29 April 2007


"Bulverism" was the name of an essay by C.S. Lewis, outlining a fallacy that he believed was quite prevalent, especially in discussions of religion.

I'll adopt one of his examples. Suppose I believe that I have a large positive net worth. After doing all my books, adding up all my assets and liabilities as best I can, I conclude that the former exceed the latter by a comfortable sum.

This surprises the fictional character "Bulver" that Lewis invented, So Bulver says, "You say that because you are of an unrealistically optimistic temperament, the cause of which...." and so forth.

The point, Lewis said, is that Bulver simply assumes my statement is wrong, and in place of any argument why I am wrong, why my reasons are inadequate, he offers an account of the psychological cause of my (presumed and unproven) error.

Now, IF I am wrong, the fact should show itself in an examination of the books. If after looking over my accounts, you can make a reasonable case that I failed to count some liability I should have, then you can (if you wish) go on to speculate about the causes of that error, by unrealistic optimism, etc. It wouldn't be an error in that context.

Bulverism is an error whenever and because the discussion of causes substitutes for a discussion of reasons.

Lewis was writing in the heyday of Freudianism in the English-speaking world, and there was a certain amount of reductionism as applied to religion that justified itself in Freudian terms. "You believe in an all-powerful God because that is how you resolve your Oedipus complex, by planting your father-figure in the heavens." That is the kind of reasoning that Lewis wanted to rule "out of court," so to speak, by inventing the label of Bulverism.

Although Lewis had a point (of sorts) here, it may not have been quite the point he thought it was.

In "Why I Am Not A Christian," Bertrand Russell wrote as follows: "I do not think that the real reason why people accept religion has anything to do with argumentation. They accept religion on emotional grounds.... Religion is based, I think, primarily and mainly upon fear. It is partly the terror of the unknown and partly, as I have said, the wish to feel that you have a kind of elder brother who will stand by you in all your troubles and disputes."

Russell believed, at this point in the essay, that he had provided counter-arguments to the most common sorts of theistic argumentation. He believed (in terms of Lewis' analogy) that he had already shown that the books were erroneous, and now was free without fallacy to move on to the psychological question.

And, of course, there are cases where the theistic argumentation itself takes on an explicitly emotional cast, so that the distinction between reason and motive breaks down on its own.

There are, as always, wheels within wheels. Lewis gets credit for inventing a useful term. I'm reminded of this quatrain, which gives us a fitting close.

Myself when young did eagerly frequent
Doctor and Saint; and heard great argument
About it and about; but evermore
Came out by the same door as in I went.


Henry said...

I do not think that Russell believed that his psychological explanation for theism "provided counter-arguments to ... theistic argumentation." Rather, as the quotation you provide suggests, he did not think that the arguments for theism were the real basis of theistic belief, and therefore did not consider them worth disputing. Surely Russell was bright enough to have recognized the difference between a counter-argument and a psychological explanation.

Christopher said...


Perhaps I wasn't clear enough. What I was saying was simply that Russell believed, by that point in his essay, that he had EARLIER IN THE ESSAY provided the counter-arguments, and that having done so it was appropriate to turn to the question why people believed such erroneous things. I'm reading Russell just as you are.

Henry said...

You're right. The first sentence in the second paragraph about Russell supports my reading, but, if I'd read the second sentence (with "move on") more carefully, then I wouldn't have offered my criticism.

Knowledge is warranted belief -- it is the body of belief that we build up because, while living in this world, we've developed good reasons for believing it. What we know, then, is what works -- and it is, necessarily, what has worked for us, each of us individually, as a first approximation. For my other blog, on the struggles for control in the corporate suites, see www.proxypartisans.blogspot.com.