Stephen Law accuses me of writing a shoddy review … and then responds in kind

Posted on 07/18/13 33 Comments

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”.

Law continues:

“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.

  • scattered

    I wonder if we will need to wait until 2015 to get Law’s response to this.

    • Randal Rauser

      At least to ten percent of it.

  • Kerk

    About a year ago I read Law’s exchange with Feser on the Evil God Challenge. What I learned from it was that Law doesn’t like to play by the rules. You say to him, “Here are the intuitions I hold, and on them I build my ontology.” And he’ll tell you, “Your intuitions are irrelevant to your ontology that I’m questioning.”

    • being itself

      “Here are the intuitions I hold, and on them I build my ontology.”

      Did you really say that?

      • Kerk

        Something wrong?

        • being itself

          Seems a feeble foundation on which to build, given that the past 300 years has taught us that our middle-world evolved intuitions are wrong about so much.

          • Kerk

            True. But what’s the alternative? Universal skepticism? I tried it — it doesn’t work.

            • Mike D
              • Kerk

                Mike, I realize that you are a busy man, and no doubt you have forgotten that we’ve discussed that video before. I already said what I had to say. The position that guy presents, which you seem to support too, is self-refuting. You either go with scepticism or you admit that you have a priori knowledge. Or at least that you have properly basic beliefs.

                • Mike D

                  Well, no, you’ve just proposed a false dichotomy, and “a priori knowledge” is a contradiction in terms. But it’s not as thought I expected any less an indignant reaction. Cheers.

                  • Nate

                    A priori knowledge (self-evident facts, known on the basis of reflection without appeal to experience) is an incoherent notion??? How so? Can you explain why the very concept is contradictory in virtue of the meanings of its terms? Even if we don’t have any such knowledge, the concept isn’t meaningless (in any obvious sense, to me anyway).

                    Total evidentialism, i.e., the view that for each belief b to be justified, you must have evidence for that proposition suffers from the Munchausen trilemma (either accept an infinite regress of justifying beliefs, have the chain of justification circle back on itself – making your justification circular, or is self-refuting, because explanation must bottom out somewhere).

                    However, a very modest foundationalism of prima facie basic beliefs which are defeasible in light of new evidence is compatible with an evidentialist “ethos of belief” once we have a small subset of basic beliefs on which to build our knowledge base (with the regulative principle that any non-basic beliefs must have sufficient evidence to be justified). Perceptual beliefs, belief in other minds and other people’s rationality, self-evident propositions, our memories and perhaps testimony would be included in this foundation. But this won’t get you to theism, contra Randal — not without good reasons, because belief in God is clearly not basic. In that sense, I am an evidentialist.

            • Nate

              I would think the alternative is fallibilism about our intuitions about the fundamental nature of the world, and scientific correction of these beliefs. Especially in light of cognitive psych and neuroscience.

              • Kerk

                Nate, basing your ontology on intuitions that you recognize might be wrong, but haven’t yet been proven wrong, is not incompatible with fallibilism, now is it?

                • Nate

                  No — you’re right, it’s not. I took you as reading being itself’s position entails a need to adopt universal skepticism and I was pointing out fallibilism is the answer. I think we agree. I guess I would maybe conjoin not universal skepticism but a healthy dose of moderate skepticism to my fallibilism, an expectation that many of these intuitions will be falsified, in light of what we know from history and about how our brains work.

    • stephen law

      Doesn’t sound like anything I ever said.

  • Jeff

    So let’s ignore the exchange about the alleged “puffing” and “flapping” and look at your response here.

    About Wykstra and related points, your review did indeed paint a distorted picture of Law’s analysis. Sure, you’ve written about evil God elsewhere, but you provided no hint of that in your review and you made it sound as if Law’s analysis was crude and cursory to the point of being worthless. I can certainly understand why Law would be disappointed here.

    About “atheistic zealots or naturalistic nutcases,” your complaint, I think, is that Law doesn’t level the playing field so to speak, by saying that we’re all (theists, conspiracy theorists, atheists, naturalists, etc) equally prone to bias and zealotry. But why should Law accept such a leveling of the playing field? And need I remind you that Luke Galen just recently presented you with a wealth of peer-reviewed empirical research demonstrating a strong correlation between theistic belief and an intuitive, non-analytic cognitive style which is particularly prone to bias and black holery (is that a word?).

    About mystery, your response is so errant that I’m surprised you would make it. Consciousness is a puzzle, no matter how you slice it. That’s Law’s point. Sure, different people slice the puzzle differently. But the problem of evil, by contrast, is only a puzzle for theists. Look at it this way: It’s one thing to say in the face of some puzzle, “I don’t have a good answer, I don’t really know.” It’s quite another thing to say, “I do have a good answer (God) despite all appearances to the contrary.”

    • Randal Rauser

      “About Wykstra and related points, your review did indeed paint a distorted picture of Law’s analysis.”

      And not a peep out of you regarding the fact that Law never refers to the entire article I wrote a day later on that very topic. Your selective indignation is very tiresome.

      “About mystery, your response is so errant that I’m surprised you would make it. Consciousness is a puzzle, no matter how you slice it. That’s Law’s point.”

      Apparently you didn’t understand my rebuttal. Conscious isn’t just “a puzzle”. Different belief systems proffer different theories of consciousness each of which faces distinct “puzzles” not faced by the others.

