Rationality and Sentimentality

You often meet online a kind of person who goes on and on endlessly about “reason” and “rationality.” Just recently, Neil deGrasse Tyson made a bit of a fool of himself by proposing the creation of a “virtual country” called #Rationalia.  And of course a lot of the usual suspects got on board with this:


The addition of the C. S. Lewis quote is my doing. And maybe this isn’t that much of a bandwagon, since it was apparently necessary (or rational?) to include @CosmicPinot twice—but this sort of thing reminded me of an analysis this phenomenon given by philosopher Edward Feser, a thinker for whom I have a lot of respect.

Feser, being a Catholic and a Thomist, has often crossed swords with atheists.  And like anyone who argues with modern atheists, he has been struck by the contrast between their rhetoric of rationality and the manifest irrationality of their conduct.  This glaring contradiction cries out for an explanation, and I think Feser has put his finger on the best or primary explanation.  I’ll quote Feser and intersperse my own thoughts. If you’d like to read his entire blog post (which I recommend), it is found here: Walter Mitty atheism.

Needless to say, there is something truly pathological going on here. And that, by the way, is one reason Coyne, Krauss, and company are worth at least a little of our attention. Some readers have asked me why I bother replying to people who are so extremely irrational and dishonest, and therefore unlikely to respond well to serious criticism. Part of the reason is that though Coyne, Krauss, Dawkins, and many of their fans are indeed impervious to rational argumentation, there are onlookers who are not impervious to it. And those people are reachable and worth trying to reach. After all, Coyne, Krauss, Dawkins, and some of the other better known New Atheists are, though irrational and dishonest, not stupid. In their own fields, some of them even do interesting work. For that reason, some people who know as little about philosophy and theology as they do but who are rational and honest might falsely suppose that these New Atheists must have something important to say about those particular subjects. Hence it is useful now and again to expose Coyne et al. for the frauds that they are, so that well-meaning third parties will see that they are not to be taken seriously on philosophical and theological questions. The more they make fools of themselves, the more they should be discussed rather than ignored, at least so long as there is any intellectually honest person who still somehow thinks the New Atheism is anything but a bad joke.

I am also frequently asked this question, especially on Twitter, and my response is exactly the same.  I may not be able to convince my opponent or their ideologically blinkered followers, but third parties can often see who is making a reasonable argument and who is acting like an irrational ideologue.

Another reason for paying them some attention, though, is that Coyne, Krauss, Dawkins, and company are simply genuine curiosities. Again, they are not stupid, and indeed have serious intellectual accomplishments to their credit. And yet on the subjects of religion and philosophy they are incapable of seeing that their self-confidence is laughably, cringe-makingly out of proportion to their actual competence. They exhibit exactly the sort of stubborn, bigoted closed-mindedness and ignorance that they smugly condemn when they perceive it in others. What exactly is going on here? What makes these weird people tick? That is a question of real intellectual interest.

I agree.  This is a very interesting question. In fact, this question and Feser’s answer are so interesting I’m writing about them right now.  The general pattern of human beings contradicting their stated beliefs with their actions is commonplace. It is simple hypocrisy.  But the hypocrite that is genuinely blind to his or her own hypocrisy is interesting. What explains this?

The answer, according to Feser, following Roger Scruton, is something he calls sentimentality:

The answer, I would suggest, is sentimentality. I use the word in a semi-technical sense, following the analysis offered in The Aesthetics of Music by Roger Scruton (who was in turn building on some ideas of Michael Tanner). A sentimental person, according to Scruton, tends to be quick to respond emotionally to a stimulus, will appear to be pained but will enjoy his pangs, will respond with equal violence to a variety of stimuli in succession, will nevertheless avoid following his emotional responses up with appropriate actions, and will respond more readily to strangers and to abstract issues than to persons known to him or to concrete circumstances requiring time, energy, or personal sacrifice. In short, a sentimental person is one whose emotional life becomes an end in itself and loses its connection both to the external circumstances that would normally shape it and to the behavior that it ought to generate. Feelings of moral outrage, romantic passion, and other emotional states become valued for their own sake to such an extent that the actual moral facts, the well-being of the beloved, etc. fade into the background.

