revised chapter for comments

Monday, September 20, 2010

Suppose Mike is involved in a debate about the truth of his own particular New Age belief system. Things are not going well for Mike. 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 Mike get himself out of this bind?

One possibility is to adopt strategy I call Going Nuclear. Going Nuclear is an attempt to unleash an argument that lays waste to every position, bringing them all down to the same level of “reasonableness”. You try to force a draw by detonating a philosophical argument that achieves what, during the Cold War, used to be called “mutually assured destruction”, where both sides in the conflict are annihilated.

There are two main variants of Going Nuclear: sceptical and relativist. I’ll begin with skeptical versions


Skepticism about reason

In philosophy, a “skeptic” is someone who denies we have knowledge, or justified beliefs, in a given area. Here is a classic 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? We might attempt to justify our use of reason, of course. But any justification of reason that we 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 seemingly 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 I’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, Mike can adopt the last-ditch tactic of employing this skeptical argument. Mike can then 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 a wonderful “get out of jail” card. It allows him to walk away with his head held high, saying, “So you see? In the last analysis, our beliefs 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 Mike’s 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 his Going Nuclear, they will now have to refute his philosophical argument. That is a difficult, perhaps impossible, thing to do. They are certainly going to struggle. As a result, any audience to their debate 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 Mike has set them. It’s quite likely Mike will be perceived to be the intellectual victor in this exchange. At the very least, he won’t be thought to have lost.

This version of Going Nuclear can be employed in defence of a wide variety of beliefs. Believe in the curative powers of crystals, or that there’s a family of fairies living at the bottom of your garden? If you find yourself on the losing side of the argument, you can always employ Going Nuclear as a last ditch, face-saving strategy.

So what, exactly, is wrong with this version of Going Nuclear? After all, 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 shouldn’t he employ such a skeptical argument?

Because it’s almost certainly a intellectually dishonest ruse. Those who press the nuclear button rarely do so 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 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. 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.

Indeed, those who employ this version of Going 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 nuclear button. And of course, once their opponent has left the room, they’ll start using reason again to try to prop up their belief. That’s downright hypocritical.

So this version of Going Nuclear is, in truth, almost always 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.

A religious example

The skeptical version of Going Nuclear outlined above crops up quite often in debates about the truth of religion. 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. However, if this person relies on reason in every other aspect of their life, and appeals to reason whenever it appears to support their particular religious beliefs, then they are guilty of hypocrisy. Playing the skeptical card is merely a ruse they selectively employ in order to avoid having to admit that what they believe has been revealed, by the standards that they accept and employ in every other aspect of their life, to be false.

Skepticism about the external world

There are several variants of the skeptical version of Going Nuclear. Sometimes a different skeptical argument is employed. Here’s another example.

Suppose a theist finds herself in the losing side of a debate with atheists about the existence of God. Her own arguments for the existence of God have been shown to be weak, and she is struggling to deal with the evidential problem of evil raised by her opponents. As a last-ditch strategy she may try this: admit that her own belief involves a leap of faith, but then add that her atheist opponents make a similar 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 seem 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. 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 skeptical argument, our theist may then add that she happens to enjoy, not only sensory experiences, but also a God experience. God, she supposes, reveals himself to her. But then, precisely because she trusts her God experience – she supposes that it is not a delusion but genuinely reveals God – she doesn’t then have to place any additional faith in the reliability of her other senses. Why? Because the kind of God she seems to experience is no deceiver. She can be sure that, if there is such a God, then he will have provided her with senses that are fairly trustworthy. So, for such a theist, trusting her 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. It’s leaps of faith all round.

Notice, incidentally, that our theist may make the same suggestion about the atheist’s use of logic and reason. She may say that atheists just assume that their use of logic is reliable – they cannot ultimately justify it (for the reason we saw above). But, because our theist places her faith in her God experience, she doesn’t have to make a leap of faith so far as her use of logic is concerned. Her God would not allow her to be deceived about the reliability of logic.


