A flea goes after my credentials

May 7, 2015 • 8:45 am

One of the most common attacks on non-theologians who criticize religion is that we aren’t professional theologians, or that we haven’t fully marinated ourselves in the tedious lucubrations of people like Duns Scotus or Tertullian. This, of course, is basically an ad hominem argument, dismissing criticisms of religion based on the writer’s perceived lack of credentials. And, as you know, I spent over two years reading this stuff, so it’s not like I’m thrashing about blindly in the muck of theology.

The refutation, of course, is simple: a lack of professional training in an area doesn’t mean that your statements about that area can be completely disregarded. (I wonder if Sean Carroll, who talks a lot about philosophy and theology, gets this kind of email?) This is especially true for theology, in which expertise is demonstrated not by mastering knowledge about the divine, but mastering speculations that other people have made about the divine. As ex-preacher Dan Barker likes to say, “Theology is a subject without an object. Theologians don’t study God; they study what other theologians have said about God.” So it’s perfectly proper to point out the lack of evidence undergirding the whole attempt to understand gods and their ways, as well as logical fallacies that any sentient person can spot in many theological arguments, Sophisticated™ or not.

We biologists understand that. When a philosopher-theologian like Alvin Plantinga says, for instance, that natural selection could never have given humans the ability to have true beliefs, we don’t dismiss him by saying, “Oh, pooh! Where’s Plantinga’s formal training in evolution?” Rather, we calmly take apart his claims, as I do in Faith versus Fact. Ditto for accommodationists like John Haught, who regularly writes about evolution. In fact, some of Haught’s writings on the topic, like his critiques of intelligent design, are perfectly fine. Other theologians, like William Lane Craig, regularly make statements about science that would embarrass a first-year graduate student in physics or biology, but I’ve never heard his claims dismissed solely because he lacks formal training in science.

Nevertheless, when my book comes out I fully expect that the faithful will go after it on grounds of  insufficient expertise, as this professor of philosophy—at a Catholic college in Florida—did in an email to me yesterday.

Dr. Coyne,
Good afternoon. I have come across your lecture where you extensively address not only theology but morality at length. Do you have any training whatsoever in theology or philosophy?

What are your qualifications in these fields? I have searched extensively to see if you are one of the leading figures in these fields of study and have not come across anything so far.

Please point me to the right place so that I can understand why you are an expert in the history of philosophy.

Miguel Arechavaleta
Professor of Philosophy
Barry University

Such passive-aggressive snark! I didn’t answer this flea, of course, as it’s a waste of time. He would just try to continue the exchange, and, with such rudeness, he doesn’t deserve a response. But I’m putting up the email here so that the commentariat can address his implicit argument in the comments. I’ll then just send him the link.

211 thoughts on “A flea goes after my credentials

    1. Yes, if only Jerry had a PhD in the history of philosophy, THEN his ideas would have merit. Merely being a smart, evidenced-based thinker who has seriously read a whole lotta theology and philosophy is not enough to have any ideas worth rebutting.

  1. I’ve noticed that the humanities are more credentialist than the hard(er) sciences.

    In the hard sciences, it doesn’t really matter what your credentials are, as long as what you do works.

    I’ve also noticed that seminars in the humanities, they tend to tack on their lettering moreso than in STEM fields in their presentations (e.g., “XYZ by Dr. John Doe, PhD” in the humanities as opposed to “XYZ by John Doe” in STEM). But that might just be anecdata; I’m just a CS grad student.

    1. it doesn’t really matter what your credentials are, as long as what you do works.

      That’s hypothetically true, but gives the wrong picture. The number of uncredentialed but successful mavericks (i.e., people who become accomplished in their field without having a PhD) in the hard sciences is vanishingly small…probably very similar to the case in the humanities. It’s reasonably true to say than in science, as in many other subjects, it does matter what your credentials are because credentialed people will do things that work much more often than uncredentialed people will. That is why we train students, after all: because after training they are more successful at ‘doing things that work’ than they were before the training.

      I would say that its highly unlikely any uncredentialed person will be able to perform original, ground-breaking research, run successful research programs, and so on in a subject. But – and this is the important distinction – Jerry is not claiming he can develop the next biggest thing in philosophy of mind. Heck he is not even claiming he ought to serve as an editor for some philosophy journal. For the most part, what he does is critique arguments laid out by theologians etc. in general publication books and things like Op-eds. And no, you don’t need a Ph.D. in a subject to do that reasonably well.

      1. But being credentialed in the theology part of philosophy is useless. It’s being credentialed in smoke and mirrors and BS.

        1. As Eric McD once wrote “[T]heology is a skill, one which is … almost consciously isolated from other disciplines, since it is only an intellectual discipline on sufferance.”

      2. The vanishingly small number of un-credentialed contributors is due to the depth of our knowledge in those fields, and not due to a credential litmus test. If someone wants to contribute, they have to catch up and surpass the existing knowledge. Earning a credential is often easier than learning the material piecemeal.

        Of course, theologians aren’t adding any new knowledge, they just rehash the same worn-out arguments and wishful thinking.

        1. I would agree. But I think we are both saying the same thing: a degree is one fairly good proxy for the in-depth training and education needed to succeed in the field. Its not a perfect indicator but its not a useless one either.

          My point was, Jerry is not trying to be “a successful career philosopher” or theologian. He is critiquing publicly made arguments. Saying he can’t do that because he doesn’t have a degree is a fallacy. Its also frankly somewhat paradoxical, since the reason people write public books on technical subjects is to allow the public to learn about and think about that technical subject. If you don’t want the public commenting on your ideas, why the frak are you writing a public book about them?

          1. I don’t think J. Quinton, or anyone else here, is trying to argue that credentials are useless indicators of whether someone is likely to have something worthwhile to say on a given topic.

            Just that you have to look at what was said and judge the content of it, regardless of what credentials the sayer may or may not have.

            I understood J. Quinton to be saying only that in the hard sciences the latter is more likely to happen; but in the humanities there may be more “Appeal to Credential” when trying to settle arguments.

