Sunday, March 22, 2009

Straw men and terracotta armies

Every academic philosopher solemnly teaches his students never to commit the straw man fallacy. And yet relentlessly committing it oneself anyway is almost a grand tradition within certain precincts of our discipline. As readers of The Last Superstition are aware, most of what the average contemporary secular philosopher thinks he “knows” about the traditional arguments of natural theology and natural law theory is nothing but a hodgepodge of ludicrous caricatures, and the standard “objections” to these arguments, widely considered fatal, in fact have no force whatsoever. If such philosophers’ continued employment depended on demonstrating some rudimentary knowledge of (for example) the actual views of Thomas Aquinas, many of them would be selling pencils.

Consider this breathtaking example from an introductory book on philosophy:

The most important version of the first cause argument comes to us from Thomas Aquinas (1225-74).

The argument runs like this: everything that happens has a cause, and that cause itself has a cause, and that cause too has a cause, and so on and so on, back into the past, in a series that must either be finite or infinite. Now if the series is finite is [sic] must have had a starting point, which we may call the first cause. This first cause is God.

What if the series is infinite? Aquinas after some consideration eventually rejects the possibility that the world is infinitely old and had no beginning in time. Certainly the idea of time stretching backwards into the past forever is one which the human mind finds hard to grasp… Still we might note here that Aristotle found no difficulty in [this] idea. He held that the world has existed forever. Aristotle’s opinion, if correct, invalidates the first cause argument.

[From Jenny Teichman and Katherine C. Evans, Philosophy: A Beginner’s Guide, Second edition (Blackwell, 1995), p. 22.]

Now, I don’t need to tell you what’s wrong with this, right?

Maybe I do. Teichman and Evans are not liars, after all; they just don’t know any better. And if this is true of two professional philosophers, it’s bound to be true of many non-experts. Explaining everything that is wrong with this travesty of Aquinas would take several pages, and since you can find those pages in The Last Superstition, I direct the interested reader there. But very briefly: Aquinas nowhere in his case for God’s existence argues that the world had a beginning in time; indeed, he rather famously argues that it cannot be proved that it had such a beginning. Nor was he unfamiliar with Aristotle’s views on this subject, given that Aquinas was – again, rather famously – probably the greatest Aristotelian after Aristotle himself, and the author of many lengthy commentaries on The Philosopher’s works. What Aquinas seeks to show in all of his arguments for God’s existence is not the existence of a first cause who operated at some point in the distant past to get the world going, but rather one who is operating here and now, and at any moment at which the universe exists at all, to keep the world going. And part of his point is that the existence of such a God is something that can be proved even if the universe has always existed. (He did not actually believe it has always existed, mind you; he just didn’t get into the issue for the purposes of arguing for God’s existence.)

I don’t mean to pick on Teichman and Evans. Indeed, I have profited from some of Teichman’s work, and I enjoyed her occasional contributions to The New Criterion back when she was writing for them several years ago. But this is not a mere slip of the pen. This is a basic failure to make sure one knows what one is talking about before writing on something of major importance. The reason Teichman and Evans could get away with it is that so many other philosophers get away with it routinely, and no one calls them on it. (Here’s a set of errors, by the way – far more egregious and undeniable than any error allegedly made in the Encyclopedia of Christian Civilization – that Blackwell not only didn’t threaten to pulp the book over, but even left in the second edition!)

There are surely hundreds or even thousands of philosophers who think Aquinas is guilty of various fallacies because they simply don’t understand what his arguments are really about. And there are surely many more thousands of non-philosophers – including the students of the ignorant philosophers in question, and the readers of their works – who think the same thing. Widespread errors of this sort are an enormous part of the reason atheism has the respectability it has come to have. As I argue in TLS – indeed, as I claim to demonstrate there – atheism could not possibly have this status if most people who have an opinion on the traditional theistic arguments really knew what they were talking about. To be sure, there would still in that case be atheists (though far fewer of them); but they would know that the arguments on the other side are, at the very least, very challenging indeed.

