Staw Man

“A straw man argument is an informal fallacy based on misrepresentation of an opponent’s position. To "attack a straw man" is to create the illusion of having refuted a proposition by substituting a superficially similar yet unequivalent proposition (the "straw man"), and refuting it, without ever having actually refuted the original position.”

Source: Wikipedia


Over at CommonSenseAtheism, an there is an interesting blog post called Time and the Kalam Cosmological Argument.

Predictably, somewhere down in the comments section, a theist commenter accuses atheists of engaging in scientism just because Luke, the author of the post, seemed to be leaning more towards scientific explanations pertaining to the subject he was discussing (Theories of Time). The commenter said:

Isn’t the question of the nature of time more a philosophical than a scientific question?

This unjustified assumption of scientism just bothers me… But that’s of course totally another topic.

An interesting back-and-forth on this issue ensued, leading to what I thought was an important and well articulated point made by an atheist commenter named Hermes. He said:

Anyone who denies scientific answers just because they are from the sciences has discarded reality in favor of a preconceived bias. Could the answers provided by the sciences be incomplete or incorrect? Sure. Yet, it’s nutty to argue that the sciences as a whole should be removed from a conversation where they seem to apply or provide some or most of the best results.

Labelling any mention of an answer from the sciences as ‘scientism’ is an admission that facts are inconvenient and that the alternative on offer can’t hold up to proper scrutiny. It is an appeal to hurt feelings and the promotion of ignorance. It is an admission of failure in the face of reality. If it were not the case, they’d offer facts not an emotional appeal, and they would not attack valid information because they don’t like the source or the facts themselves.  

Indeed, the term ‘scientism’ seems almost exclusively reserved for use by theists in an intentionally pejorative sense when trying to undermine arguments by their atheist opponents (in debate) that are based on science (usually when such arguments challenge or refute the theists’ claims).

The invocation of the term ‘scientism’ is common these days especially in discussions of topics where scientific inquiry has only began to scratch the surface. Examples of such areas might include consciousness, origin of life and the origin of the universe – or the nature of time, as we saw in the above example from Luke’s blog post. Occasionally even creationists use the term when dismissing evolution in face of the overwhelming scientific evidence for it.


The term scientism itself refers to..

..the idea that natural science is the most authoritative worldview or aspect of human education, and that it is superior to all other interpretations of life

I don’t know how many atheists or scientists out there today would actually boldly claim that science can answer any and all questions, or that it is superior by default to all other ways of acquiring knowledge, if that is what is implied by scientism. As far as I’m personally concerned, I take the view that science is the best and most reliable method currently available for studying the natural world. Why? Because we have been able to repeatedly demonstrate it to be the case.

But science is not to be thought as divorced from reason; it is a sub-set of it. The scientific method is a certain way of applying reason; it’s commonly described as the organized, systematic, or methodical application of inductive reasoning, although other forms of reasoning may also be applied to it as well.

Typically, in a debate about consciousness or the origin of life or the universe, an atheist engaged in a debate with a theist will bring his opponent up to speed with with new scientific developments in those areas pointing to a possible, and above all, plausible natural explanation. Given that many of these areas have only recently become accessible to scientific inquiry, there will, obviously, still be certain unanswered questions – at which point the atheist might say something like…

‘Well that’s as far as we know currently through science – but let’s wait and see what we might come to understand after more research is done in that area. There are currently a number of plausible hypotheses that merit further investigation. That said, positing the supernatural explains nothing, and in doing so you are merely making a fallacious argument from ignorance/incredulity. Supernaturalist hypotheses are not testable or falsifiable in principle, so they can’t even get off the ground as explanations for anything.’

In response to this, the theist screams…


…and he sits back thinking this somehow lets him off the hook.

Now, it could be the case that there are some mysteries about nature that science might never provide answers to – but this doesn’t change the fact that we are still justified in waiting to see how far science might take us (given its success rate as a method of inquiry about the natural world). Until a demonstrably better method of inquiry of the natural world is presented, where mysteries remain, the most we can do is to admit we don’t know, suspend judgement on that issue and keep investigating using the best method currently available – i.e. science – and see what new things we might come to learn with time. This is the attitude that has kept scientific progress alive.

The theist who insists that certain questions are not within the scope of the natural world (and therefore inaccessible to scientific inquiry) – but instead lie in the realm of the ‘supernatural’– bears the burden of proof to demonstrate that the ‘supernatural’ realm exists. Without demonstrating first that there is a realm of existence known as the supernatural, the theist is unjustified in consigning existing mysteries to it and declaring them out of bounds for science.

Unfortunately for them, most of their attempts to argue for the existence of the supernatural boil down arguments from ignorance/incredulity. The typical way out of this, is for the theist to frame the debate in such a way that is easier to manipulate – and that is what they tend to do,  as we can see from this example:

It’s always the same pattern. The theist starts by mischaracterising the atheists’ confidence in science as the most reliable method of studying of the natural world – as a religious position. He will emphasise this point by insisting (falsely) the atheist ‘dogmatically’ holds the view that science can answer any and all questions. The debate is then framed as a clash of religious views, at which point the atheist advocating a scientific approach to investigating the mystery in question (which he feels is well within the scope of science to investigate) is dismissed as a dogmatic fundamentalist of his religion – the giant straw man called ‘scientism’.

As philosopher Daniel Dennett notes in the above video, the invocation of the pejorative term ‘scientism’ is nothing more than a theist’s ploy to derail the debate, once scientific views expressed by the atheist during that debate start to undermine some of the theist’s cherished claims.

Theistic Scientism?


Hmm… mechanical fault, or DEMONS?

