Monday, October 19, 2009

Just in Case...

If you've been looking for a hilariously incompetent Christian response to Bertrand Russell's "Why I am Not a Christian," check this bit of idiotic nonsense by someone named John Piper.

I call it to your attention because it could make a nice exercise in fallacy detection for your freshman classes. It seems the "wise Christian scholars" that were Piper's tutors did not succeed at teaching him how to craft an argument.

Oh... and don't forget to mention that, on any view of the matter that's not ignorant, A. N. Whitehead was not a co-founder of "analytic philosophy."


smog said...

I fear that the anti-religious side of you is getting in the way of the rational side of you. Try as I might, I didn't find the obvious fallacies that you did. Furthermore, if Piper had difficulty crafting an argument, then what fallacies could he commit? I take it that fallacies are properties of arguments. Perhaps you mean his teachers didn't teach him to craft a sound argument. Of course, if the conclusion is that God exists, you're committed to that. More than likely you mean that he can't craft a valid argument. In that case, point me to the invalid ones! Or admit that he committed no fallacies. In any case, it's certainly not the "bit of idiotic nonsense" you claim it is. Perhaps you use hyperbole regularly and others know better than to take you seriously, but I haven't been reading the blog for long.

Meat Sounds said...

No, the piece really is that bad. Let's start at the fallacy of composition (concluding that every part of your life is just a collection of atoms because life itself is a collection of atoms), and run smack bang into a forest of non-sequiturs.

Anonymous said...

The main lines lines of the argument here sound like Mavrodes' "Religion and Queerness of Morality." I wonder if that is one of the "wise Christian teachers" Piper refers to. I wonder, would you say that Mavrodes' piece is obviously fallacious in the way that Piper's is?

Anonymous said...

And here I was thinking analytic philosophy was just a footnote to Plato.

Anonymous said...

"I wonder, would you say that Mavrodes' piece is obviously fallacious in the way that Piper's is?"

I'm not "you" and I've not read Piper's piece yet, but if they aren't both filled with obvious fallacies that's only going to be because Piper's piece is fallacy free. Mavrodes' article is a steaming pile.

Anonymous said...

Piper is right that Russell's language is a bit strained by way of aiming at eloquence. But whims of eloquence - to which Piper immediately submits - do not indicate the failure of materialism. Nor do assertions about the God-like self, the impossibility of 'language affirming realities beyond matter' emerging from the collision of atoms (odd sentence by Piper there), the explanatory power of the Bible's vision of life, the gamesmanship in the academy, and so on, constitute an argument.

I know about Piper: I used to be a conservative Christian. You'll look long and hard for arguments from him. He, and most evangelical pastors, use this simple rhetorical format. It's so pervasive I doubt they know they do it. They believe, I think, they are crushing the enemy with reason. Here's the format: raise a vague, easily digestible point from the enemy, strawman it quickly (the lay folk don't have much in the way of attention span), assert the dominance of the favored view, indicate - without actually explaining in any detail - the massive explanatory and practical resources of the favored view, and close.

One is left with an impression of the sophistication and obviousness of one's own view. Pitched to the right audience, it's very effective.

Dr. Killjoy said...

Indeed, Piper has a keen intellect. All this time, I thought I was the only one who knew that the quickest way to utterly dismantle an opponent's position is to charge them with laboring poetic.

That being said, smog and Anon 7:56, you some dumb motherfuckers.

Spiros said...


What a lovely post. So many confusions... It's hard to know where to begin. Let's try this: you move from the claim "I didn't find the obvious fallacies" to the conclusion that there are no such fallacies. In case you didn't know-- and I'm assuming you don't-- that inference is fallacious.

You then conflate different senses of 'argument'. That Piper can't craft an argument (successfully) doesn't mean that he can't propose an argument (viz., an attempt to derive a conclusion from some premises). 'Argument' is not a success term, and "invalid argument" is not a contradiction in terms.

As a response to Russell, Piper's piece is indeed a bit of idiotic nonsense. The fallacies introduced in day one of baby logic are out in full force here (some of them have already been named by other commentators: composition, petitio principii, appeal to ignorance, ad homenim, straw man, etc.), and the more general vices of incompetent dialectical engagement are evident. That you tried to find them but failed only shows how incompetent you are as a reasoner. I suggest you try taking a low-level critical thinking course at your local community college or, better yet, high school.

smog said...