The straw man argument is quite powerful, then – not logically, of course, but rhetorically. Indeed, it is especially powerful in the hands of philosophers, for unwary readers will naturally assume that a philosopher will be careful to have avoided fallacies, and will understand the philosophical ideas he is criticizing. Still, the traditional straw man has its limits. For there’s always the chance that someone will call attention to the real man. In the case of Aquinas, this has, thankfully, started to happen. Given the increase of interest in medieval philosophy over the last few decades, some awareness of what Aquinas really meant is starting, very slowly, to creep into the work of at least philosophers of religion who write on his arguments for God’s existence. It may take another decade or two, but we will hopefully get to the point where a passage like the one from Teichman and Evans wouldn’t pass the laugh test of any academic philosophy editor or referee anywhere, any more than would (say) a reference to Quine as a Thomist or to Nozick as a Marxist. And maybe a decade or two beyond that, the news will finally reach ignorant non-philosopher hacks like Richard Dawkins.

Even more powerful than this sort of straw man, however, is the sort that is not directed at any specific real man at all – a kind of free floating caricature of no one in particular, which can be associated or disassociated from particular targets as the rhetorical need of the moment calls for. Take what everyone “knows” to be the “basic” Cosmological Argument for God’s existence: Everything has a cause; so the universe has a cause, namely God. This argument is notoriously bad: If everything has a cause, then what caused God? And if God needn’t have had a cause, why must the universe have one? Etc. The thing is, not one of the best-known defenders of the Cosmological Argument in the history of philosophy ever gave this stupid argument. Not Plato, not Aristotle, not al-Ghazali, not Maimonides, not Aquinas, not Duns Scotus, not Leibniz, not Samuel Clarke, not Garrigou-Lagrange, not Mortimer Adler, not William Lane Craig, not Richard Swinburne. And, for that matter, not anyone else either, as far as I know. And yet it is constantly presented, not only by popular writers but also by professional philosophers, as if it were “the” “basic” version of the cosmological argument, and as if every other version were essentially just a variation on it.

Don’t believe me? Of course you do. Anyone who has ever taken a PHIL 101 course has heard this argument triumphantly refuted and quickly brushed aside so that the instructor could move on to the “philosophically serious” stuff.

In case there are any doubters, though, let’s look at a few examples. Here’s one from a New Atheist doorstop-sized pamphlet:

The Cosmological Argument… in its simplest form states that since everything must have a cause the universe must have a cause – namely God… [But then] what caused God? The reply that God is self-caused (somehow) then raises the rebuttal: If something can be self-caused, why can’t the universe as a whole be the thing that is self-caused?

[From Daniel C. Dennett, Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon (Viking, 2006), p. 242.]

“Well, come on,” you’re thinking, “that’s cheating. It’s Dennett! What did you expect, intellectual honesty and competence vis-à-vis religion?”

OK, then, here’s another one, from an introductory text on the philosophy of religion, no less:

The basic cosmological argument

1. Anything that exists has a cause of its existence.
2. Nothing can be the cause of its own existence.
3. The universe exists.

Therefore: The universe has a cause of its existence which lies outside the universe.

[From Robin Le Poidevin, Arguing for Atheism: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Religion (Routledge, 1996), p. 4]

Curious title, that. Imagine a book called Arguing for Conservatism: An Introduction to Political Philosophy. Think Routledge would publish it? Me neither.

But precisely for that reason, some might think that this example too is unrepresentative. The guy’s writing a book to promote atheism, after all, even if (unlike Dennett) he actually knows something about philosophy of religion. So here’s one further example, from a book on logic, a subject one would think is as objective and free of partisanship as is humanly possible:

It’s a natural assumption that nothing happens without an explanation: people don’t get ill for no reason; cars don’t break down without a fault. Everything, then, has a cause. But what could the cause of everything be? Obviously, it can’t be anything physical, like a person; or even something like the Big Bang of cosmology. Such things must themselves have causes. So it must be something metaphysical. God is the obvious candidate.

This is one version of an argument for the existence of God, often called the Cosmological Argument.

[From Graham Priest, Logic: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press, 2000), at pp. 21-2.]

