Questions for Peter Boghossian

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This entry is part 5 of 15 in the series Peter Boghossian


I have some questions for Peter Boghossian. He tweeted my first article in this series, so it seems reasonable to think he’s aware of what I’ve been writing here.

Greetings, Dr. Boghossian, and thank you for visiting. I look forward to a pleasant and productive conversation.

The questions here refer back mostly to this post. If you find significant weaknesses in that post or any other in this series, I invite you to explain to us what you may find, along with answering the questions below.

Note well, however, that the questions in this post are not about your definition of faith or anyone else’s. They have to do with your mode of public argumentation instead: for there seem to be inconsistencies between your method and your message.

I have written, and I will continue to write, on the relation of faith, knowledge, trust, and belief. If you disagree with me on any of that, by all means feel free to say so, now or later. Please recognize, though, that this post is not primarily about that.

1. False Claims of Victory

On Wednesday I wrote on your use of what certainly appears to be straw-man argumentation (though I’m open to your correcting me on that, if you can do so). The sources I used were two lectures, both of which you have pointed to more than once in your recorded interviews, leading me to believe you consider them central statements concerning your position on faith.

As noted in that prior post, it looks to me as if you’ve successfully undermined two demonstrations of the miraculous, neither of which any thinking Christian actually considers to be a demonstration of the miraculous. You have also undermined five thoroughly irrelevant statements regarding faith. Meanwhile there remain other arguments — much stronger ones by far — in favor of different definitions of faith than yours, the virtue of faith, and the reality of miracles. You did not address those stronger arguments in these lectures.

The  image that comes to mind is that of a shooting a squirt gun at a straw target, and then claiming to have won a major battle in a war that matters for all humanity. Surely you know that every discussion of intellectual integrity emphasizes engaging one’s opponent’s position at its strength — which you haven’t done in these venues.

So I ask: what motivated you in these high-profile lectures to engage only with weakness and to avoid strength? Are there any venues in which you have dealt with genuine arguments for faith?

2. Trading On Others’ Ignorance, Or … 

You carry a professor’s intellectual weight and authority, and your audiences in these public settings have seemed appropriately respectful. They’ve also been largely receptive, even though your persuasive methods have been rife with fallacies, if my analysis is correct.

It appears, then, that there are three possible ways of understanding the approach you took in those lectures. The first would be that you are propounding fallacious reasoning in these public lectures with full awareness that you are doing so. In that case the only way you could hope to be persuasive would be by trading on your audiences’ ignorance of sound argumentation. Yet you speak often of the importance of rationality and critical thinking, and you say that’s the one thing you want to teach above all else. So this is an unattractive option.

The second would be that you are presenting these weak arguments unawares. That’s not an attractive option, either, for a philosophy professor.

The third and final possibility (it seems to me) is that your arguments were sound after all, and were directed squarely at Christianity’s point of strength.

Could you explain which if these is the case, or if there is a fourth option? Obviously if you want us to accept the third option, it would be helpful to hear from you just where I was wrong in my analysis.

3. If you would be interested in doing so, we could open up a conversation at Discussion Grounds. See the “Grounds Rules” for more information.

In case someone should ask how these questions are relevant — for they are about your manner of conducting yourself in presenting arguments, not about the arguments themselves — it seems to me that this quite important indeed. You said in your May 6 lecture that you have deep concerns about the moral dimensions of the issues you discuss. You have also said (I’m repeating myself now, I know) that you place high priority on teaching good rational, critical thinking skills. It seems to me these are both matters in which we all might feel justified in asking whether your conduct is consistent with your message, and to explore what it might mean if it is or isn’t.

Series Navigation (Peter Boghossian):<<< Peter Boghossian Pretends To Know What He Doesn’t KnowHow Peter Boghossian Gets Faith Wrong >>>
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23 Responses to “ Questions for Peter Boghossian ”

  1. Let me rephrase: why has he not responded so far? As you have noted he is well aware of these blog posts, he posted some links on Twitter to them. Why would he do that?

