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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Tuesday, November 14, 2023

14: I sometimes think your man Darwin was onto something.

 I sometimes think your man Darwin was onto something.

Suppose I take a picture of Spider-Man and I make a hundred photocopies of it. And then I pick one of the copies, and make a hundred copies of that.

But my photocopier has a fault, and it distorts the colours, very slightly. A few of the copies look a bit yellowy.

And suppose I have a liking for the colour yellow, so when I pick the picture to re-copy, I am very slightly more likely to pick the ones where the white shading on Spider-Man’s eyes has come out a bit yellowish.

And suppose I do nothing for a week but make a hundred photo-copies, pick one and discard the rest, and make another hundred copies.

By the end of the week, I’ll be left with about twelve thousand reams of discarded paper, and one picture of Spider-Man with bright yellow eyes.

That, as I understand it, is the theory of evolution by natural selection Once you’ve understood it, it can’t not be true.

We only found about natural selection in the 1870s, a few years before my Granny was born; and we only found out about DNA in the 1950s, a few years before I was born. For the whole of the rest of human history, we weren’t quite sure how life got started. I don’t think that many informed people in 1870 literally believed in the Garden of Eden. Christian fundamentalism is a reaction against Darwin, not the thing Darwinism was a reaction against. But lots of Victorians definitely thought that God was involved somewhere along the line.

Darwin didn’t think that evolution abolished God. He stopped believing in God himself, but that wasn’t why. He directed annoyed Christians who wrote to him to clergymen who thought evolution and religion were compatible. Which has always been most of them.

Natural selection—stuff copies itself, and stuff which is more likely to get copied is more likely to get copied—is not so much a theory as a logical axiom. There’s no other way things could work. That which survives survives.

I think that the theory makes it preposterously unlikely that there are creatures suffering from this “consciousness” thing anywhere else in the universe; although I recognise that other people think it makes it a near certainty.

The first time I heard Richard Dawkins talking about Memes, he was talking about baseball caps.

There is no reason to wear your baseball cap back-to-front. One person flips his cap round, and someone else copies him, and before you know it, everyone has got their cap on back to front. And then the fashion dies out and reversed baseball caps are left as a symbol of the 1990s.

If the first person to start playing with a yo-yo lives on an island miles away from anywhere, then there is little chance of anyone else copying him. If he lives in a big city and takes a walk in the park every day, then there’s a very good chance that they will. And if he’s cool and good looking and related to the Queen, the chance increases exponentially. Once you’ve got the internet and TV and carrier pigeons its even easier to spread ideas. And some people, such as yo-yo manufacturers might have a vested interest in spreading the craze. So maybe there will be posters insinuating that if you learn to yo-yo you’ll be more virile and all the girls will swoon over you.

That which survives survives. That which is memorable gets remembered. Evolution is blind. Life forms mutate into forms which are good at surviving. Ideas mutate into memorable forms. Thoughts get passed on, not because they are true or beautiful or useful but because they are the kind of thoughts which get passed on.

Ideas, said the great man, spread like viruses.

The idea of computer viruses was relatively new and novel and sounded quite cutting edge. A lot of people probably thought that they were literal viruses; in the same way that some people thought that the millennium bug was actually an insect.

One very successful idea, argued the Prof, is, boo-hiss, Religion. Religion isn’t successful (he argued) because it is true or helpful or useful or pretty. It is successful because it tells people not to use birth control, to have huge families and to pass on their religious ideas to their children. And to found schools and go on missionary expeditions. And because they have memorable logos; the kinds of signs under which emperors want to conquer things. There are churches and synagogues in every village because churches and synagogues are very good at disseminating the idea that you should build churches and synagogues.

So far so axiomatic.

But then comes the fatal leap.

Ideas spread like viruses.

So we can talk about people being infected with an idea.

Religion is a very successful idea.

So we can visualise religion as a particularly virulent virus.

So we can say that a religious person is infected with the idea of religion.

So we can say that a person who has a religious belief has a diseased mind.

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Monday, November 13, 2023

13: I take it that this was the fork on which Diane Abbot wilfully impaled herself.

I take it that this was the fork on which Diane Abbot wilfully impaled herself.

In a lot of liberal discourse, racism doesn’t mean bigotry or prejudice in general; it specifically means white supremacy. Race specifically refers to the distinction between former colonial powers and former colonised people; between former slaves and former slave owners. It is, as a children’s book I have read helpfully puts it, a story made up by white people to make them feel less bad about the bad things which other white people have done in the past.

A Jew can’t, on this definition, be the victim of racism any more than a Chinese person can be the victim of Anti-Semitism. Which is not at all the same thing as saying that chucking bricks through the windows of your local takeaway is perfectly okay.

Once the distinction was explained to me, I fully grasped it and saw it as valid. This is why I no longer wish to celebrate being white--because white means “a descendent of the people who treated Black people as livestock and industrial machinery” and Black (on this definition) means “a descendent of one of the people who was so treated”.

But I can perfectly well celebrate being a Bristolian of Kernow/Cockney heritage.

Interpreting “you can’t be racist towards Jews” as meaning “anti-Jewish bigotry is perfectly fine” is at best a wilful misunderstanding and at worst a pun.

But sending a letter to a national newspaper and not realising that the statement is inflammatory is not very bright; particularly when you are a prominent political figure.

