Respectful Insolence

The Zombie Courtier’s reply

After having pontificated a bit longer than perhaps I should have about why Richard Dawkins’ treatment of the execution of Saddam Hussein as a missed opportunity for psychological or historical research was so misguided, I thought it might be time to take a more pro-Dawkins tilt. After all, even though the majority of my posts about Richard Dawkins have been critical, on balance I do admire the man; it’s just that he has a maddening penchant for using historical analogies that make me want to tear my hair out.

A while back, PZ posted something that he called The Courtier’s Reply. In essence The Courtier’s Reply (and, PZ argues and Dawkins seems to agree, much of the criticism of Dawkins with regard to religion consists of variants of The Courtier’s Reply) is that Dawkins is a rude upstart who doesn’t understand the finer points of theology and thus doesn’t have the necessary background to attack religion in general. In other words, goes The Courtier’s Reply, what Dawkins is actually attacking is a rude and crude version of religion, while the Courtier understands the real thing.

The Courtier’s Reply is a pretty good parody, but it could be better–much better. And what better way to improve it than to add zombies? Zombies, after all, may be just as put off by the anti-zombie books written by Max Brooks, such as The Zombie Survival Guide (which I’ve read and found hilarious) and World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War (which I got for Christmas but haven’t yet had the opportunity to read).

There could indeed be zombies out there who could produce what we might properly call The Courtier Zombie’s Reply, and I’ve actually found one, via an incoming link:

Azombism has lately been enjoying a certain vogue. Spurred on by the success of anti-zombie books such as those by Max Brooks, militant azombists have become emboldened and are increasing their attacks against the very practice of zombism itself. However, in doing so, they reveal their profound and willful ignorance of the deeper nuances of the undead lifestyle.

Heh. Sound familiar? There’s more:

These “new azombists” simply argue against the worst examples of our brain-eating fellow zombies. What they fail to recognise while attacking these fundamentalist zombies is that many zombies practise more complex and subtle forms of zombism. I, personally, have never eaten a brain, nor have many of my zombie friends, yet brain-eating is one of the main complaints of the azombists.

“Worst examples”? Hey, a certain undead Führer is not pleased by that remark. And, as always, he’s very, very hungry. He may have to pay a certain courtier a visit, even if that courtier never did use an over-the-top Hitler analogy. Still, this Courtier Zombie has a point:

Their counter-argument is that moderate zombies like myself still spread the zombie parasite, providing “cover” for the fundamentalist brain-eater zombies and creating new zombies who might in the future lean towards brain-eating. This is absurd! I myself have been known to occasionally glower with disapprobation when one of my fellow zombies finds a stray feral human and cracks open her brain case. Others claim is that the simple act of bringing humans into our fold is a form of “indoctrination” or “human abuse” since the zombie bite is, of course, 100% effective when administered and completely irreversible. Can we help it? We simply have found a philosophy that gives our lives great meaning, namely the slaking of our implacable hunger for human flesh.

The Courtier Zombie then goes on to wax rhapsodic about the finer points of zombism, particularly the great zombie philosopher Petrosjko (whose attempts to discuss philosophy and architecture with his fellow zombies and even with his human prey somehow just didn’t work out that well), and how militant azombists just don’t understand.

All of this just goes to show that almost anything can be improved by the addition of zombies(or is it adding dinosaurs?), unless, of course, you happen to be on the receiving end of their tender ministrations or have not had your olfactory bulb burned out so that you don’t notice the smell of rotting flesh.

Either way, nothing against PZ, but I like the Zombie Courtier’s Reply better than the Courtier’s Reply, for what I consider to be obvious reasons.

ADDENDUM:

Looks like I’m not ready enough, should there ever be a zombie outbreak. Looks like I need to reread The Zombie Survival Guide.



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Comments

  1. #1 Joshua
    January 10, 2007

    Yikes! Thanks for the judicious linking, Orac. =)

    By the way, I listened to the audio book of World War Z while traveling over the holidays. It’s amazing. I haven’t had a chance to check the book itself yet, which I’m sure will be even better (the audio version was abridged), but the audio book has two things over the book automatically: Alan Alda and Mark Hamill! Seriously!

