Jim Houston apologizes; I accept

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:

  1. 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.”
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.


  1. Posted December 1, 2011 at 6:14 am | Permalink

    Very interesting. How very decent of him to accept he was wrong.

    • Dominic
      Posted December 1, 2011 at 6:50 am | Permalink

      ‘I’ve also happily conceded that I am, as Coyne suggests, a ‘pompous jerk’.”’ So he also has a sense of humour!

  2. Posted December 1, 2011 at 7:04 am | Permalink

    Yes, it takes an honest sort to publicly acknowledge an error like this, so I think the ‘pompous jerk’ hat can be taken off Jim Houston’s head, even if he’s got used to it.

    I actually still think it’s ridiculous to expect every challenge on every blog (or, er, website) to be communicated directly to the challengee. But maybe I’m wrong about that. If so, I’ll consider apologising in due course.

    • Posted December 1, 2011 at 7:06 am | Permalink

      Plus, some points that Jean, Russell and Eric MacDonald made on your piece are valid, I think, so need addressing.

    • Posted December 1, 2011 at 8:02 am | Permalink

      Oh, he’s still a pompous jerk, all right — but what’s worng with that? I’m a pompous jerk, PZ’s a pompous jerk, Hitch is a pompous jerk — hell, Jerry even has his moments of pompous jerkiness.



      • Posted December 1, 2011 at 8:13 am | Permalink

        It would be pompous of me to argue with that. And now that I read what I wrote, that comes over kind of pompous too. There’s no escaping pomposity.

        • Occam
          Posted December 1, 2011 at 9:04 am | Permalink

          Modesty prevents you.

          • Diane G.
            Posted December 2, 2011 at 2:04 am | Permalink

            Chuckling out loud!

      • Marella
        Posted December 1, 2011 at 2:45 pm | Permalink

        I do not think that every attempt to educate is pomposity. It only becomes so when the urge to teach is overwhelmed by self aggrandizement so that the viewpoint of the student is ignored and the opportunity to pass on information is lost because no one is really listening any more. I don’t think you(Ben)or Jerry or PZ or Hitch are ever pompous, strident maybe 😉 but not pompous. I do hope I have been pompous!

        • Marella
          Posted December 1, 2011 at 2:46 pm | Permalink

          NOT goddam it, I meant NOT pompous.

          • TrineBM
            Posted December 2, 2011 at 4:21 am | Permalink

            Using “goddam it” in that way immediately releases you of all accusations of pompousity/pompuosness/ (whatever), I think.

      • Posted December 1, 2011 at 4:41 pm | Permalink

        I have been accused, rightly so, of being both a pompous ass and a pompous jerk and sometimes simultaneously. I think that stems from my Grey Poupon days.

        Now, I’m more of an ordinary, casual Friday ass and jerk.

  3. eric
    Posted December 1, 2011 at 7:17 am | Permalink

    If religion was a useful ‘way of knowing,’ then not only should it be easy for Ward to cite an example, it should be easy to cite many.

    I would suggest that Mr. Ward stop and think about the implications of this being a difficult question. That difficulty says something about the quantity of factual knowledge the ‘religious way of knowing’ has contributed in its several thousand year history. The fact that this is a difficult question says something very negative about religion as a methodology.

    An effective way of knowing would not produce a rare fact or two in several thousand years. It would produce hundreds of publications a day…like science does.

    IOW, I cannot think that even an example would help Ward defend religion. Because nobody would be interested in a ‘way of knowing’ that produces a fact or two every thousand years. There may be some philosophical distinction between a ‘way of knowing’ that produces nothing, ever, vs. one that produces some fact every couple thousand years. But pragmatically, they are the same.

    If religion produces nothing, it loses this comparison to science. If religion produces a fact or two every thousand years, it still loses this comparison to science.

  4. Posted December 1, 2011 at 7:44 am | Permalink

    Yea for the good guys. However, this should have involved our Jerry getting a bottle of expensive booze, pizzas for a week or new cat toys, at least! Or all of them.