What a lovely post. So many unsubstantiated attacks... It's hard to know where to begin.

The fallacy of composition which Meat Sounds would like to attribute is, if anything, made by Russell in the quotation. Piper never makes any comment even closely related to what Meat Sounds attributes to him. If you think he does, please quote it and argue for your interpretation.

The forest of non-sequiturs is similarly just not there. But I'm open to being wrong about that, if someone would just give a fucking example!

Dr Killjoy is perhaps the best example of someone who has no idea what is going on in the Piper piece.

You accuse me of moving from "I didn't find any fallacies" to "there are no fallacies." Of course, I said no such thing. Great example of a straw man! I only wish you could point one out in Piper...

What might be nice is, when you accuse someone of committing the fallacy, quote her, and then explain the fallacy. If you were to do so, I think you'd see that you're blinded by your anti-religious bias. We'd all like to Christian-bash, but it's no excuse for shoddy reasoning.

Dr. Killjoy said...


Don't you find it at all telling that the best example of someone who has no idea what is going on in the Piper piece, namely me, Dr. Killjoy, is also the best example of a awesomely bad-ass sexy muthafucka?

Where's your Jesus now, fool?!

Spiros said...


Glad to oblige. Please make a donation to your local community college's scholarship fund in return for my help with your education. I'll have to break this into two posts.

Begin with my claim about the fallacy in your original post. You move from "I didn't find the obvious fallacies" to "[The piece] is certainly not the 'bit of idiotic nonsense'" I say it is. I characterized this as an inference from "I couldn't find the fallacies" to "There are no fallacies." You object, "I of course said no such thing." Sorry for assuming that you'd withhold endorsement from a fallacy-riddled incompetent essay. I was wrong about that. Yes, you never said "there are no fallacies," but you do say that since you can't find the fallacies, the piece is not a bit of idiotic nonsense. Still fallacious.

Here are some fallacies in Piper's piece. First, Piper moves from "Russell's view is bleak" to "Russell's view is odd" to "Russell's view is false." The bleakness of a view is not evidence of its oddness. More importantly, oddness of a view is not evidence of its falsehood.

Then, as if he were giving reasons to support the inference, Piper goes on to assert that terms like 'devotion' and 'inspiration' are the exclusive property of anti-materialist views, and thus that materialists who use them are embroiled in some kind of contradiction. But this is question-begging. Recall the early responses to materialism, which held that since materialists deny the existence of souls, and since souls are what makes living things live, materialism is self-refuting, because if it were true, nothing would be alive, and therefore there would be no materialists.

Next, we have a question posed as if it were an argument; this is a version of arguing from ignorance. Piper asks, "Why would material atoms collide to create a language affirming realities beyond matter?," and then simply says it's odd to think that they would. But that's not at all an argument.

Spiros said...

Piper's second attempt to show that Russell is wrong is even more stupid. He asks "Did Russell really say to his crying children ... that their sorrows were the unfortunate collocation of atoms?" Suppose he did. So what? Piper thinks it absurd to think that human suffering and affection is simply material. But that's the conclusion he's supposed to be demonstrating. Now it's functioning as a premise.

He then quickly moves to an ad hominem: If Russell didn't say these things to his children, then he's a hypocrite, a mere player of academic games. But the views of hypocrites are not refuted by the hypocrisy. That I assert p, but act as if not-p, says nothing at all about the truth of p.

The third move against Russell is still stupider. One can of course criticize Russell's prose. But, again, that the prose is labored (I'll grant arguendo that it is labored) says nothing about whether the propositions it expresses are true or not. Further, to call Russell's view "self-annihilating" is simply name-calling and question-begging (think again of the anti-materialists who would simply deny that their materialist opponents are alive).

Then, Piper asserts that "The vision of life revealed in the Bible explains more of what we experience than the materialism of Bertrand Russell." But nothing even in the extended neighborhood of an argument is given. What explanations does the Bible offer? How does the Bible *explain* anything at all? Piper continues: "It makes more sense out of the material and immaterial. . . " Again with the question-begging! What's at issue, of course, is whether there is anything immaterial! The conclusion Piper is purportedly arguing to again is employed as a premise!

