Grow up or shut up

I’ve pointed out that the argument so many atheists like to attack when they purport to refute the cosmological argument -- namely “Everything has a cause; so the universe has a cause; so God exists” or variants thereof -- is a straw man, something no prominent advocate of the cosmological argument has ever put forward.  You won’t find it in Aristotle, you won’t find it in Aquinas, you won’t find it in Leibniz, and you won’t find it in the other main proponents of the argument.  Therefore, it is unfair to pretend that refuting this silly argument (e.g. by asking “So what caused God?”) is relevant to determining whether the cosmological argument has any force.    

I’ve also noted other respects in which the cosmological argument is widely misrepresented.  Now, in response to these points, it seems to me that what a grownup would say is something like this: “Fair enough.  I agree that atheists should stop attacking straw men.  They should avoid glib and ill-informed dismissals.  They should acquaint themselves with what writers like Aristotle, Aquinas, Leibniz, et al. actually said and focus their criticisms on that.”  But it would appear that Jason Rosenhouse and Jerry Coyne are not grownups.  Their preferred response is to channel Pee-wee Herman:  “I know you are, but what am I?” is, for them, all the reply that is needed to the charge that New Atheists routinely misrepresent the cosmological argument.  

In particular, Rosenhouse, who is curiously silent on this charge -- though it is, after all, the point at issue -- has decided to change the subject.  Like the teenager who, when caught red-handed with the evidence of his drug use, responds by criticizing Mom and Dad’s drinking habits, Rosenhouse  works himself into an adolescent dudgeon over how I’ve allegedly misrepresented Robin Le Poidevin.  And how exactly have I misrepresented him?  That is never made clear.  I said that Le Poidevin presents a variation of the straw man as if it were “the basic” cosmological argument.  And he does.  I said that Le Poidevin presents the “more sophisticated versions” he considers later on in his book as “modifications” of that straw man.  And he does.  I did not deny that Le Poidevin addresses these more sophisticated versions.  I explicitly noted that he does.  Nor did I say that Le Poidevin claimed that Aristotle, Aquinas, Leibniz, et al. actually defended the straw man argument themselves.  Indeed, I quoted Le Poidevin as acknowledging that “no-one has defended a cosmological argument of precisely this form.”  Rather, I said that readers who are unfamiliar with what Aristotle, Aquinas, Leibniz, et al. actually wrote are liable to come away from a discussion like Le Poidevin’s with the false impression that what the major defenders of the cosmological argument are up to is, essentially, merely an attempt at a patch-up job on a manifestly feeble argument.  And I explicitly said that I was not claiming that Le Poidevin was deliberately trying to give this false impression, but rather that he should know better. 

So, again, how exactly did I misrepresent him?  It turns out that Rosenhouse’s real complaint, to the extent he has any, reduces to another adolescent trope.  My problem, you see, is that I need to lighten up.  I’m “overreacting” to what was merely a “pedagogical” exercise on Le Poidevin’s part.  Beginning his treatment of the cosmological argument with the straw man was simply Le Poidevin’s gentle way of ”introducing” a complicated topic to undergraduates.  

Well, we all know why this dodge won’t work.  Suppose a creationist writer began his exposition of Darwinism by presenting the claim that “Monkeys gave birth to humans” as “the basic” claim of the theory, of which the “more sophisticated versions” of Darwinism he would consider later were variants.  Naturally, he would have little trouble showing that this claim (which no Darwinist has ever made) is false.  But suppose he defended this odd approach as merely a “pedagogical” technique for “introducing” Darwinism to his readers.  And suppose he also held that any biologist who finds this procedure outrageous is merely “overreacting.”  Rosenhouse and Co. would, quite rightly, be unimpressed.  And neither should we be impressed by Rosenhouse’s lame defense of Le Poidevin. 

To be sure, Rosenhouse thinks he has preempted such a comparison: 

The claim that a monkey gave birth to a human is not an oversimplified version of Darwinism that might serve as a helpful stepping stone into a complex topic.  It is just a completely made up idea tossed off specifically to make evolution look foolish.  

But of course, this is no answer at all, but merely reinforces my point.  For the straw man version of the cosmological argument we’ve been discussing is no less a completely made up idea, one tossed off to make the cosmological argument look foolish.  How do we know this?  Well, here’s some pretty good evidence: First, as I keep pointing out -- and, you will note, as Rosenhouse and his ilk never deny (because they can hardly deny it) -- Aristotle, Aquinas, Leibniz, and the other prominent defenders of the cosmological argument never gave the straw man argument.  Second, the only people who ever do pay the straw man argument much attention are atheist critics of the cosmological argument, and they typically present precisely it as a reason to dismiss the cosmological argument as foolish.

So, the cases are parallel and Le Poidevin’s procedure is no more defensible than that of our imaginary creationist.  No doubt Rosenhouse, as is his wont, will at this point just stamp his foot some more.  “The cases are not parallel!  Are not!  Are not not not not not!” 

But then, Rosenhouse isn’t one to notice when he’s merely making unsupported assertions or begging the question.  For example, in an earlier post, he had written: 

Feser seems rather taken with [the cosmological argument], but there are many strong refutations to be found in the literature.  Off the top of my head, I found Mackie's discussion in The Miracle of Theism and Robin Le Poidevin's discussion in Arguing for Atheism to be both cogent and accessible. 

I then pointed out that this merely begged the question against defenders of the cosmological argument, which (given the context) it quite obviously does.  But the obvious is never obvious enough for Rosenhouse, who in his latest post writes: 

My point was simply that I think the cosmological argument is not very good, and that I think Mackie and Le Poidevin provided cogent and accessible refutations of it.  How could I have been clearer?  I have no idea what question I was begging by expressing those particular opinions. 

Well, Prof. Rosenhouse, here’s a clue:  Whether the cosmological argument is “not very good” and whether writers like Le Poidevin and Mackie have actually “refuted” it are precisely what is at issue between yourself and defenders of the cosmological argument like me.  And merely to assume some proposition which is at issue instead of arguing for it -- as you did when, in response to my advocacy of the cosmological argument, you asserted matter-of-factly that the argument had been “refuted” by the likes of Mackie and Le Poidevin -- is a textbook instance of what logicians call “begging the question.”  But then, in between all those volumes on Aquinas and Leibniz you haven’t read, it seems there are a few logic textbooks you haven’t gotten to either.

Those who are interested in other curious examples of undefended assertion are directed to the rest of Rosenhouse’s post.  But beyond providing us with Exhibit 2,345 of the Higher Cluelessness that is the New Atheism, Rosenhouse’s remarks on this controversy are absolutely devoid of interest.  As I’ve said, in response to the points I made in my earlier post, an atheist who is also a grownup would at least be happy to acknowledge that atheists should not attack straw men and should deal instead with what the major defenders of the cosmological argument actually said.  Yet Rosenhouse can’t even bring himself to do that much before launching into his botched “Gotcha!” exercise.  And that pretty much says it all.
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