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Sometimes The Man Is Confused, If Straw

Feb 16, 2009

If, while engaged in a debate, you have not taken the proper care to apprehend the full meaning of your adversary's arguments, and you consequently misrepresent their position, then you shall suffer by your unfortunate circumstance. If however you found yourself unable to defeat your opponent, and you perceived a way to misrepresent your adversary's arguments in order to weaken their position, perhaps through a slight alteration of context or a distortion of facts, and you undertook such a project of deception, then you would have committed the logical fallacy of attacking a "straw man." This fallacy occurs in the case that "you misrepresent someone else's position so that it can be attacked more easily, knock down that misrepresented position, then conclude that the original position has been demolished. It's a fallacy because it fails to deal with the actual arguments that have been made." The error of misapprehending your adversary's arguments hinges on committing an unconscious mistake, while undertaking the attack of a straw man is a conscious rhetorical move.

Allegations involving the rhetorical straw man often make their way into political and philosophical analysis, however in my experience it seems that willful deceit may not be as common as the problem of unconscious misunderstanding. In leveling accusations of the straw man, many a challenger has overlooked the possibility that their opponent is not undertaking a duplicitous pretense, but has instead innocently misunderstood the challenger's line of reasoning. Perhaps in the heat of the moment the opponent has been somewhat hasty and run roughshod over the challenger's argumentation, or perhaps there is some mismatch between the challenger's ability to express their ideas and the opponent's ability to comprehend them. In the case that a challenger has accused their opponent of fabricating a straw man when the opponent has actually misunderstood the challenger's argument, the challenger's allegation places the challenger themselves in a dubious position. Either the challenger has misunderstood that their opponent has misunderstood the argument, or worse, the challenger knows their opponent has misunderstood the argument and is falsely accusing them of erecting a straw man, in which case the challenger themselves is guilty of erecting a straw man in the hopes of degrading their opponent.

Furthermore, in the case that the opponent has misunderstood the argument, it may be because the opponent is unable to understand the argument. This does not necessarily indicate that the challenger's intellect is superior, but may instead indicate that the challenger and opponent have vastly differing systems of belief. The interconnections between beliefs are complex, and are not simple or linear relations of justification. An identical collection of experiences and empirical evidence can lead to multiple systems of belief that are equally coherent, and these multiple systems may contain many points of contention when compared with each other. Accordingly, a challenger must undertake every effort to ensure their opponent has not misunderstood their argument prior to charging their opponent with running afoul of a straw man. Misunderstanding is a real alternative to misrepresentation.

In any case, the ambition of the challenger and opponent should be to understand each other, and in order to understand each other it may be that the challenger and opponent need to discuss far more than the issue at hand, so as to locate a shared set of beliefs for use as a starting point.

Nature requires us to survive, but she is only indulging us in granting the ability of intellectual speculation; "It is not clear that intelligence has any long-term survival value." Our perceptions and neurology permit the construction of internal representations of reality that allow for an endless number of permutations that are logically consistent at the higher levels of conceptualization; that is: we can all agree that food and water are necessary to survival, but we argue about the rest.

The issue at hand then is one of intention: if the goal is to win an argument, then brute animality wins the day and human intelligence is moot. If however the goal is to penetrate reality, then searching for robust explanations supercedes highlighting points of differentiation.

Part of the series: Cerularius