Has Stephen Law been sucked into an intellectual black hole? A Review of Law’s “Believing Bullshit”
In the vein of Carl Sagan’s The Demon Haunted World (Ballantine, 1997) and Michael Shermer’s Why People Believe Weird Things (Holt, 2002), comes this new book by Stephen Law, senior lecturer in philosophy at Heythrop College in London. The book is written for a general readership in order “to help immunize readers against the wiles of conspiracy theorists, cultists, political zealots, religious nutcases, and promoters of flaky alternative medicines by setting out some key tricks of the trade by which such self-sealing bubbles of belief are maintained.” (11) In short, Law wants to help us avoid “bullshit.” (While there is a cursory nod to Harry Frankfurt’s theory of bullshit in the book, the choice of that saucy term to describe Law’s target seems driven more by the need for a flashy, provocative book title than accuracy. The reason is that much of what he seeks to protect us from is not actually bullshit according to the formal defintions of the concept that have been proffered by Frankfurt, Cohen and others.) Law proceeds through the book by identifying eight strategies used by people to defend and propagate erroneous beliefs. In each chapter he seeks to lay bare and thereby deconstruct the strategy in question.
Chapter 1 focuses on “Playing the Mystery Card.” You can guess what the problem is here. People try to defend their views by explaining that the truth (or even coherence) of the views lies beyond our ability to comprehend or verify: ”Say, ‘Ah, but of course this is beyond the ability of science and reason to decide’ often enough, and there’s a good chance people will start to accept it without even thinking about it. It will become an immunizing ‘factoid’ that can be conveniently wheeled out whenever any rational threat to the credibility of your belief crops up.” (55)
Law then proceeds to identify numerous unjustified appeals to mystery. For example, later in the chapter he turns to Christian philosopher Stephen Wykstra’s response to the problem of evil. Wykstra argue that the “the goods by virtue of which this Being [God] allows known suffering should very often be beyond our ken.” (Cited in 60) In other words, for Wykstra, the fact that we cannot identify the reasons why God would allow specific evils is not a defeater to the existence of God since we shouldn’t expect to be able to identify those reasons. Law retorts that “when loving parents inflict suffering on the child for that child’s good, the parents will do their very best to explain to their child that they do care for them and that this suffering is for their own good.” (60) But as a rebuttal to Wykstra this point is impotent since it is easy to envision conditions in which parents would not inform their children of the reasons why they suffer. (For example, the child may not be able to understand the reason, or understanding the reason might create a greater emotional burden or….) By the same token, God could have ample reasons for not informing us as to why we suffer specific evils. In short, Law’s critique of Wykstra is much too brief and underdeveloped to be of any use. Sadly, this is one of numerous cases where Law’s treatment of theistic positions and arguments is cursory to the point of distortion.
As one reads the chapter one is led to wonder how Law would react to naturalists, atheists and skeptics who appeal to mystery. Consider atheist philosopher Colin McGinn. McGinn argues that many of the most recalcitrant problems in philosophy such as the mind brain problem may simply be beyond our ability to understand (they really are mysteries). Moreover, he argues that we should expect such mysteries given that we are finite, fallible evolved creatures. McGinn certainly makes a reasonable case for our cognitive limitations. Why would we think that we can necessarily understand all the deepest problems of existence? But if it is reasonable for the atheist to play the mystery card when it comes to something like the problem of consciousness then why is it not reasonable for the theist to do so when it comes to the problem of evil?
Chapter 2 focuses on the “But it Fits!” strategy in which evidence is made to fit one’s belief. (Think of painting the target around the arrow.) At this point Law focuses critically on the strategy as it is manifested in young earth creationism and flood geology. After noting the creative ways that Christian conservatives have proposed God might have gotten dinosaurs on the ark, such as by God miraculously causing the creatures to hibernate during their sojourn, Law humorously retorts: “Of course, once we allow ‘supernatural elements’ to play a role, we could just say that God shrank the dinosaurs to pocket size during their journey.” (71) That certainly would have made things easier!
