Chapter of book - for comments

Friday, September 3, 2010
4 GOING NUCLEAR I am particularly looking for advice on sign posting, making clearer and more accessible.

Suppose Mike is involved in a debate about the truth of his own particular New Age belief system. Things are not going well for him. His arguments are being picked apart, and, worse still, his opponents have come up with several devastating objections that he cannot deal with. How might he get himself out of this bind?

One possibility is to adopt the intellectually dishonest strategy I call Going Nuclear. Going Nuclear involves playing a general skeptical card. In philosophy, a “skeptic” is someone who raises doubts about our claims to knowledge in a given area. Here is an example of a skeptical argument:

Whenever we argue about the truth or falsity of a belief, we apply our powers of reason. But why suppose that reason is itself a reliable route to the truth? You might attempt to justify our use of reason, of course. But any justification of reason that you offer will itself rely on reason. Relying on reason to justify our reliance on reason is a bit like taking a second-hand car salesman’s word for it that he is trustworthy – it’s an entirely circular justification, and so no justification at all! So it turns out that our reliance on reason is entirely unjustified. It’s a leap of faith!

From the claim that our reliance on reason is unjustified, it is then but a short step to the conclusion that no belief is justified:

But if reliance on reason cannot be justified, then, because every rational justification relies on reason, so no belief can be justified. But if no belief is justified, then, ultimately, everything is a faith position! But then your belief is no more reasonable than mine. Get out of that!

Whether or not this is actually a good argument for the conclusion that no belief is justified is not a question we’ll address here. The point is, at first sight, it does look pretty persuasive. It’s not easy to spot precisely where the argument goes wrong, if, indeed, it goes wrong at all. This means that if Mike’s belief system is taking a beating, rationally speaking, a last-ditch tactic Mike might adopt is simply to throw this skeptical argument at his opponent. Mike can admit that his belief might not be justified. But he can insist that his opponent’s belief system cannot be justified either. The skeptical argument offers Mike wonderful “Get out of jail”. It allows him to walk away with his head held high, saying, “So you see? In the last analysis, both our positions are equally (ir)rational! They are both ‘faith positions’!”

You can see why I call this strategy “Going Nuclear”. Once Mike plays the skeptical card, all his opponent’s hard work in constructing arguments against his position counts for nothing. Kaboom! At one stroke, Mike demolishes them all. He lays waste to every rational argument, bringing every belief down to the same level.

In order for Mike’s opponent to deal with Going Nuclear, they will now have to refute his philosophical argument. That is a very difficult, perhaps impossible, thing to do. They are certainly going to struggle. In which case, any audience will be struck not only by Mike’s sophistication in employing such a devastating philosophical objection, but also by his opponent’s mounting frustration as they wrestle with the thorny philosophical conundrum that Mike has set them. It’s quite likely that Mike will now appear to be the intellectual victor in this exchange.

So what, exactly, is wrong with Going Nuclear? After, it might be that the skeptical argument Mike has employed really is a good argument. Perhaps every belief system really is as rational as every other. So, if Mike finds himself argued into a corner, why not employ such a skeptical argument? Why is Going Nuclear typically an intellectually dishonest ruse?

Because Mike almost certainly does not press the nuclear button in good faith. Bear in mind that, in such discussions, playing the skeptical card really is the nuclear option. By Going Nuclear, Mike avoids defeat, but only by utterly annihilating the rationality of every belief. All positions, no matter how sensible or nuts, come out as equally (ir)rational.

If Mike is to be consistent, he must now accept that that the Earth is flat, that the Earth is round, that milk makes people fly, that it doesn’t, that astrology is true, that is isn’t – that all these beliefs are equally (un)reasonable. Now of course, Mike almost certainly doesn’t really believe any of this. The fact is, he does think reason provides us with a fairly reliable tool for establishing what is true and what isn’t. Indeed, we all rely on reason in our day-to-day lives. In fact, Mike constantly trusts his life to reason, whenever, for example, he trusts that the brakes on his car will work, that a bridge will support his weight, that a medicine will save his life, and so on.

In fact those who Go Nuclear are usually quite content to rely on reason to make their case just so long as they are not losing the argument. It is only when the tide of rationality turns against them that they reach for the red button. And of course, once their opponent has left the room, they will start using reason again to try to prop up their belief.

So Going Nuclear is, in truth, almost always a mere a ploy. Those who use it don’t usually believe what they’re saying about reason. They say it only to raise enough dust and confusion to make quick their escape.

Going Nuclear can be employed in defence of a wide variety of beliefs. Believe that there’s a family of fairies living in your biscuit barrel or that that you are visited by ghosts? In each case, if you find yourself on the losing side of the argument, you can always employ Going Nuclear as a last ditch, face-saving strategy. It crops up particularly in religious circles. For example, responding to rational arguments raised against his beliefs, one Orthodox Jew writes:

The belief in reason seems no less a dogma than any other.

