Who knew? For two years there has been a theological fallacy named after me, one imparted to me just today by reader Jon. Now I’m not sure how far this fallacy has spread among theologians, but I hope it goes far, for it’s ineffably stupid. The post in which it appears was written by William M. Briggs, whose website gives his name and the subtitle “Statistician to the Stars.”
First, who is William M. Briggs? Well, he answer the question on his site: “Who is W.M.B.?”
I am wholly independent; i.e., I have no position. I depend on you, dear reader, for my livelihood. I do not jest. The burden is on you. Hire the Dancing Briggs. Spread the word.
Currently a vagabond statistician and Adjunct Professor of Statistics at Cornell. Thought leader (have your thoughts led by me). Previously a Professor at the Cornell Medical School, a Statistician at DoubleClick in its infancy, a Meteorologist with the National Weather Service, and a sort of Cryptologist with the US Air Force (the only title I ever cared for was Staff Sergeant Briggs).
Here’s a photo:
On to The Coyne Fallacy, laid out in Brigg’s post about a terminally smug and arrogant book by Sophisticated Theologian™ David Bentley Hart, an Orthodox Christian whose views I’ve criticized before (see here). The book is The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss, which I’ve read and discussed (see here and here, for instance). It purveys the brand of Sophisticated Theology™ that sneers at atheists but also claims a knowledge of what God is really like: and he turns out of course, not to be the kind of God that most Christians accept. (Think of a Ground of Being: an Orthodox version of Karen Armstrong.) But Hart knows better, for, due to his Deep Thinkings, he has a Pipeline to God Himself.
It’s not surprising that Briggs likes Hart’s book, because it posits a kind of God that can’t be empirically disproven. How do you know He exists, then? Briggs tell us!:
The transcendent God can be “‘investigated’ only, on the one hand, by acts of logical deduction and induction and conjecture or, on the other, by contemplative or sacramental or spiritual experiences.”
Hmm. . . a God immune to refutation by observation.
And, says, Briggs, the theistic, in-your-life savior God is a fiction concocted by atheists, because Christians don’t accept that kind of God! (my emphasis):
Because it turns out that the god modern-day atheists have in mind, what Hart calls the Demiurge, is a god Christians also reject. The Demiurge is a kind of “superior being”, a being like any other only more so, and it is this small-g god that the man-in-the-street atheist, and certainly those well known celebrity authors, find implausible or ridiculous. And so does the theologian.
Really, do Christians really reject the Demiurge? Because here are the data on what all Americans (not just Christians) believe, taken from a 2013 Harris poll:
Sounds like a Demiurge to me. But wait! Briggs then does a 180-turn, claiming that the average Christian doesn’t know who God is, and he/she might really believe in The Wrong Kind of God. Then we have to call in theologians like Hart to correct us:
Of the God, the necessary Being, the new atheist knows little to nothing. Well, maybe the Christian-, Muslim-, or Hindu-in-the-street knows little of Him either, in the sense of being unable to write down a philosophically consistent definition of just who and what God is. The theologian, however, can, and this is Hart’s task. To definite, delimit, demarcate just what it is the great religious traditions say about God. Hart’s isn’t a work of apologetics nor a list of proofs of God’s existence. It is an in-depth examination that spells out precisely who God is. Something very necessary for those who say they don’t believe in God: just what is it you don’t believe?
Now I’m not sure what the Great Religious Traditions are, but they are surely varied, even among Christians, and many are literalist. Read Aquinas or Augustine to see how literalistic they are, and how specific about the nature of God. How wrong they must have been–to have to be corrected by the likes of David Bentley Hart! What’s worse is the notion that theologians can distill these traditions and give us an idea of who god really is—in the absence of any evidence for a God. (Remember, though—Briggs thinks we don’t need that.)
But I must get to My Fallacy. Here it is:
Let’s get one popular fallacy out of the way. This is the most-people-believe-what’s-false-therefore-it’s-false fallacy, or the Coyne fallacy, named after its most frequent user, Jerry Coyne. This fallacy is used to reject a proposition because most people misunderstand or hold false beliefs about that proposition. So that if the average church or temple goer has a definition of God that suffers certain inconsistencies, therefore God doesn’t exist. If you accept that then you’d have to believe that since the average citizen has mistaken ideas about evolution (holding to Intelligent Design, say), therefore evolution is false. Truth is not a vote.
That’s about the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard. The fallacy, ascribed to me, is to claim that because a group misunderstands the nature of something, that thing doesn’t exist. So it’s just as false to say God doesn’t exist because some Christians (or atheists) have a “false” notion of who He is as it is to say that evolution doesn’t exist because many people misunderstand it.
And yes, many people do misunderstand evolution. But there’s a difference between evolution and God. Do I need to point out that we have evidence for evolution but not for any kind of god, from Demiurge to the Ground of Being? That’s a big difference. So we can correct misunderstandings about evolution because, as evolutionary biologists, we know how it works. David Bentley Hart has only a knowledge of what other theologians said and whatever revelations strike him when contemplating the Numinous.
So, in contrast to the evolutionary process, neither David Bentley Hart, Briggs, nor anybody else knows who God really is—or even if there’s a god.
I am thus somewhat saddened to see that the Coyne Fallacy is lame—a version of the Courtier’s Reply. And, in the end, Briggs’s argument shows the Fallacy of the Coyne Fallacy.
I can haz better Coyne Fallacy pleez?