Argumentum ad Himmlerum

Want to be a New Atheist blogger?  It’s easy!  Here’s how it works:

Step 1: Launch an unhinged, fallacious attack on your opponent, focusing your attention on arguments he has never given.

Step 2: Studiously ignore the arguments he actually has given.

Step 3: Declare victory and exchange high fives with your fellow New Atheists, as they congratulate you for your brilliance and erudition.

Step 4: When your opponent calls attention to this farcical procedure, accuse him of making unhinged, fallacious attacks on you.  Throw in the Myers Shuffle for good measure. 

Step 5: Exchange further high fives with your fellow New Atheists.

Step 6: Repeat 1 - 5 until your disconnect from reality is complete.

If you’re looking for a model, we’ve had reason of late to look at some examples (here, here, here, and here).   And then there are Eric MacDonald’s most recent remarks on my book The Last Superstition over at his blog Choice in Dying, and Jerry Coyne’s high five.

As anyone who has actually read it knows, I do not rely on arguments from authority in The Last Superstition.  Nowhere do I say anything of the form “Authority A says P; therefore, you should believe P.”  I do not rest my case on the Bible, or tradition, or the Church, or the personal authority of any philosopher or theologian.  It is true that I refer to the decree of the first Vatican Council to the effect that the existence of God can be proved through philosophical arguments.  But I do not do so to show that there really are such arguments; naturally, I am well aware that no atheist would be impressed by that.  The point of the citation was rather simply to note that the Catholic Church rejects fideism.  It is also true that I say a little in passing about how Christian theologians would defend the veracity of Christ and thus the reliability of His teaching.  I also express the opinion that the problem of evil is most satisfactorily dealt with in the context of Christian theology.  But I explicitly declined to pursue these matters there, because they are beyond the scope of the book.  The Last Superstition is fundamentally about natural theology and natural law rather than Christianity per se.  The arguments for God, the soul, and traditional morality are all philosophical in character, intended to stand on their own, apart from any appeal to theological authority.  Again, all of this is obvious to anyone who has actually read the book. 

Nevertheless, to hear MacDonald tell it, the book is really just one long argumentum ad verecundiam.  How can he make such an absurd accusation?  New Atheist blogger style, that’s how.  He simply ignores the arguments I actually gave in the book and attacks some figments of his own fevered imagination instead.  MacDonald has it absolutely on the brain that no one who believes in God (or, perhaps, at least no Catholic) can have genuine rational grounds for doing so.  The believer simply must be in thrall to some authority, unable to think for himself.  So, like Don Quixote, that is the windmill MacDonald is going to attack, the facts be damned.   

Exhibit A: Daniel Dennett is referred to many times in my book.  At pages 250-54 I set out some philosophical criticisms of Dennett’s account of biological function.  Elsewhere I explain how Dennett misrepresents the cosmological argument and point out some difficulties with the “meme” theory he adopts from Richard Dawkins.  MacDonald ignores all of this.  Instead he fixates on some remarks made about Dennett by Tadeusz Zawidzki and Michael Ruse that I quoted in some throwaway lines in the book, and insinuates that my “critique of Dennett” lay entirely in an appeal to the authority of Zawidzki and Ruse.  Since MacDonald doesn’t bother to respond to my own actual arguments against Dennett, I’m tempted to call this a straw man fallacy.  But that may be too generous, since he doesn’t really distort my arguments against Dennett.  He just pretends they don’t exist.   

Exhibit B: I devote many pages of the book to giving careful expositions of three of Aquinas’s arguments for the existence of God and defending them against objections.  I devote even more pages to setting out and defending the metaphysical background theses on which the arguments rest.  In none of these arguments do I appeal either to Aquinas’s authority or that of the Catholic Church; I try to show that the arguments are entirely defensible on philosophical grounds that could and should be accepted even by someone who is neither a Catholic nor otherwise impressed by Aquinas.  And what does MacDonald have to say by way of rational criticism of all of this?  Nothing at all.  His “reply” consists, first, in insisting that, since I am a Catholic and Aquinas has great prestige within Catholicism, my position simply must be a mere argument from authority; and second, in a long, bizarre rant about priests who molest children, ecclesiastical bureaucracy, gays, abortion, evolution, the emperor Theodosius, and Heinrich Himmler.  (Yes, Heinrich Himmler.  No, I don’t know when MacDonald started smoking crack.)

In short, MacDonald’s response to the argumentum ad verecundiam I never gave is a shameless circumstantial ad hominem fallacy coupled with a battery of red herrings and an especially crude argumentum ad Hitlerum.  Though I guess MacDonald thinks substituting Himmler for Hitler somehow makes him less than a complete hack.

Perhaps Choice in Lying would be a better title for MacDonald’s blog.  But maybe not, because MacDonald, like the other New Atheist types we’ve been discussing recently, appears to be so very far lost in his Quixotic battle with phantoms that he may really be unaware just how disconnected from reality he is.  Perhaps his eyes just don’t register what’s there on the page in front of him; all he can ever see are the clich├ęs he, Coyne, and other New Atheist psychotics bat around their echo chamber like Harding’s cigarette in Cuckoo’s Nest.  (Language warning on that YouTube clip for any underage readers out there.)

At least MacDonald’s screed is intelligible as the ravings of an embittered ex-believer.  Jerry Coyne’s gushing over it defies explanation.  To be sure, Coyne is not above some sophomoric fibbing of his own.  He seems awful keen on establishing a meme to the effect that I am “notorious for claiming that one can’t truly understand [the cosmological] argument without reading at least six books and seven articles, two of which of course, are by Feser himself.”  But I never said any such thing.  What I said was that “to understand the Five Ways, the modern reader needs to read something that makes [the metaphysical] background clear, that explains how modern Thomists would reply to the stock objections to the arguments, and so forth.”  And I gave my book Aquinas as an example of the sort of thing that did this job -- just as Coyne would no doubt recommend his own recent book on evolution to someone who asked him to recommend a good general introduction to that subject.  I then went on to offer some further suggestions for anyone who wanted to pursue the subject of the cosmological argument in greater depth.  But I never said one had to read all of these things before he could even understand the argument.

Still, one would think that even Coyne -- who is, as we have seen, at least a notch higher than Dawkins, Myers et al. on the intellectual honesty scale -- would be embarrassed by so pathetic a resort to the Hitler card.  Yet Coyne regards MacDonald’s multiply fallacious blather as “serious arguments” by a “serious man,” indeed “a treasure” who is “worth dozens of Fesers.”  Because, you know, a really serious reply to the Aristotelian argument from motion (say) is to compare someone who defends it to Heinrich Himmler.

Well, I don’t know what to say to that.  But I do know what to hum.
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