Monthly Archives: September 2016

Critical Thinking 19: Straw men

The image of a straw man comes from past military training, where soldiers would apparently practise their combat skills by attacking a man made of straw.straw-man-ratomir-wilkowski-cca-3-0 Since I doubt if the soldiers ever attacked a woman made of straw, the politically correct “straw person” alternative seems to be based on a misunderstanding of this metaphor (much as I am generally in favour of gender-neutral universals). The straw man is a fallacy in critical thinking, and refers to a target of argument that is set up so as to be easy to attack. Generally it means a misrepresentation or over-simplification of someone else’s claims that you argue against, using justifications that would not be effective against a more realistic or sophisticated account of what they have said.

Here’s a classic example of a straw man from Margaret Thatcher in the UK parliament:

Here Thatcher attacks not ‘Socialism’ as any Socialist would describe it, but the idea that she attributes to Socialism that Socialists “would rather the poor were poorer as long as the rich were less rich”, i.e. that they are only concerned with the gap between rich and poor rather than with how well off the poor are. She also misrepresents Simon Hughes (the first male speaker) as ‘Socialist’ at all, as he is a Liberal Democrat who would probably describe himself as a Liberal rather than a Socialist.

Does that seem like a clear example? Well, imagine what would happen if you offered it to Thatcher herself, or one of her supporters. Almost undoubtedly, they would contest the claim that Socialism has been misrepresented. They’d probably say that they had detected a basic assumption in socialism, or an implication of socialism, even if socialists themselves were not willing to acknowledge it. You can imagine the fruitless argument that could then ensue between a Thatcherite and a Socialist, probably ending up in standoff and offence, with one claiming a straw man had been committed, and the other denying it. Unfortunately that’s a fairly typical example of what can easily happen when a straw man is pointed out.

As someone who is very interested in assumptions, I find that I quite often get accused of producing straw men myself (and, of course, I usually think this is unfair!). Anyone who seeks to point out an assumption made by someone else is in danger of this. Part of the problem is that people are often only willing to recognise as assumptions what they already consciously believe, so that the pointing out of an assumption of which they have been unconscious just seems wrong. “This doesn’t apply to me” they then think, “I don’t think that: it’s a straw man.” But in the wider analysis, it may still be the case that they do make that assumption. It needs further investigation. However, in the press of debate, we are most unlikely to take the time out to reflect on whether we really do assume what we have been accused of assuming. What Daniel Kahneman calls ‘fast thinking’ is the shortcut we rely upon for social survival, and ‘slow thinking’, where we might reconsider our assumptions, is reserved for occasions when we are feeling more relaxed and secure.

We can only try to come to terms with this condition, I think. We’re not likely to get people to examine their assumptions in most circumstances, unless the circumstances are sufficiently relaxed and (probably) face-to-face, or the people concerned trust each other and are used to examining assumptions. The best we can expect in normal discussion, I think, is that we will stimulate people with opposing beliefs to go off and reconsider them later. But that does quite often happen too, so all discussion should not be written off as useless.

In the meantime, I think it might be helpful to have a holding position on Straw Men, whether you feel someone else is misrepresenting your point of view, or whether they have accused you of misrepresenting theirs. It’s helpful to know if someone feels this, even if we are unable to resolve it on the spot. There are some reasonably obvious cases where someone has misunderstood or misrepresented the explicit and publically stated views of someone else, but most cases are probably not like this. If it can’t be easily resolved at that level, it might be worth noting that the alleged misrepresentation is about implicit things that need more thought, not explicit ones. It might also be helpful to indicate provisionality around straw man accusations. For example, you might say “I feel you’re misrepresenting my position there” and then say why, rather than just “That’s a straw man”. It might be possible to at least agree about how people feel and whether you’re referring to their explicit position. Both sides may then agree to go away and think about it. That’s a much better outcome than merely trading accusations about straw men on the basis of misunderstanding.


Are these examples of straw men? How should we respond to them? Feel free to discuss these in comments.