  2. #2 Mustafa Mond, FCD
    January 10, 2007

    And what better way to improve it than to add zombies?

    You could go for hte hat trick, and add zombies, pirates and ninjas!

  3. #3 RPM
    January 10, 2007

    Didn’t you get the memo: zombies cannot exist.

  4. #4 wolfwalker
    January 10, 2007

    I wasn’t terribly impressed with Myers’s “Courtier’s Reply,” for one simple reason: his use of it is hypocritical in the extreme. How many times has he — or you, or any defender-of-science — used an almost identical argument to turn back an assault by pseudoscientists? Myers and his colleagues do it to anti-evolutionists all the time. You do it to alties all the time. At least three-fourths of all science-defense posts I see on the Web boil down to “you’re attacking a crude strawman version of the theory, so your criticism has no merit. If you bothered to study what the theory really says, as we scientists have, then you’d understand it better just as we do.” Tell me, how is that any different from Myers’s “Courtier’s Reply?”

  5. #5 Bronze Dog
    January 10, 2007

    The difference:

    1. All faith suffers from the same inherent flaw: It doesn’t rely on evidence.

    2. Science says what the evidence leads it to say. For example, the straw man of complete randomness in regards to evolution/cosmology: There’s no one that advocates that, and no evidence to suggest it. Thus, when someone makes that “argument” it is outright dishonest. With religion, there’s always someone who advocates a type of silliness that needs attacking. There are also people who aren’t subject to that particular attack, and use that as an excuse to ignore the arguments that do apply to them.

  6. #6 Mustafa Mond, FCD
    January 10, 2007

    Tell me, how is that any different from Myers’s “Courtier’s Reply?”

    Science actually contains some substance. There are actual theories, and actual evidence to support them, which I’m sure PZ would be happy to go over in detail for any given example. Our emperor is very stylishly dressed.

    Now then, those who claim that theology has some actual substance that Dawkins is not equipped to address always seem to stop short of actually pointing out any substance.

  7. #7 Mustafa Mond, FCD
    January 10, 2007

    At least three-fourths of all science-defense posts I see on the Web boil down to “you’re attacking a crude strawman version of the theory, so your criticism has no merit. If you bothered to study what the theory really says, as we scientists have, then you’d understand it better just as we do.”

    I guess you don’t hang out at the same sites I do. On scienceblogs.com and pandasthumb.org, I expect to be shown the evidence, complete with references, and I am usually not disappointed.

  8. #8 Blaine
    January 10, 2007

    Wolfwalker,

    You are forgetting one critical distinction between the two arguments. Theology, alternative medicine, evolution denial, holocaust denial, or any other denial of science and history is faith based and does not care about having any evidence whatsoever. It does not matter how simple nor complex the argument for religion or god is, the basic premise is flawed and unprovable either way. No amount of study will change that fact.

    Evidence based medicine or any other scientific endeavor on the other hand does have evidence and facts on its side. When Dawkins, Myers, etc…argue against religiosity and faith they are not attacking a specific theological structure. They are attacking the root of religion and superstition, namely, faith. Faith and reason are incompatible and it is this failure of faith that is the target of outspoken humanists and atheists. Proponents of science and reason do not attack just one specific theology in order to claim a win against all possible theologies. They attack the core common thread to all theologies and superstitions in order to show the dangers inherent in any given belief structure.

    When believers attack science and evidence they typically do so using a flawed understanding of whatever they are trying to disprove. This is why it is fair to say that believers argue from ignorance. Facts are facts and there are things that we do know to a very high degree of certainty . To avoid these facts or to obfuscate the truth of what we know in order to support something for which there is no evidence is a betrayal of reason, intelligence, and our responsibility to humanity.

    Anyway that’s enough for now….

  9. #9 Michael Ralston
    January 10, 2007

    The distinction is that Dawkins’ criticisms of religion aren’t affected by the finer points of theology.

    If Dawkins was attacking Catholicism because the Trinity was “too complicated”, then the Courtier’s Reply of “Well, you don’t know the finer points of the matter” would be on topic.

