Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Desperation, coercion or just poor common sense?

Although Stephen Hawking’s book “The Grand Desing” (co-authored w. Mlodinow) has been around for at least half a year now, only recently I was able to get a looksy at it (borrowed from the local library).

No I am not going to rip it apart in this blog post. There are several reviews that show the flaws of this book already:

The first is from the famous apologist William Lane Craig: The Grand Design — Truth Or Fiction? offers a quite insightful review of the book.
Although usually I do not agree with Craig on everything he says (I do not like the Kalaam argument very much myself), this review is truly spot-on in my opinion. I recommend anyone to read it carefully (best after reading the book itself of course).

Another interesting review is the one written by philosopher John Haldane: Philosophy Lives (Why Stephen Hawking’s attempt to banish natural theology only shows why we need it).

Finally I would add philosopher Edward Feser’s Review of The Grand Desing. Mind you it’s only for National Review subscribers… unfortunately I am not one of them so I can only trust Feser did a good job (I am so curious to read it!).
However Feser wrote several posts on his blog dealing with the same topic as The Grand Design (origin of universe, why is there something instead of nothing, can something create itself… etc etc…): The dreaded causa sui and Causal loops, infinite regresses, and information.


Anyway, now that I shoved all the hard work to ‘debunk Hawking’ to more eminent and qualified people than myself, I still would like to make a comment.

First I want to say I do admire Hawking. He’s a brilliant man that in spite of his physical condition he has risen to be one of the greatest scientists of our age.

That is indeed why I think this book and the campaign around it is not becoming him at all!!!

When The Grand Design came out Hawking made the statement that ‘we did not need God to explain the beginning of the universe’. In the Italian edition of the book (I saw the cover recently while browsing online newspapers) this statement is put right on the cover.

Clearly it is a provocative statement, a clever, although cheap, trick to sell many copies of the book to the increasing flock of atheist and anti-religious sheep.

Yet the book fails under the weight of it’s claim and is, in the end a very poor book.
I would not even call The Grand Design a “popular science” book… it’s rather a mix of bad philosophy mixed with “speculative science”, i.e. a lot of speculation based on still doubtful theories and premises. Although to the authors’ credit I must admit that what science they explain is explained in a clear manner and with beautiful pictures to illustrate the text.

One thing is sure though: the bad philosophy in the book outweighs the scientific speculation. This is because even if M-Theory was correct and the multiverse view that Hawking and Mlodinow present would be hard fact instead of uncertain theory, their conclusion (i.e .God is not needed; the universe created itself) is still not supported, since, even if the physical world would be as Hawking himself thinks it is… it still would need a creator (the arguments for this are explained quite clearly in Feser's posts I liked above).

I will not go deeper into this. I already posted several reviews that explain this point better than me… and even so anyone who has read at least “Philosophy for Dummies” and then reads The Grand Design will understand the fallacy of Hawking and Mlodinow arguments.
Of course if you went to the Dawkins’s School of Philosophy… well then… I am sorry for you… (and recommend to you to read some serious works that introduce metaphysics).

Let’s get to the meat of it
As I said I like Hawking and I think he’s brilliant. However this book is too close to a “new atheism manifesto” to be a decent and unbiased (as it should be!) popular science book.
As an analogy it’s like expecting a popular economic science book and get a text that, although it does explain economics, also tries to prove that all countries should be like the (now defunct) USSR… and starts with that premise.

And that’s why I ask myself: Why oh why did Hawking write this book with Mlodinow?!

I have three theories:

1- Loss of common sense.
He’s getting old, his brain is getting soft and spews out this dribble.
It’s no chance I put this option last in my title: I do not believe it. I strongly doubt that Hawking is any less sharp than he was 10 years ago.
It’s still possible, mind you, but highly unlikely.

2- Desperation.
Old age and death take us all. He’s nearly reaching the venerable age of 70 years and, although he might still be in good health (except from his chronic illness that relegates him to a wheelchair), dusk is upon him.
Perhaps the older he grew the more convinced and staunch atheist he grew, or perhaps he has an obsessive need to really explain everything in the universe and one of these two possibilities (or both) makes him desperate to make a ‘final stand’ against theism, trying to prove that there is nothing beyond physics.
Is desperation the inspiration for The Grand Design? Hard to know.

