“On Bullshit” and Creationism

This is a post I did not want to write. First of all, it requires me to speculate on what’s in other people’s heads, which I don’t like to do. Second, it requires me to use a mild cuss word, which makes me uncomfortable even in print. I’m posting anyway because on the first count there comes a time where you just have to say that a waddling, quacking, duck-like animal is, in fact, a duck; and on the second count the word “bullshit” happens to have no adequate synonym.

What is bullshit, and how does it differ from an ordinary lie? Princeton philosopher Harry Frankfurt gave a good answer in his famous essay, On Bullshit.

The bullshitter may not deceive us, or even intend to do so, either about the facts or about what he takes the facts to be. What he does necessarily attempt to deceive us about is his enterprise. His only indispensably distinctive characteristic is that in a certain way he misrepresents what he is up to.

This is the crux of the distinction between him and the liar. Both he and the liar represent themselves falsely as endeavoring to communicate the truth. The success of each depends upon deceiving us about that. But the fact about himself that the liar hides is that he is attempting to lead us away from a correct apprehension of reality; we are not to know that he wants us to believe something he supposes to be false. The fact about himself that the bullshitter hides, on the other hand, is that the truth-values of his statements are of no central interest to him; what we are not to understand is that his intention is neither to report the truth nor co conceal it. This does not mean that his speech is anarchically impulsive, but that the motive guiding and controlling it is unconcerned with how the things about which he speaks truly are. (Emphases mine.)

As I said in the last post, I think the average creationist in the pew believes the things he does because he lives in the Christian Echo Chamber. However, someone must have gotten the echo started. This post is about those creationist leaders who first decided to deceptively misappropriate probabilistic arguments about the origin of life; or to make pathetic assertions about how evolution violates the Second Law of Thermodynamics; or to make up laughable stories about why fossils are layered as they are. And by the way, I am talking primarily about young-Earth creationists (those who believe the Earth is less than 10,000 years old), but some of this applies to creationists generally.

For the better part of a decade, I have been pondering whether creationist thought-leaders (again, not the followers) know they’re lying or if they’re just ignorant. I couldn’t quite believe either. Frankfurt’s essay points to a third possibility, and I think it’s the right one.

Although “scientific creationistsrepresent themselves as devoted to the scientific enterprise, they are not. Biologist Ken Miller, who is both an evolutionist and a Christian, reports that in the aftermath of a debate in which he trounced the arguments of creation-science grandfather Henry Morris, Morris told him,

Scripture tells us what the right conclusion is. And if science, momentarily, doesn’t agree with it, then we have to keep working until we get the right answer. But I have no doubts as to what that answer will be. (Finding Darwin’s God, page 173.)

A real scientist would ideally follow the evidence wherever it leads. He would form hypotheses and attempt to falsify them. A creation-scientist is firmly committed to a literal reading of Genesis and attempts to force all the data into that paradigm. We can say of the creationist thought-leader that “in a certain way, he misrepresents what he is up to.” In other words, he is a bullshitter.

As Harry Frankfurt emphasized, this does not mean the creationist is insincere, but it does appear that “the truth-values of his [scientific] statements are of no central interest to him.” If they were, he would have a different approach to the evidence. Rather than engage in the bullshittery we saw in A Case Study in Creationist Quote-Mining, he would stop to understand what he was quoting and refrain from using the quote if he could not do so with integrity. Rather than throw bullshit arguments about the Second Law of Thermodynamics at the wall, hoping they stick for a roomful of churchgoers who are all too willing to believe whatever he says, he would take his responsibilities as a thought-leader seriously and refrain from using such obviously bogus arguments.

Ironically, creationists do believe in truth: Absolute Truth as written in the Bible and incarnated in Jesus. But their bullshitting undermines the very concept of truth more than any liar could. As Frankfurt puts it,

[The truth-teller or the liar] responds to the facts as he understands them, although the response of the one is guided by the authority of the truth, while the response of the other defies that authority and refuses to meet its demands. The bullshitter ignores these demands altogether. He does not reject the authority of the truth, as the liar does, and oppose himself to it. He pays no attention to it at all. By virtue of this, bullshit is a greater enemy of the truth
than lies are.

In the next post, we’ll hear more from Frankfurt on how profound this undermining really is.

6 responses to ““On Bullshit” and Creationism

  1. Pingback: More from Frankfurt’s “On Bullshit” | Path of the Beagle

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