For instance, someone who constantly chats up the plight of the homeless, but without any real interest in finding out why people become homeless or what ways of helping them are really effective, might plausibly be described as merely sentimental. “How awful things are for the homeless!” is not really the thought that moves him. What really moves him is the thought: “How wonderful I am to think of how awful things are for the homeless!” His feelings of compassion function, not to get him to do what is necessary to help those who are homeless, but rather to provide him with assurance of his superior virtue. His high dudgeon functions, not to prod him to find out whether the homeless are really being victimized by evildoers, but rather to reinforce his assurance of his superior virtue by allowing him to contrast himself with the imagined evildoers. This kind of onanistic moralism requires a fantasy world rich enough to sustain it. Poignant or dramatic images of suffering and of injustices inflicted are far more likely to foster such fantasies than are cold statistics or the actual, mundane details of the lives of homeless people. Hence someone who is merely sentimental about homelessness might prefer movies, songs, and the like to social scientific study as a source of “information” about homelessness and its causes.

Now, the New Atheism, I submit, is exactly like this. The New Atheist talks, constantly and loudly, about reason, science, evidence, facts, being “reality-based,” etc. Equally constantly and loudly, he decries dogmatism, ignorance, wishful thinking, whatever is merely “faith-based,” etc. And he relentlessly denounces “religious” people, whom, he imagines, are central casting exemplars of the latter vices. But it is not reason, science, etc. that really move him. What really moves him is the pleasure that the thought of being paradigmatically rational, scientific, etc. gives him. Nor is he really moved by what religious people actually think. After all, he not only doesn’t trouble himself to find out what they actually think, but often will expend great energy trying to rationalize his refusal to find out what they actually think. (Consider e.g. P.Z. Myers’ shamelessly question-begging “Courtier’s reply” dodge.) Rather, what moves him is the self-righteous delight he takes in his belief in his intellectual and moral superiority over “religious” people. His “rationalism” consists, not in actually being rational, but in constantly chatting up rationality and constantly badmouthing those who, at least in his imagination, are not as rational as he enjoys believing that he is.

Here we have the heart of the issue, I think:

[I]t is not reason, science, etc. that really move him. What really moves him is the pleasure that the thought of being paradigmatically rational, scientific, etc. gives him


His “rationalism” consists, not in actually being rational, but in constantly chatting up rationality and constantly badmouthing those who, at least in his imagination, are not as rational as he enjoys believing that he is.

What is paramount to see is that this sort of ‘rationalist’ is not dedicated to reason or rationality in any real sense, but to his own feelings, particularly those touching on his self-image of “being a rational person”.  It gives him a great deal of pleasure to contemplate his own superiority to others, which he does by celebrating his “rationality” (defined in such a way that he cannot fail to be rational, do not doubt), both inwardly in his thought-life and outwardly by means of rationality virtue signaling. Anyone who has engaged atheists in online argumentation will also have observed this pattern of both self-congratulation and of fellow-rationalist-congratulation.  Both are ubiquitous and unmistakable.

Those of us who actually love truth for its own sake and seek it by means of reasoned inquiry experience a disconnect when talking to such people.  They say that they are in favor of reason and inquiry, and yet their actions bely their words.

When one encounters someone extolling the virtue of rationality, especially his own virtuousness as a paradigmatically rational person, odds are high you are dealing not with a real rationalist but with a sentimentalist.  And if you are going to engage a sentimentalist in debate or discussion, do not expect him to act in a rational manner.


Keeping Track

So Mark Houlsby asserts that God does not exist. I challenged him to prove this assertion. Here is his argument:

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I and others have attempted to refute this argument by arguing “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.” We proffered plausible counterexamples: such things as protons (at one time), intelligent life in the Andromeda galaxy, and black holes (at one time). We argued that it is overwhelmingly likely that there are things for which we do not yet have evidence.

His response is odd.

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As should be clear from his argument,

  1. There is no evidence for God.
  2. ∴ God does not exist.

he has a suppressed premise. What’s premise 2?  It would have to be:

MH2: Anything for which there is no evidence does not exist.

Worse yet, he seems to hold

MH4: If X exists, necessarily there is evidence that X exists.

from his proton argument.

But evidence is an epistemological concept, pertaining to knowledge, to how we know that something exists or not, and what its properties are. Existence on the other hand is a metaphysical or ontological concept.

There seems to simply be no necessary connection between existence and evidence, such that either “a lack of evidence for X ⇒ X does not exist” nor “X exists ⇒ there is evidence that X exists.”

It seems perfectly obvious that there could be things which are unknown to us, because not yet discovered, or more strongly, things that are perhaps unknown to us in principle, given the limits of human cognition.   Given his response to protons in the 1st century, he might claim the evidence is there, because the existence is the evidence.  He would then be saying that the existence of X is the evidence that X exists.