Perhaps it is true that atheism is a faith position because any belief about how things stand outside of our own minds is ultimately a faith position (though this is certainly controversial – some philosophers would say we are justified in supposing there is a physical world of mountains, oceans, tress, houses, and so on because that hypothesis provides the best available explanation of what we experience, a better explanation than the Matrix-type hypothesis that it’s all an elaborate computer-generated illusion). However, even if any belief about the external world involves a leap of faith, it does not follow that it is as reasonable for a theist to place their trust in their God experience as it is for atheists to trust their senses.

First of all, note that, while we have no obvious grounds for supposing our ordinary senses are highly untrustworthy, there are very obvious grounds for supposing that such religious experiences are, as a rule, untrustworthy (see the chapter entitled,“I Just Know!” for details). The content of the religious experiences people report appears very largely to be a product of their culture, and often also the mind-altering practices they tend to engage in, rather than any sort of divine reality.

Secondly, and still more significantly, even if our theist’s assumption that she is experiencing God leads her to trust her other senses, her other senses then appear to furnish her with ample evidence that there is no such benevolent God. There is, for example, the evidential problem of evil – surely an all-powerful and all-good God would not have created a world containing so much appalling suffering. So, unlike the assumption that our other senses are reliable, her theistic assumption ends up undermining itself.

In short, this version of Going Nuclear doesn’t work. The theist’s assumption that her God experience is reliable appears, on closer examination, to be much less reasonable than the atheist’s assumption that our other senses are reliable.

Beyond Going Nuclear

There is an interesting twist on Going Nuclear popular in certain religious circles – a twist that involves combining Going Nuclear with “I Just Know!”. It runs as follows.

God, some theists maintain, has provided them direct and certain knowledge of his existence. So, they suppose, they don’t have to assume God exists. They know he does (see “I Just Know!”). And, armed with this certain knowledge that God exists, she can then justify her reliance on logic and her senses. The God she knows exists would not allow her to be deceived in her use of logic and her senses. But the atheist, she thinks, has no such justification. So the atheist must remain mired in skepticism.

Such a theist may be tempted to respond to her atheist critics by saying, “Ah, you are attempting to using logic against me, but of course, unlike me, you are not entitled to are you?” This is one of the main argumentative strategies of one well-known commenter on various religious and atheist blogs who, in response to any rational criticism of his Bible-literalist brand of theism, typically ignores it, saying:

I submit, that your worldview cannot justify the universal, abstract, invariant, laws of logic, which YOU presuppose in all of YOUR arguments, whereas mine can, and does.

Notice that, though our theist is playing the skeptical card here, he is not, strictly speaking, Going Nuclear. Going Nuclear involves bringing all positions down to the same level of rationality. The claim made here is that only the atheist ends up mired in skepticism. Our theist plays the skeptical card in order to undermine the arguments of his atheist critics. However, our theist (he supposes) achieves a literally miraculous escape from skepticism himself. With one bound he is free – saved by the grace of God, whom, he supposes, provides him infallible knowledge of God’s existence, knowledge that can then be used to justify his own reliance on logic.

This way of dealing with criticisms of theism also fails. Whether or not our theist is right to claim atheists are mired in skepticism, he is still obliged to deal with their arguments and objections. Suppose an atheist appears to have provided what looks like an excellent argument that his God does not exist, or powerful evidence that he is deluded in supposing that he “just knows” his God exists. For our theist to just ignore such arguments and evidence and say, “But you are using logic which you can’t justify but I can!” is pure evasion. Whether or not the atheist is mired in skepticism is irrelevant. It may be the atheist’s argument is still good. The onus is on the theist to explain why it isn’t. And of course, if the theist can’t deal with the argument, then they’re dumped back in the skeptical swamp themselves.


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

Relativism about truth

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. There’s your truth, my truth, his truth, her truth. There is, in short, not one Truth, but many truths.

In its simplest form, this sort of relativism says that what is true is what the individual believes to be true. Suppose I believe we are visited by angels. Then, says such a relativist, for me it is true we are visited by angels. If you believe we are not visited by angels, then for you it’s true that we’re not. 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 stars and planets have no astrological influence on our lives. But in other cultures it’s 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 those other communities. Truth is a social construct. Scientific truth is just one truth among many, all of which are equally “valid”.

