December 12, 2003

The apparent deceptiveness of the world

This one is for Brian Weatherson, who has some interesting remarks about why a philosopher like him should blog, in a recent interview on normblog (where, incidentally, he rates Language Log in his top three favorite blogs; right back at ya, Brian!). He explains that blogging improves his work by making him do some writing and have some on-line discussion every day and thus stimulating the process of coming up with philosophical ideas. So here is a further idea for him to think about -- an idea that feels to me like it might have a certain amount of philosophical interest, though I have so far made nothing of it, so it is time to turn it over to a working philosopher who will appreciate it and give it a proper home.

Let me explain.

Consider the following statement:

  1. Appearances are not deceptive; it only seems as if they are.

Clearly, if this is true, then it has to be false, and if false, it must be true. Yet it is not a standard liar-paradox sentence like as in classic liar sentences like This statement is false, or Everything I tell you is a lie, including this. It does not mention truth or falsity, or refer to itself. It is a metaphysical claim, as far as I can see. It speaks not about language or truth but about the nature of reality. It says (contrary to the old proverb) that reality does not present itself in a way that deceives our senses, and any perception we may have to the contrary is incorrect.

Compare (1) with the famous and much quoted claim of G. K. Chesterton's (from his book Orthodoxy) in (2):

  1. "The real trouble with this world of ours is that it is nearly reasonable, but not quite. Life is not an illogicality; yet it is a trap for logicians. It looks just a little more mathematical and regular than it is; its exactitude is obvious, but its inexactitude is hidden; its wildness lies in wait."

Chesteron's is a coherent metaphysical claim (a very beautiful one). It might well be true. But (1) an incoherent metaphysical claim, and slams us straight into the brick wall of paradox.

Of course, there may be a way to reduce (1) to a simple liar paradox instance buried deep down inside it, if you analyze it enough, in the right way; but that can hardly be said to be clear. Can such an analysis be convincingly given? That's where the philosophy comes in. I know when I'm out of my depth. Over to you, Brian.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at December 12, 2003 04:00 PM