Pragmatist Doubt, Dogmatism and Bullshit




Doubt, pragmatism, certainty

How to Cite

Macarthur, D. (2011). Pragmatist Doubt, Dogmatism and Bullshit. M/C Journal, 14(1).
Vol. 14 No. 1 (2011): doubt
Published 2011-02-01

Photograph by Gonzalo Echeverria (2010)
      Photograph by Gonzalo Echeverria (2010)

“Let us not doubt in philosophy what we do not doubt in our hearts.” (C. S. Peirce)


Doubting has always had a somewhat bad name. A “doubting Thomas” is a pejorative term for one who doubts what he or she has not witnessed first-hand, a saying which derives originally from Thomas the Apostle’s doubting of the resurrected Christ. That doubt is the opposite of faith or conviction seems to cast doubt in a bad light. There is also the saying “He has the strength of his convictions” which seems to imply we ought correspondingly to say, “He has the weakness of his doubts”. One might recall that Socrates was likened to an electric eel because his peculiar form of questioning had the power to stun his interlocutors by crushing their pet convictions and cherished beliefs under the weight of the wise man’s reasonable doubts.

Despite this bad press, however, doubting is a rational activity motivated by a vitally important concern for the truth, for getting things right. And our capacity to nurture reasonable doubts and to take them seriously is now more important than ever. Consider these examples: 

1) In the modern world we are relying more and more on the veracity of the Internet’s enormous and growing mass of data often without much thought about its epistemic credentials or provenance. But who or what underwrites its status as information, its presumption of truth? 

2) The global financial crisis depended upon the fact that economists and bank analysts placed unbounded confidence in being able to give mathematically precise models for risk, chance and decision-making under conditions of unavoidable ignorance and uncertainty. Why weren’t these models doubted before the crisis?

3) The CIA helped build the case for war in Iraq by not taking properly into account the scant and often contradictory evidence that Saddam Hussain’s regime had weapons of mass destruction. The neat alignment of US neo-conservative policy and CIA “intelligence” ought to have raised serious doubts that might have derailed the justification for war and its inevitable casualties and costs. (See Burns in this issue — Eds.)

4) On the other hand, it is quite likely that corporations that stand to lose large sums of money are fuelling unreasonable doubts about climate change—to what extent we are responsible for it, what the chances are of mitigating its effects, etc.—through misinformation and misdirection.

In this paper I want to go a step beyond these specific instances of the value of appropriate doubt. Learning how to doubt, when to doubt and what to doubt is at the heart of a powerful pragmatist approach to philosophy—understood as reflective thinking at its best. After considering two ways of thinking about doubt, I shall outline the pragmatist approach and then briefly consider its bearing on the problems of dogmatism and bullshit in contemporary society. 

Two Notions of Doubt

It is important to distinguish doubts about beliefs from doubts about certainty. That is, in everyday parlance the term “doubt” seems to have two connotations depending on which of these notions it is contrasted with. 

First of all, doubt can be contrasted with belief. To doubt a belief is to be in “twosome twiminds” as James Joyce aptly put it: a state of neither believing nor disbelieving but hovering between the two, without committing oneself, undecided. To doubt in this sense is to sit on the fence, to vacillate over a truth commitment, to remain detached. In this context doubt is not disbelief but, rather, un-belief.

Secondly, doubt can be contrasted with certainty, the absence of doubt. To doubt something that we thought was certain is not to doubt whether it is true or reasonable to believe. If someone asks what the colour of my car is and I say it’s painted blue they might then say, “How do you know that someone has not painted it red in your absence?” This is, of course, possible but it is not at all likely. Even if it causes me to be very slightly doubtful—and, as we shall see, pragmatism offers reasons to block this step—it would not lead me to actually doubt what the colour of my car is. To be less than fully certain is consistent with continuing to believe and doing so for good (even overwhelming) reasons. Of course, some forms of belief such as religious faith may require certainty, in which case to doubt them at all is tantamount to undermining the required attitude.

