Saturday, September 08, 2012

Peter Boghossian sees through me.

He must be patient indeed, to piles books up like that!
Dr. Peter Boghossian, who teaches philosophy (and atheism) at Portland State University, is writing a book on faith.  I have written (and thought) a lot about faith, too, so I dropped him a line with a friendly invitation.  Normally I don't post personal communications.  But in this case, I think I'll make an exception, since we've been talking about (and I've been thinking about, after reading this, see also my later comments to Tom Gilson's interesting thread) ideological atheism on campus.  Also, Boghossian makes it pretty clear that ordinary courtesies don't weigh too heavily with him. 

Good morning!

Yesterday I noticed on the website for my friend and sometime sparring partner, John Loftus, that you had endorsed his new book on the "Outsider Test for Faith." I haven't seen the book yet, but I'm pretty sure he responds to my critique of the OTF in True Reason, somewhere in that book.

I think I've also seen you make comments about "faith," with which I strongly disagree.

Since we're both in the Northwest -- my home is east of Seattle -- I was wondering if you would consider a civil public debate on the topic of faith?

I'm author of five books, also editor of a new book called Faith Seeking Understanding, that came out this week, and has so far been endorsed by Yale philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff and Penn State historian Philip Jenkins. So this would seem pretty appropriate. My PhD is in the theology of religions.

Thanks much,

David Marshall

Answer this question: What would it take for you to lose your faith?

(Taken aback by the socially-minimalistic character of the question, I gulp, and reply.)
 Do we agree on what the word "faith" means? Do you know what my "faith" is, yet?

If the reasons I believe in God, and in Jesus Christ (or, say, that Io has active volcanoes), proved mistaken, and none better were forthcoming, then I think I would have little intellectual right to hold those beliefs any longer. But it is the very nature and grounds of faith, that I propose to debate. 

This does not answer the question. Please answer the question or this will be our last communication.  What reasons would have to be mistaken? Give me an example of a reason and how you know it would be mistaken. What would this look like?
(Now irritated, and finding a philosopher named on PB's viva that might help explain his style.)

Sorry, Peter, Socrates is a friend of mine. You're no Socrates.

I'm duly warned off. I'll look forward to reading, then debunking, your book.

You're a fraud.  Don't contact me again. 

Gnu folk hero, or just a lot of bull? 
If only I were  better at philosophy, I would be able to plow through my critics with that kind of ruthless efficiency, too!  Gnuistan may have gained a gnu folk hero. 


From all evaluations (almost literally), it seems Boghossian is a talented teacher, though.  Students rave over his passion, knowledge, and dialectical brilliance.  (Whether or not it be on display above.) 
I even find this description of his methods: "All the characteristics you desire in your interlocutor you should display in your own actions: attentive listening, the openness to revise beliefs, respect, and patience, among others. This will lead to more honest and genuine conversations. According to Boghossian,
Those sorts of authentic interactions, that’s when you have the possibility to make change. When you yourself are willing to make changes in yourself. And hey, look, you should always be open to the idea that someone knows something you don’t know. That’s what epistemic humility is. That’s just what being humble is."
Maybe I caught Peter on a bad day.  Perhaps, as with Negy, he is merely giving advise he wants his students to follow, while he himself prefers to be dogmatic and rude.  Or perhaps, as with many of us, pet peeves drive the reason out of the man.  Indeed, one student writes:

His heroes: Dawkins, Habermas, James Randy, Dennett, Pinker, Hitchens, Socrates, Darwin, D. Davidson, Wittgenstein. His hitlist: Postmodernism, pseudoscience, religion, superstition, mysticism, fascism/totalitarianism, Sarah Palin.  This class will give you an opportunity to live a life free of illusion.

Note that three of the "Four Horsemen" appear here: I wonder will Sam Harris feel slighted?  Also, would Socrates fully appreciate this strange company into which he's cast, here? 