  1. (Draft bill presented to Louisiana state legislature)

Whereas, the writings of Charles Darwin, the father of evolution, promoted the justification of racism, and his books On the Origin of Species and The Descent of Man postulate a hierarchy of superior and inferior races. . . .
Therefore, be it resolved that the legislature of Louisiana does hereby deplore all instances and all ideologies of racism, does hereby reject the core concepts of Darwinist ideology that certain races and classes of humans are inherently superior to others, and does hereby condemn the extent to which these philosophies have been used to justify and approve racist practices.

2. Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the UK Labour Party, argues for the non-renewal of the Trident submarine-based nuclear weapons system of the UK. He argues that we should leave the UK defenceless against nuclear attack.

3. Free market capitalism is founded on one value: the maximisation of profit. Other values, like human dignity and solidarity, or environmental sustainability, are disregarded as soon as they limit potential profit. (Naomi Klein, ‘No Logo’)


Click here for index of other Critical Thinking blogs in this series.

Picture: Ratomir Wilkowski (Wikimedia) CCA 3.0



The MWS Podcast 106: Helena Bassil-Morozow on Jungian Film Studies

Our guest today is Helena Bassil-Morozow , a cultural philosopher, writer, and lecturer in media and communication at Glasgow Caledonian University. She’s interested in ways in which we interact with our society, and particularly how our identities are shaped by our environment. Her books include ‘Tim Burton: The Monster and the Crowd’ , ‘The Trickster in Contemporary Film’. Her latest book which she has co-written with Luke Hockley and which comes out in December is entitled ‘Jungian Film Studies: the Essential Guide’ and this is going to be the topic of our discussion.

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Confession: a vital practice, but not as Catholics know it

How can we possibly engage with our moral mistakes without being prepared to confess them? Confession can be a crucial integrative practice, but when I was brought up in a Protestant household, confession was simply never discussed. The sacrament of confession, still practised by Catholics, had been rejected by Protestants at an early stage of the Reformation: and no wonder, when you look at what Catholicism has turned it into. By imposing absolute beliefs on it and ignoring the complexity of moral experience, Catholicism has turned confession into a by-word for out-of-touch and authoritarian rules, alienated obedience, irrational guilt, and formalistic penitence. Only in Buddhist practice have I encountered a more helpful approach to confession, with Sangharakshita especially developing some realistic and balanced approaches to it. But recently, in the process of writing a book on the Middle Way in Christianity, I have been thinking anew about the role of confession. What follows is an adapted version of the chapter that has resulted.the_confession-pietro-longhi

The practice of confession is one of the seven sacraments in Roman Catholicism, and has a central place in regular Catholic practice, due to the requirement for Catholics to attend confession and gain absolution before attending mass. Confession has been rejected in the Protestant tradition because of the belief in salvation by faith, which took away the motivation for confessing and absolving sin as a way of re-accepting Christ’s atonement and thus gaining ‘salvation by works’. This is a great shame, because confession, if not freighted with absolutism, can be a very useful practice. Protestants are missing a possibly important tool of moral practice, because of an irrelevant debate about absolutisations concerning salvation.

Let us first review what the basic process of confession is, or might be if shorn of the unnecessary superstructure it has acquired in Catholicism. An individual recognises that they have committed an action (or perhaps even maintained an intention) of which they are ashamed and that they recognise as morally negative. They may recognise their action as morally negative because they have previously committed themselves to maintaining a certain moral standard, or because they recognise others as upholding a moral standard to which they aspire and that they have fallen short of. In recognition of their fault, they confess it to another person who shares (and preferably exemplifies) the moral ideals they are seeking to follow. By doing this, they are able to reinforce their commitment to improving their moral practice by having it socially reflected, so the action may well help the person to avoid committing the same negative action again, thus developing greater integration as they remove a source of conflict within themselves, and bringing them closer to the archetype of God within themselves.

