A Sokal-style hoax by an anti-religious philosopher

September 25, 2012 • 5:49 am

I’m a big fan of Dr. Maarten Boudry, a Belgian philosopher who’s a research fellow in the Department of Philosopy & Moral Sciences of Ghent University.  Boudry has spent a lot of time showing that religion and science are incompatible, attacking the distinction between “metaphysical naturalism” and “methodological naturalism” (a distinction much beloved by accommodationists), and generally pwning “Sophisticated Theologians™.”

You can find my earlier discussions of Boudry’s work here, here and here, and, if you’re familiar with the unctuous theologian Alvin Plantinga, be sure to read Boudry’s new review of Plantinga’s book Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism. Boudry’s review is free online, starting on p. 21 of the latest newsletter from The International History, Philosophy and Science Working Group.

But today I’m presenting something else: a real Sokal-style hoax that Boudry has perpetrated. He informed me yesterday that he had submitted a fake, post-modernish and Sophisticated-Theological™ abstract to two theology conferences:

By the way, I thought you might find this funny. I wrote a spoof abstract full of theological gibberish (Sokal-style) and submitted it to two theology conferences, both of which accepted it right away. It got into the proceedings of the Reformational Philosophy conference. See Robert A. Maundy (an anagram of my name) on p. 22 of the program proceedings.

To save you the trouble of downloading it, I reproduce below, with Boudry’s permission, “Maundy’s” abstract. Note that he made up a college, too, but the quotation from John Haught is real.

The Paradoxes of Darwinian Disorder. Towards an Ontological Reaffirmation of Order and Transcendence.
Robert A. Maundy,  College of the Holy Cross, Reno, Nevada

In the Darwinian perspective, order is not immanent in reality, but it is a self-affirming aspect of reality in so far as it is experienced by situated subjects. However, it is not so much reality that is self-affirming, but the creative order structuring reality which manifests itself to us. Being-whole, as opposed to being-one, underwrites our fundamental sense of locatedness and particularity in the universe. The valuation of order qua meaningful order, rather than order-in-itself, has been thoroughly objectified in the Darwinian worldview. This process of de-contextualization and reification of meaning has ultimately led to the establishment of ‘dis-order’ rather than ‘this-order’. As a result, Darwinian materialism confronts us with an eradication of meaning from the phenomenological experience of reality. Negative theology however suggests a revaluation of disorder as a necessary precondition of order, as that without which order could not be thought of in an orderly fashion. In that sense, dis-order dissolves into the manifestations of order transcending the materialist realm. Indeed, order becomes only transparent qua order in so far as it is situated against a background of chaos and meaninglessness. This binary opposition between order and dis-order, or between order and that which disrupts order, embodies a central paradox of Darwinian thinking. As Whitehead suggests, reality is not composed of disordered material substances, but as serially-ordered events that are experienced in a subjectively meaningful way. The question is not what structures order, but what structure is imposed on our transcendent conception of order. By narrowly focusing on the disorderly state of present-being, or the “incoherence of a primordial multiplicity”, as John Haught put it, Darwinian materialists lose sense of the ultimate order unfolding in the not-yet-being. Contrary to what Dawkins asserts, if we reframe our sense of locatedness of existence within a the space of radical contingency of spiritual destiny, then absolute order reemerges as an ontological possibility. The discourse of dis-order always already incorporates a creative moment that allows the self to transcend the context in which it finds itself, but also to find solace and responsiveness in an absolute Order which both engenders and withholds meaning. Creation is the condition of possibility of discourse which, in turn, evokes itself as presenting creation itself. Darwinian discourse is therefore just an emanation of the absolute discourse of dis-order, and not the other way around, as crude materialists such as Dawkins suggest.

I defy you to understand what he’s saying, but of course it appeals to those who, steeped in Sophisticated Theology™, love a lot of big words that say nothing but somehow seem to criticize materialism while affirming the divine. It doesn’t hurt if you diss Dawkins a couple of times, either.

This shows once again the appeal of religious gibberish to the educated believer, and demonstrates that conference organizers either don’t read what they publish, or do read it and think that if it’s opaque then it must be profound.

Boudry: My hero!

168 thoughts on “A Sokal-style hoax by an anti-religious philosopher

  1. “Those who know that they are profound strive for clarity. Those who would like to seem profound to the crowd strive for obscurity. For the crowd believes that if it cannot see to the bottom of something it must be profound. It is so timid and dislikes going into the water”
    Friedrich Nietzsche

  2. Boudry was one of the authors of a wonderful dismantling of Intelligent Design in the same Journal issue (Q Rev Biology Dec. 2010) as “Behe’s last stand”; his notorious attempt to claim that evolution cannot innovate and that all examples of it doing so can, for some reason or other, be rejected.

  3. It was a huge mistake on his part to admit this was a hoax. If he had just run with it a while he might have snagged the Templeton Prize!

  4. Emperor’s new clothes or perhaps herd instinct – no one wants to appear stupid by asking what the heck it really means. Well done Boudry for showing up sophistical theologians as bullshitters.

  5. my favorite bit of utter incomprehensibility 🙂 : “By narrowly focusing on the disorderly state of present-being, or the “incoherence of a primordial multiplicity”, as John Haught put it, Darwinian materialists lose sense of the ultimate order unfolding in the not-yet-being. Contrary to what Dawkins asserts, if we reframe our sense of locatedness of existence within a the space of radical contingency of spiritual destiny, then absolute order reemerges as an ontological possibility.”

