Who is being irrational here?
In the midst of some recent exchanges between Thomist scholar Edward Feser and atheists Jason Rosenhouse and Jerry Coyne are some interesting questions concerning logical fallacies, and when we’re really guilty of having committed them.
Jason Rosenhouse, for example, pointed his blog readers to a couple of books that he thinks refute the cosmological argument. In response, Feser accused Rosenhouse of question begging, to which Rosenhouse replied with the following:
I think the cosmological argument is not very good, and . . . I think Mackie and Le Poidevin provided cogent and accessible refutations of it. How could I have been clearer? I have no idea what question I was begging by expressing those particular opinions.
And to this, Edward Feser replied in this manner:
Whether the cosmological argument is “not very good” and whether writers like Le Poidevin and Mackie have actually “refuted” it are precisely what is at issue between yourself and defenders of the cosmological argument like me. And merely to assume some proposition which is at issue instead of arguing for it — as you did when, in response to my advocacy of the cosmological argument, you asserted matter-of-factly that the argument had been “refuted” by the likes of Mackie and Le Poidevin — is a textbook instance of what logicians call “begging the question.” But then, in between all those volumes on Aquinas and Leibniz you haven’t read, it seems there are a few logic textbooks you haven’t gotten to either.
In other words, Feser is suggesting that Rosenhouse is illegitimately dodging a direct confrontation with Feser on the cosmological argument by putting up a smokescreen: go read this or that book; it answers you.
But, in defense of Rosenhouse, putting the letters of the alphabet into fresh informational order is difficult. In other words, to personally make a clean argument requires work and thought. It’s as difficult as making a clean room (or any other activity that you might engage in against randomness and entropy).
Rosenhouse is perhaps just lazy or busy. He doesn’t want to make the case against the cosmological argument in detail himself; he wants to outsource it to Mackie and Le Poidevin.
But is that really question begging?
I’m not so sure. If it’s anything bad that Rosenhouse did, I’d call it bluffing.
But Feser nevertheless piles on. If you’re going to oppose the cosmological argument in Feser’s presence, you better do so with direct argumentation and stay focused.
But this is what Rosenhouse and Coyne, in Feser’s estimate, do not do. As substitutes to the hard work of careful argumentation, Feser accuses Rosenhouse and Coyne of bringing in other agendas, such as changing the subject to issues of tone and motive, or using inflammatory rhetoric to evoke, not reason, but emotion:
Rosenhouse has a helluva nerve complaining about my aggressive tone. In the post that began this series of exchanges between Coyne, Rosenhouse, and myself, Coyne dismissed theology as “drivel” and said that he was starting to believe that the “obscurantism” of which he accuses theologians is “deliberate.” In his own first post, Rosenhouse characterized theology as “sewage” (!) and then dismissed my response to Coyne as a “temper tantrum.” This despite the fact that judging from their remarks, Coyne and Rosenhouse have little or no knowledge of what the most significant theologians — Aquinas and thinkers of similar stature — actually had to say. Even worse are the bizarre denizens of Coyne’s combox — a nightmare world of ignorance, shamelessly begged questions, gratuitous nastiness, and Stalinist ideological policing if ever there was one. And, as I pointed out in my recent post on the cosmological argument, ill-informed attacks on straw men are routine among New Atheist writers when they deal with arguments like the cosmological argument.
I’m inclined to agree with Feser here. He’s getting the better of this exchange. If you’re going to argue for (or against) something important, avoid the blue pipe smoke of logical fallacies and other distractions, and make your arguments (don’t outsource them).
And what’s Rosenhouse’s response to Feser’s challenge? Basically, he declines it. Here’s part of his lame and very short post on the matter:
I’m sure everyone will be shocked to learn that I don’t think he [Feser] replied very effectively, but if you’re curious go have a look. SIWOTI Syndrome is not a hang up of mine, and it doesn’t generally bother me to let my opponents have the last word in these little flare-ups. My only reply is that I stand by everything I said in my earlier posts.
Feser 1, New Atheists 0.