Pharyngula

The two-step of terrific triviality

John Holbo has devised a wonderfully useful coinage (don’t be afraid to follow that link! It’s only two paragraphs; he’ll have to work it over for a few more weeks to expand it to Holbonian mass) that he applies to Jonah Goldberg’s intellectual evasiveness.

To put it another way, Goldberg is making a standard rhetorical move which has no accepted name, but which really needs one. I call it ‘the two-step of terrific triviality’. Say something that is ambiguous between something so strong it is absurd and so weak that it would be absurd even to mention it. When attacked, hop from foot to foot as necessary, keeping a serious expression on your face. With luck, you will be able to generate the mistaken impression that you haven’t been knocked flat, by rights. As a result, the thing that you said which was absurdly strong will appear to have some obscure grain of truth in it. Even though you have provided no reason to think so.

Hey, that sounds familiar! John Quiggin also notices its utility in the
nature-nurture debate. It’s an easy dance to elicit, too: find someone who’s trying to defend his daily prayers to a personal, loving god against a Dawkins-like assault, and you’ll see heels hammering like machine guns as they try to defend the Big Man in the Sky with philosophical abstractions and appeals to Ineffable Existence. Bring castanets and you could call it a flamenco!

Comments

  1. #1 Ed Darrell
    April 14, 2007

    I’m not sure there needs to be an intellectual defense of religion. In fact, much of the time apologists get into difficulty, and say the craziest, oddest and least Christian-like things, in a futile search to find intellectual justification, especially against something that does have evidence behind it, like geology, or biology.

    Which is not to say there is no intellectual justification for religion, only that science is an unlikely place to find it much. We are a social species, after all, as are many living things (including some trees, it appears). We are not robots whose gear wear, short circuits, and dirty oil can explain all dysfunction, nor whose engineering in the first place can explain all function.

    Do you really need an intellectual justification for your love of pirates, P.Z.? Isn’t any such justification challenged, or perhaps nullified, by the evils of piracy? But neither do you offer your pirate fetish as an answer to great questions of the day, nor especially of all great questions of today and forevermore.

    Any thing or philosophy that calls us to act contrary to our best interests at the moment needs a powerful justification. Vaccines and tooth cavity filling are painful, but they produce significant medical benefits downstream. We endure the pain for the benefit.

    I think where organized religion — or disorganized religion as much of it is today* — runs off the rails is in trying to find “evidence” of a scientific nature to justify faith. If we had evidence, faith would not be necessary. If we had Jesus’ empty tomb, the deed to Jesus’ summer place with Jesus’ signature, photos of the miracles, investigative reports of the healings by the Mayo Clinic certifying that there is no medical explanation other than miracle, and if Jesus had a weekly television program beamed in from different pulsars, we’d all be agnostics, functioning on what the evidence is, and not on faith.

    Religion goes bad, often, when it tries to claim we can be agnostic since the evidence is in.

    Of course, if we say it’s faith, then a Dawkins-like assault is relatively ineffective.

    That so many religionists react so strongly to Dawkins-like assaults suggests they lack the faith they claim to be under attack.

    Holbo is on to something. Are we sure Aristotle didn’t have a name for that? (Here’s an area where John Angus Campbell should actually have some expertise — has he weighed in?)

  2. #2 Sastra
    April 14, 2007

    Is the existence of God more like “the love of pirates” or is it more like “the existence of pirates?” Is God supposed to be a positive feeling some people have — or is it supposed to be a Spiritual Being, a disembodied Intelligence, towards whom some people have positive feelings?

    Hate to say it, but sounds like someone is doing a bit of a two-step here.

  3. #3 Torbjörn Larsson
    April 14, 2007

    Which is not to say there is no intellectual justification for religion, only that science is an unlikely place to find it much.

    The lesson from Dawkins et al is that science debunks most concepts of religion.

    I could go one step further than perhaps Dawkins does and say that science casts deism as dubious. The safe zone seems to be somewhere around where some pantheists claims that godhood is love or some other emotion. But at that time it seems to be simplest to drop the double meaning.

    FWIW, that’s always been my reaction to the Anthropic Principle in cosmology.

    It is indeed a possible way of using AP. The Tautological AP would be absurd even to mention it, the Strong AP is so strong it is absurd (or rather equivalently, is religiously motivated).

    The other way is to make a definition up front and stick with it. This is what papers using AP does, most often with the physically plausible Weak AP. It is even possible to drop the anthropic condition and use neutral definitions of physics allowing observers (environmental principles).

  4. #4 Torbjörn Larsson
    April 14, 2007

    Which is not to say there is no intellectual justification for religion, only that science is an unlikely place to find it much.

    The lesson from Dawkins et al is that science debunks most concepts of religion.

    I could go one step further than perhaps Dawkins does and say that science casts deism as dubious. The safe zone seems to be somewhere around where some pantheists claims that godhood is love or some other emotion. But at that time it seems to be simplest to drop the double meaning.

    FWIW, that’s always been my reaction to the Anthropic Principle in cosmology.

    It is indeed a possible way of using AP. The Tautological AP would be absurd even to mention it, the Strong AP is so strong it is absurd (or rather equivalently, is religiously motivated).

    The other way is to make a definition up front and stick with it. This is what papers using AP does, most often with the physically plausible Weak AP. It is even possible to drop the anthropic condition and use neutral definitions of physics allowing observers (environmental principles).

  5. #5 JoeB
    April 14, 2007

    I am reading “Richard Dawkins: How a Scientist Changed the Way We Think–Reflections by scientists, writers, and philosophers”, Edited by Alan Grafen and Mark Ridley, Oxford, 2006. Contributor Richard Harries (identified in the contributor list as Rt Revd Bishop of Oxford) lauds Dawkins as a fellow humanist, but he seems puzzled by his antipathy to religion. So he essays to explain; here is an excerpt:
    A theologian will want to see this phenomenon ["shuddering before the beautiful", Dawkins quoting Chandrasekhar]as grounded in a reality that lies beyond the visible universe. The fact that mathematicians look for and discover equations of extraordinary elegance and beauty, and that these enable scientists to explore the true nature of physical reality, seems to cry out for an explanation. The religious explanation is that the human mind and the way the universe reveals its secrets to rational exploration is grounded in the logos, the divine rationality and ordering of all things. There is no final compelling logical proof that can take this step for us. Nor, on the other hand, is there any finally compelling philosophical or scientific reason why that step should not be taken. (I will be merciful, and stop quoting here)
    ******************
    I would like to read the above to the Geico caveman. After each sentence, I would pause, the cave man would exhibit a pained exasperated look, and say, “…..What!?”
    The “logos” sentence is a classic. There is a religious explanation for the way all godless scientists do their work–they just don’t know it! The author is kind enough to tell us what logos means: divine rationality…..What!?

  6. #6 Norman Doering
    April 15, 2007

    I’m not sure there needs to be an intellectual defense of religion.

    Andrew Sullivan went through a long debate with Sam Harris without ever giving any real intellectual defense of religion or thinking he needed to. He pretty much claimed that he didn’t come to faith by reason and reason couldn’t remove it. He just sort of feels it.

    That doesn’t mean he isn’t open to criticism. I had plenty to give him:

    First Post
    2nd Post
    Andrew talks death
    Last post

    Of course, if we say it’s faith, then a Dawkins-like assault is relatively ineffective.

    I don’t think Sam’s or my own “Dawkins-like assault” on Sullivan is ineffective.

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