Examples could easily be multiplied. A cursory inspection of the bookshelves here in my study turns up Michael Martin’s Atheism: A Philosophical Justification, Bertrand Russell’s Why I Am Not a Christian, and Simon Blackburn’s Think as further examples of books earnestly presenting the “Everything has a cause” argument as if it were something that actual philosophical advocates of the Cosmological Argument have historically defended.

(Blackburn, incidentally, has made the attacking of straw men something of a second career. In a review of a book of essays by Elizabeth Anscombe some years back, he peddled some stale caricatures of natural law theory. In his book on Plato’s Republic, he throws in several gratuitous, and indeed bizarre, references to neo-conservatives as disciples of Thrasymachus and advocates of cynical “realpolitik” – perhaps less a straw man than an outright smear, since the usual caricature of neo-conservatives paints them as naïve Wilsonian democratic idealists. Anyway, if Blackburn is looking for some imperative to use as a title for a sequel to Think, he might consider something like Repeat Clichés Fashionable Among Liberal Academics.)

The obvious “So what caused God, then?” rejoinder is usually made next (as in Dennett), though sometimes some other obvious objection is raised. For example, Martin asks “How do we know the first cause is God?” Slightly more creatively, Priest suggests that the argument commits a quantifier shift fallacy. (Even if everything does have a cause it does not follow that there is something that is the cause of everything.)

Now some of these writers go on to acknowledge that there are other and more sophisticated forms of the argument. In fact, Le Poidevin even admits that “no-one has defended a cosmological argument of precisely this form” (!) So why bother with it?

Well, here’s one possibility: Because, though shooting this fish in its barrel accomplishes exactly zip logically speaking, rhetorically the atheist’s battle against the Cosmological Argument is half-won by the time the unwary reader moves on to the next chapter. By effectively insinuating that the argument’s defenders must surely be a pretty stupid or at least intellectually dishonest bunch, anything you represent them as saying afterward, no matter how intrinsically interesting or philosophically powerful, is bound to seem anticlimactic, a desperate attempt at patching the gigantic holes in a pathetically weak case. Dennett, admitting that there are more sophisticated versions of the argument, suggests that only those with a taste for “ingenious nitpicking about the meaning of ‘cause’” and “the niceties of scholastic logic” would find them of any interest. Why waste time addressing them, then? And so he doesn’t. What the greatest defenders of the Cosmological Argument have actually said doesn’t matter. Poking holes in an argument that “no-one has defended” is enough to refute them.

As I have said, this is more effective than the usual “straw man” argument precisely because there is no “real man” being criticized. It isn’t strictly a distortion of anything any specific philosopher has actually defended. If you say “Hey, Aquinas [or Aristotle, Leibniz, or Maimonides, or whomever] never said anything like that!” the atheist can always reply “I never said he did – no straw man fallacy here! I’m just talking about, you know, the Cosmological Argument in general.” And yet somehow, the mud still sticks to Aquinas, Leibniz, Maimonides, and Co. anyway. It’s as if, in place of a single straw man, the atheist has constructed an entire field filled with straw men, in one fell swoop. Or, to shift analogies, instead of attacking the formidable Cosmological Argument army made up of the philosophical giants listed above, the atheist has decided to take on instead a clay or terracotta army of the sort the first Chinese emperor had buried with him. His “victory” is hollow, but since most readers wouldn’t know the real army from the clay one, it seems very real indeed.

If you’re a secularist reader having trouble working up much outrage over this, consider the following analogy. Suppose some conservative suggested in a book called Arguing for Chastity: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Sex that the following is “the basic argument” for the moral legitimacy of homosexual acts:

1. All sexual activity is good.
2. Homosexual acts are a kind of sexual activity.
3. So homosexual acts are good.

Suppose he then went on to point out that this is a terrible argument, that it would justify rape, adultery, child molestation, etc. And suppose further that he also acknowledged that “no-one has defended an argument of precisely this form” but claimed that it was somehow nevertheless a good starting point from which to assess the morality of homosexual acts, giving the impression that everything else actual liberals have ever said about the subject was essentially a desperate attempt to patch up this feeble argument.

