Sunday, January 24, 2016

The Irrational Feser - Part 2: The Straw Man

In my previous post, I reviewed Ed Feser's review of Jerry Coyne's book, Faith versus Fact: Why Science and Religion Are Incompatible.  As reviews go, I thought it was lacking because it doesn't provide a sense of what Coyne's book actually discusses, nor does it provide a sense of the reviewer's response or assessment of those issues.  For example, in his book, Coyne discusses methods of inquiry, accommodationism, what it means to be incompatible.  He tackles issues such as the supposed design of the universe, the existence of altruism, and the inevitability of the course of evolution.  Little if any of this is even mentioned in Feser's review, which focuses instead on attacking Coyne's definitions of religion and faith, and accusing him of scientism.

I showed up in Feser's blog to comment about this review, and quickly learned that the mob of cultists there has no interest in discussing the points I raised.  They were much more interested in shouting down a gnu.  I raised two main points in my comments: that Feser's depiction of Coyne as a subscriber of "scientism" is a straw man, and that his review ignores most of the content of the book.  The responses were interesting, to say the least.

I will focus on the charge that "scientism" is a straw man that Feser is trying to force upon Coyne, since that is the issue that engendered the greatest amount of debate. 

I should first say a few words about scientism in general.  It is a controversial term because it means different things to different people.  Its usage is primarily as a pejorative, leveled against atheists or empiricists as a way to belittle their epistemological views.  Theists would have us believe that their outlook is much too limited, or even lacking in humanity.  So the theist who makes such a charge against an atheist is being condescending and derogatory.  But this is not representative of what most atheists actually believe.  I recognize all kinds of sources of knowledge.  I learn about current events from the newspaper.  I can gain insight about people's mindset and motivations by reading a Dostoevski novel.  Science is not the only source of knowledge.  Does that mean that I don't adhere to scientism?

At the same time, I am an empiricist.  I believe that knowledge ultimately derives from the evidence of the senses.  I believe that the best way to learn about the reality of the world is by observing the world and making inferences about the reality that underlies those observations.  Furthermore, I believe that the methods of science provide us with the best available assurance that our inferences about reality are true, because science requires testing and verification.  This is in contrast with religious dogma, which is independent of empirical evidence - it is merely asserted, and is impervious to verification or falsification.

Most atheists will say that scientism does not describe their position, and because it is used pejoratively, they would prefer that the term not be used at all.  However, some feel that if the term is going to be applied to them, they will own it.  That is, if scientism is understood as empiricism, they will agree that it applies to them.  But there is no implication that the overly limited view that theists have of scientism is true.  The problem is that many theists actually believe that their understanding of scientism is accurate.  So if someone like Coyne says, “most of my colleagues and I are indeed guilty of scientism”, he is not admitting that Feser's definition of scientism is correct.  He is using the term in a different way - more akin to saying that he's an empiricist.  Those theists shouldn't get too excited about it, because it doesn't mean what they so desperately want it to mean when they are trying to show that the atheist is irrational or incoherent.

Used in the pejorative manner that theists prefer, the term 'scientism' is usually a straw man.  It does not accurately describe the position of the person to whom it is applied, but it merely provides straw fodder for the theist to attack and argue against.  And that, my friends, is the very definition of a straw man.  If Feser doesn't think he's using a straw man, it is only because of his arrogant refusal to listen to any voice that contradicts him.

To my charge of forcing his straw man upon Coyne, cultist laubadetriste responded, "If by "trying to force," you mean *quoting,* then yes, I did notice that."  Yes, there were quotes (in paragraphs 8, 9, and 10) that show that Coyne believes that knowledge comes from more than just science - that his view of knowledge is indeed broader than Feser's claims of scientism would allow.  He says so himself.  And that proves my point - Coyne's views are broader and more nuanced than what Feser makes them out to be.  However, to cultist laubadetriste, it only means that "his views are not more nuanced than that, except when they are. Which is to say that he has been inconsistent in his claims regarding science and knowledge"

Now just think about this for a second.  In the irrational, blinkered mind of the Feser cultist, Coyne is guilty of "scientism", no matter what he says about it - no matter how many sources of knowledge he thinks there are.  And each time he talks about knowledge in a way that doesn't fit Feser's narrative of "scientism", the problem isn't with Feser's narrative, it is with Coyne, who isn't being consistent.  Right.  The only thing Coyne isn't consistent with is Feser's narrative of "scientism" - because it's a straw man. 

