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Sloppy Language About What’s True: Part II

We often of a proposition use the term self evident or a similar variant. But we often use it incorrectly. We say for instance, “It is obvious that Mr Obama is a bad president,” when what we really mean is, “Given a certain collection of evidence which I am holding and which I assume you also hold, we infer that Mr Obama is a bad president.”

Error creeps in when the inference doesn’t lead to a certain conclusion, and it is instead only probable, or when the two parties do not agree on the same set of probative evidence. Hence arises politics, with which I assume the reader is familiar with many examples.

Sometimes we use the phrase correctly, as in “We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal (where men means all human beings)…” Or in the proposition, “For all natural numbers x and y, if x = y, then y = x.” Or in, “Obviously I exist.” Or in a host of other propositions which we say as true.

But notice the difference in these two phrases: “It is true I exist” and “It is self evident that I exist.” It is strictly a mistake to use the first phrase, but fine to use the second. The difference is subtle here and the mistake passes unnoticed, but only because of the example: you will agree that it is true that you exist, so the two phrases might seem equal, but they are not.

The first fails because it is like Alice coming up to you and announcing, “It is true that some chickens are creatures understanding French.” It most certainly is not true—unless we first accept the conditions Alice heard but we did not, but which would have allowed us to deduce this proposition as true.

The reason “It is self evident that I exist” works is because it carries with it the evidence we need to judge the truth of the proposition “I exist.” The evidence, which all arguments need, comes from saying “It is self evident”, which is just a translation of “Given my intuition” or “Given my most fundamental thoughts.”

Thus the second phrase is equivalent to “Given my intuition, it is true that I exist.” This allows us to recast our mathematical axiom “Given my intuition, it is true that for all natural numbers x and y, if x = y, then y = x.”

Now, we often as a harmless shorthand skip the qualifier and just say that “It is true that for all natural numbers x and y, if x = y, then y = x.” We get away without the qualifier in cases like this because the truth is so obvious and non-controversial. And it would be tedious to bring along qualifiers for everything item which we assert is true. For example, “It is true the car is in the garage.” Well, to be perfectly clear, you must say at least, “Given my observation and assuming my senses have not failed me and nothing has left the garage since last I’ve seen it, it is true the car is in the garage.” What a chore! Much easier to state, “The car is in the garage.”

No harm is done in the vast majority of these cases because the evidence which is required to make these propositions true is in fact shared by speaker and listener. But, as in the cases of politics, ethics, and metaphysics, it can be a positive menace to fail to specify the conditioning evidence.

Hold on a minute, did we make a slip? Yes, and a big one. Can you spot it?

Re-examine the “full” garage example. To make the proposition “The car is in the garage” true we had to carry a lot of baggage. Perhaps our slip arises because we did not fully specify the exact conditions which make the proposition true? If so, we can fix it up; after all, we use statements like these all the time without running into difficulties. This isn’t our mistake, so let’s just assume we do have the right evidence.

Our slip is something deeper, more fundamental. Ready? We had to know that, “given the evidence, the proposition is deduced.” We had to have built-in knowledge that lets us take statements of evidence and tie them to propositions. In other words, the operation of going from the evidence to the conclusion is a logical step, the validity of which we must take for granted. We don’t just need the evidence and conclusion, we need the logical glue that binds them.

This “glue” is also in our intuition. Alice needed it, and so do we, for every inference we make.

Next time: a proof of this last claim. It will also be the case that relativism is false.

10 thoughts on “Sloppy Language About What’s True: Part II Leave a comment

  1. Daughter #2: It’s true that I am smart.

    Daughter #1: Yeah, right! It’s SELF evident to YOU but not to me.

    Sisterly love.

  2. Human languages (all of them) operate on a set of undefinable assumptions. In linguistics these are called function words. English has about 300 of them. They include words like “one” and “is”. Even computers have their own function words (bit, address, instruction) albeit far fewer of them.

    It may be too much to expect logical clarity from the English language. It is built on too many assumptions and, by design, gives the user the ability to obfuscate meaning.

    Let’s use frequentist statistics as an example. The mathematics involved, compared to some other fields, is relatively light. To the uninitiated, comparing two means is obviously not going to say much one way or another other. Despite this many practioners of the dark art will say otherwise. Magical concepts, like 0.05, abound. Is this a failing in the mathematics or in the English?

    Im not sure where I’m going with this. I’ve been using English my entire life yet still struggle to make sense. I can pick up a new programming language and make complex logical arguments until I’m blue in the face. Maybe English is just the wrong tool for the job.

  3. “It is self-evident that I exist” is an observation, which can only be made by “I”.

