Why All Philosophical Theories Are Non-Sensical

 

by Rosa Lichtenstein

 

Preface

 

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This is a summary of one of the main themes of Essay Twelve Part One at my site. It tackles issues that have sailed right over the heads of some of the greatest minds in history. I claim no particular originality for what follows (except, perhaps its highly simplified mode of presentation); much of it has in fact been derived from Wittgenstein's work.

 

[Any who think Wittgenstein is no friend of the left should read this, and then perhaps think again.]

 

However, what follows is an introductory Essay, which has been written for those who find the main Essays either too long or too difficult. It doesn't pretend to be comprehensive since it is a summary of some of the core ideas presented at my site.

 

Hence, this Essay isn't intended for experts!

 

The vast bulk of the supporting evidence and argument found in the original Essay has been omitted. Anyone wanting more details, or who would like to examine my arguments and evidence in full, should consult the main Essay for which this is a précis.

 

In what follows I take the terms "Traditional Philosophy" and "Metaphysics" to be synonymous. Marxist dialecticians understand the second of those two words in their own rather unique way. I have justified my understanding and use of this term here and here.

 

Unfortunately, this Essay is a little repetitious. Experience has taught me that unless its main ideas are repeated several times, from different directions, their significance is all too easily missed.

 

Also, throughout this Essay I have used rather stilted expressions like the following: "It is possible to understand an empirical proposition without knowing whether it is true or knowing whether it is false", as opposed to "It is possible to understand an empirical proposition without knowing whether it is true or false". I explain why I have adopted this odd way of talking here.

 

[I also explain below what an empirical proposition is!]

 

Finally, because I am trying to make some exceedingly difficult ideas as easy as possible to understand, this Essay will need to be re-written many more times before I am satisfied I have achieved that particular objective.

 

Summary Of My Main Objections To Dialectical Materialism

 

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Abbreviations Used At This Site

 

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Anyone using these links must remember that they will be skipping past supporting argument and evidence set out in earlier sections.

 

(1)  Metaphysical Theses

 

(a) The Difference Between Ordinary Truths And Philosophical Theses

 

(b) Dictating To Reality What It Must Contain

 

(c) Non-Sense And Nonsense

 

(d) Necessary Truth And Necessary Falsehood

 

(2) The Slide Into Non-Sense

 

(a) Why All Metaphysical Theories Are Nonsensical

 

(b) No Way Back

 

(c) Has This Essay Only Succeeded In Refuting Itself?

 

 

Metaphysical Theses

 

The Difference Between Ordinary Truths And 'Philosophical' Theses

 

This is a typical metaphysical proposition:

 

M1: Time is a relation between events.

 

Theses like M1 purport to inform us of fundamental aspects of reality, valid for all of space and time.

 

The seemingly profound nature of sentences like M1 is linked to rather more mundane features of the language in which they are expressed -- that is, the fact that the main verb is often in the indicative mood. This apparently superficial grammatical veneer hides a much deeper logical form, which only becomes obvious when sentences like this are examined more closely.

 

Expressions like M1 look as if they reveal profound truths about reality since they resemble empirical propositions (i.e., propositions about matters of fact). But, they turn out to be nothing at all like them.

 

Consider an ordinary empirical proposition:

 

M2: Tony Blair owns a copy of Das Kapital.

 

Compare M2 with these similar-looking indicative sentences:

 

M1: Time is a relation between events. [Leibniz.]

 

M3: To be is to be perceived. [Berkeley.]

 

M1 and M3 look as if they are reporting facts about time and facts about perception/existence.

 

However, when we compare M1 and M3 with ordinary empirical propositions like M2 their profound differences soon become apparent.

 

In order to understand M2, it isn't necessary to know whether it is true or whether it is false. I am sure all of those who have read M2 understand what it is saying even though they haven't a clue whether or not it is true.
 

Contrast that with the comprehension of M1 or M3. Understanding either of these goes hand-in-hand with knowing they are both true, or they are both false (as the case may be). As soon as they are understood their truth-status follows automatically, and that truth-status is based on one or more of the following features:

 

(1) The meaning the words they contain,

 

(2) Certain definitions,

 

(3) A series of supporting arguments, or,

 

(4) Several 'thought experiments' -- i.e., from yet more words.