      3. It is true enough that those who do research and get new results in the sciences will for all practical purposes need a PhD. That is the only route to getting a salary and needed resources, and it sure does give a person training and it tests their mettle.
        But there are amateur scientists who work in their basement or garage, and some really do get peer reviewed publications out. Then there are the philosophers who publish books about biology or other sciences. Some really have made contributions or at least garnered a lot of interest and discussion.

        1. And field assistants who make real contributions to work (not just physical but intellectual) are often seen as authors on papers. I have tons of co-authorships with undergraduates who didn’t go on to get Ph.Ds in biology.

      4. Yes, in the humanities that number is indeed ‘vanishing small,’ but not because a PhD is needed to understand, say, literary criticism. There was a time during the 1960s when Kenneth Burke, without the degree, explained the basis of criticism to a host of English PhDs who listened, learned and became followers of his approach because it worked. Nowadays, though, the degree is little more than a way of satisfying the guild requirements and aggrandizing the very few universities that still hire PhDs in English.

        1. I would not analogously describe the requirement in the sciences in “guild membership” terms, however, I would say it looks like that because of some of the aspects of PhD training. In the sciences, grants and funding are largely a result of prior work. You become successful by first being successful: you get bigger grants by publishing under smaller ones. But such a positive feedback system needs a seed: if you can’t be successful initially for social reasons (i.e., you aren’t given the opportunity or resources), you will never be able to ‘grow your scientific portfolio’ so to speak. If you are “in the system,” your Ph.D. advisor and school give you several years of funding and equipment access and all the other things you need to get your first few successes. They supply the seed. If you don’t get a Ph.D., you have to supply it yourself. This may be difficult even for theoreticians but in cutting edge experimental science, it may be nigh impossible.

          Thus, it looks like a guild requirement because only people who get their Ph.D. get awarded grants by NSF or DOE or HHS or whatever. But those grants aren’t being given out merely because you have letters next to your name; they are being given out because while you were earning those letters, you were getting publishable research done, and those funding agencies can look directly at that research and decide whether you are a good risk or a poor one.

          1. I have spent over thirty five years giving technical support in a university school of physics, and what you have written is pretty much what I have observed. The process of getting to ride on the research grants bus can start well before a PhD is awarded.

            There is another aspect that has not been mentioned, and that is that some means of assessing the competence of prospective researchers is required before said researchers can be employed with confidence, or given large sums of money for research. A PhD provides that, because it is more than just a ticket that entitles the holder to be called “Doctor”. A PhD in experimental physics is a long slog, of mostly experimental physics! It is a very practical, hands on, education that involves activities and disciplines not central to the one being studied (such as data acquisition, data analysis, programming, construction of equipment), and I’m sure the same is true for other disciplines.

            That isn’t to say that a PhD is essential (as Jerry pointed out) but I’ve also seen plenty of people who reckon theirs is a genuine perpetual motion machine.

    2. I suspect because those people in the Humanities are philosophers with a theological slant or they are in theology departments. I never saw any of my humanities professors appeal to authority and if they saw a student do it that student would be called out, often publicaly.

      1. Same here. The only ones I’ve noticed doing this are theologians, and those few philosophers who are religious. My opinion is that its only their credentials they’ve got to support their opinion.

        Perhaps too it’s people who feel the need to appeal to authority who stay religious no matter what.

        1. Appeal to authority is all that theology has. Appeal to Origen, Irenaeus, Scotus, the desert fathers, Ambrose and of course Augustine & Tomaso di Aquino. There is after all no progress that can be made in theology; no new hypotheses that can be tested and falsified. The entire field consists of repeating what has already been said and written. FFS they’re still regurgitating Anselm as if he had some wonderful revelatory breakthrough instead of a theological semantic trick that can be destroyed in a moment by anyone with an ounce of reason.

          BTW I searched for Barry University – it is, unsurprisingly, a catholic dominican school bound to the archepiscopacy of Miami. I didn’t bother to check if it actually is accredited by any reputable organization. Miguel Arechavaleta is not listed on their website as a member of the theology and philosophy faculty. Go figure

            1. He signs his communication thus:

              Miguel Arechavaleta
              Professor of Philosophy
              Barry University

              Is he a liar do you suppose? or merely mistaken?

              1. Mine in Math/Computer Science and Earth Sciences……what would I know?

  2. You would think, that if Miguel Arechavaleta truly is a professor of philosophy, that he would have had a course on Logic during his own education, and that he would have learned about the Ad Hominem Fallacy and thus would have avoided employing that fallacy in making his argument against Mr. Coyne.

          1. None of you have any credentials at all, you’re just words on my computer screen.


  3. “Please point me to the right place so that I can understand why you are an expert in the history of philosophy.”

    If Jerry’s arguments make sense and are defensible, to that extent he is ‘de facto’ an expert.

    “by their fruits ye shall know them” Matthew 7:20

  4. “What are your qualifications in these fields?”

    When you can’t point out where someone is wrong, appeal to authority.

  5. I’m afraid you’ve insulted fleas, who have evolved to occupy a niche in the biosphere. I don’t know what their value is (not being a credentialed biologist), but I’m quite certain it exceeds that of theologians.

    1. “Parasitism is a non-mutual symbiotic relationship between species, where one species, the parasite, benefits at the expense of the other, the host.”

      I don’t know, sounds like they have evolved to occupy the same niche to me.

  6. What’s telling to me is he doesn’t offer commentary or critique on your lecture, just that you aren’t sufficiently credentialed.


    1. Yes, you aren’t allowed to have an opinion without a degree. If PCC had a degree, then he would obviously know something about the subject. I can see Arechavaleta walking around with his nose high in the air.

    2. Yeah. No interest in the actual content of the argument. “Academics” like Prof. Arechavaleta are primarily concerned with superficial irises like vocabulary and one’s educational pedigree.

      To be fair, this problem is not limited to theology. I also see it in the arts all the time. I suppose it’s to be expected in disciplines that aren’t particularly amenable to objective investigation. Which is not to excuse it.

