The Underlying Problem of The Courtier's Reply

You're probably already familiar with the Hans Christian Andersen story of The Emperor's New Clothes, in which the eponymous emperor is fooled into purchasing a set of clothes so fine that only the most intelligent and sophisticated people can see them. In fact, the clothes don't exist, but the emperor, all his courtiers, and much of the population all pretend to be able to see them for fear of appearing foolish and unsophisticated.

I have often wondered why the emperor didn't raise the objection that he didn't want unsophisticated people looking at his balls.

This tale also lends a name to an argumentative tactic known as the Courtier's Reply, echoing what one of the emperor's courtiers might say when quizzed on the emperor's junk-baring status: "you're not sophisticated enough to see the clothes". The prototypical example is the theist who turns to the atheist and says "if you'd read all of Augustine and Anslem and Thomas Aquinas, you'd see that, actually, our arguments for the existence of God are very well-substantiated, and until you read and understand this material, you're not in a position to criticise it."

The Courtier's Reply is regarded in some quarters (particularly atheist areas of the internet) as an out-and-out fallacy. I have some sympathy for this position. As a rhetorical device, "you don't know enough about this topic, and if you did you would agree with me" is frustrating, unproductive and just plain rude. That said, I don't think we can legitimately call it fallacious in its own right. Moreover, its existence points to a genuine underlying problem for which I don't have a good answer.

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We should probably first look at the problems with issuing Courtier's Replies from a practical standpoint.

So, burden of proof is a messy and awkward concept that lots of people get wrong, but at its heart, in the context of argumentative discourse, it boils down to the notion that if you make an assertion, you have to provide support for it. There are a few practical reasons behind this, one of the most salient being that without it, Interlocutor-B can force Interlocutor-A to carry out an arbitrary amount of work before conceding the point. Unless Interlocutor-B holds responsibility for substantiating their own assertions, they can keep manufacturing claims for Interlocutor A to evaluate for relevance, at Interlocutor-A's expense.

Issuing a Courtier's Reply has a very similar problem. Interlocutor-B can generate an arbitrary amount of work for Interlocutor A for as long as they can name areas Interlocutor-A is not familiar with. This might sound like a rules-lawyery, infinite-oregano concern, but I suspect most people who have tried to carry out productive discussion on the internet will concede that other people have minimal regard for your time or effort.

It's worth mentioning that, much like the relevance problem which burden-of-proof tries to circumvent, this isn't an infraction of logic, but of courtesy. You can't use either to substantiate factual claims. Provided you're not doing this, you're not making a fallacious argument. You are, however, being kind of a dick, and if you persistently generate work for your interlocutor, they would be quite justified in not engaging with you.

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There is another very important reason why a Courtier's Reply is not intrinsically fallacious: sometimes it's quite correct. If you believe the moon is made of green cheese, there are some books you can read, and once you've read and understood them, they will quite probably change your mind.

The green-cheese-moon example, though exotic, is a surprisingly apposite one. Someone who has come to the belief of the moon being made of green cheese has a very wrong conceptual model of a lot of astronomical phenomena, and rather than figure out how this bad model is put together, the least amount of collective work probably involves pointing them in the direction of appropriate educational materials. There are a lot of similarly exotic memeplexes out there which people buy into through ignorance. I have no idea what diseased ideas lead people to believe in the Redemption Movement, or the Phantom Time Hypothesis, but the materials necessary to disabuse them of these notions are fairly identifiable, and it's doesn't feel like it's worth your time or mine to hold their hand while they work through it1.

As you may have established from other posts on this blog, I have a modest economics background. This is an area of public discourse where ignorance reigns like a mighty tyrant god-emperor. A significant number of pressing public issues are economics issues, and it should come as no surprise that the discipline has input into them. Nonetheless, certain subsets of the public imagination have cast economics as the bastard offspring of Mr. Spock and Margaret Thatcher, and many people, from a position of complete ignorance, have decided the subject is end-to-end nonsense unworthy of their time. When these people make pronouncements about Robin Hood Taxes and the inevitable collapse of global capitalism, the Courtier's Reply looks deliciously tempting.

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We now come to what I see as the underlying problem of the Courtier's Reply: how do I know I'm not the ignorant one?

It's not like I've never thought along the same lines as my economically-illiterate nemeses. I'm pretty sure that if I were presented with a post-structuralist Marxist critical post-colonial analysis of Russia's current actions in Ukraine, I'd probably assume it was of extremely limited value, and this is largely based on my own preconceptions. But how do I know these preconceptions are serving me well? How do I know I'm not labouring under some exotic combination of falsehoods that would be torn apart if I just read the original Jacques Derrida?