But YEC is not unique here, for any theory can be made to fit the evidence. (Philosopher of science Imre Lakatos famously made this point.) So this begs the question: what do we look for to judge a theory true? Law claims that a good theory must make predictions and these predictions should be (1) clear and precise, (2) surprising, and (3) true. While I agree that these are useful criteria, I think Law may have missed the most important point of all: consilience. As E.O. Wilson points out in his book Consilience, the term refers to the “leaping together” of facts into a single, unifying explanation. Plate tectonics, for example, is a classic example of a theory that is consilient, for it explains a number of geological features like sea floor spreading, volcanoes, mountain ranges, and earthquakes. It doesn’t predict these features so much as provide a satisfactory, unifying explanation of them. And this is what theories do, they provide comprehensive and relatively simple explanatory frameworks. So why did Law leave out consilience as a mark of legitimate theories? One possible explanation is because consilience muddies the water significantly. YEC, for example, looks more plausible on an appeal to the consilience of theories than on an appeal to their predictive power. (I make this point while finding YEC every bit as implausible as Law does. The point is not whether YEC is true or likely to be true. The point is that Law’s summary of how we identify legitimate theories is incomplete.)
Alas, that is not the only place where Law is unfair with his target. At this point it pains me to have to defend Ken Ham, but defend him I must. Law writes: “According to Ham, Young Earth Creationists and evolutionists do the same thing: they take the evidence and then look for ways to make it fit the axioms of the framework theory to which they have already committed themselves….” (88-89) Law then retorts: “Ham is misrepresenting what real scientists do. Science is not essentially about achieving fit between theory and data.” (89) Really? Does Law really believe that once scientists commit to a particular theoretical framework that they don’t then attempt to fit all the data into their framework? That’s completely erroneous. Of course they do. Science works like a courtroom. In the court the prosecutor is committed to the hypothesis that the defendent is guilty while the defense attorney is committed to the hypothesis that the defendent is not guilty. Both sides construct theories to interpret all the data, and they allow the truth to emerge through the process by subjecting their competing theories to the “peer review” of the jury. Science works in a similar manner. Individual scientists interpret the data in accord with their theory. They make their best (reasonable) effort to make the data fit their theory. Their opponents with opposing theories do the same for their view. And through the process the truth ideally emerges through careful peer review. So even if much of what Ham says is spurious, there still is much more truth to his statement than Law is willing to concede. (But imagine if Law, an enlightened secular philosopher, admitted that fundamentalist Ken Ham had a point. How could he? That’d be like Sarah Palin admitting that Barack Obama had the better economic policy. You simply don’t make those kinds of concessions.)
Later in the chapter the double standard appears again. Law writes: “Almost every theory, no matter how well confirmed, faces puzzles and problem cases. This is certainly true of the theory that life on this planet is a product of natural mechanisms.” (90-1) But why is this statement not a case of playing the mystery card? For example, isn’t it playing the mystery card for the naturalist to insist that undirected processes must have been the origin of DNA? Not according to Law who retorts ”The truth, of course, is this: that life has evolved over many millions of years by mechanisms including natural selection is nevertheless overwhelmingly confirmed by the evidence.” (91) This is a complete non sequitur. The origin of life cannot have arisen through a Darwinian process. It’s a completely different kind of problem. So Law’s statement here is akin to arguing “I’ve drive my car everywhere I wanted to go so I must be able to reach the moon as well.”
According to Law, when the young earth creationist seeks to defend his views he is engaging in the stultifying, question-begging “But it Fits!” strategy. And what happens when the spotlight shifts from young earth creationism to the defense of naturalism? Do you think Law accuses his own side of a “But it Fits!” strategy? Don’t bet on it. He writes: “it’s often fairly easy for Young Earth Creationists to get their rivals bogged down, seemingly stymied by the ‘problems’ they raise. ‘Explain this! And this! And this! they say, and watch with mounting satisfaction as looks of confusion and desperation begin to creep across their opponents’ faces.” (92) Did you catch that? When Law interrogates the young earth creationists on their view he is being reasonable and they, in formulating their responses, are engaging in a “But it fits!” strategy. However when the young earth creationist seeks to interrogate their opponents’ position they are simply getting “their rivals bogged down” with pseudo-problems.