        1. Actually quite a lot of people in statistics and related areas are concerned with superficial irises.

          Fisher’s Iris data set is *very* superficial, but still keeps appearing in publications.

      1. Oh yes. It is common in all disciplines, even physics, chemistry and engineering. Such people are a travesty as teachers, even if they know their subject very well.

    3. “What’s telling to me is he doesn’t offer commentary or critique on your lecture, just that you aren’t sufficiently credentialed.


      You’d think as a professor of philosophy he would know what a logical fallacy is, such as appeal to authority. Guess not.

      His letter makes me wonder about *his* lack of appropriate credentials, though.

      “Dr. Arechavaleta,
      Good afternoon. I have come across your letter where you question Dr. Jerry A. Coyne’s credentials. Do you have any training whatsoever in investigative journalism or private investigation?

      What are your qualifications in these fields? I have searched extensively to see if you are one of the leading figures in these fields of study and have not come across anything so far.

      Please point me to the right place so that I can understand why you are an expert in the investigation of credentials.

      WEIT Reader At Large”

      1. Leading figures. I wonder if Dr. Arechavaleta is a leading figure in philosophy or theology? Chances are he isn’t.

  7. What degree did Paul have that gave him expertise on the life and teachings of Jesus? {checkmate!}

    1. Likewise, what qualified Socrates to spout off on philosophy?
      What qualifies a critic to review a book/play/film?
      Anyone who has thought deeply about life is a philosopher. Anyone who has read a book can formulate an analysis of it, even if not in great depth. Most of us formulate conclusions or accommodations that enable us to function in society based on our experience & learning.

      In other words, given some education & information we can all learn enough about topics on which we are not expert, in order to have informed views.
      Where theology is textual criticism of a manuscript or examines how people think/thought, I have no problem with it, but it has no justification in claiming insights about a god it cannot prove exists.

  8. it is your own doing, professor. lie down with gods, get up with theologians.

    something like that.

          1. I will not stand ideally by while goats are insulted Billy Nellie! The goats should rise up and throw off the shackles of oppression; no more shall their dulcet tones be used to improve the works of Taylor swift, no more shall they stand for their cheeses to be a byword for stinky and no more shall they take the blame for head butting children!

  9. So one needs a PhD in philosophy to address moral issues now? I’m always a little bit taken aback by the ‘credentials’ argument when it’s used against someone’s moral stance.

    So, the billions who do not have these difficult-to-obtain credentials can have no say in the rightness or wrongness of things?

    Should we just bow to the overlords now or should we wait for the invoice to arrive?

  10. The other day my neighbour shouted out to me that my car was on fire. He’s a great guy, a professor of botany and very trustworthy. However, as I knew he had no formal qualifications in automotive engineering, firefighting, the physics of fire nor any related disciplines I decided to treat his warning with the contempt it so obviously deserved. In retrospect, I do wonder whether that was the wisest thing to have done.

  11. Prof. Arechavaleta,
    Regarding your email to Dr. Coyne, I see you are currently employed at Barry University, a private Catholic institution. Knowing that you write your mewling letter with a view to holding on to a paycheck, you may be interested in a quote from Thomas Jefferson to Thomas Cooper in regards to the establishment of an actual first-tier school, the University of Virginia: “A professorship of theology should have no place in our institution.” And there never has been. A very wise man, indeed, who felt students should not fritter away their lives in pursuit of the nonsensical.

    1. Might not it be the case that at a Catholic university like Barry (I had not heard of the place before this post) philosophy is intellectually beholden to theology–the ‘queen of the sciences’ as Medieval theologians called it?

  12. Funny thing…I went and searched him in the Department of Philosophy webpage and could not find him (link here: https://www.barry.edu/theology-philosophy/faculty/). He claims to be a Professor of Philosophy. That is, tenured and promoted from Associate. Yet, he is not in the webpage.

    What qualifications does HE have?. And, more importantly, who is HE anyway?.

    1. I couldn’t find him there either, though he’s apparently moved among several colleges. But I didn’t question his qualifications because I didn’t want to play his game.

      1. Sure. But since there is nothing else in the email that deserves or, at least, is open to a rebuttal, it feels it is the only thing to comment on.

      2. I suspect he’s an itinerant but he’s listed in the department of health here:


        I tried to use Da Roolz to format, sorry if I messed it up. He’s also listed at Miami Dade College.

        1. Well his students all gave him rave reviews. But of course that is irrelevant to his credentials to criticise FvF. In fact sometimes opinionated extroverts with big egos make good teachers because they have charisma and can ‘put the subject across’ in an interesting way. (Not saying he is that because I don’t know him, just pointing out that reviews on ‘Rate my Prof’ don’t necessarily correlate with the subject at hand).

      3. I saw someone with the same name at Miami – Dade College. Maybe he used to be there, but I didn’t pursue it .

    2. Whether Miguel Arechavaleta is a professor of philosophy at Barry University is beside the point. His arguments have been made by other people. Let me quote from Steven Weinberg’s review of Dawkin’s “God Delusion” (Times Literary Supplement 2007, reprinted in Weinberg’s essay collection Lake Views, 2009):

      “I find it disturbing that [New York University philosopher] Thomas Nagel in the New Republic dismisses Dawkins as an ‘amateur philosopher,’ while [literary scholar] Terry Eagleton in the London Review of Books sneers at Dawkins for his lack of theological training. Are we to conclude that opinions on matters of philosophy or religion are only to be expressed by experts, not mere scientists or other common folk? It is like saying that only political scientists are justified in expressing views on politics. Eagleton’s judgment is particularly inappropriate; it is like saying that no one is entitled to judge the validity of astrology who cannot cast a horoscope.”

      PCC has already nailed the counterargument:
      1. Ad hominem arguments do not count; they are just evasions of the substantive issue(s).
      2. Theology is empirically unmoored speculation. Since it deals with existence claims, how is it that theological expertise consists in knowledge of what other theologians have said or the exegesis of a book as opposed to knowledge of a body of facts and methods proper to the domain of study? (And logical arguments for the existence of god have not been found convincing. Think, for instance, of the ontological argument.)