 

No evidence is needed. Indeed, it isn't possible to devise experiments or observations to test propositions like M1 or M3.

 

[Of course, it is possible to reject M1 and/or M3 out-of-hand, but thats repudiation won't be based on evidence, either; that rejection will perhaps be motivated by yet another (rival) philosophical theory.]

 

M1: Time is a relation between events.

 

M3: To be is to be perceived.

 

This now intimately links the truth-status of sentences like M1 and M3 solely with the supposed meaning of certain words, but not with experimental or experiential confirmation, and hence not with a confrontation with the facts. Their truth-status is thus independent of, and indeed anterior to, the search for supporting evidence.

 

Well, what could anyone look for in order to confirm or confute M1 or M3?

 

By way of contrast, understanding M2 is independent of, and prior to, confirming or disconfirming it. Indeed, it would be impossible to ascertain the truth or the falsehood of M2 if it hadn't already been understood. Plainly, the actual truth or the actual falsehood of M2-type propositions follows from the way the world happens to be, and does not solely depend the meaning of certain words.

 

M2: Tony Blair owns a copy of Das Kapital.

 

So, the truth-status of M2 can't be ascertained solely from the words it contains -- again: unlike M1-, and M3-type sentences.

 

No amount of 'pure thought' will tell you whether or not M2 is true.

 

Empirical propositions are typically like this; they have to be understood first before they can be confronted with the evidence that establishes their truth-status.

 

In contrast, metaphysical propositions carry their truth or their falsehood on their faces, as it were, and need no evidence to establish their veracity. Understanding them is at one with knowing their supposed truth or their supposed falsehood.

 

Their truth-status follows solely from 'pure thought'

 

 

Dictating To Reality What It Must Contain

 

Metaphysical theses like M1 and M3 were deliberately concocted by Traditional Philosophers in order to transcend the limitations presented by the material world -- and, incidentally, by ordinary language, too. [Why these theorists did this is explained here.]

 

M1: Time is a relation between events.

 

M2: Tony Blair owns a copy of Das Kapital.

 

M3: To be is to be perceived.

 

This dogmatic approach to 'knowledge' was justified because it 'allowed' such theorists to 'discover' the underlying "essence" of reality -- revealing nature's "hidden secrets" (i.e., (originally) the fundamental principles by means of which the 'deity' had supposedly created the world) -- in the comfort of their own heads.

 

This approach connected philosophical language directly with an 'invisible, underlying structure of reality' (often given the grandiloquent title "Being"), constituted perhaps by 'god'.

 

As Marx noted:

 

"Feuerbach's great achievement is.... The proof that philosophy is nothing else but religion rendered into thought and expounded by thought, i.e., another form and manner of existence of the estrangement of the essence of man; hence equally to be condemned...." [Marx, 1844 Economic And Philosophical Manuscripts, p.381. I have used the on-line version, here. Link and bold emphases added.]

 

The idea that philosophy is capable of revealing such 'hidden secrets' (way beyond anything the sciences could uncover) still dominates much of modern thought, even though its theological orientation has largely been abandoned. That is why metaphysical 'truths' are still being derived from language and/or thought alone, even by atheists.

 

Theses like M1 and M3 were said to be "necessarily true" (or "necessarily false", as the case may be), and were thought to express theses about the fundamental nature of reality -- unlike contingent, empirical propositions (like M2), whose truth could alter with the wind. After all, Tony Blair might sell his copy of Das Kapital -- or, indeed, he might buy the book if he doesn't already own it. But, philosophical knowledge -- genuine knowledge -- can't depend on such changeable, contingent features of 'reality'.

 

Traditionally, this meant that empirical propositions like M2 were considered epistemologically inferior to M1-, and M3-type propositions since they were deemed incapable of revealing such 'fundamental truths'.

 

Metaphysical propositions thus masquerade as especially profound Super-Empirical Verities, which can't fail to be true (or which can't fail to be false -- again, as the case may be). They achieve this by using the indicative mood --, but they then go way beyond it.