      1. Sounds reminiscent of Herbert Spencer’s ‘definition’ of evolution as “a change from an indefinite, incoherent homogeneity to a definite, coherent heterogeneity, accompanying the dissipation of motion and integration of matter.”

  6. Let’s not get too full of ourselves or extrapolate beyond the data. In much the same way that Sokal did not publish in what would be considered a peer-reviewed pomo journal, neither did Boudry. Conferences are like the first run toward publication in the humanities, where ideas get tested out on audiences. Feedback is solicited and conversations are started. It’s comparatively low-hanging fruit to get a goofy paper accepted at a conference. I recognize Eleanor Stump, one of the plenary speakers, and she’s a first rank scholar by any measure.

    I have no–literally no–sympathies for postmodernism or the deluded people who ape the style. (Grammatically correct but meaningless sentences are not philosophy, and I have deep suspicions of any system of thought built entirely out of French puns.) But be aware that the VAST majority of theologians are working in an interdisciplinary, highly scholarly and rigorously evidence-driven endeavors. Theology is not to be mistaken for apologetics, a mistake that our friends in the sciences often make.

    I like these types of hoaxes because they shame bullshitters. I’d just be careful about drawing too many conclusions from a pair of rather shabby panel chairs. The humanities, man, they take a shellacking because of self-appointed revolutionaries who posture and spout goof with authority. Most of us are pretty modest, work within evidence, and have genuine expertise in our fields. We’re just not the loud ones.

    BTW, you might appreciate my “Topography of Ignorance: Science and Literary Theory” (http://skepticalhumanities.com/2011/04/12/the-topography-of-ignorance-science-and-literary-theory/)


    1. “But be aware that the VAST majority of theologians are working in an interdisciplinary, highly scholarly and rigorously evidence-driven endeavors”
      It would be fairly interesting to know what kind of evidence is being referred to here?

      1. Historical evidence about beliefs in ages past. Awareness of the content of religious traditions (past and present). The literary heritage of the writers of sacred texts, linguistic and philological knowledge. Familiarity with the positions of other theologians (past and present). A variety of skills associated with textual analysis, geography, economics, archaeology, art history, material culture studies and philosophy. Music history and theory, performance studies and rhetoric. The content of the Western (and other) intellectual tradition. Yes, these are mostly damned serious scholars.

        1. Again, I think that people are mistaking “apologetics” (or religious mental masturbation) with theology, a study of religious beliefs.

          1. It seems to me that the word “theology” is used in two very different ways. One is how you use the word “apologetics”. There seem to be a lot of people who are called “theologians” who do that.

            Then there are others who do what I’d call “religious studies” or “comparative religion” or something like that. These folk are, as you suggest, quite respectable and honest academics.

            I suspect that the history of theology is heavy on the “apologetics” side. Perhaps less so now. But still there are a boat load of your “mental masturbator” apologetic types who go by the name “theologian.”

            1. I agree, some people abuse the title. 🙂 A lot of people decide to pursue this area, I suspect, out of personal interest/faith, far more so than in the sciences, of course. So, yeah, I think you are right. Ideally, theology programs would come together out of joint work from experts working in a variety of other disciplines (textual studies, philosophy, history, etc.), without the baggage of belief (much like “American studies” programs often do).

              1. They’re not necessarily “abusing” the title. Theology has two strains – the purely academic discipline (which is relatively recent and necessarily anthropological), and the combination of that discipline with ministerial training, which is most often used in apologetics. This has been an ongoing problem with theology in general for a very long time.

                “The study of theology, as it stands in Christian churches, is the study of nothing; it is founded on nothing; it rests on no principles; it proceeds by no authorities; it has no data; it can demonstrate nothing; and it admits of no conclusion. Not anything can be studied as a science, without our being in possession of the principles upon which it is founded; and as this is the case with Christian theology, it is therefore the study of nothing.” – Thomas Payne

          2. Again, I think that people are mistaking “apologetics” … with theology, a study of religious beliefs.

            Theology is not the study of religious beliefs, it’s the study of God/gods, and many of us consider that it’s about as evidence-based as the study of unicorn husbandry.

            Yes, the study of religion and of its history are valid subject, but they aren’t theology.

              1. A student of religion? Perhaps a Literary Historian? Anthropologist? Religious studies specialist?

                Speaking for myself, I wouldn’t call them a plumber or a priest. Or a theologian.

              2. Yes, I don’t think that you will find many theologians that would also call themselves atheists, but I can imagine that somebody who studies different religions in the world (as the history of cultures) can also be an atheist without any problem or conflict.

              3. There are a lot of terms (“religious studies”, “comparative religion”, “history of religion”, anthropology of religion” etc) that make more sense than “theology” for anyone studying people and their ideas.

                If you want a broad term, “anthropologist”, “historian” or similar would do.

              4. Alexander, I’d suggest that content of someone’s personal beliefs has nothing to do with the quality of their scholarship, which must stand on it’s own. The other thing that I think that is important to acknowledge is that a lot of the valid work of the historical/comparative religious studies-type we are discussing is currently being done in theology departments.

              5. Bob, what about astrologers? Several years ago, the French series “Que Sais-je?” (small encyclopedic volumes, published by the Presses Universitaires de Paris) replaced its title “Astrology” written by an astrophysicist by a volume written by a practicing astrologer. The academic world was incensed. And rightly so.