      But, alas, Professor Ceiling Cat: There will be criticism of “Faith Versus Facts” to the effect that it falls flat because you are ignorant of or chose to avoid discussion of
      the Worpitzky-Yamamoto theorem.

      1. I conceive a more perfect being as the perfect being who has a pizza. An even more perfect being is one who has pizza with bacon…

      2. I would extend what Weinberg says to any field. Could I know how to detect cholera?

        As an experiment I just spent 180 seconds investigating optical detection of cholera. I found this piece:


        Pretty cool. As I understand they chemically bind the cholera (affinity capture) to a porous material where reflectivity helps detect the bacterium.

        Lesson: The knowledge is there. Authority is near worthless.

        Arechavaleta can learn all he wants about physics, and will call him a brilliant person for it. I do not care what credentials he has in that field.

      3. “it is like saying that no one is entitled to judge the validity of astrology who cannot cast a horoscope.” Weinberg nailed it. How many years of study are required to assess the “resurrection” claims?

  13. Theologians do not realize that it’s a waste of time to read Tertullian if God does not exist. First the existence of God must be proven, then – and only then – can they move on to the trinity, transubstantiation and other theological stuff.

    As far as morality is concerned, I fully agree with your first argument. I think Frans de Waal would raise his eyebrows at the notion that biologists don’t have anything to say about morality.

    1. They can’t understand that, or don’t want to concede that because to them Tertullian is valid evidence. This is why the no evidence charges we constantly hurl at them mean so little to them. By necessity their conception of what constitutes evidence is quite different from that of the typical skeptic, naturalist, scientest. If it wasn’t their entire world view would come crashing down.

      From their point of view they have unimpeachable evidence and they don’t understand why people like us don’t get it. This leads them to think that we are just being defiant towards god, like a teenager giving the finger to authority. Or that we just haven’t been touched yet, poor souls. Or that we are just evil shits.

  14. I am fluent in the bullshit dialect this philosopher used in his email, so let me translate for you.

    Dr. Coyne,

    I have no reasonable or compelling arguments to counter your arguments. I am a very well educated, and delicate, person and I am highly offended by your lecture. I demand that you give me my ball back and then sit down and STFU.

  15. Dear Prof. Arechavaleta,

    Neither Prof. Coyne nor Jesus have any formal training in theology, to my knowledge.

    However, ‘Coyne’ being a variation of the surname Cohen, meaning high status rabbi, it is at least conceivable that our host’s interest in Messiah mashugana is determined by his genes.

    And no, I have no evidence for that. I just felt like saying it.

    Dermot C x

  16. I totally agree with your position that in an academic discussion it’s the arguments that count not the credentials of the parties involved.
    I think there are, though, cases where an appeal to credentials is permissible. I’m thinking for example of right wing politicians who pop up on Fox TV, in the Daily Mail and such like and assert that climate change (or any of a number of other favourite targets – evolution, vaccination etc) is ‘junk science’. In such cases it is doubtful whether the audience has the capacity or the inclination to listen to reasoned arguments, in which case I think it is reasonable to point out that politician X, who denies climate change, is a shareholder in an oil company and has no background in science whilst scientist Y, who says the climate is warming, has been carefully studying climate science for the past twenty years.
    Of course it is better to carefully explain all the evidence for climate change but sometimes the opportunity is simply not there to do this.

    1. That is quite different though. One is “you should believe this because it comes from a PhD, stop.”

      The other is “you should believe this because it comes from a wide concensus of experts via the process of science (which process has an extremely good track record), and if you care to see for yourself here is an enormous mass of data for you to review which includes ways for you to test it all for yourself if you have the time and resources.”

      1. Yes I agree and to be quite clear I was not seeking to justify Arechavaleta’s appeal to credentials which is pathetic..

      2. But you need a reliable mouthpiece for the process of science in field X, for all X but the very few (median = 0, avg = approx. 0) you happen to be an expert (or at least highly competent) in.

        What’s the heuristic to determine if a person is a reliable mouthpiece? Generally, the credentials.

        So yes, in the end it boils down to “you should believe this because it comes from a PhD, [for all practical purposes, unless and until human life is extended and intelligence increased so that the average citizen has both the capability and leisure to become proficient in a wide array of fields — which may not even be possible in principle as most fields are moving targets] stop.”.

        1. I mostly agree. But the valid reason you place trust in the PhD is because it is a representative of a collective process, the collective practice of science, that has a well established track record.

          And to complicate things, not all PhDs are equal, or even in the same ball park. A science PhD from Bob Jones U isn’t worthy of any trust. Nor is a theology degree from any institution, generally speaking.

          Does the mouth piece warrant trust regarding the subject at issue? It is complicated. But, Carl Sagan has gifted us with a pretty handy baloney detection kit that most anybody can use to good effect.

          Though it is certainly very common for people to do so, it is not necessary for people who lack the experience or knowledge to judge the science for themselves to accept the validity of it based solely on the fact that the source has a PhD. People do themselves, and often society as a whole, a disservice when they do so. With a little bit of work and patience, and more important willingness, they can consider a few other parameters that just about anybody has the ability to consider to some beneficial affect.

          1. > you place trust in the PhD is because it is a representative of a collective process,

            You *hope* that it is, and people keep hoping that because, on the whole, it’s a fairly good heuristic.

            > A science PhD from Bob Jones U isn’t worthy of any trust.

            That *you* think. That *I* think. That we, tiny minority, think. Millions of people explicitly do think otherwise, *explicitly*. We you remove “us” and “them”, ie. people with prior opinions on the question, everybody else will trust that PhD to the same extent that they trust any PhD. They can certainly be swayed one way or another, but you need to furnish extra effort — eg, background information, basic epistemology — to make that happen.

            > Nor is a theology degree from any institution, generally speaking.

            My point exactly. You will find very few people willing to say that outright; theology has all the trappings of an academic discipline — and is probably the oldest one, nominally — so it gets pretty much the same trust as any other.