 

Thus, what they say doesn't just happen to be so, as is the case with ordinary empirical truths. What M1-, and M3-type sentences say can't possibly be otherwise. The world must conform to what they say, not the other way round. They determine the 'logical form' (i.e., the fundamental structure) of any possible or conceivable world.

 

This also helps account for the frequent use of modal terms (such as, "must", "necessary" and "inconceivable") -- as in "I must exist if I can think" (paraphrasing Descartes), "Time must be a relation between events" (paraphrasing Leibniz), or "Being must be identical with and yet at the same time different from Nothing, the contradiction resolved in Becoming" (paraphrasing Hegel).

 

Everything in reality must be this or it must be that.

 

Contrast this with M2. If anyone were to question its truth, the following response: "Tony Blair must own a copy of Das Kapital" would be highly inappropriate, if not entirely misleading.

 

From this we can see that the world dictates to us whether M2-type sentences are true, or are false. M2-type sentences do not dictate to reality what it must contain, or what it must be like.

 

M1: Time is a relation between events.

 

M2: Tony Blair owns a copy of Das Kapital.

 

M3: To be is to be perceived.

 

With respect to M1-, and M3-type sentences things are the exact opposite: because their truth-status can be determined independently, and in advance of the way the world happens to be, philosophers have always employed them in order to dictate to reality what it must be like.

 

Again, such Super-Truths (or Super-Falsehoods -- these terms are explained below) were derived solely from the alleged meaning of certain words (or from certain 'concepts' and/or definitions). In that case, just as soon as they have been understood, propositions like M1 and M3 guarantee their own truth or their own falsehood. They are thus true -- or they are false -- a priori.

 

The intimate connection M1-, and M3-type sentences have with language means that questioning their veracity seems to run against the grain of our understanding, not our experience. Indeed, they appear to be self-evident precisely because they need no evidence to confirm their truth-status; they provide their own 'justification' and testify on their own behalf.

 

Unfortunately, this divorces them from the actual world, since they are true (or they are false) independently of any apparent state of the universe.

 

Which is, of course, why no experiment is conceivable by means of which they can be tested.

 

This is one reason why they were called "hidden" or "occult truths"; indeed, 'appearances' might even seem contradict them, but their truth-status remained forever impervious to the facts, hermetically sealed against such easy refutation.

 

 

Nonsense and Non-Sense

 

The Super-Scientific nature of such Cosmic Verities, alas, means they rapidly slide into non-sense.

 

This happens whenever their inventors or their proponents undermine either the vernacular or the logical and pragmatic principles on which it is based. [Why this is so will be explained presently.]

 

It is worth pointing out that "non-sense" (as it is used in this Essay) isn't the same as "nonsense". The latter term has various meanings ranging from the patently false (e.g., "Karl Marx was a shape-shifting lizard") to plain, unvarnished gibberish (e.g., "783&£$750 ow2jmn 34y4&$ 6y3n3& 8FT34n").

 

"Non-sense", on the other hand, applies to indicative sentences that turn out to be incapable of expressing a sense (that word will be explained presently, too) no matter what we try to do with them. That is, they are incapable of being true and they are incapable of being false. So, when such sentences are employed to state fundamental truths about reality they seriously misfire since they can't possibly do this. [The rest of the Essay will explain why that is so.]

 

Finally, the word "sense" is being used in the following way: it expresses what we understand to be the case for a proposition to be true or what we understand to be the case for it to be false, even if we don't know whether it is actually true or whether it is actually false -- and even if we never succeed in ascertaining either one of these, nor wish to do so.

 

For example, everyone (who knows English, who also knows who Tony Blair and what Das Kapital are) will understand M2 upon encountering it. They grasp its sense --, that is, they understand what the world (or, certain parts of it) would have to be like for it to be true or what the world (or, certain parts of it) would have to be like for it to be false.

 

M2: Tony Blair owns a copy of Das Kapital.

 

More importantly, the same situation that makes M2 true (if it obtains) will make M2 false (if it doesn't) -- that is, Blair's owning the said book. If the latter obtains, M2 is true; if it doesn't, M2 is false.

