Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Hoffmann's poor reasoning

Today I stumbled onto a blogpost entitled Atheism's Little Idea by R. Joseph Hoffmann who I will give credit for being a writer with a talent for making an argument entertaining.  Unfortuantely, in this blogpost his arguments used to support his claim are far from clear and fall subject to a number of fallacies.

His blogpost is a rambling, meandering piece full of ad hominems, meaningless statements, and vague and ambiguous terms.  It reads like an angry rant where the author knows he is mad at an opposing viewpoint but can't find any logical grounds on which to attack that viewpoint.  The result is an article that lacks clear focus and never really explains what it means because doing so would require too much introspection about the stability of his own ideas.  So without further ado I will dig into specific examples to support my above claims, something Hoffman fails to do.

I want to go through and list problems with Hoffmann's article under headings of the some of the logical problems I found with Hoffmann's article:

Vagueness and Ambiguity
I claim above that Hoffmann uses vague and ambiguous terms.  First let me define how I am using these terms so I do not fall subject to the same objection.

Vague:  a vague phrase is a phrase that is open to many different interpretations and thus a listener cannot know what interpretation the speaker intended.  (i.e. a person who says "I believe in God" has been vague because we do not know if they are saying they believe in Zues, Thor, or some other God)

Ambiguous: an ambiguous phrase is a phrase subject to two or more interpretations but not an unlimited number of interpretations.  (i.e. "I ate the pie on the table" could be interpreted in two ways: 1) there was a pie on the table that I ate, or 2) I was on a table when I ate the pie.) 

The Difference: you may note that the definitions of vagueness and ambiguity seem similar.  The reason is that the terms really refer to different points on a spectrum.  For example, something will be ambiguous if there are a discrete number of interpretations such as 2, 3, or 4 interpretations.  However, once the number of possible interpretations increases to a large number the term will become vague.  There is no clear definition of when something goes from ambiguous to vague so it is probably acceptable to use these terms interchangably to some extent when the number of interpretations is above single digits.

Hoffman's Vagueness:  Hoffman states that atheism is now a "little idea" and that god used to be a "big idea."  But he never defines what makes an idea little or big.  He seems to just be using little as a perjorative to insult atheists (which I will discuss below under the ad hominem heading).

While reading this article I tried to understand what Hoffmann meant by "little idea" but there is no good explanation thus I will list some possibilities and show how none make sense in this context except for its use as a perjorative.  To start with the obvious, an idea is not something that has a size or shape thus "little" must be used metaphorically or as a perjorative.

Next lets look at Hoffmann's uses of "little."  He says "atheism has become a very little idea, an idea that has to be shouted to seem important."  Thus, perhaps he means atheism is not important, and in this sense he would be simply stating his opinion on the importance of atheism. 

He also states that Atheism is little because it "shriveled (god) to become a postulate of a new intellectual Darwinism" and "it is based on the hobgoblin theory of religion: its god is a green elf with a stick."  This argument seems to be that atheism is little because it attacks only a straw man version of religion, one that is easy to attack but doesn't take into account other more sophisticated views of religion.  I will assume that "postulate of... darwinism" means that atheists treat god like a scientific theory (discussed below under meaningless statements).  Even if that is the case Hoffmann's argument is ridiculous.

Reducing god to a scientific hypothesis would essentially mean that we are requiring some sort of evidence to believe in god.  Perhaps this is what Hoffman means by little, he means that requiring evidence to believe in God is a little idea and that we should just accept on faith.  But if thats the case he should try using more precise words like "faith" and not call atheism little.  Additionally, he contradicts himself (as discussed below) when he calls atheism little for using the hobgoblin theory of religion.  Thus, he contradicts any claim that atheists attack a straw man version of religion with his very own writing.

Overall, I cannot know what Hoffmann meant by "little" and thus all my speculations above are just that: specualtions.  I could go on and further analyze the article but that would take too long.   Hoffmann could have corrected this by being more careful with the words he used and defining his terms.  But, what he does appear to be doing here is belittling atheists by saying their ideas are "little."  and with that segway lets move on to the Ad Hominem.

