More on Q and philosophical skepticism

by Dave Maier

Guy Elgat

The other day here at 3QD, philosopher Guy Elgat provided an interesting discussion of the conspiracy theory Q-Anon and some relevant philosophical issues about knowledge and rationality. In particular, he focused on a seemingly perverse response by Q-ers to our challenge to provide proof of their outlandish claims: that we “don’t have any proof there isn’t [a Q].” I had a number of reactions to this column, as well as to some of the comments from readers, but I didn’t want to dump a huge comment on the thread (plus I had to think about it), so I thought I would put my response here instead.

I get the impression that since the QAnon business is sheer madness, and thus not philosophically interesting, what interests Elgat about it is instead the apparent parallel, epistemically speaking, with the historically much more substantial question of whether God exists. (For instance, he notes that religious believers pull this same epistemic-leveling move, in discussion with atheists, as do Q-ers with us.) I find this a bit misleading, or at least confusing, and I think that in the Q case we should be a bit more choosy about what exactly the content of their controversial belief is, even if we sacrifice that potentially interesting parallel. (In fact I think religious faith is a much more complex phenomenon than simply “belief in God,” to which proofs of this or that are pretty completely irrelevant; but let’s leave God out of it entirely for now.)

Elgat’s argumentative strategy, in any case, is to assimilate the Q-er to the Cartesian skeptic, both of whom issue seemingly impossible challenges to prove them wrong: in the one case, that Q exists; in the other, that we are brains in vats and are thus massively deceived about “the external world” outside our senses. In each case, in Elgat’s telling, the challenger’s conclusion, should our proof fail, is that we thus are “in an epistemological stand-off” and must acknowledge that “since I cannot show you I am right and you cannot prove me wrong, I am perfectly within my rights, so to speak, to continue to believe in whatever I choose to believe.”

Elgat has two responses to this.

First, as the comparison to the Cartesian skeptic brings out, it is false that such a “stand-off” means that we can rationally believe whatever we want. Instead, as we might expect in the latter context, it means that we should suspend judgment on the matter. What the comparison also brings out, however, is that this is surely unacceptable: we cannot, nor should we, suspend judgment on whether we are massively and systematically deceived (whether by the Cartesian “evil demon” or by our being a brain in a vat). That would indeed, as Elgat notes, be nonsense on stilts.

After rightly rejecting its purported consequences, Elgat then proceeds to argue against the skeptical conclusion itself, first conceding that we cannot meet the skeptical requirement for evidence that the skeptical scenario does not obtain, but then taking that very impossibility to be itself a sort of evidence for the rationality of rejecting the skeptical conclusion. That is, on this view, the skeptical impasse (and thus the “stand-off”) depends on the symmetry of providing evidence for A rather than B; but here A is that something is the case (that we are brains in vats) but B is that it is not. So even if showing the latter is a virtually (or entirely) impossible task – as suggested by the (literally false but still useful) slogan “you can’t prove a negative” – but the former less so, the symmetry is broken. Since we could conceivably find evidence that we are brains in vats (e.g. the relevant technology) but in fact we don’t, that’s enough to get us over the bar at what is now the proper height, and we are justified in believing that the fanciful skeptical scenario is false. (I have paraphrased vigorously; see the original post for a more careful formulation.)

For various reasons (I will spare you the details), I don’t think this argument works. Let me just note that the skeptical argument does not actually depend on any particular wild scenario, nor does it demand that we change our actual epistemic practice. It simply calls attention to a conceptual paradox, by exploiting a particular seemingly innocuous aspect of the conception of knowledge which skeptics typically call “ours”: that we take ourselves to be justified in accepting empirical conclusions (and thus believing empirical matters of fact) on the strength of arguments which fall short of entailment. That is, this conception allows as a conceptual possibility that our conclusions, and thus our beliefs, might be mistaken. (Note that this is something that Elgat concedes.) The reason that skepticism is successfully swept under the rug only intermittently, and keeps coming back, is that that only if you construe that aspect of knowledge – which is indeed impossible to give up – in just the right way will it not lead to unacceptable results. And Elgat’s argument, like virtually every other, doesn’t do that. (In my view.)

