Self-Sealing Arguments

Chapter Ten
Philosophy 404
Summer 1999

These are arguments that are set up in such a way that nothing could possibly refute them; thus, they seal themselves off from criticism. We can bring out just why they are objectionable in a couple of ways:

Such an argument is objectionable because it provides no one who is skeptical with any reason to believe it. Usually, a skeptic would want a theory (T) to prove itself -- to show that it gets the right result in a situation where a competing theory (T') does not. Note that here we have what we can call a crucial test: if the test comes out one way, it favors T and not T'; if it comes out in the another way, it favors T' and not T. The problem with self-sealing theories (or arguments) is that there is no such test for them: any apparently problematic data can be accommodated within them Thus, there is no reason given the skeptic for believing in them.

Another way to think of this is by analogy with tautologies, or sentences which are true in every possible situation. A self-sealing theory will be true in every possible circumstance -- any attempt to falsify it fails. Thus, it is similar to a tautology, such as "I am here or I am not here." Sentences such as this one are also true in every possible circumstance, but it is for this reason that they tell us nothing that we didn't already know. They give us no information, and so can be said to have no content. By analogy, a self-sealing theory (argument) tells us nothing about the world either -- more specifically, it tells us nothing about the specific domain to which it applies. Therefore, it is vacuous.

One might think that a theory could look in practice like a self-sealer if it is the true empirical theory of some subject matter. There is an important difference between such a theory and a self-sealer: if the theory is not self-sealing, then one can infer testable hypotheses such that if the relevant evidence were to come out in one way, these tests would count against the theory. In fact, it is through its performance in such tests that such a theory would likely establish itself as the true theory. By contrast, a self-sealing theory doesn't even imply such tests.

An argument can be self-sealing in a number of different ways:

  1. By universal discounting: all possible objections are dismissed, often in ad hoc or arbitrary ways. E.g., conspiracy theories.

  2. By going upstairs: use of the ad hominem fallacy to dismiss objections; objections are dismissed as a sign that the objector is not yet in a position to understand the argument, or that the objector is actually proving the argument sound by asking those objections. E.g., psychoanalysis.

  3. By definition: use of the fallacy of equivocation to finesse objections; one makes a substantive claim and then subtly redefines the critical term in a way that guarantees the truth of the claim, even though by doing this the claim is deprived of substance. E.g., selfishness.

  4. Certain words are also used to seal arguments off: "enough", "true", "thoroughly", etc.

Dangers of Self-Sealing Arguments:

  1. An argument that is self-sealing is vacuous and it is usually offered when trying to shore up a position that is false. One way to avoid the objection of falsity is to make one's argument impervious to criticism; however, in doing this, you deprive the argument of all content.

  2. Commitment to self-sealing arguments is antithetical to the type of attitude conducive to critical thinking. To be a good critical thinker, you need to be open-minded and non-dogmatic. Commitment to self-sealing theories and arguments engenders closed-minded dogmatism.