The I-Have-Big-Muscles Fallacy


Harvard graduate walks down the street where a 50-lb sack of cement blocks his way. He reaches down to shift it but discovers that despite all his might the bulk won’t budge. He says to any who will listen, “I am a Harvard graduate with big muscles, and I cannot move this weight; therefore, it cannot be moved.”

This is a fallacy because any man not bound for government employment could easily lift the sack. That this two-legged anemic could not is insufficient (logical) evidence that nobody could.

Stated thus, the fallacy is plain and is so obvious that only a Harvard graduate (GPA 4.0 in Women’s Studies) could make it. It survives, though, and is not uncommon because it isn’t usually stated in terms of prodigious physiques but of mental muscles.

This logical infirmity strikes politicians and pundits particularly, where it often leads to the False Dichotomy, which is a special case of the Big Muscles. A politician will say, “We have to raise taxes because nothing else will work” and the pundit will agree: “I have a degree and therefore since I can’t see an alternative, there isn’t one.” But these examples are many and low and so we pass quickly on.

Take something meatier, such as the philosophical “problem” of other minds. Some academics say that since we cannot prove there are other minds, other minds therefore don’t exist. It is rare to state the conclusion as bluntly; still, the denial is implicit in the long-winded and futile attempts at proving what all can see. From Plato:

That other human beings are mostly very like ourselves is something about which almost all of us, almost all of the time, are certain. There are exceptions, among them philosophical sceptics, and perhaps those suffering from some abnormal mental condition…

Unsurprisingly, given that human beings are social, if not all necessarily sociable beings, this lack of agreement is more than a case of philosophers engaging in some abstractly theoretical controversy and contestation…

There is general agreement among philosophers that the problem of other minds is concerned with the fundamental issue of what entitles us to our basic belief that other human beings do have inner lives rather than whether we are able in specific cases to be sure what is happening in those inner lives.

However, there are (at least) two problems of other minds. There is the epistemological problem, concerned with how our beliefs about mental states other than our own might be justified…

It is not that proof in the form of argumentation for what we can know of other minds (minds which are obvious) won’t provide fascinating and rich details, which is very true, but that some philosophers really do in their more enthusiastic moments embrace their doubts and believe the existence of other minds can’t be known.

We see the same sort of arguments over solipsism, free will, and so forth. Everybody can see that there are other minds, that they alone do not exist, that we all have free will, but then, for some, theory enters. Certain premises (the theory) are embraced which lead inexorably to the conclusion that other minds can’t be known, that the theory holder alone exists (or they exist in a “vat” or simulation), that the theory holder doesn’t have free will, that things can’t be know as they are in themselves, and on and on. There are no seeming problems with the premises; they must be true. The conclusions necessarily follow.

The argument becomes, “I can’t see how any of the premises are false; therefore, none are false. Thus the absurdity follows.” The Harvard graduate hasn’t been able to lift the weight, the weight cannot be lifted. The faith the person has in his abilities—his self esteem—has triumphed over plain reality.

The Big Muscles in this way is no different than the dullard who says, “I don’t see how a material thing can be both a wave and a particle; therefore, it must be one or the other,” Or, “I can’t figure out a better system of government than democracy, which is said to be better than all the other ones; therefore, it is the best.”

We musn’t confuse the Big Muscles with the Deadly Sin of Refication, which shares similarities. Reification, like Big Muscles, occurs when a man embraces theory over reality, but in Reification the premises really are true and the conclusion thus also true, but where the premises or conclusion replace reality. Thus a mathematician will lay out a set of self-consistent equations and say, “These represent another universe which exists” and where the act of mapping the symbols in the equations to reality has taken place only in the mathematician’s mind.


  1. Sheri

    It’s a lot like gender—cross-dressing was cute and done with some class, then came “gender identity” and it became ugly. The question of are there other minds was cutesy and examined for mental exercise, then some took it seriously, and again, ugly occurred.

    So if material things can be both a wave and a particle, why can’t life be something other than carbon-based?

    “where the premises or conclusion replace reality”—that’s the point where it turns ugly.

