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!


  1. #1 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).