The Strawman

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One of the most insidious arguments is the strawman. It’s insidious because it is effective, and insidious because it takes great effort to avoid on your own.

The simple formula for a strawman is to invent the arguments of your opponent, and then argue against those arguments, rather than the actual arguments of your opponent.

Consider the debate about homosexual marriage. Proponents poo-poo the arguments of the opponents by claiming that they support bigotry and hatred against homosexuals, and are opposed to homosexual marriage simply because Jesus said so. Both of these are not arguments that the best and representative opponents use. In fact, opponents would argue easily against these two reasons as valid reasons for opposing homosexual marriage.

If you want to avoid the strawman, you have to dig into your opponents mind. You have to first assume that your opponent is a reasonable and good person. You must assume that they have thought the issue through and have come to the conclusion they have because they believe that is the best decision for them or for the people around them. At the very least, you must suppose that they are exposed to the same arguments and evidence that you are exposed to, and try to understand why they have not changed their mind.

You have not freed yourself from the strawman until you can express your opponent’s positions, and the logical and reasonable reasons for them, at least as well as he can himself.

I know that people who support homosexual marriage do not believe that it is right to discriminate against homosexuals and deny them the “right” to marry whomever they love. I know that people who support homosexual marriage do not have to be homosexual themselves.

Once I have accomplished this, I can actually begin arguing against them. For instance, I can say that there is no discrimination in marriage because we do not limit who can marry whom based on their sexual orientation. Whatever limitations exist are there for reasons way beyond simple discrimination. The same reason why a corporation is not the right legal structure for a partnership is the same reason why marriage is not the right legal structure for two people who love each other very much but are of the same gender.

When we engage in this kind of debate, we learn more about each other and what we are thinking. Two people can learn a  lot from each other, even when they agree on nothing. This is because people tend to be reasonable and there is no preliminary requirement for agreement for two people to reason together.

On the debate of religion vs. atheism, there is a ton of strawmen arguments out there. It’s quite clear that the vast majority of people who claim to be Atheist know little to nothing of the world’s religions. They may be familiar in one or more religions, but they do not have an appreciation for why perfectly reasonable people would believe in those things, and so cannot help but make strawmen arguments. It’s rather pathetic, because every religious individual must have already conquered the arguments for atheism before they could begin to believe. In other words, one set of beliefs is superior than another simply because you cannot believe in it without completely comprehending the other, while the other has no such requirement.

I’ll call strawmen when I see them. I hope you’ll do your best to identify your own strawmen arguments by educating yourself to opposing viewpoints.

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6 Responses to “The Strawman”

  1. tensor Says:

    They may be familiar in one or more religions, but they do not have an appreciation for why perfectly reasonable people would believe in those things…

    What a strange claim! In “The God Delusion,” Richard Dawkins spends an entire chapter on investigating why humans would believe in gods, despite the utterly useless waste of time and effort inherent to religion. Looking at this question from a Darwinist perspective, he concludes that evolution has equipped human children to believe their elders in all things, from “Don’t eat those berries, they are poisonous,” to, “Our god is a hateful and vindictive god, who demands we maim or kill everyone who disagrees with him, and he must always be obeyed without question.” The first statement has an obviously evidentiary basis, and the second obviously does not, but a child is evolutionarily equipped to believe both, if a trusted adult says so. Without this harmful indoctrination of gullible children, religion would wither and die within a few generations.

    • Jonathan Gardner Says:

      I think you proved my point. While there are many people who do not seriously question their own religion, you cannot claim that all do, nor that people who are very well educated about their own religion do.

      My religion has no such aspect, “Do it because I said so and I’m never going to explain why.” All of my religion’s religious claims must be independently verified by all believers of the religion or they cannot obtain the highest levels of exaltation. If it is not an absolute, universal truth, then it is not part of my religion.

      It seems like if anyone is participating in the “believing in one’s elders even when they spout nonsense”, it is the Atheist crowd, you included. Dawkins spouted nonsense, and you believed it without independent verification!

      In addition to Dawkin’s childish, pathetic understanding of religion, it seems he has a childish understanding of evolution concerning this matter. Wouldn’t the trait of believing nonsense be bred out of the human race? Or is believing nonsense a reproductive advantage?

      If being smart is not a reproductive advantage: Suppose you believe that life is good, and therefore you believe that attributes which prolong life or secure a reproductive advantage are also good since both lead to more life, which is more good. Well, then, if being smart is not a reproductive advantage, it must, therefore, be evil and not preferable. (This is reductio ad absurdum. Either reproductive advantages are not good, being smart is a reproductive advantage (and evolution is wrong), or smart is evil.)

  2. tensor Says:

    Dawkins spouted nonsense, and you believed it without independent verification!

    I’d like to know what part of it you considered to be “nonsense”, why you claim it is “nonsense”, and what part requires “independent verification.” Do you need “independent verification” that small children ask many questions of their parents? Do you need “independent verification” that children tend to believe the answers their parents give? Or do you need “independent verification” that this shortcut to learning confers distinct evolutionary advantages?

    If it’s the last, then maybe you need to learn a bit more about evolution:

    Wouldn’t the trait of believing nonsense be bred out of the human race?

