Skip to main content

The Emperor's New Clothes

This is a brief response to the several comments Ibrahim Lawson has made here and here. Ibrahim has been defending Islam by suggesting that Islam is mystical, beyond the reach of reason, etc.

Hello Ibrahim

The appeal to mystery and the mystical has of course been a bog-standard technique of cultists and other purveyors of snake oil down through the centuries whenever they are accused of talking cobblers.

Pointing out that their belief makes no sense provokes such responses as -

"But you are arrogantly applying Western-techno-rationality, yet failing to acknowledge its own limits."

"It does all make sense - only in some profound way inaccessible to us mere humans."

and so on...

In this way, the cultists make a virtue of the fact their belief system doesn't make any sense (indeed a logical contradiction in what they believe is considered a plus!)

The failure is not theirs for believing a load of patent nonsense, but ours for failing to be humble enough to recognise our own limitations, or sophisticated enough to recognise the sublimely mysterious depths of their world-view!

It's the Emperor's New Clothes, in other words.

Is there some reason why we should find these moves any more convincing in this case?


scott roberts said…
If one believes in God (for whatever reason), then it is a responsibility of the believer to be very careful in how he or she thinks about God. The penalty for faulty thinking is to replace God with an idol. What theologians do is to attempt to provide means for thinking about God that avoids idolatry. One guideline (the cataphatic approach) is to say that one can ascribe characteristics to God as long as one keeps well in mind that these ascriptions are being used analogically. Another approach (the apophatic) is to make sure that what one says preserves the mystery of God's nature, and so what is said is largely negative -- but negating both sides of a pair of contradictory assertion (e.g., "one cannot say God exists, and one cannot say God doesn't exist"). Both approaches are acknowledging human limitations in our attempts to think about God.

Thus, a thinking believer must resort to poetical or mystical language, not to be mysterious for the sake of being mysterious, but because the subject matter requires it. What happens is that the typical atheist points out that some idolatrous version of God makes no sense. The (thinking) theist agrees, but when he or she tries to get the atheist to think about God the way the theist does (that is, poetically or in mystical language), the atheist says: you are just waffling.

Thus, you are either saying that that which can only be expressed poetically or mystically is not real (which is a metaphysical claim which would be hard to justify), or you are saying: I have stripped your emperor (taken off the idolatrous clothes), but I am not going to let you attempt to clothe him with non-idolatrous clothes.
Anonymous said…
Hi Stephen,

I am having a similar debate at the moment. I (the atheist) stand accused of being aspect blind because of my stubborn appeals to 'facts', my postion is refered to as intellectually weak and humanly myopic. Quite harsh I thought. It is the same argument though, there is something I am not seeing that if I did would show me the error of my ways. In fairness though, I am eager to see the explanation of this other aspect and will genuinely attempt to engage with the idea. This could, of course, in no way explain the inconsistancies of the bible but then I am increasingly encountering theists(Christians) who cherrypick the bits they believe.
Anonymous said…
I don't know if it is so much a case of the "Emperor's New Clothes".

I think what is going on here is that the basis of these irrational beliefs, like a belief in God or Gods, is essentially emotional -- in that they in some way provide emotional or psychological support that makes those persons feel better. And so what goes on is that persons adopt an irrational belief not for rational reasons (from evidence and reason) but to fill some emotional need. But they then try to justify their beliefs intellectually.

However, you cannot justify an irrational belief by rational means, i.e., by resorting to evidence and sound reasoning.

So persons with irrational beliefs at some point recognize that the only justification for their belief is an appeal to other ways (not evidence or reason) of knowing, for example revelation or mystical experiences. They will maintain that these other ways of knowing provide genuine truths.

I see this view as problematic. There is no evidence that these other ways of knowing (mystical experiences) provide sound knowledge in any other areas of our lives outside the religious. They also appear to be entirely subjective and essentially circular reasoning (I know it because I know it).

Most alarmingly, that view seems to embrace irrationality as a valid approach to guiding their actions. And that would seem to be dangerous.
KLB&JML said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
anticant said…
To conflate mysticism with religion is a red herring. Mysticism is an essentially personal, individualistic quest for inner enlightenment and better comprehension of ultimate reality. Though frequently articulated in religious terms, and with reference to a particular tradition of belief, there is nothing necessarily 'religious' about the techniques of meditation, concentration, and contemplation, which are equally characteristic of intuitive thought widely practised by non-theists and scientists as well as by religious apologists.

