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Mar 02

On Framing an Opponent’s Argument

It is generally considered good practice to frame your opponent’s argument in the best possible light–to try and explain it charitably and discuss your own assumptions in addressing it. The practice is a good one for more than just the sake of manners. It helps your audience to evaluate the arguments more objectively and enables them to better spot flaws. And, if he or she is open and honest, it will do the same for the writer of the rebuttal. We all stray from this at times, but one oft repeated argument continues to catch my attention. It is the quick dismissal of atheism by apologists as a hopeless sort of worldview. Here is a recent example from a Christian website:

Atheism posits that we are accidents of evolution, with no transcendent or lasting purpose. The universe just happens to exist and we just happen to be the unintended byproduct of a string of events which were set in motion randomly untold billions of years ago. We pass our brief moments in the sun, and in the end, we simply return to dust. The quality of the lives we lived, and our desire to continue thinking and growing and being count for nothing. There is no ultimate arbiter of right and wrong, neither punishment for evil deeds nor rewards for the good that was done. It’s hard to view this worldview as anything but futile and barren.

Now, hopefully the tactics at work here are obvious enough that I don’t have to completely deconstruct it. It suffers from straw men, ambiguity, and loads of assumptions, among other issues. Yet, just like that, atheism is dismissed as a viable worldview. It’s dismissed by one short paragraph that both fails to engage with a proper treatment of atheism and fails to establish any reasons for falsifying atheism. It’s simply trying to motivate action based on what the author hopes the reader will find distasteful.

These are the tactics that lead to the depressing results of studies, like those that show believers distrust atheists as much as rapists. This is not the making of a civil discussion. If apologists want to be viewed as anything more than a joke among philosophical communities, then perhaps they should start fixing a few of their tactics. They can begin with working to understand an opponent’s argument and to frame it in the strongest light. If you have an actual counterargument, it should be able to work against such a charitable framing.

Or you can continue on the current path, which, as far as I can tell, has no regard for the damage being done in the court of public opinion and the much wider effects that result from such opinion.

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13 comments

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  1. Lee

    It seems to me that there isn’t anything at all wrong with that paragraph. The author is talking about “ultimate” purpose, “transcendent” meaning, etc.. The closing sentence, decrying the atheistic worldview as “futile and barren” speaks in that context. As an atheist, I don’t see anything factually wrong with what is there written, no assumptions which run against my view of the matter, insofar as this applies in context. I just don’t view meaning and purpose as exclusively “ultimate” or “transcendent”, and thus fill my worldview with finite and temporal meaning and purpose.

    I agree that the studies you cite are a function of the false assumption that no “ultimate” or “transcendent” meaning and purpose entails no meaning and purpose at all, but that assumption is not made in the paragraph. The assumption is made by the believer who reads it and makes a further conclusion to that effect.

  2. Matt DeStefano

    This gets to your overall point, and Lee’s inability to see anything “wrong” with the paragraph:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?list=PL5C6AC262F765A152&feature=player_detailpage&v=yG0J8hncTbk#t=271s

    I think atheists are much too quick to assent to this type of worldview, and I think you are right to call out apologists for perpetrating it.

  3. Paul So

    @Lee

    As Matt DeStefano points out to you, there are many atheist like you who do assent to the existential-nihilist world-view that our existence arises from random chance and our existence has no purpose. However, there are also many other atheists who do not assent to this world-view at all. However, for your sake I will break down the paragraph for you:

    “Atheism posits that we are accidents of evolution, with no transcendent or lasting purpose.”

    Note here that the apologist assumes that Atheism requires you to believe that we are “accidents” of evolution with no purpose whatsoever. This is a flawed assumption because Atheism does not require a belief in evolution or nihilism, it only requires that any person either rejects the existence of God (positive) or lacks the belief in God (negative). Also his use of the term “accidental” is misleading: We are not “accidents” of evolution, we are a BYPRODUCT of evolution through mechanism natural selection and speciation; the only thing that’s random about Evolution is the mutation or traits we get, but as to what is being selected in a given environment is not random strictly speaking.

    ” The universe just happens to exist and we just happen to be the unintended byproduct of a string of events which were set in motion randomly untold billions of years ago.”

    Here, Atheism does not require a cosmology like Theism does, all Atheism requires to do is reject Theism’s cosmogony that God created the Universe in a teleological-like fashion. One can be an Atheist, and believe that the existence of the Universe is not merely random but rather explained by M-Theory (though this theory is a long way from being tested). One can be an Atheist in respects to God but be agnostic about the nature of the origins of the Universe. Also, the “string of events” are not set in motion randomly, they were set in motions in accordance to the laws of Nature understood by Physics, so they are not “random”; stars exist because there was enough density that can convert potential graviational energy to kinetic energy to create a proto-star wit ha fusion, and eventually a star.

