No True Scotsman Christian Scientist

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Joe Carter seems to have gotten a little weary of people who constantly accuse ID defenders of committing the No True Scotsman fallacy every time they try to point out a straw man argument. So he turns it against some of the ID opposition.

I do think this gets to a real inconsistency of labeling among a certain kind of ID opponent. It's the No True Scotsman fallacy when ID proponents want to call an anti-ID argument a straw man. That's supposed to stop debate about what most ID arguments actually involve and therefore allow the dysphemistic labeling the anti-ID crowd wants to use. But then it's not the No True Scotsman fallacy when someone offers a parochial and positivistic account of what can fall under the heading of scientific reasoning, tailor-made to rule out anything remotely like ID.

It's noteworthy that such definitions also rule out any other kinds of scientific reasoning that only logical positivism would count as not science (because it's metaphysics, a dirty word for positivists) but most scientists would easily call science. See here and here for more on that. I think that's an inconsistency in science about what counts as scientific reasoning. But the more poignant issue here is that those who insist that there's no true Christianity becaue of different conceptions of Christianity and no true intelligent design argument because there are different versions of ID will then insist that there are those who occupy the scientific profession but aren't true scientists. That's an inconsistency on the popular level of those who criticize ID proponents' defenses for doing something they themselves regularly do. That hadn't occurred to me until I read Joe's post, but I think he's right.

What we really need is a distinction between the No True Scotsman fallacy and a genuine straw man argument. The No True Scotsman fallacy is when someone defends the entirety of a group by excluding one thing or person from that group, someone or something that is part of the group on some reasonable conception of what the group consists of. It might turn out that some ID arguments are awful but others are much better. I happen to think that's the case. I shouldn't pretend that all the ID arguments are good and thus dismiss the others as not ID. That would be the No True Scotsman fallacy. But at the same time, someone can be misrepresented. I don't endorse most ID arguments. Most ID proponents don't endorse all ID arguments. Misrepresenting tham as claiming something they don't claim is very bad, I would say evil if it's deliberate or deliberately ignorant. Yet it regularly happens among ID opponents.

What's worse is that they defend their actions by claiming that anyone pointing out the unfairness of their behavior is committing the No True Scotsman fallacy. That would only work if their complaint were minor. It would only work if their conclusion were that some ID arguments have the feature they are claiming to apply to all. But they aren't usually talking in such limited scope. They are often claiming that certain arguments require things that they don't require. They're often claiming that certain figures require something that they happen to believe but don't require of someone else accepting the argument. They're often motivated by something that doesn't figure into the argument or the conclusion of the argument, and somehow that motivation is supposed to change what the conclusion says into something much more than the conclusion, or the motivation is supposed to change the argument into something that the argument doesn't involve.

These are all highly fallacious moves, philosophically. Pointing them out is usually a good thing, because it helps someone increase the strength of their arguments by forcing them to target only the arguments and conclusions that do have the features in question and not the ones that don't. But then they can't make such sweeping claims, so following the reasoning where it leads just isn't an option. They have to tar anyone even associated with it, even if the argument that person accepts and the conclusion that person thinks the argument supports don't have the feature the opponent claims it to have. So the ID supporter will notice this and call it a straw man, which in many cases is just an accurate claim. To avoid having to engage in the argument in the ways I've just delineated, one common strategy is just to introduce the No True Scotsman fallacy when it's not really what's going on. I've seen this happen in several discussions recently. So I find it truly ironic that Joe has discovered that the same sort of people who rely on this kind of sophistry turn out to commit the No True Scotsman Fallacy themselves with respect to another issue.

2 Comments

I know, sort of a tangent: would you have to establish what ID definitively is before saying something like "No true ID proponent would X" to be a proper argument? Just trying to wrap my mind around it (although, I must say, Christians do that whole 'No Scotsman' bit often enough to each other).

I think what you're expressing is exactly the problem. You could define what you mean by ID and then say that ID as you have defined it doesn't have the problem being raised against certain arguments. But then you're pretending something isn't an ID argument that many would consider an ID argument.

For what it's worth, I do think it should be pretty clear what counts as an ID argument: any argument that observes something and then infers that the best explanation for the data in question would be an intelligent, purpose-driven mind. Some ID arguments are absolutely terrible, because they begin with data that can easily be explained by natural causes that are unguided. Stronger arguments would involve something that seems really, really unlikely unless the natural forces are being guided by something with an intention to lead to the result in question, and no available explanation would explain why we shouldn't be surprised by such an unlikely occurence.

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