Monday, April 27, 2009

Moran and the 'Courtier's Reply' II

Larry Moran replies:

The point of the Coutrier's Reply is that theists bring up these "problems" when they should be discussing whether gods exist.

The Courtier's Reply does not apply when atheists engage in discussions about the problem of evil or any other problem that theists have when they're trying to reconcile superstition and rationality. It only applies when theists try moving the goalposts—which they do all the time.

OK, I'll bite: I'll read it through with everyone to make obvious to those who don't already see it just how utterly absurd this response is. Alas, it's obvious enough that it doesn't take much in the way of reading skills; more on that later.

Let's recall the narrative background to the Courtier's Reply. It's the tale of the Emperor's new clothes. The Emperor was conned into thinking that there was such a thing as a thread that was so precious that it could not be seen by those who were stupid and unfit. Of course, when they showed him 'cloth' woven from the thread, he saw nothing whatsoever, because there was nothing to see: but thoroughly afraid to be seen as stupid and unworthy, he claimed that he saw it, and that it was very beautiful. So it goes with all the courtiers and all the people: everyone learns that the cloth is such that only the stupid and unworthy can't see it, so, afraid of admitting to being stupid and unworthy, everyone clamors when the cloth is 'shown' to them about how beautiful it is. And finally the Emperor is in parade, all the courtiers are 'carrying' the train of his new robes, and everyone in the crowd being afraid to admit to being stupid and unworthy, nobody will admit that they do not see the Emperor's clothes, and how magnificent they are. But finally a little child speaks up, and says, puzzled, "But the Emperor isn't wearing any clothes!" And from there it starts to spread until the whole crowd takes up the cry. The Emperor, says Anderson, was troubled by this, as were the courtiers; but there was no helping things now. So they continued on their way as if nothing had happened.

Now let's note some important features of this story, without which it would not make any sense.

(1) The Emperor was really and truly not wearing any clothes. Imagine trying to tell a story where the Emperor is actually clothed, and everyone starts claiming that he is not. That would radically reverse the point of the story. So it is essential to the story that the Emperor has no clothes. Otherwise it would merely be the stupidity of the crowd, not the Emperor, that was on display.

(2) Everyone could see that the Emperor had no clothes. What makes everyone look foolish in the story is that they can all see that the Emperor has no clothes, but they are so afraid of looking stupid and unfit for their various occupations that they pretend that really he does have new and magnificent clothes. Think of how the story would collapse if nobody actually could see that there were no clothes, how random and unfounded the claim that he had none would be. Think about how it would be, for an even more complicated tale, if everyone who looked actually saw clothes. It would make no sense to conclude from the story that people a thousand miles away who never saw that the Emperor was naked were foolish if they had thought the Emperor was wearing clothes; how could they possibly know? Suppose someone had told them the Emperor would be wearing his new and magnificent robes today, but they were on a business trip and so never actually saw that the Emperor was naked. Would we say they were foolish for thinking that the Emperor had new, magnificent robes? The story collapses if the people involved can't see that the Emperor has no clothes.

So let's think through what it means if, from an atheist perspective, we interpret the tale as a story about theistic religion. So the Emperor with no clothes is religion involving belief in God: it has no rational grounds, it's absurd, it's silly. Simple enough. But, one could say, even atheists walk on tippy-toes around religion because they are afraid that not treating it with respect will make them seem stupid or unfit -- they'll be an isolated voice in a crowd, and are afraid it would make them look bad to insist too much on this point. Then along comes someone -- in the Courtier's Reply it's Dawkins, so we'll go with that -- who says that the Emperor has no clothes, and, if the story were to continue to the end, everyone would stop trying to wriggle out of the obvious conclusion and take up the cry that the Emperor has no clothes, that belief in God is ridiculous. So that's how the story would unfold were there no change from the original. Notice, though, that because the story is exactly the same, the same two essential points have to be assumed:

(1) The Emperor actually has no clothes. This is the first assumption: theistic religion is irrational, absurd, silly, whatever particular form of deficiency you want to insert here.

(2) Everyone can see that the Emperor has no clothes. This is the second assumption:
All of us, that is, all of us to whom this allegory is addressed, see that theism is irrational, absurd, silly, whatever. But everyone still wants to walk softly and weasel out of the consequences of this by pretending that it's really not.

So far, so good. The Courtier's Reply changes this basic set-up by changing the ending. In Anderson's tale the courtiers simply walk off as if nothing had happened, because they've committed themselves too far. Myers suggested an alternate ending in which a courtier gives a response. Let's read through it point by point.

