In a number of areas of philosophy one might be tempted to put forward what I am going to call an "as if" theory in an effort to respond to skeptical arguments. An “as if” theory has the following form:
Even if we have good evidence and/or arguments to the effect that humans lack some property or capacity x, it is nevertheless in our interest to continue believing and/or acting as if x is a property or capacity that we do not lack.
Take, for example, the suggestion that even if humans happen not to be "metaphysically" free--we may be better off living under the general illusion that we are. Both David Velleman's "epistemic freedom"(2001) and Saul Smilansky's "illusionism" (2000) come to mind. It is easy enough to imagine similar stories being told in other areas as well. In the wake of John Doris' attack on robust character traits via what he calls situationalism (2002), for instance, it would be easy enough for a virtue theorist with consequentialist tendencies to argue that we should continue acting as if our character traits were more robust than the empirical data suggest they actually are. Consider another possible “as if” theory--even if it turns out that harsh penalties do not deter violent crime (indeed, even if it turns out that harsher penalties make matters worse!), we are nevertheless better off as a society pretending that harsher penalties do in fact reduce the amount of violent crime.
“As if” theorists have an easy was of shielding themselves from the impact of skeptical arguments. Indeed, they can essentially grant the skeptical premises while at the same time arguing that we can avoid the potentially negative social implications of accepting these skeptical premises by simply pretending that these skeptical premises are false. Hence, even if humans are descriptively unfree or even if events are entirely determined (or entirely random for that matter) or even if many (if not most) of the springs of action are beyond (or below or above) the folds of consciousness or even if our belief in moral objectivity is false or even if there is no God (or gods), it is still to our advantage to maintain certain illusions about the contrary being the case. In this respect, “as if” theories allow us to respond to the “real” threat of skeptical concerns along roughly Humean lines—i.e., we accept the premises and conclusions of skeptical arguments at face value while in our studies. Having done so, we nevertheless eventually find ourselves once again playing backgammon with our friends and engaging in other “mundane” affairs—living as if all of those skeptical arguments were a distant bad dream. On this view, we may naturally have a preference for certain socially adaptive fictions and fantasies. Hence, another benefit of “as if” theories is that they can be coupled with evolutionary explanations for why humans prefer the illusions that we do. And they also receive some empirical support from the research into the positive societal upshots of self-aggrandizement and other forms of cognitive biases. It turns out that people are generally better off--socially speaking--if they are somewhat out of touch with the truth about their own physical and mental limitations. If so, this gives us all the more reason to consider the possibility that even if we lack some property or capacity x, perhaps we really would better off pretending that we nevertheless have x after all.
The problems with self-deception writ large notwithstanding, does anyone think that the “as if” argumentative strategy is an effective one? I haven't really thought it through myself--I am really just curious to see what others think--either about some of the examples I have discussed or others that I have overlooked.