In chapter 3 Law introduces the “Going nuclear” tactic which seeks to defend a position by arguing that all positions are equally reasonable (or unreasonable). I agree with Law that relativist attempts to go nuclear — e.g. the ”true for you but not for me” gambit — are quite hopeless. But the case against the skeptic view is more complicated. By saying that I am not rejecting the distinction between rational and irrational beliefs. Rather, I am arguing that Law’s critique of the skeptical form of going nuclear is flawed.
How so? Law notes that some theists argue that we must accept the existence of the external world on faith. From there they argue for some sort of parity with belief in God. Law retorts: “even if any belief about the external world involves a leap of faith, it does not follow that it’s as reasonable for theists to place their trust in their God experience as it is for atheists to trust their senses.” (103) True enough. However, Law must surely be aware that many atheists still object to theism in principle because it appeals to faith. (Law must be familiar with Dawkins’ schoolyard “faith head” insult.) As a result, any argument which demonstrates that belief in the external world involves faith undercuts the atheistic argument that beliefs which require faith are irrational or unreasonable.
Even so, Law is not willing to concede that belief in God could constitute knowledge in a properly basic way like belief in the external world because he believes the existence of evil provides a rebutting defeater to God’s existence: the theist’s “other senses appear to furnish her with ample evidence that there is no such benevolent God. There is, for example, the evidential problem of evil–surely an all-powerful, all-good God would not have created a world of he sort her senses reveal: a world containing so much appalling suffering.” (103) Unfortunately for Law, this argument depends on the legitimacy of his argument against Wykstra (noted above). But as I noted that rebuttal is spurious and so the purported defeater fails. And that means Law has no objection to the possibility of properly basic religious beliefs.
Law’s argument against properly basic theistic belief may fail but what this failure illustrates is revealing. Law is, if nothing else, persistent in his attempt to assure his skeptical/humanist/atheist readership that any theistic attempt to argue doxastic parity between competing theistic and atheistic worldview claims must be an illegitimate attempt to “go nuclear”. From my perspective this amounts to Law’s attempt (without cause) to innoculate his readers against the rationality of theism.
Chapter four turns to the strategy of “moving the semantic goalposts.” Here Law focuses on the attempts of some theologians to redefine what various religious doctrines mean as a way of dealing with various objections to those doctrines. To a significant degree I share Law’s concerns here. There are many theologians who, in their best intentioned efforts to defend Christian belief in a skeptical age, have produced an account of belief which is so obscure (e.g. God is “not ‘being’ but Ground of Being”) and unconnected with the orthodox boundaries of the tradition that they have essentially become Christianity’s gravediggers.
However, I’d want to make two points about this chapter. To begin with, a divergence between what the average lay Christian means by “God”, “incarnation”, “atonement” etc. and what an academic theologian means is inevitable. (By the same token, what a layperson means by “matter” diverges from what a physicist means.) And that divergence is not necessarily an illegitimate case of moving semantic goalposts. Second, and more importantly, I note that naturalists and atheists also frequently engage in this kind of goalpost shifting. For example, countless atheists act as if “atheism” is the positive claim that “God does not exist”. Then, when they are challenged to give a defense of this position they retreat to the milquetoast position that they are merely “without belief” in God: in other words, agnosticism. As for naturalism, one frequently hears enlightened secular people call themselves naturalists but what do they mean? Are they claiming that only material things exist? Or that science is the only way to know things? Or that everything that exists is material or supervenient on the material? Or that scientific explanations are to be preferred where available? There are countless definitions of “naturalism” and naturalists endlessly blur them. So rather than pick on theologians why doesn’t Law spend some time getting his own house in order by challenging those within his own skeptical doxastic community on their incessant goalpost shifting?
Chapter 5 deals with the “I just know!” strategy in which people respond to problems with their view with the claim that they just know it is true. I am happy to report that Law rejects evidentialism in favor of reliabilism (an externalist theory of epistemic warrant; if that doesn’t make sense to you I don’t have time to explain it here). Law recognizes that “Reliablism seems to open up the possibility that some people might, indeed, ‘just know’ that God exists.” (146) But if things start out promising for the theist, they don’t stay that way for long. Law attempts to foreclose that possibility with “The Case of the Mad, Fruit-Fixated Brain Scientist.” According to the case, if Jane is aware that others are hallucinating fruit then that serves as an undercutting defeater for her belief that she is in fact seeing a piece of fruit: “Given Jane knows that she is in an environment (the mad brain scientist’s laboratory) in which people regularly have compelling fruit hallucinations (indistinguishable from real fruit hallucinations), Jane should remain rather skeptical about her own fruit experience.” (149) According to the argument, belief in God is likewise clearly hallucinatory in very many cases and thus the theist should conclude that it is in his/her case as well.