  2. But yes, as this series continues I’ll keep moving in that direction. I’ve been content so far in this series trying to put some fences around people’s belief in what Boghossian says — because I see it as rhetorically very strategic, as I said in the series’ first post.

  3. Oisin, if you want insight into what I’m thinking, here you are: the reason I framed this post as questions us because I won’t presume to know what someone is thinking unless I have very good reasons. It would be foolish to do otherwise.

  4. It seems likely to me that Boghossian does think that he is attacking Christian (and other religious) belief “at its strength”, because he probably thinks that the only strength any religious arguments have is strength in numbers: the faith claims that Boghossian cites are the faith claims made by the overwhelming majority of religious believers, who have never bothered to critically appraise the beliefs handed to them by their parents or by charismatic religious evangelists. These are the people that Boghossian is trying to win over.

    Theologians such as yourself, who spend countless ours constructing detailed arguments to defend their faith represent “low value” targets to someone like Peter Boghossian. It would take considerable time and energy for him to unpick your arguments one by one and slowly bring you around to his way of thinking (if that’s even possible, given your understandable commitment to your current set of beliefs), and even if he succeeded and convinced you to abandon your faith, what has he gained? Sure he would win over your mind and maybe the minds of some of your readers (assuming you kept your blog going), but in reality, Thinking Christians represent only a tiny minority of the people who profess religious belief and who, more importantly, donate to religious organisations and vote for politicians who base their policies on religious beliefs.

    This is the battlefield that Boghossian seeks to dominate: strength in numbers.

  5. Tom, while I am enjoying this written series it would be fantastic if it could be arranged for you to have a verbal conversation. I would be confident that Justin Briely of the Unbelievable? radio programme would be happy to facilitate such a discussion. Many of the big names in the God debate have appeared on the show (from the Christian and non-Christian sides) and Justin receives deserved praise for being fair.

    Would Peter be interested, I wonder?

    Past shows can be found here – http://ondemand.premier.org.uk/unbelievable/AudioFeed.aspx. (I’ve noticed that the link sometimes generates an error message but refreshing the page solves it.)

  6. YAT @ 11:

    So I presume it’s also OK when creationists ignore what actual scientists think and instead just say things like “If humans evolved from monkeys, how come there are still monkeys left, huh?” I mean, if it convinces the uninformed masses and all that…

  7. Here is a link to a similar situation with Boghossian:

    http://christthetao.blogspot.ie/2012/09/peter-boghossian-sees-through-me.html

    It seems that he refuses to enter discussion with anyone that will not give a list of reasons for their belief in christianity.

    For his style of dialogue to work, the believer must have arguments that can be used to convince Boghossian to convert, however if the argument is not centered on whether god exists and how we can know this to be true then Boghossian’s method cannot be used, so debate is not worth his while.

    This is my take on it, is there a flaw in this hypothesis?

  8. Actually, I’ll do it if you’ll give us a link to Frank’s podcast where we can hear the rest of your conversation, and tell us approximately where in the podcast it can be found.

    Same with the Craig/Lawrence discussion. Bring that in and we can talk about it.

    Other than that there will be no further discussion on this here on this thread.

  9. So I presume it’s also OK when creationists ignore what actual scientists think and instead just say things like “If humans evolved from monkeys, how come there are still monkeys left, huh?” I mean, if it convinces the uninformed masses and all that…

    So long as there are droves of people who are too lazy/irrational to critically analyse ideas before accepting them, there will be people successfully feeding them irrational beliefs to accept.

    Some of these people will be well-meaning (“I want to help these lost sheep who are thinking irrationally, and teach them the way to truth that I have discovered”) and some will be trying to take advantage (“Look at all these suckers! They’ll believe anything I tell them—I bet I could make a buck or two here”).

    Now if anyone actually ever did discover a method of thinking and reasoning that reliably led to the truth and decided to share it with the world, you would expect them to fall into the “well-meaning” category. And it seems to me that Boghossian is of the well-meaning type, given his dedication to getting out on the street to talk to people one-on-one, but I suppose the creationists with their unscientific arguments against evolution are also well meaning. Therefore, even if Boghossian is well-meaning, this in no way guarantees that his approach is going to lead to truth.