PS:  I welcome anyone to correct me and show me that I missed Hoffman's definition.

Ad Hominem
An Ad hominem is an argument that only attacks the character of your opponenent and not your opponents argument.  Generally, an ad hominem is used to distract the reader from the lack of support for an argument.  Hoffman uses this technique multiple times in his article.

As discussed above, since Hoffmann has not defined what he means by "little" his calling of atheism a "little idea" is really nothing but an ad hominem attack on atheists.

Hoffmann makes a pretty blatant ad hominem when he says atheists are "hamfisted, pulling, ignorant [and] unappealing."  This is a perfect example of an ad hominem because Hoffmann doesn't even explain why he thinks this, he just calls the atheists names.

Meaningless Statements
Hoffmann in a couple of places uses phrases that sound nice and poetic but don't mean anything.  This is a particular annoyance to me because it shows that the author failed to really think about what they were writing.  Remember, the mere fact that a sentence is grammatically sound does not mean that the sentence actually makes sense.  Let me give you one example of Hoffmann's meaningless but grammatically correct sentences.

Lets step back to Hoffmann's claim that atheists have shrunk god to a "postulate of intelectual darwinism."  To start off I want to quote the princess bride and say: "I dont' think that means what you think it means."  Intelectual Darwinism is the idea that only the best ideas survive. Saying atheists belive in intellectual darwinism is a straw man because it is actually pretty obvious most atheists don't believe in intellectual darwinism. As a group atheists do not believe in God but it is obvious that belief in god has survived the test of time thus intellectual darwinism would lead us to the assumption that religion is correct.  Clearly atheists do not agree.

Second, a postulate is an assumed to be true supporting piece of a theory.  To say that god is a postulate of intellectual Darwinism is a nonsense phrase because no atheist is arguing that god is a supporting piece of evidence for intellectual Darwinism.  I would agree that phrase sounds sophisticated and fancy but it doesn't mean anything.

I should note, after reading that statement again I think it is just written poorly.  I think Hoffman intended to say that atheists made god into a scientific hypothesis, but that is just a guess so I leave my above analysis because either way Hoffmann messed that one up.

Self Contradiction
I want to point out a place where Hoffmann glaringly contradicts himself.  He says:
Atheism has become a little idea because it is based on the hobgoblin theory of religion: its god is a green elf with a stick, not the master of the universe who controls it with his omniscient will. –Let alone a God so powerful that this will could evolve into Nature’s God–the god of Jefferson and Paine–and then into the laws of nature, as it did before the end of the eighteenth century in learned discussion and debate.
Take a second and re-read that.  Hoffmann says atheism is little because we atheists believe god is a green elf with a stick.  Then Hoffmann implies that really god is "the master of the universe who controls it with his omniscient will."  Uh, Hoffmann, that is a green elf with a stick.  We are arguing that god is claimed to work by some unknown magic power and God's using the omniscient force of will is essentially just a magic power.

Hoffmann hopes his readers won't catch this because he uses fancy words for magic like "omnicient will," "master of the universe" or "[his]will could evolve into. . . the laws of nature."  But regardless of the word choice Hoffmann is arguing that his god has mystical powers which is the very same thing he just criticized atheists for saying.

The irony is strong here.  Hoffmann must also be calling God a little idea because he believes the same thing that atheists do: god is a green elf with a stick.

As I write this I realize I could write a book on all the problems with Hoffmann's blogpost.  I wish I had more time to fully break down this article, but I doubt anyone would want to read that long winded paper.  Overall I conclude with saying that Hoffmann's post is highly problematic.  Its thesis is unclear: we don't know what "little" means.  Its arguments are flawed.  And it meanders from angry rant to angry rant with little structure.  As always I urge readers to take their time and go through Hoffmann's article and look for flaws on their own.

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