  5. FTFKDad
    Posted December 1, 2011 at 7:45 am | Permalink

    Prof. Coyne, may I heartily recommend the book “The beginning of Infinity” by David Deutsch (one of Sam Harris’s “books I am reading” of a month or so ago). It is all about “what is a good explanation” and “how we know stuff” and I think gets to the heart of the heart of the notion of “facthood” as you put it.

  6. TJR
    Posted December 1, 2011 at 7:46 am | Permalink

    Nice. Good to know that online shouting matches sometimes end happily.

    For anyone who feels the blood pounding when someone criticises you, the key is to keep thinking “calm down, calm down” in a scouse accent. Never fails.

    • Posted December 1, 2011 at 7:56 am | Permalink

      For those unfamiliar with the technique:

      • David Leech
        Posted December 1, 2011 at 2:22 pm | Permalink

        Boo…Hiss, Disgusting stereotypes are…Well funny in this case:-)

  7. Heber
    Posted December 1, 2011 at 7:47 am | Permalink

    Speaking of apologies, here is Deepak Chopra offering an apology to Richard Dawkins for smearing him on the Bill O’Rilley show.

    It sounds like a very sincere apology. I’m impressed by it.

    • Posted December 1, 2011 at 8:30 am | Permalink

      I’m rather impressed. I didn’t expect to be saying that about Deepak Chopra any time soon. (A little jarring that he says at the very end that he’s apologizing in order to make peace… with himself!)

      • Posted December 1, 2011 at 8:54 am | Permalink

        Actually, that bit about doing it to make peace with himself is the most sincere line in the whole apology, as well as the most meaningful.

        He’s not issuing an apology, as most politicians do, because his handlers have told him it’ll help “this thing” blow over.

        Rather, he’s personally apologizing to Richard because Deepak knows that what he did was worng and he won’t be able to look himself in the mirror until he comes clean and owns up to his mistrake.

        And because his motivation to apologize is internal (and, granted, selfish), we can be reasonably confident that he will be similarly motivated to not commit the same offense again.

        Let’s also not forget that this is an un-asked-for apology, spontaneously offered. To top it all off, he’s noticeably self-effacing and at least a bit awkward. Either he’s suddenly turned into the best actor alive today or he’s hanging himself out to dry, knowing it’s gonna hurt but doing it anyway because…well, because, as he said, not doing it will hurt worse.

        Right about now, he’s probably also realizing that his apology hasn’t made the pain instantly vanish, but it did lessen it and has made it possible to heal.

        He’s learned the lesson, in other words. (Or, at least, has learned the worst part and is studying hard on the final details.) That’s never a guarantee that he won’t someday forget himself, but any future relapses will be out of weakness, not malice — and I personally wouldn’t expect any relapses.

        It’s exceedingly rare to see somebody actually apologize. Deepak has just done so, and deserves commendation and respect because of it.



        • Kharamatha
          Posted December 2, 2011 at 6:16 am | Permalink

          Damnit. OK, fine, I’ll allow him human status.

    • Penman
      Posted December 1, 2011 at 8:58 am | Permalink

      Um, nope. I don’t need to hear the apology.

      He made the smear to O’Reilly’s 2+million viewers.

      Now he apologizes on some YouTube video?

      Let me know when he apologizes on O’Reilly’s show.

      • Strider
        Posted December 1, 2011 at 4:57 pm | Permalink

        Why should Chopra-woo be congratulated for making an apology for entirely selfish reasons?

        • Andy Dufresne
          Posted December 1, 2011 at 6:47 pm | Permalink

          There’s a sense in which I agree, but then again most apologies are self-serving to some extent or another. Deepak says at the end he “just wants to make peace with” himself, which does annoy me. I’m basically ambivalent because, on the other hand, I think it’s likely a good idea for us (gnus & co.) to commend these sorts of apologies when they arrive at our secularist doorstep (provided they’re basically sincere and are owning up to the actual offense without equivocation). The reality is we will not see very many perfect apologies from Chopra types whose brains are stewed with woo 24/7; the above is probably as good as it gets from him. Grading on the woo peddler’s curve, I score Deepak’s apology fairly high, with ultimately negligible flaws. Ditto Houston.

