Many years ago, during the modern era (as opposed to the “postmodern” one we live in today), I had a job that included teaching elementary logic. Probably the most important topic was one about informal fallacies, those evilly persuasive tricks of argumentation that have colorful names like “no true Scotsman,” “Motte and Bailey,” and “red herring.” One of my favorites is a form of Begging the Question (assuming what you are purporting to prove). I call it the Irrefutable Proposition fallacy.
What is an Irrefutable Proposition? An example is the statement made by followers of the writer Alisa Rosenbaum (popularly known as Ayn Rand), that the only rational motive for human action is self-interest. When you respond by giving examples of apparently rational altruism – the billionaire that gave away his fortune, Mother Teresa, and so on – the response is that the psychic value of their actions to these individuals was greater than the worth of the money or comfort that they sacrificed. It was in their self-interest to feel good, and sacrificing made them feel good.
No matter what example you give, the arguer will subtly redefine self-interest to include it. The way to expose the fallacy is to ask “what would count as a counterexample?” Any proposition that has empirical content, that is, that expresses something novel about the world, must be capable of being disconfirmed by facts. If there is no imaginable fact that could show it to be false, that indicates that it is not a proposition about the world – rather, it is about the meaning of the words in it.
So if your friend can’t come up with a counterexample, if there are no imaginable facts that could falsify it, then you know that he is defining “self-interest” in such a way as to include all rational motives. He is, in other words, assuming the thing he claims to be proving.
Another example is the unfortunately current notion of “white fragility,” in which the proposition that all whites are racist cannot be refuted, because the attempt to do so is taken as prima facie evidence of racism. The numerous private and public enterprises that have paid good money to the author of a book on the subject could have engaged me for far less to explain why the irrefutability of a statement usually indicates that it is part of a circular argument.
There is another kind of Irrefutable Proposition, which is the appeal to Private Facts. A Private Fact is one that is only accessible to the speaker, and therefore can’t be refuted. For example, if I say that I am thinking about beautiful flowers right now, nobody can provide conclusive evidence (at least with the current state of brain science) that my statement is false. I am the only one to whom my thought is perceivable.
A statement of Private Fact isn’t in itself fallacious. I may indeed be thinking about beautiful flowers. But when a Private Fact is presented as both a statement about the world that may have consequences, and at the same time an irrefutable statement, then a red flag goes up. You can’t have it both ways: either the statement is only about yourself, in which case it can’t be challenged, or it is about the world and there could be evidence that would count against it being true.
An example, suppose I were to say that I, a grandfather of nine, am in fact a woman. I might support this statement by appealing to a private perception of my gender, something which is different from my biological sex and the social role that I have been playing for the past 77 years. Since this gender is not perceivable by anyone else, nobody can refute my statement. I am the only one who can know if it is true or false.
Someone could argue that the definition of “gender” that I appear to be using differs from the common usage of that word. But as long as I am consistent, I haven’t committed a fallacy. The logical problem arises when I insist that my social role must change in every respect, beginning with pronouns and continuing through restroom privileges, socially appropriate clothing, and every other gender-role dependent consideration. In that case, I have insisted that my Private Fact about gender is actually an empirical fact, on the model of biological sex. It is not just about myself, but must have real-world consequences. And that is fallacious.
I only bring this up as an example (my full treatment of transgenderism is here). Note that the response to objections would not be an attempt to justify the logic. Rather, it would be to say that anyone who doesn’t accept the demands that gender proclamations be accepted as true, and that there be serious real-world penalties for anyone who transgresses them, is a cis-gender transphobic oppressor.
What is happening here is that many things that appear to the “unwoke” as absurdities in fact spring from a single ideological root: the postmodernism of Lyotard, Foucault, Derrida, and others. This is the source for the excesses of political correctness, microaggressions, intersectionality, identity politics, transgenderism, post-colonialism, racial and gender studies courses, “queer theory;” moral, cultural, and epistemic relativism; the replacement of history by “narrative,” the distrust of science, attacks on free speech, the conflation of speech with violence – I could go on. And on. An exposition well worth reading of these connections from a liberal perspective is found in a recent article by Helen Pluckrose, entitled “How French ‘Intellectuals’ Ruined the West: Postmodernism and Its Impact, Explained.”
To oversimplify, postmodernists believe that there is no objective truth; what is presented as such is part of a socially constructed narrative designed to keep empowered groups (“oppressors”) on top and others – especially “people of color,” but also women, sexual and gender minorities, disabled people, and others – subjugated. Because of the pervasiveness of the narratives, the oppressors are unable to understand the point of view of the oppressed, no matter how well-intentioned they may be. This was specifically applied to the (non-Jewish) peoples of the Middle East by Edward Said, in his book “Orientalism,” probably the single most popular work in syllabi of Middle East Studies departments.
