Critical Thinking Toolkit: Self-Defeating Statements

Have you ever heard someone say something you find completely unbelievable? I’m sure we all have. Often, we think this because we know things that make the opposing claim unbelievable. There are many examples I could give, but I think your thoughts have probably already filled in some examples for me, so I won’t. Absurd ideas are everywhere. The question I will ask – and answer – here is the ideas that are the “most absurd” possible. How absurd could an idea be?

An Example of the Absurd

To get to the bottom of this, let’s think of what makes something “absurd” in the first place. One way we might think of this is that something absurd “flies in the face of all the evidence.” Imagine, for instance, you are talking to a person who claims that Joe Biden, the soon-to-be President of the United States, does not exist. Surely, whether or not you like Biden, you think he is a real person. Wouldn’t it be strange if millions of U.S. citizens voted for a person who did not exist for President? Surely, Joe Biden is a real person who actually exist. To deny that Joe Biden exists is absurd.

Conspiracy theories (those that are unsubstantiated at least) are also on the same basis. To be as uncontroversial as possible, let’s go with Holocaust denial, the belief that aliens built the Egyptian pyramids, and the view (held by nobody so far as I know) that Abraham Lincoln never lived. You could just do a Google search to figure out how some very misguided people try to deny that the Holocaust ever happened if you wanted to. I also greatly enjoy this video, which is a mock interview in which someone pretends to believe that Abraham Lincoln never lived and uses all kinds of ridiculous tactics to try to justify this “belief” of his. I’d highly recommend the video – it is very comical and also makes the point well… at least to me it does. At any rate, conspiracy theories generally are also quite absurd – although possibly one or two of them are really true.

Can any belief be more absurd than these? Believe it or not, I think yes. These may all come in a tie for second, but there is a specific type of belief that turns out to be so absurd that it has to win.

The Greatest Absurdity Possible: Self-Refutation

With the previous ideas I’ve mentioned, notice at least that none of the basic laws of logic disqualify them. There is no law of logic, say, that could tell us that the Holocaust did not happen. This is not because there is any real doubt that it did happen, but because all historical events require concrete physical evidence or human testimony to back them up, and this sort evidence could in theory be mistaken. People could hypothetically lie or be misguided, and physical evidence could hypothetically be misleading or incomplete.

Of course, mere hypotheticals need not lead us astray. But could there be beliefs that can’t even hypothetically be true? Well certainly – an easy example would be the claim that two plus two makes five. That cannot be true, because in fact two plus to makes four and four is not equal to five. It might seem, then, that a claim like “two plus two makes five” might be the height of absurdity.

I would say yes and no. Yes, this has the lowest possible likelihood of being true – namely it is completely impossible. Yet, I still think we can do something even worse. Let me give you an example of something I think is even more ridiculous. Consider the following sentence:

I don’t know how to write any words in English.

Notice something here. If somebody tries to tell me that two and two make five, I need to go to a different statement, namely the true statement that two and two make four, to refute them. With this odd statement, I don’t even need a new statement. They literally just wrote down words in English, which is the very thing they just claimed they could not do! In that sense, I don’t even need to correct them – they have already corrected themselves! Sentences like this one are called self-refuting claims. This is because the content of the sentence is in direct contradiction to something about the sentence itself. Here is another example:

There are no sentences in English that are longer than ten words.

That sentence is written in English and is twelve words long, but says that there cannot be any sentences in English that are more than ten words long. The sentence literally disproves itself! A claim that instantly disproves itself is at the height of absurdity – these are even more obviously incorrect than conspiracy theories.

Examples that People Actually Believe

Surely nobody actually believes any of these non-sensical ideas, right? Sadly, no. There are people who really do believe things that are self-refuting. Allow me to give a few examples I have heard uttered by actual people before.

All Religious Beliefs Are Equally True: The people who say this will normally reject almost everything I believe about religion in a heartbeat. Yet the sentence they just uttered would imply that my religious beliefs and theirs are on equal footing. See how they just contradicted themselves?

There is No Absolute Truth!: Ask yourself whether the claim “there is not absolute truth” is absolutely true or not. If it is not, why should I believe it? But if it is absolutely true, then there are absolute truths, namely that absolute truth itself!

Science is the Only Way to Truth: Ask yourself whether “science is the only way to truth” can be scientifically proven to be true. Obviously not! No laboratory experiment or blackboard calculation could ever prove a thing like that. Therefore, if this claim is correct, then it is incorrect too! I think it goes without saying we cannot accept something so obviously mistaken.

Conclusion

I think these examples should be humbling to us all. You can probably think of people who believe something like this, or perhaps you do (or did) yourself until recently. Whether or not we as individuals have ever fallen prey to something so absurd on its face, we ought to be humble. We might someday fall prey to trickery and wind up believing something like this. We must have enough intellectual integrity and humility to be willing to look at what we believe and ask ourselves – do my beliefs stand up to the standards of my beliefs? The answer is surprisingly non-obvious. Do we criticize others for being selfish but retain selfishness within ourselves? Do we mock religious people – or non-religious people – for believing things without evidence when we believe things without any evidence ourselves? As flawed human beings, we often find ourselves falling into these traps. May all of us become better at avoiding these intellectually toxic pitfalls for the sake of the common good of humanity. If we can avoid these absurdities, maybe our disagreements can become more reasonable and society may profit from the fruits of more and more genuine conversations.

5 thoughts on “Critical Thinking Toolkit: Self-Defeating Statements

  1. Good post. 🙂

    I do find it hard to agree that the claim “All Religious Beliefs Are Equally True” is self-contradictory. For that to be contradictory, you either need to know contradictory religious beliefs or know other statements from those you are discussing with, e.g.: “The people who say this will normally reject almost everything I believe about religion in a heartbeat.” In that case, “All religious beliefs are equally true and you are wrong” becomes the self-refuting statement, which is much weaker claim anyway.

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    1. Fair. Although if X is a self-refuting claim and is weaker than Y, then Y is also self-refuting, because Y implies everything that X implies (since Y is stronger than X). If you want some explicit contradictions, take Islam and Christianity. According to the Qur’an, saying Jesus died on the cross and rose from the dead is false, and according to Christianity it is true. These are central claims of both religious systems – if you deny this claim you by definition cannot be a Christian, and if you accept this claim you cannot be definition be a Muslim. So, if “all religious claims are equally true” is true, it implies the contradiction that Jesus both did and did not die on the cross and rise from the dead.

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      1. It depends on where the line is drawn as to what is truly implied by each statement. “All religious claims are equally true” is not falsifiable if the only religious claims are “Jesus died and rose” and “There are many gods.”

        I guess that example seems like the only one that needs explicit contradictions to be explained, whereas for the other ones, the statement itself is the contradiction. But for many of them, semantics seem like they could get in the way if one tried to figure out at what point the statement itself breaks down.

        To what extent should a statement stand alone for it to be considered self-refuting?

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      2. I see what you mean now. When I wrote that, I took it to mean “In the 21st century world, all religious claims made by all major religious worldviews are equally true.” This one is only self-refuting in light of the background information of the various available religious worldviews.

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      3. Also, consider the negation “Not all religious claims are equally true.” That is a claim about religion, and thus must be true according to the original claim. This, if P is the original claim, then not P is also true. Thus, self-refuting

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