Atheist fallacy #4: Straw man fallacy

Posted on August 6, 2019 By

straw man fallacy

Refuting a distorted or misrepresented version of someone’s logical argument is usually much easier than responding to that person’s actual argument. And considering that we live in a culture which places such importance upon convenience, it is not surprising that this logical fallacy, known as a straw man fallacy, is so prevalent in atheist argumentation. A post from SoftSchools.com notes that the straw man fallacy is:

“A fallacy is an argument or belief based on erroneous reasoning. Straw man is one type of logical fallacy. Straw man occurs when someone argues that a person holds a view that is actually not what the other person believes. Instead, it is a distorted version of what the person believes. So, instead of attacking the person’s actual statement or belief, it is the distorted version that is attacked.”

Considering that the straw man fallacy is so prevalent in atheist arguments, it is very important for truth-seekers to recognize it. Indeed, the amount of time and energy which online atheist apologists commit to refuting arguments which likely no Christian has ever made is astonishing. One of the most prevalent arguments which has been repeatedly whipped to shreds by atheist apologists, but which likely no Christian has ever actually made, is as follows:

“Since science has not yet explained certain things, we should just give up and say ‘God did it,’ instead of waiting for science to eventually explain.”

A simple way to recognize that likely no Christian has ever made such an argument, is to realize that most Christians at least tacitly understand that science has never ever explained anything. Put another way, a Christian making such an argument would first need to think that science alone is capable of producing explanations. But, in reality, perhaps all Christians understand that only the application of human reason to scientific observations and experimentation can provide explanations.

Science, alone, can produce no ultimate explanations

Indeed, a person who receives an explanation from bare science should be just as concerned for his mental health as a person who receives an explanation from the walls of his house. DO NOT BE DECEIVED!…science cannot provide explanations, only people can. Questions such as whether or not life was created by an intelligence lie beyond or after science, and are therefore meta-scientific (meta is the Greek word for beyond or after), or ontological (ontology is the branch of philosophy which concerns the nature of being). Roy A. Varghese brilliantly elaborates on this crucial point in The Wonder of the World:

If we ask what are the laws that govern the universe, we are asking a scientific question. If we ask why does a structure of laws exist, we are asking an ontological question. The data of science can, of course, serve as the starting point for ontological study but that study will require ontological and not scientific tools.

Now certain scientists might respond that they’re only interested in cold hard facts, not so-called meta-scientific or ontological ones. But it’s easy to show that even the most hard-headed experimentalist can’t get away from the ontological realm even for an instant. I ask: 

How do you determine that something is a “cold hard fact?” You make a mental estimate by weighing the evidence for and against, and you try to find out if the premises warrant the conclusion or if known facts support the hypothesis.

All of these mental acts are ontological judgements. You can’t arrive at a judgement by pouring the facts into a test-tube or peering at them through an electron microscope. So even to do “hard” science, to generate, evaluate and categorize data, you need to go beyond hard facts and concrete reality.

Just think about it…how would one support a claim such as, “We can only accept as true that which scientific experimentation and observation can tell us,” using nothing but scientific experimentation and observation? With a chemistry experiment involving a bunsen burner and test tubes? With a biology experiment involving a microscope and a petri dish, perhaps? The very premise that “science alone can reach conclusions is a conclusion that science alone cannot reach, and is therefore self-refuting. Belief that science alone can provide ultimate explanations is religious in nature, and is referred to by philosophers as scientism, as I elaborate upon in I Believe in Science! Why Do I Need Religion?. Craig Keener echoes Varghese’s above comments about the crucial role of meta-scientific reasoning in Miracles:

Views about whether any intelligence exists outside nature are interpretations, not data, hence belong to a different sphere of reasoning than purely empirical scientific expertise confers. As one scholar puts it, facts in isolation “are unintelligible and non-explanatory,” inviting explanation. Yet science as science in the strictest sense proceeds inductively, accumulating finite bodies of information and constructing patterns.

The interpretation that structures the information, by contrast, is ultimately meta-scientific. Even moving to the meta-scientific level may presuppose an intelligence that exceeds pure, random naturalism. Einstein believed that acceptance of the world’s “rationality or intelligibility” also entailed belief in “a superior mind,” which he defined as God.