And how do fascism / totalitarianism wind up next to the name of a housewife from Wassila, Alaska, who took on Big Oil and spent a couple years in a nice white house on the hillside above downtown Juneau?  What was Sarah Palin's crime, exactly?  Did she put cariboo in concentration camps? 

Anyway, here's another "godless professor" (Dennett's term) apparently using his lectern as a bully pulpit to browbeat young pups out of their faith.

Bogghosian also gives an inane definition of "faith," a purely "straw man" definition like those many New Atheists use to avoid careful confrontation with objects in the real world:

“Pretending to know things you don’t know”.

Too bad Peter declined the debate.  I'm not sure I would have enjoyed the conversation, or even that I could have equalled his rhetorical skills.  But it might do him good to argue with someone his own age, who knows what Christians really think, can talk back, and won't be getting a grade from him at the end of the semester.

Ironic new tidbit: A reader points out that Boghossian chastizes his critics for refusing to debate!

It's interesting—every time I've had a talk cancelled, I've challenged the people who cancelled it to a debate... and no one has accepted yet. If I were to debate somebody, and they could show me that there's really good evidence... that faith really is a reliable guide to reality, that would be fantastic. Then I'll be their voice. I'll be the voice of faith.

The reader adds, "But when you called  his bluff, he refused to debate you." 

That's because I couldn't,answer his riddles correctly, showing I had no right to be ferried across the underground lake to the secret portal that leads out of the Misty Mountains, and must be clubbed over the head and left for the orcs to finish off. 
Hopeful note: It appears that debates with more reasonable opponents will be forthcoming, however. 


Crude said...

Poor little fella. He's clearly used to the university, where he can pull things like that and get away with it. He gives off the impression of a guy who's had his ass handed to him in discussions in the past, and now won't engage in any discourse where he's not in complete control.

Here's hoping the other debates are more productive and promising.

Crude said...

And just to quickly add...

What's really bizarre and hilarious about his methods is that they're incompatible with his stated goal. In particular "the openness to revise beliefs". Now, that's all well and good if he's giving general advice on how to conduct yourself intellectually. The problem is, he's not doing that: all of his advice, according to that article, is delivered towards the singular goal of promoting atheism. The very prospect of being wrong about atheism isn't even entertained as a live possibility.

And I can see why. Apparently, Boghossian has devoted 10-12 hours a day, every single day, for the past 20-22 years, into trying to get anyone he can to become atheists. I notice that leaves shockingly little time to do much anything else, including questioning his own beliefs.

Really, the guy comes across as a supreme example of someone who himself needs a kind of outsider test.

Crude said...

One last comment for now.

Browsing his twitter: Once religious delusions lose their exemption in the DSM, IRB approval 4 interventions curing people of the faith virus would be obtainable

This is the guy who's against fascism. Between this and his "one-sentence refutation of the Kalam Cosmological Argument", I have to say the guy doesn't seem all that intellectually imposing.

Rudy said...

Socially minimalistic... hilarious phrase. I wonder if Socrates poked people in the chest with his forefinger when he questioned them? That would explain a lot.

@Crude, sorry, our local branch didn't have Behe anymore (the books move from branch to branch) but the good thing is that I can ask for them, and they do have the more recent one too, so I requested them and should get them next week.

David B Marshall said...

Thanks, Rudy. But I get the feeling Socrates actually liked people, and didn't mind it when people expressed opposing opinions.

David B Marshall said...

Crude: What do those acronyms mean? Sounds like he might have admired the way of Soviet shrinks with badthink.

Crude said...


Well, good to hear.


Here's a link for DSM and IRB.

So, your instinct was right. Apparently when he calls religious belief/faith a 'virus', he's dead serious: classify it as a virus, the sort of thing doctors are supposed to cure and remove from people, by medication, therapy or any other means. Complete with wanting to have approval for human experimentation to see how to make people lose their by force.

Crude said...

Er, lose their faith/religious beliefs by force.

Crude said...

Just one more comment for now, because a guy this crazy just activates all my "let's have fun with this guy's thoughts" instincts.

