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Logic and rhetoric
“”I'll tell you what — if you think I need a "sophisticated understanding of theology" to debunk bad religious ideas, then I hope you are also criticizing all those people who believe this nonsense without an "expert level understanding" of it, too.
|—Hemant Mehta, The Atheist Voice|
His answer to the fallacy is to say that telling a non-believer that he should study theology before he can properly discuss whether a god exists is like telling the child in Hans Christian Andersen's fable "The Emperor's New Clothes" to study haute couture before he can properly discuss whether the Emperor is naked.
Essentially, it's a particularly ham-handed argument from authority where the position's proponent attempts to bury the opponent under a pile of detail which is largely irrelevant to the opponent's argument.
Denunciation of this particular fallacy, however, is quite easy to misuse. Whenever one is told to read more about a subject that he disagrees on, it is easy to accuse one's contradictors of giving a "Courtier's Reply". The element of the Courtier's Reply that is being forgotten here is that it asks the questioner to "read more" about a subject that begs the question. Therefore it cannot be used, for instance, by people not liking that they are being asked to read more about global warming if they deny it. In addition, it is not fallacious to tell, for example, a creationist to read more on evolution, if they clearly do not understand what they are talking about, and are basing their evidence on false premises (such as, for example, believing that abiogenesis = evolution).
The first known instance of the use of this phrase was in response to criticism of The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins; a standard criticism was that Dawkins had not studied theology and was therefore unqualified to discuss evidence for or against the existence of God.
Which PZ Myers derisively transposed to Andersen's fable as:
“”Until Dawkins has trained in the shops of Paris and Milan, until he has learned to tell the difference between a ruffled flounce and a puffy pantaloon, we should all pretend he has not spoken out against the Emperor's taste.
The fallaciousness of the Courtier's Reply is evident: the study of couture is only relevant to the Emperor's New Clothes if such clothes actually exist. No such knowledge is necessary to question their very existence.
Dawkins himself once said, when referring to the fact that he is not a theologian:
Hemant Mehta also points out that religious people of any one given faith will gladly criticize other religions without having read all of their theological works. This goes doubly for what some may consider "joke faiths", such as Scientology.
Likewise, the bulk of theology rests on the assumption that a particular god (or a particular set of gods) exists. Without this assumption, it has no logical basis and can be safely ignored. Using those theological arguments requires accepting the premise that god exists: that is begging the question.
As some commenters retorted, however, some arguments against the existence of God do use this assumption, as part of reductio ad absurdum demonstrations. For example, arguing that omnipotence and omnibenevolence are incompatible (or inconsistent with the existence of evil/suffering) requires assuming the existence of those attributes in some being, and then looking for logical inconsistencies. In such cases, treatises on the nature of these attributes become relevant — though, again, entirely by virtue of having begged the question.
Conversely, theology sometimes omits the premise that God exists. Indeed, keeping this premise in arguments for the existence of God would be circular reasoning.
Use of the fallacy outside religion
One famous early example is attributed to Isaac Newton, who allegedly said to a skeptical Edmund Halley regarding astrology — "I, sir, have studied it; you have not."[note 1] And we all know how well astrology turned out to work.
This argument is particularly favored by anyone who fancies themselves more qualified than others on a subject. Postmodernists in particular have used it to defend the more impenetrable works of their "leading lights", such as Derrida, Lacan, et al., from criticism from "outsiders" who "just don't understand". Conversely, evolution deniers (as well as denialists of other stripes) accuse scientists of committing the fallacy, in an attempt to sidestep physical evidence such as the existence of fossils and radiometric dating.
When "you don't understand" is non-fallacious
Frequently, a version of the "Courtier's Reply" is non-fallacious, when discussing somebody who clearly misunderstands a crucial fact, definition or nuance of the position. For example, if a disputant in a hypothetical argument clearly is explicitly assuming that Global Warming is caused by the hole in the Ozone layer, a viewer would probably not be wrong in labeling this disputant as "clearly ill-informed" based on that fact alone.
Areas that are particularly prone to being misunderstood in this way particularly include Cosmology (particularly in relation to the Big Bang) and Quantum Physics.
- Argument from authority
- How do you know? Were you there?
- Sophisticated theology
- Duping theologians — the Sokalability of theologians
- Newton is alleged by some to have had an ardent interest in astrology. This is hotly disputed by others — as is the quote.
- The Courtier's Reply by PZ Myers (December 24, 2006 10:16 AM) Pharyngula (archived from February 16, 2007).
- See the Wikipedia article on The Emperor's New Clothes.
- Dawkins on Theology. video on YouTube At 6:47.
- The God Delusion: The Courtier's Reply
- Isaac Newton and Astrology: Witness for the Defence or for the Prosecution? by Robert H. van Gent (updated 3 August 2007) Faculty of Science, Utrecht University.