There are two big problems with this argument. The first one harkens back to the danger of “moving the semantic goalposts”. After all Law sets out to present an argument that a theist cannot know in a properly basic way that God exists. But his argument doesn’t actually support that conclusion. It only supports the fact that a theist should be skeptical of her belief that God exists once she recognizes some people have had false beliefs about God. Fair enough. But I can know p and still be skeptical about my knowledge of p. Consider an analogy with testimony. The day somebody first lies to me may be the day I become more skeptical about the testimony others share with me. But that doesn’t mean that I cannot learn things through testimony. It just means I should be duly skeptical as I come to hold beliefs through testimony. By the same token, the day I realize people hold mistaken beliefs about God is the day I am more skeptical in the apparent deliverances of my beliefs about God. But that doesn’t mean I can’t know things about God in a properly basic way. Thus it seems that Law is moving the semantic goal posts for he began by talking about whether knowledge about x is posible (it seems that it is) and then quietly moved to asking whether infallible knowledge about x is possible (perhaps it isn’t).
This brings me to the second problem. Unfortunately for Law, if his argument is sufficient to undermine properly basic belief in God it is likewise sufficient to undermine properly basic belief in truths of rational intuition, memory, testimony and (as in the analogy) sense perception since people can reach mistaken conclusions in all these areas as well. The argument, in other words, is either being applied inconsistently or, if Law decides to be consistent, it amounts to a case of “going nuclear” in which case Law is, as they say, hoist with his own petard.
Chapter 6 focuses on “Pseudoprofundity”. This is also often referred to as “bafflegab” and is in fact a well-established type of bullshit, one that has been well analyzed by philosopher G.A. Cohen. I am largely sympathetic with this chapter.
In Chapter 7, “Piling up the anecdotes” Law looks critically at the way that anecdotes are often used to prop up a belief system in the absence of good evidence for a claim whether it be healing in Christian science or the powers of homeopathy or anything else. I agree that anecdotes are often given far more weight than they deserve. Consider the fact that when purchasing a new Chevy many people will be more persuaded by their neighbor’s anecdotal report that they once owned a Chevy which was a lemon than by the actual evidence about Chevy’s present quality from Consumer Reports, JD Power and Associates and automotive journalist reviews.
The final chapter on “Pressing Your Buttons” focuses on the ultimate epistemic bogey: brainwashing. According to Law there are five belief-shaping mechanisms which can be present in brain-washing: isolation, control, uncertainty, repetition, and emotion. Law then provides a story to drive his point home:
“Note that traditional, mainstream religious education has sometimes also involved heavy reliance on many, sometimes all of these five mechanisms. I was struck by a story a colleague once told me that, as a teenage pupil of a rather strict Catholic school in the 1960s, she once put up her hand in class to ask why contraception was wrong. She was immediately sent to the headmaster, who asked her why she was obsessed with sex. Interestingly, my colleague added that, even before she asked the question, she knew she shouldn’t. While never explicitly saying so, her school and wider Catholic community had managed to convey to her that asking such a question was unacceptable. Her role was not to think and question but passively accept.” (200)
Law calls this a story. You might just as well call it an anecdote. But wait a minute! In the previous chapter Law argued that anecdotes are “almost entirely worthless”. (187) There he wrote: “alarm bells should start ringing whenever anecdotes are supposed to provide significant evidence in support of a claim, particularly a supernatural claim.” (171) But now when it comes to defending the thesis that “traditional, mainstream religious education has sometimes also involved heavy reliance on many, sometimes all of these five mechanisms” what evidence does Law provide? An anecdote! Talk about ironic.
But wait, a “Law apologist” might reply that in the above cited quotation Law stated that anecdotes are especially suspect if they are invoked to support “a supernatural claim.” (171, emphasis added) Since the Catholic school anecdote isn’t supernatural in nature it is not problematic.
