Thursday, February 17, 2011

On pausing to grab a robe for the Emperor

Russell Blackford and Jean Kazez are brandishing competing denouments to the "Emperor's New Clothes," fleshing out what might happen after the brave innocent child says out loud that the Emperor is actually naked. In Kazez's version, meant to analogize what she sees as an over-emphasis on truth without regard for social relations (politics), the brave innocent child inspires a degraded second-tier response among the other children, who somewhat boorishly point out that the Emperor is not only naked, but also tubby to boot. In Blackford's version, meant to warn against a dangerous obsequity to social status, the brave innocent child is shouted down by the adults, who tell her she must never speak certain truths.

I've never liked the analogy of the Emperor's non-existent clothes to religion's supposed non-existent empirical underpinnings (and not just for the obvious reason that a great deal of what goes under the name "religion" does not aspire to empirical truth in the same way that science or history do.) I think the analogy does violence to the story, which (in the Anderson version) is a fable about vanity, not ignorance. The Emperor is able to be so easily swindled because he greedily desires the finest possible garments, and because he desires to maintain his Imperial station even when he appears to himself unfit to rule (inability to see the garments being putative evidence of lack of discernment). The irony is that it is his vanity that makes him unfit to rule. His senses don't deceive him, nor his reason; his insecurity does.

Furthermore, while we, the readers of the tale, know that the King has been deceived, the brave innocent child does not, and cares not. Nor has she heard the lie that not seeing the non-existent clothes is evidence of foolishness. She only knows that he is naked. This simplicity is what makes her innocent, and also what makes her a bad model for any thoughtful social critic, who we would like to have studied the ways of the world, or at least read some William Blake. (I take this to be Kazez's main point: that while calling a spade a spade has value, all things being equal, it is not always the wisest choice. We blunt, temper, dress up, and postpone the truth for a host of reasons, sometimes legitimate, sometimes less so; truth is one value among many.)

Having said that, I can see why Kazez's story rubs Blackford the wrong way, since she explicitly compares the Incompatiblists to children, and the Compatiblists to grownups. This would come off as undeservedly condescending, if Blackford did not reply--in a voice very much like a child's--that his side was innocent and noble, while the other side is mendacious, simplistic, underhanded, and just mean. (This isn't the first time Blackford has assigned the black and white hats thusly):
As far as I can see, the incivility is generally not coming from people who could be considered part of the New Atheist movement - such as Dawkins, or Ophelia, or maybe Jerry Coyne [...] Most of the mockery, name-calling, gotcha rhetoric, twisting of the truth for effect, adopting outrageous and wildly implausible lies as "Exhibits", and various others forms of downright unfairness actually seem to be coming from such people as Chris Mooney and Josh Rosenau, i.e. people who wish that the Gnus would go away.

What we actually tend to see is reasonably civil, courteous, thoughtful critiques of religion from the Gnus being met with the response that it is so far beyond the pale that it should not be said. Thus, the crucial moment that set off the current round of debates was when Jerry Coyne reviewed two books by religious authors who argued for a compatibility of religion and science. The review was as civil as one could expect from any reviewer who disagrees strongly with key elements of non-fiction books that he or she is reviewing. It was thoughtful, detailed, and followed all the courtesies. See for yourself.

The response from Chris Mooney was that such things should not be said.
Without even getting into particulars, this is a suspect stance. It's human nature that one's argument will appear to oneself as highminded, while one's opponent will seem to be illegitimate and sniping. This is one of the tendencies that the best discourse tries to meet head on, and rise above. The same is true of the position that our arguments are in the spirit of debate, dialogue, truth and inquiry, while our opponents arguments are censorious and scolding. "There is no God, and people should not believe there is," is an opinion which may be supported by rhetoric and logic, just as "Attacking religion in a withering, alienating fashion will have undesired blowback" is an opinion which may be supported by rhetoric and logic. Each can be presented in good, or bad, faith.

To be fair, it's true that Coyne's TNR article was pretty measured and tame. And it's true he was gentle and respectful when addressing that group of Methodist parishioners. But before we take these examples as typical and endorse Coyne's self-congratulation for never having "criticized an evolutionist, writer, or scholar in an ad hominem manner," it's worth taking a quick glance at his blog, where it's hard to find a post that doesn't devolve into ad hom (unless it's about kittens). Starting with the most recent example, earlier this week Coyne called Deepak Chopra (not someone I particuraly admire, but a writer nonetheless) "Deepity Chopra," whose significant wealth he calls "an indictment of America." 

