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The Sly Way to Commit a Straw Man Fallacy

Discussion in 'Philosophy' started by Sunstone, Dec 6, 2018 at 9:01 AM.

  1. Sunstone

    Sunstone De Diablo Del Fora
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    At the last party I was invited to -- back in 1982 -- I confess my feelings were a bit hurt when I overheard another one of the guests refer to me as "seriously boring". A man just should not have to hear that sort of talk at his own wedding -- and especially in a speech by his best man.

    The shame was so great that for decades I have put on a false front by pretending to the world that I am not actually fascinated by tedious, detailed discussions of such boring topics as whether or not it is possible to create a calculus for determining once and for all exactly how many chickens can cross the road in a single joke.

    But today...today I have decided to rise up! I have decided to liberate myself from my shame! I have decided...well, I have decided to found a radical new movement, #boringlivesmatter, by publicly discussing in this very thread the extremely fascinating question of how a dictionary might be used to bolster a straw man fallacy!

    You have been warned. Yet, as you might expect, the revolution will not be televised.

    The Issue at Hand

    I recently came across a case in which a dictionary was used to give weight to a straw man argument. It occurred to me that I'd seen that sort of thing before. So naturally, I got all excited and decided to start a thread on the topic in order entertain everyone.

    What follows is not the actual argument. Rather, it is an argument that is logically equivalent to the real argument.

    FIRST PERSON: Let us begin by defining "god" as "whatever you worship". If we first define god that way, then if we worship money, money is our god."

    SECOND PERSON: But the dictionary defines "god" as "a supreme being". Money is not a being, and thus money cannot be a god".​

    So what makes the second person's argument a straw man? Well, as you know, a straw man fallacy has this form:

    Someone argues X.

    Someone else argues against Y while claiming they are arguing against X. When they defeat Y, they claim they have defeated X.​

    The "god argument" above seems to me to be a pretty clear-cut case of a straw man. By redefining "god", the second person has introduced what amounts to a whole new argument. They then go on to defeat the new argument while claiming to thus defeat the original argument.

    But the straw man here has got a devilish twist to it. That is, it tosses in an alleged justification for the fallacy. Namely, that the straw man is justified by the fact the dictionary defines "god" differently than "god" is defined in the original argument. Fiendish, I tell you. Perfectly fiendish!

    In effect, the perpetrator of the straw man (who we shall henceforth call by the nonprejudicial title of "the Perp") is arguing that the only permissible definition of "god" is the dictionary's definition.

    To me, the Perp's argument seems bogus. Very, very bogus. After all, what law of humans or nature makes a dictionary's definition of a term the only permissible definition?

    The Big, Fat Question.

    So here's what I've been thinking about: Are there any cases -- any cases at all -- in which there are rational grounds for asserting that there is only one permissible definition of a word or term?

    Can we ever argue that a straw man is justified by claiming that one particular definition of a word or term is the only correct or proper one?

    Gods! But this is exciting! I can't wait until y'all wake up now and tell me what you think!
     
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  2. ImmortalFlame

    ImmortalFlame Well-Known Member

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    I would call this an "argument by definition", but I'm sure there probably is already a name for it. It isn't technically a straw man (since it isn't really contesting the argument itself but the definition provided by the argument), but I can see how it essentially deals with a presumably agreed upon definition rather than the actual argument put forward itself. A better response would simply be to question the necessity of defining God in such a way and if such a way is meaningful (since the opening argument essentially amounts to saying "If we define X as Y, then we can say Y is X", which is kind of a vacuous argument).
     
  3. WalterTrull

    WalterTrull Godfella

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    Nope
     
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  4. Audie

    Audie Well-Known Member

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    How then should one phrase an objection to
    fanciful, self- serving definitions?

    Alice did not like the way H.D. held that when HE
    used a word, it meant whatever he said it means.
     
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  5. Terese

    Terese Mangalam Pundarikakshah
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    Very fiendish indeed! Thank you for giving an example of a strawman argument and explaining why it is considered so. I don't think i would have noticed the Second Person's argument against First Person a strawman by defeating the whole new argument then going back to the First Peron's argument. While the rationale of the Second Person does seem a bit wonky, i would not have known why. Now i do! Thanks Uncle Sunstone! :D
     
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  6. Polymath257

    Polymath257 Think & Care
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    The corresponding question is whether it can be acceptable to use (in an argument) a personal definition for a concept that already has a well-accepted definition. At best, this leads to miscommunication and confusion. At worst, it is committing another sort of fallacy: shifting the goalposts.

    In the OP, the first person uses a peculiar definition of 'god' which leads to shifting the goalposts in proving a god exists. The second person reminds the first of the standard definition and insists that that be used instead.

    I'm reminded of a story about Abraham Lincoln. He supposedly posed the question "How many legs does a dog have if you call a tail a leg?". His answer: four-calling a tail a leg doesn't make it a leg.

    /E: yes, I know Lincoln never actually said this.
     
    #6 Polymath257, Dec 6, 2018 at 9:53 AM
    Last edited: Dec 6, 2018 at 10:04 AM
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  7. Audie

    Audie Well-Known Member

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    Hey! He is MY Uncle!!

    I don't share!
     