There is also a notion of absolute certainty, meaning the impossibility of doubt. Descartes inaugurates modern philosophy by employing a method of extreme and radical doubting in order to discover absolutely certain (i.e. indubitable) truths. His Meditations involves solipsistic doubts about whether there is an external world, including one’s own body and other people, since perhaps its all a myriad of one’s own subjective experiences. Clearly such philosophical doubt concerns matters that are not ordinarily doubted or even seen as open to doubt. As we shall see, pragmatism sides with common sense here.

A Pragmatist Perspective on Doubt

With this preliminary distinction in place we can now list four pragmatist insights about doubt that help to reveal its fruitfulness and importance for critical reflection in any field, including philosophy itself:

1) Genuine doubts require reasons. 

Genuine doubts, doubts we are required to take seriously, arise from particular problematic situations for definite reasons. One does not doubt at will just as one does not believe at will. I cannot believe that I am the Wimbledon tennis champion just by willing to believe it. So, too, I cannot doubt what I believe just by willing to doubt it. I cannot doubt that it is a sunny day if everything speaks in favour of its being so: I’m outside, seeing the sun and clear blue skies etc. Some philosophers think that the mere conceivability or possibility of error is enough to generate a live doubt but pragmatists contest this. 

For example, is knowledge of what I see before me now undermined because I am not able to rule out the possibility that my brain is being artificially stimulated to induce experiences, as seen in The Matrix? Such brain-in-a-vat doubts are not genuine for the pragmatist because they do not constitute a legitimate reason to doubt. Why? For one thing we have no actual machine that can create an artificial temporally extended “world image” through brain stimulation. These are merely conceivable or “paper” doubts, unliveable paradoxes that we think about in the study but do not take seriously in everyday life. Of course, if we did have such a machine—and it is not clear that this is even technically possible today—this situation would no doubt change.

2) There are no absolute certainties (guaranteed indubitable truths).

As we have seen, ordinarily the term “certainty” stands for the actual absence of doubt. That is what we might call subjective certainty since where I am free of doubt another might be doubtful. Subjective certainty is the common state of most people most of the time about many things such as what their name is, where they live, who their family and friends are, what they like to eat etc. There is also Descartes’s notion of what cannot be doubted under any circumstances, which we might call absolute certainty. Traditional philosophy believed it could discover absolute certainties by means of reason alone, these truths being called a priori

At the heart of pragmatism are doubts about all propositions that were previously regarded as absolute certainties. That is, there are no a priori truths in the traditional sense according to the pragmatist. Nothing is guaranteed to be true come what may, even the truths of logic or mathematics which we currently cannot imagine being false. 

It was at one time thought to be a necessary truth that two straight lines both perpendicular to another straight line never meet… that was, until the nineteenth century discovery of Riemannian geometry. What was supposedly a necessary a priori truth turned out to be false in this context.

That anything can be doubted does not mean that everything can be doubted all at once. The attempt to doubt all one’s worldly beliefs presumably includes doubting that one knows the meaning of the words one uses in raising this very doubt (since one doubts the meaning of the term “doubt” itself)—or doubting whether one knows the contents of one’s thoughts—in which case one would undermine the sense of one’s doubts in the very attempt to doubt. But that makes no sense. The moral is that if doubt is to make sense then it might be wide-reaching but it cannot be fully universal.

The human desire for absolute certainty is probably inescapable so the lessons of fallibilism need to be hard won again and again. Anything can be doubted—in so far as it makes sense to do so. This is the pragmatist doctrine of fallibilism. It is the position one gets by making room for doubt in one’s system of beliefs without lapsing into complete skepticism. 

3) Inquiry is the fallibilistic removal of doubt. 