Socrates had religious beliefs, complete with a belief in God, the soul, and a rejection of materialism.

So if Socrates were alive today, apparently Peter Boghossian's preferred method of dealing way of dealing with him would be to throw a straightjacket on him and get a little Mengele on his ass, to see what was necessary to cure him of his virus. Perhaps a chemical lobotomy would do the trick?

Victor Reppert said...

I think you got hit with the "defeasibility test," developed by Matt McCormick and supported by Loftus.

Victor Reppert said...

David B Marshall said...

Victor: I see what you mean. Only I said yes, there may indeed be facts that could prove my faith untrue, at least in theory.

The storage capacity in my brain for new vocabulary words is limited. I tried to think of one that I wanted less than "defeasibility," but all I could think of on the spur of the moment, were the Cantonese word "lap sap," or "garbage," and the Russian word "doob," or "oak," as in Pushkin's magical poem. I'm afraid I rather like those two words, so I'll let McCormick's neologism float on down the stream past me, and pollute the tidewater flats of academia with its ugliness, rather than my mind.

Anonymous said...

I think that's why so many of these wannabes become teachers: students, though they may have a question here and there, are generally not going to critique the professor. It's quite easy to convince the googly-eyed student of anything, especially if you can muster the illusion of good scholarship.

Kudos on you for trying. I, too, constantly ask atheists for debate, but they're strangely silent 99% of the time.

Victor Reppert said...

Unknown said...

This displays nicely Peter's naive obsession with the Socratic method. He truly believes it to be a 'neutral' means of ferreting out truth, rather than one in which the user assumes an unearned position of power and sets up the rules of the game. This doesn't make it a useless tool, but it has its limits where he truly believes it's omnipotent.

Accordingly, virtually all of Boghossian's public material -- lectures and now books -- doesn't actually makes arguments against "faith" (as he defines it, and as no person of faith does), but assumes a priori that faith is an enemy to be defeated. Hence his new book "A Manual for Creating Atheists" (rather than, say, establishing that more atheists are a good thing -- something no one has, or could, do).

David B Marshall said...

Sounds like you know more about the man. Maybe I should read one of his books, offer an honest appraisal on Amazon, and see if that flushes him out of his cave. Or maybe I should copy Loftus' take on Craig, and crown myself "the only Christian scholar Peter Boghossian refuses to debate." :- )

QH:. Francisco said...

It seems Dr. Boghossian doesn't want to debate anyone who ignores simple questions. I can't say I blame him.

David B Marshall said...

I did answer the question. Read my first response again, several times if it helps.

And of course a question with a vague term like "faith" in it is not simple, but simplistic and potentially misleading -- especially when the meaning of "faith" is the very question at issue!

David B Marshall said...

And finally, being unwilling to publicly debate, does not necessitate rudeness -- which Boghossian claims to council against.

Unknown said...

What Dr. Boghossian was looking for was for you to think of a situation that would influence you to change your mind about a belief that you hold primarily due to faith.

Your answer was vague and dodgy at best. "If the reasons I believe in God, and in Jesus Christ, proved mistaken." How could they be proved mistaken? What would that take? That's what he wanted.

You should also understand that people talk to him all the time about this stuff. He has to select his discussions, and your offer was less than genuine in his eyes.

He's said it many times before that often the first question he'll ask someone who wants to debate or argue is "What will it take for you to change your mind?" If they can't answer that question sincerely, then he moves on.

David B Marshall said...

James: Peter was being rude. No "hello," no "good to hear from you," no questions about my expertise or experience or published works. Nor were his questions related to my proposal. Nor did his dismissive conclusions follow from anything I said. Sorry, this is just not how "humble" and intellectually curious people talk.

He could, of course, have replied, "Thanks, but that's a little vague. What are your reasons for believing in God, exactly?"

If that's how he usually talks with people, then frankly, he is an arrogant, narcissistic jackass.

Nor, of course, did Peter set the example by indicating what would change his mind. Does he ever do that?

