Monday, August 6, 2012

Where The Strawman Resides

A couple weeks ago, I addressed an argument that I heard being used as evidence against theism and against my view of the age of the universe (you can read it here). I received a message that I was offering a strawman of the opposing view. While in discussion, I realized that it was probably a good idea to go into some more detail about properly identifying when someone is arguing against a strawman. It applies, not just to that particular conversation, but to all discussions of defenders of any worldview.

I have posted in the past about the importance of avoiding the strawman argument. Unless I take that seriously and address accusations that I have presented a strawman, that post is quite hollow. I will be using parts of that initial message as an example in this post, but the specific challenge is not the focus of this post, so if you wish to challenge the specifics, please post the comments on the other post.

The accusation of a strawman proposed that I was applying a specific heretical view of Christianity to an entire view within the Christian Church (young-earth creationism [YEC]). I've been in conversations with the this person in the past, and I suspected that he knew that I wasn't applying it to all YEC adherents, but he wasn't sure how to express where he sensed a strawman. Of course, my sense could be wrong; but nevertheless, I identified four different areas where a strawman could be offered in a description/critique of a worldview that we all should be familiar with when composing our own arguments/material and consuming others' arguments/material:

  • The overall worldview
  • The specific argument for a worldview or against another
  • The implications of an argument
  • The acceptance of the implications by the adherent to the worldview
In The Overall Worldview
In the challenge my friend implied that I was implying that the YEC view necessarily (all versions of it) undermines the deity of Christ. I think that accusation fails to take into account that I stated in the last paragraph, "it is not the YE view that necessarily undermines Christianity; it is this particular argument against the OE view that does". I would not be able to say that if I was saying that the YEC view, as a whole, denied the deity of Christ by necessity.

Offering a strawman understanding of an entire worldview (all variations) is the easiest to spot, and is also the easiest to avoid. If a statement does apply to all version of a worldview, then it can help to falsify or confirm the truth of the worldview in general. Even though it may seem easy to apply a certain characteristic to an entire worldview in order to dismiss all versions of it, we have to be honest enough to recognize when our statement does not apply to all versions of the worldview, if any at all- such as in the case that I provide.

An example outside of Christianity would be to say that all versions of atheism are naturalistic. Many Buddhists are atheistic, but they believe that there are worlds that exist outside of our own. If we were to say that since we have defeated naturalism that we have defeated all versions of atheism, we would be first, overstating our conclusion, and second arguing against a strawman of the atheistic Buddhist sects.

In The Specific Argument Presented and Critiqued
The person may not be misrepresenting an entire worldview, but may be misrepresenting an argument. In my post I stated that the argument is that God is active during creation for roughly 99% percent of the history of the universe, and God's interaction compromises the scientific method, thus the scientific method is not reliable for 99% of the universes history. In the post I put the initial argument in syllogistic form to help make the premises and conclusion clear. This was done in order to help avoid misrepresenting it. Most of the time we are not going to place everything we say or write in this form because it is not natural language, but it is easy to follow.

When we offer an argument in this formal way, we make it more easy to apply specific critiques. If someone wants to accuse us of offering a strawman, the formulation given will help them identify where they believe that we went wrong. At that point, we can either defend our premises (and logic) or adjust them so that we are not presenting a strawman.

An example of a strawman argument would be this:
  1. All things begin to exist
  2. The universe began to exist
  3. Therefore, God exists
Most apologists (and many atheists) will recognize this as a mutilated version of the Kalam Cosmological Argument for God's existence. If someone were to offer this as the actual argument, then critique it, their critique would not apply to the actual argument because they are not critiquing the actual argument. If they present it in the formal way, it allows the theist to show the presenter exactly where they went wrong and give them the opportunity to critique the real argument.