              6. Bingo, Alexander. The serious cross-cultural study of religion is likely to cause the student to land in the atheist camp. It would be the rare person who held a good grasp of the broad range of human notions about invisible beings to simultaneously think that one particular version of spirt-fantasy-without-evidence happened to be true.

              7. Bob:

                a lot of the valid work of the historical/comparative religious studies-type we are discussing is currently being done in theology departments.

                True, and isn’t that largely because theology itself is not a real subject, so in order to find something proper to do theology departments have turned to these other topics?

                It would probably be better if these departments renamed themselves, at least in all respectable universities.

              8. I’m not familiar with that, Alexander, but it sounds fascinating…and yet also depressing. 🙂

                Perhaps I’m misunderstanding what you are saying but we don’t have astrology departments for a reason…Or am I walking into your little trap? 🙂

              9. Bob, Yes, France’s state universities (including the Sorbonne) don’t have theology departments or professors since 1905, exactly for the same reason as there aren’t any astrology departments at serious universities in the US

            1. There is some ambiguity, I guess.

              theology: the study of the nature of God and religious belief.
              • religious beliefs and theory when systematically developed : in Christian theology, God comes to be conceived as Father and Son | a willingness to tolerate new theologies. [NOAD]

              Bu the usage around these parts is inline with what GB says.

              And, for that matter, in line with what critics of the new atheists mean when they say that we’re theologically naïve: It’s about arguments for the existence of God, not about religion.


              1. The ambiguity only makes sense from a theistic perspective. If one assumes that (1) there is god, (2) this god has a nature, and (3) this god has revealed himself to humans, then it makes sense to conflate the study of god’s nature with the study of theistic belief.

                From an atheistic perspective this makes no sense, and we should use language that makes the distinction clear.

            2. In Sweden the two subjects of theology (reflections on your own god concepts) and religious science (study of religions) were clearly separated in the 70s, after the philosopher Ingemar Hedenius shamed the state church in one of the nations largest debates on culture:

              “The criticism contributed in particular to that religious studies (study of religions and their development) were distinguished from theology and became an irreligious academic discipline.”

              Today the language use is that theology is another name for religious science, as religion is now a private matter.

              Btw, “sacred texts” implodes the whole idea that this is evidence based and not apologetics.

          3. This debate on whether Theology can divorce itself from apologetics and belief in God and just concern itself with secular scholarship involving the study of religion reminds me of a similar debate regarding Chiropractry.

            When it began, chiropractry dealt with manipulating a vitalistic energy which was necessary for health but was being impeded in spinal “subluxations” — a disorder which only chiropractors could detect (and no two the same way.) Over time spinal manipulation for energy release began to merge with muscle relief. Today, some chiropractors are physical therapists by another name; some chiropractors are pure pseudoscientific woo; and many blend aspects of both.

            So the fight is on: do we continue to “reform” chiropractry so that it more and more ressembles Physical Therapy? Or — do we look at its roots, recognize that something so rotten at the core will always and necessarily have pseudoscience thrown into its treatments, and therefore throw the whole damn discipline out and hustle all the fine, reasonable, and effective chiropractors into where they ought to have been in the first place: Physical Therapy?

            I see an analogy here with Theology/Religious Studies.

            Personally, I’d jettison “Chiropractry.”

          1. An interesting sidelight to this debate is the history of the (title of) the religion department at University of Pennsylvania.

            Benjamin Franklin overtly founded U or P as the first university in America to be NOT affiliated with a seminary, as were Harvard, Yale, and Princeton. When they got a religion department in the 1940s, there was much fulmination as to whether this violated Ben Franklin’s will and testament, etc. As a result of the discussion, while every other university in American (except Harvard) has either a department of Religion or a department of Religious Studies, only U of P has a department of Religious Thought.

              1. Well, gee, it’s the department of religious thought not of religious investigative discoveries through experiment.

                When I was at Penn (not majoring in religion) the Prof of New Testament was a convinced atheist, the Prof of modern/contemporary religion (and department chairman) was an agnostic, while the Prof of church history was a relatively freethinking Christian. The department also included a sharp Jewish guy, and I don’t know the persuasion of the fellow who taught the courses on Buddhism. The courses on Islam were taught by a Catholic priest.

                Disclosure: The above-mentioned agnostic department chairman was my father who was briefly on the board of the Center for Inquiry, and has written for their publications.

              2. Great. Too bad it isn’t called “Department of the study of the anomaly of religion”.

    2. This is exactly right. A conference paper in this area is the start of a research project often, not a final project. So you can’t infer that much from this. Maybe the organizers wanted to bring in more people and get fees and were open to lots of submissions or whatever. Or maybe they though this was from a student and wanted to encourage participation.

    3. “the VAST majority of theologians are working in an interdisciplinary, highly scholarly and rigorously evidence-driven endeavors.”


      Evidence for what?


      1. Working as I do in an ancient University with a School of Divinity, I do not recognize the portrait that Bob paints of theologians as serious scholars. Of course the history, politics, sociology, economics, literary value, etc. of religions and religious texts should be the subject matter of serious academic research, but, guess what, they should be carried out in departments of history, politics, etc. What remains is a degree of waffle that would not be tolerated in most disciplines. Where I do admire theologians is their breathtakingly audacious and totally successful attempt to carve out a pseudo-academic discipline where they referee each others’ tosh, attend each others’ conferences, give each other Chairs, at all at the expense of taxpayers (at least in the UK)!!