Discussing whether or not the letter was inflammatory is also quite inflammatory, which is one of the reasons I no longer write articles of this kind.

“Asking what woke means is a woke deflection strategy used by woke people who won’t admit that woke things are woke. Woke is much too complicated an idea to explain in a single sentence, but by Trump, I know it when I see it.”

It is, in fact, perfectly possible to define complicated ideas in short sentences.

--“The branch of Christianity which holds that people are predestined to go to heaven or hell, and which emphasises the moral virtue of hard work.”

--“A political movement that believes that the state should control all the resources and share them fairly among the people.”

--“A theory of literature which holds that books contain meanings other than the ones the writer consciously intended.”

--“The Son is God, the Father is God, the Holy Ghost is God: the Son is not the Father or the Holy Spirit; the Father is not the Holy Spirit or the Son; the Holy Spirit is not the Son or the Father.”

Well: okay, maybe not the last one.

But we shouldn’t try to hold the far-right to a single definition of woke, any more than we can hold Diane Abbot to a single definition of racism.

There is no shame in sometimes using the w-word as synonym for “liberal” and at other times using it to mean “a person who believes the theory race is a story made up by white people to justify them being in charge of everything.” And it would perhaps be fairer if people like me asked “In what sense are you using the word?” rather than “What does the word mean?”

Meaning is not singular and texts require exegesis. The meaning of Lord of the Rings is not limited to what Tolkien meant by it, “but what did Tolkien mean by Lord of the Rings?” is a perfectly good question.

I don’t think Brian Michael Bendis created Miles Morales because he wanted to dismantle white supremacy.

I think he thought that “the death of Spider-Man” was a cool idea for a story that could be tried out in Ultimate Spider-Man without harming a half-century of mainstream Marvel continuity. I think he thought that Spider-Man is quintessentially a New Yorker and there are a lot of Hispanic people in New York so it would be a fun twist if Peter Parker’s replacement was a young Puerto-Rican. Peter Parker was, like his creators, very probably a non-religious Jew.

Brian Michael Bendis wasn’t part of a shadowy conspiracy, nor was he operated by a mysterious cabal of Cultural Marxists. Ultimate Spider-Man and Into The Spiderverse are not, in that sense, woke.

But, if you already believe that white supremacy is a good thing and ethnic representation is a bad thing then the Miles Morales character flies in the face of your ideology. He says, by his very existence, that not all heroes and protagonists are necessarily white. There is no reason for him to be Hispanic—the stories aren’t particularly about his ethnicity—but he surely sends a message to minority kids that they can be superheroes too.

When you say that Ultimate Spider-Man is woke, I am entitled to ask “In what sense are you using the word?”

Do you mean that the writer is part of a shadow conspiracy to dismantle white supremacy?

Or is woke merely the word you use to describe stories which feature non-white characters?

Is there a literal cabal of cultural Marxists who surreptitiously hide liberal ideas in superhero comics?

Or is woke simply the word you use to describe liberal ideas?

Does the Woke Mob exist?

Or are they simply a figure of speech?

If people believe the devil exists, then some of them will become satanists and black magicians.

But hardly any of them will become atheists, and lots of them will be forewarned against possible diabolical temptations.

If people don’t believe in the devil, then it is easier for the devil to tempt them into mortal sin and easier to make them deny God as well. But on the down side, hardly any of them will become witches or devil worshippers.

So argues Screwtape in a letter to his nephew.

But Hell, he says, is developing it’s ultimate weapon; the Materialist Magician, the human who worships Satan but doesn’t believe that Satan exists. When this is achieved, he says, victory in the war against Heaven will be in nearly won.

It isn’t clear if C.S Lewis had seen the Usual Suspects when he wrote this line. He’d probably read Baudelaire: he’d read everything. He’s mainly scoring a cheap point against people like Bernard Shaw and HG Wells who didn’t believe in God but were prepared to talk about a pantheistic life-force; and perhaps also against soft-scientists like Freud and Jung who sometimes drifted into mystical and religious language.

The Woke Mob doesn’t exist: any more than the Political Correctness Brigade or the Social Justice Warriors exist. I suppose that if members of the Democratic Party were really baby-eating-alien-space-lizards there would be a way of finding out; say by running a midichlorian count or pointing Rom’s energy analyser at them. 

There really was an American Communist party in the 1950s and some of its members really did carry cards.

If there is no actually existing organisation you can prove controls the colour of chocolate beans and the configurations of public toilets, then the word woke is no use to you. It’s just one more synonym for liberal. “Liberal things are liberal because they are liberal” is not a great rallying call. We fear the Woke Mob and the Political Correctness Brigade and the Social Justice Warriors because they have power and agency and malicious intent.

But they don’t exist. There is no shadowy confederacy of Jews plotting the downfall of civilisation from a secret Volcano base in Frankfurt. There is no man in an office painting the Smarties pink.

But suppose you could both believe in the Woke Mob and not believe in it?

Suppose it was a real malign entity, distinct from people whose opinions just happen to be to the left of yours?

Suppose it was like the voice of Obi-Wan Kenobi and Doctor Strange’s Ectoplasmic Self?

Suppose that it was like the tongues of fire at Pentecost.

Free floating. Invisible. Malignant. Real.

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