Posted on Dec 22, 2013 by Tom Gilson
James Lindsay is asking, “Why won’t Tom Gilson answer my question?“
Why Won’t I Answer? What a Strange Question!
Expressed Willingness To Discuss in Due Time
First of all, unlike you (see below) I responded very directly to several of your points. I did not respond to every one of them, to be sure, but that could hardly have been construed as unwillingness to answer, for I wrote,
So once again, I’m going to request that if it’s your purpose to respond to my open letter, would you please respond to the content and argument of the letter. If we work through that, then I think it could be very productive to move on to the new issues you raised.
If that’s not a clear statement of willingness to discuss your —in due time, of course —I don’t know what is. So your charge is strange on that account.
Your Own Non-Response Response
It’s also odd for another reason. You had written a blog post titled, “A Response to Tom Gilson’s Open Letter To Peter Boghossian.” Naturally enough I was expecting that post to be a response to my open letter to Boghossian. It wasn’t, as you have now admitted; you have apologized for putting the wrong title on it. When I was reading it, though, under the impression that it was intended to be what you called it, I was struck at how completely you failed to address the central point and major theme of what I had written in that open letter, ignoring the entire theme of the commentary laid before you. In fact I could have used just those words, saying something a lot like this:
Now, normally I wouldn’t care if Lindsay addressed this point or that in anything I wrote except in cases like this, where it is the central point and major theme of the open letter. It’s one thing to dodge tiresome details, and it’s quite another to ignore the thrust of the commentary laid before you.
But I didn’t say that. Rather, you said this just now:
Now, normally I wouldn’t care if Gilson addressed this point or that in anything I wrote except in cases like this, where it is the central point and only theme of the response I wrote. It’s one thing to dodge tiresome details, and it’s quite another to ignore the thrust of the commentary laid before you.
So now that I’ve written an answer to your response, in which I focused on trying to get us on topic of the central themes of my open letter, you fault me for not jumping off topic with you to the new subject you raised! This is odd indeed.
And Again, Your Non-Response Response
Apparently you think I should have been more cognizant of the fact that your response was to my whole thirteen-post series, and not just to my open letter. In your most recent article you wrote,
I did not ever intend to provide a point-by-point answer to your open letter. I find such endeavors not only tiresome but largely fruitless, though if you really want me to respond to you point-by-point, I might try to make time for that.
Instead, I sought to speak more generally to its theme and to the theme of the entire series. That theme, of course, is your defense that faith is a reliable way of knowing.
You did indeed speak more generally to the theme of my series, but I search in vain for any recognizable sign that it was a response to my series. It had more of the character of a statement of your own (and Boghossian’s) thesis—a response to faith in general—making little reference to what I had written, and no response at all to the argument of what I wrote. I suppose you might say that my series was the occasion of your article, but other than that it’s hard to see how your article was a response to what I wrote. You fault me for not answering your question, but in your “response,” you didn’t directly respond to anything I wrote at all!
So I find your charge to be a very strange one.
You saw that response coming, of course. Why not? It was obvious enough! You wrote,
And before you go tu quoque on me, the very point I was making with my response is that Peter Boghossian, along with everyone else, is under no obligation to use a word in a particular way if the alternative way it is being used is valid.
Actually, that’s one of the specific points I addressed in my answer to your response. I showed in more than one way that his alternative way of using it is invalid. I’m surprised you missed it.
Some Specific Points of Argumentation
The Need for Point-By-Point Analysis
I understand that you find point-by-point answers “tiresome” and unproductive. Here’s the thing, though: throughout my series, including the open letter, I showed statement after statement that Boghossian got wrong. He gets details wrong, he gets Christian arguments wrong, he gets definitions wrong. He gets enough wrong that it’s fair to say that his entire epistemic argument is built on a cracked and crumbled foundation.
Now, if you want to show that Boghossian’s approach is sound after all, then it behooves you to respond to my argument with argument. If I’m wrong, the door is open for you to show me I’m wrong. Granted, that still leaves open the question (the one you say I refused to answer) of whether my worldview is built on a cracked foundation, too. I told you I was open to discussing that. In the meantime, though, it won’t do you much good to ignore the evidence and reasoning that I’ve garnered in defense of my thesis that Boghossian is thoroughly wrong.
But let’s forget Boghossian for now. Let’s consider the quality of your own reasoning.
Why argue for an irrelevant definition of faith, conventional or otherwise?
You forget a step there: showing that the conventional definition of faith is irrelevant. You hold that position, obviously; but as far as the argument is concerned it’s an assumption contained in your conclusion; it’s circular argumentation.
An Ironically Misidentified “Fallacy”
You say my reference to Dawkins is ad hominem. No, not really. I was expressing my surprise that you would appeal to him as a source. Granted, you didn’t rest your case on Dawkins’s authority. Neither did I rest any of my case on my surprise that you quoted him in a context where his authority was so obviously irrelevant and of doubtful competence. In effect, your calling me out for an ad hominem there amounts to a poisoning of the well against me. (I can see no other purpose for it in your rhetoric, in view of the fact that neither of us built any argument on Dawkins.)
