Friday, December 17, 2010

How not to argue

onlythesangfroid (hereinafter OTSF) doesn't appear to like my recent post on the infantilism of religion. Really, the post is a veritable bonanza of a moronic attempts at argumentation.

The stupidity starts with the title: "If there really was [sic] a God here, He would have raised a hand by now… the infantilism of atheist moaning." Infantilism has a fairly straightforward meaning: "the persistence in an adult of markedly childish anatomical, physiological, or psychological characteristics." In my original post, I'm using the term precisely: the practice of "wishing makes it so", which is specifically and markedly childish. Commentary and criticism, even if it's mistaken, is not "infantile". (OTSF, as he's commenting on and criticizing my own article, would have to admit his own "infantilism"; indeed he should accuse everyone who engages in criticism of "infantilism".)

He goes on to mischaracterize my position, saying that I believe religion "means ignoring reality and concentrating more on our ‘preferences, hopes, fears, dreams, and wishes’ than on ‘reality’." What I actually said was, "Comforting yourself by wishing reality were some definite way is the essence of "wishing makes it so" infantilism... our preferences, hopes, fears, dreams, and wishes have no effect on reality except through our actions." One wonders if OTSF successfully completed elementary school, where students typically learn how to read and comprehend simple declarative sentences in the English language.

He goes on to complain that I'm simply assuming I'm correct: "Concentrate more on his assumption that he knows what reality is and religious people do not." 'Tis true, I must admit, that in that particular post I do not make the specific case that skeptical atheists do in fact know more about reality than theists. But OTSF appears to miss two rather obvious items of context. First, I'm commenting on a specific post where Eden Ellis explicitly asserts that it is unreasonable to change her beliefs only because they provide meaning and purpose. If Ms. Ellis were to be correct (which she is not), she would be correct only by accident.

Second, OTSF fails to apprehend the nature of blog posts; perhaps he did not notice the "" hostname in the URL. Blog posts typically refer implicitly to the body of work on the blog, as well as positions that are common knowledge. I have written extensively about meta-ethical subjective relativism (which applies mutatis mutandis to other forms of subjectivism, including meaning and purpose), and it is common knowledge that skeptical atheists have argued extensively that we do indeed understand reality better than theists. If OTSF wishes to engage either body of argumentation, he's free to do so, but to complain it's not been explicitly included in an isolated blog post goes beyond disingenuity to willful obtusity and intellectual dishonesty.

OTSF goes on in that vein for a few paragraphs; it's noteworthy that he presents himself as a counter-example: "What’s weird is that I’m an atheist and I don’t think meaning and value are self legislated in this way." Again, OTSF seems ignorant of the prosaic principle of charity. When one is speaking of groups of people, especially a group as broadly defined as atheists, one should be read as making generalizations, not absolute universals. That some random atheist happens to disagree — especially one with the moral and intellectual failings OTSF displays — is not particularly relevant.

To be fair, I could have been more explicit: The fundamental principle of atheism is the rejection of ethical and epistemic authority: even if there were some form of objective values, meaning or purpose, they must be knowable to each and every person capable of rational thought. Pushing meaning, value, purpose and suchlike specifically to God means sacrificing at least epistemic autonomy: knowledge about God is available only by revelation, and the specific character — even the presence or absence — of divine revelation seems... er... enormously differential.

Also, OTSF again misrepresents my position: "The position assumes that there is not an objective value landscape because, in the mind of the Barefoot Bum, only God could create an objective value landscape." (I'm assuming that the odd construction "objective value landscape" means what it appears to mean.) However, this is nowhere near my position, and in fact it's rather insulting characterization of my reasoning:
P1: Only God could create an objective value landscape
P2: I believe there is no God
C: There is no objective value landscape
But OTSF ignores that I've written extensively on precisely what I believe about value objectivity and subjectivity, and it does not derive in any way from my atheism; my beliefs about value subjectivity as well as my atheism stem from my skepticism. Furthermore, I should note that God — at least not the personal God most theists seem to believe — cannot create an objective value landscape; properties of a personal being are subjective by definition.

(OTSF also makes the incomprehensible "argument" — at considerable length — that one could assert the contrary to my position.)

Finally, OTSF seems to reveal his own lack of skepticism.
Theists charge atheists with ignoring reality (that God exists). Atheists charge theists with ignoring reality (that God does not exist). The difference is that theists have an intellectually credible argument (bald naturalism is untenable) while atheists are correct (God doesn’t exist).
OTSF appears to be saying here that theists have a good argument, while the atheists are correct. At best, if theists really do have an intellectually credible argument, one should be an undecided agnostic. I have to bend over backwards here to charitably assume that OTSF would admit that atheists have some sort of intellectually credible argument, even if "bald naturalism" (as opposed to what, hairy naturalism?) really were untenable (which it's not). If OTSF does not admit any intellectually credible arguments for atheism (which we might infer from the fact that he claims that theists' intellectually credible argument is a difference), then he himself is just as deluded as any theist; he holds the correct position only by pure accident.)

It really is true that sometimes an atheist is a person with one fewer stupid ideas than a theist. In this case, onlythesangfroid seems to hold one fewer stupid idea than the bottom quartile of theists.

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