I have read the Socratic dialogues. It seems evident to me that Socrates himself was genuinely curious, his questions were not just a gimmick to prove a point.

Unknown said...

I really can't speak on Dr. Boghossian's behalf, but I can say that you aren't sounding very humble. Shouldn't you act the same way Jesus would act? Maybe try and get to know him better that he may know God through you?

I'm pretty sure he doesn't have a website up showing your dialogue and complaining about you. That's why it's easier to give him a pass and rather question your position.

If you do get to know him without the premise if an intellectual fist-fight, you might learn that he isn't the person you're painting him to be here. Just saying, maybe that's a possibility that you're quickly ruling out here.

David B Marshall said...

James: Dr. Boghossian has just written a top-1000 book teaching his fellow atheists how to use humility, good listening skills, and the Socratic method to win the masses to atheism. (Correct me if I'm wrong: I just got it in the mail an hour ago.)

My goal with Dr. B is not friendship evangelism, it is to expose him as the fraud he appears to be. Jesus did that too, sometimes.

It is possible, and I've mentioned this a few times, that he simply had a bad day. I don't think that's likely, because I've observed his demeanor and attitude in other forums, as well.

Am I humble in talking with people? I haven't brushed you off like that, have I? Nor do I brush anyone off who posts here sincerely, and follows our basic rules for civility. If they can make a case for their position, civilly and without profanity, and relevant to the topic, they're welcome to do so.

Some people do critique my arguments on their web sites: in the past week, Patheos, Friendly Atheist, Pharyngula, Debunking Christianity, and Why Evolution is True, have all featured posts at least partly criticizing me. I take each on its merits: the first two were reasonably fair, the other three, not at all. (And Jerry Coyne seems to have simply refused to published my rebuttals, even while squawking about courage and democracy.)

If I'm being unfair to Dr. B, and you have evidence that he usually practices what he preaches, I am willing to be corrected.

Unknown said...

You are being reasonable, and I understand that his emails to you left you feeling a bit frustrated.

You say you want to expose him as the fraud he appears to be, but I have a hard time believing he's a fraud. The simply because his primary focus is to encourage people to reason with a good process. Frauds typically don't encourage independent thought or teach people how to think on their own.

Try to keep an open mind when reading his book. He makes many good points, and he's clearly an intelligent philosopher. I understand you want to protect your own personal beliefs, but really challenge yourself to his ideas. If your belief is truer than his, then you have nothing to worry about, right? That is if you think truth prevails over lies and deception.

David B Marshall said...

Fair enough. I'll try to tamp it down a bit.

Although I'm less concerned about my beliefs (I'm an adult, and regularly debate these guys and do fine on substance), as about the "tens of thousands" of students PB apparently makes his guinea pigs on the taxpayer dime.

I appreciate your own reasonable approach, including in that thread with the fellow who thinks Bill Gates is some sort of capitalist criminal. I've read the first two or three chapters, now, and at least share with PB an appreciation for the Greek philosophers.

Unknown said...

Thank you for your kind words. I try not to come off as a jerk or condescending. I appreciate your reasoning too and am happy that we could communicate with each other effectively.

Unknown said...

Dont know how to put my name in sorry

Unknown said...

What would it take to lose your faith? Seems a pretty easy question to answer.

Unknown said...

Wow I see now this is history. Ignore my comment. You have probly become an apiarist by now. I Must buzz off.. Regards

David B Marshall said...

Haven't even learned what an apiarist is, yet, nor developed a desire to know. :- )

Unknown said...

Apiarist. >>bee keeper. I was just being funny (in my own mind) variation on atheist. I met Dr Boghossian a week ago. My experience was something I will never forget and feel so privileged to have that opportunity.

David B Marshall said...

Vaughan: I actually did answer Peter's question. Was my answer defective in some way?

Unknown said...

Sorry I must have written something under the wrong person's name but perchance came across you taochristian full blog . will read soon. 99% sure my error