    Dawkins attacks religion by saying “There’s no reason to believe any of this.” which simply can’t be refuted by the theological literature; all of that presumes there’s a reason to believe, then proceeds to determine what, specifically, to believe. A valid “go read the literature” response to Dawkins would be “Go read about these documented miracles; can you explain them in a non-miraculous fashion?”

    That’d be much, much closer to the way IDists get presented with the literature. It doesn’t happen, because the only well-documented “miracles” are easily-explainable and frequently turn out to be fraud.

  10. #10 Brian
    January 10, 2007

    Well, to be honest, Meyers’ Courtier’s reply wasn’t all that impressive – more amusing for people who already understand the problem. (I liked it)

    The difference that you fail to grasp, wolfwalker, lies in that you cannot attack evolution (or indeed any other major scientific theory) without addressing the empirical evidence that supports it. Thus any straw-man attack on evolution is insufficient because empirical facts are being ignored.

    An attack on religion, on the other hand, need not address all the theology of that (or any) religion for the simple reason that said theology does not contain any evidence of it’s own validity. Once one concludes that there is no reason to believe that God exists, and all the theology in the world, however subtle, sophisticated, or brilliant in it’s construction, becomes entirely superfluous. Theology may be extremely good at sorting out meaning from it’s first principles, but it provides no proof of those principles, and thus engaging it as a means of finding proof or disproof of God is futile.

    Because all aspects of evolutionary theory are based upon evidence – indeed, exist only because there is some evidence to support their inception – one must account for all aspects of it before one can disprove it.

  11. #11 Brian
    January 10, 2007

    Ouch – dogpile…

  12. #12 Mustafa Mond, FCD
    January 10, 2007

    Zombie pile.

  13. #13 Michael Ralston
    January 10, 2007

    I didn’t mean to dogpile. But when I started writing my response, nobody else had responded yet. Oops.

  14. #14 Brian
    January 10, 2007

    Same here…

  15. #15 wolfwalker
    January 10, 2007

    More like a squirrelpile. Ever seen squirrels try to pile on a wolf? Ain’t pretty … for the squirrels. ;-)

    Orr’s criticism of Dawkins is not that Dawkins attacks religion. Orr says that Dawkins attacks religion without knowing the facts about what he’s attacking. There are a great many simpleminded criticisms of religion — religion in general, and specific religions in particular — that are based on misconceptions about religion, and when the facts about that religion are known, the criticism is shown to be invalid. I present a simple example, from my own experience:

    The Sixth Commandment (Exodus 20:13) is typically rendered in English as “Thou shalt not kill.” That translation of it goes back at least as far as the King James Bible, and possibly to the Vulgate. I’ve seen a lot of non-Christians malign Christians (and Jews) as hypocritical for being in favor of war and of the death penalty when they also claim to follow the Commandments. I admit I thought that once. I’d be surprised if no one reading this had not also thought so. It really seems to be an obvious contradiction.

    Except …

    If you go all the way back, as far back as it’s possible to trace the Book of Exodus, you find something interesting. In the original Hebrew, the Sixth Commandment (Exodus 20:12) is written as “Thou shalt not murder.” Murder, not kill. Two different words, two different concepts.

    On one level, of course, this shows that Christianity has a real problem with bad translations of its holy scripture. On another level, though, it shows that criticism based on inadequate knowledge is a good way to end up with egg on your face. In reality, there’s no contradiction at all between fighting a war (a defensive war, at least) and obeying the Sixth Commandment.

    Now, it’s entirely possible that Dawkins could be as great an expert on Scripture as the Pope, as fine an interpreter of Torah as the finest rabbi, as skilled and experienced in reading the Koran as Grand Ayatollah al-Sistani, and still think it’s all a load of garbage. That’s his right. But if he’s basing his criticism of Christianity on an argument as simplistic and ultimately wrong as “you can’t support war and still keep the Sixth Commandment,” why then he’s making a bad argument, based on inadequate knowledge, and no one should take him or his arguments seriously.