Prior to this he suggests that the critiques ("tripe") of Phil Zuckerman--writer and scholar--are motivated mainly by jealousy of the New Atheists' book sales. Thomas Jackson writes "babble," Mary Midgley is "dumb" and "superannuated" (Coyne loves the 10 cent words Hitchens and Grayling teach him). Elaine Ecklund is a "disingenuous" "Templeton-funded automaton," (regular readers of Coyne's blog will learn that everyone funded by Templeton has been horribly corrupted) Laurie Lebo has "lost neurons," Rob Knop is "mushbrained, and Josh Rosenau has been taken over by a demon. That's just in the last 3 weeks.

Now, I really do mean to be sociological about this. There are numerous fair, interesting and important criticisms to make about religious belief and practice in this world, and I have no interest in stopping anyone from making them. Some I've even made myself. But do we really need to erect a firewall between these criticisms, and similar good-faith criticisms of science, humanism, or enlightenment values? Debate unavoidably divides people into teams, but we can acknowledge this division as a structural artifact, rather than mistaking it for a carving out of ontological categories. If we're interested in truth, dialogue, learning, and similar values, does it really matter so much where the lines are between us and them?

Not that I have any illusions about our ability to reject shibboleths altogether. But we can periodically direct our attention to the high-amperage jolt of human nature that runs through this debate, fueling (in this case) the self-serving myth of the big bad accomodationists trying to stamp out the decent, unimpeachable, eminently rational arguments of the "Gnus." And yes, there's sanctimony and snark to go around on all sides. That crack above about the 10-cent words, for example. That was jerky of me to say. It was and is an obstacle to clear vision and communication, every bit as much as the vanity of the Emperor in Anderson's story was an obstacle to his own clear sight and judgement.

Update I: Jeremy Stangroom, in response to Blackford's post, calls him out for some choice ad homs of his own. His post is more concise than mine, if also slightly more testy.

Update II: Josh Rosenau chimes in:
But when Russell claims in the post linked above that I "wish that the Gnus would go away," he's wrong. I wish they'd make better arguments, ones which engage the peer reviewed literature in the relevant fields, including philosophy of science, philosophy of religion, science/religion studies, metaethics, and even theology. I wish they cited that literature more, and I wish they published their arguments there and engaged with the relevant communities of scholars that way, rather than just through blogs, and TED talks, and mass-market books and magazines. I wish they'd study the literature of social movement theory, and take what lessons can be learned from past efforts to change society and apply that research to their own efforts. I wish they'd lay out some sort of consensus platform, including both big principles and practical changes to be made. I wish they'd work with, rather than against, their most likely allies. I wish they wouldn't drive wedges within the pro-science movement, and would focus their righteous ire on the religious authoritarians who deserve it, or who at least we all agree deserve it most. I don't want them to go away, I want them to be better at what they're trying to do.


John Pieret said...

"And yes, there's sanctimony and snark to go around on all sides. That crack above about the 10-cent words, for example. That was jerky of me to say. It was and is an obstacle to clear vision and communication, every bit as much as the vanity of the Emperor in Anderson's story was an obstacle to his own clear sight and judgement."

Damn! ... Just when I was crowned the King of Snark!

Nicely done.

underverse said...

Thanks for overlooking my subject-verb agreement problems. Now fixed. I think.

E said...

I think the frustrating aspect of this back and forth on my end isn't just the snarkification of key players.  Humor can be really effective, even devastating, in highlighting a good point in the argument.  As Freud said, we laugh because it's funny, we laugh because it's true.

I had the opportunity to be a GA in a grad school philosophy department, doing research etc..., but the conversations I overhead as the professors would blast away at each other were just amazing.

They would pick a side (often it didn't matter much which one) and go for a full throated adversarial debate of the topic at hand.  Snark was in play, and honestly, it was delightful.

But what they also did, and almost always seemed to get to... was the occasional concession of each side as something really poignant appeared in the discussion.  It really wasn't "don't you dare give an inch and die on the hill" as much as the back and forth having the potential to lead to a new thought.

Suddenly there was something nuanced in play and both parties were pursuing it and, temporarily at least, were on the same side.

It was often the case that what began as a "he said - she said" sort of thing led to a third way, a new thought, that wasn't just simple compromise, or synthesis, or hedging.  It actually led both viewpoints to something closer to the truth.  It wouldn't necessarily be settled, or somehow all problem defeating and pat... but there arose something new and good in the inquiry that was beautiful.

