The Standing Invitation

Posts Tagged ‘Language

No Nonsense

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Recently a copy of A J Ayer’s Language, Truth and Logic passed through S I Towers, and it caused quite a stir. It’s a short book and very readable – and, I was amazed to learn, was written when the author was younger than I am. It is a beautifully argued manifesto of logical positivism.

Philosophy, for most people, is the asking of Big Questions. Is there a god? What happens after we die? Does the world disappear when we close our eyes? What is ‘truth’? What is ‘good’? And these questions are called Big Questions precisely because thousands of years of arguing have got us no closer to answering them.

Logical positivism was an attempt to tackle these issues from a different angle. Rather than attempting to answer these questions, the project of the positivists was to decide whether or not the questions could be answered. Here, briefly, is how they set about it.

Forget about what you can see. Think instead about what you can say.

The human vocal apparatus make it possible for you to generate all sorts of noises. Most noises are just that – noises – but some are words. Most combinations of words are nonsense: “Mill food only here bushes pardon speak and.” However, some combinations are full sentences, like “I am wearing shoes” or “The sky is green”.

The important point is that almost everything you could possibly say is actually nonsense. The things that actually mean anything – sentences – are a tiny minority. What is it about these particular utterances that makes them important? Well, sentences have a structure. They obey rules. They are not self-contradictory, like the sentence “X is and is not Y”, which is meaningless and indistinguishable from noise.

In fact, there are only two kinds of sentences that are worth talking about: sentences describing the world, and sentences describing other sentences. Any other kind of sentence is uninteresting, because hearing them does not increase one’s knowledge of the world. It’s just noise.

Now, how do we know which sentences describe the world? That’s easy: these are the sentences that can be checked against what we observe around us. “The sky is green” is an attempt to describe the world, and it is well-phrased, logical, and verifiable. It just happens to be false, because it does not match observations that show the sky is blue. The sentence “I am wearing shoes” is true (at the moment).

If you know all the meaningful, true sentences about the world, and all the meaningful, true sentences about other sentences, you will know everything that it is possible to know about the universe. Obviously, in our lifetimes we will never have this perfect knowledge. There are some things that we will never know. However, adopting this stance gives us a tool for cutting away the layers of nonsense that surround us and prevent us from understanding the world.

Does god exist? If you mean, does he exist in the world, does he have an actual location and mass and velocity we could check, then the answer is – maybe. We don’t know, but we could in principle find out. But if you mean, does he exist somehow outside the world, in a place we can never experience, then there is no question here to answer, because in that case sentences containing the word “god” are meaningless. It is impossible for an atheist to disprove the existence of god, but at the same time, anybody religious who talks about god is just making noises. What happens after we die? Again, things that happen outside the “real world” are not subject to verification, anyone who talks about it is taking nonsense. Likewise the question about the world disappearing when we close our eyes: it’s not a question that can be meaningfully answered. What is truth? Good correspondence between a sentence and observation. What is good? Whatever people say is good; people argue about it, but they argue by appeal to emotion, not to logic, unless it is to show that one’s values are inconsistent.

A lot of this is not new. Hume, much earlier, said that a book that didn’t talk about things observed or calculated should be cast onto the flames because there was nothing in it worth reading. But what the logical positivists added was the system of formal logic developed by Russell and Wittgenstein. For lovers of clarity and precision of writing, the appeal is still strong.



As always, I am not a philosopher, and could easily be getting aspects of this wrong. If so, I would be delighted to be set right by someone who knows more about it than me.

A J Ayer’s book was Language, Truth and Logic. The reference to Hume comes from his Enquiry.

Written by The S I

April 1, 2012 at 2:34 pm

Linguistic Legislation

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Another quick link to a video. I like Steven Pinker a lot. Usually when I tell this to my philosopher friends, they nod, smiling, and say “Ah, Pinker.” Usually when I tell my linguist friends, they roll their eyes and say “Ugh. Pinker.” Which of these grotesque caricatures best describes you? Watch his talk and decide for yourself. It’s over an hour long, but even if you do nothing else today, your life will be immeasurably enriched by an anecdote beginning at 20 minutes and 33 seconds…

Written by The S I

November 4, 2011 at 11:59 pm

Posted in Science

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Cultural Engineering

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Should Scotland be independent? It’s a complicated question, and I don’t intend to address it here. What I want to ask is the same question, but with a shift in emphasis: should Scotland be independent?

Let’s say you have a large number of people in the north of the UK who want independence from the south of it. Where should you draw the line on the map? Perhaps you might divide the country into squares, poll each square, and then declare as your new proposed border that line north of which fifty-one percent of the population wants independence. That’s certainly one way of doing it ­– and to me it makes much more sense that simply assuming that the most natural and parsimonious way of carving up the country happens to coincide exactly with the border between Scotland and England that was drawn up in the 13th century.

For me, independence for Scotland makes little sense when compared with, say, independence for that group of people who tend to vote differently from the rest of the country. The area this group occupies might correlate with the region we call Scotland, certainly ­– might even correlate with it because it’s Scotland, because that is a specifically Scottish way of thinking ­– but simply to assume it seems wrong.

Of course what I’m missing is that Scotland is a distinct cultural entity. People in Scotland might feel Scottish, as opposed to British.

The feeling of nationhood is a real phenomenon, and not something to be ignored. The people who would gain from Scottish independence ­– members of a devolved government of a region of a United Kingdom who might see themselves as one day being the all-powerful government of an independent Rebublic of Scotland – know this quite well. They know they have a vested interest in cultural distinctiveness from England.

Scottish Gaelic is spoken by about 60,000 people in Scotland, a tiny percentage of the population. And yet it is the words “Fàilte gu Alba” that greet new arrivals at Edinburgh Airport, and all the signs on the Scottish Parliament have equal priority for English and Gaelic. Is this a generous move to accommodate the few thousand people who feel more comfortable conversing in Gaelic? Hardly. It is an attempt to remind us that Scotland is different from the rest of the UK. It is part of a drive to reintroduce and promote a language for Scotland.

The expressed goal is to ‘preserve’ a uniquely Scottish culture, one that has suffered from centuries of English oppression. And perhaps this is a worthwhile enterprise. But bygone cultures are never revived; they are only ever recreated, with modifications, to suit the present-day needs of those recreating it. Treat with suspicion those who say they are preserving some past golden age while installing computers in their offices. They are picking and choosing from what is available to them, and they are doing it because they plan to profit from it.

Written by The S I

August 11, 2011 at 11:59 pm