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Chapter of book - for comments

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.


Great work. I'll remember to use your "going nuclear" objection when my next debating opponent tries to pull one of these all too common manoeuvres.

For those interested in the supposed relativity of truth, I recommend listening to an entertaining talk by Simon Blackburn who discussed his book Truth: A Guide for the Perplexed at the University of Toronto in 2005. It's available for free on iTunes on the most recently released podcast from TVO's Big Ideas. Best, TAM.
stevec said…
I know someone who launched a variant of going nuclear that went like this:

"Rational thought does not apply to God."

I don't think she could get out the logic tight box she's locked herself inside even if she wanted to.
NAL said…
Relying on reason to justify our reliance on reason ... it’s an entirely circular justification, and so no justification at all!

Doesn't Mike's critiques rely on reason to show that relying on reason is unjustifiable? Therefore, his own critique is self-defeating.
Giford said…
Another excellent article. I've found your previous blog post on this subject useful in a couple of online debates.

Is this from the same book as the Tapescrew Letters? Sounds like I might need to buy it...

Anonymous said…
Brilliant. Do you think it's worth mentioning though, that the 'going nuclear' strategy undermines itself before it can get off the ground? ie - It employs the very thing (reason) that it claims is an unreliable route to the truth. Sorry if you've mentioned that and I've some how missed it.

jeremy said…
Another outstanding installment - I'm definitely buying this one when it comes out!

My only recommendations would be to:

1. Be clearer on what "Going Nuclear" in general means. You initially say that "[g]oing Nuclear involves playing a general skeptical card" but then end up identifying two non-skeptical examples. I would have found it better if you'd spent more time on what Going Nuclear means, and why it isn't an honest tactic before going into specifics.

2. Be clearer on how many (common?) variants there are. One is part of your general introduction, then another one is clearly dealt with, but then you next introduce "variant 1", which you have to read on to find is only the first of the non-skeptical variants.

In general, though, all the arguments have your characteristic clarity and vivaciousness, and it's a pleasure to read.
wombat said…
Perhaps elaborating on Jeremy's comment #1 it might be worth alluding to the old Cold War doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction as a bit of background. I would think that some of the younger readership might not be familiar with it.
Giford said…
Hi NAL, Anon,

Actually, I think it is logically valid (in principle) to use logic to disprove logic. The form would be:

(1) Assumption: logic is valid
(2) Show that (1) leads logically to a contradiction
(3) Therefore either (1) is wrong or (2) is wrong - either way, logic is wrong.

It's a reductio ad absurdam. You assume what you want to disprove and show that it leads to an impossbible conclusion.

Tony Lloyd said…
Hi Stephen

In reverse order of pedantry:

1. I think it’s John 18:38

2.You’ve spelled “sceptic” as “sceptic” and “skeptic” (personally , I prefer “sceptic” rather than submit to imperialist Yankee hegemony and use their spelling)

3. I don’t think the Shirley MacLaine example is a good one, or adds much given the Karl Rove example. I’d read Shirley MacLaine’s statement as a piece of positive thinking “fluff” and perfectly harmless if not taken too seriously. The Karl Rove example is utterly chilling and doesn’t need backing up to make the point.

4. Dishonesty. As soon as I read you saying that going nuclear was fundamentally dishonest I thought “Eureka! He’s spot on! That’s exactly what’s wrong with it!”. It certainly explains a large amount of Sye. I think you could do more with this, in terms of making the concept of “going nuclear” clearer (per Jeremy’s request), diagnosing what’s wrong with it and, perhaps, making suggestions as to how to counter it.

On the latter two, Moore’s “Proof of an External World” sprang to mind. For those who haven’t come across the argument Moore’s proof is prefixed with lots of discussion about Kant (to the extent of specifying the edition of the Critique of Pure Reason being referred to!) that seeks to establish that if objects exist then an external world exists. Hands are objects. So if hands exist then an external world exists. Moore then showed his audience his hands:
1. Here is a hand
2. Here is another hand
3. The external world exists
The argument is not sceptic-proof in the sense that the sceptic cannot raise arguments about why it might be false. But it is honest-sceptic-proof, the sceptic believes that he has seen hands, and that hands only exist if an external world exists so the sceptic must believe that an external world exists.

This links into:
“Clearly, the [Karl Rove] view of reality cannot be correct.” It could be correct. Isn’t the real point that not even Karl Rove believes it’s correct? Karl Rove is just lying. As is Mike, who is resorting to “going nuclear” because he accepts the evidence and arguments you have been putting to him, is thus rationally obliged to accept the conclusion and so his only way out is to deny rationality.
Nate O said…
Stephen, are you familiar with W.W. Bartley's work on the 'tu quoque' defense ('you too')? It's eerily similar to your 'nuclear option'.

You might want to check out the second edition of his "The Retreat to Commitment". It covers the problem of justification is great detail.

If you want a free introductory collection of Bartley's writings, I suggest checking out Rafe Champion's page on Bartley here.
NAL said…
The reliability of our perceptions is limited. Our perceptions are easily fooled. Injury and disease can alter our perceptions.

We rely on the perceptions of others to help determine the reliability of our own. This tends to objectify the reality that we perceive. Science plays an important role, too.

