A clear example is the use of the word ‘atheist.’ It’s OK as far as it goes – which isn’t very far. It just says ‘I don’t believe in a god.’ It says nothing about what I do believe in. I have made this point before but pointed out then ‘I do have my own beliefs (wider than, but including atheism). They are always evolving (aren’t we all) and they are a source of great spiritual comfort and pride to me. I won’t give them a name but, of course, they are revealed in discussion.’
I think the intelligent design (ID) proponents are classic examples of people who define their ideas negatively. They will rave on about the real or imagined problems or gaps in evolutionary science and then call their rave ID theory. But notice that they never actually propose a specific ID hypothesis or theory. They define themselves negatively. Christopher Heard gives a typical (and as he says brazen) example of this in his in a book review of Intelligent Design: William A. Dembski and Michael Ruse in Dialogue. Here he quotes ID guru Bill Dembski:
I don’t think the burden on intelligent design is simply to come up with new experiments, new facts. The important thing is to find new ways to make sense of them. I believe that we are making better sense out of them than the evolutionary biologists. The point of my joke about imagining an evolutionary pathway was that we have not been given any detailed evolutionary pathways.
As Heard says : “Dembski’s final claim in this quotation is not only false but also somewhat brazen, given his absolute refusal to accept for ID the “burden” of showing detailed design pathways.”
Here Dembski was attacking a straw man version, rather than an accurate version, of an opponent’s position. I think this is also a common feature of the arguments used by people who define themselves negatively.
Science and ethics
This negative definition is also common to those who attack science (the science bashers) because it is ‘naturalistic’ or ‘materialistic.’ These people use a straw man approach of confining science within their rigid boundaries and they very rarely disclose what their ‘supernatural’ or ‘theistic’ science would be like in practice.
Of late, I have also noticed this approach in discussions of the origins of our morals and ethics. Some of the contributors to discussions on this subject here have presented thoughtful, often tentative, and interesting ideas on this subject. I have learnt from these. On the other hand I have found some contributions by proclaimed theists disappointing. They have usually amounted to attacks on perceived (straw man) versions of non-theist or atheist moral understandings.
This is disappointing because it really leaves us in the dark as to how these people really develop their own moral and ethical positions – a subject I would find interesting.
If people did present their own theories or beleifs on their own merit, instead of concentrating on knocking down straw men, then we would be in a beter position to judge those theories and beliefs. Of course, they would then haver to be sufficiently detailed to stand by themselves.