Confusion of science and ontology absolutely permeates atheist thought. All logical arguments presented in favor of either theism or atheism are meta-scientific or ontological arguments which must be constructed upon what we currently know, not upon what scientific observation and experimentation may reveal some day in the bright and shining future. In point of fact, merely assuming atheism to be a default position, and suggesting that scientific observation may someday produce an argument for atheism, commits the logical fallacy of argument from ignorance. As the Wikipedia post for argument from ignorance notes, “Appeals to ignorance are often used to suggest the other side needs to do the proving. Rules of logic place the burden (responsibility) of proving something on the person making the claim.” And a statement such as, “God is not needed for the origin of life because unintelligent processes can perform this task” is a positive claim, not a mere lack of belief in God.

Logical arguments for God begin with science, and succeed.

I invite any atheists reading this post to provide a rebuttal to the following meta-scientific argument for the conclusion that life is the result of an intelligence (read: God). Any attempts at rebuttal must be addressed to my actual argument, and not a distorted mischaracterization of my argument such as, “We don’t yet know how life emerged, so God must have done it.” Yes, that is a challenge. Let the games begin.

Image result for throw down the gauntlet gif

As I discuss in The Case for God is not a Case of the God-of-the-Gaps, the genetic code conveys meaning through symbolic representation, in a very similar manner to human language. And meaning is something which can only exist in the mind of a conscious and intelligent agent. Period.

For example, the letters C-A-T serve as a symbolic representation of a furry animal that purrs and meows only because the intelligent agents who created the English language arbitrarily assigned this meaning to this set of symbols. There is no physical or chemical relationship between these symbols and what they serve to represent, only a mental relationship.

Atheism is grounded in the philosophy known as materialism, which suggests that all that exists are various arrangements of matter and energy. But if it were true that nothing exists except arrangements of matter and energy, living things would be completely specified by their physical and chemical properties. However, meaning is not a physical or chemical property, and can only be assigned by a conscious and intelligent agent. 

Many of the principles of human language apply to DNA, the language of life.

In the primary text on the application of algorithmic information theory to the question of the origin of life, titled Information Theory, Evolution, and The Origin of Lifephysicist and information scientist Hubert Yockey explains how many of the principles of human language are also applicable to DNA, the language of life:

“Informationtranscriptiontranslationcoderedundancysynonymousmessengerediting, and proofreading are all appropriate terms in biology. They take their meaning from information theory (Shannon, 1948) and are not synonyms, metaphors, or analogies.”

Indeed, an entire school of thought in biology called biosemiotics considers language to be a primary lens through which living things must be understood, as Perry Marshall points out in his book Evolution 2.0. Marshall elaborates on the scientific reasons why DNA is a language in the most literal, not metaphorical, sense:

Rutgers University professor Sungchul Ji’s excellent paper The Linguistics of DNA: Words, Sentences, Grammar, Phonetics, and Semantics starts off, 

“Biologic systems and processes cannot be fully accounted for in terms of the principles and laws of physics and chemistry alone, but they require in addition the principles of semiotics— the science of symbols and signs, including linguistics.”

Ji identifies 13 characteristics of human language. DNA shares 10 of them. Cells edit DNA. They also communicate with each other and literally speak a language he called “cellese,” described as “a self-organizing system of molecules, some of which encode, act as signs for, or trigger, gene-directed cell processes.”

This comparison between cell language and human language is not a loosey-goosey analogy; it’s formal and literal. Human language and cell language both employ multilayered symbols. Dr. Ji explains this similarity in his paper: 

“Bacterial chemical conversations also include assignment of contextual meaning to words and sentences (semantic) and conduction of dialogue (pragmatic)— the fundamental aspects of linguistic communication.” This is true of genetic material. Signals between cells do this as well. 

Even the world’s most outspoken atheist, Oxford University biologist Richard Dawkins, concedes that the genetic code is a language in the most literal (not metaphorical or figurative) sense. In his book River Out of Eden: A Darwinian View of Life, Dawkins writes:

“…The machine code of the genes is uncannily computer-like. Apart from differences in jargon, the pages of a molecular biology journal might be interchanged with those of a computer engineering journal.”

In an article for The Times (UK), Dawkins writes:

“What has happened is that genetics has become a branch of information technology. The genetic code is truly digital, in exactly the same sense as computer codes. This is not some vague analogy, it is the literal truth.”