    I’ve seen creationists make this mistake with evolutionary theory more times than I can count (and I can count pretty high). I’ve also had them give me the “courtier’s reply” brush-off. It’s always wrong when they do it. If it’s wrong for their side, it’s wrong for our side too. Orr says that that’s exactly what Dawkins is doing. If Orr is wrong, then it should be easy to demonstrate. If Orr is right, then it’s Dawkins who’s been caught in a state of dishabille, and claiming he’s wearing a thousand-dollar suit isn’t going to change that.

  16. #16 Coin
    January 10, 2007

    A while back, PZ posted something that he called The Courtier’s Reply. In essence The Courtier’s Reply (and, PZ argues and Dawkins seems to agree, much of the criticism of Dawkins with regard to religion consists of variants of The Courtier’s Reply) is that Dawkins is a rude upstart who doesn’t understand the finer points of theology and thus doesn’t have the necessary background to attack religion in general.

    Right, whatever. In other words, PZ invented some term to justify his perceived right to make straw man arguments.

    Now, the funny thing is, this “Courtier’s reply” thing, if it is a real fallacy of some sort, is actually one that PZ’s crowd hangs on as much as anybody else. Go into one of these blog posts that have littered scienceblogs.com for the last couple months since PZ started his Dawkins’ Bulldog routine, and scroll down to about the fiftieth reply. The discussion very very often goes like this, abridged:

    “This Dawkins crowd is being a bunch of assholes.”

    “You’re just not understanding what they’re saying!”

    Like most of the things they’re saying, this “Courtiers’ Reply” thing is just a double standard where the Dawkins crowd is reserving the right to engage in behavior they denounce in others. If religion is to be judged based on the lowest common denominator of it and its adherents rather than any individual thing it says, then surely Dawkins can be treated the same way. But instead we have this little blog commenter army simultaneously sneering at the idea that they should have to understand something before attacking it, while at the same time haughtily insisting everyone else should understand their own arguments perfectly despite a complete lack of effort on their part to explain themselves exactly or clearly. Like most religious fanatics, they believe that they are freed from rigor of thought or argument just because they are right.

    But, of course, whether or not PZ and Dawkins are right is entirely beside the point. The point is:

    1. They’re assholes
    2. They’re annoying
    3. They’re boring

    And these three points entirely overshadow whatever it is they’re trying to say, especially considering that they’re making this site– which one would think was a site for blogs about science– nigh unreadable. I for one don’t appreciate being preached at, not even by people whose religious views I share.

  17. #17 Coin
    January 10, 2007

    The Sixth Commandment (Exodus 20:13) is typically rendered in English as “Thou shalt not kill.” That translation of it goes back at least as far as the King James Bible, and possibly to the Vulgate. I’ve seen a lot of non-Christians malign Christians (and Jews) as hypocritical for being in favor of war and of the death penalty when they also claim to follow the Commandments. I admit I thought that once. I’d be surprised if no one reading this had not also thought so. It really seems to be an obvious contradiction.

    Except.

    If you go all the way back, as far back as it’s possible to trace the Book of Exodus, you find something interesting. In the original Hebrew, the Sixth Commandment (Exodus 20:12) is written as “Thou shalt not murder.” Murder, not kill. Two different words, two different concepts.

    Uh. Well, the thing is though, I think an important distinction to make is that while this hair-splitting distinction you make here is certainly enough to clear “Christianity” from the criticism you set up as a generalization, there are still plenty of individual Christians and Christian groups that the criticism still applies to fully. The detail that “kill” didn’t say “kill” in the earliest translations doesn’t help anyone who isn’t using or looking at those earliest translations– KJV literalists and such aren’t willing to rethink their positions on most other biblical issues in light of weird or possibly-ambiguous translations, so it would be in that particular case highly weaselly for someone in that particular group to try to appeal to weird translation to try to justify a pro-killing stance.

    Meanwhile, I’m not entirely sure the fix for this criticism really helps things much. Maybe not everyone would agree here but I don’t think “Christianity says its okay to kill– no, really!” would be a point in its favor. ^_^

  18. #18 wolfwalker
    January 10, 2007

    Coin wrote:

    Well, the thing is though, I think an important distinction to make is that while this hair-splitting distinction you make here is certainly enough to clear “Christianity” from the criticism you set up as a generalization, there are still plenty of individual Christians and Christian groups that the criticism still applies to fully.