The first axiom should be: reality exists.
Anonymous said…
How about the "this argument will go on forever" tactic?
Anonymous said…
To paraphrase Hugh Laurie: "If we could reason with religious people, there wouldn't be religious people."

Even if we present them with exactly why and how they are wrong, as you've outlined here, it makes not the slightest difference to them. They live in a world of selective denial, and they can even be in denial about that.
NAL said…

I've been thinking along the same lines concerning reductio ad absurdum.

However, the contradiction that is sought has to be a logical contradiction. Even the contradiction assumes the validity of what is trying to be disproved. Is this enough to make the disproof unsound?
Vagon said…
Nice chapter. You cover the key points well: the unavoidable retortion of using reason to attack reason, the logic absurdity that follows. I would also suggest an invocation of occam's razor at the axiomatic level.

An axiom should be self-evident, by trying to add a god to this axiomatic level you are complicating things, adding things that are unnecessary to the epistemological foundation.

RE:Trusting our senses.

There is something that lies deeper than sense and that is conciousness. You could pluck out my eye, cauterize my nostrils, cut out my tongue etc removing the senses and yet I could still formulate concepts. So then the key to the faith argument here is validating conciousness.

The problem that follows is that this section of the chapter assumes the primacy of conciousness. In doing so it unwittingly allows "faith position" to smuggle its way into philosophy.

It is more correct to assume the primacy of existence and to cut the argument off at the first point. If there is conciousness then there is something-existing-which-is-concious that comes first.

This existence is concious of itself and so conciousness and identity are also implicit. Therefore any statement (or action at all), whether rational, faith-based or even absurd, is built off these undeniable and irreducible primacies.

Questioning rationality as in "Going nuclear" or invoking Agrippa's trilemma is making a fallacy of stolen concept.

There is no need to heed the theist's call to "justify" how you relate to an external world and there is no need for extreme examples like jumping off buildings. To suggest the mind and reality are seperate is to beg the question. How can an idea exist without a brain? The external world needs no such justification, is justified by any action implicitly.
Vagon said…

You're correct in that its 'valid', but it is not 'sound' in that step (2) will have a premise that incorrectly assumes conciousness requires logic, rather than logic requiring conciousness.
mat roberts said…
Your criticism of the going nuclear option is it's dishonesty....its a good read, and certainly makes decent rhetoric.

But I was left with the desire for you to tackle the problem head on.
Is it really the case that "The belief in reason seems no less a dogma than any other."? If this is a philosophically sound position - admit it. It doesn't diminish the argument that it's dishonest too.
Paul Power said…
I think you've completely misunderstood Rove. He's not talking about relativism at all. Look at this, from your quote of him : "And while you're studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too". This is not compatible with epistemological relativism, according to which people perceive different realities.

Rove is talking about the power to change things in a major way and saying that those in the "reality-based community" do not take into account that things can be changed, that they assume that because things are a certain way now means they will always be that way.
Tony Lloyd said…
On the “basis of reason” there’s an interesting, accessible (and short) article “On the Idea of Logical Presuppositions of Rational Criticism” by Jonas Nilson in volume 2 of “Karl Popper: A Centenary Celebration” (which can be read free on Google books )

Popper took the route of “faith in reason”. Bartley said that “faith” was when you declined criticism of an idea, you refused to even consider giving it up. So long as you are prepared to criticise an idea you aren’t accepting it on faith. But what about logic, that’s your tool of criticism. “Ok” said Bartley, “er…logic is pre-supposed in any discussion”.)

But it’s a huge topic, and there’s no consensus on it, and it’s unnecessary for Stephen’s point. We might not be able to establish that Mike must follow reason. But we ought to be able to convince him that he shouldn’t lie. Mike thinks he should follow reason and to deny reason on his part is just dishonest.

On the Rove point: the idea that we treat as objective reality things that are changeable is quite sensible (and was the starting point of the “Social Construction of Reality”). But give it a little bit of hubris or sloppy thinking (something the neo-cons had in plentiful supply) and it becomes thoroughly relativist. The step from “some aspects of reality are shaped by the actions we will” to “reality is reducible to our will” is pretty small.
Anonymous said…
Isn't it necessary to further specify when (and how) one would counter "this is true for me" and when it is inappropriate, i.e. how should one determine the appropriateness of the opponent using the "this is true for me", since as you've stated, sometimes relative truth makes sense.
Anonymous said…
Most debates in less formal settings fail to create a starting point or agree on a set of accepted axioms. In a debate where no limits have been set with any ground rules it is not "dishonest" to go nuclear. It seems disingenuous to stop in the middle of the debate and accuse the other side of a foul because you don’t like the problem they have given you. If on the other hand from the outset you make it clear that certain arguments make the entire debate pointless or at least sidetrack so much that it is no longer relevant to the initial debate.
I also would avoid the term “Going nuclear”. I think the term “scorched earth” might be more applicable. Going nuclear could imply blowing someone else up while scorched earth implies that once employed neither side will be using the ground. It also seems to follow the use of the tactic slightly better. As one retreats under pressure the land is ruined preventing either side from using it.
Unknown said…
I just wanted to comment that this sentence is not clear:

"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."

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