This would make sense out of MH2 and MH4, but then he would be identifying existence and evidence, so his premises would translate (be substitution of equivalent terms) to:

MH2: Anything for which there is no evidence is something for which there is no evidence.

MH4: If X exists,  X exists. 

It would be impossible to deny these premises when formulated in this way, but the cost is that they are now vacuous tautologies from which nothing follows.  It would make his argument against the existence of God circular, because MH1: there is no evidence for God would just mean MH3: God does not exist.  When your first premise IS your conclusion, you are either begging the question (if you think you proved your conclusion) or you haven’t gone anywhere:

  1. God does not exist.
  2. ∴ God does not exist.

That’s valid, certainly, but it isn’t a proof.  Presented as a proof it is question-begging.

This is ongoing, so I’m using my blog to keep track.  Stay tuned!

On the question of evidence, I thought of perhaps an even better counterexample to Houlsby’s claim, after Thomas Nagel’s famous “What is it like to be a bat?” I was looking at my cat this morning, and wondering what it is like to be a cat.  If we accept that cats and bats are conscious beings, then they are “experiencing subjects of a life” and so there is “something it is like to be them.”  But human beings, it seems, can never know what it is like to be a cat. Because, by definition, a human being is a human being and not a cat.  Even if, hypothetically, one could hook one’s brain to a cat and have experience cat experiences,  this would still not be “what it is like to be a cat” but “what it is like for a human being to have cat experiences run through their brain.”  Short of magic, where a witch turns a person into a cat, it seems there is an in-principle barrier to knowing what it is like to be a cat.  Which is to say, there is no possible evidence that could tell us what it is like to be a cat. Again I Houlsby could make the move of saying “there is evidence, but it is completely unexperienceable by us as evidence.”  But of course to do this would, again, utterly defeat his argument that God does not exist, unless he knows, for a fact, that there is no evidence for God, which would include evidence which is in principle not experienceable by any human being.  But of course he couldn’t know such a thing.

His claim that MH1: There is no evidence for God is already defeated by AMH1: It is possible there is evidence of God that has not yet be discovered.  I of course hold there is evidence for God, and plenty of it, but even if Houlsby rejects everything put forward as evidence, he is still not warranted in claiming there is none, but only that he has not seen any. Even worse, his peculiar definition of evidence seems to entail AMH1′: It is possible there is evidence for God that is not in principle experienceable by any human being (since he seems to hold that evidence can exist apart from it doing any evidentiary work for anything or anyone).  This also radically undercuts his claim that there is no evidence for God since on this understanding, literally anything could be evidence for God, in such a way that it is, objectively, evidence, but it is unknown to anyone that it is evidence and how it is evidence. For all Houlsby knows, his fallacious argument that there is no God might be evidence for the existence of God; since he asserts evidence exists independently of its being known by anyone to be evidence, he has know way of knowing.  Someone might discover a sound argument in which Houlsby’s fallacious argument for the nonexistence of God is actual evidence for the existence of God.  I’m not saying that it is; I’m saying he can’t rule out the possibility that it is not, since for him “to be evidence” does not require evidence to do any evidentiary work for anyone.


Classical Atheists vs New Atheists

Most people know “New Atheism” as a term for the particularly militant, aggressive, populist, anti-intellectual, noxious atheism of the second half of the first decade of the 20th century, typically represented by writers such as Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris, lesser lights such as Michel Onfray, Victor J. Stenger, Michael Shermer, Lawrence Krauss, and their epigones.  But the thing was misnamed. There wasn’t really anything new about New Atheism, except one thing.  As Tom Flynn wrote in 2010,

New Atheism Not New

Since there wasn’t really anything new about the New Atheism, except as a popular novelty, one which has now worn off, it seems fairly safe to say that the New Atheism is more or less over.  New Atheism is passé.  It has suffered the fate of everything foolish enough to put the word “new” in its name suffers: it stopped being new, and got old, as things do.

However, just because New Atheist phenomenon has burnt out doesn’t mean that we can’t repurpose the name, which could still be useful.  This is a suggestion made by a Twitter friend of mine, @philosophynerd2, one I heartily endorse.  He suggests that we classify atheists as either Classical Atheists or New Atheists, defined as follows:

A Classical Atheist is an atheist who understands atheism to mean the denial of the existence of God, and who holds that God does not exist.

A New Atheist is an atheist who accepts Antony Flew’s redefinition of the term “atheist” and understands atheism to mean a lack of belief in the existence of God, and so is an atheist who doesn’t deny the existence of God, but only insists he does not accept the existence of God.

