Stephen Law accuses me of writing a shoddy review … and then responds in kind
Two years ago I reviewed Stephen Law’s book Believing Bullshit: How not to get sucked into an intellectual black hole. Professor Law provided a response this past Sunday. (Better late than never, right?)
Before I engage the review let me stress that I think Stephen Law is a very intelligent philosopher and an amiable chap to boot. I bear absolutely no hostility toward him. We must always be reminded that we can disagree without being disagreeable. This always needs to be stressed because too often repartee can descend into personal attack and antagonism.
Now down to business.
Things begin on a sour note. Law is at pains from the beginning of his response to stress that my review is “academically poor”, is “poorly argued”, has “numerous misrepresentations, muddles and errors”, and was probably “written in haste”. Were the review more “academically robust and interesting” Law might devote more time to chronicling the many errors. But alas it isn’t. And regardless, Law suspects that “no one will bother reading the thousands of words of commentary I would have to produce to deal with the entire thing properly”.
The gentleman doth protest too much, methinks.
When I read all that I was reminded of a goose who puffs her feathers and flaps her wings when you get too close to the eggs. In other words, an impressive display intended to dissuade the curious from proceeding any further. But it is, after all, just a display.
So what does Law supply in terms of actual critical analysis and rebuttal? This is most disappointing, for Law ignores virtually the entire review, choosing instead to engage critically with a bare ten percent. His response focuses on my critique of part of chapter one in the book. So in fact his article should have been titled “Randal Rauser’s review of my book Believing Bullshit – my response to ten percent of it“.
After two years and all the huffing and puffing of what a poor review it was, this is disappointing indeed.
But there’s no use crying over spilt milk. Let’s take a look at the ten percent Law does critique. The section of my review that he critiques is short enough (a mere 490 words) that we can quote it in full here. So here’s the excerpt from my review:
“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?”
Looks good to me. So what’s the problem?
Law’s first complaint is that I only mention one of three points he raises against Wykstra. He claims that this results in ”crude distortion” because his engagement with Wykstra was not as cursory as my review suggested. Law then summarizes his second and third points which I failed to rebut. The second point was that “there are presumably limits to how much evil can be put down to God’s mysterious ways.” But it is Law’s third point which he thinks is really important. He writes:
“The third point I make, which relates to the second, and which I explicitly say is the most significant of the three points, is that the same sort of appeal to mystery can be employed to defend belief in an evil god against the evidential problem of good.”
So ultimately Law is complaining because I failed to address his point on the evil God.
As far as objections go, this is the very definition of ironic since I wrote an article responded to his evil God hypothesis the very day after I published this review. That article, titled “Stephen Law’s Evil God Hypothesis,” began like this:
“There were a number of points that Stephen Law made in his book Believing Bullshit which I didn’t have time to address in my already bloated review. One of those was his so-called “Evil God hypothesis” (henceforth the EGH), a clever, if abortive, attempt to undermine theodicies (see pp. 24-27).”
I then go on in the article to offer a rebuttal to this argument. So Law accuses me of distorting his argument by failing to address a point he made when I devoted a subsequent article (a day later) to that very point, a fact that he never mentions here. This isn’t just ironic. It’s downright hypocritical. (Incidentally, I have written more on Law’s evil God argument elsewhere. For example, see here.)
Next, Law complains about my critique of the parent analogy. Among other things, he disagrees with me over which states of affairs are and are not easy to envisage. Here I’ll note simply that disagreements on this level may be interesting, but they are not evidence of muddle, haste, poor argument, or crude distortion.
At this point Law turns to my reference to Colin McGinn as an example of an atheist philosopher who appeals to mystery. Law replies:
“Anyhow, let me first point out that I say very clearly in the book that atheists etc. are also prone to such dodgy moves…. Someone reading Rauser’s review might well conclude I assume that naturalists, atheists etc. are immune. I don’t assume that.”
Yeah, great. Let me quote again a passage I cited in my original review. There Law states the book is aimed:
“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)
Funny, I don’t see atheistic zealots or naturalistic nutcases mentioned. Everyone listed here is part of the out-group. I would simply invite folks to read Law’s book and draw their own conclusions on whether he is as rigorous about identifying “bullshit” within the in group of self-identified naturalists, humanists, atheists, agnostics and other assorted ”skeptics”.
“What I object to is the way in which the appeal to mystery is increasingly relied on to deal with what otherwise would appear to be powerful evidence or arguments against certain beliefs, particularly beliefs in the supernatural. Whenever mystery is erected as a barrier to rational inquiry, a barrier that says, “You scientists and philosophers may come this far armed with the power of reason, but no further – turn back now!” we should be concerned, particularly if no good reason is given for supposing science and reason cannot, in fact, take us further.”
But of course Colin McGinn is suggesting that philosophers should “turn back now” in terms of attempting to understand the hard problem of consciousness. So why isn’t McGinn a big bullshitter?
Law offers the following explanation:
“Now, we can agree that consciousness is a baffling phenomenon – perhaps necessarily so, as McGinn argues. But the point is consciousness is a problem for everyone – atheists and theists, naturalists and non-naturalists. There’s a thorny puzzle here whichever side of these various fences you sit. It’s not a problem that favours one side over another.
“Some “problems” in science and philosophy are simply puzzles – we can’t figure out the solution to a puzzle or answer to a question. The problem of consciousness is an example.
“Other “problems” are different. They are problems for a particular belief system – problems in the sense that they constitute a very significant intellectual threat to the belief system (and not to its negation). That’s a very different sort of “problem”. It’s a “threat” problem.”
In short, Law is distinguishing between legitimate appeals to mystery — those that are shared by all people — and illegitimate appeals — those that are relative to a particular belief system.
This response is so errant I’m really surprised that a philosopher of Law’s stature would make it. Contrary to Law, there isn’t one hard problem of consciousness that we all share. Rather, there are many different problems of consciousness, and each theory of consciousness faces one or more of those problems. For example, substance dualism faces the interaction problem (i.e. how does consciousness interact with the material brain?). Identity theories (the view that conscious states are identical with particular brain states or functional outputs) don’t have the interaction problem but they do have the problem that conscious states and their brain state/function equivalents appear to have different properties and thus cannot be identical. Meanwhile supervenient property dualist views of consciousness have the problem of epiphenomenalism (i.e. the consequence that consciousness is an acausal by-product of brain function). The substance dualist, identity theorist and property dualist may all end up appealing to mystery, but they appeal to different mysteries. What is more, each appeals to a different mystery relative to a different particular belief system. For example, a Christian substance dualist faces one problem with respect to his particular belief system while an atheistic property dualist (or identity theorist) faces a different problem with respect to her particular belief system. Consequently, Law’s attempt to hive out a space for legitimate appeals to mystery that are not relative to belief systems is completely spurious.
Law ends his review like this:
“So that’s what Rauser has to say about my first chapter. His review of that chapter is inaccurate, muddled, and sets up straw men. The rest of Rauser’s review of Believing Bullshit is equally academically shoddy. But, as I say, I lack the time or the patience to go through and respond to his similar commentary on the other seven chapters.”
Hey, if you’re going to begin by puffing your feathers and flapping your wings, why not end on the same note? However, as I have demonstrated, Law’s review is the one that wins the prize for being inaccurate, muddled and academically shoddy. He only reviews ten percent of what I wrote. And his critique of that ten percent is spurious, as I’ve demonstrated here. Even worse, it is hypocritical as he commits the very indiscretion of which he accuses me.
At least I responded to his entire review rather than cherry-picking ten percent to nitpick.