And after explaining this, laubadetriste still insists I haven't made any argument to back up my assertion that Coyne is making a straw man.  I guess he doesn't understand what a straw man is.  It is "a sham argument set up to be defeated".  And that fits this situation to a tee.  Coyne clearly believes that there are more sources of knowledge than Feser's straw man would grant, but Feser uses the term in a more limited and derogatory sense so that he can make an argument against Coyne.  Apparently, laubadetriste doesn't recognize this for what it is.  So he kept telling me that I never explained how this was a straw man, even as I kept trying to explain it to him.  At some point, you have to begin to question the guy's intelligence.  This is not rocket science.

And that's kind of the way the whole discussion went.  Eventually, Feser stepped in to comment, addressing me by the name "im-selectively-skeptical".
In the review, I quote many specific passages from Coyne stating his views about the relationship between science and other disciplines, and show how they fail to add up to a clear or consistent position. I also cite several specific straw men he attacks, and could have cited more. The book is about science and religion. Hence if it is going to contain a serious argument, he needs to be clear about what he means by science, and he needs to show that he understands what religions actually say. I specifically document how he fails to do either of these things.
Actually, Feser didn't quote any passages at all that state Coyne's views about the relationship between science and other disciplines.  At best, he provided a few snippets that don't express complete ideas.  As for Coyne's straw man attacks, he mentions exactly two things: one being the definition of faith, and the other being his mocking of John Paul II’s claim that “truth cannot contradict truth.”  Interestingly, Feser doesn't seem to know what a straw man is either, because that second example does not fit the definition.  Coyne did not set that up as a straw man.  He merely mocked what the pope said.

Feser also completely failed to explain how Coyne's definition of science was deficient.  He merely asserted it in a single sentence (in paragraph 8): "If Coyne can’t get his story straight about what he means by religion, neither does he offer a coherent account of science."  This is a prelude to a lengthy rant about Coyne's "scientism", which Feser may not be aware, is not the same thing as science.  So Feser is claiming that he has specifically documented how Coyne fails to adequately define science, but apparently that documentation consists of a rant about Coyne's supposed "scientism".  Obviously, Feser imagines that his review contains much more substantive argumentation than it does.  The lack of substantive argumentation was precisely what struck me about it in the first place. 

By this time, I was becoming convinced that I would never hear any rational arguments from Feser or any of his cultists, and they confirmed my suspicions.  Feser went on with a number of comments that included namecalling, mocking and ridiculing.  This was a little surprising to me because I'm more accustomed to Victor Reppert, who at least tries to be the adult in the room when all his cultists are acting like a bunch of buffoons.  Not so with Feser.  He attempts to ridicule atheists with this:
New Atheists are by definition the most rationally rational reasoners there are, and religious people are by definition the most irrationally irrational irrationalists there are. Hence, by definition, stuff written by New Atheists is always really good, and stuff written by religious people is always really bad, "disappointing," etc.
I doubt Feser would ever be willing to give due consideration to any argument made by someone he regards as a "New Atheist", on its merits, as opposed to simply dismissing it out of hand.  Nor would he ever see any such argument as a successful rebuttal.  It makes no difference what is being argued.  You just can't argue with someone as arrogant as that.

Feser isn't alone in his arrogance.  Here are some of the vacuous remarks by cultists there:
- That seems about par for the course when it comes to these kooks around pretending that labeling themselves skeptical somehow gives them a royal road to rationality without any of the actual work.

- since you have shown yourself incapable of basic evidential reasoning, I will go slowly and spoonfeed it to you.

- Now, I understand that you don't have anything in the way of basic critical thinking skills ...

- While you're obviously not very bright ...

- we see again your inability to reason intelligently

- all the incoherence and factless rhetorical bluster of im-skeptical's comments ...
Well, there is a great deal of bluster going on there, but it's not coming from me.  When I hear all this stuff, I know that these people have nothing intelligent to say.  And so, to continue arguing with these people is utterly pointless.  I told them that if they want serious discussion, all they have to do is act like it.  Nobody took me up on the offer.


