A "Grab Bag" of Self-Refuting Positions

In his Introduction to Logic, Harry Gensler defines a self-refuting statement as “[A] statement that makes negative claims so sweeping that it ends up denying itself.” [1] In other words, it results when an argument or position is undercut by its own criteria  (An example of this would be saying, “I cannot speak a word of English” in English).  Off the top of my head and in no particular order, here’s a grab-bag of several self-refuting positions which I’ve documented over the years:

  1. Truth does not exist (Is that a true statement?)
  2. Nothing is absolute (Is that absolutely true?)
  3. I do not exist (You must exist to deny that you exist)
  4. Science is the only way to know (Can you scientifically prove that?)
  5. Only what can be perceived by the five senses exists (Can you prove that by the five senses?)
  6. Nobody can know anything for sure (Do you know that for sure?)
  7. Nobody can know anything about God (How do you know that?)
  8. Talk about God is meaningless (Since it is a statement about God, this statement is meaningless too)
  9. Reality is just your interpretation, objective reality does not exist (That’s just your interpretation)
  10. “‘Everything we think and do is the function of our genes/nervous system'”: Is this belief itself just the result of genetic/neutral activity? If so, why trust it — or any belief we have? If your belief happens to be right, it’s just by accident” [2]
  11. There are no beliefs (You expect me to believe that?) [3]
  12. Everything is meaningless (So is that statement)

I’ll be adding to this as they keep coming to me, suggestions are welcome!


[1] – Harry J. Gensler, Introduction to Logic (New York, NY: Routledge 2002)p:396
[2] – Paul Copan, Loving Wisdom: Christian Philosophy of Religion (Danvers, MA: Chalice 2007) p.62
[3] – Victor Reppert, C. S. Lewis’s Dangerous Idea (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity 2003)p.75

6 replies
  1. Jason
    Jason says:

    Great post, Tim.

    I can think of a few slight variations of examples 1 and 9: constructivism, perspectivism (we can never know reality as it truly is, the most we can know is reality from our own perspective) and cultural relativism (truth is always shaped by and relative to the culture in which it is found).

    “I am not a thinking being” is another one, raised of course by Descartes (although this can be argued to be pragmatically self-refuting, rather than semantically incoherent).

    And what about classical foundationalism, as Plantinga and others have argued? (CF: A belief is only rational for a person if and only if it is either (1) self-evident or incorrigible, (2) evident to the senses or (3) logically inferred from other beliefs that arise from 1 or 2)

  2. Wintery Knight
    Wintery Knight says:

    I added Rational Thoughts to my blogroll. The

    My contribution is “Don’t make moral judgments of me because it’s wrong to judge”.

    I’ll be featuring this post in about 8 hours.

  3. TimothyH
    TimothyH says:

    Yes, it would seem that classical foundationalism is self-refuting because it is not properly basic according to its own criteria.

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