TIA Tuesday: Punch drunkJuly 15, 2008 — Deacon Duncan
Vox Day has a knack for spotting his own habits whenever they show up in the behavior of his adversaries. Chapter 9 of TIA gives us a good example of this as Vox describes Christopher Hitchens as someone who “writes as he debates, as if there is a team of judges keeping track of the total number of punches thrown and awarding points for each one landed.” True to form, Vox spends the rest of the chapter (has he has spent most of the book thus far) throwing rhetorical punches at Hitchens and awarding himself points for each one, whether it lands or not.
Last week we saw Vox accuse Hitchens of evading the questions of one Doug Wilson, despite the fact that Hitchens gave succinct and accurate answers to Wilson’s “bombshell,” while Wilson studiously avoided making any substantial response to Hitchens’s. Vox’s next major punch is to accuse Hitchens of “self-evisceration” for having said “what can be asserted without evidence can also be dismissed without evidence.” According to Vox, this gives Hitchens’s critics “carte blanche to legitimately dismiss the greater portion of Hitchens’s own book.” Nicely thrown, but does that one really land?
Vox tries to document his argument by citing “a table of fifty-one assertions made by Hitchens, each made completely sans evidence, taken from every single one of the nineteen chapters of god is not Great.” In quickly reviewing this list of assertions, however, it is quite plain that Vox has failed to distinguish between propositions for which the evidence is not specifically presented, and propositions for which the evidence is not even possible. Rather than trying to understand the point Hitchens was actually making, Vox merely seeks to exploit the quote as an opening he can throw a punch at.
The Hitchens quote is simply saying that if you can’t come up with any evidence for the conclusion (God) you believe in, then a rational person does not need to provide any evidence against your conclusion (God) in order to be justified in rejecting your conclusion. The list of 51 assertions, however, are not propositions for which Hitchens would necessarily be unable to provide any evidence. It might perhaps be tedious to go through and build a detailed analysis of the evidence for each and every point Hitchens makes (and no doubt Vox would like nothing better than to see skeptics and atheists bog down in endlessly boring detail), but whether or not Hitchens presents the evidence for his statements, they are not assertions for which no evidence is possible. Indeed, Vox himself admits this when he claims to be able to refute Hitchens’s assertions by examining (ta da!) the evidence.
Vox has pulled this tactic fairly frequently in TIA—feigning an innocent and overly-literal misinterpretation of the particular wording of a particular quote in order to flail away in endless detail at the resulting straw man. I’m not a boxing fan, so I can’t say for sure whether the judges would give a fighter points for landing hits on a home-made effigy of the real opponent, but Vox certainly seems to think he’s landing big-time punches with this approach. Let’s have a look at a sample of some of the 51 assertions that Vox claims can be “dismissed without evidence.” (Numbers as originally given in TIA.)
2) What we respect is free inquiry, openmindedness, and the pursuit of ideas for their own sake.
The quote, of course, is from Hitchens, and by listing it as an example of a claim that can be dismissed without evidence, Vox is giving us a good example of simply ignoring evidence which is both abundant and readily available. Atheists and other skeptics do indeed respect free inquiry, openmindedness, and the pursuit of ideas for their own sake. Indeed, the reason Vox was claiming earlier that science was such a terrible threat to mankind is precisely because it is, in his opinion, too free, too openminded, and too enamored of pursuing ideas for their own sake.
Vox wants to disqualify this openmindedness on the grounds that they don’t accept his conclusions about God, but openmindedness doesn’t mean you have to agree with every idea you encounter. True skepticism requires that you compare each idea to the available evidence, and then prefer the conclusions best supported by the facts. A preference for truth is not a lack of openmindedness. But I digress. The main point to note here is that Hitchens is citing a fact for which even Vox himself has provided supporting evidence (despite the spin he tried to put on it).
(7) Nothing optional is ever made punishable unless those who do the prohibiting have a repressed desire to participate.