  1. Because conversations between people so opposed to each other's viewpoints are frequently unfruitful, particularly on the Internet, I will restrain my comment to Feser's remarks in the article. What strikes me, however, is that all you do regarding the review's charges of scientism is *claim* that Feser merely rants and diatribes against them, rather than quote Feser and point out what precisely is wrong with what he said.

    You assert that Feser basically makes up a definition of scientism, sticks it to Coyne, and calls Coyne inconsistent when he deviates from said label. What I read was, rather, that Feser quotes Coyne, and shows how Coyne gives contradictory statements about the ability of non-scientific fields to give genuine knowledge. For instance:

    (Coyne says that "science is but one form of rationality (philosophy and mathematics are others").)
    --This statement makes it sound like Coyne doesn't believe in scientism. But Coyne then goes on to say (at least according to the review) that:

    "science is “the only [form of rationality] capable of describing and understanding reality.”"

    --He says also that:

    “any ‘knowledge’ incapable of being revised with advances in data and human thinking does not deserve the name of knowledge.”

    --except that not much later on he goes on to say that

    "absolute and unalterable truth is for mathematics and logic"

    which would logically require that there *is* absolute, unalterable truth available through non-scientific means, and not "subject to revision with advances in human thinking, etc". Except that later on he says that if the aforementioned fields *do* provide genuine knowledge, then they must be

    "science broadly construed"

    --So logic, for instance, is *really* "science broadly construed" although earlier on he admitted that logic is a field distinct from science.

    This, I submit, is what Feser meant by Coyne's being inconsistent - inconsistent with *his own stated positions*, not inconsistent with some phony definition that he simply made up and stuck onto Coyne. If there is something wrong in what I said, I welcome having it pointed out.


    1. Cantus,

      First, let me thank you for commenting in a thoughtful and respectful manner.

      As to the charge of Coyne being inconsistent, I think it's important to understand what he's trying to say, and including only small snippets of his words does not lend itself to gaining that understanding. What does Coyne mean by describing science as “the only [form of rationality] capable of describing and understanding reality”? He certainly doesn't mean all kinds of knowledge. By reality, he means the natural world, what it's made of, and how it works. Would Coyne agree that there are other things that can be known by means other than science? Of course he does, and so does all the rest of humanity. Feser is being uncharitable and unreasonable in insisting that Coyne believes that there is no source of knowledge other than science.

      You and Feser both seem to think that there's something inconsistent between his statements 1)“any ‘knowledge’ incapable of being revised with advances in data and human thinking does not deserve the name of knowledge.” and 2)"absolute and unalterable truth is for mathematics and logic". I agree that it sounds that way if you don't bother to put it in context and understand what Coyne is telling us. Again, in the first case, I think it must be understood as knowledge of the natural world, what it's made of, and how it works. Of course, Coyne thinks that there are mathematical truths that can be known with certainty - he says so. So it's obvious that falsifiable knowledge refers to something different from that. Feser would rather have us believe that Coyne lacks the intelligence to hold a coherent point of view.

      As for "science broadly construed", it is unquestionably true that even if you regard logic and mathematics as fields distinct from science, you cannot deny that they are both are integral and essential parts of science. So while science is the best way to discover knowledge based on empirical information - knowledge that is tentative and falsifiable, science also incorporates logical truths that are absolute.

      Feser chooses to play a game of "gotcha". He wants to find fault with Coyne, and he does so by ignoring the intended meaning of his words and instead taking cherry-picked snippets out of context, and trying to make Coyne sound like a fool or an idiot. In my mind, what Feser has accomplished is to show his own pettiness, lack of charity, and lack of regard for the truth.

  2. It looks like Feser took to heart my comment that his review didn't cover much of the book's content. He read another chapter, and posted a supplemental review of it here.

    1. This is actually quite comical. A bunch of theists pretending to be erudite by using big words.

      laubadetriste offers this gem: "But im-skeptical? That dissembling, fetid comedone should hoist his flatulent carriage high to allow his oxygen-starved microcephalus to pop free of his bandy thighs and dry in the sun."

      Also some hilarious discussion of evolution theory.