        Later in the term I will have to debate a Sophisticated Theologian (yes, in receipt of Templeton cash) with a copious output of “academic articles”.
        Forgive the long excerpt, but who if not other Sophisticated Theologians, would attach a modicum of academic credibility to stuff like this: “To be a Christian is to be defined by an event of recognition – the perception of God’s Self-disclosure in
        the person of Jesus Christ. This recognition – that in Him we have ‘God with
        us’, the fullness of God dwelling bodily – is not the result of argumentation, or
        demonstration, or proof, or evidence.1 Nor, indeed, is it the result of some blind
        and irrational leap of faith. Rather (and here all four Gospel writers, as also
        Paul and the ‘deutero-Pauline’ writers, are unanimous), it is an all-transforming
        event of recognition. It is a perception, an act of intellectual assent, that is
        given in, through and with the Self-disclosing presence of that same God. It is a recognition which, as Paul suggests, re-schematises our understanding and
        frames of reference so that we are given the eyes to see what otherwise we
        could not see, to recognise God’s presence where otherwise recognition would
        not be possible and, in and through this, to understand ourselves.” Published in Science and Christian Belief.

        1. That was far more comprehensible… until I hit “re-schematises”.

          One thing I’ve learned from talking to clients about directory services is that schema extensions are a bad thing. “Re-schematisation” sounds even worse.

          Where are you based and how come you “have to” debate a Sophisticated Theologian™?


          1. I am based in wind-swept Scotland and “have to” debate SophTheo not as in “at gunpoint”, but rather as in “politely been asked by student society”.

        2. If you deconstruct that statement it amounts to;
          “This recognition … is an event of recognition.”

          The informationless content of which pretty much exemplifies the bullshit called religion.

    4. OTOH, I think this episode does demonstrate conclusively that there isn’t really anything to theology.

      Would a theologian be able to pull a similar stunt, that is, being a non-expert, create impressive sounding gibberish about some topic in biology or physics and get it past even a weak, first-round of scrutiny? I doubt it, because biology and physics are about real phenomena.

      Boudry’s submission is really no different from anything Haught or Plantinga produces. They are all equally made-up.

      1. Beef guy,

        But that people have believed different things is an objective fact, or to use your phrase, “real phenomena.” This is part of the proper area of the study of theology. As are contextual influences on beliefs. As are the linguistic expressions of those beliefs. These can and are properly and really studied by theologians. If you have a problem with apologetics, say apologetics.

        1. Bob, I’d flip it a bit and say “If you mean religious studies say religious studies”. “Theology”, having the root “Theos” from the Greek, does rather mean “the study of god”.

      2. It’s worth remembering the scientists who were taken in by Uri Geller (e.g.John Taylor on this side of the Atlantic) – there are credulous fools in every discipline.

    5. “But be aware that the VAST majority of theologians are working in an interdisciplinary, highly scholarly and rigorously evidence-driven endeavors.”

      Ah, you almost had me going there!

    6. From the program, it appears that “Maundy” got approximately a half-hour speaking slot in a breakout session.

      Now, that does not necessarily mean the organizers bought into the magic bean story. But the difference between this and the sciences is still pretty stark. In one discipline, you can throw together some last minute gobbledygook and get a minor speaking engagement at a conference. In the other, the intense compettion between so much good work makes credible academics struggle to get the results from 6-figure research grants into poster sessions.

      1. Well, I think that instinctively we risk extrapolating what you say, which is true, to unfairly characterize participants at conferences who are doing reputable work. And then there is the problem that the person who is making the decision about admitting a Darwin paper into a theology conference…may not know that much about Darwin’s ideas. Would papers that have to do with the content of traditional theology (religious studies) have a harder time getting accepted? I dunno, but it’s worth considering.

        If nothing else, I think you are indicating that we need more avenues for scientific publication.


            1. You objected (if I understood you correctly) that perhaps the person responsible for admitting papers to the conference was unfamiliar with Darwin and thus this paper was admitted.

              I’m objecting based on the idea that this hoax paper is not about Darwin or evolution and that one doesn’t need to be versed in either to recognize it as hokum. A person who is used to confusing blithering nonsense for legitimate insight might willingly accept a paper like this since they are missing the requisite critical thinking skills to distinguish sense from nonsense. No biology is needed to tell the difference.

              1. If someone is not familiar with Darwin, they can do a Google search. If not familiar with that then they should stop reading 2000+ year old fiction.

              2. I object to the fact that anyone at a university level would be unfamiliar with Darwin! IMO his legacy is a lot more important, philosophically as well as scientifically, than any of those old Greek & Roman farts the lib arts crowd expects me to know.

              3. Well I agree that anyone with a university-level education SHOULD be familiar with Darwin to some extent. Whether that is the case in reality is another matter. In any case, you don’t NEED that particular familiarity to recognize gibberish when it confronts you.

              1. Gotcha, they should know better. It doesn’t make any more sense if they know anything about Darwin. Right.

                A few points, tho (god, are you going to make me be something of an apologist for postmodernism and religion together! Two bad things that go worse together.)