            > Carl Sagan has gifted us with a pretty handy baloney detection kit that most anybody can use to good effect.

            Could. If they had the *conjunction* of time, inclination, and ability.

            The BDK is a good heuristic, a better one that credentials — and not exclusive with them — but it’s more *expensive*.

            > it is not necessary for people who lack the experience or knowledge to judge the science for themselves to accept the validity of it based solely on the fact that the source has a PhD

            Agreed… and then not.

            Any person P is exposed to many orders of magnitude more statements than they have time to check, even if they were professional fact-checkers.

            So it *is* necessary for any person to judge *almost all* their facts on very fast heuristics on the credibility of the speaker — and we are already very fortunate that the PhD heuristic is widespread, because not so long ago the Priest heuristic was ever so much more so.

            Of course, for things to work better, you could spread the word, so that each person checks a few facts seriously and the next a few other facts, etc, and so cover lots of ground… you just need some sign to easily recognize persons that are in on it so you can trust their conclusions without having to redo their work. We would call that sign, say, a Phriggin’ Diploma and… oh. wait.

            And this applies to every level. For most people, a PhD is a good indicator to delegate some fact-checking. When you are a scientist the baseline is higher — everybody has a PhD or is getting one — so you take a new heuristic, for instance publication list, institution, co-authors,….

            But regardless of your level within that system, you always come in contact every day with more statements than you can check in a day (or a year), and you *have* to have a cheap heuristic to pass the buck along.

            Also, I think you greatly underestimate the cost of entry of the BDK, and that the PhD heuristic is rational given the prior expectations, available thinking time, inclinations and ability of most people. Try explaining the BDK around you (or rather, to a representative sample of whatever country you live in) and see how well it works.


            The solution is not to blame citizen lambda for not doing “easy” homework, but to have good standards to make PhDs as good an heuristic as it can be.

            Nuking theology departments would be my first step. [Nuking is metaphorical here; I do not advocate slaughter of theologians, except on Tuesdays].

            I am spending way too much time on this post — mostly to pretend to myself that my evening is *not* lost to a splitting headache. It’s not working, so I’ll stop here. Sorry for the rambling.

    1. Yes, this is another good response to the ‘you lack the credentials to criticize me’ canard.
      The discovery of truth really is a meritocracy.

  17. I have come across your lecture where you extensively address not only theology but morality at length. Do you have any training whatsoever in theology or philosophy?

    Notice here how he blurs together the distinction between theology and philosophy, treating them like the same field of study? That’s a sign that the gentleman is a theologian, because philosophy can be used — and is regularly used — to attack theology. Treating them like the same thing is an immunizing strategy. I think it is rare for philosophers to run the two together: they know which side has more prestige.

    So the real question doesn’t so much involve expertise in theology as expertise in philosophy. And if Jerry were claiming to have come up with amazing new breakthroughs and insights which no philosopher has yet to explore regarding the relationship between science and faith then yes, that might be a problem. But I’m going to guess that he probably cites at least some of the trained, legitimate philosophers who have argued the same case. That no doubt applies to moral reasoning as well.

    Iow, it’s a silly objection.

    1. And you could ask him to reply in 100 words his response to the Euthyphro dilemma. You’d find out all you need to know about anyone’s theology, philosophy and morality from that alone.

      Dermot C x

      1. Here’s his (likely) reply in 99 words:

        What nonsense. Theologians dealt with the Euthyphro problem long ago and dismissed it because it fails to engage with a proper understanding of God and His relationship to morality. Anyone who had bothered to study the responses of Aquinus, Augustine, Swinburne, and countless others ancient and modern would know this. Apparently you have not had a proper education, that you can even ask such a pointless question. The New Atheists are unsophisticated yahoos who are good for nothing but laughs. If I only suspected this before, I know this now. “The Euthyphro Dilemma.” *Snort* Once again we are children.”

        1. That put me in my place. But it would tell me all I needed to know about his theology, philosophy and morality, Sastra. Pity it’s only 99 words. The missing Word must be with God.

          Dermot C x

  18. One could call the bluff in these cases, and see how it goes. Reduce any hubris from the opponents of an advanced degree, numbers of publications, h-index, etc. to what it means. In case of a degree, it means you met some requirements like handing thesis in on time. All else could just be personal or luck. Also to wit, individuals change fields, it’s not unheard of.

        1. I love ‘commentariat’ too. I think it originated with The Register http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Register.

          (The singular** of the term in El Reg circles is ‘commentard’ which I like to think derived from ‘communard’ but I’m sure El Reg’s commentariat, never a very PC lot, interpret with the more derogatory meaning.)

          (**Yeah I know ‘singular’ is the worng word, my brain won’t come up with the right one).

          1. “1993   Washington Post 29 Apr. a22/2   The commentariat has also had its problems, particularly, in our view, in coming to terms with the new administration.”



            1. OK, I was worng to say ‘originated’. They’ve used it for years.

              I assume it was coined from ‘proletariat’.

        2. I think we would be unanimous on that question: the WEIT Commentariat T-shirt should depict one cat. And we all know which cat!

  19. At seven years of age I could not believe anyone ever walked on water or raised people from the dead.(It was a question whether they were actually dead?. Later, The Garden of Eden story with its, talking serpent and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil and the Tree of Life where the Bible quotes was that if Adam and Eve were to eat of it they would become Gods like them. Plural, more than one God! Adam living 960 some years?? How can people believe such claims? Noah’s ark built with gopher wood and pitch and massive. It would break apart and sink! Plus many more ridiculous stories that were not believable!

  20. The boy who pointed out that the emperor was unclothed was neither a taylor nor a sartorial connoisseur. His observation was, nevertheless, quite accurate.

  21. Once the book’s out, I hope some forward-thinking U thinks of awarding PCC an honorary degree in philosophy, altho it wouldn’t surprise me if he thanked them kindly and declined it.