3- Coercion.
Dawkins was more than eager to praise The Grand Design as the book that put the last nail in the coffin in theism, arguing that where biology started killing the arguments for God, physics finished the job.
Well eager-beaver Richard, as usual, speaks out of ignorance.
Biology didn’t affect theism (certainly not Classical Theism, anyway) and The Grand Design is not coming close to it either.
However such eagerness in Dawkins' claims makes me wonder if Hawking is not the poor victim of the ‘New Atheist desperados’, that they are themselves so desperate to punch holes into theism that would do anything to reach their (impossible) goal.
Hence I would not be surprised if Hawking is a victim of subtle coercion from colleagues and perhaps militant atheists in the academic world.
If indeed this is true (I can only speculate) than the ‘new atheists’ are reaching new lows (and that’s a pretty hard feat to accomplish, IMO!)

Of course I cannot say what possibility is (most) true or if Hawking was just careless in his endeavors to prove his theories and resorted to attack theism as a PR stunt. Who knows?

Would I recommend The Grand Design?
Honestly I think it would be better to read String Theory For Dummies or some other introductory book on String Theory or Cosmology, if you are interested in these topics. I’d also recommend Hawking older pop-science books.

The Grand Design is in my opinion the fruit of desperation, coercion and/or just poor common sense…

… so let’s try to forget this ugly incident and still remember Hawking in our hearts and our minds as one of the greatest physicists of the last 50 years and turn to his older works, which are worthy of praise just as the author himself is.

Monday, April 11, 2011


Let’s elaborate on this. In my first post on this new blog I re-wrote the whole ‘Courtier’s Reply’ trick that philosopher Edward Feser denounced in one of his articles. Since then I had the doubtful pleasure to meet with people who have read Dawkins’ “The God Delusion” and debate Dawkins’ arguments against Aquinas.

This has brought two questions to my mind:

A- Can people truly have a blind spot when it comes to understanding?

B- Is being ‘smart’ in a particular field imply you can understand other fields as well?

The short answer for both is ‘Yes’ and ‘No’, respectively.

In these meetings I tried to explain in detail that Dawkins completely misrepresents Aquinas arguments, yet, I failed. Was such failure my fault? Perhaps… I am no trained philosopher and although I consider myself a student of Aquinas, I certainly cannot claim to be an expert. Moreover my field is physics, not philosophy, so the way I explain things is not proper.

On the other hand I do not think it’s entirely my fault. Indeed, what I have clearly noticed is that people who accept Dawkins’ arguments have, in general, an enormous “Blind Spot” when it comes to philosophy and especially metaphysics.

Indeed this blindness is truly a disease, with clear symptoms.
The first symptom that gives away this blindness is that they fail to see any difference between Dawkins’ explanation of Aquinas’ arguments and what Aquinas truly says. This cannot be my fault as I referred to different works that explain clearly Aquinas arguments and also the difference between what Dawkins and Aquinas say. Yet they stumble on the dark.
One might claim that I see this ‘ghostly’ difference because I believe and agree with Aquinas’ conclusions while I disagree with Dawkins’. In reality there IS a difference and this difference has been pointed out not only by ‘believers’ but also by several non-believing/atheist thinkers such as Michael Ruse, Bruce S. Sheiman and Terry Eagleton. I could probably add Antony Flew as well to this list, but since his rejection of atheism he had become a “pariah” among his former fellow atheists (or at least the 'new atheists') who treated him with scorn and attacked with a substantial amount of bile (funnily enough Hitchens in his book ‘God Is Not Great’ affirmed that atheists do not ‘excommunicate people for having different opinions’… well so much for that statement hey!). So if these people (and many other), who are certainly not biased pro-religion, see a difference in the arguments exposed, it cannot just be the fruit of simple wish-thinking.