    • chance
      Posted December 1, 2011 at 10:29 am | Permalink

      wooooooow thanks for posting that. That was really cool of Deepak. Props to the guy 🙂

      Also props to Houston.

      And Jerry, keep us posted on your shifting beliefs about “facthood.” =]

    • Diane G.
      Posted December 2, 2011 at 2:19 am | Permalink

      WOW. Was that ever well done.

      I was particularly struck by his clause, “I’m 65 years old, and…” For the most part, aging is the drizzlin’ shits; but it does bring a sense of perspective and proportion that’s worth something, I guess.

      He mentions that he’s not seeking any response; nonetheless, can anyone tell me if there was one from RD?

  8. Dr. Philosophy
    Posted December 1, 2011 at 8:07 am | Permalink

    1. Any statement which is convenient for supporting my argument at any given moment.

    • gr8hands
      Posted December 1, 2011 at 9:24 am | Permalink

      I believe that is merely your opinion.


  9. Posted December 1, 2011 at 8:20 am | Permalink

    Beautiful response, Jerry. I found both Jim’s apology and your acceptance deeply moving.

    Keep up the great work.

    ~ Michael

    • Tristan
      Posted December 1, 2011 at 8:24 pm | Permalink

      Agreed. A classy exchange on both your parts.

  10. Posted December 1, 2011 at 9:08 am | Permalink

    pomp·ous Adjective:
    Affectedly and irritatingly grand, solemn, or self-important

    No, pompous is the silly childhood conceit of your “mind over (all) matter.” Aggressive solipsism. By definition, it can’t be fact based since the only validation is one’s own conceits.

    Being evidence-based and assertive is often, dishonestly tagged as pompous and conceited — it can’t be — since any utterance can be disproven and falsified.

    As always the bad guys accuse their opponents of what they are most guilty of themselves.

  11. Occam
    Posted December 1, 2011 at 9:19 am | Permalink

    Thanks to Houston, I now see that Dr.Dr.Dr. Pigliucci has gone atwitter.
    Plenty. Quoting:
    “As for Coyne, his problem is that he equates empiricism with science. Not kosher.”

    Taking my cue from Don Magnifico’s luminous subtlety, I’d venture to suggest that he shouldn’t make such a pizza of it, either.

    • Brian
      Posted December 1, 2011 at 10:45 am | Permalink

      Coyne equates empiricism with science in what way? To what end? What are the definitions of empiricism and science being used and how are they being used? Just because philosophers don’t like identifying empiricism and science doesn’t make Jerry philosophically naive.

      If you are trying to do philosophy of science and carefully study what distinguishes science from plumbing and astrology, Jerry’s definition is too broad. And you are trying to define something no philosopher has successfully defined. If you are just making a broad point about scientific literacy for example, you might essentially use science as to refer to a broad careful approach to empiricism.

      Some philosophers seem to need to learn that not everything said is intended as professional-quality philosophy.

      • gr8hands
        Posted December 1, 2011 at 2:19 pm | Permalink

        Plumbing uses science. Astrology, not so much.

        I wonder, how much philosophy training — at the university level — does it take for one to cease being considered “philosophically naive”? A few classes? A minor? An Associates? Bachelors? Masters? Doctorate?

        I also wonder on what basis those who claim others are “philosophically naive” make their claim?

        If one has a Doctorate in Philosophy, years of experience/training/publishing, and yet one comes to the exact same conclusions that Dr. Coyne does, does it make one “philosophically naive”? Or is it possible that those who make such claims are spouting piffle?