    But once the good professor from the Sunshine State reads FvF (you WILL read it now, won’t you?) I fully expect him to understand George Lyman Kittredge’s (possibly apocryphal) reply as to why he didn’t have a PhD: “Who would examine me?”

  22. To me, it reads as if written by either an immature and naive person, or alternatively by someone who is “tired and emotional”. I would have expected someone with the moniker of “Professor” to be somewhat more, er, “deep”.

  23. There was an article in Divine recently, that discussed a paper about how a team of international theologians solved where women really came from. The team used an advanced prayer design, and a new technique of folding hands to ask God how He really did it, since the Bible story about the rib was obviously just a metaphor. How they got the information from the mysterious Ground of Being was very advanced, and I didn’t really understand it — but I only had access to the abstract, which was written in a sophisticated metaphorical language where you need to have studied in hermeneutics, old greek, latin and hebrew. It’s very difficult. I agree without a proper education and expertise you can’t appreciate it. Even most scientists who work in related fields cannot yet fully understand e.g. how Jesus, an actual person, ascended into heaven, which of course is meant metaphorically — I hear theologians are on the verge of finding out what exactly happened to Jesus’ material body. We could be all acending to heaven and back in a few years once this is properly understood. As a mere biologist, you could as well give your lay opinions on quantum mechanics.

      1. You almost got me Lowen Gartner. There is probably not even a theological Nature equivalent, and theologians find out nothing at all. While somebody could certainly be a true expert in Theology, somebody could also be a real expert on Batman comics.

        We could appreciate theologians as writers of literature or artists, and from that point of view Jerry may indeed not qualify, but he’s probably not that interested in “in universe” expertise (i.e. what does the expert community think about Detetive Comics #23) but in the subset that treats theological claims as hypotheses about the world. I can see that philosophers from the adjacent “philosophy as literature and art” (in contrast to “philosophy as a science”) might have a problem here — but they anyway seem to like the murky and don’t contribute anything to our understanding of anything.

        1. as a lifelong comics fan i can actually say that i’m a batman expert. as i told a faith-filled facebook friend who didn’t take kindly to my poking fun at jesus:

          “you may not like to hear it, but just as i harbor no anger toward your god, i also harbor no respect. from my perspective, an expectation of respect would be like my expecting everyone to respect batman because i enjoy his adventures so much. but i know not everybody’s a fan so i don’t ask people to pretend that they are when i come into the room and i don’t take jokes about batman personally. just the idea sounds silly to me.”

  24. Michael Faraday had little formal scientific training. Fermat was a successful amateur mathematician who had his formal degrees in law. Gregor Mendel and genetics…Thomas Edison and the lightbulb…

    Scientific American ran an “amateur scientist” column for years showing how any Schmoe could do some valid experiments in his own home. And There is a “Society for Amateur Scientists” that helps ordinary people do real science.

    In religion, please note the anti-credentialism of some sections of the Bible. Paul practically boasts of his LACK of credentials.
    Two of the hugest influences on the wiser section of modern religion are the novelists Dostoevsky and Tolstoy neither of whom had much formal training in religion, and that silly man Dinesh D’Souza has his degree in English lit.

    I’m pleasantly unsurprised that JC finds John Haught’s writings on science of a higher caliber than WL Craig.

  25. I wonder, if PCC all of the sudden does about face and starts expounding that all human morals come from God or that sort of thing—would any of these guys question his credentials? Or would lack thereof prevent him getting generous funding for studies into this exalted subject from the Templeton?

  26. Where exactly does one go to become formally educated in theology? A catholic seminary? an evangelical university? Lutheran sunday school and worship service? An islamic mosque (can also be broken down by denominations)? A Buddhist monastery? A hindu temple? And so on. Which has the facts and truth about theology so one can say to all “I Know Theology and am qualified to comment on the subject”?

    1. I am not sure how much theology one can learn in a Buddhist monastery—I recently stayed in for a week at one, where they clearly stated that belief in any creator god is incompatible with Buddhism…

      1. Well, that’s not strictly true – after all the first Buddha was Hindu and you still see many ancient Buddhist sects with their strong Hindu roots on display. Then again, whether or not there is a creator and who it is depends on which set of Hindu mythologies you subscribe to.

  27. Can’t help myself. Must foist this relevant quote on you:

    “the final arbiter of success [in science] isn’t people [or credentials]. In science, it’s experiments. It’s the ability to make it work. If it works, then people buy into it, whether they like it or not … That, and the oft-misunderstood fact that science doesn’t prove things to be true. Science only proves things to be false. That’s all it does. But that alone is something that doesn’t happen in almost any other area of human activity. The fact that you can say, ‘That’s garbage, don’t talk about it anymore.’ The earth isn’t flat. We don’t need to have critical thinking classes to debate or discuss it. You just go around it, end of story. And the ability to throw out ideas that aren’t productive is, to me, what makes science unique and what allows for progress.” (pages 200-201)
    Interview with Lawrence Krauss in Adam Bly (ed.): Science is culture: Conversations at the new intersection of science + society. Harper Perennial, 2010

  28. Passive-aggressive snark is the worst snark of all!

    If there are things someone sees wrong with facts or arguments, address those things. Otherwise you just look like some authoritarian who thinks argumentum ad auctoritatum is completely convincing.

    Sam Harris takes a lot of crap for philosophizing without a Phd in Philosophy too. I find there is a connection in that theology and philosophy are the hangouts if the religious who have no better arguments than “nuh uh you can’t challenge me because you aren’t educated enough!”

    1. As an uncredentialed student of Latin, I must point out that it’s auctoritatem (3rd declension, not second). Sorry I can’t produce a Classics degree to back that up.

      1. Yeah. I blame my phone. I actually even checked the spelling after fighting it several times.

          1. It’s probably too white with its white exterior and white case. It will never be able to dance and Mexicans will call it a gringo. 🙂

            I actually wondered if I could install Latin as one of the languages which would probably stop the fighting with it.