These kinds of relativism about truth are popular in certain circles, and they might provide Mike with another get-out-of-jail-free card. If Mike finds he is losing the argument about the ability of astral plane therapy to cure disease, 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 a matter of what certain individuals or communities happen to believe about astral plane therapy. Mike’s opponents now not only have to figure out what Mike means by this cryptic remark, they’re then faced with the job of refuting the relativist theory of truth to which Mike has, in effect, signed up. These are complicated tasks that will require time and patience to achieve. In the meantime, Mike’s out the door, leaving his opponent bogged down in the philosophical mire he has created.

Notice that this is also a version of Going Nuclear, because, like the sceptical version, it brings every belief down to the same level, rationally speaking. Every belief is as “true” as every other.

The absurdity of relativism

It’s worth making a detour at this point to explain just why this kind of relativism is absurd. One reason relativism can seem attractive is that there are is a small percentage of 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, find 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 not? The truth, perhaps, is that there is no Truth-with-a-capital-T about their deliciousness. For those who enjoy the taste of wichitee grubs, it’s true that they’re delicious. For those they don’t it’s false. That’s 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, a very small and select band of 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 genuinely 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.

This kind of view of reality often crops up in New Age circles. For example, one psychic, perplexed about what seemed to be a disagreement between herself and a fellow psychic (who told her she was about to receive a new “evolved” soul), consulted her spirit guides, who informed her they were both right:

I was told that there is no absolute truth. I was told that ‘truth’ is a very personal, subjective thing. Something that is ‘true’ = a perception or a belief that serves us personally.

My guides then explained this, using the law of attraction to illustrate it. They said:
“You know that your beliefs create your reality and that you can create any reality you want by changing your beliefs. If you focus your attention on something and hold it as a belief, whether you like it or not, you will begin to see evidence of it being true, all around you. Therefore, you must only believe things which feel good to you. Truth is that which feels good to you; that which serves you.”
So, according to my guides:
Truth = something you have focused on, something you decided you want to experience = it shows up in your reality.
Untruth = something you reject, something you don’t want to experience = it doesn’t show up in your reality
We might call this the Disney theory of truth – in order to make something come true, you need only wish (on a star) and believe hard enough. If it doesn’t come true – well, that’s your fault. You weren’t believing hard enough were you?

Clearly, the Shirley MacLaine view of reality on which reality is whatever we perceive it to be cannot be correct. I cannot make it true that I can fly just by supposing that I can. Suppose I jump off this tall building, convinced I can fly. I mighty even believe I am flying as I plummet to the ground. But the sad fact is, I’ll still end up a crumpled heap on the pavement below (though our psychic might insist I just wasn’t believing hard enough). Even if I jump off holding hands with my community, every member of which is convinced we’ll fly, we will all still plummet to our deaths. Before Copernicus, was it true that the Sun really went round the Earth, because that’s how it looked to people? Had Neil Armstrong, and enough others, believed the Moon was made of cheese, might 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, how things appear, and how things really are, can, and do, come apart.

The selective appeal to relativism

So while one or two truths might be relative, most are not. Nevertheless, the view that all truth is relative is supposedly widespread. 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 doubt that almost every student really believes this. What I don’t doubt is that many students have learned that relativism offers them a very useful get-out-of-jail-free card when they find themselves 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 can generate 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 believe 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.

The relativist version of Going Nuclear tends not to be popular with mainstream religious traditionalists, who tend to think that there is but One Truth, and that only their particular religion has access to it. When such religious people Go Nuclear, they usually go for a sceptical version. Relativist versions of Going Nuclear are more popular with “New Age” type belief systems.

The “What is truth?” smokescreen

Here’s a related argumentative strategy. Rather than playing the relativist card, simply ask what truth is. Truth is a philosophically thorny notion, and it is by no means clear how to define it. So, if Mike finds his New Age belief system is taking a pasting, intellectually speaking, he could try saying this 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 enough time to head out the door.

Just this tactic seems to have been employed by Pontius Pilate. When he 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. Only when things start going badly for us does it suddenly occur to us to ask, “Yes, but what is truth?!”

This is not, strictly speaking, a version of Going Nuclear, as it’s not actually claimed that all beliefs are equally reasonable or equally true. However, it’s related to the relativist version of Going Nuclear, in that it involves the selective use of a philosophical puzzle in order to generate enough confusion to make quick your escape.