 

[The significance of these seemingly innocuous, even trite, comments will become apparent as this Essay unfolds. (Some might object that ownership is a rather complex or vague notion. I have dealt with that objection here and here -- where it will soon become clear that it doesn't in fact affect the points being made in this Essay.)]

 

These conditions are integral to our capacity to understand empirical propositions before we know their truth-status. Indeed, they help explain why we know what to look for (or what to expect) in order to show, or to ascertain, whether or not such propositions are indeed true, or are indeed false -- again, even if we never succeed in doing either of these, and even if we have no wish to do so.

 

 

Necessary Truth and Necessary Falsehood

 

However, intractable logical problems soon begin to arise (with respect to M1-, and M3-type propositions) if an attempt is made to restrict or eliminate one or other of the paired semantic possibilities associated with ordinary empirical propositions -- that is, if we try to exclude their truth or we try to exclude their falsehood.

 

This occurs when, for example, an indicative sentence (like M1) is declared to be "only true" or "only false" -- or, more pointedly, "necessarily" the one or the other.

 

As we will soon see, this results in the automatic loss of both semantic options, and with that goes any sense the original proposition might seem to have had, rendering it non-sensical.

 

M1: Time is a relation between events.

 

M3: To be is to be perceived.

 

Recall: an empirical proposition leaves it open whether it is true or whether it is false. That is why its truth-status (true/false) can't simply be read-off from what it says, why evidence is required in order to determine that status, and why it is possible to understand it before its actual truth-status is known.

 

Plainly, it isn't possible to confirm or confute an indicative sentence if no one understands what it is saying!

 

When this isn't the case -- i.e., when either option (truth or falsehood) is closed-off, or when a proposition is said to be "necessarily true" or "necessarily false" -- evidence clearly becomes irrelevant.

 

If, however, a proposition is regarded as a Super-Truth about the world -- about its "essence", or its underlying 'rational structure' -- then it is plainly metaphysical.

 

['Super-Truths' superficially resemble ordinary scientific truths, but they are in fact nothing at all like them. Super-Truths transcend anything the sciences could possibly confirm or confute. M1 and M3 are excellent examples of this. Their alleged truth depends solely on the supposed meaning of a handful of words, not on the way the world happens to be. Metaphysical 'truths' thus go way beyond any conceivable body of evidence -- which exalted status had been intended for them all along. (Why that is so is explained here.)]

 

Otherwise the actual truth or the actual falsehood of M1-, and M3-type sentences would be sensitive to the way the world happened to be, and not be solely meaning-, concept-, or thought-dependent. That explains why the comprehension of a metaphysical proposition appears to go hand in hand with knowing its truth-status; it is based exclusively on thought, language or meaning, not on the facts.

 

M1: Time is a relation between events.

 

M3: To be is to be perceived.

 

By way of contrast, empirical propositions derive their sense from the truth-possibilities they appear to hold open (and which truth-possibilities have to be confirmed or confuted by observation or experiment). That is also why the actual truth-value of, say, M2 (or its contradictory, M4, below) doesn't need to be known before it is understood. But, it is why evidence is relevant to establishing that truth-value, should anyone wish to do so.

 

M2: Tony Blair owns a copy of Das Kapital.

 

M4: Tony Blair doesn't own a copy of Das Kapital.

 

[M4 would normally be used to deny the truth of M2, or vice versa.]

 

In order to comprehend M2 and/or M4 all that is required is some grasp of their content (the possibility they both express: i.e., Blair's owning the said book). M2 and M4 thus have the same content, since they are made true or they are made false by the same situation obtaining or not obtaining, respectively.

 

[Again, the significance of that remark will become clearer as the argument develops.]

 

 

The Ineluctable Slide Into Non-Sense

 

Why All Metaphysical Theories Are Non-Sensical

 

If a proposition looks as if it were empirical, and yet can only be true or can only be false, then, as we will soon see, it loses both options.

 

We can appreciate why this is so if we consider M1 again, alongside its supposed negation, M5:

 

M1: Time is a relation between events.

 

M5: Time isn't a relation between events.

