Homunculus Fallacy

Every so often I think of a new way of explaining something. Lately, most of these haven’t quite been as credible as I might like (Sartre on ‘facticity’ and Frozen, Mr Potato from Peppa Pig) and this one, I guess, isn’t much better.

The homunculus fallacy is an error in reasoning that rears it’s head regularly in the Core Theme of the International Baccalaureate Philosophy course. Put most simply, it is committed when one seeks to explain a thing but makes use of the concept that is being (attempted) explained.

The claim that Descartes does little more than describe the mind as a littler version of me (a homunculus) inside my head is common but student’s often fail to see why this is such a problem.

The other day I was making pancakes with my two-year-old, and after we had put the eggs ad flour in the bowl I asked her what we should add next. “Pancakes” came the answer. “Daddy put the pancakes in now”.

This is exactly the problem Descartes (and many others) are being accused of. A definition of pancakes that uses ‘pancakes’ as one of the ingredients is clearly a problem. Likewise a definition of mind calls apon a notion of the very thing it is trying to explain must be treated with suspicion.

For more examples check out this post from ‘Fallacy a Day‘.

fallacy of equivocation

kerosine is fuel…

red bull is fuel…

therefore kerosine is red bull…

This might seem like a fairly obvious mistake… and the reason it’s funny here is  due to this – but the same error is found (arguably) at the centre of a number of complicated and high level philosophical arguments… Let’s have a look…

‘begging’ the question

Firstly it probably helps to distinguish what philosophers mean by this slightly strange phrase when compared to something people say quite frequently that sounds very similar.

When someone says “that begs the question…” it usually means something like “well that makes me wonder about…”. For example:

Andy Murray only looks good on grass, which begs the question whether he can ever be ranked much higher than number 4 in the world…

Unfortunately for us, this doesn’t really have anything to do with what philosophers mean when they use these words together. When a philosopher suggests that a given argument is ‘begging the question’, they are claiming that it contains an assumption (probably implicit or hidden) in the premises that is necessary in arriving at the argument’s conclusion.

The Pan Dictionary of Philosophy defines ‘begging the question’ as

The procedure of taking for granted, in a statement or argument, precisely what is in dispute.

So an example might run something like this:

I know I am free. Whenever I have a tough decision to make I sit down, think about my options and opt for one on the courses of action.

This might not be the best example, but if we sort it all out it begins to look like this:

1. I make reasoned decisions.

C: These decisions are free.


But really what is happening here, is a bit more like this:

1. I make reasoned decisions.

2(implied). The fact I have this experience of weighing up options mean my decisions are free.

C: These decisions are free.

Now of course, 2 is exactly what philosophers would be looking to challenge if they were disputing that our writer has free will so, this is begging the question.