              1. But no Latin. I don’t want to make my own Xcode version. Someone needs to get on that.

              1. @ant

                I’m sure they are (mostly Catholic), which means they will know large chunks of Latin ritual by heart. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that they’ll understand the words, any more than Englishmen used to in the days before henry VIII (or after, for that matter).

                My impression (could be wrong) is that Spanish, a dialect of which I presume Mexicans speak, has about as much in common with Latin as English does with French.

              2. You take me far too literally, sometimes!

                There’s an old joke, dating at least as far back as the Troubles. Irish Bingo: In which they call out the numbers in Latin, so only the Catholics can win.


              3. OK, it’s hard to tell ‘tone of voice’ on the ‘net.

    2. Sam Harris gets criticized for having a shallow understanding of moral philosophy. I haven’t read his book, so can’t comment specifically, but I think that it can be fair to criticize someone for publishing popular books on a subject without doing the necessary leg-work — I’m sure Jerry would be the first to criticize a book by an amateur in evolutionary biology that made a lot of fundamental errors. I agree, though, that it’s not an acceptable response to any particular argument or claim that the person making it doesn’t have the right credentials.

      1. I suspect that PCC’s criticisms would actually address the errors (as he has here time and again), though, rather than only address the lack of credentials.

  29. Excellent use of the word “commentariat”. You obviously don’t need credentials in the study of English in order to be a great writer. The way you slipped it in there, “commentariat” not only appropriately fit the content and context, it was also entertaining.

    Concerning Theology credentials, how many of us have no formal post-secondary education in the subject but were subjected to years of weekly religious services? Most of us attain some advanced knowledge of the subject through osmosis. I know something seeped into my system through the Catholic overuse of incense. Attending Catholic school I was also subjected to 12 years of daily Religion classes, so although I have no actual credentials, I have enough knowledge to express my opinions on the subject of religion. Besides, I’ve acted in a moral or an immoral manner throughout my life. I must have learned enough to have opinions on that subject as well. However, my morality taught me nothing about religion and my religious education taught me nothing about morality.

    Certainly, the lifelong study of Biology has led you to very educated ideas about the source of our morality and the impact that religion has made on humans. It’s amazing that any institution built on lies can be considered an authority on morality. Religions not only know nothing about the source of our morality, they know very little about what constitutes moral behavior.

  30. In a way theology reminds me of a snippet of a show I saw about the nature of Bigfoot years ago. The segment featured a kind of town hall like meeting where the experts were discussing the habits of the Florida version of Bigfoot, called a Stinkape, in detail. ‘Facts’ were presented, but no evidence was presented with them to back up the described behaviors let alone evidence that such a creature actually exists. They were taking questions from the audience, and one person asked about why everyone doesn’t believe Bigfoots (Bigfeet?) to be real just like they do? Afterall, look at all they know about it. And the people on the stage said that those who don’t believe will never be convinced because they require evidence and they just need to understand that they, the people who believe in Bigfoot, have other ways of knowing.

    Sadly, I do not know the name of the program or when it aired so other people can look at it. After the other ways of knowing comment I just switch the channel and wrote the program off as bovine feces.

  31. He could have at least tried to dispute the claim, and try to say that there is an object being studied in theology. The ad hominem attack, well, that says enough.

    And I received my copy of Faith vs Fact on Monday. I’m going to start it this weekend. So this was a nice little lead-in. I can’t wait to get into it.

    1. How come you got Faith vs Fact on Monday? According to Amazon its publication date in North America is May 19?

      1. I know. I’m not sure. I pre-ordered it a while back (from Indigo, in Canada), and they shipped it already. Maybe it’s a mistake on their part?

        1. …Or it was accidentally shipped via a wormhole from week after next.
          Maybe Jerry similarly received an advance copy, only a couple of years back, in time to ‘write’ it as well. In fact, this is almost certainly true (although a scientist in my day-job, I have Other Ways of Being Convinced).
          If your future self ever mails you a book from the future with your name on the cover, what are you going to do? Failing to publish would create a paradox that could destroy the entire universe.

  32. To our credential-monger … So, given that I have *some* credentials in philosophy and I largely agree with Jerry in outline in the matters in question, what do we conclude now? (I doubt that me earning another advanced degree would change my mind drastically on these topics, either.)

    Good news: my copy of _Faith vs. Fact_ arrived. I am reading _Is Gwyneth Paltrow Wrong About Everything?_ first, but I’m looking forward to FvsF.

  33. Maybe someone can clear this up for me:

    Years ago, Linus Pauling, a Nobel laureate in chemistry, got very interested in how massive doses of vitamin C could cure the common cold.

    As I recall, it turned out that he was wrong about that. But because he was a Nobel laureate, people thought he knew what he was talking about.

    What’s the difference? Would this be like an ad hominem in reverse?

    1. I’ll add these points that I just thought of:

      1. It’s likely that most who pointed out Pauling’s error based their argument on the evidence of vitamin C’s efficacy, and not on his writing “out of his field” and thus had no standing. The latter would have been an ad hominem attack, but not the former.

      2. The “reverse” ad hominem seems to be that people who took his claims seriously did so in part because he was a Nobel laureate.

      1. The name of the informal fallacy is usually given as something like “appeal to irrelevant authority”. (Perhaps.)

        Additionally, it is simplyh lack of evidence. Pauling’s status as a (double) nobel laureate did not exempt him from supplying evidence for his claims, for example.

  34. Oh dear! Somewhat less than a flea I think. I’m leaning toward intestinal bacteria. Not the good kind, either.

    1. No, unqualified rambling! If you don’t have a degree in biology you probably are not allowed an opinion on whether s/he is male or female either, and neither of us is fit to comment on her dress sense.

      1. Actually, you are only qualified to talk about what ‘sex’ someone is if you are an SJW, as biological sex is purely a social construct.

        You are supposed to simply say ‘person born with certain set of genitals, unfairly assigned a ____sex at birth because of the presence of said genitals’

          1. Try again.

            Or the genital phallacy. 😝

            I was laughing at my own joke too hard to spell properly the fake word I was spelling.

