Sunday, January 28, 2007

Skepticism, Agnosticism, and Vindication

This being Sunday, I had my usual 5-hour-round-trip driving Matthew back to meet his mom. That gives me all sorts of time to think about, well, all sorts of oddness. Last week, I imagined scenes from an absurdist noir story involving Witt Genstein, PI. Don't ask. Just be glad that you don't have to live inside my mind. Be very glad.

Anyway, as I drove along today, I was thinking about the distinction between atheism and agnosticism. I'd heard someone claim, not too long ago, that anyone who claims that there is no evidence for God's existence is intellectually obligated to be an agnostic rather than an atheist. I wasn't so sure that this was true. I'm still not so sure. But I'm not going to talk about that, because I got sidetracked thinking about, well, belief attitudes. I found myself trying to work through some non-rigorous, back of the envelope, rule of thumb type attitudes one could adopt. I came up with 4 categories, though I'm sure that it would be possible to subdivide and come up with lots more.
For any person Z and any proposition P with evidence for F and evidence against A
  1. One should believe that not-P if and only if F is zero (or F is trivial) and A is greater than zero.
  2. One should abstain from believing that-P or that not-P if and only if F and A are nearly identical.
  3. One should be skeptical of believing that-P if F and A are non-trivial but A is at least somewhat greater than F.
  4. One should believe that-P if F is non-trivial and F is significantly greater than A.
Obviously there is more that one would need to say here. For starters, we'd need some good description of 'non-trivial'. My attempt is to rule out really lame sorts of justifications. One could also do more with (4) to distinguish between propositions that one ought to believe weakly and propositions that one should believe strongly and so forth. But I'm more interested in (1)-(3) and how they differ from (4), so I'm going to leave that latter question aside.

Consider an example. Let's take, say, the proposition [Iraq had weapons of mass destruction in March of 2003]. We know now that Iraq had no such program. So does that mean that people who adopted attitude (1) back in 2003 have now been vindicated? I think that the answer here has to be no. Holding, in 2003, the belief not-P was actually not justified, at least not according to the rough-and-ready account I've sketched above. After all, there were plenty of non-trivial arguments for the proposition that Iraq had WMDs in March 2003.1 Like, say, the fact that the CIA, MI-6, the BND, the Mossad...Icould go on here, but the point is that lots and lots of people whose business it is to know such things said that Iraq might have WMDs floating around. That, I think, counts as a non-trivial reason for believing that P, so adopting the belief that not-P was not actually justified back in 2003.

That's not to say that agnosticism was really all that much better. The evidence for the two beliefs was hardly even. All the above intelligence agencies couched their claims in very careful language, offering plenty of reasons for thinking that Iraq might not have WMDs and detailing the extent to which the evidence that Iraq did possess WMDs was, to put it kindly, a tad shaky. And there was also the testimony of the people who had been, you know, actually in Iraq looking for WMDs. They pretty much all said that there weren't any left. We were hardly faced with a 50/50 sort of flip-a-coin-who-the-hell-can-tell kind of situation. Instead, what we faced was a situation in which, yes there was in fact some reason for thinking that Iraq had WMDs but also a lot more evidence that there weren't any there. The appropriate position to take, then, would have been skepticism of the claim that Iraq had WMDs back in 2003.

Keep in mind here that none of this really means much in terms of what we ought in fact to do. It might sometimes be appropriate to act on beliefs that we're not all that justified in having. A cop who has a hunch that the convenience store is being robbed probably should check on it. A parent whose kids have suddenly gotten very, very quiet should maybe go take a peek. And a platoon leader who thinks that the enemy might be trying to flank him should probably send out some scouts. In each case, the agent in question acts from incomplete knowledge. And often cops, parents and LTs get these things wrong: the convenience store is perfectly safe, the kids are playing quietly, and the enemy is nowhere in sight.

Now I'm not saying that going to war with Iraq was particularly responsible. Going to war is a much bigger deal than checking on the kids and thus carries a correspondingly greater obligation to be pretty sure of what the hell you're doing. But my point is not to say whether or not the war was justified. (It seems stunningly clear that it was not, but that's still not my point.) Rather, my point is only to shed some light on what sorts of attitudes were justified pre-war.

Oh, and for the record, holding the belief now that Iraq had WMDs in March of 2003 is pretty nutty. There is no longer any non-trivial evidence in favor of that view. I'm talking to you, Mr. Vice President.



1A trivial sort of argument might be something like: 6 of 9 countries that developed nuclear weapons have names that begin with a vowel (USA, USSR, UK, India, Islamic Republic of Pakistan, and Israel). Iraq starts with a vowel, so Iraq is probably developing a nuclear weapons program. That's a reason. It's just pretty trivial.

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