I submit that any defender of liberal views about sex would consider this an outrage. And rightly so. But the way a great many philosophers present arguments like the Cosmological Argument is not one whit less outrageous.

And yet generations of philosophers have been formed in their thinking about religion by works taking this sort of dishonest (or at least woefully uninformed) rhetorical approach, not only where the Cosmological Argument is concerned (this is just one example) but also where other arguments for religion are concerned, and where arguments for traditional views about sex are concerned too, for that matter. The result is that lots of people who think they more or less know what the basic arguments are vis-à-vis these subjects know nothing of the kind. And as one of their number likes to say, the less they know, the less they know it.


  1. Excellent post, professor Feser.

    My suggestion would be to teach philosophy students with the best books in each topic. For example, if I want to teach arguments for and against God's existence based on contemporary cosmology, I'd recommend a book like William Lane Craig and Quentin Smith's "Theism, Atheism and the Big Bang Cosmology".

    Thus most students would know the real and best philosophical arguments for each position, not the straw men presented in most books or popular media by incompetent, ignorant or dishonest writers.

    And it's valid for all the teachers and professors, whatever their field of expertise.

    Let's suppose that I want to teach about a controversial topic like parapsychology. I'd be intellectually dishonest (and ignorant) if I recommend horoscopes, fortune tellers, palm readers and other charlatans as the best representatives of parapsychology.

    If I'm intellectually honest, and I want my students learn and critically examine the BEST case for parapsychology, I'd have to recommend the best books supporting the case for ESP (let's to say, Dean Radin's "The Conscious Universe", or Chris Carter's "Parapsychology and the Skeptics"), even I my personal opinion is contrary or negative to parapsychology.

    The same applies to other topics, specially the controversial ones (e.g. religion, political matters, scientific controversies, etc.)

    As a teacher or professor (of whatever topic), I'm not in the bussiness of preaching or indoctrinating my students, but of sharing with them a technical information, help them to critially examine all the relevant arguments, and let them to reach their own rational conclusions.

    If I fail do that, I'd be misleading my students into false, distortioned or unaccurate beliefs, and being myself mediocre and incompetent as a teacher/professor.

  2. Off-topic but maybe interesting for some of you.

    William Lane Craig debated atheist Richard Carrier (of on the resurrection of Jesus.

    The videos are in youtube, the first part is this:

  3. The one thing you have to give to the folks you criticize is that plenty of religious believers do make the silly 'cosmological argument' that the atheists beat up on. That's no excuse for failing to see that there are better arguments, or (even worse) for attributing the silly argument to people who don't make it. But I imagine that most religious believers who aren't philosophers or especially interested in philosophy, if they were pressed to give an argument for the existence of God, would give exactly the argument in question. At least, I've long since lost count of the number of times I've heard that argument from the mouths of religious believers. Just about as often as I've heard atheists rehearsing it in order to critique it, actually.

  4. Ed, what's your take on Stanford's online entry for the Cosmological Argument?

  5. Jime, Better yet, why not actually teach using Aristotle, Aquinas, Maimonides, and the guys who made the case? It is in fact possible to do so, and do it well. It just takes a little more time, and a LOT more honesty.

    As for time: the usual complaint of teachers is that they get too little time as it is. Very true, because the university insists that 'true' education today means education preparing the student for a profession. Never mind the fact that by using this model, they have turned 'higher' education into teaching a combination of trade-craft and what used to be high school level capabilities. Never mind the fact that nowadays, to get a real job in an advanced area you need a post-graduate year or two minimum, so the student STILL doesn't have what he needs to understand his best subject after 4 years.

    Why don't we go back to teaching students how to think instead, however long it takes, and insist that they get their hands dirty with Aristotle and Plato and Aquinas, and then go on to studies in specialized fields. Mayhap teaching a student to think will shorten the period it takes for them to acquire a solid grounding in their subject matter following.

  6. Anonymous,

    I realize that lots of non-philosophers give the argument in question -- just as lots of non-biologists think evolution involves (say) a dog just up and turning into a cat one day. Yet no one thinks that would justify someone writing a book on evolution in presenting this appalling misunderstadning as "the basic account of how evolution works," which others have tinkered with in light of objections. If someone is writing on philosophy, he should present what actual philosophers have said, just as, when writing on biology, one should present what actual biologists have said.