Flew himself used the term negative atheist to describe his new kind of atheist, as opposed to the older positive atheists.  That never caught on, since it sounds strange to call a denial of the existence of God positive (it makes sense, but it still sounds wrong to most people).

Back in the early 1990s, when I used to lurk on Usenet’s alt.atheism, the terms strong atheist and weak atheist were used to distinguish those who denied the existence of God and those who claimed in a Flewian fashion only to lack a belief in the existence of God. Sometimes the weak atheists would complain that the term “weak” made them sound a bit, well, weak.  To which the strong atheists would usually retort that they were weak, that they should man up, stop being pussies, and become strong atheists (which were still generally regarded as atheists proper).  It wasn’t that weak atheists weren’t considered atheists, but they were definitely widely considered to be an inferior or second class kind of atheist. But that was then.

I think the assessment of the strong atheists was and is entirely correct. Weak atheists are an inferior kind of atheist. They are inferior in intellectual rigor and intellectual honesty—largely because the accept not only Flew’s redefinition of atheism but also his contention that it follows from this redefinition that atheism is the presumptive “default position” and that the burden of proof in the atheism/theism debate lies entirely on the theist.  As it happens, Flew is wrong.  Neither of these things in fact follow (and are no longer taken to follow in the philosophy of religion, largely thanks to the work of Alvin Plantinga, who made such a powerful case for the rational presumption of theism that he essentially single-handedly rolled the discussion back to its pre-Flew state).

But at the same years professional philosophers of religion were working out that Flew was wrong (and Flew himself was reading Aristotle seriously for the first time, which eventually led him to theism), Flew’s ideas were trickling down into the wider population, where they have now essentially become the new atheist orthodoxy.  This has had a number of bad consequences, especially with respect to the level of atheist intellectual discourse. Since the Flewian New Atheist considers himself not to hold a position, but to win by default, he has not, as a rule, cultivated much capacity in the way of making a rational case for his position (why should he expend the effort of time and thought to make a case for a position, when he wins by default precisely by not having a position?).  Now to win, even by default, the New Atheist does still have to make some arguments, but this is limited to criticism of theistic arguments. And as everyone knows, it is much easier to criticize and tear down than it is to create and build up. It is hard to make a detailed case for something; it is fairly easy, on the other, hand to attempt to poke holes in someone else’s case.  Not many people can successfully do the former; the latter lies within the range of most mediocre intellects.

One can’t help but of think of C. S. Lewis’ characterization of two English teachers who used a watered down Emotivism and the “fact/value” distinction to ‘debunk’ all claims involving an expression of emotion or value:


Worse still, since the New Atheist believes he wins by default and that atheism is merely “a lack of belief in God”, he can claim victory (of a sort) if a theist fails to induce in him a belief in God—something which is entirely within the power of his own will to prevent.

The New Atheist, if you let him define the terms of the debate in a Flewian manner, cannot lose: he wins by default if the theist fails to persuade him to believe in God, and this is something entirely within his power to refuse to do no matter what. You can see why a certain sort of atheist likes this situation very much—I suspect they are the same sort of people who play video games on “god mode”—but these circumstances are not healthy with respect to finding out the truth. A cheap and easy rhetorical victory is substituted for a serious inquiry and endeavor to find the truth.  This is why popular Flewian “New Atheism” tends to make one anti-intellectual, lazy, dogmatic, strident, arrogant, and willful.

I think I will adopt my friend Philosophy Nerd’s technique of requiring atheists to self-identify as either a Classical Atheist or a New Atheist.  “New Atheist” seems to be a perfectly good term which either is or will shortly be in search of a new use—and since Flewian “lack of belief” atheists represent an entirely new definition of atheism, it seems like a perfect match.

Atheist Weight Classes

If it were up to me to choose the atheist “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse,” I could do a much better job than the New Atheist four:


As a philosopher, Nietzsche towers above the others.  Sartre easily takes second place, although his thought is heavily dependent on Heidegger and Alexandre Kojève’s interpretation of Hegel.  Much of Freud’s thought is taken (uncredited) from Nietzsche, and almost all of real philosophical substance in Marx is borrowed from Hegel.  In terms of influence however, Marx and Freud certainly rank as high as any.

This got me thinking of them as atheist “Heavyweights.”  I didn’t know anything about boxing weight classes, but Google is my friend, so here we are.


