Tuesday, April 28, 2009


One of the terms that atheists often apply to themselves is the term "skeptic".

Skepticism is defined as the disposition not to accept claims without proof – to be skeptical that a claim is true unless and until one has been provided reason to believe it. The skeptic, when presented with a new proposition, adopts a default value of "false" and only switches the value of "true" to that proposition when proof has been provided.

Furthermore, skepticism is supposed to be a virtue. It is a quality that a good person would have.

Using the terms of desire utilitarianism, a disposition to give a value of "false" to any new proposition is claimed to be a disposition that people generally have reason to promote. It says that people generally have reason to inhibit (through condemnation) those who accept claims too easily.

Gullibility, in other words, is a vice.

All of this can well be true. However, there is a form of skepticism (or a degree of skepticism) that is contrary to these claims.

This is a paralytic form of skepticism that prevents a person from acting because the person cannot know what the results of his actions will be. This form of skepticism says that one ought not to act unless one is certain what the consequences of that action would be. If he does not know, then he must wait for further evidence before he commits himself to that action.

This attitude is paralytic when faced with the fact that we simply cannot always know the consequences of our actions. We must act on the basis of best available evidence, even though the possibility of error remains.

Imagine the military commander on the battlefield who adopts the attitude, "I will not give any order to my troops until I have certain knowledge of what the enemy is doing." Such an attitude would guarantee defeat.

In practice, this form of skepticism is typically used as a rhetorical device by somebody who wants to stop others from taking action. Exxon-Mobile and the other global warming profiteers, Phillip Morris and the cancer profiteers, and any number of 'skeptics' of government policy argue that, "All of the information is not yet in on climate change, or the health effects of tobacco, or the effectiveness of a given policy; therefore, no action is justified." In many of these cases, the person presenting such an argument is in a position to profit from inaction, and that provides the motivation to persuade people to adopt this type of skepticism.

The fact of the matter is, we sometimes (actually, if we are honest, we almost always) have to act on limited information and try to do the best that we can. We have to admit that we do not have enough information to determine with absolute certainty the consequences of our action, but we must act.

Such is the case with the military leader on the battlefield, who has to give his orders to his troops without being fully informed of what the enemy is doing.

It is simply not a fair criticism of others that they are acting on incomplete information. It is not a fair demand to put on others that they are obligated to do nothing and wait for additional information. People may, legitimately and morally, act on incomplete information.

The form of skepticism that requires perfect information before one switches their attitude to, "I may do this" is no virtue. It is, instead, a rhetorical device often employed to manipulate others into acting in ways harmful to their interests, but ways that profit the demagogue or the interests that have employed him.

This form of skeptic needs to be met with the claim that, "We have information enough on which to make a decision. Unless you can come up with positive reason to believe that we should not commit the act, then it is perfectly reasonable - even obligatory - for us to go with what we have."


Ketan said...

Amazing post! One can see such obstructionists not just so matters of public policy, but even otherwise in day-to-day life. Your post, I hope, will help me counter them whenever I encounter. Thanks!

Sabio Lantz said...

In Japanese, calling someone an Amanojaku, is a way of accusing of hyperskepticism and of an obstructionist attitude.

Your essay is well-said and clear as always. Thanks.


I've been reading your blog for a while and I usually enjoy your posts, but here you don't touch on the danger of acting on spotty information. It is easy to frown on obstructionist profiteers because they obstinately carry on causing damage, even in the face of some evidence that their methods and ends are destructive.

However, let me present an alternate situation. The president and his cabinet say that there is a need for war, and their claim is based on incomplete information. We do not know what might be the outcome of this war.

Are we obstructionists if we protest this war on the basis of 'limited information?' Is it still appropriate, in the second situation, to act on incomplete information? Why or why not?

I would very much like to read your answer, or learn why different rules might apply to this second hypothetical situation.