Luckily, however, we don’t have to solve the persistent skeptical problem – or at least not like that – to make some progress here. Naturally we should not expect to pry the Q-er away from what are indeed wildly unsupported beliefs, simply by making abstract philosophical arguments; but Elgat is surely correct to object to the Q-er’s claim that we are in an “epistemological stand-off” where one can rationally believe whatever one wants, so piss off.

One problem here is that we got off on the wrong foot to begin with. The problematic response – “You can’t prove that I am wrong either” – only makes sense as a response to “Prove that your view is correct!” This got us into trouble in a couple of ways: first, by bringing in the notion of proof right at the beginning, rather than ordinary, defeasible, reasons to believe (the ones really in play here, given that we are not proving mathematical theorems); and second, by making the disputed conclusion the overly global one (that “Q exists”). Both of these things allow the Q-er to evade the real issues. We do better in both of these senses if we change our question from the global “How can you prove [this crazy thing,] that Q exists?” to something less, not more, likely to head in the direction of global skepticism. First, again, we’re not discussing proof anyway, but instead good reasons to believe (which fall short of entailment). Second, and more importantly, we will thereby enlist our interlocutor on the side of the rational necessity of offering reasons to believe – instead, that is, of abandoning rationality and declaring an epistemic free-for-all – by zooming in to something more local.

So rather than asking “why believe that rather than not believing it?” we might instead ask: “why believe that particular thing, A, rather than something else, B?” – which is a question that Q-ers surely ask each other. Now for us, of course, in such cases the difference between A and B is negligible, given that they both assume the truth of the general wacko concept. But (philosophically speaking, that is) that’s okay: all we wanted to do was to establish the general concept of needing reasons to believe this or that – that you can’t just believe whatever you want.

For example, when Q delivers some typically vaguely worded pronouncement, the Q-community presumably differs about how to take it: about what exactly is being asserted and/or predicted, as well as, presumably, what else has already been shown (or, you know, believed) to be true. It is these disagreements, not the one between us and them, re: that global belief shared by all Q-ers, that we should be focusing on for our purposes here (even while we may retain the ambition of making them see reason all at once). For it is there that we will see one Q-er advancing reasons to believe something rather than something else, and demanding of his fellow Q-ers that they provide better justifications for their own views if they continue to disagree.

This does assume, naturally, that Q-ers actually do do that. It’s possible that some group of believers simply react to divergent claims among themselves not with demands for justification, but instead expressions of affirmation – that they regard the multiplicity of apparently inconsistent beliefs as nothing to dissuade them from believing any or all of them at will.

Interpretively, though, if that’s what they do instead of giving and demanding reasons, that might make us wonder if what we were looking at was really people expressing beliefs at all, or rather doing something else. After all [he said, putting on his Davidsonian hat], if our informants don’t seem to regard any of their utterances as standing in any need of justification, even when they acknowledge them as inconsistent with each other, then we are hardly in a position to take them as expressing beliefs at all. The concept of belief is (as I like to say) interconstitutive with that of rational inquiry. No inquiry – no giving and asking for reasons – no belief. In any case, this is after all an empirical question.

We do have reason to think that not all is on the rational up-and-up over there, in this sense. When the issue is not, or not simply, the narrow one of what Q is claiming and/or predicting, but instead the broader one of whether Q is legit (as in Elgat’s discussion), things get weird (as we might expect!). We might have thought, for example, that Q’s predictions and other claims have been definitively falsified (for example, by Hillary Clinton not actually having yet been prosecuted for treason). According to Wikipedia, though, “[o]n multiple occasions, QAnon has dismissed his false claims and incorrect predictions as willful misinformation, claiming that ‘disinformation is necessary.’ This has led Australian psychologist Stephan Lewandowsky to emphasize the ‘self-sealing’ quality of the conspiracy theory, highlighting its anonymous purveyor’s use of plausible deniability and noting that evidence against the theory ‘can become evidence of [its] validity in the minds of believers’.”

That bit about “self-sealing” doesn’t sound promising, rationally speaking; but again, this concerns the global claim of Q’s legitimacy rather than the “local” issues – about which it seems one might very well take a position – of which particular pronouncements are or might be disinformation and which are or might be true. It is internal disagreement about those “local” issues which allow us to locate the seed of empirical rationality in individual Q-ers – enough, that is, to short-circuit wholesale rejections of same when (if) we ever try to apply this concept to Q-belief in general.

