Friday, March 26, 2010

Courtier's Reply and the Homework Defense

Edward Feser has an article here on what he calls the "New Philistinism." He's referring to the New Atheists who, he says, claim to refute classical theistic arguments, but, in fact, don't really understand them. What is worse, the atheists are apparently obdurate in, and even proud of, their ignorance. For their part, the atheists have coined a term for the theistic charge of ignorance - the "Courtier's Reply." The term refers to the story of "The Emperor's New Clothes", and refers to an imagined court official's reply to the claim that the Emperor has no clothes: "Have you not read the detailed discourses of Count Roderigo of Seville on the exquisite and exotic leathers of the Emperor's boots?, etc." (in Feser's words.) The point the atheists are making is that the theistic charge of ignorance is really an attempt to undermine the legitimacy of the atheist critique rather than answer it. The theist sends the atheist off on a research project which, of course, is never complete as long as the atheist remains in his atheism. If the atheist does not find St. Thomas's arguments for God convincing, it must be because he has not yet read Gilson or Maritain on St. Thomas. If he has read Gilson and Maritain but is still not convinced, it is only because he is yet ignorant of the writings of Anton Pegis on St. Thomas, and on and on.

I have some sympathy for the atheist's point about the Courtier's Reply, which I have long known by my own name, the Homework Defense (I think the Courtier's Reply is a much more elegant name.) It's a standard move of Darwinists, who reflexively refer you to places like whenever you raise questions about Darwinism. I know from my own experience that the homework never ends; or if you do faithfully manage to fulfill the homework assignment, your interlocutor is no longer interested in discussing the point and has moved on. Later, when you raise the same question with some other Darwinist, the previous homework assignment is rarely satisfactory; the new Darwinist will have a whole new assignment that must be completed before you are even qualified to ask any questions about Darwinism, and on it goes. One begins to suspect that the point of the homework assignments is not a genuine effort to further the conversation, but merely to deflect the questioner. This has been my experience with Harry Potter fans as well. It's not enough that I read the first one, two, or three books in the series before I am permitted to have an opinion about it. I've got to read the entire series through, as well as all kinds of secondary literature as well. (Potter fans don't seem to realize that this requirement undermines positive as well as negative criticism of the series prior to its completion. Yet much of the secondary reading I am assigned was written prior to the publication of the final book in the series. If John Granger could proclaim how wonderful the Potter series was way back in 2002, why couldn't I criticize it?)

The way to avoid all this back and forth about homework is to take the approach of Socrates: Deal with the arguments themselves and forget about the middlemen. What is important about St. Thomas's Five Ways is not who said them or when, but the content of the arguments themselves. That content stands on its own independent of whatever the historical origin of the arguments might be, the historical origin merely being "accidental" to the truth of the arguments. (This point comes from Kierkegaard, but it is true whether SK or Bozo the Clown said it, isn't it?) So instead of demanding that atheists further their research into St. Thomas, they should be directly presented with a clear formulation of the arguments themselves, and be asked to address those.

That is the way I use Kant in the philosophy of mind. The value of Kant is that he provides a set of approaches and questions about the mind that cannot be resolved by the standard, materialistic philosophy of mind popular today. But there is little point in criticizing someone's philosophy of mind by demanding that they research Kant; instead, research Kant yourself and ask pointed questions based on the inspiration Kant gives you. If you wish to credit Kant with the ultimate origin of your questions, fine, but that origin has nothing to do with their pertinence as questions.

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