I have considered the impudent accusations of Mr Dawkins with exasperation at his lack of serious scholarship. He has apparently not read the detailed discourses of Count Roderigo of Seville on the exquisite and exotic leathers of the Emperor's boots, nor does he give a moment's consideration to Bellini's masterwork, On the Luminescence of the Emperor's Feathered Hat. We have entire schools dedicated to writing learned treatises on the beauty of the Emperor's raiment, and every major newspaper runs a section dedicated to imperial fashion; Dawkins cavalierly dismisses them all. He even laughs at the highly popular and most persuasive arguments of his fellow countryman, Lord D. T. Mawkscribbler, who famously pointed out that the Emperor would not wear common cotton, nor uncomfortable polyester, but must, I say must, wear undergarments of the finest silk.

Dawkins arrogantly ignores all these deep philosophical ponderings to crudely accuse the Emperor of nudity.

Dawkins, of course, is still the innocent little boy who's unafraid of looking stupid and unfit. So the courtier takes the high road and appeals to scholarship. Dawkins's outburst is embarrassing, he says, because he doesn't know the theological arguments he is criticizing; he has apparently not read Thomas Aquinas very closely, for instance, or considered how the excellence of religion has contributed to the masterpieces of Bernini; there are entire schools of writers who write learned treatises about God's activities in the world, and every newspaper has a religion section, because it is just that common. All these people claim that the Emperor has clothes, that theism is not silly; and Dawkins just cavalierly dismisses them all. The courtier continues:

Personally, I suspect that perhaps the Emperor might not be fully clothed — how else to explain the apparent sloth of the staff at the palace laundry — but, well, everyone else does seem to go on about his clothes, and this Dawkins fellow is such a rude upstart who lacks the wit of my elegant circumlocutions, that, while unable to deal with the substance of his accusations, I should at least chide him for his very bad form.

Until Dawkins has trained in the shops of Paris and Milan, until he has learned to tell the difference between a ruffled flounce and a puffy pantaloon, we should all pretend he has not spoken out against the Emperor's taste. His training in biology may give him the ability to recognize dangling genitalia when he sees it, but it has not taught him the proper appreciation of Imaginary Fabrics.

And now we see the warning rumblings we've already seen begin to bear fruit as Moran's interpretation starts to crumble. The courtier is an atheist! He doesn't really believe the Emperor is clothed, either! At the very least he suspects atheism is true even if he doesn't want to commit to it in public. And this makes sense in context. You will remember, even if Moran does not, that several the criticisms of Dawkins that Myers would have had in view were notably criticisms by atheists, and so it is not surprising that the courtier is not a theist. And you will remember, too, even if Moran does not, that there was also that flare up in the atheist blogosphere over the phrase "Neville Chamberlain atheist." Moreover, it fits with the story: the story was not that the courtiers were true believers but that they, too, were just weaseling out of having to look stupid and unworthy. In the courtier's reply it is an atheist moving the goalposts, not a theist. This is quite clear, in black and white; it is the only interpretation that fits the story without mangling it.

So what is this atheist's defense of theistic religion against Dawkins? Lots of people believe it, so who is Dawkins to burst their bubble; Dawkins is tactless in comparison with many other atheists so, he should be regarded as merely rude; he should learn theology before anyone bothers with his accusations against the Emperor. For, after all, even if the Emperor has no clothes, even if theistic religion is silly, surely there is a value to imaginary fabric, surely theistic religion is a beautiful thing that shows a lot of imagination? And that's the Courtier's Reply. And note again, for the thing to make sense in the slightest, it still has to be the case that

(1) The Emperor really has no clothes = theistic religion is absurd;
(2) Everyone involved, everyone the story's about and to whom the story is addressed, can see that the Emperor has no clothes = we all really agree that theistic religion is absurd.

Both have to be assumed for the modified tale to be applicable, just as with the original tale. If it were really a point of dispute whether the Emperor had clothes, if we brought people in who not only ignored the fact that the Emperor looked naked but sincerely and truly saw the Emperor clothed when they looked at him, the whole story would collapse. So we, and we are still working on the supposition of an atheist perspective, are telling the story to atheists, to rebuke them for their particular defense of theistic religion, to an audience of atheists. Move it out of that context, and all the assumptions of the story are no longer shared assumptions -- theists have no reason to identify theistic religion with the Emperor's clothes, and so if you tell it to them you;ll have wasted your breath. Unless you think all theists are insincere, you don't think that the theists see that the Emperor has no clothes.