  2. vuurklip

    We cannot find natural causes for climate change – therefore humans are the cause.

  3. Gary

    I want, therefore it is.
    The first failure.
    The continuing failure.
    And probably the last failure.

  4. Ken

    “Oho!” said the pot to the kettle;
    “You are dirty and ugly and black!
    Sure no one would think you were metal,
    Except when you’re given a crack.”

    “Not so! not so!” kettle said to the pot;
    “‘Tis your own dirty image you see;
    For I am so clean – without blemish or blot –
    That your blackness is mirrored in me.”

  5. JH

    I really don’t’ know if any of the mathematicians around me has ever claimed that “These represent another universe which exists,” I imagine that some sort of mathematical realists would think so and that some mathematicians believe embodied mind theories. They probably would tell you that you may label in anyway you wish because it makes no difference in their work.

    (1)”He says to any who will listen, “I am a Harvard graduate with big muscles, and I cannot move this weight; therefore, it cannot be moved.”

    (2)”This is a fallacy because any man not bound for government employment could easily lift the sack.”

    Ah, any man. The claimers of (1) and (2) definitely have different mindsets.

    I read somewhere that fear, prejudice and generalization are the original sin of cognition.

  6. There’s nothing new about putting ideology ahead of reality. It’s tribalism in action. You conservatives are the worst when it comes to this. Harvard grads have nothing on you guys. And no matter how your ideology inevitably fails, you still cling to it. Conservative foreign policy, domestic policy, fiscal policy, all proven, over and over again, to be failures, complete and utter failures. And yet you dummies still cling to it. Cognitive dissonance is all it is.


  7. Gary

    JMJ still clings to the I-Don’t-Like-You-So-You’re-A-Dummy version of the fallacy under discussion. Irony impairment is fascinating to behold.

    Cognitive dissonance actually is that uncomfortable feeling one gets when doing something that contradicts ones beliefs. Whether those beliefs are in failed things or not is determined by the evidence. And whether “conservatives” actually believe what is attributed to them or not is quite another question.

  8. My philosophy students frequently commit a variation of this fallacy. They say, “No one can know there is a God.” They project their ignorance on all of humanity. What they are really saying is, “Since I don’t know there is a god, no one else can either.” (Appeal to ignorance)

  9. John B()

    Isn’t there an old cheer that goes:

    Billy, Billy, he’s our man
    If he can’t do it, nobody can

  10. Yes, Gary, guys like you walk around in a constant state of cognitive dissonance.


  11. JMJ: Progressives as described by “Crimestop” in the book 1984:

    “Crimestop refers to the ability to stop short of any thought that might be heretical or unorthodox before it is even thought, as if by instinct. It is the ability to misunderstand analogies, fail to perceive logical errors, and be repelled or bored by any train of thought or conversation that might” run counter to the government consensus.

    Crimestop is not stupidity, or at least not natural stupidity. It is the ability to deliberately retard one’s own intelligence, and, of course, to forget the process of doing it by doublethink.”

    Somehow that is just the perfect description of progressives today. Never an original thought or one’s head would explode…..I have begun to believe you don’t even read the posts, just post one-liners.

  12. Sander van der Wal


    There is no such thing as conservative policy. There’s American conservative policy, German conservative policy (which differs from American conservative policy), British Conservative policy (which differs very much indeed from German conservative policy) and so on and so forth.

    Surely American Progressivists haven’t forgotten there’s a world outside the USA, them claiming to be the smart ones.

  13. Steve E

    JMJ, like his avatar, is a cartoon in a cartoon graveyard

  14. Ken

    Lousy analyses are a symptom of incentives that encourage lousy, and outright corrupt, analysis and/or selection of an analysis [based on what it supports, not on its intrinsic merits for basing any decision]. The lousy logic Briggs’ focuses on are symptoms of larger issues, they are not the issues themselves.

    “Publish or perish” in academia encourages/requires faculty to conduct studies in arbitrary time limits to publish enough; the same criteria encourages peer review to be lax and even ignore flaws for quid pro quo (‘you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours’), and, to conduct studies of dubious merit to conduct SOMETHING that can get published — quantity counts much more than quality of the publications in that realm. That one example of an endless list of such perverse incentive systems.

