Saturday, May 16, 2009

Absurd Claims

1.The Problem

In the following we shall consider a type of sentences ,which if seriously uttered in the relevant context ,make a claim which can impossibly be true.

“I am not here.”
“I am dead.”
“I do not exist.”

might serve as introductory examples.At a first look they might appear as the type of playful jokes which populate so much of Lewis Carrolls books and logical puzzles.But there is something more to them - as I shall try to demonstrate.They belong to a region of what Sören Hallden called “The Logic of Nonsense” which illuminates some aspects of Meaning in general.
I have already remarked that the claim made in each of my examples is a claim that can “impossibly be true”. But what sort of impossibility are we talking about ?
The claim that I am here,expressed by myself by the sentence “I am here” might seem to be true.But is it a necessary truth ? What makes “I am here” different from “Professor X. is here” or “Professor Y is here”? The truth of such claims, if they are true ,is obviously contingent,and if I reformulate something like “I am here” to “Professor X is here” it becomes obvious that I might as well not have been here.And if we take “I am here” as synonymous with “Professor X is here” (where “X” serves as my proper name) - which seems quite reasonable - ”I am here” should be contingent as well.
There is,however,a strong temptation to answer yes, “I am here” is a necessary truth, because the negation “I am not here” seems to involve some sort of contradiction.And by a valid,even axiomatic, theorem in modal logic:
– ◊(–P ) if and only if N(P)

the negations of the absurd claims in my three examples seem to be necessary truths.Now to claim that with logical necessity I am here,that I do exist and that I am not dead seems to be as absurd claims.”
There is nothing necessary about "Professor Y is present."

2.First Pattern of Analysis; Hintikka s Performatives

A reasonable interpretation of Descarte s “Cogito,ergo sum”which fits well with Gassendis objection “Ambulo,ergo sum” – what is necessary about “ambulo”? – is that rather than intending a logical inference in the Aristotelian sense,Descartes has the apparent absurdity of the claim “I do not exist” in mind.As Jakko Hintikka has observed in a very useful analysis of the Cogito ,there is nothing wrong with the sentence”I am not here” or the sentence “I do not exist”.They are in perfect order and have nothing of the contradictoriness of “A is a circular triangle” nor the obscurity of “It smells like a sphere”.What is contradictory about them,or creates the appearence of contradictoriness is connected not with their sentential structure but with the idea of a speech-act or other performance (thinking them) which would make use of them.
What Dr Hintikka, among other things, observed in his essay on the Cogito is that the first person statements of this type seem to be - or can be analyzed as - performatives, (performative speech-acts in the sense of J.L.Austin and Searle) which ,because of the weird circumstances in which they are attempted,cannot simply be carried out,or performed.,cannot be performed.The radical doubt of the own existence ,expresses as the question “Is it the case that I do not exist.” cannot be expressed (or if you prefer to stick to the Hintikkaa terminology ,performed ) by me,whether it is true or not.Thus,the Cogito. Rather than expressing a logical inference the Cogito,ergo sum describes a situation. That I cannot claim that I do not exist is not a contradictio in adjecto .Of course it could be the case that I do not exist ! After all I am mortal.After all my parents might never have met. The claim is not a contradiction it is a case of absurdity.Some things can simply not be done.We cannot smell the spherical form of a sphere In Lewis Carrolls “Through the Looking-Glass” the White Queen refuses to accept Alice s confession that she cannot believe the unbelievable.The naught Red Queen claims that – after some training - she has been able to believe six unbeleivable things before Breakfeast.You only have to try with both hands.
All these are absurd claims.Things or acts are demanded which simply do not belong within the framework of these acts.Which might be assertive performances.

Is this all that there is about it ?
Not yet.