Perhaps belief in reason is, ultimately, a dogma. But that’s really beside the point. This person almost certainly relies on reason in every other aspect of their life, and will no doubt appeal to reason whenever reason appears to support their religious belief. Their skepticism about reason is not genuine; it’s merely a ruse they employ selectively to avoid having to admit that what they believe has been revealed, by standards that they accept and employ in every other aspect of their life, to be false.

Trusting our senses

Here’s an interesting variant of Going Nuclear that is sometimes employed by the religious when confronted with intellectual challenges to what they believe. They admit that believing in God involves a “leap of faith”. But they then add that atheists have to make a “leap of faith” when it comes to trusting their senses.

Atheists, after all, believe they inhabit a physical world filled with mountains, oceans, trees, houses and people. But they believe this only because that is the kind of world their senses of sight, hearing, taste, touch, smell and so on appear to reveal. How can they know their senses are a reliable guide to the truth? How can they know that their experiences are produced by a real world, rather than, say, a supercomputer generating a sophisticated virtual reality, as in the film The Matrix? After all, everything would seem exactly the same, either way, wouldn’t it? So, it seems atheists cannot justify their belief in such an external world. But if atheists cannot justify their belief in such an external world, then they don’t know that such a world exists. Their belief that there is such a world must involve a huge leap of faith.

Having set up this sceptical argument, a theist may then add that they happen to enjoy, not only sensory experiences, but also a God experience. God, they suppose, reveals himself to them. But then, precisely because they place their faith in their God experience – they suppose that it is not a delusion but genuinely reveals God - they don’t then have to place any additional faith in the reliability of their other senses. For such a good God wouldn’t allow us to be systematically deceived by our senses. We can be sure that, if there’s a God, then our senses are trustworthy. So, for such a theist, trusting their senses does not require any further leap of faith.

In which case, our theist may conclude, for someone who has such religious experiences, belief in God need be no more a “faith position” than the atheist’s belief in the external world. The two beliefs are actually intellectually on par.

This is an interesting argument that may contain an element of truth. Perhaps it is true that atheism is a faith position because any belief about how things stand outside of your their mind is ultimately be a faith position. However, even if any belief about how things stand outside your own mind requires a leap of faith, it doesn’t follow that it’s as reasonable for a theists to place their trust in their God experiences as it is for atheists to trust their senses.

Even if there weren’t very good grounds for supposing that religious experiences, unlike our other senses, are highly untrustworthy (see “I Just Know!”), the fact is that, while the theist’s assumption that they really are experiencing God might lead them to trust the deliverances of their other senses, those other senses then appear to furnish them with ample evidence that there is no such benevolent being (I’m now referring, of course, to the evidential problem of evil outlined in the introduction – surely we observe far too much suffering for this to be creation of an all-powerful and supremely benevolent deity). So, unlike the assumption that our senses are reliable, the theistic assumption ends up undermining itself.

Variants of Going Nuclear: (1) “What is truth?”

We have looked at two skeptical versions of Going Nuclear, one based on skepticism regarding reason, the other on skepticism about the external world. However, there is also a range of non-skeptical versions of Going Nuclear.

For example, rather than raising philosophical doubts our knowledge of what is true, Mike could instead try raising a philosophical question mark over the idea of truth itself. Truth is a philosophically thorny notion, and it’s by no means clear how to define it. So, if Mike finds his New Age belief system taking a pasting, intellectually speaking, he could try saying to his critics:

Ah, you claim these things are true. You think you can show they are true. But let me ask you a more fundamental question - what is truth?

Mike’s opponents will no doubt be disorientated by this sudden change of direction in the conversation and baffled by the thorny philosophical question they have been set, giving Mike at least enough time to head out the door.

Just this tactic seems to have been employed by Pontius Pilate. When Pilate interrogated Jesus prior to the crucifixion, Jesus proclaimed, "Everyone on the side of truth listens to me." (John 18:37). Pilate replied, "What is truth?" and left. As the philosopher Francis Bacon put it in his essay "On Truth":

“What is truth?” said jesting Pilate; and would not stay for an answer.

This kind of use of the question “What is truth?” is the intellectual equivalent of throwing dust in your opponent’s face to make quick your escape. When arguments are going our way, we are generally quite happy to say that we have good grounds for supposing that what we believe is true. It’s only when things start going badly for us that it suddenly occurs to us to ask, “Yes, but what is truth?!”

Variants of Going Nuclear: (2) “It’s true for me”

Another variant of Going Nuclear involves, not asking what truth is, but simply proclaiming or implying that truth is relative.

To explain: relativism is the philosophical view that what is true is relative to believers. There’s no objective Truth with a capital “T” out there to be discovered. Rather, truth is a construction – our construction. Thus there are many truths. There’s your truth, my truth, his truth, her truth.