The second symptom is any refusal to try to understand the arguments. This refusal takes three approaches. The first one is the ‘Courtier’s Reply’ (CR) which I already discussed in my former post, quoting Feser’s insightful article. Of course they do not realize that the CR is not at all a good argument (not in the case against theist arguments in any case). While in the CR example the emperor’s nakedness is something that everybody can see and it is not something that needs to be proved or that is assumed, the ‘existence of God’ (or other statements in theology) is not as easily dismissible. If one wants to discuss if God’s exists or not, and he rejects the other person’s arguments since he sets his own conclusion before hearing the opponent's arguments, defining his position true a priori, then there is no discussion anymore. Also it’s an irrational way to prove one’s point.
The second way is to cry ‘semantics!’ Aquinas works cannot be lazily translated. Even a ‘faithful translation’ requires understanding what Aquinas means with specific terms. ‘Motion’, ‘substance’, ‘essence’ and other terms Aquinas uses have a specific meaning that does not correspond to the meaning we give today to these words. Instead of taking the time to understand Aquinas words they just shove it all under the carpet, claiming it’s all semantics. Well it is semantics… i.e. the understanding of the meaning of the words, but this does not mean you should not take the time to understand! Unless you are lazy or intellectually dishonest, that is.
The third way is crying ‘it’s not a proof!’ What they mean is: ‘it is not an empirical or scientific proof’. This is the fallacy of scientism, thinking that all knowledge and all proofs are restricted to the realm of physical sciences. Edward Feser already commented on this topic extensively in here.

The third symptom is the blindness to notice Dawkins flawed arguments. As with the ‘first symptom’ several atheist or non-believing thinkers agree that Dawkins’ philosophy is feeble at best.
An example is when Dawkins’ makes the analogy with the piece of gold that can be divided into many pieces until the last piece of gold saying something like ‘ok not all series can regress at infinity yet even so this does not mean that a series terminator is God’… and compares this with the impossibility of infinite ontological linked casual series that Aquinas discusses. It’s like comparing an apple to a brick and claim that you cannot eat an apple because you break your teeth biting a brick. This is of course just the essence of the problem with Dawkins’ arguments… I will elaborate this point further in the future of my blog, quoting properly from his book.

So far, I think, I can say that I have indeed proven that those who accept Dawkins’ arguments above Aquinas clearly suffer from a serious case of ‘mental blindness’.
The question is: are these people stupid?

I am sure most believers are tempted to say ‘yes’… however the answer is ‘no, they are not stupid’.
For what is worth, I do not think Dawkins is stupid either: he just acts stupidly when he discusses religion (due to his personal and antagonistic bias), there’s a substantial difference.

The main issue is that being knowledgeable and smart in a field does not immediately transfer such knowledge and intelligence into another field.
This I have seen within physical and mathematical sciences themselves. I have met biologists who had quite a hard time understanding physics or mathematics or vice versa some physicists who could not grasp some ideas in biology or biochemistry.
These difficulties will only deepen when we go from physical sciences to philosophy or theology, which apply a different mode of reasoning.

Dawkins’ and followers mistakenly think that because they are perhaps accomplished in their own field of knowledge, they automatically understand philosophy and theology, assuming it’s something simple and easily grasped as basic arithmetic.

However, anyone who is not a philosopher and tried to seriously study philosophy realizes that things are not as trivial as that.

Hence one cannot say that Dawkins’ and his disciples are stupid. They might be very intelligent indeed; the trouble is that they are blinded by their own hubris and such hubris immediately nullifies the value of their intelligence outside their ‘home field’.

One then might ask: Can someone discuss the light with a blind man? Can someone discuss the truth with someone who is mentally blind to it?

I fear that the answer is ‘probably not’.


PS: If it's not clear I am not here claiming that all non-religious people are 'blind'. Of course some (or perhaps many, but silent) atheists or agnostics have taken the pain to read Aristotle and Aquinas in detail and not all non-believers hide behind the 'Courtier's Reply', but are humble enough not to dismiss the theist arguments a priori.

Unfortunately in the world there is a lot of stupidity and blinding hubris going around, which affect people no matter what they do or do not believe.