3.Second Pattern of Analysis;incompleteness

Reformulating a third-person statement like “Professor X is not here” to first-person; ”I am not here” is not the only way to produce absurd claims, and this fact limits the use of Jaakko Hintikkas “performative” pattern of analysis.I shall try to show that we actually need something stronger,a more general pattern of analysis.
Let us consider a new set of examples:
“There is nothing such as red in the world”
“There is nothing such as hot in the world”
“The universe does not exist.”
Let us first have a look at the first example.Its negation is “There is something red.” We shall – in this context- ,surpress the question whether this this something that we have called “red” is external or internal to our mind. The sentence “There is nothing such as red in the world” can of course easily be interpreted as stating that the red we percieve is of a purely perceptual character and that the external world has no colors. Which might be a perfectly reasonable position,taken by many philosophers.But that is not the present interpretation.We mean that there is nothing red whatsoever,denying the possibility of any red or reddish color experience.(I add “reddish” for the case that somebody might wonder whether that which is denied is the lowest possible determinable.The argument is –as we shall see – not sensitive in this respect.)So if the sentence “There is nothing such as red in the world” is true,it means that a color experience,such as red or reddish is not possible.Of course this is not the case.But it could be the case. What is possible in a population where every-body suffers from cerebral color-blindness (achromatopsia) could of course be the state of affairs of mankind or of mammals in general.Did the trilobites see color through their crystal eyes ? They might as well not.The point – which the reader has already got – is that even in the strong interpretation there is nothing nonsensical or fundamentally wrong with the sentence “There is nothing such as red in the world”. Our experience contradicts and rejects it but it could have been the case. So the sentence expresses a contingent false proposition.
But still – what would “There is nothing such as red in the world” mean , said in a world where the sentence expressed a true proposition ? It seems as if , if true the sentence would be senseless.And if it were senseless it could not be true.So if it were true it could not be true, and – by reductio ad absurdum – not true.But not meaningful either.
The reason is that “red” cannot be defined. It is a qualium.If the word “red” shall have any meaning at all it must be based in one way or another on the possibilirty of color experiences , specifically in the “reddish” field.So what would “There is nothing red whatsoever” mean if it were true ? Nothing .The word “red” would lack all sense and by the principle of the dominance of the atheoretical element, if a sentence contains one meaningless constituent,it becomes meaningless as a sentence.
So,again,we have landed in an absurdity.The claim is not contradictory but impossible.So it seems as if we were again in a similar dilemma as with Descartes “I do not exist” – but with the important difference that this time no egocentric particular like the first-persin “I” is involved.
There is nothing (logically) wrong with the statement,but it the proposition it expresses is true ,this truth cannot, be meaningfully expressed .So if it were true,this truth would not be expressible,while its negation does not provide any similar problem.
Clearly,it would be very strange to say that the absurd claim “There is nothing such as red in the world” would be senseless if ,and only if,it were true.Because that is an unacceptable contradiction that so,methng should be senseless and true at the same time.

The performative exit seems of no value in this example.Nothing prevents us from saying something which is obviously false. Personal pronomina do not play any role in these examples.Instead of talking about a paradox it might make sense to speak about a paradoxical situation. If the expressed proposition were true,nobody would be able to express it.But of course it could be true.
So here a language,in this case standard English,is able to produce a string of words which masquerades as expressing something which it cannot meaningfully assert.The second example in this second group.can be treated analogically. If these sentences expressed something which were the case,they would not be able to express it.There is a self-referential element implicit in the absurd claims. Their claims seem to undermine the very conditions for their use. It is a well-known fact that a natural or a formal language can produce more strings than can be realized as meaningful representations.In the language of Chemistry it is possible to combine letters for elements and numbers for valencies which suggest molecules which could never exist,and in the Laban notation it is possible to suggest movements which no dancer could perform in the real world.
One might say that the absurd claims can express more than they can signify,or that their expressivity exceeds their meaningfulness.

4.Absurd Claims and the Anthropic Principle

The implicitly self-referential element becomes more visible ,may be,in our last example,i.e.

“The universe does not exist.”

This example has some relevance for the sometimes rather intense discussion of a cosmological principle which James Wheeler baptized The Anhropological Principle.
Obviously human life,intelligent to the extent to which it is intelligent is only possible in a universe which satisfies some fundamental physical conditions.Exactly which these might be does not have to analyzed here.Let it be enough for the present discussion that a universe in which questions can be asked has to have such an equilibrium between contractive and dissipative forces that galaxies and stars are able to form.
When the child asks "Why is there something rather than nothing ?"
and the helpless parent answers "In order that you shall be able to ask the question" this answer - which clearly applies the anthropological principle - implies that the existence of the world we know is a condition for the question to be asked.Again,there is no self-evident reason to believe that the universe by logical necessity has to be as it it is. It might of course be the case that a universe with - say a weaker gravitational force for some physical reason might not have been able to exist.But what excludes the possibility of such a universe cannot hardly be the fact that I could not have been there to observe it.For such an assumption would make my observation a necessary condition (among other necessary conditions) for the exisatence of the present universe, an asumption which sounds a bit egocentric,especially as all facts bear witness to the fact that the world I found has been here before me.
Like in the earlier discussed cases, we have a sentence which cannot meaningfully express the fact that the world does not exist inside the language where it is formed. If it is the case that the world doe not really exist.
So the generalizable conclusion is that everyday lnguages make possible formation of strings which iff certain facts were the case could not simply be expressed in these languages.The expression we see is a pseudo-expression ,a something which appears in the disguise of a true or false sentence but can be neither because its references are not well established.

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