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  8. Terese

    Terese Mangalam Pundarikakshah
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    But sharing is caring! :D
     
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  9. Axe Elf

    Axe Elf Prophet

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    This is indeed a straw man argument. The first person's argument is both valid and sound. If we define god as "whatever you worship," then if you worship money, money is your god. But this is akin to saying, "If we define a house as a four-footed furry mammal, then if I have a foor-footed furry mammal as a pet, I have a house for a pet. In other words, the argument in and of itself is valid and sound--but it's essentially meaningless because it relies on an incorrectly and uncommonly defined usage of the word "house."

    The second person went astray (and created a strawman argument) when they attempted to argue against the first person's conclusion, rather than arguing against their premise of re-defining a word to mean whatever they wanted it to mean.

    Exactly. Anytime an argument rests upon the premise that words can mean whatever you want them to mean, it's a losing argument--because if true, it immediately renders ANY use of words meaningless.
     
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  10. Revoltingest

    Revoltingest Ignorant Heathen Libertarian Capitalist
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    All you need to do is object.
    Discussion needn't be a debate with rules.
    In an ordinary conversation, one may take issue with an aspect of a claim made.
    And argumentum ad absurdum is a useful device (ie, loads of fun).
     
  11. Axe Elf

    Axe Elf Prophet

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    I'd never heard that before, but I like it--even if Lincoln didn't say it!
     
  12. Audie

    Audie Well-Known Member

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    I was hoping for something Byzantine, but plain old Latin will do.
     
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  13. It Aint Necessarily So

    It Aint Necessarily So Well-Known Member
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    You can try to control the way others use language, but you won't succeed. People are free to coin new words and new uses for old words if they like. If they care to be understood unambiguously, they only need define the word as they are meaning it.

    But to answer your question, no, futile or not, there is no rational reason to insist on a single, prescribed definition for a word. Language does and should adapt to its user's needs.

    Why not, as long as one is clear about what he means? Many do this with the word atheist, which has long been defined as the active denial of the existence of gods, a definition many find suboptimal. They prefer the more recent definition of atheists as all those lacking a god belief. Why shouldn't people revise nomenclature when they believe that they have a good reason to do so? The definition of planet was recently revised to reflect a different viewpoint on what should be called a planet. There is no reason to object.
     
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  14. Revoltingest

    Revoltingest Ignorant Heathen Libertarian Capitalist
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    I think the broader definition is more historically correct.
    Consider....
    Atheism - Wikipedia
    And...
     
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  15. Willamena

    Willamena Just me
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    That's more a coming to terms than an actual argument.
     
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  16. YmirGF

    YmirGF Bodhisattva
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    I'm more with you on this one. Who said the first definition is the only definition? It sounded to me like they were, quite reasonably, still haggling on the details.
     
  17. sun rise

    sun rise "Love pours forth from the heart of the universe."
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    So you cleverly redefined the meaning of the word "entertain" by asserting indirectly that philosophy is entertaining because of where you put this thread and your introduction to the subject at hand. But what about those who feel that philosophy and logic are not entertaining by definition but always serious issues? And, of course, I'm not "everyone".

    Actually I'm only 50% serious with that assertion but that door was wide open and the devil made me walk through it, depending on your definition of "devil", of course.
     
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  18. LuisDantas

    LuisDantas Aura of atheification
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    It seems to me that one way of dealing with that would be by pointing out that, if the definitions are not significantly compatible, then there is not a lot of significance in the argument.
     
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  19. Polymath257

    Polymath257 Think & Care
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    Yes, terminology can change over time. In particular, we now allow groups of people to define themselves rather than having others define them. Well, more often than before.

    In the case of planets, there was a fairly large scientific meeting to discuss the change in definition with debates concerning the relative *research* merits for different possibilities. This is more about standardization of definitions than anything else: precisely to avoid the issue raised in the OP.
     
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  20. Sunstone

    Sunstone De Diablo Del Fora
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    Great question! I'm glad you raised that.

    Lewis Carroll was such a good writer, but I don't think he knew much about semantics. I believe if you take a very careful look at Alice's exchange with Humpty-Dumpty you will notice Carroll's position is in at least one key way indefensible.

    That is, he seems to be implying that words have some sort of "proper" or "correct" meaning, and that anyone who defines a word or term in a new or different way is in violation of some law or rule of correctness. If Carroll were right, the history of any living language would be of one crime after another. The meanings of words change all the time.

    But I think Carroll does have a point. Communication requires that people make their meanings clear enough to get their point across. You can do that in various ways including by explicitly defining any terms you are using in unusual or uncommon ways.

    Having said all that, I would like to return to the OP for a moment -- and to the topic of using terms in the context of a logical argument. It seems to me that, when we are arguing against someone else's position, we have some sort of obligation to use their definitions of key terms unless we can show cause not to.

    I think we are logically obligated to follow someone else's definition when not following it would render our arguments for or against their position irrelevant to their position.

    For instance, suppose you define "god" as "whatever one worships", and then argue that "If one worships money, money is one's god". In that case, your definition of "god" is so key to your argument, that for me to redefine the term -- rather than follow your usage -- would almost surely result in my creating a new, very different argument, and anything I said for or against that new argument would very likely be logically irrelevant to your original argument.

    Again, if someone uses a dictionary definition for a word as a key term in their argument, for someone else to insist on a different definition for that key term would most likely render anything they said about the argument itself logically irrelevant. ​

    To me, the principle that we should follow someone else's usage when changing the usage would render what we say about their argument irrelevant pretty much sums up when we are logically obligated to follow someone else's usage.
     
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