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Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Jumping in the Deep End

Matthew Yglesias explains why he hates "scare quotes" so much.

start with Tarski, who offered the disquotational account of the truth condition:
“Snow is white” is true if and only if snow is white.

That seems utterly trivial. But it can be made somewhat less trivial:

“La neige est blanche” is true if and only if snow is white.

Add the element of translation and it looks a little bit less trivial.

He goes on to argue that truth must be conventional

English is a set of social conventions and so is French and so are all the rest ... there will always be some margins at which the distinctions between advancing false claims and misusing words breaks down. When Jonah Goldberg says that liberalism is a species of fascism,

I object "all the rest of what ? Of 'ordinary' languages or of all possible langauges."

Earlier he wrote "And while people can (and do) devise formal languages on their own and by stipulation, ordinary language doesn’t work this way."

So it seems that the nature of truth is determined by the characteristics of "ordinary languages." Why ? Why aren't artificial languages allowed ?

First, before going way to far, I just want to note the problem in the post. Yglesias moves from things which can be in quotations marks -- that is all statements in all possible languages, to "ordinary" languages. What justified the insertion of the word "ordinary" ?

OK I know a bit of the history (based on a philosophy of science course I took which uhm well I won't mention the grade I got but it wasn't high). Rorty is writing after the long sad story of efforts to develop a perfect language. The logical positivists were sure that they could purify language and that this would make something or other much better. Later it was very widely agreed (by among others most of the original logical positivists after they had tried for a while) that this effort was hopeless.

But I think there is truth other than conventional truth if a lesser aim can be achieved. Not all of useful language can be made precise as the logical positivists hoped (mostly by saying that practically everything everyone wanted to say was meaningless). But if some useful language can be made precise, then the truth value of statements in that useful artificial language is a matter of facts (about the world) and explicit rules (defining the language). It isn't based on social norms.

As Yglesias concludes "But there’s no definitive adjudicator of what does and doesn’t constitute an acceptable way to use English words, there’s merely a very large and diffuse community of people who use the language." But there is a definititive adjudicator of what does and doesn't constitute an acceptable way to use Mathematical notation and terms.

So far I have nothing, because mathematics is about a formal system invented by people. It is, and now admits to being, purely conventional. But physics is both precise (there are rules) and used to say things about the real world.

I don't think that Yglesias can find a case of a physicist like Jonah Goldberg.

Hmmm maybe all that I have argued is that the norms and conventions are very strict in the physics profession. There isn't, in fact, disagreement over the meanings of words (although it is agreed that some like "observe" and "particle" can only refer to uh something which is not humanly comprehensible). But this is a difference in degree and not in kind. It is a 100% shared and rigid convention, but still a convention.

I don't know, but I don't think so. I think that problems of definition can and have been resolved in narrow fields forever. In those fields of discussion, the distinction between "advancing false claims and misusing words" doesn't break down. It seems to me that "breaks down" is a statement about something that happens, that has happened or that certainly will happen sooner or later. The claim may be true for all discussions in English and in French, but I don't think it is true of all discussions.

Needless to say, I am in waaaay over my head.

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