It all starts with the "Myers' Shuffle".

Now that I have a wee bit more time I can start blogging again. New blog thus.

Anyway many things are wrong in many people's mind these days... and it is clear that this is caused by a strong case of mental blindness. A blindness that starts with the foolish dismissal of what one does not understand: The so-called Myers' Shuffle. To explain what it is I report what I had written in my past (now defunct) blog: 

Some time ago I encountered a very interesting article by philosopher Edward Feser , author of the books 'The Last Superstition' and 'Aquinas'.

One of the most popular responses of 'New Atheists', when challenged with the FACT they they are ignorant of philosophy, theology and other subjects, is the "Courtier's Reply" tactic, invented by PZ Myers and applied often by Dawkins in his books.

Here's a fragment of what Feser writes, debunking the "Courtier's Reply" argument (I added the enphasis and underlining):

How does it work? Well, suppose you confront a New Atheist with the overwhelming evidence that his “objections” to Aquinas (or whomever) are about as impressive as the fundamentalist’s “chicken/egg” objection to evolution. What’s he going to do? Tell the truth? “Fine, so I don’t know the first thing about Aquinas. But I’m not going to let that stop me from criticizing him! Nyah nyah!” Even for a New Atheist, that has its weaknesses from a PR point of view. But now, courtesy of Myers, he’s got a better response: “Oh dear, oh dear … not the Courtier’s Reply!” followed by some derisive chuckling. One’s intelligent listeners will be baffled, wondering how shouting “Courtier’s Reply!” is supposed to excuse not knowing what one is talking about. And one’s more gullible followers—people like the faithful who have been buying up The God Delusion by the bushel basket—will be thrilled to have some new piece of smart-assery to fling at their religious friends in lieu of a serious argument. In the confusion, the New Atheist can slip out the back door before anyone realizes he hasn’t really answered the question. Call it “the Myers Shuffle,” and feel free to fling that label back at the next fool atheist who thinks yelling “Courtier’s Reply!” should be enough to stop you in your tracks.

(For the full article see:

The "Courtier's Reply" tactic is one I encountered before. Someone who was reading 'The God Delusion' said that Mr. Dawkins argued in the introduction of his that he 'had enough knowledge to criticize religion/theology/arguments for God/etc...'

Of course I replied asking: "how can someone criticize something he knows very little about" and made the parallel with blind creationists who know very little of biology and the theory of evolution and yet criticize it, hence making Mr. Dawkins basically equal to them.

Quickly this person tried to apply the "Courtier's Reply" tactin in this manner:

You can prove evolution, but you cannot prove God.
Since there is no empirical prove in philosophy it's ok to criticize it even with little knowledge of it.
You cannot compare biology with philosophy...

One might immediately recognize the "Myers shuffle" here, making foolish mistakes that indeed indicate lack of philosophical knowledge.

I agree with the last comment, biology and philosophy are different disciplines, but that is not an excuse at all.

First mistake is an epistemological one. Not all 'proofs' are 'empirical'. Most mathematical proofs, just like metaphisical ones, are LOGICAL proofs based on axioms and not empirical and falsifiable ones.
Hence not every truth in the world can be proven by an experiment.

The second mistake is related to te first one and tries to downplay philosophy just because it is not necessarely an empirical science. However this is irrational.

Let's take Shakespeare. Many write about Shakespeare and his works, comment them, try to understand the meaning and themes in his plays. A fascinating subject.
Now if I would like to criticize someone's ideas on Shakespeare, wouldn’t it require knowledge of Shakespeare's works? Studying Shakespeare is certainly not 'hard science' where you do experiments, yet, if I would know my Shakespeare my criticism would not be a criticism at all, but only an uneducated opinion.

I doubt ANY English literature scholar would accept the “Myer’s Shuffle” as a valid answer and they would laugh if I cried “Courtier’s Reply”.

Yet, that is what many 'New Atheist' provide as an answer. These opinions might fool their 'worshippers' but hardly make a dent in the mind of more educated people.
Even atheist people, as a matter of fact, scorn Dawkins and Myer’s ludicrous tactics.

