How rare it is for any of us—atheist and theist alike—to apologize for unfairly tarring our opponents. Yet Jim P. Houston has done just that. I’ve been travelling, and have just become aware that Houston posted an apology to me on November 29. Since he apologized publicly, I think I should accept publicly.
To briefly resurrect a horse after it’s been dead three days:
- I criticized an article by philosopher/theologian Keith Ward in the Guardian, an article claiming that religion could answer factual questions (Ward’s piece is here). I claimed that religion could do no such thing, and had never in fact produced any real knowledge about the universe. And I challenged Ward “to give me just one reasonably well established fact about the world that comes from ‘general philosophical views, moral views, personal experience and judgment’ [according to Ward, these are other sources of truth] without any verifiable empirical input.”
- Houston took me to task at Talking Philosophy for leveling a challenge at Ward on my website without having contacted Ward directly. He called this act “shabby” and implied that I was intellectually dishonest. Houston contacted Ward on my behalf to find out what truths religion could supply, and Ward answered. But Ward’s response, involving his father being a double agent for M16 and the KGB, was completely unconvincing.
- I rejected Ward’s example as not providing credible facts, and reiterated that the only facts about the world we can establish require some empirical input and verification by others. I admitted that perhaps I should have issued the challenge to Ward directly by contacting him, but noted that such challenges on websites are meant more for readers than for the person challenged.
- Now Houston has issued an apology on Talking Philosophy. Here’s an excerpt:
“All that granted, the charges of intellectual dishonesty, and shabby behaviour that I levelled against Professor Coyne were, I think, both counter-productive and a good few steps beyond what is appropriate. If I want to insist on civility and charitable interpretation on the part of my more strident fellow atheists, I’m rather obliged to offer the same to them. So, I have rather been drawn to the conclusion that I should offer some apology to Jerry Coyne for the accusations I made against him. I have now done so. I’ve also happily conceded that I am, as Coyne suggests, a ‘pompous jerk’.”
And those, I think, seem quite appropriate as my final words on the matter.
Houston also notes that I’ve been criticized by other philosophers like Jean Kazez and Brother Russell Blackford for my philosophical naivité about what a “fact” is. (Massimo Pigliucci has also gone after me, but since he thinks that everyone except Dr.3 Pigliuicci is philosophically naive, he doesn’t count.)
I am reassessing my notion of “facthood,” though I haven’t changed it yet, but in the meantime am happy to accept Houston’s apology. It’s not everyone who will admit that he’s been a pompous jerk. Thank you, Dr. Houston.
And my challenge to Ward still stands. I haven’t yet received a credible answer, and I doubt that I will, for I don’t think that religion—or any “way of knowing” that explicitly avoids empirical input and affirmation by independent observers—can give us “facts,” whatever they may be.