It all started when I tweeted the following quote from John Thatamanil:
“if a theologian were to broadcast her convictions about molecular or evolutionary biology without some years of careful reading and study, she would be met with jeering laughter and summarily dismissed.”
A commenter named “Baldious” replied as follows:
“Nobody need study that which has never been demonstrated to exist in the first place to have a valid opinion on the subject – that’s the difference.”
For ease of reference, we can call that “The Baldious Principle”:
BP: “Nobody need study that which has never been demonstrated to exist in the first place to have a valid opinion on the subject.”
Presumably, BP is taken as the first premise of an argument:
(1) Nobody need study that which has never been demonstrated to exist in the first place to have a valid opinion on the subject.
(2) The God of Christian theism has never been demonstrated to exist in the first place.
(3) Theology is the discipline that studies the God of Christian theism.
(4) Therefore one need not study theology to have a valid opinion on the God of Christian theism.
One problem with BP is that “demonstration” requires definition. But however one might define “demonstration”, the principle is still a bad one. I made the point in a reply by way of a reductio ad absurdum. That is, I assumed the premise for the sake of argument and then demonstrated that it leads to absurd consequences:
“So since the cosmic strings of string theory haven’t been demonstrated to exist in the first place, I need not study physics to have a valid opinion on the subject! That’s awesome!”
At this point, we went back and forth in a few tweets. (If you care to read the entire exchange, click here.) Finally, I said,
“If you want to revise your principle to restrict it to a subset of claims about the “supernatural”, then restate the principle. But be careful of producing an ad hoc, gerrymandered concept.”
Baldious replied by suggesting I had somehow misunderstood the principle due to inattention to the context in which it was presented:
“The principle I was commenting on was in relation to your comparison between the study of theology and molecular/eco biology. Sorry if this wasn’t obvious to you.”
So I replied thusly:
“If you believe I have misunderstood your principle in some way because of inattention to context, feel free to restate the principle with more clarity so we may assess its adequacy.”
“Randal, are you capable of having a conversation without resorting to philosophy robotics? I’ve clarified my angle for you so I’m pretty sure you understand what I’m saying.”
What is “philosophy robotics”? I’m not sure. I replied as follows:
“Asking people to define their terms and defend their claims is just clear thinking. You can’t start building the second floor before you’ve laid your foundation.”
I recount this exchange here because it manifests a very common pattern that I find when debating with people. It starts when a person makes a claim (e.g. BP) which is easily refuted. I then provide an objection (like my reductio) and ask the person either to revise or abandon their principle.
At that point, we end up spinning our proverbial wheels as my interlocutor attempts to advance the argument without revising or replacing the critical underlying principle on which the argument depends. Often I am accused of obfuscation, a disingenuous attempt to control the conversation, or as in this case, “philosophy robotics”.
If that happens to you, don’t be deterred. If you demonstrate that a premise in an argument is faulty, don’t allow your interlocutor to continue advancing the argument. Granted, if they want to save face by changing subjects, you should definitely oblige them. But if they want to persist on the same topic without having the required foundation, don’t let them move onto the second floor. As I said, that’s not philosophy robotics: it’s just clear thinking.