    H.R.P. summed up government similarly decades ago: “Our system of government is the problem. We’ve got to change the system. I’m critical of the system and not individuals. I have said that you could replace everybody in Congress, find the best people in the country, put them in that system, and in months they’d look just like the people you’re replacing.”

    The inability of so many here to even comprehend this is what JMJ touched on earlier…proof is in the response — not on any defense of the de/merits of views expressed but rather personal & ad hominem attacks on a person expressing a viewpoint.

    And that’s interesting — a blog endeavoring to argue logic, resolve erroneous analysis, and overtly endorsing God from a Catholic perspective is oh-so-effective at consistently nurturing conflict that’s ‘180 degrees’ the opposite of both the solid logic espoused AND the “Golden Rule.”

    One judges a tree by its fruits goes the saying…

  15. Nate

    I would hardly call internet comments fruits of anything, Ken. Maybe the rotten fruit that fell off.

  16. Steve E

    Ken: JMJ “touched” on nothing earlier except the ad hominem and name calling you ascribe to others. JMJ subscribes to rules for radicals and the best way to respond is in kind. That’s why he’s a cartoon. His opinions are seldom informed and consist mostly of: “everyone here but me is stupid;” “everyone here is a conservative dummy;” and frankly your comments read pretty much the same way to me. You might want to try milk on your cornflakes instead of the pi$$ someone keeps supplying.

  17. Joy

    It is also false logic to say that because someone disagrees they don’t understand. It’s the most common fallacy used on here.
    A blatant ad hominem hidden in plain sight.

  18. Gary

    guys like you walk around in a constant state of cognitive dissonance.
    JMJ, and you know this how?

  19. brad tittle

    There are people who can throw baseballs with little instruction. There are people who require extensive instruction to learn to throw a baseball well. There are folks who, after following the instructions, learn to throw the ball well. There are also folks who with all the instruction in the world never quite figure out how to throw a ball.

    There are people watching those learning to throw baseballs, who can point to the ones who will be able to learn to throw well. There are people watching who can’t.

    You can point to the person and say “He won’t ever quite get it!”. You are going to be wrong, but not completely.

    A friend of mine who taught at Nuclear Power School said “somewhere between 1 in 50 and 1 in 100 people who go through the enlisted side of nuclear power school have the light bulb come on”.

    I think the rate of understanding throwing a baseball is a little higher. The light bulb in nuclear power is not an indicator of lack of worth of the individual to nuclear power. If they can regurgitate procedure and appear to understand what is going on, that is usually enough to make them a good asset. A person can learn to throw a ball well and still never quite get it.

    A person can have as many degrees as is possible to get and still be clueless.

    I do walk around in a state of cognitive dissonance. It is not the state that JMJ thinks the folks who can bond here have.

  20. brad tittle

    Ken: I worked for a newspaper awhile ago. On the staff of the newspaper was a gentleman who had won the National Chile Cookoff. To celebrate, the cook provided his recipe and 4 folks went off to replicate what he made. We all followed the same directions. Not one of the resultant Chile was anything close to what he made. Not one of our efforts was even close to each other.

    None of them tasted bad. The Champion’s tasted ever so much better than ours. None of us had tasted his chile prior to making the recipe.

    We make recipes all the time. Recipes for food. Recipes for building homes. Recipes for government. There are the folks who understand the recipes and the folks who sort of understand them. There are also a lot of folks who don’t give a rip about any of them. Dealing with the ones who don’t give a rip is not easy. We have to learn to ignore them and we have to learn how not to ignore them. There are no right answers. There are so many wrong answers.

    I am an atheist who doesn’t see our host as trying to force Catholicism on the world .I just see him trying to explain why pure science can’t answer the Question. Science helps us whittle away at what isn’t part of the question. It never quite shows us what is part of the question. That place in between is where philosophy blossoms.

  21. acricketchirps

    Your boss cooked an entire country?! I’m betting he was one of the 1 in a hundred at nuke school.

  22. acricketchirps

    Right, Gary. I for one do not walk around.

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