discussion of the "Straw Man" fallacy, one of the most widely claimed argumentative fouls in modern day Blogistan. He notes that a lot of critiques that get characterized as straw manning really aren't: It's not fallacious to merely simplify someone else's argument, for example. A straw man response must illegitimately oversimplify someone's argument, and it's not at all obvious where the line is between necessary and negligent reduction in a critique.
Without being too dense about it, I'd like to emphasize that it's impossible not to simplify someone else's argument when responding to it. This is in part because because no argument (whether an essay, editorial dissertation, lecture, or blog post) is truly finite or complete, but we must respond as though it is. (This truth is abundantly clear to anyone who has gotten into an argument on the internet). In constructing any proposition, no matter how formal, we constantly make decisions (consciously or otherwise) on what to make explicit and what to take for granted. The space created by these decisions is practically, if not actually, infinite, leaving abundant room for a thoughtful critic to ask questions, challenge assumptions, and point out ambiguities.
Put another way, all arguments, even the utterly casual, are in some sense formal (as are, to be frank, all uses of language and symbolic communication generally.) Reality is infinitely manifold, and our statements about it must, by nature, take enormous liberties. If every exercise in simplification is a "straw man," than language itself must be found guilty of the charge. Such was my reaction to Brandon's original post about "straw man straw men"--that there is a deeper fallacy in imagining that any critique can by truly faithful.
This offends our vanity. We don't like to be shown that our attempt to create living truth has resulted in, essentially, a scarecrow. And I think that a large percentage of "straw man" cries reduce to exactly this type of umbrage and apprehension at the ease with which our creations can be prodded, dismantled, modeled, and mocked.
But there is also a more subtle variety of straw man that comes from a true failure of a critic to understand the content and context of what has been proposed, and I believe this accounts for a majority of "true" cases of the straw man fallacy: simplification born of hauteur. I am put in the mind of this variety of straw man by a recent article by Roger Scruton in The New Spectator, which invokes the insightful observation by Max Bennett and Peter Hacker of the recent mania for neuroscience as a species of the "homunculus fallacy." (Scruton can be a bit of a reactionary hack, but he hits most of the right notes here.) Denied a "soul" as a plausible seat of human agency, but loath to resort to passive descriptions of human behavior, "neurophilosophers" (actually just new-fangled Behaviorists) like Patricia Churchland and Sam Harris cast the brain in the starring role, endowing it with the capacity for all sorts of intentional activity like processing, reasoning, calculating, and a great deal more. What is swept under the rug in this account is just how a lump of flesh, however complex, subject to the deterministic laws of nature, can be said to be the subject of any transitive verb whatsoever.
Scruton's critique has been ably made by many others, among them Neil Postman, Stephen J. Gould, Stephen Toulmin, Mary Midgley, and Marilynne Robinson, all of whom make a case for we might for expedience oversimplify as "humanism;" the need to talk about humans as in some sense irreducible units, as whole persons (while always of course recognizing that medically, physically, chemically, and pathologically we are quite dissectable).
There is, from the ranks of the sciences, a strain of very intelligent dissenters of the Humanist view, which I categorize by their failure to see the essential argument being made. In his discussion of real and imagined straw men that I link to above, Brandon alludes to the strange inability for some disputants to see that their critiques are already present in the material they are criticizing. We can see this in comments with the Scruton article: commenter blindboy merely recapitulates the description of the brain as "mapping" the body without engaging the Bennett/Hacker "homunculus fallacy." Anthony Steyning and James Smith, revealingly, mock Scruton for attributing human agency to a "soul," which he does not do. Tom Hartley reiterates the Behaviorist project favored by the neurophilosophy set without responding to the logical problem, raised by so many critics, including Scruton, of how we justify continuing to use the active language of agency and intention while admitting of no entity endowed with those properties.
Five negative comments, five straw men, responding to an entirely different argument to the one Scruton has put forth, not out of necessity, but out of a clear myopia. I could point to similar patterns on threads scattered throughout the internet. It is, perhaps, human nature to see only the possibilities before you that you have been trained to see, which in our culture tend to fall into two determined camps: Abrahamic theism and scientific materialism. Though both camps claim, with some justification, the mantle of enlightenment and rational inquiry, it is far too often observed that a critique of one is taken as an endorsement of the other, a conclusion neither inquisitive nor enlightened. Perhaps the real problem with straw manning is not that we want to make (and cannot avoid making) effigies of ourselves and others, but that presented with those effigies we so desperately want to hang, burn, and lynch them, rather than bearing the much more arduous but ultimately more rewarding burden of enhancing our vision and embracing the impossible task of perfecting our own idolotry.
Photos from our Brooklyn Show
2 years ago