Wednesday, November 15, 2023

15: Bulverism is the rhetorical fallacy where you don’t prove that your opponent is wrong: you state conjectural psychological or biological explanations of how he came to be wrong.

Bulverism is the rhetorical fallacy where you don’t prove that your opponent is wrong: you state conjectural psychological or biographical explanations of how he came to be wrong.

It’s a lecture joke in a minor essay by CS Lewis and I have probably given it more exposure than it deserves.

The point of Lewis’s joke is that Bulverism is self-refuting. If I say “You are only a liberal because your mother breast fed you for too long and picked you up every time you cried” then you can reply “You are only a conservative because you got hit by your father and sent away to boarding school.” But this doesn’t get us any closer to finding out whether abolishing taxation for the rich will result in a better standard of living for the poor.

If Bulverism were correct—if all beliefs had psychological causes—then (argues Lewis) we would have argued ourselves into a position where arguments aren’t worth having, and indeed, proved that there are no proofs. So Bulverists are obliged to say “present company excepted” at the end of every sentence. Your ideas are the result of what you had for breakfast, but mine are the pure objective truth.

One thinks of the John Finnemore sketch about the scientist who believes that nearly everything evolved by natural selection, the exceptions being:


a: hummingbirds and

b: his grand-daughter, whose little toes were so cute that they could only have been created by God.

Memetics is Bulverism writ-large and turned up to eleven. “You only believe in the Loch Ness Monster because you have been infected with the Nessie-Meme” doesn’t say anything more than “You believe in the Loch Ness Monster.” “You only believe that Donald Trump would make a good president because you have been infected by the MAGA virus” doesn’t say anything more than “You think that Donald Trump would make a good president.” If the idea of Memes has any value, then to have a belief and to be infected with a meme are precisely synonymous. To say that you believe in a thing because you have been infested by a meme is to say no more than “You believe that because that is one of your beliefs; you believe it because it is a thing that you believe.”

To say that Muslims have diseased minds because religion is a widespread and tenacious idea is, at best, a play on words: an amusing observation that we use the same term in two different contexts. At worst, it is a profoundly misanthropic concept. Your opponent is not a human being who has committed an error which you can correct—because he has taken a false logical step or overlooked an important piece of data or doesn’t have a sufficiently large grasp of the world or even because something in his life-history makes him biased. He’s a passive receptacle acted on by an external force. A thing acted on by another thing.

But perhaps, as a matter of fact, that is exactly what human beings are: things acted on by other things? Perhaps the whole subjective universe really is a collection of mental diseases? Perhaps language really is a virus from outer space? The question is never “have you been infected?” but “what have you been infected with?”

Isn’t that roughly what the postmodernists say? The human mind is a wonderful and interesting thing but what is wonderful and interesting about it is that it is the intersection of a number of external forces. What it is not is an ego, an autonomous consciousness. I don’t think and therefore I am not. There isn’t a thing called “Andrew” which has unfortunately been infected with the idea that Jeremy Corbyn would have made a good Prime Minister and that Jack Kirby created the Silver Surfer. You can’t administer an intellectual vaccine and get back to the pure unsullied Andrew before he acquired all these nasty intellectual lurgies. Andrew isn’t a person. Neither is anyone else.

But no-one believes this.

What they believe is that other people are mental dinghies buffeted about by infectious mental storms; whereas me and my friends are autonomous consciousnesses with agency.

Computer games and role-playing games have a concept of non-player characters: figures in the story who are controlled by a referee or an algorithm and don’t have any agency of their own. Some of the nastier people on the political right have taken to referring to their political opponents as NPCs. They also sometimes describe liberals and atheists and members of the Democratic party and people who went to state schools as Zombies. Simulations of human life; but not, in fact, human.

Some years ago, some right wing geeks came up with an idea that was so shocking that anyone who heard it would find that their life was irrevocably altered.

I understand that the idea itself was basically Pascal’s wager, with a computer with the attributes of God substituted for God.

The idea of an idea which is fatal to the hearer is in itself a compelling idea. Whenever I hear about Roko's Basilisk it makes me think about the Monty Python sketch about the joke that was so funny that anyone who heard it instantly dropped dead.

Sometimes I lie awake at night.

I wonder what side Keir Starmer will take in the forthcoming American Civil War. I wonder if the new demonisation of trans people and gay people will give rise to a new Oscar Wilde—or even a new Kenneth Williams. Or merely to a new Clause 28 and a new Auschwitz. I wonder if the young people who seem so liberal and radical and wholesome and gormless and nice will simply refuse to conform to the new authoritarianism. And I remember that it was the people who bought Sgt Pepper on the day that it came out who voted for Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan.