So to dismiss the irrational praying-in-aid of mysticism by Ibrahim and other religionists because they are devotees of a particular brand of organised religion is to misunderstand both mysticism and religion, which are separate and distinct issues.

Mysticism is essentially personal and concerned with the inner self. Religion is publicly organised social worship, often based on dubious assumptions and frequently socially damaging in ways that the individual's quest for inner peace, harmony and understanding through meditation can never be.

Stephen is almost certainly right in saying that the publicly paraded emperor of communal religion has no clothes, but he cannot pass valid judgement on Ibrahim's, my, or - for that matter - his own conception of inner personal reality, even if the language in which we respectively express it is inadequate and often faulty. Each person's inner search is an essentially private matter and, I would submit, a legitimate philosophical activity.
Anonymous said…
I'm an atheist. I've always chosen to follow the scientific method as a guiding philosophy, and I've never personally seen enough evidence to justify faith in any religion.

However, I also accept that, although philosophical positions such as solipsism and theism may fail the scientific method, that doesn't completely invalidate them.

It is not possible to argue against religion using the language of science (I think Wittgenstein called them different games with different rules).

As an aside, Oxford philosopher Nick Bostrom makes the "scientific" case for solipsism here:
Stephen Law said…
Interesting comments - see my next post for a response...
Ibrahim Lawson said…
Hello Stephen,

I think you are posing two questions: is there any reason why you should accept my claims to ‘mystical knowledge’ and is there any reason why I should.

If my justification is to appeal to criteria that are only accessible to me via some internal, necessarily private process, then there is no reason for you to agree with me unless you can also internally access the same criteria that I am appealing to and ‘see’ what I am talking about for yourself. As a matter of fact, ‘mystics’ regularly resort to the ‘you just have to get it’ defence, which does seem to work as a means to inter-subjective agreement among those who find themselves apparently sharing the same perceptions regarding any specific ‘mystical’ truth claims.

This raises my second question as to how I can know that my beliefs are true. This could be phrased as an inquiry into whether my beliefs are ‘subjective’ or whether they have any ‘objective’ correlative. There is an analogy here to aesthetic beliefs. Our beliefs about what is beautiful are often held to be among the most subjective and yet we also commonly wish to hold onto the idea that there is something objectively true about the belief, for example, that Shakespeare’s work has more aesthetic merit than Enid Blyton’s, Beethoven than the Spice Girls etc etc (fill in your own variables).

I am not aware that anyone has sorted out this issue.

I am not saying that mystical beliefs are the same as aesthetic beliefs, only that our experience provides other examples of the difficulty we can have in justifying what might seem to be purely subjective beliefs that nevertheless appear to involve factual claims. (Ethics is also problematic in this way.)

Could it be that the way we have set up the problem has caused the difficulties? Can we identify some basic assumptions that might be problematised? One key assumption is perhaps that we exist as non-material subjects of experience (in here somewhere) inhabiting an ‘objectively existing’ material world (out there somewhere) to which we have access via the senses. The classical problem of knowledge is that the existence of the one does not necessarily entail the existence of the other, in part or in whole. Hence scepticism and solipsism. Has anyone resolved this one, to your knowledge?

I think we then have to come to some sort of agreement about which reality we are going to share rather than which reality is real.

But how to resolve disagreements in the public domain? The empiricist refuses to accept mystical claims because they are not based on ‘evidence’. The mystic refuses to accept that sense data are the only source of knowledge. The empiricist points out that there is no way to evaluate truth claims that rely on private, ‘subjective’ perceptions and that, a fortiori, a ‘private’ language for describing the world is impossible because we could never verify even to ourselves that we were using it in the same way every time, there being no ‘extra-subjective’ verification possible.

Here is where I think there is room for the concept of ‘inter-subjectivity’ – basically that if you and I can agree that, for example, when I say I have a certain experience you can relate to that and we are able to use language meaningfully to compare experiences, without having to use problematic concepts such as ‘objectivity’, which may work fine for finding the car keys, but not for discussing ethics, art and religion.

This is for managing the relationship between you and me.

But what about the other issue – how do I understand, i.e. explain to myself, my mystical beliefs? Even if you can bring yourself to agree with me that my nice new clothes, invisible to you of course but of which I seem quite enamoured, are really rather fine, what do I really think about them?

Imagine a whole community of naked emperors, comparing each others’ styles, recommending tailors, publishing books and magazines, establishing schools of invisible couture and teaching it to their children; how do they know what they are doing, let alone explain it to us?