  7. John, it's been a while since I read that, but one complaint is that it pays insufficient attention to the way Scholastic versions of the argument (e.g. Aquinas's) differ from later rationalist versions (e.g. Leibniz's), to which they are sometimes erroneously assimilated. (E.g. the Leibnizian Principle of Sufficient Reason is a stronger claim than the Scholastics' Principle of Causality, and thus subject to potential objections that are irrelevant to the latter.)

  8. Also, as I see on quickly scanning it, he gives the false impression (perhaps inadvertantly) that there is force to the objection that the argument leaves it open whether the First Cause really has all the divine attributes. As you might know from TLS, this is a big pet peeve of mine, because this stock objection really has no force at all. The fact is that the major defenders of the argument (Aquinas, Leibniz, Clarke, et al.) devote a great deal of careful argumentation to deriving the divine attributes. The idea that "no one's ever shown why the First Cause would have to be God etc." is an urban legend.

  9. he gives the false impression (perhaps inadvertantly) that there is force to the objection that the argument leaves it open whether the First Cause really has all the divine attributes.

    Yes, that's true. But at least it didn't shackle Aquinas with teaching the universe was finite.

    The section about the Big Bang seems dubious as well (because the origina at t=0 cannot be described as an "event" in spacetime, it doesn't have a cause, etc, etc.)

  10. I noted the same thing in ethics.The standard textbooks have sections on religion and ethics tend to recite Plato’s Euthyphro type, dismiss Kant’s argument as mercenary and then have some awful caricature of natural law theory. The work of say Philip Quinn or Robert Adams or John Hare or Mark Murphy or any others who actually articulate versions of the theories attacked are ignored. In fact you can almost beat the section on homosexuality and abortion will contain some really silly argument that “conservatives” apparently hold, yet strangely one can never find a “conservative” Christian Philosopher who actually advances the position attacked.

  11. Man, does this ever remind me of an old philosophy professor of mine who, in a private conversation with me, offhandedly dismissed the cosmological and teleological arguments as "category mistakes." Probably not surprisingly, he's a Kantian, and I'm pretty sure a big fan of Hume.

  12. First, Dawkins's God Delusion is more philosophically rigorous than every sermon given in every church around the world. In other words, it's not very rigorous. Why? Because it's not intended to be a philosophical tract. It's popular literature. Moreover, Dawkins advocates an academically honest approach to inquiry, whereas religions aim to amplify bias to the maximum possible degree.

    Second, your sell your own position as if it's part of the philosophical mainstream. It isn't. It's a quaint medieval backwater that exists only so long as its adherents pretend that linguistic and ordinary language philosophy (or indeed, most philosophical work over the last 500 years) never really existed. So you're not just missing the point when you complain about straw man arguments on the part of authors of popular literature, you're being hypocritical too.

  13. DL,

    Yeah, my book just screams "Check me out, I'm so mainstream!" doesn't it?

  14. I like how Dawkins has been so thoroughly trashed both by professional philosophers and even moerately well-read religious people that even his ardent supporters have been forced to downgrade him from 'intellectual powerhouse' to 'well, he's meant to go up against Rev. Yokel Hicksbee who is just as ignorant and poorly-argued as Dawkins is.'

    And yes, anyone who could think Ed is even trying to represent his book as being part of the mainstream is hilariously deluded. But then, this is DL we're talking about. ;)

  15. Prof Feser,

    I was just wondering if I could get a quick impression from you about Adler's book How to Think About God. I was intending to have it read and discussed among a little group of people as a way of thinking about the philosophical idea of God before discussing Christianity. Would this be a good starting point, or can you recommend something better? Thanks

  16. Hello Josh,

    Actually, though I have a lot of respect for Adler, that book is not his finest moment, and there are serious philosophical errors in his evaluation of the cosmological argument for God's existence. So I wouldn't recommend it for your purposes. (A paper I'm working on now addresses what's wrong with what he says there, as it happens.)