Heavyweights: Nietzsche, Sartre, Freud, Marx, Hume, Schopenhauer, Feuerbach, Stirner

Middleweights: Bruno Bauer, Auguste Comte, Voltaire, Denis Diderot, Baron d’Holbach, Jeremy Bentham, John Stuart Mill, Bertrand Russell, Albert Camus

Welterweights: A. J. Ayer, Antony Flew, Michael Martin, Gilles Deleuze, Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, Jean-François Leotard, Quentin Smith

Lightweights: Peter Singer, Kai Nielsen, J. C. C. Smart,

Featherweights: Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, Ayn Rand, Michel Onfray, Peter Atkins, Massimo Pigliucci, Michael Ruse

Bantamweights: Lawrence Krauss, Jerry Coyne, Michael Shermer, Victor Stenger, Alex Rosenberg, A. C. Grayling, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Carl Sagan

Flyweights: P. Z. Myers, Richard Carrier, Thunderf00t, The Amazing Atheist, David Silverman, Rebecca Watson, Infidels.org

Strawweights: 99.99% of atheists on social media, including Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube. This idiot. These idiots.

Special: I want to include Dostoyevski among the Heavyweights, but since he’s a theist, it doesn’t seem right. Nonetheless, he thought through atheism as deeply as anyone (and certainly more profoundly that most of the atheists on this list) in, e.g. Demons and The Brothers Karamazov.

Some of these names may be a little obscure to people not in the field of professional philosophy or not conversant with the history of philosophy.  I didn’t really go back further than the 18th century, and then only to pick up Hume and the French Philosophes—this is mostly about modern atheism, beginning in the 19th century.  Hume’s just too damned important to leave out though.

Personally, I recommend you don’t go below the Lightweights if you are a serious inquirer. It’s around that point where rhetoric begins to replace argument, or when argument is to be found, the same arguments are found much better in the higher weight classes.  Well, that’s not entirely true; Thunderf00t and the Amazing Atheist are both pretty entertaining, and frequently have interesting things to say when not straw manning theism.

Let me know what you think.  Did I miss anyone?  Miscategorize anyone?


God, gods, and kamikazes

Suppose after a night of rather heavy drinking at a bar, I say to one of my friends “There were at least two dozen kamikazes in the bar last night!” As it happens, she was also at the bar last night, although not with me, and she disputes my claim, on the ground that there were no Japanese aerial suicide pilots in the bar, and “kamikaze” means “Japanese aerial suicide pilot.”

I explain that identical or similar words can have different meanings, and that a “kamikaze” is also a drink consisting of equal parts vodka, triple sec and lime juice.  I explain to her I am talking about the cocktail, not the Japanese suicide bomber pilots.  I further explain that I happen to be in privileged position with respect to my claim to know what it is that I am talking about.

She rejects this, insisting that “kamikaze” means “Japanese aerial suicide pilot” and nothing else, neither the common usage of the word among cocktail drinkers nor my usage of the word to mean a drink notwithstanding.  On this basis, she continues to insist that my claim about there “being at least two dozen kamikazes in the bar last night” is false.

What should we make of this argument on her part?

It seems obvious that it is a very bad argument, because she is failing to address my claim at all. Her objection is an appeal to a different sense of the word that has no relevant connection to my use of the word.  I recognize there is a very tenuous historical connection between the name of the drink and the Japanese aerial suicide bombers, but it likely isn’t anything more than someone at some point thinking “that would be a cool name for a drink.”¹

Consider also the names of various American car models: “Bronco” “Accent” “Caprice” “Passport” “Suburban” etc. Like my kamikaze example, it would seem merely fatuous to claim that the owner of a Hyundai Accent does not have an accent, because an accent means “a distinctive mode of pronunciation of a language, especially one associated with a particular nation, locality, or social class.” So it does, but it also means “a distinct emphasis given to a syllable or word in speech by stress or pitch” and “a car model produced by Hyundai.”

Very obviously, if a person attempts to refute your argument or claim on the basis of a sense of a word which you don’t mean, they are simply committing a fallacy of equivocation.  Equivocation is possible only because identical or similar words can and do have multiple senses, sometimes related, sometimes not.

Let’s take a third case and be as blatant as possible. I claim “Water is H₂O.” My opponent is a Humpty-Dumptyist who simply stipulates that he defines “water” as “lead.” He then argues that lead is not H₂O but Pb, and therefore I am wrong.  Has he refuted me?  Obviously not. But why not? Because when I said “water” I meant “water” and not “lead.” My claim is about water. His refutation required him to pretend my claim is not about water but about lead, which it isn’t.