And a dark thought crosses my mind.

Does the idea of Memes follow inevitably from the idea of evolution by natural selection? Once you have worked out why some of the Galapagos finches have different shaped beaks to some of the other Galapagos finches, does it follow as night follows day that you will cease to believe in human agency? And if so, would it have been better not to have known about evolution by natural selection?

Even though it’s true?

Is, indeed, that the ultimate point of the God-concept?

An essential bulwark against the Meme Delusion?

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Mike Taylor said...

"Does the idea of Memes follow inevitably from the idea of evolution by natural selection? Once you have worked out why some of the Galapagos finches have different shaped beaks to some of the other Galapagos finches, does it follow as night follows day that you will cease to believe in human agency?"

Ah, I know the answer to this one. It's "no".

Dr. Taylor prescribes a course of Chesterton, to be administered aurally. The essay "Science and the Savages", from he collection Heretics, would be a fun place to start.

Mike Taylor said...

This is not directly relevant to Andrew's essay, but on re-reading it in the Chesterton essay, I couldn't resist:

"The obvious truth is that the moment any matter has passed through the
human mind it is finally and for ever spoilt for all purposes of
science. It has become a thing incurably mysterious and infinite; this
mortal has put on immortality. Even what we call our material desires
are spiritual, because they are human. Science can analyse a pork-chop,
and say how much of it is phosphorus and how much is protein; but
science cannot analyse any man's wish for a pork-chop, and say how much
of it is hunger, how much custom, how much nervous fancy, how much a
haunting love of the beautiful."

g said...

As Andrew has pointed out, there are at least three "ideas of memes". One says: you can think of ideas as things-that-get-copied-with-variation, which will be subject to a process similar to that of biological evolution, and ideas (or bits of ideas) that are better at getting copied will tend to prosper -- and being right is one way, but by no means the only way, for an idea to be good at being copied. I think that one does pretty much follow from the idea of evolution by natural selection.

Another says: ideas (at least ones I don't like) are like viruses not only in being things that reproduce themselves with minds as hosts, but also in being disease-like and horrible; therefore the people who hold those ideas are best thought of not as people but as Petri dishes filled with pathogens; therefore those people are subhuman and contemptible. (I doubt that anyone says that explicitly, but Andrew is suggesting that some people think something like it. I am not sure he is being 100% fair, but alas he is certainly not being 0% fair either.)

And another says: all ideas are virus-like and succeed by being readily copied; our minds are just bundles of ideas that propagate themselves in not-so-rational ways; therefore human selfhood and agency and so forth are all illusions.

Memes(1) are, or should be, an unproblematic notion. Believing in memes(2) might make you a horrible person. Believing in memes(3) might make you despair or something of the sort.

I think the main place where the implications break down is not between biological evolution and memes(1) but between memes(1) and memes(2)/memes(3). You can consider that a thing has certain formal properties in common with viruses while rejecting a lot of the associations that might come along with that word. You can believe that ideas replicate in minds without concluding that minds are nothing but bags of replicating ideas, just as you can believe that viruses replicate in cells without concluding that cells are nothing but bags of replicating viruses.

I think the idea that a mind is just a bundle of ideas doesn't actually have much to do with the idea of memes. Something very like it goes at least as far back as the Buddhist canon. (There's a famous analogy involving a wagon, IIRC.) I think that's an entirely separate matter from whether it's helpful to think of ideas as replicators.

One thing that those two ideas have in common is that each of them might make you despair, or stop thinking of yourself as a reasoning being, or something similarly disturbing. But in different ways. If you think your mind is just a bundle of ideas then you might stop thinking of yourself as any sort of being. If you think the ideas in your mind got there by means that have little to do with their rightness then you might stop thinking of yourself as rational. But it's different parts of "I am a reasoning being" that they call into question.

(And one can be vigorously in favour of thinking of ideas as replicators but also acknowledge that beliefs that match reality may get copied more readily than ones that don't, and that habits that are beneficial may get copied more readily than ones that aren't, and that it's not as if no one had ever noticed that sometimes people believe false things because they're comforting or flattering or exciting. I don't think the idea of memes should do very much to make you despair.)

g said...

