[extropy-chat] Re: The statement that there is no truth, if true, is false (Was Your Mom and the Machine)

john-c-wright at sff.net john-c-wright at sff.net
Tue Apr 5 15:11:55 UTC 2005

My apologies for the length of this post, but as a humble disciple of
philosophy, I find such specualtions sweeter than wine, despite that the eternal
questions have been debated, well, eternally.

Below, A is for Allbright and W is for Wright. 

A: "I'm afraid my main point was lost -- again due in no small part to my
tersity -- the point being that *all* subjective input should be considered, but 
then weighted according to its [ultimately subjective] grounding in 
empirically verifiable "reality"."

W: Your point was not lost on me, I hope. What I was trying to do was argue the
opposite side of this very question. My argument was twofold

(1) The statement is self-contradictory. Those who argue that truth (what you
call "input") is ultimately subjective, argue as if truth is objective. Those
who put the word "reality" in scare quotes argue as if they are talking about
reality, that is, real reality without any scare quotes. 

(2) The statement rests on the assumption that moral maxims can be supported or
denied by means of reference to statements of observation, what you call the
naturallistic fallacy. 

For example, comparisons of the statistics of the crime rates and the use of
torture might tell you whether or not torture has a deterent effect on crime,
but this reveals only whether it is efficient, not whether it is morally upright
to use torture as an instrument of law-enforcement. 

The statement that torture is efficient is a contingent statement: the statement
is true if the statistics support it, false if not, and in any case is dependent
on the accuracy of the demographic data. The statement that torture is barbaric
is an absolute statement. The statement may be true of false, but, no matter
what, statistics will not show whether the statement is true or false because
"barbarism" is a moral condemnation, not an thing that can be measured by a census. 

A: "It can be demonstrated and argued that any of the above "self-evident" 
examples("Opposite angles are equal"; "Reality is real"; or "This sentence
>contains five words") may be contingent." 

W: You will pardon my skepticism. The first is a proposition of geometry, and is
true under either Euclidean or non-Euclidean assumptions; the second is a
tautology, and therefore true; the third is a self-referencing statement whose
truth can be confirmed by counting the words in the sentence. 

Compare the statement that "it is self-evident that at least one self-evident
statement exists" to the statement that "it is self-evident that self-evident
statments do not exist". The first statement is not obviously true, but the
second statement is obviously false.  

I can only assume you and I mean different things when we use the word
"contingent." I mean a statement that is true or false depending on another

An example here will serve:

CASE ONE: Eratosthenes seeks to know the diameter of the Earth. At noon on a
certain day, he erects a meter-stick in Syene, in such a spot that it casts no
shadow. At the same time on the same day, a compatriot erects a stick of the
same length in Alexandria, and measures its shadow. Both sticks were erected
perpendicular to the visible horizon. Eratosthenes paces out the distance
between Alexandria and Syene. In Syrene, the sun is at the zenith; in
Alexandria, the direction to the sun and the zenith differ by the angle measured
by the proportion of the height of the stick to the length of the shadow. This
angle has the same ratio to a full circle as the distance between Alexandria and
Syrene have to the diameter of the Earth. 

CASE TWO: Euclid seeks to know whether opposite angles are equal. He takes as
granted that two things equal to a third thing are equal to each other; he takes
as granted that all right angles are equal. He proposes two straight lines, AB
and CD crossing at point E. Since a straight line comprises two right angles,
the whole angle of AEC and CEB equal two right angles; for the same reason, the
whole angle of AEC and AED equal two right angles. Since the angle AEC is
shared, AED therefore equals CEB. 

The knowledge of Eratosthenes is contingent and approximate. If he says the
world is round, his statement is only accurate within certain tolerances. The
knowledge of Euclid is absolute and precise. Is he says a circle is round, his
statement can be taken as a definition. 

A: "I stand by my statement that we, as subsets of the natural world, do not
possess the privledged vantage point of being able to objectively pass judgment 
on the validity of our sensory input or our processing of same."

W: On what grounds do you stand by the statement? This statement is itself an
objective judgment about the metaphysical underpinnings of empiricism. It is
itself a statement that is true (or false) unrelated to the vantage point of any

A: "I'm glad you see my behavior as moral, because it confirms that my efforts
to behave morally are perceivably working. But I don't see this as reflecting
the existence of an objective morality, in fact some of my moral beliefs
contradict those of a large portion of the population."  

W: It is my fault that my statement was unclear. I meant that, since you were
discussing the question with (I assume) intellectual honesty and boldness, that
you were displaying moral characterististics, namely, honesty and courage. No
matter what else your personal moral code might say, you at least must be
placing a minimal value on honesty and courage to be able to discuss the
question of whether or not honesty and courage and other moral values actually

I was not making any statement about your moral values beyond that minimum.
Whether your moral code agrees or disagrees with the majority is beside the
point: you still have a moral code (as all non-sociopaths must) and you still
act as if it is not a matter of taste or whim. 

A: "My theory doesn't provide absolute moral answers, but it claims that 
there is a rational basis for finding increasingly moral answers."

W: Do you agree that the idea of increasingly accurate measurements only makes
sense if there is some real thing being measured? 

We cannot get ever-more-precise measurements of the speed of light in a vacuum
unless the speed of light actually exists. Likewise, we cannot get increasingly
ever more objective and increasingly ever more correct maxims of morality unless
there actually is a moral order to the universe. 

A: (Works better with what end in mind?) Anything that subjectively promotes Self. 

W: This is a subtle thought, and I am sorry you have no time to write it out
more clearly. 

If you do get a chance at some later date to expound on this principle, I, at
least, would be interested in the disquisition. My main question would be how to
reconcile that three examples I gave of the heroic Achilles, the saintly John
the Baptist and the wise Socrates with this principle of self-growth. It seems
to me that  the hero, the saint, and the philosopher all value something greater
than himself (glory, God, or truth) for which he is willing to lay down his life. 

I would be interested to see how self-sacrifice can be reconciled a philosophy
which takes self-growth as its foundation. 

A: (Works better for whom?) Works better for Self.  "Better" is inherently
subjective [meaning dependent on the observer].  Self means that with which one

Q: This sounds like a formal description rather than a moral maxim. I suppose
one could define "self" broadly enough to include the divinity or the community
so as to explain the self-sacrifice of saints and heroes. (In other words,
Socrates considers his "Self" to be the laws of Athens, and loyalty to their
precepts, even when the laws are in the wrong, justifies his drinking hemlock.)

But, by the same token, one could define the "self" and the "growth" of
Raskolnikov to include that he must kill an innocent old crone and her
halfwitted half-sister. 

If the self-growth formula is too broad, it will be of not help to a person
trying to decide whether to follow the example of Socrates or of Raskolnikov. If
the self-growth forumula is narrow enough to be useful, it will lead us back to
the traditional maxims of morality common to all men. 

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