The axiom of futility
Philosopher Larry Becker articulated what he called the axiom of futility: we ought to make it an important component of our personal and social actions
“Axiom of Futility. Agents are required not to make direct attempts to do (or be) something that is logically, theoretically, or practically impossible.” (L. Becker, A New Stoicism, ch. 4)
A few days ago I was at the 19th European Skeptics Congress, where I had the honor to deliver a keynote address on skepticism as a philosophy of life. One of the discussion sessions highlighted what I have come to think of as a persistent issue not just with skepticism, but with any kind of activism to make the world a better place: people, unwittingly, are often in violation of Larry Becker’s Axiom of Futility, i.e., they try to do something that is logically, theoretically, or practically impossible. And then, of course, they become frustrated and more likely to give up.
For instance, there was much talk at the Congress about the need to teach critical thinking in schools, to overcome people’s superstitions, to convince politicians to act rationally in the interest of society at large, and so forth. All of these are, without a question, highly commendable goals of the skeptic movement. All of which we have been pursuing for decades (or, depending on how you look at it, centuries…). All of which we have failed to accomplish, despite some gain (and some losses) here and there.
Keep reading with a 7-day free trial
Subscribe to Figs in Winter, by Massimo Pigliucci to keep reading this post and get 7 days of free access to the full post archives.