Now, there are other fallacies in the piece, but I'll pass them over in the interest of getting to the heart of why the Piper piece is such an embarrassment. As I mentioned above, it exhibits all of the familiar vices of pseudo-reasoning. It takes two sentences from an entire essay, presents them as if they encapsulate the whole of Russell's view, and then merely pretends to dialectically engage with them. None of Russell's positive arguments are ever even mentioned, let alone addressed, nor are his criticisms of the kind of alternative Piper favors discussed. Piper is simply stating that his favored view is different from Russell's, yet he adopts all of the rhetoric of rational argumentation. It's a sophist's trick, and when it's effective it produces fervent believers who have no grasp of what it would be like to engage a real opponent with real anti-theist arguments. It thus actually does a disservice to the theistic view it presents itself as trying to defend. A disgraceful way to treat a proposition you claim to think both true and supremely important. Were I a theist, I'd find this kind of thing disgusting. But as it is, I just find it dishonest.

Smog, don't forget to make that donation.

Krinos said...

Ach, Spiros already posted. I'm late to the party, but I'll still send this along too:


You ask for a list of the fallacies in order to substantiate the charge of idiocy here against Piper. Let me first say that ‘fallacy’ itself is a term that requires some judicious handling, and I’ll here stipulate that ‘fallacies’ are argumentative acts that either (a) do not support their proffered conclusions, or, more broadly, (b) distort the dialectical context. I’ve broadened the term here, because we don’t have terms for people who, by way of a systematic failure to respond to reasons, poison reasoned dialogue – in a sense, they are the fallacies. Now, to work.

The first thing to note is that Piper does not address any of Russell’s arguments, only his conclusions. He then runs three counter-arguments, each instantiating increasing degrees of argumentative vice. The problem is that without any shred of reasoning behind Russell’s conclusions, even if presented without distortion, there is always expansive room to respond. Russell argues for his conclusions, because he realizes that he’s addressing an audience that does not accept them, and it is the height of incompetence to think that the core of Russell’s series of essays was only their conclusions. The force of Russell’s essays are in their arguments, and Piper (though he says he attended to them as a student) seems to have no whiff of them now. He only presents the conclusions and then sets to criticizing them, and that’s not just an error. That’s intellectual cowardice.

Second, Piper calls Russell’s conclusion “triply odd”. That’s not yet an objection. Odd conclusions, when given good arguments, are often acceptable. Again, without the argument, the oddness of the conclusion is a case against it. And this is a wild distortion of Russell’s essays. But that’s not the only problem. Piper’s first ‘oddness’ is that Russell’s conclusion is at odds with itself. He asks a rhetorical question: “Why would material atoms collide to create a language affirming realities beyond matter?” But Russell’s case is that the question doesn’t make sense, or at least that there’s no reason to it. The only reason why Piper thinks he scores a point on Russell is if he thinks there’s a contradiction between materialism and norms… but please… nobody denies the difficulty of explaining normative behaviour. And the Russell view is one that takes its power from the specialness and finitude of human values – to say that this is a point against the view is to utterly misconstrue it.

Third, the “did [Russell] live his philosophy” question is ridiculous. First, if Russell did not live his philosophy, the argument would still be a tu quoque. Second, the question is posed with the presumption that he either did not, or more likely, could not. And that’s nonsense. Let’s just say that it’s certainly a uniquely bigoted attitude for Piper to take toward someone whom he’d only a few paragraphs had termed a “seasoned skeptic”. It’s clear now that’s a term of abuse and no more…

Finally, Piper’s third case is that Russell’s “laboring” poetics is really an attempt to express something higher, something Godlike. But, again, this is sheer Whiggish reading, one that takes all the good-sounding stuff from the opposition and holds that everything that’s good about them (e.g., standing resolute in the face of a universe that is indifferent to human needs) is actually an expression of the favored position. Piper's thought is that atheists, when they are noble, are actually testament to the fact that they are made in God's image. The fallacy is that of utterly destroying any room for the other side to have a point, for them to express any reasonable skepticism about god, for them to have, even if wrong, an autonomous nobility to their position. Bigotry, again, is my best word, but I wish I could find stronger.

So smog, please, learn to do some philosophy. Learn some logic. And please, learn to fucking read.

Jeebus said...