        • Diane G.
          Posted December 2, 2011 at 2:21 am | Permalink

          + 1

    • Greg Esres
      Posted December 1, 2011 at 4:30 pm | Permalink

      “As for Coyne, his problem is that he equates empiricism with science. Not kosher.”

      I think that’s a fair equivalence, particularly since he’s usually contrasting one or the other to something very different, like faith.

      • Occam
        Posted December 1, 2011 at 5:17 pm | Permalink

        Ah, the perils of irony!

        Even such an enlightened assembly as the WEIT readership is occasionally not above missing an oblique angle.
        Whatever the substantive merits of Don Magnifico Pigliucci’s argument (and I think they tend to zero), I just meant to point out that the way the Doctor Universalis worded his jab was cheap and déplacé.

        One of the dangers of philosophistering on a social texting network with a 140 characters bandwidth is that ‘Twitter’ may reasonably be regarded as the comparative of ‘twit’.

        • Ralph
          Posted December 1, 2011 at 11:10 pm | Permalink

          Pompous twit, even.

          Ok, ok, I will apologize to him next week.

        • Diane G.
          Posted December 2, 2011 at 2:22 am | Permalink

          Thanks for the laugh!

  12. truthspeaker
    Posted December 1, 2011 at 10:09 am | Permalink


  13. Posted December 1, 2011 at 3:09 pm | Permalink

    Any tagging with an “-ism” is just a dishonest rhetorical tactic and straw man.

    Best to ignore. Always best to ignore dishonest opponents and bullies — avoid giving them any more “ink.”

    • Diane G.
      Posted December 2, 2011 at 2:27 am | Permalink

      Would that were the case, but. . .there’s no environmentology, no chemology, and while there is a feminology, it hasn’t gained much traction…

      • Posted December 4, 2011 at 10:15 am | Permalink

        It’s a dishonest rhetorical trick to tag and paint your opponent into a corner or your construction.

        Never accept the labels or frames of your opponents.

        • Diane G.
          Posted December 4, 2011 at 1:07 pm | Permalink

          I couldn’t agree more, and that’s one reason I’ve suggested answering accusations of scientism with ones of philosophism, religionism, etc.

          I pick up negative connotations from ‘evolutionist’ as well, but I’ve seen scientists describing themselves that way. I tend to favor ‘evolutionary biologist,’ which parallels ‘invertebrate biologist,’ population biologist,’ etc., etc.

          • Posted December 4, 2011 at 1:16 pm | Permalink

            No, it’s always best to ignore ad hominem attacks and bullying. It’s a “have you stopped beating your dog?” trick. In responding you just fall into their dishonest and false framing trap.

            Your opponents WANT you to respond to their false frames — don’t fall for it. Name calling of any kind is dishonest, let them lie about it, not you.

            Always stick with the data. “Follow the data.”

            You are right, effectively no one understands even evo bio 101. That is the underlying explanatory (and data) foundation for everything.

  14. Posted December 1, 2011 at 5:38 pm | Permalink

    On another topic all together, can we pleas take on the sillilarity, this stuff is VERY WOO!!

    “As Rebecca Elson wrote in her book, A Responsibility to Awe[10], facts are only as interesting as the possibilities they open up to the imagination.” For Silva, one of those possibilities is our achieving the God-like qualities of immortality and omniscience long promised, but never delivered, by religion.”

    I’m OK, wid godlike qualities, if it improves my “social life.”

  15. Torbjorn Larsson, OM
    Posted December 1, 2011 at 6:08 pm | Permalink


    On the question of facts. Scientists handle facts daily, and work to understand them.

    I find it humorous that purportedly serious philosophers attempts to lecture scientists on empiricism including fact handling and understanding. The same challenge that was leveled on Ward could be leveled here: first philosophers have to give just one reasonably well established fact about the world that comes from ‘general philosophical views’.