                When you say these people don’t have critical thinking skills, be careful. They may and are just not be applying them when it comes to this topic. The postmodern turn of this particular flavor of religious BS has almost nothing to do with any content of the topic. People can “go postmodern” on any topic. Further, you can take real critical thinking skills and apply them to fanciful notions and come up with the wrong answer but still be a rigorous critical thinker. That needs to be recognized as well–that critical thinkers can believe some stupid stuff. In fact, genuinely intelligent people are perhaps more susceptible to rationalizations because they are better at it! 🙂 (Brains suck like that.)

                For the most part, I pretty much agree with most of what people are saying here about the conference paper. Feeble. Fakey. Shouldn’t have been accepted. Should have been posted on reddit.

        1. Well, I think that instinctively we risk extrapolating what you say, which is true, to unfairly characterize participants at conferences who are doing reputable work.

          The point is the relative amount of high quality work. I’m willing to accept that there’s some good religious philosophy out there. But its also pretty clear that if you want to fill a 2-day conference on it, you have to have pretty low standards as to what you accept. The problem in science is more often the reverse; organizers have to select a small number from many many good submissions.

      1. No, you make a good point. But I could point to journals in the humanities that do have standards. Social Text wasn’t even trying to meet those standards.

  7. Yes, attack the theologians with their own weapon. But we can do better. Any volunteer for writing software that produces theology? Any combination of meaningless words seems to work…

    1. A good protocol would include use of Stolarsky expansion: write prose. Look up words carrying meaning and replace them by their dictionary definitions. Recast sentence for grammatical correctness and idiomicity. Lather, rinse, repeat.

    1. It’s also too bad that he revealed the hoax too soon for anybody to base their conversion on it. Or their “conversion” (wink*wink*nod*nod.)

      1. The fact is that you have to reveal your hoax at the same time you plant it, otherwise you will be discovered by someone, and there will be no way that you will be able to say that you willingly perpetuated a hoax, and you will be branded as a fool. Sokal published simultaneously his hoax and an article telling about the hoax (in different publications).

  8. “Towards an Ontological Reaffirmation of Order and Transcendence.”

    That even sounds like Sokal’s original. “Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity”
    If I were editing a journal (conference presentations, etc) I’d set up my email and/or word processing systems to literally “red flag” anything that includes “towards [article]” in a title.

  9. Nice one!

    However, I have a degree in philosophy, and I can tell you that some of that bullstuff is very plausible bullstuff – the spoof opinion of Whitehead on the nature of reality is not very different from opinions he actually expressed. Still, you need some bait on the hook.

  10. I was following everything very well until I got to the phrase “incoherence of a primordial multiplicity”. That that completely confounded me and I have to throw up my hands – it is too profound!

  11. Better written and makes more sense than anything Plantinga ever wrote.

    I love this:

    Darwinian discourse is therefore just an emanation of the absolute discourse of dis-order, and not the other way around…

  12. Bloody effing brilliant!

    Upon reading “Robert A. Maundy” for the third time, I’m beginning to get his shtick: it’s a delicious twist on “not even wrong”. The phraseology is constructed in such a way as to re-inforce preconceptions associated with particular catchword associations in readers so disposed. Agreement ensues automatically.

    In a way, it’s a reverse showcase for the arguments Boudry made in “How Convenient! The Epistemic Rationale of Self-validating Belief Systems”. Only in the new text Boudry has pushed his technical perversity to the point where almost every phrase is formally self-validating, while being voided of ulterior meaning at the same stroke:

    The discourse of dis-order always already incorporates a creative moment that allows the self to transcend the context in which it finds itself, but also to find solace and responsiveness in an absolute Order which both engenders and withholds meaning. Creation is the condition of possibility of discourse which, in turn, evokes itself as presenting creation itself.

    Self-referential, and fully circular.

    In a more modest pursuit, I’d like to quote my philosophical role model, Pierre Dac. Attempt to translate him I shall not: every translation is a transduction. If you don’t read French and can’t make heads or tails of the words, worry not: that which withholds meaning engenders meaning.

    — Une fausse erreur n’est pas forcément une vérité vraie.

    — Parler pour ne rien dire et ne rien dire pour parler sont les deux principes majeurs et rigoureux de tous ceux qui feraient mieux de la fermer avant de l’ouvrir.

  13. While it is true that some theology is dense and unintelligible nonsense, I would not have mistaken this as saying something intelligible in theology. Some postmodernist theology is just this silly, but a lot of theology, while it may speak of things we do not want to acknowledge as making sense, because referring to entities or things that cannot be established, on reasonable grounds, to exist, is at least intelligible, whereas this is not. I do, however, admire Maarten Boudry, and his review of Plantinga is decisive.

    1. Agreed, plus a big problem with theology is that as Gordon Kaufmann pointed out is that it has virtually zero consensus on methodology of any kind. Kaufman virtually admits religion is a social construction albeit for him a provisionally valid one as an attempt to make sense of the mystery of existence.

      1. Glad to see Gordon Kaufman mentioned because he was precisely the kind of theologian that isn’t represented in this piece and did do actual work in how religious beliefs could operate

  14. Beautiful, just beautiful. But let’s not kid ourselves. Beauty itself is inseparable from some sense of formed wholeness. There is a givenness to beauty in nature which belies the claim that order is just an imposition on flux. Creation is inseparable from the origination of order, but it is more than an imposition on flux. Something original comes to be, comes to shine. There is a shine on things. What shines on things when we come to appreciate their given beauty? Beauty, I will argue, does not reveal a closed whole, but an open whole. There is no exclusive “either/or” between beauty and the sublime. Finite wholes, in the aesthetic happening of things, open beyond themselves to what gives them to be. Revealed as creations, a light shines on things from beyond every closed whole. The shine on things has metaphysical and theological significance, beyond reduction and deconstruction.

