Monday, February 17, 2014

P.Z. Myers, Coprophagist

A blogger named P.Z. Myers has responded to my article on Jerry Coyne. He begins by getting the author wrong, and things don't get better from there.

According to Myers, I was wrong to say that Coyne had criticized David B. Hart's arguments in The Experience of God—which Coyne admitted he had not read. Instead, Coyne was responding to "the ideas that other fans of Hart have promoted."

Myers must be a devotee of the coynian method (that is, the method of criticism by which one imagines what another has written instead of reading it). Had he actually read Coyne, he would have discovered that Coyne explicitly stated that Hart's argument for God is "immune to refutation" and therefore that "Hart's argument fails."

PZ Myers then recounts a series of coprophagic fantasies. Really. I do not share Myers' tastes, and I will leave it to the hardy reader to decide whether to read the more odious portions of Myers' post. (This certainly does not help the fact that Myers' blog seems to already have a reputation as a sewer.)

I have to add, again, that I am not trying to tar the whole atheist tradition with whatever one might find stowed away in the back of one of Myers' drawers. Myers would be just as lost in the works of sophisticated atheists (say, Gilles Deleuze or J.L. Mackie) than he is in the works of philosophical theology. As a taxonomic matter, one should not regard Coyne and Myers as belonging to the same species as Nietzsche or Feuerbach, but as distant and much less evolved second cousins.

Myers' is not a household name like Dawkins or Hitchens, and I have to admit the name sounded only faintly familiar to me. But, as it happens, I had apparently written a post previously on Myers inability to understand Hart and the philosophical issues at stake in the God debate:
This much, at least, can be reasonably inferred from his recent post on Pharyngula, a response to David Hart's new essay in First Things. Despite Myers' claim that he attacks all arguments for the existence of God, he frankly admits that he does not comprehend the terms employed in the cosmological proof for God's existence: "composite", "contingent", "finite", "temporal", "absolute plenitude of being", and so on. 
These terms are, of course, slightly technical; but they are the basic vocabulary used in metaphysics in general, and the cosmological argument in particular. Hart is prone to unusual verbiage, but this is simply not the case here. Anyone who is even slightly familiar with the cosmological argument from the original texts knows these basic terms. 
"Composite" just means a thing composed of matter and form; two elementary concepts from Aristotle's metaphysics. "Contingent" is simply a being that might exist or might not, but doesn't exist necessarily. "Finite" simply signifies that a thing is circumscribed within limits. "Temporal" signifies that a thing is subject to change over time. "Absolute plenitude of being" is simply a reference to God as pure actuality in Book VIII of Aristotle's Physics. This is Philosophy 101 level material. 
P. Z. Myers' bafflement indicates that he has not made the slightest effort to familiarize himself with the cosmological arguments as it appears in the primary texts or, for that matter, anywhere. Even Richard Dawkins would have made the effort to scurry on over to, so that he could at least find the (incorrect) stock response. Myers didn't even bother to do a quick Google search. 
I won't say the cosmological argument is easy; it certainly can be formulated in many ways, and implicates the deepest questions of ontology (as I've written about before here). In fact, my only complaint about Hart's piece is that he doesn't make the cosmological argument, he just describes it in an oversimplified way. It's a bit as though P. Z. Myers explains to someone that evolution is a biological process whereby fitter animals survive, speciation occurs, and the animal kingdom gets more complex over time, on which his interlocutor would express dismay that anyone could possibly understand the concepts "fitness", "speciation", or biological complexity. Myers would no doubt end the conversation there, and instruct his interlocutor to at least get the basic ideas down so that the subject may be intelligently discussed. 
The same thing is going on in Myers post. He doesn't understand the most basic of the philosophic issues involved, and he cannot expect competent philosophers or theologians to take him seriously. Why should they? They can't read the Physics for him; he must do that for himself. 
What would Myers think of Kant's Critique of Pure Reason? Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit? Heidegger's Being and Time? If he can't get the concept of actuality straight, I can only imagine what he would think of transcendental idealism or an immanentalist ontology. Or what he would think of David Hart's academic philosophical writings (which are actually difficult). 
In the end, Myers just proves Hart's point. Unlike the great atheists of yesterday, the neo-atheists don't have the faintest clue about the very arguments they claim to reject. Myers has the courtesy not to pretend that he does. For his honesty, I suppose, we should be grateful.

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