This article has been rewritten by Edward G. Rozycki from Clabaugh & Rozycki, (1997)
Guilford, CT, Dushkin, McGraw-Hill Analyzing Controversy, Chapter 11

Inquiry Blockers

edited 7/21/13

...there follows one corollary which itself deserves to be inscribed
upon every wall of the city of philosophy: Do not block the way of inquiry.

-- Charles Sanders Pierce, First Rule of Logic (1899)

Questioning stops normally in two circumstances. The first is when a mutually recognized authority is cited: "Why is that? Because so-and-so (whom we defer to) indicates that it is so."

For example, "Why should we take the house plants indoors tonight?" "Because the weatherman says there will be a frost." End of question. Go on to something else.

The second occasion when questioning may stop is if some pressing problem must be dealt with. We then proceed, often with misgivings and unanswered concerns, to take action on the basis of what are only very tentative conclusions. For example, in a restaurant we might find a person at the next table, choking; and, because it is an emergency, administer the Heimlich maneuver even though we are not quite sure what exactly is wrong.

In many disputes, however, reasonable inquiry is  blocked by pseudo-answers, formulated primarily to stultify questioning. These inquiry blockers may appear to be informative; but, in fact, cloud reasoning and often distract from deeper concerns. Press conferences often provide clear examples of this.

Simple Inquiry-blockers

Consider the following questions and answers:




1. Why are so many people aggressive?

1. It's just human nature.

2. Will we ever understand the universe?

2. No. That will always remain a mystery

3. Why do you say he's dishonest?

3. I just know it, that's all.

4. How do you know that is right?

4. It's a matter of intuition.

5. How do you know that?

5. It's obvious to anyone who isn't an idiot, pervert or criminal; or, who has any common sense.

6. How do you know that?

6. It's a matter of Faith!

7. Why do you think he's dangerous?

7. I feel he's going to hurt somebody.

The problem with these answers is :

1. they contain terms that are in and of themselves vague, even obscure, e.g. human nature, mystery, conviction, intuition;

Comment: Is there any widely accepted authority as to what "human nature" is? Is it supposed to be something common to all humans that is basically unchangeable? Most of us have met a minutely small fraction of the five or so billion people on this planet. Even mass studies of populations seldom collect but sparse information on more than a few million. So can we convincingly settle upon what "human nature" is? Ought we allow someone to finesse their answer by merely making a vague reference to "human nature?"

2. Those who offer them as answers will defend them by insisting there is nothing further to explain or that can be explained.

Comment: If people call something a "mystery" they might merely mean that they personally don't know -- or know anybody who knows -- that answer. We have the right to ask, "How do you know it's a mystery?" "Are you saying that no one can ever know?" "How would you know? If they insist on this "mystery, " it may indicate that they feel their argument is vulnerable: our questioning is "drilling close to the nerve."

3. It is far from clear how the respondents have come to know what they claim to know something negative. How does any one know that something can't be explained? Without specifying limits on time, place, etc., no negative general claim can established empirically. There may, in fact,  exist dragons somewhere in this (or some other) vast universe.

4. They sometimes offer insult in response to a question.This is not an appropriate response, much less a guarantee of fact.

5. Feelings of conviction are not a guarantee of fact. Nietzsche has noted,

In every philosophy there comes the point where the philosopher's "conviction" enters the scene
-- or, in the words of the ancient mystery, adventavit asinus / pulcher et fortissimus
(Enter now the ass, Beautiful and most strong.)

6. That someone has Faith in something is not a guarantee of fact.

These considerations lead us to some simple steps in dealing with potential inquiry-blockers.

Step 1) Identify an inquiry-blocker using these criteria:

1. they contain terms more obscure than those in the original question, e.g. human nature, mystery, conviction, intuition;

2. Those who give them as answers will insist there is nothing further that can be explained.

Note that deep conviction or personal testimonials do not guarantee fact. "It is my deepest conviction he is dishonest" is not the same as "He is dishonest." Nor does "My intuition tells me he is dishonest" establish that he is dishonest.

Step 2) To ward off an inquiry-blocker, ask "How do you know that?"

You may get a perplexed response at this point; maybe an insistent "It's just obvious!" But, if your respondents go on to offer further explanation, you have succeeded in averting the blockage. If they start to break off conversation, you have a choice to make. Do you want to maintain dialogue? If so, try the following:

Step 3) Use the same inquiry-blocker to justify a contrary statement. Is there any reason to choose one over the other?

For example, if a person claims that "It's human nature to take risks" offer "Perhaps it is human nature to avoid risks" and see if you can pursue discussion on those points. Unshared faith, by itself, won't help you reach a reconciliation.

That something is a point of faith does not establish it as a fact. If you ask Christians whether their One God is Three Persons, most will say yes -- excepting Unitarians, perhaps, -- and that they know this as a point of faith in the teachings of their church.

If you then consider that according to the Koran, God is One -- not a trinity of persons --, and that this is a point of faith among millions and millions of Muslims, it seems that the issue is far from settled between Christians and Muslims. (For Hindus, God, Krishna, is a multiplicity of persons.) That these contradictory beliefs are points of faith is not sufficient to resolve the issue. Maybe the issue needn't be resolved, so long as Christians, Muslims and Hindus can be tolerant of different points of faith.

So try this: if someone claims that "It's human nature to do evil" offer "Perhaps it is human nature to avoid evil." See if you can pursue discussion on what would count as evidence in favor of one claim or the other.

To Reiterate

Inquiry blockers are used to end investigation prematurely. Inquiry ends naturally by finding a commonly recognized authority or by adopting a tentative conclusion for the sake of action.

Inquiry blockers contain terms that are in and of themselves obscure, e.g. human nature, mystery, conviction, intuition. Those who offer them as answers will defend them by insisting there is nothing further to explain or that can be explained. It indicates a major weakness in an argument if written formulations containing inquiry-blockers offer no justification for the blocking.

Inquiry blocking may be countered by insisting that the blockers tell how they know that explanation is at an end; or, by reformulating the blocking phrases so as to permit further inquiry. .


Test Yourself

Reformulate the inquiry-blocking statements given below as question that pursue further inquiry, e.g.

"It is clear he doesn't know what he is talking about" into

"Does he know what he is talking about?"


1. It's natural for people to expect more than they deserve.

2. Not you, nor I, nor anyone knows /Why oats, peas, beans or barley grows.

3. I'm convinced he's a murderer!

4. A little bird told me she's in love with him.

5. He feels he should be given a raise.


See also, The Nature of Consensus