    Re: what to read instead, obviously I'm partial to my own presentations of the main arguments for God's existence in Aquinas and The Last Superstition. But if you'd prefer something else, you could try either William Lane Craig's Reasonable Faith (for something elementary) or John Haldane's half of the book he co-wrote with atheist J.J.C. Smart, Atheism and Theism.

  17. Great, thank you! I'll take a look at those soon. Will that paper be available on the blog?

  18. Dr. Feser, near the beginning of your post, you quote Teichman and Evans as referring to an "infinitely old universe".

    You mention later on that Aquinas considered it impossible to show from philosophy alone (without revelation) that the universe has a beginning in time.

    Although I'd be tempted to infer from your response that Aquinas thought an infinitely old universe to be possible under a purely philosophical analysis, you did not mention this explicitly.

    In a conversation with a friend, the friend has tried to convince me that this is no mistake. In his view, Aquinas's admission of the possibility of no beginning in time is one thing, be he would not have admitted the possibility of an infinitely old universe on a purely philosophical analysis.

  19. For completeness, I'm following up my own post above.

    In a private exchange, Dr. Feser indicated that by "a universe with no beginning in time" he does in fact mean "an infinitely old universe" in the sense that no matter how long ago a given moment might have been, there was always an even earlier moment.

    This is the thing that Aquinas thought impossible to rule in or out from philosophy alone (without revelation).

  20. @ Doctor Logic

    ---First, Dawkins's God Delusion is more philosophically rigorous than every sermon given in every church around the world. In other words, it's not very rigorous. Why? Because it's not intended to be a philosophical tract. It's popular literature.---

    This is a completely illogical and irrational argument.

    How can something be 'more philosophically rigorous' just because 'it;s not very rigorous' or is 'popular literature'

    Also church sermons are not philosophy lessons either.

    ---Moreover, Dawkins advocates an academically honest approach to inquiry, whereas religions aim to amplify bias to the maximum possible degree.---

    Dawkins says one thing and does anotther, meaning that is interpratation of 'academic honesty' is very shady indeed.

    He speaks of 'academic honesty' and he's the first to be dishonest using begotry and prejudice (not to mention the gazillion of errors) instead of knowledge and logic.

    Clearly Dawkins recognizes only his OWN VIEW as valid (one can clearlyunderstand that from the intrduction of his book) and that is not 'accademicly honest' at all.

    It appears that rather than 'truth' and 'honesty' Dawkins is more focused on forcing his views.

    ---It's a quaint medieval backwater that exists only so long as its adherents pretend that linguistic and ordinary language philosophy (or indeed, most philosophical work over the last 500 years) never really existed.---

    Main stream does not implicitly mean right.

    Also the position of Feser hardly ignores modern philospphy.

    Rather I'd say that people like you and many other philosophers, professional or other wise, focus only on modern philosophy, assimilating mostry its fallacies and ignoring all the background that is actually needed to understand modern philosophy in the first place.

    Indeed it;s easy to dismiss good arguments with terms like 'quaint medieval backwater' just because one is unable to understand of answer them properly...

    That is not how philosophy and logic works, or should work, however.

  21. "First, Dawkins's God Delusion is more philosophically rigorous than every sermon given in every church around the world."

    Really, Dr. Illogic? Have you been to every sermon in every church around the world? Would you mind explaining to us how that is even possible? How many sermons have you attended this week?

    "In other words, it's not very rigorous. Why? Because it's not intended to be a philosophical tract. It's popular literature."

    So a book claiming that the main thrust of evolution is that one day a monkey gave birth to a human is excused from standards of honesty simply because it's "popular literature"?

    "Moreover, Dawkins advocates an academically honest approach to inquiry,"

    Oh dear. "Academically honest"? Richard Dawkins? Really? Since when has Richard Dawkins been "academically honest" at anything outside of his own field, especially Christianity in general and theistic arguments in particular?

    "whereas religions aim to amplify bias to the maximum possible degree."

    Which religions? What do you mean by "amplifying bias"? Is that not exactly what Richard Dawkins and the rest of the childish New Atheist types have done over the past few years?