This picture of how confession might be effective contrasts with all the unhelpful elements that have been incorporated into the Catholic practice of confession. Firstly, there are rigid and absolutised moral rules that are often at some remove from people’s moral experience: notoriously including the prohibition of masturbation and of the use of artificial contraception. To begin with, these distort and undermine confession, as well as ethical practice in general, by associating morality itself with stupid and out-of-touch rules rather than with the development of moral experience. If people are asked to confess breaches of rules they do not perceive as genuine moral rules, but only as impositions of authority, they will rapidly become either alienated from the whole process or unhelpfully guilty.

Secondly, in Catholicism the process has become associated with a formalised penance and absolution, in which the priest represents the supposed power to forgive sins that is authorised by Christ’s atonement. This involves a fundamental misunderstanding of the process of atonement, seeing it as a supernatural process rather than an integrative one gone through by an individual themselves. A penitential act may be helpful to us when we are trying to integrate the conflicts created by guilt and shame and try to develop a more helpful state of mind in which we can start again with a new commitment to moral practice. However, formalising that penitential act so rigidly reduces and trivialises it. When we have completed the formal act we may not be genuinely penitent, or we may still have much further to go over a period of time to integrate our guilt and shame. The formal act of penitence may also allow us to dismiss the offence from our minds from that point, even though its effects on ourselves or others may continue for a long time. The Catholic church has failed to adapt its practices to anything like an adequate psychological understanding of the process of repentance, and thus made them increasingly irrelevant at best, or alienating at worst.

If confession is to be more helpful to Christians and others, it needs to be separated from absolute assumptions. Our moral commitment is not made to a supernatural authority, but rather to a more integrated self. To help us become more integrated, we can give ourselves rules, structures and institutions that may make demands on us, and remind us of our commitments. But the purpose of these is instrumental, not absolute. It is thus ourselves as individuals who need to be responsible for deciding when we have committed a sin that we want to confess. The church and other institutions may offer us guidelines, but they can hardly be more than that, and their provisionality needs to be constantly born in mind without loss of moral urgency or moral purpose.

The question of whom we choose to confess to also needs to be much more flexibly understood. The church does not have a magical ability to forgive sins, but leaders in the church may (contingently) be the people we trust to receive our confessions and respond to them appropriately in confidence. On the other hand, for many people, a friend, spouse, counsellor or psychotherapist may be a better recipient for confession. It is the relationship of trust that matters far more than the formal role.

It’s crucial that the confessor, whoever he or she may be, is able to hear and accept the confession, because the sharing of it is the crucial part of the psychological effectiveness of confession. By recognising that someone else knows about your fault, the conflict it creates is eased and it is seen in a slightly bigger perspective. It’s also crucial that the confessor’s response to the disclosure is balanced: neither disproportionately horrified, nor denying that a fault has occurred. The confessor simply needs to make it clear that the confession has been fully understood, perhaps by reflecting it back and perhaps by asking questions to get further details. It may also be helpful to put the offence in a broader perspective without belittling it, for example by giving information about how common the offence is (if the offender is inclined to exaggerate their uniqueness) or what effects it is likely to have (if the offender is inclined either to exaggerate or dismiss those effects). But the confessor should not exhort or advise from a morally absolute position beyond the actual moral commitments the person has arrived at for themselves.

The confessor as someone who offers context and awareness becomes a crucial figure if you consider the kinds of unjustified guilt people can get into. For example, one can say something that someone else found hurtful, but the fault may lie overwhelmingly in the interpretation by the hearer rather than in the words used by the speaker. Or feelings of guilt may be a result of manipulation by someone in a dominant position who induces distorted and unnecessary feelings of guilt in the subservient person for their own ends. The BBC radio soap ‘The Archers’ has recently included a case where a dominant and manipulative husband (Rob) cows his wife (Helen) into confusion and guilt, culminating in an incident where she stabs him with a kitchen knife. The ensuing fictional trial has been widely discussed, raising awareness of the variety of forms that domestic bullying can take, but also of the ways that feelings of guilt can be manipulated, and of the importance of friends in providing perspective when someone is in such a situation. At the other extreme, of course, people can lack feelings of guilt when they would be highly appropriate, as was the case with the manipulative character Rob.

