Feynman stole atomic secrets during WWII.  Meanwhile, the chemists contradict the physicists and believe instead in little colored balls held together by sticks.  Biologists believe monkeys can give birth to human beings.  What a bunch of crap!  It’s child abuse to teach kids about this stuff in schools.

Scientist: Are you joking?  If not, I suggest that you actually read some science before criticizing it.

Skeptic: I’ve already read a lot about it, in blog comboxes like this one.  And why should I waste my time reading anything else?  I already know it’s all BS!  Didn’t you hear the examples I just gave? 

Scientist: No, you’re missing my point.  You’ve completely distorted what scientists actually say.  It’s not remotely as silly as you think it is.  In fact it’s not silly at all.  But you need to actually read the stuff to see that.

Skeptic: So you deny that physicists believe in quarks?  What flavor are your quarks, chocolate or vanilla?  Do you deny that they think we came from monkeys?  Which monkey was your mother?

Scientist: No one says that monkeys gave birth to humans.  That’s a ridiculous caricature.  And of course I don’t deny that physicists believe in quarks, but you’re badly misunderstanding what they mean when they attribute “flavor” to them.  They don’t mean that literally…

Skeptic: Oh so it’s just empty verbiage, then.  See, you’re just proving my point for me.

Scientist: No, it’s not empty verbiage.  It’s technical terminology.

Skeptic: I see, like magic spells.  That’s why they talk about “charm.”  Really, you’re just digging the hole deeper.

Scientist: Actually, it’s you who is digging your own hole deeper.  That’s not what they mean by “charm.”  If you knew anything at all about physics, you’d realize that.

Skeptic: See, every time I debate people like you, you always whine about how everyone misunderstands what you mean.  You always say “Go read this shelf of books and come back when you know what you’re talking about.”  It’s like one of the naked emperor’s sycophants telling the kid who sees that he’s naked that he needs to read the learned works of Count Roderigo concerning the fine leather of the emperor’s boots, etc.

Scientist: What a ridiculous analogy.  You’re just begging the question.  Whether science is really comparable to the naked emperor is precisely what’s at issue.

Skeptic: OK, I’ll bite.  Explain it to me, then.  Prove to me here and now in this combox that science is worth my time, as opposed to being the tissue of superstition, lies, and bigotry that I already know it to be.  And don’t get long-winded like you people tend to do, or start throwing around references to this scientist I should know about or that book I should have read.

Scientist: What is this, an invitation to the Star Chamber?  How am I supposed to explain fields as complex as quantum physics, or evolutionary biology, or chemistry to the satisfaction of someone as hostile to them as you are in a combox comment, or even a blog post or series of blog posts?  Besides, there are so many things wrong with what you’ve said I don’t even know where to begin!  And if I keep it short, you’ll tell me that I’m dodging whatever issue I don’t address, while if I respond at greater length you’ll tell me I’m a windbag.  I can’t win!  But why are you wasting time in a combox anyway?  Why don’t you just read the work of some actual scientists?  It’s right there in the library or bookstore if you really want to understand it.

Skeptic: I knew it.  You won’t defend yourself because you know you can’t.  But then, arguing with people like you just gives you credibility.  That’s why you uneducated, irrational fanatical bigots need to be shouted down by reasonable, open-minded, well-read, tolerant people like me.  Science is BS, and you know it.  It’s just so obvious.  So why don’t you go back to eating your tasty flavored quarks and tying your vibrating 11-dimensional shoestrings over at your Uncle Monkey’s house, OK?  I’ll be here in the reality-based community reading my copy of The Science Delusion.

Naturally, a Dawkins or Myers would be appalled at our Skeptic.  And rightly so.  But replace terms like “science,” “physicists,” “quarks,” etc. with terms like “theism,” “philosophers,” “God,” etc. and you’ve suddenly got in our Skeptic a typical Dawkins or Myers fan – indeed, you’ve got someone pretty much indistinguishable from Dawkins or Myers themselves. 

Don’t expect the scales to fall from their eyes anytime soon, though.  It is hard enough for anyone to say “I was wrong.”  But the New Atheist has to say much more than that.  To admit his errors really amounts to saying “I am exactly the sort of person that I have loudly, publicly, and repeatedly denounced and ridiculed, and the hating of whom gives me my sense of identity and self-worth.”  That requires a nearly superhuman degree of honesty and courage.  So, while this or that New Atheist loudmouth might, like David, finally see himself for what he really is, I think we can expect the bulk of them to continue their spiral into intellectual and moral darkness.  All in the name of reason and morality, of course.


And boy, are my arms tired…

Just flew in from Spokane, and have been offline for several days.  Regular posting, replying to the usual mountain of emails sitting in my inbox, etc., will resume shortly.
Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...