Doubt is an unsettled state of mind and “the sole object of inquiry is the settlement of opinion” (Peirce, "Fixation" 375). We are, by nature, epistemically conservative and retain our body of beliefs, or as many of them as possible, in the face of positive reasons for doubt. A doubt stimulates us to an inquiry, which ends by dissolving the doubt and, perhaps, a slight readjustment of our network of beliefs. Since this inquiry is a fallible one nothing is guaranteed to be held fast: there are no eternal truths or indispensable methods. 

Ancient Pyrrhonian skeptics developed techniques for doubting whether we have any reason to believe one thing rather than another. A famous argument-form they explored is called Agrippa’s Trilemma. If we ask why we should believe any given belief then we must give another belief to serve as a reason. But then the same question arises for it in turn and so on. If we are to avoid the looming infinite regress of reasons for reasons we seem to only have two unpalatable options: either to argue viciously in a circle; or to simply stop at some arbitrary point. The argument thus seems to show that nothing we believe is justified.

Pragmatism blocks this trilemma at its origin by arguing that our beliefs conform to a default-and-challenge structure. Current beliefs have the status of default entitlements unless or until specific challenges to them (real doubts) are legitimately raised. On this conception we can be entitled to the beliefs we actually have without requiring reasons for them simply because we have them and lack any good reason for doubt. In an image owed to Otto Neurath, we rebuild our wooden ship of beliefs whilst at sea, replacing planks as need be but, since we must stay afloat, never all planks at once (Quine). Inquiry demands the removal of all actual doubt, not all possible doubt. 

A belief is, as Charles Peirce conceives it, a habit of action. To doubt a belief, then, is to undermine one’s capacity to act in the relevant respect. The ancient philosopher, Pyrrho, was reputed to need handlers to stop him putting his hands into fire or walking off cliffs because, as a radical skeptic, he lacked the relevant beliefs about fire and falling to make him aware of any danger. The pragmatist, oriented towards action and human practices, does not rest content with his doubts but overcomes them in favour of settled beliefs by way of “a continual process of re-experimenting and re-creating” (Dewey 220)

4) Inquiry requires a democratic ethics. 

The pragmatist conception of inquiry rehabilitates Plato’s analogy between self and society: the norms of how one is to conduct one’s inquiries are the norms of democratic society. Inquiry is a cooperative human interaction with an environment not, as in the Cartesian tradition, a private activity of solitary a priori reflection. It depends on a social conception of (fallible) reason—understood as intelligent action— which conforms to the democratic ethical principles of the fair and equal right of all to be heard, an invitation and openness to criticism, the toleration of dissenting voices, and instituting methods to help cooperatively resolve disagreements, etc. We inquire in medias res (in the middle of things)—that is, from the midst of our current beliefs and convictions within a community of inquirers. There is no need for a Cartesian propaedeutic doubt to weed out any trace of falsity at the start of inquiry. 

From the pragmatist point of view we must learn to live with the ineliminable possibility of error and doubt, and of inevitable shortcomings in both our answers and methods. Problems can be overcome as they arise through a self-correcting experimental method of inquiry in which nothing is sacred. A key feature of this conception of inquiry is that it places reasonable doubt at its centre: 1) a sustained doubting of old “certainties” of traditional authorities (e.g. religious, political) or of traditional a priori reason (philosophy); 2) a constant need to distinguish genuine or live doubts from philosophical or paper doubts; 3) and the idea that genuine doubts are both the stimulant to a new inquiry and, when dissolved, signal its end.    


The importance of the pragmatist conceptions of inquiry and doubt can be appreciated by seeing that various pathologies of believing—pathologies of how to form and maintain beliefs that—are natural to us. Of particular note are dogmatism and fanaticism, which are forms of fixed believing unhinged from rational criticism and sustained without regard to such matters as evidential support, reasonableness and plausibility within the wider community of informed inquirers. Since they divide the world into us and them, fellow-believers and the rest, they inevitably lead to disagreements and hostility. 