    (William Desmond, Catholic University Leuven, Leuven, Belgium — except for the first two sentences, which were designed merely to sucker you into reading the rest of this post)

  15. It’s like a reverse Turing test for stupidity instead of intelligence. If the grand poobahs of the theological caste can’t distinguish intentionally meaningless gibberish from serious discourse, one concludes that their own discourse is inherently meaningless.

    The only question left: is the pervasive meaninglessness of theological discourse intentional?

    [That isn’t phrased as succinctly and snappily as I’d like, but my morning coffee hasn’t kicked in yet.]

    1. Very nice, but I have to say that it leaves out the very vital information that I have trademarked it by capitalizing it and inserting “TM” after it!


      (but good job)

        1. Besides this disturbing lacuna, there’s a typo. The phrase should not be

          “other unnamed theology” but “other unnamed theologians”

  16. This might support a little phrase I learned in French class years ago:

    Quand on veut que l’idée soit clair, on parle en Français.

    However, I don’t think it would help in this case.

  17. I think we should do away with the term ‘theologian’ as it grants the practicioners far too much respectability. Instead I propose the term ‘leprechaunologists’. There’s no longer any ambiguity and certainly no respectability. Everyone can now see that it’s all a load of utter rubbish.

  18. Darwinian materialists lose sense of the ultimate order unfolding in the not-yet-being.

    I can’t disagree with this line. I lose sense of anything that unfolds in the not-yet-being, every single time. No argument with that.

  19. With all respect due Baudry, Trangressing the Boundaries was far more entertaining, in part by being easier to read. Plus Sokal used his own full identity. (He’s a left wing physicist. He must be one of us.)

  20. I can’t help thinking that managers must get their skillz from attending theology classes. I think Maundy should ask Templeton for some pocket money; it would certainly be better spent there than on what’s-her-name who spends her time saying all scientists are religious.

  21. With all the attention given to the hoax, I hope Boudry’s review of Plantinga isn’t neglected–it’s a devastating takedown, the sort review that ought to have run in The New York Review of Books. Furthermore, Dr. Boudry’s review is a model of clarity, the opposite of Plantinga and his waffling twaddle. We are fortunate to have such fighters in Darwin’s camp.

    1. Oh yes. This is a thing of beauty. Jerry, you should make a post just about this review – Plantinga’s ridiculous misrepresentations of evolution, and advocacy of Intelligent Design, really need to be brought to wider attention.

  22. Thanks for the link to the Boudry review of Plantinga. Very incisive critiques. My favorite part was when he described Plantinga’s ridiculous philosophical equation as being the “philosophical equivalent of doing brain surgery with an axe.”

  23. I, too, think Boudry is brilliant. His PhD thesis (which you can freely download) is amazingly well written and his excursions into public debate have been impeccable. But, it isn’t that hard to get utter rubbish into a conference. Does anyone remember the kraken self-portrait crap that made it into the Geological Society of America conference?

    “… We hypothesize that the shonisaurs were killed and carried to the site by an enormous Triassic cephalopod, a “kraken,” with estimated length of approximately 30 m, twice that of the modern Colossal Squid Mesonychoteuthis… The proposed Triassic kraken, which could have been the most intelligent invertebrate ever, arranged the vertebral discs in biserial patterns, with individual pieces nesting in a fitted fashion as if they were part of a puzzle. The arranged vertebrae resemble the pattern of sucker discs on a cephalopod tentacle, with each amphicoelous vertebra strongly resembling a coleoid sucker. Thus the tessellated vertebral disc pavement may represent the earliest known self‑portrait…”

    The full abstract is here:

  24. What I find interesting about this discussion, is that both Coyne and Boudry seem to be thinking that they now revealed theology to being nothing but hot air. However, what both seem to be missing here, is that the conference at the Free University was not a theological conference at all, but organized by the philosophical department. It was a philosophical conference, not a theological one (although this does not preclude that interested theologians might participate).

    A similar point can be made with regard to Coyne’s criticism of Plantinga, who has never called himself a theologian. He is a philosopher of religion, so a philosopher.

    That Coyne doesn’t know better is understandable, since he is an expert in a completely different field. However, Boudry, himself a philosopher, seems to be unaware that “God” is not a topic that is reserved for discussion among theologians, but that historically, philosophy has its own discourse concerning transcendence which is often quite distinct from theological discourse. Unless one would uncritically want to call everyone who writes about God a theologian.

    So it is interesting to see that someone who claims to be a champion in critical thinking, confuses these two quite distinct disciplines. And other critical thinkers follow swift, as shown by the responses to Coyne’s post.

    1. I just reprinted the email I have from Maarten. As for Plantinga’s status, you are not only unpleasant and aggressive, but wrong. I’ve written about Plantinga many times, and have usually called him a philosopher, though of course he is acting ads a theologian: the kind of stuff he writes is often indistiguishable from what people who call themselves theologians write. Those disciplines blur insensibly into one another.

      You obviously haven’t followed this website, which leads you to make such a statement (“Coyne doesn’t know better”), which is not only wrong, but trivial. It is little more than semantics.

      And your last paragraph is really uncalled for. I have never confused Plantinga’s status, but you haven’t done your homework in following my posts about him. Don’t come over here and urinate on your host’s carpet. You are a rude person who needs to learn some manners.