  16. abb3w
    Posted December 1, 2011 at 9:01 pm | Permalink

    I’d again suggest abstract mathematics as a “way of knowing” that explicitly avoids empirical input as a means to give us “facts”; in that any empirical input that fails to conform to abstract mathematics doesn’t mean the theorem is wrong, but that the conformal correspondence attempted between that empiricism and that theorem is wrong. Of course, this comes with several other catches, EG:

    1) The “facts” (IE: theorems) resulting are about abstract relationships of ultimately undefined/unspecified entities, and thus lacking the specificity of the original requirement of being “about the world”.
    2) Theorems are dependent on (and subject to change with alterations of) the starting axioms, which are taken without justification from any priors (aka “on faith”) rather than as inference from any priors.

    …and a few more tedious bits of philosophical quibbling.

    • Ralph
      Posted December 1, 2011 at 11:40 pm | Permalink

      Interesting. Yes, whether this “counts” as an answer to Jerry’s challenge is just semantics, but it does seem reasonable to say that mathematical theorems are in some sense facts about the universe. Sagan et al. have reasoned that communication with extraterrestrial life might best be initiated via priniciples of mathematics. Not of course because we don’t expect alien civilizations to use empirical methods – I think more because we would initially have no idea how they might record or communicate data, and mathematical ideas might be more universally recognizable? Having said that, I see that they didn’t put any math in the Arecibo message, not sure why.

      • abb3w
        Posted December 13, 2011 at 10:49 am | Permalink

        Facts “about the universe” require the input of an empirical component to anchor them. Mathematical theorems aren’t facts about the universe; rather, they are facts that sometimes have a correspondence in the universe.

        Now, you can say mathematical theorems are facts that would have correspondents in any universe; but that means they’re a broader category, and thus don’t tell us about the particular world we live in.

  17. Barbara Knox
    Posted December 1, 2011 at 11:21 pm | Permalink

    I don’t think that […] any “way of knowing” that explicitly avoids empirical input and affirmation by independent observers can give us “facts,” whatever they may be.

    How about “Jerry Coyne is a conscious being”?

    I expect you would assert this to be a fact, but where are the independent observers? Of course there are plenty of independent observations that you act like a conscious being, but there are no independent “inside” observers of your conscious experience.

    Perhaps some people say all the right things about having conscious experiences, but in fact it’s all an affectation — the lights are on but no-one is home.

    Someday we may know enough about brains to be able to point to a scan and see conscious experience happening, but not today.

    • Ralph
      Posted December 2, 2011 at 12:00 am | Permalink

      Those sophisticated philosophers will be most upset that a naif such as yourself got to “Cogito ergo sum” in a couple of paragraphs, when it took Descartes a good few hundred pages. To be fair, he didn’t have access to Google.

  18. Ichthyic
    Posted December 1, 2011 at 11:37 pm | Permalink

    How about “Jerry Coyne is a conscious being”?

    depends on definition of “conscious” and “being”, which are further dependent on verifiable, empirical facts to properly define them to begin with.

    otherwise you can just substitute any two words for the same and just give them any meaning you wish.

    Someday we may know enough about brains to be able to point to a scan and see conscious experience happening, but not today.

    you don’t know much about cognitive science, do you?

    • Barbara Knox
      Posted December 2, 2011 at 6:33 pm | Permalink

      Are you implying that neuroscientists can currently look at (say) FMRI scans and reliably determine which ones were taken during periods of conscious thought? If so, I’d like a cite.

      Since you seem to want a definition of consciousness, I am using it in the everyday sense of self-aware immediate experience. As for a definition of being, maybe you should consult Sartre, Shakespeare, or Popeye.

      And whether or not I know “much” about cognitive science depends on how much is much. I do have a third of a bachellor’s degree in the subject, but that was rather a long time ago.

  19. John Weiss
    Posted December 2, 2011 at 5:59 am | Permalink

    “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.”

    There are “facts” and there are, uh, other experiences which while they might not be “facts” are nonetheless illuminating. I’m thinking of an experience, long ago and far away, when peyote was most illuminating with no ‘fact’ in sight: the rational mind is not the only mind.

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