The "PoMo cluster" radiates very strong repulsion forces to those of a technical bent. I shall ostensively define the PoMo cluster with the following examples: postmodernism; post-structuralism; post-*; critical anything; continental philosophy. The output from these areas all look like the same sort of loopy word-salad to the median STEM-background observer.

At time of writing, I'm fairly sure I could provide an explanation for what is meant by "postmodernism" that would satisfy a plurality of proponents, and I'm deferring final judgement on the broader cluster until I've explored it further, but I still mistrust the cluster. Part (though by no means all) of the reason for this mistrust is that various bits of it feel like machines for manufacturing irrelevant claims and Courtier's Replies.

That said, I imagine this is what economics might look like to my economically-illiterate nemeses.

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As I said at the beginning, I don't really have a satisfactory answer for this. It falls into the general problem of "where is the good stuff that I should be reading?" The very term "Courtier's Reply" implies that the replier is defending a naked emperor. Naked emperors certainly do exist (figuratively); there are ideologies and disciplines and sets of belief which must be wrong, and yet their proponents will, in good faith, say they are right, and provide you with a litany of corroborative material beyond your resources to study. There are also ideologies and disciplines and sets of belief that look exotic from our perspective, but turn out to be extremely useful. In some cases they can demonstrate that usefulness immediately, but in others, there's little to distinguish them from a naked emperor.

How do you distinguish a naked emperor from an emperor who merely looks like his balls are showing?


  1. Less charitably, we might suppose that people who have manoeuvred themselves into seemingly-untenable positions have done so for motives other than pure rational inquiry, in which case we're probably wasting everyone's time even further. 

Precarious Armchairs and Filling the Gaps

I have a new rule: books I read for explicitly edifying purposes should be textbooks. I am allowed to read other books, but they go against entertainment in the ledger*, and don't count as learning any more than Terry Pratchett, Dilbert or Project Runway. **

I'm doing this so I can't convince myself that I understand a field of study when I don't. This can happen for a variety of reasons, but I think an especially common vector is being a part of the skeptic / pro-science / atheist crowd on the internet. As part of this crowd, you're introduced to a very shallow reading of a variety of enormous subjects (evolutionary biology, statistics, cosmology, logic, philosophy...), and especially if you take up skepticism / pro-science / atheism as political positions to be argued at all costs, you're going to abuse what little knowledge you have in defence of your protected beliefs and say a lot of stupid things. I shamefacedly hold my hand up and admit to doing this.

(A note to people who persist in doing this: it's piss-annoying, and if you ever grow out of it you will regret it more than any youthful fashion-blunder you can imagine. If you stop now, you will regret it a little less.)

There are slightly less embarrassing ways to scratch the surface of a subject and think you've exhausted it. A lot of popular science literature seems to do a good job of making the reader feel they've learned something, and a bad job of imbuing the reader with a sense there's more to learn. When you finish a pop-sci book on a subject you're unfamiliar with, you feel like your mind has been expanded, and compared to your still-unfamiliar peers, you can feel like a resident expert. It's as if all the condensed insight from the field has been given to you, and the messy underpinnings are something you're fortunate enough to not have to worry about.

It's easy to have an armchair understanding of a subject. You might know considerably more about that subject than the average person on the street, but that is a ridiculously low bar. There's a sense, I think, that moving from armchair understanding of a subject to pursuing it as part of a course of formal study is simply "filling in the blanks". My experience of diverse formal study is that while this is sometimes the case, on many occasions, those "blanks" turn out to collapse into vast crevices, and the fall can be very uncomfortable if you're not prepared.

As a result, I've decided the armchair is an unsafe place to theorise from. If a subject is important enough for me to be interested in, it's important enough for me to work through an undergrad textbook on that subject. This won't make me an expert in all these subjects, but that's not the point of the exercise; the point is to learn how much ignorance I have.

The first area where I've decided I don't know enough is philosophy. Courtesy of Abe Books, I've obtained Ernest Lepore's Meaning and Argument, Norman Melchert's The Great Conversation, and for good measure, Bertrand Russel's History of Western Philosophy. This seems enough to be going on with. As I finish each, I plan to report on what I feel I've learned from them.

* I don't actually have a ledger where I document all my media intake and meticulously label how worthy it is, though now the idea's been floated, I'm seriously considering it.

** I don't actually watch Project Runway. There is not enough helium in the world to float this idea high enough to make me consider it.