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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