Thursday, October 14, 2010

On Reverse-Strawmanning

This is a pattern I've seen repeatedly when it comes to discussing New Atheist arguments online:

1) New Atheist writes an article about religion or science, making several claims or arguments.
2) The claims turn out to be inane, or the arguments horrible and muddled.
3) An atheist faithful rushes in to excuse and defend their hero.
4) Their "defense" doesn't involve defending what the New Atheist actually wrote and meant. Instead, they either attempt to get to the same conclusion as the NA by using different (if broadly similar) arguments the NA in question did not himself use in the article, or they use the "what I think he really means is..." trick to have the NA say something entirely different than he did with different points and conclusions.

I could tack on 5) Even these reworked or imagined arguments tend to be crappy, but the real point is this: When you start to explicitly change what your hero is saying in the hopes of making him sound less idiotic, you're not really helping him out. If anything you're silently arguing that not only is the NA in question a sloppy thinker, but he can't even communicate his own thoughts well. Or that you're willing to make excuses and just imagine someone is saying what you prefer them to say for whatever reason, probably because it's emotionally important to you.

Case in point: Brandon's post over at Siris points out how Coyne's recent USA Today piece is just horrible. The man can't even think up analogies that actually work, much less provide arguments that get him to the conclusion he's trying to arrive at. So what's the response from one commenter?

"I think what Coyne, and others are doing, without ever saying so is using science as a synonym for rational methods or thinking. Thus, they include mathematics, logic, some philosophy and the various sciences under the term science. In a way this makes sense, after all, science is an offshoot of philosophy and you'd be hard pressed to do anything much in science without a lot of maths. But science as a discipline can't explain half of what we claim to know."

I wonder why "Coyne and others" are doing this "without ever saying so"? I mean, it's not for lack of opportunity - by any measure most NAs tend to run at the mouth. But hey, it can't be that "Coyne and others" actually mean what they say when they say the word "science", right? Because "science as a discipline can't explain half of what we claim to know", and you'd have to be pretty uninformed or confused or just plain dull to think otherwise, and guys like Coyne... well, they can't have stupid ideas, can they?

So no, Coyne can't possibly be saying something stupid. Therefore, he has to mean something utterly different than what he's saying, without ever saying so.

Of course, the rest of the reply includes bold claims that science, and apparently some philosophy, has proven that "we don't have souls" and that "mind arises from the brain". At the very least he's sure that Catholic ideas about the soul can't be true because... well, "because strokes", apparently. I won't even go into how credulous and uninformed the kid in question is. But I will mention a side point.

See, the New Atheist movement did have some modest success in one particular aim that no one likes to talk about. I'll put it bluntly: New Atheism appeals to idiots. And I'm not saying that you have to be an idiot to be an atheist (It doesn't hurt!), or that the New Atheists tried but failed to attract intelligent people. I'm saying New Atheism, dwindled though its star may be, was crafted right from the get-go to pick up numbers among unintelligent people, and that some success was had here. In part because New Atheism was marketed as a way to become very smart overnight: Just become an atheist, and (it was strongly implied) you'll be more intelligent than your peers! You'll have a higher IQ overnight! You'll be a Bright!

And before you point out that that's an easy marketing gimmick to see through, I'll just remind you that this wasn't a ploy aimed at actually intelligent people. Rather like how Ponzi scheme artists don't seek out people who have a good understanding of economics, and in fact would prefer they did not.


Codgitator (Cadgertator) said...

I was talking with my brother last week and he mentioned he wants to read Hawking's new book. Perhaps because he knows I'm a committed theist, or perhaps because deep down he believes in God as more than a theoretical-mathematical postulate, my brother almost immediately said, "See, a lot of people say Hawking is saying God doesn't exist, but I don't think so. Hawking is trying to say how what God is, is bigger than we can imagine." I thought of this post when he said this. ;)

Crude said...

Oddly enough, I heard a very similar (and I admit, surprisingly strong to me) argument. Not that 'Hawking is trying to say...' that, but that Hawking's position ultimately offers some surprising reinforcement of theism

Did you read this: The Hermeneutics of Stephen Hawking.