Feser reports these interesting quotes in his article:

Philosopher and prominent Darwinian Michael Ruse has said that Dawkins’s book made him “ashamed to be an atheist” and that Dennett’s book is “really bad and not worthy of [him].” Another atheist philosopher, Thomas Nagel, has described Dawkins’s “amateur philosophy” as “particularly weak,” and his attempts to counter the philosophical difficulties inherent in his own position “pure hand-waving.”

Another important point is that Dawkins often argues that although he is neither a theologian nor a philosopher he still is, as a scientist, extremely qualified to discuss the nature of evidence.

This is an enormous fallacy... a gaping maw in logic that eventually swallows any other arguments Dawkins & Co. make into oblivion.

The fallacy is the result of Dawkins & Co. ignorance itself:

1- To discuss the 'nature of evidence' one MUST have some decent understanding of philosophy and in particular epistelomology. Without a decent knowledge of these subjects one is seriously crippled when it come to discussing ‘the nature of evidence’ and the question ‘what is truth’.

2- Not all 'evidence' is evidence that can be scrutinized by physical sciences alone... most of it in fact is not. Dawkins & Co. probably try to enforce the idea that only empirical evidence is evidence, but such notion is false and reduces the discussion in the chains of materialism. However materialism itself cannot be proven empirically, so the new atheists fall immediately into a contradiction.

3- Dawkins & Co. criticize the various 'arguments for God' but they do not know what they are.
Sure they argue how a theist can criticize the ‘Flying Spaghetti Monster’ (FSM) without knowing ‘Pastafarian theology’. An educated philosopher and theologian wouldn’t. If I want to deny the FSM I would do so, after investigating what the FSM movement and ideas entail.
The fact that FSM is ridiculous is true for a lot of reasons, but it’s not something one should argue ‘a priori’, because even if someone makes a foolish and perhaps outrageous argument, it is the duty of the critic to know that argument before he can correctly criticize it.
So no matter how stupid one person's claim might be or appear to another person's eyes, to properly criticize it one should understand it and properly know what the arguments for the claim are.

Painful proof (for Dawkins & Co.) of this are the comments on 'the five ways of Aquinas' in ‘The God Delusion’, where Dawkins stupidly misinterprets completely what Aquinas wrote and meant to say.

Feser points that out quite clearly (enphasis added):

Richard Dawkins is equally adept at refuting straw men. In his bestselling The God Delusion, he takes Aquinas to task for resting his case for God’s existence on the assumption that “There must have been a time when no physical things existed”—even though Aquinas rather famously avoids making that assumption in arguing for God. (Aquinas’s view was instead that God must be keeping the world in existence here and now and at any moment at which the world exists, and that this would remain true even if it turned out that the world had no beginning.) Dawkins assures us that Aquinas gives “absolutely no reason” to think that a First Cause of the universe would have to be all-powerful, all-good, all-knowing, etc.; in reality, Aquinas devoted hundreds of pages, across many works, to showing just this. Dawkins says that the fifth of Aquinas’s famous Five Ways is essentially the same as the “divine watchmaker” argument made famous by William Paley. In fact the arguments couldn’t be more different, and followers of Aquinas typically—and again, rather famously (at least for people who actually know something about these things)—reject Paley’s argument with as much scorn as evolutionists like Dawkins do.

And those are only (some of) the errors on pages 77–79.

Now, if Dawkins & Co. are so finicky on 'evidence'... well this is the evidence that their ignorance CANNOT be shoved away by the "Courtier's reply" tactic... and the the "Myer's Shuffle" they are so keen to apply is just a way to put sand in someone's eyes and confuse their audience to hide their ignorance and fallacy of their arguments.

So the "Courtier's reply" tactic is nothing more than try to deny the truth of one's ignorance and bigotry.


More on E. Feser:

His blog:

His website:


Unfortunately this tactic of 'waving away' (theistic) arguments with the 'Courtier's  Reply' is getting more and more popular... and truly there is NO reasoning with those who use such tactics, since they refuse to reason in the first place...

From there, only blindness can follow...