So what’s the point? Isn’t it obvious that this move of refuting something other than what a speaker means is fallacious?

It should be obvious, but I find it is very common tactic used by many atheists.  When I or other theists make claims about God, the atheists will claim, falsely, that we are making claims about gods. Now, I would not deny there is historical connection between the words “god” and “God” just as there is between “kamikaze” and “kamikaze” or between “accent” and “Accent.”  But the words denote very different things. This difference in denotation is in fact the reason “God” is capitalized whereas “god” is not—it is to mark the difference between the concept of “God” and the concept of “a god.”

Not only is this established usage, it is within the rights of the theist to define what he or she is talking about. You can dispute my claim that God exists if you wish to.  But you cannot dispute it by claiming that I am talking about something I am not talking about, or claiming something I am not claiming, and refuting the thing I am not claiming and not talking about.  Such a “refutation” is no refutation at all, nor does it undermine my claims in any way, since it is simply about something else, which I am not talking about.

So not only does the atheist seem to be confused about the distinction between God and gods, he is actively intellectually dishonest if he insists on redefining terms on the basis of “what they really mean” or (what comes to the same) “what he thinks they should mean.”

It should be obvious that if a person asserts something about something (S is P) that the truth or falsity of the assertion depends on the meaning and definition of the terms, and all else being equal, the one who asserts something has the right to define her terms, since she is in the epistemically privileged position of being the only one who knows what she is talking about.

“You mean something other than what you mean” is never a legitimate argument, since what I mean is both entirely up to me, and known only to me (up until the point at which I define my terms, thereby making it clear what I mean).

Atheistic appeals to gods are fallacies of equivocation when God is the subject at issue.

¹ Some further research reveals that no one knows the origin of the name of the drink for certain, but there is a widespread story that it originated with some American GIs at the officer’s club at the post-war Yokusuba military base; while the beers only did them minor “damage”, the cocktails were doing them major “damage” i.e. knocking them on their asses, so they named them “kamikazes” for the potential major damage a successful kamikaze could do to a ship.

A Dilemma for Scientism

Professor Paul Moser discusses some problems with scientism in his book The Evidence for God: Religious Knowledge Reexamined:


Our dilemma will bear on positions (i)–(vi), given that it bears on the aforementioned core statements of naturalism satisfied by those positions, namely:

Core ontological naturalism: every real entity either consists of or at least owes its existence to the objects acknowledged by the hypothetically completed empirical sciences (that is, the objects of a natural ontology).

Core methodological naturalism: every cognitively legitimate method of acquiring or revising beliefs consists of or is grounded in the hypothetically completed methods of the empirical sciences (that is, in natural methods).

These are core statements of ontological and methodological naturalism, and they offer the empirical sciences as the criterion for metaphysical and cognitive genuineness. They entail ontological and methodological monism in that they acknowledge the empirical sciences as the single standard for genuine metaphysics and cognition. These core positions therefore promise us remarkable explanatory unity in metaphysics and cognition. Still, we must ask: is their promise trustworthy? For brevity, let’s call the conjunction of these two positions Core Scientism, while allowing for talk of both its distinctive ontological component and its distinctive methodological component.

Core Scientism is not itself a thesis offered by any empirical science. In particular, neither its ontological component nor its methodological component is a thesis, directly or indirectly, of an empirical science or a group of empirical sciences. Neither component is endorsed or implied by the empirical scientific work of physics, chemistry, astronomy, geology, biology, anthropology, psychology, sociology, or any other natural or social empirical science or any group thereof. As a result, no research fundable by the National Science Foundation, for instance, offers Core Scientism as a scientific thesis. In contrast, the National Endowment for the Humanities would be open to funding certain work centered on Core Scientism, perhaps as part of a project in philosophy, particularly in philosophical metaphysics or epistemology.

Core Scientism proposes a universality of scope for the empirical sciences (see its talk of “every real entity” and “every cognitively legitimate method”) that the sciences themselves consistently avoid. Individual sciences are typically distinguished by the particular ranges of empirical data they seek to explain: biological data for biology, anthropological data for anthropology, and so on. Similarly, empirical science as a whole is typically distinguished by its attempt to explain all relevant empirical data and, accordingly, by the range of all relevant empirical data. Given this typical constraint on empirical science, we should be surprised indeed if the empirical sciences had anything to say about whether entities outside the domain of the empirical sciences (say, in the domain of theology) are nonexistent. At any rate, we should be suspicious in that case.