One has to wonder though – would the believer be guilty of scientism if he assumed that when his car broke down for unknown reasons it was because of a mechanical fault? Would it be scientism-istic for him to hold the provisional view, while waiting for the tow-truck or mechanic, that the cause of his car breaking down was mechanical, rather than supernatural?

In a supernaturalist worldview, after all, there are angels, demons, devils, and gods – any of which, could have supernaturally  caused the car to break down. Should the believer therefore call an exorcist, instead of a mechanic? If the believer is going to behave consistently in accordance with the supernaturalist worldview he holds, he would have to seriously consider the possibility that his car breaking down had a supernatural cause. Incidentally, many Evangelicals or Pentecostals would seriously consider this possibility – in fact, most in Africa would literally believe it to be the case.  This is the precisely chaos that a supernaturalist worldview entails, when applied consistently.

Ironically, the believer who – goes to hospital when sick, rather than contact a faith healer; calls an electrician, rather than pray to the gods to restore a blown fuse; or calls a mechanic when his car breaks down, rather than an exorcist to cast out demons from it – would be acting just as scientism-istically as the atheists he accuses of scientism when they defer existing mysteries about the natural world to scientific inquiry.

I mean, why do many believers (well, the sufficiently educated ones, at least) pursue scientific approaches to finding solutions ahead of supernaturalist ones when faced with everyday problems? Isn’t it due to the fact that solutions based on science tend to be actual and repeatedly demonstrable, unlike supernatural ones? This is PRECISELY why the recognition of science as the most reliable method of studying the natural world cannot be derided as a religious faith position.

This is why what blog commenter Hermes said rings true:

Anyone who denies scientific answers just because they are from the sciences has discarded reality in favor of a preconceived bias.

Science and the arts, music, literature, love, etc..

I have often been put to task by theists to justify how science can explain aspects of human experience, such as the appreciation of art, music, literature, and emotions such as love. This, of course, usually comes up after I have refuted one of their arguments on the basis of scientific evidence.

Their strategy is to force me to concede that science can’t explain those things, which is somehow supposed to (without justification) open the door for mystical explanations for such phenomena; and if mystical explanations can be invoked to explain such phenomena then why can’t I consider the mysteries I am subjecting to scientific inquiry as being mystical in origin as well? My alleged refusal to consider mystical hypotheses in favour of scientific ones is then supposed to make me guilty of a priori “scientism”, apparently making me comparable to an irrational creationist fundamentalist fanatic.

This strategy fails for the following reasons:

  • I do not claim that science is the only way to gain knowledge. It is because we have been able to repeatedly demonstrate the reliability of science in explaining what exists in nature that I tend to prefer it as a methodology for acquiring knowledge about nature. I am open to other ways of acquiring knowledge being invoked as viable methodologies for studying a whole range of things, including but not limited to the human appreciation for the arts, music, and the like. Depending on the nature of the inquiry, one only has to propose a viable methodology and demonstrate it to be reliable.
  • If the believer asserts that mystical, supernatural, spiritual, magical or whatever other methods of acquiring knowledge merit equal consideration as science, he needs to, for starters, demonstrate the reliability of such a methodology for acquiring knowledge about the natural world.
  • If they assert instead that there is a realm beyond, or other than, the natural realm (thus allegedly inaccessible to scientific inquiry), to which mysteries of nature should be deferred, then the existence of such a realm first has to be demonstrated before any claims about what may or may not be the case about reality, based on the alleged existence of such a realm, can be made. They would also need to reliably demonstrate to what extent their preferred methodology can provide any knowledge about such a realm and how that realm influences things existing in nature.

So attempting use science to investigate human emotions like love, or experiences such as appreciating for the arts and music isn’t a symptom of scientism. It is a symptom of simply trying to use the most reliable method available to explore the mystery and see what interesting things we may come to learn.

As it turns out, we have come to learn things we didn’t know before about human emotions, in recent years.

love More here.

We are only starting to scratch the surface yet we’ve uncovered so much. Who knows what we’ll learn in the next 20-50 years? 100 years? 500 years?

This is why I get annoyed when theists arbitrarily erect walls beyond which they think science has no place. What nonsense. Such attitudes stifle curiosity and imagination, without which scientific progress would be virtually impossible. Astronomer Phil Plait put it well when he said:

It’s all too easy to say "the bacterium flagellum could not have evolved," or "The Big Bang theory doesn’t explain why the Universe is homogeneous everywhere," and therefore "God did it." But it takes imagination, soaring, incredible, wonderful imagination, to look beyond the limitations of what’s currently known, and see what could possibly be… and even more imagination to make sure this venturing beyond current understanding still stays within the bound of reason and known rules of science.

You can always insert magic or belief or some supernatural power, but in the end that is a trap. Because someone else who is more imaginative than you will see the actual steps, the process reality made, and then you are left with an ever-narrowing amount of supernatural room in which to wiggle. And once that gap starts to narrow, the squeeze is inevitable. Your explanation will be forced to fill zero volume, and you’re done. Your explanation will be shown to be wrong for everyone to see, and your only recourse will be to abandon it, far too late to save your credibility.


The charge of ‘scientism’ by theists is thus a straw man, and is invoked in bad faith. Theists, without sufficient justification, like to declare certain things existing in nature to be out of bounds for scientific investigation, even when scientific investigation into those things are already underway.

They pick and choose (at their convenience) what scientific explanations are applicable to a given question – and only when a scientific explanation seems to challenge or refute their religious claims will you hear them shout “scientism”. As we have seen, they do this in order to derail the debate – not to further it by offering anything that adds to our knowledge and understanding of the natural world.

I find that highly disingenuous, and its a cop-out.

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