So what meta-scientific conclusion does Dawkins draw from the symbolic representation of the genetic code? In an interview, which one can view by clicking on the preceding link, Dawkins hypothesizes that life was created by aliens from outer space and brought to Earth in their spaceship. The hypothesis that life on earth originated when it was brought here by space aliens is known as “directed panspermia,” and has been endorsed by highly prominent atheists such as Dawkins, the biologist Francis Crick (who is famous as the co-discoverer of the DNA double helix) and the British chemist Leslie Orgel. (Click here to read an article regarding Crick’s support of this hypothesis in his book Life Itself).

So, like a game of whack-a-mole, intelligent agency re-emerges as the source for life in the minds of those most determined to deny the role of intelligent agency. This is what Sigmund Freud was referring to when he spoke of “the return of the repressed.”

Scientists with less emotional and ideological investment in atheism have been more frank. For example, despite not having theistic leanings, the Nobel Prize-winning, Harvard University biologist George Wald admitted the following in his address to the Quantum Biology Symposium titled Life and Mind in the Universe

“It has occurred to me lately—I must confess with some shock at first to my scientific sensibilities—that both questions [the origin of mind and the origin of life from nonliving matter] might be brought into some degree of congruence. This is with the assumption that mind, rather than emerging as a late outgrowth in the evolution of life, has existed always as the matrix, the source and condition of physical reality—the stuff of which physical reality is composed is mind-stuff. It is mind that has composed a physical universe that breeds life and so eventually evolves creatures that know and create: science-, art-, and technology-making animals.”


  1. Gerry Denaro says:

    Scott,
    What fallacy would you say the following argument commits. We often hear staunch atheists argue from a distorted or false interpretation of Scripture (of which they claim there are 1000s:) as their justifjcation for Atheism. I respond with the following analogy: I don’t believe aliens exist but I don’t base that belief on a dubious or mistaken UFO sighting.

    • God Evidence says:

      Gerry,

      Using a distorted or false interpretation of scripture to discredit Christianity sounds like the Poisoning the Well Fallacy. In other words, such an atheist is using smear tactics in an attempt to preemptively discredit any arguments made by his opponent. This provides an atheist with a convenient way to dodge logical arguments in favor of Christianity, so as to avoid logically engaging with them.

      A copy and paste from the above post:

      Poisoning the Well
      (also known as: discrediting, smear tactics)

      Description: To commit a preemptive ad hominem attack against an opponent. That is, to prime the audience with adverse information about the opponent from the start, in an attempt to make your claim more acceptable or discount the credibility of your opponent’s claim.

      Logical Form:

      Adverse information (be it true or false) about person 1 is presented.

      Therefore, the claim(s) of person 1 will be false.

      Example #1:

      Tim: Boss, you heard my side of the story why I think Bill should be fired and not me. Now, I am sure Bill is going to come to you with some pathetic attempt to weasel out of this lie that he has created.

      Explanation: Tim is poisoning the well by priming his boss by attacking Bill’s character, and setting up any defense Bill might present as “pathetic”. Tim is using this fallacious tactic here, but if the boss were to accept Tim’s advice about Bill, she would be committing the fallacy.

      Example #2:

      I hope I presented my argument clearly. Now, my opponent will attempt to refute my argument by his own fallacious, incoherent, illogical version of history.

      Explanation: Not a very nice setup for the opponent. As an audience member, if you allow any of this “poison” to affect how you evaluate the opponent’s argument, you are guilty of fallacious reasoning.

  2. Jeff Mwangi says:

    Hey Scott,

    I think using the no true Scotsman fallacy needs to appear in your website. It goes like this.

    Person A: No true Scotsman puts sugar on his porridge.
    Person B: My uncle Angus is a Scotsman and he puts sugar in his porridge.
    Person A: Ah yes but no true Scotsman puts sugar on his porridge.

    Atheists don’t like the idea that some of the greatest killers in history were atheists. They normally try to distance themselves by saying they never killed in the name of atheism or they were communists and communism is different from atheism. They ignore that Lenin has been quoted saying we repudiate all morality that comes from religion or Lenin’s propaganda is the propaganda of atheism. These killers believed there’s no God and that belief is an atheist belief. Atheists are very good at pointing out the evil of some crooked religious leaders and/or politicians but for some they ignore their own fellow atheists who are just as capable of doing all these evil.

  3. […] done it.” But it is crucial to realize that this is NOT the theistic argument, but rather, a straw-man mischaracterization of the theistic argument. Constructing an argument for God based upon what we […]

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