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Bulverism is a name for a logical fallacy that combines a genetic fallacy with circular reasoning. The method of Bulverism is to "assume that your opponent is wrong, and explain his error". The Bulverist assumes a speaker's argument is invalid or false and then explains why the speaker is so mistaken, attacking the speaker or the speaker's motive. The term "Bulverism" was coined by C. S. Lewis to poke fun at a very serious error in thinking that, he alleges, recurs often in a variety of religious, political, and philosophical debates.
Similar to Antony Flew's "Subject/Motive Shift", Bulverism is a fallacy of irrelevance. One accuses an argument of being wrong on the basis of the arguer's identity or motive, but these are strictly speaking irrelevant to the argument's validity or truth. But it is also a fallacy of circular reasoning, since it assumes, rather than argues, that one's opponent is wrong.
Source of the concept
Lewis wrote about this in a 1941 essay which was later expanded and published in The Socratic Digest under the title "Bulverism". This was reprinted both in Undeceptions and the more recent anthology God in the Dock. He explains the origin of this term:
You must show that a man is wrong before you start explaining why he is wrong. The modern method is to assume without discussion that he is wrong and then distract his attention from this (the only real issue) by busily explaining how he became so silly.
In the course of the last fifteen years I have found this vice so common that I have had to invent a name for it. I call it "Bulverism". Some day I am going to write the biography of its imaginary inventor, Ezekiel Bulver, whose destiny was determined at the age of five when he heard his mother say to his father — who had been maintaining that two sides of a triangle were together greater than a third — "Oh you say that because you are a man." "At that moment", E. Bulver assures us, "there flashed across my opening mind the great truth that refutation is no necessary part of argument. Assume that your opponent is wrong, and explain his error, and the world will be at your feet. Attempt to prove that he is wrong or (worse still) try to find out whether he is wrong or right, and the national dynamism of our age will thrust you to the wall." That is how Bulver became one of the makers of the Twentieth Century.
From Bulverism by C. S. Lewis:
Suppose I think, after doing my accounts, that I have a large balance at the bank. And suppose you want to find out whether this belief of mine is "wishful thinking." You can never come to any conclusion by examining my psychological condition. Your only chance of finding out is to sit down and work through the sum yourself. When you have checked my figures, then, and then only, will you know whether I have that balance or not. If you find my arithmetic correct, then no amount of vapouring about my psychological condition can be anything but a waste of time. If you find my arithmetic wrong, then it may be relevant to explain psychologically how I came to be so bad at my arithmetic, and the doctrine of the concealed wish will become relevant — but only after you have yourself done the sum and discovered me to be wrong on purely arithmetical grounds. It is the same with all thinking and all systems of thought. If you try to find out which are tainted by speculating about the wishes of the thinkers, you are merely making a fool of yourself. You must first find out on purely logical grounds which of them do, in fact, break down as arguments. Afterwards, if you like, go on and discover the psychological causes of the error.
Assuming one's opponent is wrong is a formal fallacy of circular reasoning. Undermining one's opponent rather than arguing that he is wrong is a fallacy of relevance or genetic fallacy. Bulverism combines both of these. One not only assumes one's opponents are mistaken but also accuses them believing the mistakes because of their motives or some accidental features of who they are.
Hence, there are as many varieties of this fallacy as there are varieties people and motives. A few examples are when the fallacious critic appeals to the arguer's profession, motives or personal wishes, political or religious affiliation, racial identity, etc.
Appeal to profession
- A mathematician argues: "2+2=4 because 2 is half of 4".
- A literature professor scoffs: "You only say that because you are a mathematician."
(The literature professor assumes 2+2 does not in fact equal 4 and explains why the mathematician is wrong by saying that professional commitment requires it.)
- Salesperson: "This car has the best gas mileage of its class according to Consumer Reports."
- Car buyer: "That's a lie. But then again, you are a car salesman and just want me to buy that car."
(The car buyer assumes the car does not get good gas mileage and attempts to undermine the salesperson's claim by appealing to self-interest.)
Appeal to motive
- Doctor: "We know there is life after death, because there are more than a million testimonies from near death experience survivors."
- Patient: "You are just saying that because you are afraid of death."