Sweeping principles about the nature of cognitively legitimate inquiry in general, particularly principles involving entities allegedly outside the domain of the empirical sciences, are not the possession or the product of the empirical sciences themselves. Instead, such principles emerge from philosophy or from some product of philosophy, perhaps even misguided philosophy. Accordingly, Core Scientism is a philosophical thesis, and is not the kind of scientific thesis characteristic of the empirical sciences. The empirical sciences flourish, have flourished, and will flourish without commitment to Core Scientism or to any such philosophical principle. Clearly, furthermore, opposition to Core Scientism is not opposition either to science (regarded as a group of significant cognitive disciplines) or to genuine scientific contributions.

Proponents of Core Scientism will remind us that their scientism invokes not the current empirical sciences but rather the hypothetically completed empirical sciences. Accordingly, they may be undisturbed by the absence of Core Scientism from the theses of the current empirical sciences. Still, the problem at hand persists for Core Scientism, because we have no reason to hold that Core Scientism is among the claims or the implications of the hypothetically completed empirical sciences. A general problem is that specific predictions about what the completed sciences will include are notoriously risky and arguably unreliable (even though this robust fact has not hindered stubborn forecasters of science). The often turbulent, sometimes revolutionary history of the sciences offers no firm basis for reasonable confidence in such speculative predictions, especially when a sweeping philosophical claim is involved. In addition, nothing in the current empirical sciences makes it likely that the completed sciences would include Core Scientism as a thesis or an implication. The monopolistic hopes of some naturalists for the sciences, therefore, are hard to anchor in reality.

The problem with Core Scientism stems from its distinctive monopolistic claims. Like many philosophical claims, it makes claims about every real entity and every cognitively legitimate method for acquiring or revising beliefs. The empirical sciences, as actually practiced, are not monopolistic, nor do we have any reason to think that they should or will become so. Neither individually nor collectively do they offer scientific claims about every real entity or every cognitively legitimate method for belief formation. Advocates of an empirical science monopoly would do well to attend to this empirical fact.

The empirical sciences rightly limit their scientific claims to their proprietary domains, even if wayward scientists sometimes overextend themselves, and depart from empirical science proper, with claims about every real entity or every cognitively legitimate method. (The latter claims tend to sell trendy books, even though they fail as science.) Support for this observation comes from the fact that the empirical sciences, individually and collectively, are logically and cognitively neutral on such matters as the existence of God and the veracity of certain kinds of religious experience. Accordingly, each such science logically and cognitively permits the existence of God and the veracity of certain kinds of religious experience. We have no reason, moreover, to suppose that the hypothetically completed empirical sciences should or will differ from the actual empirical sciences in this respect. Naturalists, at any rate, have not shown otherwise; nor has anyone else. This comes as no surprise, however, once we recognize that the God of traditional monotheism does not qualify or function as an object of empirical science. Accordingly, we do well not to assume, without needed argument, that the objects of empirical science exhaust the objects of reality in general. An analogous point holds for the methods of empirical science: we should not assume uncritically that they exhaust the methods of cognitively legitimate belief formation in general.

Proponents of Core Scientism might grant that it is not, itself, a claim of the empirical sciences, but they still could propose that Core Scientism is cognitively justified by the empirical sciences. (A “claim” of the empirical sciences is, let us say, a claim logically entailed by the empirical sciences, whereas a claim justified by the sciences need not be thus logically entailed.) This move would lead to a focus on the principles of cognitive justification appropriate to the empirical sciences. Specifically, what principles of cognitive justification allegedly combine with the (hypothetically completed) empirical sciences to justify Core Scientism? More relevantly, are any such principles of justification required, logically or cognitively, by the (hypothetically completed) empirical sciences themselves? No such principles of justification seem logically required, because the (hypothetically completed) empirical sciences logically permit that Core Scientism is not justified. Whether such principles of justification are cognitively required depends on the cognitive principles justified by the (hypothetically completed) empirical sciences, and the latter matter clearly remains unsettled. We have, at any rate, no salient evidence for thinking that the (hypothetically completed) empirical sciences will include or justify cognitive principles that justify Core Scientism. The burden for delivering such evidence is squarely on naturalists, and it remains to be discharged.

Moser, Paul K.. The Evidence for God: Religious Knowledge Reexamined (pp. 76-80). Cambridge University Press. Kindle Edition.