      • Jeff

        We’re talking about this particular review. Not every interaction you’ve ever had with Law. The point is that someone reading your review on Amazon or stumbling across it on your blog would get the impression that Law’s response to Wykstra was rather crude, cursory, and inept.

        And I understood your rebuttal well enough. Unless someone wishes to deny consciousness altogether, we all are faced with the puzzle of consciousness. Different theories of consciousness (“belief systems”?) are stronger in certain points and weaker in other points, relative to competing theories. But the problem of evil is really no puzzle at all, unless one wishes to posit the existence of an omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent being.

        • Jeff

          FYI, I do think Law would have done well to mention your interactions with him about evil God, and to rein in the rhetoric a bit.

        • Randal Rauser

          “We’re talking about this particular review. Not every interaction you’ve ever had with Law.”

          I’m not talking about every interaction I’ve ever had with Law either.

          “And I understood your rebuttal well enough.”

          Well apparently not since I pointed out that there is no single problem of consciousness shared by all people.

          “But the problem of evil is really no puzzle at all, unless one wishes to posit the existence of an omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent being.”

          False. Atheists have several problems including the problem of objective moral value and obligation (evident in the many atheists who have believed their atheism led to moral nihilism or moral relativism or moral pragmatism) and the problem of hope.

          • Jeff

            On the evil God point, I do understand your frustration with Law, but I understand his as well. Perhaps there was a better road that each of you could have traveled here?

            And are we talking about the problem of evil here, or are we now broadening the conversation to include meta-ethics as well? For the record, I don’t think atheists or naturalists face any unique meta-ethical problem.

            • Randal Rauser

              Just as there are different problems of consciousness so there are different problems of evil. You may not think atheists or naturalists face any unique meta-ethical problems but other atheists (and not a few theists) would disagree.

              • Jeff

                Perhaps Law would say that a certain subset of atheists are guilty of an improper appeal to mystery re: morality? Specifically, those atheists who maintain that 1) moral objectivism is as obviously real as is consciousness, and 2) moral objectivism is very mysterious on atheism but easily explicable on theism.

  • Jason Thibodeau

    You’ve misinterpreted Law’s Evil God Challenge. The argument is not meant to undermine theodicies. Rather it is meant to undermine theism. It does so by suggesting that every argument that supports the existence of an good God also supports the existence of an evil God. In other words, the cosmological argument, for example, tells us nothing about the character of the God that allegedly created the universe.

    The point is that there is a symmetry between the good-god hypothesis and the evil-god hypothesis. That is to say that the arguments supporting the good-god hypothesis also support the evil-god hypothesis. Since nobody thinks that belief in an evil god is reasonable and the evil-god hypothesis is in symmetry with the good-god hypothesis, we should not think that the good-god hypothesis is any more reasonable.

    The point is not that theodicies fail or that they don’t provide us with a reason to believe in God. Rather, it is that theism is not reasonable since the evil-god hypothesis is not reaonsable.

    • Jeff

      If there was any one consideration which stands out from the pack as the final decisive death blow to theism for me, that was Law’s evil God challenge. I took the oftentimes breathtaking beauty and love and joy of (my sheltered) existence as the compelling reason to believe in an omnibenevolent God. But Law demonstrated that a precisely parallel argument can be marshaled on behalf of an evil God. I didn’t consider evil God to be a reasonable inference, so why should I continue to consider good God to be a reasonable inference?

      • Jeff

        By the way, moving to atheism certainly didn’t cheapen or trivialize my sense of the beauty and wonder of the universe and everything within (love, life, music, and so forth), as Randal seems to imply in God or Godless that it must. If anything, just the opposite.

        Randal, I’ve been meaning to ask you about this: You argued again and again that if love, beauty, morality, etc, don’t have “objective” status grounded in the divine nature, then they are significantly cheapened and ultimately trivialized. But I just can’t understand that. Consider sex. I don’t think sex has any sort of transcendent metaphysical status. I’m happy with a “reductive” account of sex which sees sexual pleasure and “transcendence” as merely the product of evolutionary processes. But does that mean that I should for some reason enjoy sex less? Or engage in it less often or never at all? Or think of it as ultimately trivial and meaningless?

        • cyngus

          Sex in the OT or NT is just animal activity, with the only purpose to take the animal female, “plant the seed in her”, and multiply the chosen Yahweh tribes or the Christian faithful.
          I know that other religions are not any different than Jew and Christians, but at least Hinduism gave Karma Sutra :)

    • John

      “In other words, the cosmological argument, for example, tells us nothing about the character of the God that allegedly created the universe.” – Jason

      I suppose step 1 for many Christian apologists is to try and convince others that “God” exists. Step 2, I suppose, is to convince others that YHWH is the one (and only) God. Step 3, I suppose, is to convince others that their own particular Christian denomination embraces the truth and invite them to join their church. Step 4, I suppose, is to ask church members for tithes and generous donations to support an ambitious building program… or something like that…

      • Jason Thibodeau

        I think that theists (including Randal) often downplay the gap between step 1 and step 2.

  • stephen law
    • stephen law

      I just tweaked it a bit…

      • JohnM

        Hey Stephen! On a side-note related to the evil god challenge. I think I heard you in a talk somewhere point out, that if you have both good god and evil god at the same time, then good god explains good, evil god explains evil, and in that case we have no problem explaining evil. Am I remembering correctly?

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