  35. Geez, Professor Arechavaleta, you write a snarky email, at least do it with style.

    His point could’ve been covered in two pithy (though still logically invalid) sentences. Instead, in typical academic fashion, he prattles on for three pleonastic paragraphs. (How do you “extensively address” a subject without covering it “at length”?)

    Write back, ask him who he is to draft an email, since nothing suggests he’s received formal training in English composition.

  36. I’m not a scientist, that’s why I don’t believe in anthropomorphic climate change. The meme cuts both ways it seems.

    1. I think you’ll find it’s ‘anthropogenic’. However, I’m pretty opaque on the point your trying to make…

        1. I was trying to point out (not very well obviously) the extremes between being an expert or a layman. Some people (like this professor) say you have to be an expert on a particular subject to make a valid point and conversely some say (politicians in this case) if you’re not an expert you can’t make any point…as if there is no grey area.

          Thanks for the correction; I should have trusted myself. I typed anthropogenic first, and saw the red misspelling underscore, so I right-clicked and chose -morphic. WordPress needs to add anthropogenic to the dictionary.

  37. I would have thought it sufficient to point out that all PhD’s are degrees in philosophy, joining all in the common pursuit of empirically verifiable truth. Though clearly some do it much better than others, and some spout simple “shite”. Is that a Cunkism?

  38. And, as you know, I spent over two years reading this stuff, so it’s not like I’m thrashing about blindly in the muck of theology.

    Have I ever thanked you for that? Because I should: reading the Sophisticated Theology extracts that you’ve posted about has long since destroyed whatever indulgence I may once have had for the argument: that one must study theology to criticize it.

    The thought of so many educated and intelligent people wasting their talents on these fantasies is unacceptable.

    1. And by unacceptable, I don’t mean the study of ancient literature, or the history of religion, or the psychology of belief, etc. I mean actually taking this stuff seriously in an academic setting. It’s the equivalent of having a Homeopathy degree at University.

  39. Somebody must have dissed his favorite angel expert philosopher who got visited by angels who gave him a chastity belt lol. Direct quote of the angels: “On God’s behalf, we gird you with the girdle of chastity, a girdle which no attack will ever destroy.”

    1. When did Jerry ever say he was an “expert in the history of philosophy” anyway. Add that to the list of fallacies committed by mister expert philosophy thinker guy haha.

  40. Professor Barry,
    Good afternoon. I have come across your e-mail to Dr. Coyne where you extensively address his lack of credentials in philosophy and theology. Do you have any training whatsoever in computer science or network management?
    What are your qualifications in these fields? I have searched extensively to see if you are one of the leading figures in these fields of study and have not come across anything so far.

    Please point me to the right place so that I can understand why you are an expert in the sending of e-mails and typing on keyboards.

    Rodrigo Küfner
    Language Undergraduate
    Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul

  41. Looks like Miguel Arechavaleta is the one who determines what one can comment about.
    What are his credentials for it?

    Also, who determined that a professors of philophy are the only people on earth allowed to talk about morality?

    1. “Also, who determined that a professors of philophy are the only people on earth allowed to talk about morality?”

      Professors of Philosophy did, of course!

      Next question? 😉

      1. Well, one specific professor anyway. Personally I’ve never met a professor of philosophy who would make such an obviously stupid claim.

    1. Well, obviously *that* kind of awful professor of philosophy. I wonder though if it really was sent by a professor of philosophy or someone who got their hands on a professor’s keyboard. On the other hand Barry is a catlick university so maybe they have their own special breed of philosophers – the type who can never question catlick dogma. 🙂

  42. I would dare say the guys at Vridar sans credentials have much more to say on the historicity of Jesus and the origin of Christianity than any of the “credentialed” experts (other than Carrier).

  43. Well, so long as it’s only your credentials the flea is after, I think you’re pretty safe! I speak as someone who has no credentials, of the flea-worthy kind, to pontificate on anything.

  44. As a high school teacher of science, I can’t imagine telling a student that their question or argument for or against some concept or theory we are learning, doesn’t count because not only do they not have a PhD, they don’t even have a high school diploma!!!! so sit down and be quiet!!

    Mind you, I CAN imagine a religion teacher insinuating such a position.

  45. (I wonder if Sean Carroll, who talks a lot about philosophy and theology, gets this kind of email?)

    Apart from the obvious experiment of asking him – which I’m sure you’ll do when you’ve got nothing more urgent to do – I’d strongly suspect that he does. It is, as you say, an absolutely standard part of the god-squaddy play book.

    1. *I* have gotten it (mainly only mailinglists) and I don’t have a website of this sort or a blog.

      I *do* however, have some qualifications in philosophy. Not that it matters; it is just ironic.

  46. There’s a scene in the Terry Gilliam film “Jabberwocky” in which a medieval peasant refers to his left foot.

    Second peasant: “That’s your right foot.”

    First peasant: “How do you know what foot it is!? Are you a doctor!?”

    I always liked that one.

    1. Excellent! Also reminds me of the Monty Python episode where the woman giving birth in the hospital is told by the doctor that she isn’t qualified.

  47. My favorite economist (Ha-Joon Chang) has five important rules about economics:

    1) 95% of economics is common sense
    2) Economics is not a science
    3) Economics is politics
    4) Never trust an economist
    5) Economics is too important to be left to the experts.

    For ethics and theology we would have only to change point one:

    95% of ethics and theology is bullshit, the rest common sense.

  48. That comment coming from a philosopher is irony itself. Philosophers for millennia have made careers out of expounding on subjects they know little about and in which they have no formal training.

  49. That comment coming from a philosopher is irony itself. Philosophers for millennia have made careers out of expounding on subjects they know little about and in which they have no formal training.

  50. “I have come across your lecture where you extensively address not only theology but morality at length.”

    Keyword: extensively

    “at length” is repetitious.

    (S)He is a Professor of Philosophy and did not indicate any misstatements or faulty logic that would require a call for credentials.

    Maybe (S)He is paying you a compliment by saying that you address these issues so extensively, that it is of a quality of someone with credentials in the required discipline.

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