      1. So, if you have never called Plantinga a theologian, I guess you didn’t write this: “You can find my earlier discussions of Boudry’s work here, here and here, and, if you’re familiar with the unctuous theologian Alvin Plantinga, be sure to read Boudry’s…”? (First two lines of the second paragraph of this post.)

        1. if you have never called Plantinga a theologian

          I think there is a reading comprehension problem. As I understand the language, “usually called him a philosopher” has a different meaning than “never called him a theologian”.

      2. whyevolutionistrue wrote: “Those disciplines [philosophy and theology] blur insensibly into one another.”

        That’s an extraordinary claim to make on the basis of what you think Plantinga is guilty of, unless you have some other support for the claim in mind!

    2. That was an amusing discourse, but not as good as Boudry’s. It was an examination of the distinction of two sides of a hair before the splitting.

    3. If someone is a ditch digger and chooses to call themselves an Earth Profile Manager, it doesn’t change the fact that they are digging in the dirt.

      A philosopher would not begin by accepting the god hypothesis as an axiom, and then proceed to find ways to fit observation to that premise. That is bad philosophy. That is what theologians do, and thus Plantinga is a theologian who uses a bit of philosophy in his quest for god and chooses to call himself a philosopher.

      Lets say “Sophisticated Theologian Plus (TM)”, which is a theologian who uses a bit of philosophy to enhance his work of arguing for a god that is already accepted a priori on faith alone. In this case the philosophy is a screen to obscure a shaky foundation, and it requires a bit of extra work to penetrate the philosophical camouflage before demolishing the house of cards with real logic and empirical data.

      This kind of theologian is as amusing as a bower bird, dressing up the presentation of his theological bower with colorful and shiny found-items of philosophy.

    4. …not a theological conference at all, but organized by the philosophical department. It was a philosophical conference…

      Even better!

    5. “both Coyne and Boudry seem to be thinking that they now revealed theology to being nothing but hot air. However, what both seem to be missing here, is that the conference at the Free University was not a theological conference at all, but organized by the philosophical department.”

      You’re playing word games here. It was organised by the Association for Reformational Philosophy. Let’s see what they say that actually is:

      Grounded in the Calvinistic tradition and inspired by the statesmen Guillaume Groen van Prinsterer and Dr. Abraham Kuyper, the founders of Reformational philosophy developed their thought, on the one side against traditional Christian philosophy on account of its scholastic nature and, on the other side, against the Modern secular philosophy on account of its humanistic mindset.

      It’s apologetics and theology wearing a T-shirt labeled “PHILOSOPHY”.

  25. Maundy’s abstract is priceless. As soon as I started reading it I thought of a Dick Van Dyke show episode where Carl Reiner played the part of a self-important academic expounding at a cocktail party. His use of high sounding language to say absolutely nothing was hilarious. I tried unsuccessfully to find the episode on you tube but if anyone is interested it was episode #56, “I’m no Henry Walden” that originally aired March 27, 1963

  26. I haven’t read any of Boudry’s work. But I like the sound of it. I’ve long held that “supernatural” simply doesn’t have any cogent meaning.

  27. Dear friends,

    I was at the conference as a panel presentor on the topic “order in international relations.”

    First, a caveat emptor: I am not a professional philosopher but a practicing lawyer in the area of human rights and constitutional law in Manila, the Philippines.

    Some of you may take what I do as “applied philosophy”, as in my academic work, I try to apply the insights of the Dutch philosopher and jurist Herman Dooyeweerd in the systematics of international law.

    Indeed, most of my work week is taken up with the prosecution in court of torturers and massacre suspects so a conference like this was a welcome break for me.

    But the conference was not a theology conference (but there were theologians in attendance too). It was a multi-disciplinary conference, although built around a branch of christian philosophy inaugurated by Dooyeweerd at the VU. The conference was held on the occasion of the 75th anniversary of the founding of this christian philosophical movement.

    I understand Boudry did not show up at his assigned panel. Too bad.

    But my guess is that the conference organizers, this being a rare occasion to bring together scholars engaged with an admittedly small philosophical movement — either as conversation partners or critics — wanted to accommodate as many disparate views as possible (as the conference program shows, this was conference of a wide scope, and not everyone who made presentations were reformationaly-inclined, albeit many of the 250-plus delegates from 30 countries were).

    Much of reformational philosophy can hardly be called “postmodern” – which leaning can perhaps be gleaned from the theme of the conference, the Future of the Creation Order, as well as the conference notes.

    One of the key insights of Dooyeweerd’s philosophy is really about the pretended autonomy of theoretical thought — about how every philosophical conception somehow calls for pre-philosophical starting points that are ultimately of a religious nature, because they call for ultimate commitments about the nature of reality.

    Thus his philosophy, developed in conversation with the neoKantian and phenomenological schools of his day, is an attempt to study the structures that make theoretical thought possible.

    An acquaintance who was supposed to read at the same panel just confirmed that Mr. Boudry was indeed absent, and he said that in lieu of the putative speaker, “the abstract was read out to see if it would promote any discussion.”

    He reported further :” The abstract certainly left the group puzzled and little or no discussion was forthcoming… I think the general attitude was one of charitable silence!”