I really haven't seen that occuring in the new atheist circle of rhetoric. 

It's, "prove it."  Or, a seemingly deliberate misreading of the point, or a tedious focus on minutae ad nauseum, etc... or an odd stream of consciousness rant about the crusades and inquisition, but never an, "ouch, that is a good point, I have to give you that one."

Instead of the discussions leading somewhere new, it looks like people arguing with the insane.  The sphere of allowed "reality" is kept very small and tight, and nothing outside of it is allowed, no matter how compelling.  It feels more like talking with someone who believes they really are Houdini, than the conversations which at some point lead to new light.

Agreed that "look at me, I'm a poached egg" or slobbering Houdini comparisons are snark-filled and ultimately not helpful.

In the so-called conversations I've had in the last few months, it seems like it is more about a power play and serving a pre-conceived agenda than any attempt to let reason have it's day.  That recalcitrance feels unnecessary to me, and bothers me more than the attempts or attempts to limit the clever snarking.

Ah, screw it.  Calling Mary Midgley dumb and superannuated.... honestly?  That just makes me want to knock someone down, and open a can of indian burns and noogies on their collective asses.

John Farrell said...

Excellent post, Chris.

underverse said...


Not all snark is created equal. I cringe at the snark of Coyne and Friar Blackford, not so much because I'm afraid of the feelings that will be hurt, but because I'm embarassed to see that kind of mean-spiritedness and pettyness in discourse that is supposed to be not only intellectually and morally elevated, but also in the defense of that elevation. A matter of taste, perhaps, and it's probably not a good sign for my objectivity that I can't think of a single Incompatiblist writer who serves as exception the rule (maybe Hitchens at his best, though he has a mean streak the size of that new planet in the Oort cloud.). Yours by contrast is much less defensive and sanctimonious. Snark on.

underverse said...

Agreed, E. For all the talk of priviling truth in Gnuish quarters, it seems that victory is value that really rules the day.

E said...

Well if it's a victory it is a pyrrhic one.  If we're right in that they are overlooking something important and true in the methods of argument, case making and rhetoric, eventually that will out.  If you're right, and I certainly think you are, then the tactics we see won't be sustainable long term.

It's a good move advocating the high road in this post.  Ultimately, while we might be able to influence the gnu thinkers, we can only truly control our own behavior and expression. 

This level of self-reflection and attitude of, if not humilty, then at least recognizing potential blind spots, is exactly the kind of thing that has me rooting for you, John, Midgley and folks like Rilestone, among others. 

Jean Kazez said...

Chris,  I like the Midgley example.  I did happen to notice (!) that Jerry Coyne referred to her "superannuated lucubrations" the very same day (Feb 8) that he talked about the myth of gnu gnastiness (or some such), and how nobody ever gives any examples of incivility.  That made me wonder if he is suffering from incivility blindness. He's almost simultaneously being uncivil and saying there are no examples of incivility!

Then again maybe it's just tactical. If you say there are no examples, then someone will make a list of examples, and THEN you can use the list-making as evidence of some deep and inveterate hatred of atheists.

Captain Howdy said...

@ E

<span>I really haven't seen that occuring in the new atheist circle of rhetoric. </span>

You haven't been looking hard enough, E. Just look at all the jibber-jabber among Gnus in the wake of Sam Harris' book on morality last year.

underverse said...

Hope you're wrong about that tactical aproach, Jean. That would just be sad.

Marion Delgado said...

The only part I have to spot the gnus is that the Templeton Foundation was unsavory from the get-go, and even its most benign activities are probably whitewashing. I would recommend people research its history, funding, and organization.

E said...

I'll take a harder look, but at first blush, it looks like the people who agreed with him before, still agree with him and vice versa and nothing substantive has changed.  You have a positivist who is saying that free will is an illusion, that neuroscience holds the keys to understanding morality in a comprehensive sort of way and anything religious is BS.

Dawkins, Pinker, etc... all agree, which honestly, just isn't very shocking.

That isn't what I'm talking about at all. 

If Harris had said something like, let's quantify morality by favorable outcomes and look, here are examples of relgious outcomes gone bad, but wait, here are 10,000 examples of religious charity, which are all clearly good... maybe there is something at least potentially good about religion after all, even if I ultimately disagree and we should really look at this closely in a certain sort of way.

Then you'd have a ballgame, but that isn't what he's saying, and we don't.

Maybe I'm missing your point, do you have a specific example in mind?  I'm happy to take a look.