Identity is paramount in postmodern theory. What you are determines where you fit, what narratives you live by, and of course whether you are an oppressor or oppressed. Perhaps this explains the fury directed toward Jessica Krug and Rachel Dolezal who “appropriated” a racial identity that didn’t belong to them (although there doesn’t seem to be a problem with appropriation of gender).
Postmodernists reject the enlightenment conceptions of the primacy of reason, objective truth, tolerance of dissent, and human rights, which are tacitly accepted by those of us who would call themselves liberals or conservatives. All these are seen as artifacts of an oppressive social system. Logic is a tool of oppression. Even mathematics has been accused of racism!
This is why postmodernists don’t take arguments against transgenderism and white fragility (and so on) seriously. They see them as simply expressions of the oppressive narrative that gave birth to them, and the progressive response is to de-platform or “cancel” the speaker, or (perhaps in the not-so-distant future), to send them to a gulag.
Postmodernism and its children postcolonialism, critical race theory, intersectionality, transgenderism, and all the rest have been gestating in the chest of academia for decades; but like the creature from Alien, they have just burst out into the outside world. Although beset with internal inconsistencies, the ideology sees the demand for consistency as just another tool for oppression. Identity overrides reason.
It can be argued that a combination of political instability in the developed world, and natural phenomena like the Coronavirus epidemic, could bring about humanity’s decline into another “dark age.” If that should happen, then no philosophy would fit it better than postmodernism.
First of all, L’Shana Tova
I’ve been enjoying your columns for a good number of years, and I thank you for your efforts.
Second of all, I’m a Math and Engineering type of guy, and not a humanities and liberal arts type of guy. Attempting to understand and internalize the terms and definitions related to matters such as, “informal fallacies”, and “irrefutable arguments”, taxes my decaying abilities to remain alert and in a state of good humor. Like you, I’m also in my seventies!
A question regarding a passage in this blog:
“If there is no imaginable fact that could show it (an irrefutable fallacy) to be false, that indicates that it is not a proposition about the world – rather, it is about the meaning of the words in it.
So if your friend can’t come up with a counterexample, if there are no imaginable facts that could falsify it, then you know that he is defining “self-interest” in such a way as to include all rational motives. He is, in other words, assuming the thing he claims to be proving.”
It seems to me that this particular means of deconstructing or debunking the irrefutable fallacious proposition being forwarded by a presumed, “wokester”, is a technique in which the person who seeks to, “win”, via use of, “irrefutable fallacy”, is invited to reply coherently to the demand for the required counter argument (thereby “hanging himself”), or remaining silent, and THEREBY, “hanging himself”.
Am I correct?
I think it was required liberal arts and humanities courses that most motivated me to drop out of college in 1967, and go into the US Army!
I believe that had I understood, then, that Math/Engineering suited ME. I wouldhave easily gone on to an advanced degree.
Correct. The idea is to show the person who is making the argument that his proposition is irrefutable because it is really about the meaning of words, not things in the world.
You are showing him that his statement that “all whites are racist” is not about white people and racism. It is about his definition of the word ‘racism’ in the context of how he understands the relationships of racial groups, power, etc.
He defines ‘racism’ as something like ‘the universally oppressive result of how white people relate to people of color.’ So naturally you can’t come up with an example of a non-racist white person, according to his understanding of the concept. Part of his idea of racism is that it applies to all white people.
The fact that it is ALWAYS true is the giveaway that it isn’t a factual statement, but one about his use of words.
A wonderful post… and necessary.
The formality you give to the discussion is extremely helpful. Of the many arguments you’re vetting here it is often the case that in the real world they are accompanied by much thuggishness. For example, Black Lives Matter (BLM) appears today on sandwich boards by the entrances at many large corporate stores around the US. There are at least two currents to the message put forth by this group that give pause to any casual observer… the sheer number of blacks killed in the US each year by other blacks (~ 7,000!!) versus the few deaths (< ~20!) attributable to police interactions of which BLM is only interested in the white-on-black kind…, and the logical sophistry of not affirming that all lives matter. None of the current BLM-backing would take hold if it were not for the accompanying violence–rioting, looting, personal physical attacks and the shouting down of disagreement–which causes many to appease the militants. Soros DAs also have a hand!
Besides the logical armament you supply, stopping the violence is the sine qua non of your prescriptions working a cure.