(I'm aware that this is a side-topic, but what Andrew said about it was in boldface so I don't think it's unreasonable to pay it some attention.)

The "Roko's basilisk" thing has been widely misrepresented, and unfortunately Andrew's brief words about it perpetuate some of the misrepresentations.

1. "Some right-wing geeks": Roko himself is certainly a (very, I think) right-wing geek. But that "some" seems intended to suggest that the whole community[1] where the "Roko's basilisk" discussion happened was one of right-wing geeks, and that's just not true. See e.g. these survey results from 2012 and search for "politics" (there were three questions about politics, offering different ways to split up the political landscape). Or these survey results from 2011 which I think just had the one question about politics. (The "Roko's basilisk" incident was in 2010. There wasn't a survey in 2010. There was one in 2009 but it had way fewer participants.)

[1] "Less Wrong", an internet discussion forum whose participants mostly call themselves "rationalists" (though they don't necessarily mean the same by that as e.g. a philosopher would).

Also, the pretty much universal reaction of everyone who read Roko's post seems to have been along the lines of "nah, that sounds like bullshit to me". So, whatever you think about their politics, they don't deserve much of the credit or blame for Roko's idea.

2. "so shocking that anyone who heard it would find that their life was irrevocably altered": so far as I can tell the number of people whose lives were substantially altered by hearing about "Roko's basilisk" is zero[2]. Some people found it disturbing to think about for a few days.

[2] Well, it depends on what sort of alteration you count. E.g., Elon Musk and Grimes apparently got together because Musk recognized a joke about R.B. in one of her songs. I take it it's obvious that that doesn't count any more than if e.g. someone heard about Pascal's Wager and had their life transformed by it ... because it got them interested in philosophy and they became a philosophy professor.

3. "the idea itself was basically Pascal's wager": kinda, but one thing that seems relevant but is generally not mentioned is that Roko's own conclusion after presenting it was not "therefore we must immediately set to work creating superhuman AI, so that it doesn't torture us[3]" but "therefore we must make sure to avoid any approach to AI that runs the risk of creating the sort of superhuman AI that might do that".

[3] In some sense, and for some value of "us"; the way it's supposed to work is somewhat weirder than e.g. the way in which some versions of the Christian deity might torture us.

(Dis)claimer: I have been a fairly active participant on the "Less Wrong" forum for as long as it has been around. So (1) I have a pretty good knowledge of the people involved and saw the "basilisk" discussion when it actually happened, but (2) you might reasonably suspect me of being insensitive to their faults, or wanting to put them in a good light, or both. I am a geek. I am not at all right-wing (and e.g. have never voted for any political party further to the right than the Liberal Democrats). I think Roko's basilisk is probably bullshit, though it's pretty ingenious bullshit.

Andrew Rilstone said...

It is definitely interesting to think of ideas as propagating separately from the people having them. If I say "The King Arthur story spread to France, where it took on a more romantic, chivalrous character" I am saying something different from "A French poet said 'I think I'll introduce a French dude who fancies the pants of the Queen." If I saw "When Little Musgrave crossed the Atlantic, the hero became Matty Groves and the swords became pistols" I am saying something different from "An anonymous American singer heard and old English song and thought 'I'm having that, I am'". But that is different from saying that there are no such things as poets or story tellers and stories just propagate like rabbits.

Some ideas probably develop more organically than others: Christianity took on the Protestant form because Martin Luther was thinking in particular ways at a particular form; but Protestant Christianity took on its American form because (e.g) a large number of Black converts subtly adapted it to their own cultural experiences.

Andrew Rilstone said...

Almost my entire knowledge of Roko's basilisk comes out of Elizabeth Sandifer's book, and she certainly has a particularly political stance on the issue.

g said...

Yeah, her book's a lot of fun but not exactly fair.

Gavin Burrows said...

“Memes(1) are, or should be, an unproblematic notion.”

Not sure about that. Yes in one way it’s just folk culture in action. But it also sounds like an inherently conservative notion, where new and radical ideas get reshaped until they’re something more reassuringly familiar.

Of course, this happens. Evolution, already brought up, would be a good example. Most people to this day still seem to believe it’s still a teleological process, just with nature at the helm instead of a deity.

But then that can’t be the whole of the story, or there never would be any new ideas, memes would innoculate us against them. Some did get Darwin. Darwin himself had to get it from somewhere. Memes cannot be restricted to Memes (1).

“Believing in memes(2) might make you a horrible person.”