    I agree. I wasn’t trying to argue otherwise. My point was that if Dawkins is arguing from invalid premises, then his arguments and conclusion are also invalid. His conclusion may in fact be true, but he hasn’t proved it.

    Ask yourself this: What, exactly, is Dawkins trying to prove? Is it:

    1) that some individuals have done evil things in the name of specific religions?

    2) that those religions actively condoned those acts and are therefore evil themselves?

    3) that those religions lack any rational basis for their beliefs?

    or

    4) that the very concept of religion — any religion, based on any conceivable set of premises — will always be flawed and false, and can never be anything else?

    Which of those is he trying to prove? Which of them does he claim to have proved? Which of them can he actually prove?

  19. #19 Coin
    January 10, 2007

    OK, sure, I’ll agree with that then.

  20. #20 stogoe
    January 10, 2007

    I’d say #1 and #2 are easily proved, and have been. The pope’s support of the nazis, for example (…Brains…) #3 religion happily concedes, finding it a strong point in their theological dissection of Thine Emperor’s Mystical Underoos.

    #4 is a bit tougher, and I don’t know if you could ‘prove’ it, although any conceivable religion I could come up with honestly starts with “I don’t know what’s going on, so I made some shit up. It’s true because I said so/took some drugs.” I could certainly be persuaded to trust the conclusion of #4 with a high degree of certainty with enough evidence, however.

    As for the dogpile, it seems the proponents of Thine Emperor’s Mystical Underoos are none the worse for wear after the evidence-pile. I say pile back on!

  21. #21 J. J. Ramsey
    January 10, 2007

    One problem with the Courtier’s Reply is that it implicitly compares a negative that is trivial to establish by just looking (the emperor’s nudity) with a negative that is far less trivial to establish (the lack of a god).

    * Now so long as someone is just criticizing Dawkins for not reading something irrelevant to his arguments, this is of no consequence.

    * However, if someone is criticizing Dawkins for not getting his arguments right, then the Courtier’s Reply becomes a dismissive straw man because the whole issue becomes about whether Dawkins has established that the emperor is naked, not about the nature of the emperor’s imaginary clothes.

    * If someone criticizes Dawkins for doing things that make his audience less receptive to the arguments he does get right, the Courtier’s Reply is again a dismissive straw man, since now the problem is that Dawkins has made it harder for people to believe him when he says the emperor is naked.

  22. #22 wolfwalker
    January 10, 2007

    stogoe wrote:

    I’d say #1 and #2 are easily proved, and have been. The pope’s support of the nazis, for example (…Brains…) #3 religion happily concedes, finding it a strong point in their theological dissection of Thine Emperor’s Mystical Underoos.

    On #1, we agree. On #2, I think it depends on the circumstances, although there can be little doubt that some religions have at times condoned, connived at, and outright taken extremely evil actions.

    With #3, we slide onto uncertain ground. After all, how do you decide what is or is not “a rational basis for their beliefs?” Ever looked seriously at Zen Buddhism?

    I’ll tell you this, after years of hunting for a job in what should be a wide-open market and coming up empty time after time for some of the screwiest reasons you ever heard, and never the same reason twice, I’m half ready to believe Somebody Up There doesn’t like me — and most people who know me well think I’m an atheist.

    As for #4, I gently suggest that no honest scientist should be able to assert its truth with a clear conscience. It’s one proposition to which the old saw about “you can’t prove a negative” applies with a vengeance. Science can address the evidence for or against a religion, but it can’t address the truth about a religion. Truth is the province of philosophy and theology, not science.

  23. #23 jw
    January 11, 2007

    I agree. I wasn’t trying to argue otherwise. My point was that if Dawkins is arguing from invalid premises, then his arguments and conclusion are also invalid.

    Actually, I think this is the point that people have been trying to make about not needing to understand Theology. If Dawkins has found an invalid premise, then all of the complicated theological arguments are wrong and there’s no reason to address them.

  24. #24 Bronze Dog
    January 11, 2007

    Exactly, jw.