Much the same points as those about confession can be made about penance. Formalistic penances such as saying ten Hail Mary’s appear to make a laughing-stock of Catholicism the world over, and are probably best dispensed with entirely. It is the person who makes the confession who should decide, in discussion with the confessor, what the penance should be, if any, depending on what would have the most integrative effect for the person concerned. In many cases it may involve apologising and making amends to the victim of the offence, if there is one.

Approached in such a way, that respects the experienced variations between individuals both in moral commitment and justified guilt, confession could become a sacrament of great moral value and worth: one that I would also urge Protestants and others to embrace. Confession is still an acknowledgement of fault before God (if you want to give that name to the archetype of integration), or alternatively before your own ideals, whatever they are. It need lose none of its power in that respect by being treated less absolutely and formalistically, but might actually become morally efficacious instead of an institutionalised moral failure.

Picture: ‘The Confession’ by Pietro Longhi


The MWS Podcast 105: Nancy L Morgan on LifeMoves

We are joined today by Nancy L Morgan, a psychologist at a private practice in Clinical Psychology and Director of Behavioral Health at LifeMoves. Life Moves is an organization that combats homelessness in the San Mateo and Santa Clara counties of California and this will be topic of our conversation.

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Archetypes for science

To talk of an archetype is just to talk of a basic, universal psychological function that we can either project or take responsibility for as part of ourselves. Religion, art, and myth are of course rife with archetypes, but there’s no reason to assume they stop there. Archetypes can be found in every field of human experience. So why not science?

I’ve been thinking recently a bit more about what scientific archetypes might be like. Since scientists and other supporters of science are people, we can expect the same four basic archetypal functions in them as in anyone else, but they are likely to take a rather different outward form, because scientific culture makes such a point of avoiding ‘subjective’ stories (unless they are the object of scientific investigation themselves). So scientific archetypes are likely to avoid traditional forms, but (since they are based on the human mental constitution) nevertheless emerge.projection-of-truth

If scientists don’t acknowledge their own stories, that creates a new danger of projection, where the stories are simply played out in the ‘objective world’ without recognition that they are a result of the biases and assumptions of the scientist. The fact that much scientific ‘rationality’ depends on procedures to eliminate bias that are followed at a group level, rather than just individual thinking, increases that danger. So I thought it might be helpful to try to identify some scientific archetypes to look out for. This can also provide another way of distinguishing science from scientism. Scientific method itself is entirely compatible with acknowledging the biases represented by these archetypes, but scientism is equivalent to projecting these archetypes outwards without acknowledgement (particularly the final one).

So I’m going to base my suggestions for scientific archetypes on the four basic archetypes I’ve described elsewhere: for example in my 2014 talk, and book Middle Way Philosophy 3. These are the hero, the shadow, anima/animus, and the God archetype (which Jung also called the self).

The hero is the archetype of the ego, representing our idealisation of what we can achieve in the form we identify with at the moment. I recently discussed the hero in another blog. We identify with the heroes in stories because they are striving for goals in the face of difficulties just as we are, and we feel their triumph as they achieve them. So, who is the hero in science? Well, the scientist of course. Maybe it’s Galileo whom we identify with as a martyr for the cause, or Einstein as the genius who overcomes the doubters. The scientific hero may slay the dragons of ignorance, or perhaps of pseudoscience, religion or irrationality, to win the fabled Nobel prize and carry it home in triumph. The scientific hero is projected when you really think that someone else is like that and you really believe in their goals 100%, or perhaps that you yourself are such a hero. Such an archetype can be integrated when you recognise that figures like Einstein can be inspiring, but they’re also complex, and that the desire to slay those particular dragons is based on limited assumptions that may need further examination.