    I wish Mr. Boudry showed up at the conference: he could have at least enjoyed the wine and food served at a stupendous dinner party by the Amstel River on the penultimate day of the conference; Or, he could have perhaps struck a conversation or two with some of us, long enough for him to know reformationally-minded people are indeed capable of doing something better than “charitable silence” when the occasion calls for it.

    Warm regards,

    Romel Regalado Bagares
    (ps: this is not a fictional name but my real name)

    1. every philosophical conception somehow calls for pre-philosophical starting points that are ultimately of a religious nature

      One could just as easily say that all religious conceptions of an ontological, metaphysical, or ethical nature have pre-religious starting points that are ultimately of a philosophical or scientific nature. The kind of questioning such as why are we here, how did we get here, what is the nature of the earth, the stars, the sun, the moon, the seasons, etc., questions at the root of philosophy and science, would have had to precede any conception of a god. Religion, as I see it, just amounts to a muddled effort at bad science and bad philosophy that arose at some stage of human intellectual development, which morphed into a powerful political and social order, and which we are now making a serious effort to leave behind for the good of the species.

      1. Jeff, how does one define something as a “religious belief”?

        Philosopher Roy Clouser, who is a student of Herman Dooyeweerd’s thought (see his book The Myth of Religious Neutrality, University of Notre Dame Press, 1995) defines it thus:

        A belief, B, is a religious belief if and only if:
        1. B is a belief in something as divine no matter how that is described or
        2. B is a belief about how the non-divine depends upon the divine, or
        3. B is a belief about how humans may stand in proper relation to the divine, where
        4. the meaning of “divine” is (minimally) having the status of utterly unconditional reality.

        Dooyeweerd’s insight is that reality is a multi-faceted experience yet various disciplines tend to be reductive by privileging one aspect of reality and making it into the ultimate explanation for everything, hence the various scientisms that obtain today. In Clouser’s terms, one aspect of reality –say the physical — is turned into a “divinity belief” in the sense that it now supposedly explains the other aspects, such as law, culture, history, economics, and religion.

        In any case, if Mr. Broudry’s point in foisting his chosen hoax is to show how theologians do nothing but spew out gibberish…well, too bad, he didn’t show up to prove it.

        His prejudice shows through: he calls it a theology conference when in fact it is an interdisciplinary conference. My panel had contributors from international relations, political science and international law, all attempting to explore the application of Dooyeweerd’s systematic philosophy to their respective disciplines.

        It’s amazing how even in this blog, people keep on saying it is a theology conference without looking at the conference program, a link to which was also posted in the blog.

        kind regards,


        1. Whenever someone uses the term scientism I get suspicious of their intentions and beliefs. What “scientisms” do you mean, and how are you applying the term? It is not very precise in meaning.

          all attempting to explore the application of Dooyeweerd’s systematic philosophy to their respective disciplines.

          Not knowing any more than you have explained about Dooyeweerd’s philosophy, my immediate impression is that it is a theological system of thought because it is predicated on some notion of “divine”. In my view divine does not refer to any actual object in the world, but it is merely a human culturally contingent linguistic term that exists only relative to other human contingent concepts. Similar concepts would be ‘love’, ‘sadness’, ‘desire’, ’emotional’, ‘logical’, and other terms that have meaning only relative to human subjective experience. These terms refer to nothing that seems to me could be reasonably construed as “utterly unconditional reality”. What could be more conditional than human thought and emotion?

          So I may be wrong, but so far based on your description, it seems a correct assessment that the conference was premised on how a system of theology impacts a variety of disciplines not typically considered to be theological. I would think that to be considered a philosophy, a system of thought couldn’t possibly begin with a premise that implicitly assumes some notion of god. My interpretation is that ‘utterly unconditional reality’ is where the implicit god slips in. Why else name it divine?

  28. I have not read all of the comments, but I am sure it has been pointed out that getting an abstract into almost any conference is hardly an indication of, well, anything. I have not had an abstract rejected since I was a grad student, and I have gone to conference big and small on subjects in and way out of my area. Given the obscene glut of conferences these days, most conference organizers seem to be quite forgiving of strange proposals for papers, and if you have ever tried to adjudicate a 300 or so word proposal, you know that it is far more difficult that it sounds. To call this ‘Sokal-style’ is generous. Sokal’s hoax involved a complete paper in a peer reviewed journal. I would wager that I could get a paper into just about any conference, as long as the review was truly blind and I had a week or so to get up to speed on the topic. Did anyone see the paper on ‘Stopism’ Leiter linked to awhile back? Now THAT took some doing.

  29. Wait a second – first off, isn’t this like arguing with a priest about the hierarchy of angels? And the eye of a needle?

    Within the logic of whatever “Sophisticated Theology” takes place at this conference, the above Belgian waffle actually makes some sense, regardless of wordiness.

    Personally, I like to go to Star Trek conventions and tell people how so much better Deep Space 9 became when Worf joined the cast and Sisko started shaving his head, and I sit back and watch all the geeks nodding along in agreement. SHAKE THAT HORNET’S NEST!

  30. Aphoristic critiques of this kind of pseudo-intellectual trash have been reformulated over the centuries (including Dawkins’s Law of the Conservation of Difficulty), but the earliest I have yet found was written by Robert Boyle (1627-1691), here talking about 17th century alchemists:

    “[They] write thus darkly, not because they think their notions too precious to be explained, but because they fear that if they were explained, men would discern that they are far from being precious.”

  31. I’m not sure it is gibberish. I think you might have inadvertently stumbled upon the greatest idea ever! 😉

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