This one is, in fact, an assertion made without evidence, and it’s doubtful that objective evidence ever could be found to support it. Hitchens is simply voicing an opinion, and would cheerfully apply the dictum “what is asserted without evidence can also be rejected without evidence.” Nobody is saying you have to just take Hitchens’s word for it, and if you want to reject it without evidence, that’s perfectly fine. Vox’s punch in this case consists of accusing Hitchens of (*gasp!*) daring to express an opinion in his own book, as though that were some kind of self-contradiction (or self-evisceration, as Vox calls it).
(9) It is a certainty that millions of other harmless and decent people will die, very miserably, and quite needlessly, all over the world as a result of this obscurantism [AIDS denial].
This one is, once again, opinion, and yet not entirely unrelated to the evidence. Indeed, it seems amazing that Vox would suggest that one could look at the evidence related to AIDS, and to the consequences of AIDS denial, and still reject the conclusion that AIDS denial has the potential to cause untold loss of innocent life. If Vox wants to dispute the actual statistics, and (for example) claim that AIDS denial will only result in the loss of a few thousand innocent lives, well, let him produce the evidence to support that conclusion. But if he rejects Hitchens’s conclusion on the basis of lack of evidence, he’s only demonstrating that “what is asserted without evidence” can indeed be “dismissed without evidence.”
(19) The Bible may, indeed does, contain a warrant for trafficking in humans, for ethnic cleansing, for slavery, for bride-price, and for indiscriminate massacre, but we are not bound by any of it because it was put together by crude, uncultured human mammals.
Vox includes this quotation, not because there is no evidence to support it, but because he wants to quibble with Hitchens over what a “warrant” is. It’s true that the command to eradicate the entire Amalekite people (and their animals!) is not a blanket permission for Christians to commit genocide whenever they feel like it. It is, however, a Biblical example of God allegedly commanding His followers to commit genocide, and it was indeed written by “human mammals” who, by modern standards were crude and uncultured. The references to slave trafficking and bride price are even more serious, being bound into the ordinances of the Law which Jesus himself declared to be God’s perfect law. Even if modern Christians feel that they do not live up to that standard in order to be saved, it is still the standard of righteousness—including the slavery and selling daughters for sexual purposes.
And so on. The bulk of the “assertions” Vox claims to reject are primarily Hitchens’s opinions, and yes, you are as entitled to your own opinions as Hitchens is to his. Many of these claims, however are subjective guesses as to the degree and/or probable consequences of things that are factual and evidentially-based. Never one to leave a baby behind if there’s some bath water he can dump, Vox wants to discard both Hitchens’s opinions about the facts and the facts themselves, as frequently noted in his footnotes. For example:
(10) The attitude of religion to medicine, like the attitude of religion to science, is always necessarily problematic and very often necessarily hostile.
[VOX'S FOOTNOTE] This historical antipathy for medicine is no doubt the reason so many religious individuals and organizations founded hospitals.
In other words, if Hitchens is somewhat excessive in his opinion about the degree to which religion and medicine have been at odds with one another, we’re supposed to reject the whole thing. So, for example, the whole Middle Ages incident where the Church forbade dissection of cadavers, leaving medical knowledge essentially where Galen left it (mistakes and all), never happened. We’re just supposed to give religion full credit for the medical knowledge obtained by those who finally dared to defy the Church’s teaching that dissection of human cadavers was a sacriligious violation of the image of God.
In summary, this section of Chapter 9 consists of Vox Day rejecting 51 assertions made by Christopher Hitchens, without regard to the evidence which would properly apply to each assertion, solely on the grounds that Hitchens did not explicitly enumerate the evidence for each point as he made it, which Vox justifies on the basis of a wooden and tendentious misinterpretation of a single Hitchens quote sans context. This is not a search for the truth, nor is it a serious attempt to engage the actual issues. It is Vox Day, throwing whatever literary punches he can, and proclaiming himself the winner by a knockout because he pushed over his own straw man.