    The invalid/disputed premise upon which theology is based: “God exists”

  25. #25 Prup aka Jim Benton
    January 11, 2007

    Some very interesting points and some nonsense, I’m afraid. I tend to be on the anti-Dawkins side, in general, maybe because I am an ateist who finds religion and theology fascinating enough to find out what these groups say and the arguments they actually bring forth. (One thing is that these religions, the more solidly grounded of them, have been dealing with these arguments for centuries. They have their answers, unconvincing to us, perhaps, but convincing to believers. I much prefer to throw new arguments into the mix, which is also why I prefer the direction that is exemplified by John Loftus and the group at Debunking Christianity. (That’s http://debunkingchristianity.blogspot.com/
    btw) The people there have been ministers, apologists, and theology students, have answered the ‘simple arguments’ in their studies, but have then stepped back and seen the nonsense involved in the whole structure.

    (They are also much more tolerant of believers, and give them their say before answering them.)

    One final point here. The idea that ‘religion involves faith’ and science doesn’t’ is, sadly, inherent nonsense. ANY logical structure involves certain postulates that are taken on faith. We make the following UNPROVABLE assumptions that we ‘take on faith:’

    That the Universe exists independently of our, or any person’s, perception of it;
    That there is a consistent relationship between that Universe and our perceptions of it;
    That this relationship is, within broad bounds, consistent over time, space, and persons (that is, that the ‘scientific laws’ it seems to obey are as true on Mizar VII as on Earth, that the world worked ‘the same way’ 2000 or 2000000000 years ago, and that if a person claims to be having ‘unrepeatable perceptions’ that the rest of us do not share, that person is wrong and deluded).

    These are the statements we, in our totally well-founded belief in the truth of science, both share and accept on faith. But none of them is inherently true. Solipsism is undisproveable, as are variants — that we are merely characters in a video game, for example. The Universe COULD have been created five minutes ago complete with evidence — including our memories — of a past history. Our perceptions of reality COULD create chages in it — so that our disbelief in miracles could be the reason for them not occuring today rather than the reverse. The people who saw ‘the Sun dance at Fatima,’ could have been perceiving accurately, and the rest of us could be wrong.
    I don’t accept any of these alternatives, but I am aware that my assumptions are ‘acts of faith.’

  26. #26 wolfwalker
    January 11, 2007

    If Dawkins has found an invalid premise, then all of the complicated theological arguments are wrong and there’s no reason to address them.

    Agreed.

    Now, let’s apply the exact same series of questions to his claim that we all apply to any anti-evolution claim by any creationist, or Orac applies to any altie. Has either Dawkins or anybody who agrees with him proven that he’s found an invalid premise in his target subject (theology)? If so, then what is it? Why is it flawed? Does the claim of a flaw hold up under scrutiny by objective experts in the subject? And even if it does, how does Dawkins get from that to his ultimate conclusion, that the concept of religion is inherently flawed and evil?

  27. #27 stogoe
    January 11, 2007

    You want us to tell you why ‘God exists’ is a flawed and invalid premise?

    I don’t have time to gather the links in this lifetime, unfortunately, but at least recognize that the impetus is on the positive assertion to show evidence of its validity. All theology starts with this unsupported and hidden assumption, and thus, it is all invalid.

    Science’s base premise is ‘reality is coherently observable’. All experimentation after that provides evidence that supports this assumption.

    If no gods exist, then worshipping them is a futile waste of time. The effort expended in debating the Mystical Underoos and their properties could have been much better used in almost any other direction for net positive quality of living. Such a monumental waste of minds and effort may not be ‘evil’, but to me it is definitely one of the more harmful human endeavors.

  28. #28 rrt
    January 11, 2007

    The idea that ‘religion involves faith’ and science doesn’t’ is, sadly, inherent nonsense.

    Prup, I agree with the general point you make following the above. But I often see this used to argue what I would consider a false equivalence between religious faith and science’s basic assumptions.

  29. #29 Coin
    January 11, 2007

    One final point here. The idea that ‘religion involves faith’ and science doesn’t’ is, sadly, inherent nonsense. ANY logical structure involves certain postulates that are taken on faith. We make the following UNPROVABLE assumptions that we ‘take on faith:’

    You are wrong. Assuming something is not the same thing as having faith in it.

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