(as an aside, is that really how you see religious communities?)

I think this is where we have to get rid of Cartesian style mind/body theories, and Newtonian science too. ‘Common sense’ tells us that we are non-material minds inhabiting material bodies subject to the mechanistic causality of the bog-standard three dimensional universe built of tiny bits of matter. More up to date philosophy and science have long ago abandoned such simplistic views, but common sense still has to catch up. In short, I think it’s more complicated than you appear to be suggesting, though in fact I think you are only teasing in pretending to be the devil’s advocate. If, as Rorty memorably suggests, the world is indifferent to our descriptions of it, to what criteria can we then resort when we disagree about what the world is like? I don’t think the situation is hopeless but I’m not sure what the answer is.

So should you be convinced by my moves, feeble and tentative as they are, or is it all hand-waving as they say? Well if it’s all a simple as you imply: In this way, the cultists make a virtue of the fact their belief system doesn't make any sense (indeed a logical contradiction in what they believe is considered a plus!), then maybe not. But if there is any doubt in your mind about the impossibility of there being meaningful ‘mystical’ discourse, maybe we should keep looking for another answer. One thing though, I don’t think over-simplification and sarcasm are very helpful.

I found some of the other comments interesting, but suspect that the cata- and apophatic distinction still doesn’t explain why the emperor’s clothes have to be invisible or by what criteria we can compare different invisible outfits or adjudicate claims about their relative merits.

I think sometimes too much is made of irrationalism – don’t ask me how I know – but when Christians claims about Jesus being god but not being god come up, I admit, I am not inclined to accept the ‘it’s a mystery’ answer. That’s just me being inconsistently irrational I guess. On this topic, I did in fact personally research several religions and ‘cults’ I you want to call them that, before becoming Muslim. What was the deciding factor, is a key question. More on that later maybe.

Emotions – unfairly relegated sometimes, I think, to a subservient position vis a vis the intellect. But I would not conflate emotion with mystical experience – something that is becoming very common in the secularised world – feelings of awe and wonder etc etc – I’m not even sure that mystical knowing is an experience as such: it doesn’t seem to be sensory or emotional or intellectual (it just disappeared again).

I don’t think you can entirely separate religion and mysticism. Religion gives us the language to express mysticism, perhaps even experience it in the first place. Without religious imagery, mysticism becomes impoverished. We have a capacity for spirituality, but it needs to be expressed through language. Language is not a personal but a social phenomenon, and so spirituality becomes a social issue and subject to social considerations such as that of power. We cannot separate personal mental events from inter-personal (‘political’) events, mind from society, spirituality from religion. This is what Islam stands for, and I find it convincing. Religion (the outward) without spirituality (the inward) is empty, but spirituality with religion is blind (traditional Islamic adage).
Ibrahim Lawson said…
Just a brief, further thought – I have mentioned before the curious fact that one thing we can never know the truth of is our definition of ‘truth’: to judge that our definition of truth is true we need a definition of truth already. So there is a circularity here that lies at the heart of rationality. Yet somehow we manage on some basis we consider to be warranted

When I wonder why I became Muslim, one answer is because I recognised the truth of Islam; but surely to do that I must have already accepted the truth of Islam. Same kind of circularity, but not that one justifies the other. So what happens at the point of recognition? That’s where the Qur’an says that we do not choose Allah, Allah chooses us. Now I can accept that a Christian can make the same claim, but we won’t resolve this issue by pretending that it doesn’t exist or that it only exists in the wacky world of religious snake oil salesmen or whatever Stephen’s latest derogatory epithet is.
Anonymous said…
@ Ibrahim
you said
So what happens at the point of recognition? That’s where the Qur’an says that we do not choose Allah, Allah chooses us. Now I can accept that a Christian can make the same claim, but we won’t resolve this issue by pretending that it doesn’t exist or that it only exists in the wacky world of religious snake oil salesmen or whatever Stephen’s latest derogatory epithet is.

Frankly, this is an aspect of your (and the judeo-christian god) I find particularily abhorring.

Apparently we are to be judged (and the stakes are high: eternal bliss or eternal pain) by our ability to believe. But this ability is decided by god!?
What a warped and pathetic source of morality.
I'll definitely be prepared to endure an eternity without closeness to such a god.

More on the lightedr side, I recall a story on the teaching on the suffering "for the loosers":

Once a preacher (of the more "sulphric brand") were lecturing the congregaton on the suffering in hell. When exclaiming: "There will be weeping and gnashing of teeths".... A flash of rational thought suddenly struck one of the elders in the congregation (recollecting the bodily resurrection)..." But what about us who die old and toothless?