    ” The quality of the lives we lived, and our desire to continue thinking and growing and being count for nothing”

    This is not only a straw-man fallacy, but a unfair distortion of Atheism. For theist, to reject the existence of God entails nihilism in which all activities of life is meaningless or “counts for nothing”. An Atheist can reject the existence of God but also disagree with the Theist what this rejection entails. An Atheist can argue that for anything to count for something is not totally dependent on the existence of God but dependent on self-conscious sentient beings with the natural predisposition to value anything in it’s existence. In other words, what makes us human is that we consciously value something which is why we have culture.

    “There is no ultimate arbiter of right and wrong, neither punishment for evil deeds nor rewards for the good that was done.”

    This assumes that without God there is not “Right” or “Wrong”, and that human beings require positive and negative reinforcement to do “right” and “wrong”. As an Atheist, I strongly disagree with this, and it is unfair that apologists impose their definition of atheism unto us without allowing us to define our position. An Atheist can disagree that rejecting the existence of God will entail rejecting the conceptual and pragmatic possibility for morality; in other words, rejecting the existence of God does not have to entail nihilism. I find this to be so surprising because we have atheists like Peter Singer, Noam Chomsky, John Stuart Mill, and other atheist thinkers who have a strong moral compass. We have ethical theories that do not presuppose the existence of God but rather coherently moral theory. I personally think that to believe that we need an external authority that punishes or rewards in order to reinforce behavior is to have a very naive and false view on Human Nature; we do not need punishment and reward to be moral, we need to recognize the needs and interest of like-minded self-conscious sentient beings like us in order inform ourselves how we ought to treat them if we want to avoid harming them.

    “It’s hard to view this worldview as anything but futile and barren.”

    Since I showed that Atheism does not have to amount to anything that was asserted previously, the conclusion is invalid, it does not follow. Since the previous premises are shown to be possibly refuted, the conclusion does not have to follow. Life can be meaningful and worth sustaining for us self-conscious and sentient creatures; there does not require God, all it requires is our innate predisposition to value our own self-preservation as well as the preservation of other people, and given that we have a fairly altruistic nature bequeathed to us by our common ancestor through natural selection, we do not have to freak out that we are incapable of being moral without God.

  4. Paul So

    @ Matt DeStefano

    I think many atheist who are quick to agree with this are usually (though not always) the ones who have unintentionally accepted the Theistic assumption that life without God is nihilistic and meaningless, mostly because they were raised theists themselves. However, I think plenty of Atheist grow out of this phase to find out that life can be meaningful without God.

  5. Mike

    Lee, here is another way to look at the problem. The author isn’t explaining WHY you don’t see anything wrong with it. As stated, it is deceptive and meant to cast atheism in a purposefully negative light. That much is obvious by the conclusion alone.

    We can argue against that conclusion and the assumptions about what value is and how it’s derived, but it’s going to be more charitably received if explained by the apologists, ministers, etc. Once the average Joe theist has this mindset, he’s not going to be keen on listening to our reply and giving it a fair shake. I think the psychology on how that works is fairly clear.

    If they could at least sometimes try and present this sort of thing in a balanced way, it could go a long way from a PR perspective. But they seldom do in popular forums. You could see also just about any work by Norm Geisler, Frank Turek, Ravi Zacharias, et al.

  6. Mike

    By the way, Matt, I love that debate with Shelly Kagan. He did as good of a job against Craig as I’ve seen.

  7. Lee

    Purpose and meaning, for the theist, rest in the ‘ultimate’ or ‘transcendent’, as evidenced by the paragraph quoted. Insofar as that makes sense to them, and the idea that finite and temporal purpose or meaning is incoherent, I fail to see how the author did anything wrong.

    “I think atheists are much too quick to assent to this type of worldview, and I think you are right to call out apologists for perpetrating it.”

    The question is whether that paragraph unfairly misrepresents how an atheist views ultimate/transcendent purpose or meaning, because that was the context. I just don’t see how it does. Do you think there is an ultimate meaning or transcendental purpose to human existence?

    “Note here that the apologist assumes that Atheism requires you to believe that we are “accidents” of evolution with no purpose whatsoever.”

    Actually, he says “no transcendent or lasting purpose.” I agree with him, and what “the apologist assumes” beyond that is your assumption. I cannot, nor can you, speak to his unpublished intent, only his written words.