Thus your accusation that I committed an informal fallacy there amounts to an informal fallacy of your own! (I do have a purpose for stating that, beyond a poisoning of the well: it’s to show that your argument has a relevant weak spot in it.)
Later you also said,
Gilson is free to–and does–obfuscate this fact any way he wants, say by appealing to the testimony of others who’ve also fallen prey, like Augustine.
More poisoning of the well.
Unsupported (and False) Positions
You go on,
Let me expose Gilson’s pedantry [more poisoning of the well there] so that we can set it aside. Boghossian’s call to “change the definition” is merely an attempt to bring an accurate connotative understanding of the word faith within the sphere of its denotation, which is more a call for recognition than an attempt to overthrow the meaning of a word.
No, actually, it isn’t. It’s a distortion of the conventional meaning of the word, and it has predictable harmful effects, as I showed in my post. How could it be accurate when it doesn’t fit the way the word has been used in the primary literature for time immemorial?
I’d love to know how Gilson thinks that revelation is testable, or how it’s ever been tested (in a way that shows it is a reliable way to know things). Again, when what passes for revelation is correct, it is correct either by sheer luck or because it is blended with not revealed real observations about the world…. But “revealed wisdom” has often come from exactly this kind of divination, or that more disgusting, when not from the ravings of mad men (and sometimes women) claiming insight into the mind of God.
That’s an unsupported, bare naked assertion. There’s no argument there. (If we ever got to the point of discussing that issue, I could also show that it doesn’t match the relevant evidence; or in other words, it’s factually in error. Massively, so, in fact, in the case of Christianity.)
A Generally Confused, Self-Undermining Argument
Let’s suppose that Adam and Ann Atheist, being less confused than Tom Gilson about what Peter Boghossian wrote, teach their children to think of faith the way Boghossian recommends. Those children will have the opportunity to assess the reasons for and against Christianity and every other religion, but they would be armed in a way where faith is irrelevant to making their assessment.
This is incredibly confused thinking. Let me explain by translating what you wrote. Faith, they would be led to understand, is irrelevant. Thus when someday they come to assess the value of what they’ve been taught is irrelevant, they would know that this that they’ve been taught is irrelevant is, by definition, belief without evidence, and pretending to know what one does not know. Armed with those intellectual tools they will have a better, more noble opportunity to assess whether or not Christian faith is based on evidence and is relevant. Is that the case you’re trying to make? Really?! Do you not see how it undermines itself?
Serious Misreading of My Position
You thought it was “curious” that I included “an argument that somehow the accuracy of the traditional definition of ‘faith’ is somehow more important than if it is a reliable way to know anything.” That’s a gross misreading on your part. I argued that the conventional definition of faith is important so that inquirers could have the intellectual/linguistic tools available to assess [Christian] faith for themselves. I think my wording there is worth repeating:
Boghossian’s approach to faith undermines children’s freedom to choose anything but non-faith. Here’s how. Suppose Adam and Ann Atheist teach their children to think of faith the way Boghossian recommends. Those children will have great difficulty making their own assessment of the reasons for or against Christianity or any other faith; for their conception of faith would always be deeply rooted in terms of, “This is pretense; there is no evidence for it.” The question of whether there is evidence for faith becomes, “Is there any evidence for that for which there is no evidence?” The question become un-askable in its very form.
Perhaps you’re okay with that. Maybe you like the idea of taking the very form of the question from as many people as possible. I hope not, for I consider it quite reprehensible, myself. It’s the very antithesis of free, open, and evidence-oriented inquiry. It’s question-begging: the conclusion is contained in the premise by whichfaith is understood. Containing a fallacy right within it as it does, it’s hardly conducive to Boghossian’s value of promoting sound, critical thinking.
No reasonable person could construe that as an argument that the traditional definition of faith is more important than if it’s a reliable way of knowing. A non-question-begging definition of faith is essential precisely for the purpose of assessing whether it’s a reliable way of knowing!
I could continue, but enough is enough.
Shall We Move Forward? If So, How?
James, in a tweet you commended me for proceeding in an intellectually responsible way as we moved toward this discussion. If you’ll return to an intellectually responsible mode of responding to me, I’ll be interested in continuing the conversation. I’m not closed to answering your questions, and I never was. I’d appreciate it if you’d cut off the accusations of unwillingness to respond, as well as loaded language like “obsessed,” “dodge,” “pedantry,” “obfuscate,” and “hide.” To criticize is fine; I’m doing my share of it myself. I’m trying to keep focused on the arguments, however, and not on you as a person.
I’d appreciate it also if you would look closely at how much your conclusions depend on assumptions you hold, rather than on evidences and reasoning you have brought to the table.
I’d appreciate it as well if you would answer my question, which preceded yours and really ought to have the right to be finished before we move on: Can you justify discarding the conventional definition of faith for Boghossian’s new one, and can you do it in a way that (a) is supportable in the literature, (b) promotes quality of thinking about faith, and (c) can be supported without reliance on question-begging methods?
If we can proceed on this basis, I’ll be glad to continue in discussion with you. I’ve asked my question; when we’ve finished working through it I’ll happily move on to yours.