"Rest assured" answered the preacher: "Teeths for gnashing will be provided!!"

In Cod we trust
Post-Islamist said…
On the plus side, Cassanders, Allah is not obliged to send anyone to heaven or hell, so it may not be an issue for you.
Anonymous said…
@ post-islamist
To the extent that "actions" of a non-existing god can be said to have any relevance, you could be right.
But given my basic assumptions, I do not worry much for either alternative.

In Cod we trust
mettagirl said…
To the philosophical-blogger:

I had hoped to address my interest directly to Mr Law himself, but since I am, for some select reason unable to download the personal website (.net), I am resolved, undoubtedly due more to impatience than anything else, to put my comment in this neatly rectangular space instead.
I hope that my comment is also tenuously enough connected to the thread of religion as to justify its presentation here.
I would like to know if it is possible to be a philosopher and a Zen buddhist practitioner at the same time OR/ rather. 'how' one may be both at the same time and what the contradictions in this would be?
My understanding is that Zen sees the philosopher rather like someone whose cup is too full of questions and that they should rather go away and make some space in their cup first.
In theory, I have no problem with this except for the fact that I am a somewhat intellectually bored housewife who has not been able to help asking too many questions. I have never found it easy to resist the opportunity to 'play' which the questions my mind raises invites.
I would be grateful for your response, and of course, by default, the responses of others.
Thank you and good evening from Germany.
Stephen Law said…
Well thanks livingmoment. I don't know the answer to your question I'm afraid. Probably not, would be my guess....

Mind you some Western philosophical conclusions resemble Buddhism - e.g. Derek Parfit on personal identity. And some versions of Buddhism do stress its empirical testability, so there's respect for rational thought and inquiry there.

Popular posts from this blog


(Published in Faith and Philosophy 2011. Volume 28, Issue 2, April 2011. Stephen Law. Pages 129-151) EVIDENCE, MIRACLES AND THE EXISTENCE OF JESUS Stephen Law Abstract The vast majority of Biblical historians believe there is evidence sufficient to place Jesus’ existence beyond reasonable doubt. Many believe the New Testament documents alone suffice firmly to establish Jesus as an actual, historical figure. I question these views. In particular, I argue (i) that the three most popular criteria by which various non-miraculous New Testament claims made about Jesus are supposedly corroborated are not sufficient, either singly or jointly, to place his existence beyond reasonable doubt, and (ii) that a prima facie plausible principle concerning how evidence should be assessed – a principle I call the contamination principle – entails that, given the large proportion of uncorroborated miracle claims made about Jesus in the New Testament documents, we should, in the absence of indepen

Plantinga's Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism refuted

Here's my central criticism of Plantinga's Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism (EAAN). It's novel and was published in Analysis last year. Here's the gist. Plantinga argues that if naturalism and evolution are true, then semantic epiphenomenalism is very probably true - that's to say, the content of our beliefs does not causally impinge on our behaviour. And if semantic properties such as having such-and-such content or being true cannot causally impinge on behaviour, then they cannot be selected for by unguided evolution. Plantinga's argument requires, crucially, that there be no conceptual links between belief content and behaviour of a sort that it's actually very plausible to suppose exist (note that to suppose there are such conceptual links is not necessarily to suppose that content can be exhaustively captured in terms of behaviour or functional role, etc. in the way logical behaviourists or functionalists suppose). It turns o

Suggesting a new named fallacy: the Non Post Hoc Fallacy (or David Cameron Fallacy)

Many of us are familiar with the Post Hoc Ergo Propter Hoc Fallacy (' after this, therefore because of this) - Post Hoc Fallacy for short). It's the fallacy of supposing that, because B occurred after A, A must be the cause of B. For example: My car stopped working after I changed the oil, so changing the oil caused it to stop working. Or:  I wore my red jumper to the exam and I passed, so that jumper is lucky: it caused me to pass. This fallacy is so common, it gets a latin name. However, there's a related common fallacy that I think also deserves a name. I am going to call it the Non Post Hoc Fallacy (' not after of this, therefore not because of this), or, perhaps more memorably, the David Cameron Fallacy. Every now and then someone desperate to ‘prove’ that X is not causally responsible for Y – e.g poverty is not a cause of crime, will commit the following fallacy. They will argue that as X has often occurred without Y following, therefore X was not the