That same Wikipedia article shows as well (so we don’t have to go read reddit or whatever after all) that such internal disagreement does indeed occur. Jerome Corsi, for example, once a believer, has decided (presumably on the basis of reasons, rather than a personal falling out or something – let’s give him the conceptual benefit of the doubt here) not, alas, that the whole business was nonsense from the word go, but instead, at least, that “Q has become compromised.” The point, again, is not that this conclusion is itself rational, but that it manifests something recognizable as rational deliberation in the relevant sense. This is not of course a defense of the Q phenomenon, but instead a suggestion that their manifest commitment to rationality in general – barring which we could hardly attribute belief to them at all – allows a better understanding of same than Elgat’s strategic assimilation of Q-belief to radical skepticism.

I generally call myself a pragmatist in philosophy, so let me finish with two quick points about that. The first is that, although Elgat doesn’t mention this, the idea that the impossibility of proof leads to the rational acceptability of believing “what one wants” is very reminiscent of William James’s argument in The Will to Believe, especially since what provokes James’s reflections there is religious faith in particular. However, the parallel is not exact. James defends belief in the unproven/unprovable from the charge of “voluntarism” by specifying that one may rationally so believe only when a) the evidence has already been sifted and has come out even; and b) it is a forced choice between belief and disbelief (or between one belief and another). Indeed, in the case of religious faith, given its nature as a primarily existential rather than straightforwardly doxastic commitment (“does God exist, yes or no”), it begs the question to see agnosticism as a neutral option between belief and disbelief. One chooses to make the leap, or not to.

The Q thing, while surely cult-like to some extent, doesn’t seem to be like that, in either sense (a) or (b) above. In any case, I’m too much of a holist either to defend or attack “voluntarism” as do James and his opponents: even in ordinary cases, let alone religious faith, it is very difficult if not impossible strictly to separate our doxastic and other sorts of commitments, as they are attributed together and all at once (again, the Davidsonian speaks). Anyway, if that part of this discussion is interesting, check out The Will to Believe.

My second pragmatist reflection is this: in thinking about these things I was reminded of something I say quite a bit, to keep myself focused on why it matters that I believe this or that, lest I get lost in the thickets of theory and lose the connection to real life. One of my favorite Peanuts cartoons goes like this:

Linus: When Juliet asks ‘O Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo’, she is not wondering where he is. Rather she is commenting on the fact of his being named Romeo! 

Lucy: Now that I know that, what do I do? 

Of course, Linus doesn’t have it quite right. Juliet doesn’t care that his first name is Romeo; she cares that his last name is Montague – that is, she means “why are you Romeo and not someone else, specifically not a Montague?” Anyway, the look on Lucy’s face is priceless; and I often find myself asking that same question. It is when we conceive of knowledge (belief) as (in my teacher Isaac Levi’s words) “a resource in inquiry and deliberation,” as Lucy does, that we find indispensable the concept of rationality in attempting to secure it. 

Elgat gives the Q-er’s answer to Lucy’s question as follows: “he or she rather continues to manifest and act on the belief that QAnon is real by wearing QAnon shirts, waving QAnon posters and encouraging him to keep up the good work he’s been doing.” But that doesn’t really tell us what we want to know. (Maybe he or she is doing that to wind up the libtards, or, as the kids say nowadays, for the lulz.) And as we’ve already seen, that behavior is entirely consistent with subscribing to the epistemic free-for-all we rejected as the antithesis of rationality (that is, in the constitutive rather than merely normative sense). We do better when we consider examples like this: let’s say Q says that George Soros is going to make the stock market crash next week, so that if I am to avoid losing thousands of dollars, I need to know whether to sell my stock before then. Now I really need to decide a) whether he means it, or is simply winding us up, or sowing disinformation; and b) whether it’s true; and no amount of smart rejoinders to libtard reporters, e.g. asserting epistemic free-for-all, can substitute for actual rational deliberation.

On the other hand, while I was looking that cartoon up, I also found this one, which might also be relevant, unfortunately.

Linus: (writing) Dear Great Pumpkin, I am looking forward to your arrival on Halloween night. I hope you will bring me lots of presents. Everyone tells me you are a fake, but I believe in you. Sincerely, Linus van Pelt. PS – if you really are a fake, don’t tell me. I don’t want to know.