In The Implications
But, that is still not the only place that a strawman could appear in what we present. The strawman could appear in our logical evaluation of the (actual) argument- the implications may not truly follow. (This is not a strawman in the traditional sense, because the purpose of the misrepresentation here is to strengthen it, not tear it down, but it is still a misrepresentation.) If that is the case, then there will be other logical fallacies that have been committed; they would need to be identified before we could say that this is, in fact, where the misrepresentation is. This is not just limited to critiques of arguments. Sometimes people can overstate the exclusivity of their conclusions or take their conclusions further when the argument does not support it. Interestingly, if we are over-zealous and not careful enough, we can misrepresent our own arguments. Once again, putting forth the critique or stronger implications in a formal way will help identify such misrepresentations..

One of the these strawmen that I was guilty of when I first began defending Christianity takes us back to the Kalam Cosmological Argument. The actual argument is this:
  1. Everything that begins to exist has a cause
  2. The universe began to exist
  3. Therefore the universe has a cause
I used to jump immediately from the universe having a cause to identifying that cause as the God of the Bible. I didn't take into account that the cause could be a multiverse, a deistic God, or the God of one of the other theistic religions. When I offered such an exclusive conclusion, I was misrepresenting my own argument- a strawman, in the nontraditional sense.

In The Acceptance of the Implications
The last area still involves the implications but is distinct from the implications themselves. It is actually related to the overall worldview strawman. This is where I suspect that my friend actually sensed the strawman (the relationship to the first area would explain why he articulated that the strawman was in the first area).

Even if we are not misrepresenting the worldview, the particular argument we are critiquing, and all our presented implications do follow, we can still offer a strawman. If we project the logical implications onto a person who does not actually hold them, then we have committed a strawman. This is probably the easiest to misidentify, because we are not aware that unless we (the person critiquing a view) is extremely careful and precise in separation of the implications from the challenger, it will be misinterpreted as being applied to the challenger.

In my previous post, since I explicitly make the statement in the last paragraph, "it is not the YE view that necessarily undermines Christianity; it is this particular argument against the OE view that does," I have removed any possible necessary projection of the seven heretical beliefs onto any YECist. I lay the problem squarely upon the argument and its logical implications. I do not require that a person who uses the critiqued argument to adhere to the logical implications. If I did (then critique them), then I would be addressing a strawman because they don't accept the implications (no matter how logical they are). That is why I make the distinction between addressing a worldview vs. its adherent and being careful of being misengaged in battle (this is where the distinction between this area and the first area become quite hazy). 

Anyone can use an argument and not follow it to its logical end (we see it all the time). The irony with this strawman is that sometimes we must address a misrepresentation (a strawman in the nontraditional sense) . If a person holds a "strawman" of the view they claim (the distinction), we can't critique the actual view and get anywhere. We must address what the individual believes, even if we know that it is a misrepresentation.

Of course, the goal is to identify inconsistency and correct it. If all the implications that we have provided logically follow, yet the person does not believe them, then they have an inconsistency that needs to be pointed out. We may be addressing a misunderstanding of a worldview, but it is their misunderstanding that we are addressing- not ours. We are properly representing their view by addressing their "strawman".

There are many atheists who believe that their worldview can account for objective morality even though their worldview necessarily implies that objective morality does not even exist. This would be an example of an implication that is not accepted. We must address their attempts to reconcile objective morality with atheism (their "strawman" of their worldview) and show how atheism does not allow for objective morality (the actual worldview).

The accusation that someone has offered a strawman is not one to be taken lightly. Not only does it imply that the presenter is not being careful but implies deception (intentional or unintentional), and it will have impact on their effectiveness in communicating the superiority of their worldview over another. Because of the latter, we need to be open to examine what we present when we are accused of arguing against a strawman. We need to be willing to either defend our position or alter it to remove the strawman.

We also need to be careful when we wish to accuse someone of offering a strawman. We need to make sure that we are not actually misrepresenting their view (by missing something) when we make the accusation. If we don't, we will be seen as overly sensitive to challenge and not very careful in our own examinations. I've identified four different areas to examine others' presentations and our own. I'm sure that this does not cover every area, but it will help us be more discerning in our defense of the Truth.

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