    Natural selection will eliminate a trait only if the presence of that trait prevents the individual carrying it from having children. We carry tonsils, appendices, and large sections of inert genetic code; while wasteful, these extras do not inhibit reproduction, and so are retained. So long as believing nonsense does not prevent the individual from breeding, the individual can believe the nonsense, and try to transmit the nonsense to others. (Note that a religious belief which demands permanent celibacy will die out, as the members fail to reproduce themselves — if they actually practice their beliefs, that is.)

    In addition to Dawkin’s childish, pathetic understanding of religion,

    The evidence indicates that your entire knowledge of Dawkins’ understanding of religion comes from a very short synopsis I wrote of one chapter of one book he has written on this subject. I suggest you actually do some of your own research, before you embarrass yourself further. For example, when you find yourself in conflict with an evolutionary biologist on the subject of evolutionary biology, you might want to check to see if you might be wrong, instead of just assuming that you are completely right, and then hurling insults at him, based on nothing more than your inflated self-estimate. Just sayin’.

    All of my religion’s religious claims must be independently verified by all believers of the religion…

    That word does not mean what you think it means.

    • Jonathan Gardner Says:

      I’d like to know what part of it you considered to be “nonsense”, why you claim it is “nonsense”, and what part requires “independent verification.”

      I described that immediately following my assertion. And you’ve just agreed with me, and you don’t even realize it.

      Congratulations, I glad you’ve made a decision to become religious. I mean, you do value life as the ultimate good as an evolutionist, and you do want to see human life continue, right?

      Or are you in fact evil, insisting that we should choose Dawkins’ ideas even though it is an evolutionary disadvantage, and even though it could spell disaster for many members of our species?

      For example, when you find yourself in conflict with an evolutionary biologist on the subject of evolutionary biology, you might want to check to see if you might be wrong,

      I have checked, and I know for myself that I am right and they are wrong. I have written about their errors many times, and I have found no one addressing my arguments, even after exhaustive searches.

      As a trained physicist, I am able to cut through their so-called “evidence” and show, demonstratively, that what they have got is a whole pile of rocks and fantasy. Their science is no more a science than astrology, full of logical fallacies such as post hoc ergo propter hoc, assuming the antecedent, and magical thinking. They look at bones and decide for themselves what they want to see and what story they wish to tell, because there is no objective measure which they can use. Their story is constantly changing as well, and they don’t seem to mind when they replace one fantasy with another.

      The easiest way to see how full of garbage they are is to see how they argue their ideas. The fact that they use argumentum ad hominem at all is simple proof that they are in the wrong, and they know it. The fact that you can’t defend their ideas is further proof that they have no serious ideas.

      In the physics world, things don’t work that way. We don’t resort to authority, we prove everything we understand from basic principles on up. Go ahead, ask me about any physical phenomena, and I can explain it from elementary things to advanced things. I can start from a child’s understanding of the world all the way up to advanced quantum mechanical topics, in a logical chain with evidence that can be easily obtained in experiments you can run at home, or independently verified by thousand of people across the planet.

      Our default position on any idea is skepticism, even if the idea comes from “solid math”. We even have ways to tell whether enough experimentation has been done. (The jury is still out on the Higgs boson, even though we have more data than all the fossils in the world could ever offer.)

      All of my religion’s religious claims must be independently verified by all believers of the religion…

      That word does not mean what you think it means.

      Abandon your ignorance, and come and see what we really teach and really do. Visit with my church’s missionaries and ask them what they teach.

      We do not allow people to join our church without receiving independent verification that ALL of our declarations are true and endorsed by God. That independent verification comes only through a distinct, personal, and independent manifestation of the Holy Ghost. If someone does not receive it, they are not to be baptized. I have told several people that the LDS faith is not for them, because they were thinking of getting baptized for reasons other than their personal conviction.

      One must obtain this proof on their own, praying in private, after pondering the things they have learned. Spiritual manifestations in the company of others is not enough to build true faith. Mediocre or wishy-washy impressions are not enough.

      All of the arguments people like Dawkins use to attack our religion simply don’t hold up to what we actually do in practice. None of them have convincing, sound evidence to show that what we claim to be reality is not correct. They may work against some religions, but ours is built on a much more sure foundation than others.

      The scientific position is not Dawkins’ position. The scientific position is to come and see for oneself, to examine the universe objectively, to consciously choose knowledge and reason over passion and inconsistency, and to abandon all preconceived notions of the way the universe should be, instead embracing the universe and God the way they really are.

  3. tensor Says:

    I described that immediately following my assertion.

    The thing you did immediately following your groundless assertion of Dawkins’ having “spouted nonsense” was to make more groundless assertions considering his supposed lack of knowledge. Hurling empty insults does not constitute argument, much less informed argument; you might want to learn that someday.

    And you’ve just agreed with me…

    Stop paying yourself that unearned compliment. Speaking of which:

    I have checked, and I know for myself that I am right and they are wrong. I have written about their errors many times, and I have found no one addressing my arguments, even after exhaustive searches.

    Actually, your claims received such tenacious and clear refutation that you finally just gave up:

    I don’t have an explanation for why the creatures are the way they are. I don’t need an explanation.

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