Smog - Well, other beat me to it, but here:

First, you did make the move Spiros attributes to you, whether you did it explicitly or not. One bit of evidence for this is your claim that Piper's piece is not an idiotic piece of nonsense. Obvious fallacies are sufficient for idiocy. By denying idiocy you deny that there are obvious fallacies. The only evidence you have for any of this is that you can't see the idiocy and the obvious fallacies on display. Your willingness to accuse everyone here of anti-religious bias (excuse me - your willingness to hypothesize or express your fears that this is true) also supports the claim that you've concluded there are no obvious fallacies in the piece because you can't see them.

As for the obvious fallacies, here are some among countless ones. Piper straw man's Russell's view when he asks whether Russell would tell his crying children that their sorrows are but the unfortunate colocations of atoms. Russell's view does not commit him to doing such a thing and Piper has given no reason to think so. More generally, the charge seems to be that Russell's view leaves no room (perhaps wants no room) for things that make life worthwhile, like affection. Again, this straw man's Russell's view and begs all sorts of questions. Piper has given absolutely no reason to believe Russell's view has such consequences or commitments.

Piper begs the question when he simply asserts that the Bible explains stuff better.

Piper points out that much of Russell's language is also used by the religious. This is irrelevant. More substantively, Piper seems to be suggesting that religious worldviews have a monopoly on these terms and related concepts. That, again, is just question begging nonsense.

Piper's claim that Russell's "God-like self" is being expressed in Russell's poetic language is question begging and groundless.

Piper concludes by claiming that academic gamesmanship is one reason why he keeps turning to Jesus. Even if Russell and his intellectual descendants were dopes engaging in all sorts of irresponsible behavior, that's no reason to turn to Jesus.

In short, this dude's a moron, his piece is crap, and any sensible person with half a brain should be able to see that his reasoning is idiotic.

Does that clarify things?

Anonymous said...

smog should leave philosophy (if smog is in philosophy - let's hope not).

I keep thinking that to say that is to be too mean, but I really do mean it if s/he thinks that Piper's article is okay in any sense. I can only wonder what smog teaches his or her students (!) yikes.

Platowe said...

Piper peppered putrid prose a peck of puerile posits. Say that fast 3 times.

Why so-called Christian apologetics is the utltimate exercise in shared self-deception. Oh wait--I forgot Fox News.

Anonymous said...

Um, where's smog?

Anonymous said...

Hopefully dissipated.

Anonymous said...

Smog is long gone.

Typical move for brain-dead loser apologists = insist upon high intellectual standards when challenging your opponents, then disappear when they prove willing to meet them.

Meat Sounds said...

I wonder how smog came upon Spiros's post, since Spiros and Piper's readerships don't seem like they'd overlap much.

Ah well, nobody else did the fallacy of composition, so I'll do that one for shits and giggles.

Piper concludes that Russell is committed to seeing the individual events in a life as devoid of intentional meaning because he says life as a whole is devoid of intentional meaning. That's the only way I can see what the significance of all the 'did he tell his children' stuff is: it's supposed to be relevant to the children's sorrow that all of it is a product only of materialistic causes, and that has to be because a framework of solely materialistic causes don't have intentions, etc, the way a guiding spirit like God would, and you need those for something to be intentionally meaningful. Even if you grant all of this, the conclusion doesn't follow, because it's an example of the fallacy of composition. What the premises establish is that 'devoid of intentional meaning' is a property of our lives taken as whole, but not that it is a property of every part of a life.

That this is surely the case can be seen by Russell, his children, etc, having intentionality, which can attach intentional meaning to the various events in their life. This makes 'you're sad, but don't worry, it's all just a bunch of atoms' a non-sequitur: yes, it's a bunch of atoms, but it's a feeling bunch of atoms (or, as Terry Bisson puts it, 'thinking, feeling meat').

This reading of the argument is the most charitable I could manage, because there is a forest of non-sequiturs around there: moving from the composition of a being to the character of an experience, for instance (what does what something is made of have to do with what it feels like?), and the type of circular reasoning Spiros pointed out.

CTS said...


nothing even in the extended neighborhood of an argument

I LOVE this. Do you mind if I add it to my own repertoire?

CTS said...

Meat Sounds:

I wonder how smog came upon Spiros's post, since Spiros and Piper's readerships don't seem like they'd overlap much.

They troll around, probably using Google. I posted something on my site during the summer about religion and value and got some troller spewing stuff even less cogent than Smog's. Then, 'Poof,' and gone.