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.