Ad Hominem

Ad hominem is a Latin expression that means “to the man.”  It is an informal logical fallacy of which attempts to refute or discredit a person’s argument by means of an appeal to some irrelevant personal characteristic of the arguer.

Like all informal fallacies, an ad hominem is fallacious not because of its form, but because of its content. That is to say, in order to establish that an ad hominem fallacy has occurred, it is necessary to show this in each case, because an appeal to personal characteristics of a person is not always fallacious.

People often confuse insults and unwelcome descriptions or observations for ad hominem fallacies, but this is a misunderstanding of the fallacy.  Consider the following three statements:

1. Your argument about tax policy is invalid because you are an ugly, foul-smelling, unpleasant person.

2. You have trouble getting dates because you are an ugly, foul-smelling, unpleasant person.

3. You are an ugly, foul-smelling, unpleasant person.

Of these three, only Statement 1 is an ad hominem fallacy.  The fact that a person is ugly, foul-smelling, and unpleasant is irrelevant to the truth of their views about taxation. It is this irrelevance that makes the fallacy fallaciousan ad hominem could be described as an “appeal to irrelevant personal characteristics.”

Statement 2 is not an ad hominem because being ugly, foul-smelling, and unpleasant is relevant to a person’s ability to get dates. The argument presented in Statement 2 may be unsound, the premise that the person is ugly, foul-smelling, and unpleasant may be false, but the argument is not fallacious.

Statement 3 is not an ad hominem fallacy, because it is not an argument at all.  It is simply an insult, or a description, or an observation (even if the description or observation is unwelcome).  Insulting someone may be impolite, but it cannot be fallacious.

For a charge of ad hominem to be justified, it must pass two tests:

  1. There must be a claim that a person’s argument is refuted, undermined, or weakened on the basis of some personal characteristic.
  2. This personal characteristic must be irrelevant to the matter at hand.

If you are going to charge someone with committing an ad hominem fallacy, you need to show both these things to be the case.

If an ad hominem charge fails either of these tests it is a false charge and may be dismissed.


Consider some other cases:

A.  A politician argues that a lucrative government contract should be awarded to company C. It is discovered that the politician is major shareholder in company C, and that if company C is awarded the contract in question, he personally stands to make a significant amount of money.  Is it an ad hominem to make people aware of the politician’s vested interest in the matter?  Answer: It is not, because a person’s motives in making a practical argument (an argument for doing something) are often highly relevant to our assessment of his argument. But where the personal characteristic(s) appealed to are relevant, there is no fallacy. The fact that the politician has a vested interest in company C being awarded the contract does not automatically refute his argument that company C should be awarded the contract, but it does factor into our reasoning about the issue.

B.  In matters of jurisprudence, we hold judges to have an ethical obligation to recuse themselves from any case in which there exists a conflict of interest. We expect a judge not to sit in judgment at the trial of, for example, his own son, or involving a company in which he is a major shareholder.  Is the concept of recusal unreasonable? What if a person were to argue that the expectation of recusal is based on an implicit ad hominem fallacy, namely, that a judge’s judgment will be invalid based on some personal characteristic of his, e.g. his familial connection to his son, or his financial connection to the company under indictment?  Answer: The idea of recusing oneself where there is a conflict of interest is reasonable.  We know in such cases that a human being’s judgement (judges are human beings) is likely to be biased in cases where deciding one way and not the other is directly in his self-interest; even if the man or woman in question is of exemplary moral character, we recognize that biases can sometimes operate subconsciously.  The existence of a conflict of interest does not just by itself prove bias; but it is enough, for example, if a previously undisclosed conflict of interest comes to light, to warrant a retrial. A conflict of interest in a matter is relevant to the assessment of a judgment or decision, just as it was in example A.

C. A history professor wants to argue the rather unobjectionable claim that “Hitler was a person of bad moral character.” Unfortunately for her, one of her students is also taking a philosophy class, in which they have just done a reading about informal fallacies.  The student charges the professor with committing an ad hominem fallacy, on the grounds that talking about Hitler’s personal characteristics appeals to Hitler’s personal characteristics, and any appeal to personal characteristics is an argument “to the man” and therefore an ad hominem.   Answer: It is an absurd misunderstanding to think that the existence of ad hominem fallacies rules out talking about persons or personal characteristics.  A person’s personal characteristics are supremely relevant to their personal characteristics; they are them.  Hitler’s moral character is entirely relevant to Hitler’s moral character; it is it.

ADDITION: Sargon of Akkad has helpful video distinguishing INSULTS and AD HOMINEMS.