  4. The reason “It is self evident that I exist” works is because it carries with it the evidence we need to judge the truth of the proposition “I exist.” The evidence, which all arguments need, comes from saying “It is self evident”, which is just a translation of “Given my intuition” or “Given my most fundamental thoughts.”

    I’m inclined to agree, if and only if you will also agree to the fact that our “Intuitions” or “our most fundamental thoughts” are not bound to be right per se. That is, they fail a lot, and this has been the case for centuries now. If we know they “fail” a lot (and by failure, I mean that they do occur to go against our more recent state of empirical knowledge, i.e. “science”), then if we base our logical building from these “Descartian primordial truths” we should be aware that we are cheating our way into objectivism. I don’t have a problem with this, obviously, since I only deem this step as pragmatic and necessary for us to get somewhere more interesting with our thoughts, but to someone daring to proclaim Objectivism, it’s a barrier that you have to overcome.

    Funny to see you do the same error as Descartes, though. It’s as if you are still in the 17th century.

    PS: The self-evident truth that we are all born equal is silly at best, for it is literally not true at all ;). It’s not a scientific observation, but a political one, it’s a manifesto for the brotherhood of men (people), which any logician should not take seriously enough. And I’m sure I don’t have to show you why ;).

  5. Luis,

    By “born equal” I do not mean in ability. I mean in dignity.

    It is a fallacy to say that because our intuitions sometimes fail us they always do.

  6. By “born equal” I do not mean in ability. I mean in dignity.

    Exactly, as I said, this is a political statement, not an observable, unless you are going to teach me that “dignity” is somehow an empirical qualification of any object. Does a rock have “dignity”? What is this “dignity”? Does it exist by itself? Of course not, it exists in the minds of the others, who will choose either to confer someone with “it” or not.

    IOW, it’s a moral statement, and one that hasn’t been true at all for centuries (and we can even say that it is not true even today), so to say that it is “self-evidently true” is tantamount to a political statement, a manifesto. One that I will agree with, after you gather its nature.

    Right now, you are only confused by the nature of the statement.

    It is a fallacy to say that because our intuitions sometimes fail us they always do.

    That’s not what I said at all. I only have to point out that intuitions fail *sometimes* for establishing as false the idea that you can base any Objectivist building upon them.

    This remark of mine would be true even if there was only one example of such “failure”.

    Otherwise, you are merely saying that you can know the truth because you just know it from your gut. Which is childish, at best.

  7. Luis,

    It is a fallacy to say that because some have held an idea moral that it is not immoral. Just as it is a fallacy to say that because some have held that an idea is immoral that it is not morel.

    We agree that intuitions sometimes fail. It is false to say that because intuitions sometimes fails it always does, which you do indeed claim when you say that objectivism cannot be built upon intuition. This is what makes your remark false. One failure of intuition does not makes all failures.

    It is also far from “childish” to claim that we know some truths only from our “gut” (a term I never used). See Part III.

  8. The reason why I say that you cannot base Objectivism unto intuition is not *only* because you “sometimes fail” with it, but because if we acknowledge the error-prone nature of it, then we must conclude that *every* intuition *may* be in error. Note, I am not saying that every single one is, just that whenever you bump into an intuition, your confidence upon it will not be 100%, given that it is an intuition and we already established that intuitions can go wrong.

    In fact, such an intuition will be trusted by subjective feelings. “I KNOW this is true!” or “I think this is true, I guess…”… This encompasses pretty much all the cases I am aware of.

    Again, I really do not care to prove that every single one intuition is “wrong”, that is a strawman. I just have to convey the notion that you don’t know where the error might come from, and it may even come from the one intuition you trust the most. If you acknowledge this condition (that I hereby name as “human condition”), then you do realise that the Objectivist claims are just one more of those utopian paradises that the human mind is always eager to have…. only to be smashed by the evidence.

  9. Interesting debate. I wish I could write as well as you two.

    Luis, I am not sure I follow your line of reasoning. You seem to be saying that one cannot be objective while trusting their intuition. Am I correct in understanding this?

  10. Intuitively, Luis does not exist. Which is a problem for him when waiting for a table at a restaurant.

    Seriously, gentlemen, the truth of your (and my) existence, indeed the existence of the universe itself, is based on more than intuition. It is evidenced by all perceived phenomena and the phenomenon of perception itself. We are because we perceive ourselves as being. We cannot perceive ourselves as not being, that is, not perceiving our existence, because if we weren’t we wouldn’t.

    Truth, then, is based on perceptions. Descartes famously said “Cogito ergo sum”, I think therefore I am. What he should have said is “I feel, therefore I am”. Reality is a 2×4 upside the head; it is not a questionable proposition.

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