Sunday, March 9, 2014

Being Aware And Avoiding The Straw Man

As some of my readers know, I started writing a book to address concerns commonly raised against The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. I am transferring the content of my book to this blog. Since I am both presenting and responding to concerns, I must continually try to avoid the straw man fallacy.

In other words, I must be careful to not misrepresent the concerns which others have raised. Wikipedia has a pretty good article on this topic, which can be found here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Straw_man

The straw man fallacy is not always committed by those with ill intentions. Sometimes, it results from a lack of reading comprehension on the part of the reviewer, or from poor phraseology on the part of the writer. The following example of the fallacy is committed by someone who read a copy of a chapter in my book about the Book of Abraham, which I had explained was “still under construction.”

I actually found their review to be very helpful, because it illustrated to me how easily my words could be taken out of context, and it made me realize I needed to take more prophylactic measures in my writing in order to prevent this from happening so easily in the future.

First, allow me to present their argument and afterward explain how it constitutes an example of a straw man fallacy. Of course, I am open to hearing all sides and perspectives in the comments.

This person's argument is as follows:

Let's take a look at this paragraph from the second page:

"Unless Abraham was illiterate, he would have, at some point, done some kind of writing. So it's safe to say there was some sort of document written by Abraham - or book(s) of Abraham - written or dictated by him and containing some information about his history."

Ancient scribes, who were by definition not illiterate, were not necessarily authors. If we rewrite this paragraph using the famous ancient author Sinleqeuninni instead we see the fallacy in the argument:

Unless Sinleqeuninni was illiterate (he wasn't), he would have, at some point, done some kind of writing (true). So it's safe to say that there was some sort of document written by Sinleqeuninni (there is) -- or book(s) of Sinleqeuninni (there isn't) -- written or dictated by him and containing some information about his history (there isn't).

Sinleqeuninni is the author of the standard version of the Gilgamesh Epic. So we have information from him, but not about him.The same could be said of the letter scribes at Mari. They wrote letters for others (like Zimri-Lim) but not about themselves. The same could be said about scribes who wrote tax receipts. We have lots of their writing but little information about them. The ability to write does not mean that you will write an autobiography. In fact,there are only two autobiographies currently known from Abraham's place and time. (There may be others yet undiscovered, but certainly not one for every literate person.)

In quoting only that one paragraph of mine, as though it stood alone, this review makes it appear as though my argument is to the effect of: “If Abraham had the ability to write, that means he would have written about himself.” That's the straw man which the reviewer effectively refuted.

My actual argument was more to this effect: “According to the Bible, Abraham had amazing and uncommon experiences. The nature of these experiences makes them worth writing about, and therefore I am willing to grant as highly plausible that Abraham would have written about them if he had the ability to do so.”

Make no mistake, my actual argument is not by any means "rock solid." But the point I'm making here is that the reviewer bypassed my actual argument and went after a straw man.

Here was the relevant quote from my chapter, in context:

The Bible doesn't say Abraham wrote a book, but it does say Abraham had remarkable experiences, which we read about in Genesis … And of course, Abraham taught the gospel to his son, Isaac, who taught it to Jacob, who taught it to his children (Genesis 18:19). The question is whether Abraham wrote his history and theology down, or only shared it with his lips. I can't think of any good reason why he wouldn't have written it down, and the subject matter is supremely important. Some details of his experiences may have been too sacred to write, but since Moses clearly felt that Abraham's experiences should be written down, that is a good sign that Abraham felt that way too - from a Prophet's perspective.

Unless Abraham was illiterate, he would have, at some point, done some kind of writing. So it's safe to say there was some sort of document written by Abraham - or book(s) of Abraham - written or dictated by him and containing some information about his history.


As I stated above, my phraseology was poor in this very rough-draft version of the chapter. I have since changed the phraseology and you can read about it in my Book of Abraham post on this blog. .

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