Dogmatists and fanatics loom large in the contemporary world as evidenced by the widespread and malevolent influence of religious, ideological and political dogmas, confrontational forms of nationalism, and fanatical “true believers” in all shapes and forms from die-hard conspiracy theorists to adherents of fad diets and the followers of self-appointed gurus and cult-leaders. The great problem with such forms of believing is that they leave no room for reasonable doubts, which history tells us inevitably arise in matters of human social life and our place in the world. And as history also tells us we go to war and put each other to death over matters of belief and disbelief; of conviction and its lack. Think of Socrates, Jesus, the victims of the Spanish Inquisition, Ghandi, Martin Luther King, and Oscar Romero to name only a small few who have been killed for their beliefs. 

A great virtue of pragmatism is its anti-authoritarian stance, which is achieved by building doubt into its very methodology and by embracing a democratic ethos that makes each person equally answerable to reasonable doubt. From this perspective dogmatists and fanatical believers are ostracised as retaining an outmoded authoritarian conception of believing that has been superseded in the most successful branches of human inquiry—such as the natural sciences. 


To bullshit is to talk without knowing what one is talking about. Harry Frankfurt has observed, “one of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much bullshit” (117); and he goes on to argue that bullshitters are “a greater enemy of truth than liars are” (132). Liars care about the truth since they are trying to deceive others into believing what is not true. Bullshitters may say what is true but more often exaggerate, embellish and window-dress. Their purposes lies elsewhere than getting things right so they do not really care whether what they say is true or false or a mixture of the two. 

Politicians, advertising agents, salesmen and drug company representatives are notorious for bullshitting. Bill Clinton’s “I did not have sex with that woman” is a famous example of political bullshit. He said it for purely political reasons and when he was found to have lied (the evidence being the infamous unwashed dress of Monica Lewinsky) he changed the lie into a truth by redefining the word “sex”—another example of bullshit. The bullshitter can speak the truth but what matters is always the spin. 

The bullshitter need not (contra Frankfurt) hide his own lack of concern for the truth. He plays at truth-telling but he can do this more or less openly. The so-called bullshit artist may even try to make a virtue out of revealing his bullshit as the bullshit it is, thereby making his audience complicit. But the great danger of bullshit is not so much to others, as to oneself. Inveterate bullshitters are inevitably tempted to believe their own bullshit leading to a situation in which they do not know their own minds. Only one who knows his own mind is aware of what he is committed to, and what he takes responsibility for in the wider community of inquirers who rely on each other for information and reasonable criticism.

Doubting provides a defence against bullshitters since it blocks their means: the doubter reaffirms a concern for the truth including the truth about oneself, which the bullshitter is wilfully avoiding. To doubt is to withhold a commitment to the truth through a demand not to commit too hastily or for the wrong reasons. A concern for the truth, for getting things right, is thus central to the practice of reasonable doubting. And reasonably doubting, in turn, depends on knowing one’s own mind, what truths one is committed to, and what epistemic responsibilities one thus incurs to justify and defend truths and to criticise falsehood. 

Democracy and fallibilist inquiry were borne of doubts about the benevolence, wisdom and authority of tyrants, dictators, priests and kings. Their continued vitality depends on maintaining a healthy skepticism about the beliefs of others and about whether we know our own minds. Only so can we sustain our vital concern for the truth in the face of the pervasive challenges of dogmatists and bullshitters. 


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———. “The Fixation of Belief.” 1877. In The Essential Peirce.

———. “How to Make Our Ideas Clear.” 1878. In The Essential Peirce.

———. The Essential Peirce: Vol. 1. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1992.

———. The Essential Peirce: Vol. 2. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1999.

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Author Biography

David Macarthur, The University of Sydney

David Macarthur is Senior Lecturer in the Philosophy Department at the University of Sydney. He is co-editor of Naturalism in Question (Harvard University Press, 2004) and Naturalism and Normativity (Columbia University Press, 2010) and Hilary Putnam’s collection Philosophy in an Age of Science (Harvard University Press, forthcoming 2011).