(The patient assumes there is no life after death and attempts to explain why the doctor is mistaken by appealing to the doctor's hopes and wishes.)
- Pastor: "Do not worry about your poverty, because God will reward in the next life those who are faithful."
- Poor parishioner: "You who live comfortably on tithes have every reason for telling us to stay poor."
(The poor parishioner assumes that God will not reward people in the next life, and explains why the pastor would say such a falsehood by appealing to his personal motives.)
Appeal to identity
- David Duke: "White people are victims of police brutality just as often as black people."
- Newscaster: "Honestly, would you believe a claim made by a racist?"
(The newscaster assumes white people are not as often victims of police brutality and appeals to David Duke's identity as a "racist" to explain why he is wrong.)
- A sociologist: "Some women are needed as mothers if a society is to continue."
- Feminist: "The argument that society needs women to stay home and be breeders comes, unsurprisingly, from a man."
(The feminist assumes women should not just stay home and have children and appeals to the sex of the sociologist to explain why he is wrong.)
- Atheist: "Sexual exploration is not only normal but healthy, because it ultimately improves your long-term sexual relationships."
- Theist: "You only argue for licentiousness because you don't believe in God."
(The theist assumes sexual exploration is not healthy and tries to undermine the atheist's argument by appealing to his identity as an atheist.)
- Capitalist: "The economy is not doing well because taxes are too high."
- Communist: "You are such a bad economist because you want capitalism to survive and thrive."
(The communist assumes the capitalist economist's only motive in saying this is due to his support of capitalism.)
Examples from philosophy
George Rey assumes that the arguments for theism are bad and explains why theists call themselves believers (namely, they are self-deceived). Though he might be able to give direct and devastating objections to the arguments for theism, in this paper he simply assumes they are bad and proceeds to explain why "smart people like Aquinas and Descartes" are taken in by them. Hence, the paper arguably commits Bulverism. It is akin to the fallacy from theists that atheists are wrong in not believing in gods and explaining why they are wrong (namely, they are self-deceived or wicked, perhaps due to a lack of a strong and loving father growing up).
Threat and remedy
The special threat of this fallacy lies in that it applies equally to the person who errs as to that person's opponent. Taken to its logical consequence, it implies that all arguments are unreliable and hence undermines all rational thought. Lewis says, "Until Bulverism is crushed, reason can play no effective part in human affairs. Each side snatches it early as a weapon against the other; but between the two reason itself is discredited."
For example, in all of the above examples, the Bulveristic fallacy can go the other way. The mathematician could accuse the literature professor of denying 2+2=4 just because she is a literature professor. The salesperson could accuse the car buyer of denying the car's good gas mileage simply because they do not want to buy the car. The doctor could accuse the patient of denying life after death because the patient is afraid of what the afterlife may bring. The pastor could accuse the poor parishioner of denying that God rewards people because the parishioner just doesn't want to pay the tithe. The sociologist could accuse the feminist of denying that women should be breeders because she is a woman. The atheist could accuse the theist of denying that sexual exploration is healthy because she is a theist. The capitalist could accuse the communist of being a bad economist because he is a communist. And so on.
Most people who commit this fallacy do not disbelieve in "reason itself." They simply aim to undermine their opponent's position and support their own. The problem is that they unwittingly undermine their own position as well by implying that the "source" of the reasoning is "tainted" by the reasoner, which if true, applies to their own arguments as well.
The remedy, according to Lewis, is to accept that some reasoning is not tainted by the reasoner. Some arguments are valid and some conclusions true, regardless of the identity and motives of the one who argues them.
Notes and references
- Lewis 1971, p. 225.
- Lewis, Clive Staples (29 March 1941), "Notes on the Way", Time and Tide, XXII.
- Lewis 1971, p. xv.
- Lewis, Clive Staple (June 1944), "Bulverism", The Socratic digest (2): 16–20.
- Lewis 1971, p. 223.
- Rey, George (2005). The Experience of Philosophy (PDF) (6 ed.). Oxford. Retrieved 2015-06-13.
- Lewis 1971, p. 226.
- Lewis, Clive Staples (1971), Hooper, Walter, ed., Undeceptions: Essays on Theology and Ethics, London: Geoffrey Bles.