As the Church Lady used to say, “Well isn’t that convenient!” Law doesn’t accept the existence of the supernatural so supernatural claims are especially suspect when supported anecdotally. Actually this is great for anybody can add a similar addendum to suit their beliefs. For example:
Democrat’s addendum: “alarm bells should start ringing whenever anecdotes are supposed to provide significant evidence in support of a claim, particularly a GOP friendly claim.”
Bitter divorced mom’s addendum: “alarm bells should start ringing whenever anecdotes are supposed to provide significant evidence in support of a claim, particularly a claim that supports your deadbeat father.”
You get the picture. This addendum is a piece of self-serving nonsense. And if you believe it please refer to the title of this book.
The book ends with thirty pages called “The Tapescrew Letters”. While this takeoff of The Screwtape Letters doesn’t really belong here, it is a welcome bonus edition for readers of the book and reflects nicely on Stephen Law’s clever wit and engaging writing style.
This brings me, finally and at long last, to my conclusion. Let me begin by underscoring the positives. Believing Bullshit is lively, witty and engaging and provides many helpful tips for avoiding intellectual black holes. I wouldn’t spend this long critiquing the book if I didn’t enjoy it very much. For those reasons I recommend the book.
But I don’t recommend it without qualification. The reader must beware that Law has a blindspot big enough to drive a Mack truck through and here it is: Law gives no evidence that atheists, skeptics, and humanists can end up in black holes as surely as can anybody else. This blindspot is evident in two different ways.
The first way is in Law’s irritating practice of lumping religion and theism simpliciter into the same category of doxastic castigation that encompasses palm readers, psychics and ShamWow salesmen. To be sure, Law does stipulate “I’m certainly not suggesting that every religious belief system is an Intellectual Black hole, or that every person of faith is a victim.” (13) He does recognize the possibility of learned Christian philosophers and scientists and doesn’t seem to have the same degree of puzzlement over their intellectual commitments that somebody like Richard Dawkins does. And yet when an author repeatedly circles back to critique theism simpliciter in a book called Believing Bullshit and he does so with trite, facile criticisms, the overall message is quite clear: theism is intellectually strained at best and outright BS at worst. Theism may not be the same thing as membership in the Heaven’s Gate cult, but it is a gateway drug.
Given these underlying assumptions it is probably not surprising that Law’s criticisms of theism throughout the book (such as the arguments for the problem of evil and against properly basic religious belief) are indeed facile and undeveloped. Perhaps he cannot take his opponents seriously enough to engage with their arguments in a rigorous fashion. (The same could be said of his treatment of evil and God as an atemporal agent at the end of the introduction. The latter is especially irritating since (a) many theists believe God is a temporal agent and (b) there are developed atemporal accounts of God’s agency which Law completely ignores.)
This brings me to the second evidence of a gaping blindspot and it is in Law’s failure to turn back the critical eye on his own doxastic community. (And the skeptic, humanist, atheist community is relatively well-defined, all the more so since a significant portion of them took to wearing pirate outfits and calling themselves “Pastafarians”.) Law has the resources to challenge the same strategies as they are operative within his own community but for some reason he never broaches the topic. This is all the more unfortunate given that he concedes, ”The fact is, almost all of us engage in these eight strategies to some extent, particularly when beliefs to which we are strongly committed are faced with a rational threat.”(13) And yet never once does Law ask how these eight strategies are used to prop up methodological naturalism, or humanism or atheism. As I have noted in the body of this review, there are many instances where Law could have done this.
Law’s failure to interrogate his own doxastic community and to challenge the many intellectual black holes and irrational strategies that are perpetuated among humanists, skeptics, and atheists is a very serious omission. Imagine an anti-war activist who speaks out fiercely against atrocities committed by every country but his own. Such a person’s witness is critically undermined by his own self-serving predilection to spot the speck in his neighbor’s eye whilst remaining oblivious to the plank in his own. Sadly the same must be said here. But all is not lost, for the book’s failure leaves us with one final, haunting lesson: the hardest intellectual black hole to avoid is the one you’re already in.
My thanks to The Atheist Missionary who kindly sent me a gratis copy of Believing Bullshit for review.