The shadow is the archetype of evil, based on what we reject. The Shadow is often identified with Satan or other evil figures, but can be projected onto someone we hate, who then gets a whole host of shadowy attributes given too them. For example, the boss frustrates you in your current project, so you fantasise that he is nasty in every respect, not realising that he actually goes home and has a wonderful relationship with his children. The shadow for science has already been mentioned as the target for the hero: probably pseudoscience, religion, a rival theory, or whatever is understood as standing in the way of science. For example, you may have identified one way in which you think homeopathy is mistaken, but you then project that evil ignorance onto every other aspect of homeopathy. That means that when examining it you will be heavily subject to confirmation bias that makes you interpret positive or neutral information negatively. To integrate that archetype and avoid projection, you would need to recognise that although some specific beliefs held by those you reject may be unhelpful, you can separate the overall shadow from the figure you reject, who will be much more complex and multifaceted.

The anima/animus is the archetype of the attractive other, which most commonly takes a form sexually opposite to the one you identify with. Falling in love is a common indicator of a projection of the anima or animus: usually with a person, but it could also happen, say, with a place, a subject, a book, or an animal. You believe it to be wonderful precisely because it has qualities you lack yourself, and as a result you fail to see that you could develop more of those qualities in yourself rather than seeking them elsewhere. A scientific anima/animus could be an attraction for something perceived as non-scientific, perhaps even irrational. Thus scientists can be observed not only falling in love with non-scientists of the opposite sex, but also going in for escapist fantasy, or even adopting a religious or new-agey view precisely because it doesn’t fit their normal requirement of scientific rationality. The projection of the archetype depends on that blindness to the incompatibility of the two worlds, because you don’t want to have to make the effort of being rational all the time. To integrate that archetype, though, you’d have to admit the incompatibility and find an overarching understanding that could contain both your scientific self and your fantasising self. In the process you might loosen your assumptions about what ‘rationality’ is and how humans can make use of it.

The God archetype is the big one, that I find those with a scientific worldview are least likely to acknowledge, obsessed as they are likely to be with the ‘existence’ or otherwise of God. The God archetype is a foretaste of a state of integration, also variously called the self, or the wise old man or woman. If you project the God archetype, you believe that there is a God (or a person) beyond yourself who has the energy, wisdom, positivity and awareness that you’d normally attribute to an integrated person – but, in the case of God, to an infinite degree. You might also project that archetype onto a guru, a Buddha, a wizard, a healer, a teacher etc, or even onto yourself if you start to believe that you are perfectly integrated. If you integrate that archetype, though, you recognise that it is your own integration your dealing with, that integration is always a work in progress, and that the people you may be projecting it onto are imperfect.

I have already written a blog that touches on the God archetype in science when I wrote about idealised figures of truth. Truth is one of two major concepts that I think scientists are likely to project the God archetype onto, the other being Nature. Compared to the imaginative richness of  religious representations of God, of course, scientific concepts of truth or nature are likely to be rather dry and abstract, and not often given an imaginative form such as a personification. Nevertheless, it seems clear that some scientists routinely project an absolute truth or nature, either by believing that their theories are ‘true’ and that they know ‘laws of nature’, or that, even if they haven’t achieved it yet, truth and nature are achievable and scientific theory is capable of describing them. Thus they project a quality that depends on their actions, attitudes and procedures (objectivity) onto the universe itself.

Just as with God, there is no harm at all in having truth or nature as archetypes representing your goals. As such they can be highly meaningful. However, if you assume that the object of your efforts really exists out there, you make a similar basic mistake to those who believe in a supernatural God or a perfect lover. To integrate such projections, we need to separate out the archetypal symbol and recognise it as such, but refrain from projecting it onto the people or things in the world around us, or even the world as a whole.

Of course, it’s not just scientists who may be subject to the scientific versions of unintegrated archetypes. They may increasingly just be products of the scientific worldview as it is also adopted by others. As a group, scientists are also probably more likely to detect these kinds of projections than most other people. So I don’t want to be read as having a special go at scientists, only as pointing out that they are subject to exactly the same processes as everyone else, and it would be rather surprising if they were exempt. Reflecting on the presence of these archetypes might also help to discourage the more naïve versions of scientism in which the scientifically-influenced make metaphysical assumptions that they believe are justified by scientific results.

Picture: composite of projector with ‘Truth’ sculpture by Lefebre