    “The universe just happens to exist and we just happen to be the unintended byproduct of a string of events which were set in motion randomly untold billions of years ago.”

    Close enough, in my view. Whether it was “random” in the purest sense of the term is frankly only of relevance to the theist. He speaks to your natural law points, in saying “byproduct of a string of events”. The string is not random, only the “set in motion” bit. Whether or not that was random is barely meaningful enough to even consider quibbling over, in my opinion.

    ”The quality of the lives we lived, and our desire to continue thinking and growing and being count for nothing”

    [read]: They count for nothing ultimately, they achieve no “transcendent or lasting purpose”. Of course, I agree, and so does Professor Kagan. That I or you or Prof. Kagan view purpose differently is not the question. It is not a strawman, if read in context; he isn’t saying anything an atheist can’t readily agree with in context.

    “There is no ultimate arbiter of right and wrong, neither punishment for evil deeds nor rewards for the good that was done.”

    Here, again, he is speaking about “ultimate” [insert condition]. Here again, I agree! We are responsible only to ourselves, and to each other. This does not make the further claim that there is, ipso facto, no right and wrong, only no “ultimate arbiter” of same. The problem here is not the author’s language, it is the reasoning skills of his readers (as I pointed out in my comment).

    “It’s hard to view this worldview as anything but futile and barren.”

    He is right, here, that for a theist like himself, it is hard to view the “worldview” of atheism “as anything but futile and barren”. This is not a problem for atheism, not even close. I find it hard to view the “worldview” of theism as little more than a fairy tale of metaphysical speculation and/or mental masturbation. That doesn’t entail that it is, in fact, a fairy tale and all the rest, nor should my statement be construed as anything more than my opinion.

    I must admit I feel strange, defending the dirty rotten theist, but I really enjoy playing devil’s advocate with you, Mike. I hope this most recent comment makes my position on the matter a little more clear, without making me out to be the devil himself!

    Lee.

  8. Mike

    I’ll just make two quick points b/c I’m on my phone.

    First, I’d say that you can state a technically correct thing in an uncharitable and misleading way. Let’s say I just turned 18 and my girlfriend of two years is a few months younger. And let’s also say we have sex but in whatever state we’re in it’s considered statutory rape. Are you getting the right picture of me if someone tells you I’m a convicted rapist?

    Second, even if you say the other quotes aren’t that bad, I still find this quote particularly problematic:

    “The quality of the lives we lived, and our desire to continue thinking and growing and being count for nothing.”

    And no worries about disagreeing!

  9. Lee

    I fail to see how the paragraph in question is the equivalent of calling your relationship the act of a convicted rapist(did her parents press charges? did she?). I have given my best shot at showing what I think are the mitigating circumstances, and pointed out why I think the theists statement is innocuous. Aside from reissuing your position, I’m having a hard time finding substance in your most recent response (hence the delay). I had hoped you would come back after the phone call and show me where my analysis went wrong. Consider this a gentle, well-meaning nudge 🙂 If you haven’t the time, no worries!

    Lee

  10. Mike

    Lee,

    The equivalence is not between the specifics, but between the relationship that in this case does not exist between something being factually correct and it being uncharitable or misleading. I used an example that I thought would show this most clearly. The details of the example aren’t the analgous point; the lack of necessary connection is the intended analgous point. Even if he is saying something you think is correct, his intention is to put us in an unfavorable light. I think that much is clear.

    Ask yourself whether you would make any changes, alterations, additions, to what he said if you were to describe your own view. If you would make many, then I wonder how you can defend the phrasing as properly framing the opponent’s argument. I know I would make substantial changes to at least provide explanation about soem concepts surrounding meaning.

    That being said, I don’t expect every Christian to always state a full case for atheism as well as an atheist. That would be unreasonable. I know I don’t always do it for theists, but I also spend a reasonable amount of time discussing the theist position, objections, etc. My complaint was not that here is one guy who is doing something terrible. As I said, that was just one recent example that made me think of the problem. Rather, my concern was that this seems to never happen among popular forums for Christians – I’m thinking of popular apologists like the ones I named above. Try reading Geisler’s quick dismissal of atheism in his book If God, Why Evil?, for example. It’s absurd, but it gives people this unwarranted negative impression of us that atheism is hopeless and we should all just kill ourselves if it’s true, which I am hypothesizing leads to the trends of distrust and dislike we see in polling data.

    So, my concern isn’t this one apologist with a website, so much as the fact that this sort of intentionally negative characterization fits into a trend that is damaging. Whatever you think of the factual correctness of his statements, we should all be able to easily agree his goal was to place us in a position he knew his main readers would view as very negative.

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