In its simplest form, this sort of relativism says that what is true is what the individual believes to be true. Suppose I believe levitation by the power of the mind is possible. Then, says such a relativist, for me it is true that it is possible. If you believe it is impossible, then for you it’s true that it is impossible. There’s no fact of the matter as to which of us is actually correct.

Another form of relativism about truth makes truth relative not to individuals, but to communities. Most scientifically-minded Westerners believe that the stars and planets have no astrological influence on our lives. But in other cultures, it is supposed that the stars and planets do have such an influence, and that astrologers can use star charts to accurately predict the future. According to this kind of relativist, that the stars and planets have such an influence is false for such Westerners, but true for other communities. Truth is a social construct. Scientific truth is just one truth among many truths, all of which are equally “valid”.

This sort of relativism about truth is popular in certain circles, and it might provide Mike with another get-out-of-jail card. He might say:

Well, that astral plane therapy cures disease may not be true for you, but it’s true for me!

The implication being that what’s true about astral plane therapy is simply a matter of what certain individuals or communities believe about astral plane therapy. Mike’s opponents now not only have to figure out precisely what Mike means by this cryptic remark, they will then have to refute the relativist theory of truth to which Mike has, in effect, signed up – complicated tasks that will require some time and patience to achieve. In the meantime, just like Pontius Pilate, Mike’s out the door, leaving his opponent bogged down in the philosophical mire he has created.

The absurdity of relativism

It’s worth making a detour at this point to indicate just why this kind of relativism is absurd. One reason why relativism can seem attractive is that there are a few beliefs for which it might, actually, be true. Consider wichitee grubs, for example – the large larvae eaten live by some aboriginal Australians. Some aboriginals consider the grubs a delicacy. Most Westerners, on the other hand, consider them revolting (when Jordan, the British glamour model, was challenged to eat several large squirming grubs on a TV programme, she said the experience was “worse than childbirth”). So what’s the truth about wichitee grubs? Are they delicious, or aren’t they? The truth, perhaps, is that there is no Truth-with-a-capital-T about their deliciousness. For those who enjoy wichitee grubs, it’s true that they’re delicious. For those they don’t it’s false. That is because the property of being delicious is ultimately rooted, not objectively in the grubs themselves, but rather in our subjective reaction to them.

So, yes, some truths may be relative. But not all (for then, as the philosopher Plato pointed out, the truth that all truths is relative would itself be relative, which entails that, if I believe it’s false that all truths are relative, then I am right!). One or two people might believe that individuals create their own reality – that reality is whatever the individual takes it to be. The actress Shirley MacLaine, for example, writes

I have learned one deep and meaningful lesson: LIFE, LIVES and REALITY are only what we each perceive them to be. Life doesn’t happen to us. We make it happen.

One of the oddest and most disturbing examples of someone apparently quite sincerely embracing a MacLaine-type view of reality is provided by George W. Bush’s senior advisor Karl Rove, who seems to have learned the same deep and meaningful lesson. Rove once told journalist Ron Suskind that Suskind was a member of what Rove called the

“reality-based community”, which [Rove] defined as people who “believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.” ... “That's not the way the world really works anymore,” he continued. “We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors…and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do."[2]

Rove’s view seems to be that there is no need to observe and study reality in order to try to figure what is and is not true, or what is and is not likely to work, policy-wise. For there is no such independent reality. Bush’s leadership team create reality. Just like Shirley MacLaine.

Clearly, the Shirley MacLaine view of reality cannot be correct. I cannot make it true that I can fly just by believing or imagining that I can. No matter how convinced I may be that if I jump off this tall building, I’ll soar gracefully into the air, the fact is, if I jump I’ll die. Even if I jump off holding hands with my community, every member of which is convinced we’ll fly, we will still all plummet to our deaths. Before Copernicus, was it true that the Sun really went round the Earth, because that’s what everyone believed? If Neil Armstrong, and enough others, had believed the Moon was made of cheese, would the Eagle have landed on a sea of Camembert?

Obviously not. When it comes to whether or not we can fly, whether or not the Sun goes round the Earth, or whether the Moon is made of cheese, what we believe, and how things really are, can, and do, come apart.

The selective appeal to relativism

According to the academic Harold Bloom,

[t]here is one thing a professor can be absolutely certain of: almost every student entering university believes, or says he believes, that truth is relative.

Actually, I rather doubt that almost every student really believes this. But many students have learned that relativism offers a very useful get-out-of-jail card when they cornered in an argument. They have learned that, by saying “Hmm, well, that may be true for you, but it’s not true for me” they create enough intellectual confusion to make quick their escape.

This is precisely what Mike does above, of course. Like most people who play the relativist card when cornered, Mike doesn’t really suppose that truth is whatever we suppose it to be. If pressed, it would almost certainly turn out that Mike doesn’t really accept the absurd view that if he really believes he can fly, then he can. Nor will Mike play the relativist card while the argument seems to be going his way. Mike’s relativism is merely a convenient guise that he selectively adopts whenever he’s on the losing end of an argument.