    The real question is: does the method of reasoning that Boghossian proposes actually reliably lead us to the truth or not? That seems to me to be the only question that really matters.

  10. Does Boghossian propose a method of reasoning? If so, and if it has anything to do with logical argumentation, then he doesn’t follow it. If anyone would call that well-meaning, then I would refer that person to the three options in the OP and ask, which do you think it is, and if the third, would you explain how that works?

  11. I called into Frank Turek’s radio show 2 weeks ago and flat out told him that there is no way he can prove the so called Christian god exists!”

    The problem with Brett’s position is the same one I pointed out that David P has in a post earlier today. Brett asks for “proof” of the Christian God and claims victory when none is forthcoming. But, of course, Brett has no “proof” that there isn’t a Christian God. The truth is Bret accepts the position that God doesn’t exist on a faith basis. He has no better evidence, if not quite a bit worse evidence, that God doesn’t exist than we do that he does. He is making the same leap of faith as we are.

    Brett thinks that non-belief in God is the logical starting place and that he’s justified in not believing if God isn’t “proven” to his satisfaction. But the truth is neither non-belief nor belief in God are logical starting places. (Pascal put this to bed a few hundred years ago.) We all begin without “proof” of the validity of either position as we all have to make a decision. A decision based on faith as, of course, proof is not available to any of us in discussion the existence or non-existence of God.

  12. “…the reason it makes more sense to say there is no god is because it is more logical to make a simple assumption than a complex one. “

    So, in a discussion of the existence of God we should take the most simplistic approach available. After all, it’s not like this is one of if not the most important topics of all time and has probably been discussed more than any other topic in all of human history. But let’s just take the simple way out. Whatever floats your boat I guess. (And just BTW, you failed to address my point in any way. Just saying.)

  13. Buried at the end of a recent comment: if Brett doesn’t give us more to discuss so that I can put it on another post, there will be no further discussion of his comment here.

    So Brett, be assured that I have your information ready to post, but in order to simplify things for now I’m just removing your comment until you provide us the reasonable additional info I’ve asked for. See comments 15 and 16.

  14. YATom:

    So long as there are droves of people who are too lazy/irrational to critically analyse ideas before accepting them, there will be people successfully feeding them irrational beliefs to accept.

    Were you applying this to Peter Boghossian’s methods and message, as I’ve analyzed it above?

  15. Does Boghossian propose a method of reasoning? If so, and if it has anything to do with logical argumentation, then he doesn’t follow it. If anyone would call that well-meaning, then I would refer that person to the three options in the OP and ask, which do you think it is, and if the third, would you explain how that works?

    From what I can ascertain, Boghossian’s method of reasoning involves us questioning and challenging our beliefs and applying a Corrective Mechanism to them. As I understand it, this entails checking those beliefs against reality (i.e. making predictions about what we are going to observe in certain situations, based on our beliefs, and then seeing what actually happens, then revising our beliefs if necessary).

    To answer your question then, I think there are 3 possibilities:

    1. Boghossian’s method does reliably lead to truth. In this case, he genuinely will be saving the “lost sheep” who are out there holding onto irrational beliefs due to faulty reasoning. This is obviously well-meaning.

    2. His method is irrational and doesn’t lead to truth, but he doesn’t realise this. Many a truth-seeker has fallen into a spiral of greater and greater self-delusion by applying faulty methods of reasoning that result in beliefs that really feel true, but aren’t. If this is the case with Boghossian then it seems reasonable to say that he is well-meaning—well-meaning but deluded.

    3. Boghossian’s method doesn’t lead to truth and he knows it. In this case he is deliberately steering people away from the truth for some nefarious purpose that isn’t immediately obvious.

    Now if 1 is correct, we should all drop what we’re doing and start applying his methods right away. If not, then we’re left with either 2 or 3 and, whether it’s 2 or 3, our approach should be the same: prove him wrong by highlighting the weakness of his proposed methodology for all to see.

    Therefore, the only real question for us to answer is: do his methods actually work (i.e. is 1 above true)? Answer this and the rest of your questions will be either answered already or irrelevant in determining your next course of action.