What is more, the whole allegory depends on the initial allegory-making identification. Suppose we were to make an alternative identification in the original story. I know it's a bit unfair to ask that Moran think the story through twice, given that he seems to have been reluctant to do so even the first time around, but bear with me. Suppose that someone were to say, "Ah, but it's not theistic religion that should fill that no-clothes box, but the atheism of people like Larry Moran." So the new assumption is that we are all theists here, talking to theists, and our primary audience is an audience of theists, and we're trying to make ourselves feel swell by talking about how stupid atheists are. So we say that the Emperor having no clothes is the same as the 'obvious' truth that the atheism of Larry Moran is ridiculous, and we identify the fact that everyone can see that the Emperor's clothes aren't there with this supposed obviousness. The story marches on in exact parallel, because it is, after all, an allegory, and that's what allegories do when you just trade meanings; and so in this story everyone is afraid of looking stupid by stating the obvious fact that Larry Moran's atheism is ridiculous, so they all humor him and pretend that it is not ridiculous. Finally, some innocent theist who isn't afraid of looking stupid points out the obvious, and everyone laughs at the ridiculousness of Larry Moran's atheism.

But wait! Do the courtiers in this version of the story (and again, the meaning of the allegory is completely arbitrary) have to be any less clever than in the previous case? Surely not! So up will stand some clever silver-tongued atheist defender of Larry Moran's atheism and say,

I have considered the impudent accusations of the clothes-deniers with exasperation at their failure to engage in simple logic. They have apparently not realized that Larry Moran does not talk at all about any of the arguments that they give to show that problems raised by clothes-affirmers. Unfortunately, this means that the discussion tends to degenerate into classic fashion apologetics where the main goal of the person who claims that the Emperor has no clothes is to rationalize why this claim doesn't conflict with good taste.

Personally, I suspect that perhaps the Emperor might not be fully clothed — how else to explain the apparent sloth of the staff at the palace laundry — but, well, everyone else does seem to go on about his clothes, and these clothes deniers are such rude upstarts who lack the wit of my elegant circumlocutions, that, while unable to deal with the substance of their accusations (because I don't read any of their disquisitions expanding on the subject of how the Emperor has no clothes), I should at least chide them for their very bad form.

It's amazing how few of my fellow clothes-deniers get this point. Larry Moran can always say, "The problems they talk about -- why there are people who seem to believe that the Emperor has clothes, and so forth -- are only problems on their own assumption that the Emperor has no clothes. The arguments of the clothes-deniers were invented by people who believe that the Emperor has no clothes. They needed to explain why their beliefs seem inconsistent with the real world. Many of these rationalizations are extremely 'sophisticated' as you might expect since the problem is difficult. I don't give a damn about those rationalizations no matter how many books have been written."

Imposing intellect! He seems almost as clever as Larry Moran himself, theist though he is. But, alas, the story is rigged against the valiant defender of Larry Moran's atheism: it's still the case on the assumptions of the story that

(1) He's wrong, and his opponents are right: Larry Moran's atheism is ridiculous.
(2) Everyone the story is really considering can see that the Emperor has no clothes: the story assumes that it's obvious that Larry Moran's atheism is ridiculous.

And with those assumptions, look how ridiculous that courtier's reply is. And so someone later on comes along and says, "Look, it only comes out that way because you rigged it to do so." And that someone is me, because I like fairy tales and fables and dislike people who make stupid uses of them.

But I say this while criticizing Yrral Narom's use of it. And Yrral Narom, that theistic biologist blogger in Toronto, sniffs and says,

The point of the Coutrier's Reply is that atheists bring up these "problems" with theism when they should be discussing whether gods exist.

The Courtier's Reply does not apply when theists engage in discussions about the problem of evil or any other problem that atheists have when they're trying to reconcile their ridiculous view with rationality. It only applies when atheists try moving the goalposts—which they do all the time.

To which I would of course reply, "Silly Yrral Narom; you should not misinterpret stories to people who are capable of reading them; in order to say this you have obviously not thought the story through at all." In the modified Courtier's reply it is obviously a theist who is doing the defending, and the courtier is a type of theist the other theists think are weaseling out of the plain consequences of their conclusions. (We can call them the Neville Chamberlain theists, perhaps, or could if we are also assuming that we are all adolescents.)

So what have we learned? I address you, of course, those two or three readers who actually managed to make it through a blog post this long. What have we learned? That the tale of the Emperor's new clothes crucially depends on the fact that the Emperor has no clothes, and that everyone can see that even if they are afraid to say so. That the Courtier's Reply was written for the mouth of someone who personally thinks there is reason to say that the Emperor has no clothes, and not, as Moran suggests, someone who really believes that the Emperor is clothed. That Larry Moran did not consider this story through, since he affirms the story but denies everything that makes the story make sense as an allegory; and that he did not consider that allegories are flexible things that can be reinterpreted. That it is seriously unfortunate that such an intelligent person has to be walked step-by-step through a children's fairy tale so that he doesn't get lost. And that Larry Moran, intelligent as he is, should never, ever become a spokesperson for atheism, even if paid to do it, because I can think up a more rational and consistently argued atheism than he can.

Yes, I think that about sums up what I wanted to say.