It might be better to replace the value-laden ‘virus’ with something like ‘earworm’. And of course political groups try to come up with earwormy slogans all the time. When Marge said she still didn’t think the monorail was a good idea, Homer pointed out she should have written a song to say so.

More broadly, it’s like scattering seed, the more an idea can be got into circulation the more its likely to find holds. Songs only become earwormy by repeated plays. There’s still not really a better example of this than Brexit, which came from outside the political orthodoxy yet became dominant, and more through earwormy memes than argument. And Brexit was the opposite of Memes (1), as it took on a more extreme definition the longer it lasted. (In a process still ongoing.)

“Believing in memes(3) might make you despair”

I counsel non-despair! At the same time as the above, a great deal of time and effort has been invested in memeing ideas which have still failed. Hit singles require radio play, but radio play doesn’t ensure a hit single, only the chance of one. The bombing of Gaza, supported by both the major parties and much of the media, would be an example. Most still want a ceasefire.

Memes (3) will mostly work when people don’t have a great deal of emotional investment in them, when they’re just repeating what they’ve heard and saying it out of conversation. “Corby’s economic ideas would be bad” as a variant of “they say it may rain tomorrow”. Which is often the case. There are those who rail against the footballification of politics. Yet most people are more attached to football than politics.

Do we not need a Memes (4)? Where people are attracted to ideas initially out of a superficial shininess, but bite into them and find them solid coinage? Even if only now and again?

g said...

Why should we assume that memes would inoculate us against all new ideas? (Getting a virus doesn't generally make us immune to getting a virus we've never had before.)

Earworms are examples of memes. I agree that "some ideas are like earworms" might be a good way to introduce the idea of memes. (And of course I agree that the negative associations of "virus" are potentially confusing and/or hazardous in various ways.)

I don't understand why something that gets more extreme with time is "the opposite of memes(1)".

I too counsel non-despair (and said as much), on the basis that (a) you can accept memes(1) without memes(3) and (b) memes(3) needn't be so very despair-inducing if you do in fact end up believing in them.

I think you're counselling non-despair on different grounds -- that not all memes are very effective replicators, even when someone's trying to make them so. I agree with that but don't think it has much to do with why memes(3) might be despair-inducing, which I think is something that isn't actually much to do with memes-as-such. (Namely, the idea that your mind, your self, is "just" a bundle of ideas. Like all statements of the form "X is just Y", it deserves a lot of skepticism directed at the "just".)

Gavin Burrows said...

I was taking your notion of Memes (1) as being about familiarisation. Ideas which originally appear foreign will familiarise themselves until they become acceptable to the host. Square pegs progressively rounding until the fit the round hole. (Hence the example of evolution.) Reading your comments back now though, I'm less sure of that. Perhaps your comments have become more familiar to me over time.

I suspect we mostly encounter Memes (3) the other way up, in the crudest analyses of propaganda. ("Of course people believe that, after they saw it on the telly.") The inevitable implication of that is indeed that we're all just uncritical receptors, but that part of the equation is suppressed. How much because people don't like the implications of that, and how much because when you say it out loud it doesn't particularly seem to be true, I'm not sure.

g said...

Yeah, I wasn't talking about familiarization at all. (Though for sure that is one of the things that helps ideas to prosper independent of their actual truth: if a lot of people are saying X then it's a lot easier to be persuaded of X.)

Gavin Burrows said...

My bad then.

g said...

Mine too -- obviously I didn't express myself as clearly as I hoped.

(To be explicit, my intention was that "memes(1)" just means the idea of memes itself, without whatever further ideas one might be tempted to attach to it beyond the idea that ideas spread and reproduce and evolve in a way analogous to the way living things and their genes do. I don't know whether that's actually a helpful explanation of my intent, though, since it seems like maybe Andrew thinks that some of the stuff I've put in "memes(2)" and "memes(3)" is actually part and parcel of the-idea-of-memes-itself...)

Robert Shepherd said...

Well, I do indeed think that ideas are shaped by evolutionary forces in an inhuman way. But I also think Bulverism is straightforwardly a fallacy, because the reason a person thinks a thing has no automatic bearing on whether that person is right.

Maybe my intellectual enemies *did* only think something because they ate a bad bit of toast for breakfast. It is possible the thing they think is still correct. Their biological and sociological constraints don’t affect this? Maybe it makes it embarrassing they still outwit me

Andrew Rilstone said...


I wrote a longer piece specifically on "Bulverism" a while ago: you might be interested.