 

As we have seen, the alleged truth-status of M1 is derived from the meaning of the words it contains (in fact, M1 is a definition (or part of one) that establishes what its key term ("time") means).

 

M2: Tony Blair owns a copy of Das Kapital.

 

M4: Tony Blair does not own a copy of Das Kapital.

 

However, unlike M2 and M4, the truth of M1 can't be denied by the use of M5, since that would amount to a change in the meaning of the word "time".

 

That in turn is because sentences like M1 help define what a given philosopher means by, in this case, "time".

 

But, if time isn't a relation between events (as M5 attempts to tell us), then the word "time" plainly has a different meaning in M1 and M5. And, if that is so, M1 and M5 can't relate to the same supposed (fundamental) state of affairs.

 

So, despite appearances to the contrary, M5 isn't the negation of M1! And that is because the subject of each sentence is different.

 

To see this point, compare the following:

 

M6: George W Bush crashed his car on the 3rd of May 2012.

 

M7: George H W Bush didn't crash his car on the 3rd of May 2012.

 

Whether or not one or both of these is true, M6 and M7 aren't negations of one another since they relate to two different individuals, George W Bush and his father, George H W Bush. They are true or they are false under entirely different conditions since they don't have the same sense, the same empirical content. They represent different states of affairs.

 

An analogous change of subject applies to metaphysical propositions, such as M1 and what appears to be its negation, M5:

 

M1: Time is a relation between events.

 

M5: Time isn't a relation between events.

 

Why is this important?

 

Well, if M1 is deemed "necessarily true", that would be tantamount to declaring its alleged negation (M5) "necessarily false". And yet, M5 isn't the negation of M1. M1 and M5 are logically unrelated. The truth or falsehood of the one has no bearing on the truth or falsehood of the other.

 

But, by declaring M1 "necessarily true" we should have to know what M1 is ruling out as "necessarily false", otherwise we would be in no position to declare it "necessarily true".

 

As we have seen, an ordinary empirical proposition and its negation have the same content (they are made true or they are made false by a specific state of affairs obtaining or not -- in this case, Blair actually owning the said book).

 

M2: Tony Blair owns a copy of Das Kapital.

 

M4: Tony Blair does not own a copy of Das Kapital.

 

Hence, if we know under what conditions M2 is true, we automatically know under what conditions its negation, M4, is false (i.e., not true). This is what allows us to investigate the actual truth-status of empirical propositions, since we know what to look for, what we are ruling in and what we are ruling out, and thus what we are to expect.

 

If, for example, we find out that M4 is true, we can automatically infer the falsehood of M2 -- and vice versa. In that case, we can reject M2 if M4 is true, and we can reject M4 if M2 is true.

 

The truth of M2 thus tells us what we can rule out; hence, the truth of M2 automatically rules out the truth of M4. Similarly, the truth of M4 automatically rules out the truth of M2. The same content tells us what we are ruling in and what we are ruling out. It is this shared content that connects the two.

 

However, as we have seen, between a metaphysical proposition and its alleged negation there is a change of subject. They fail to relate to the same supposed state of affairs since they have different contents. [In fact, as we are about to see, they have no content at all.] There is nothing that connects them in the above manner.

 

In which case, the truth of M1 can't be ruled out by means of the truth of M5 (nor vice versa), since we would now have no idea what we were ruling out -- and thus no idea what we were ruling in. [Why that is so will also be explained presently.]

 

M1: Time is a relation between events.

 

M5: Time isn't a relation between events.

 

Or, rather, what we might imagine we are trying to rule out by the use of M1 (i.e., M5) wouldn't in fact have been ruled out, since M5 has a different subject.

 

Why is this important?

 

It is important because to declare a sentence "true" is ipso facto to declare it "not false". These two go hand-in-hand.

 

[Some might think the above represents an unwise concession to the so-called 'Law of Excluded Middle' [LEM]. I can't enter into that topic here, so any who do so think are advised to read this (and follow the link at the end), and then perhaps think again.]

 

But, if we can't do that, if we can't declare M1 "not false" (and we plainly can't do that if we have no idea what we are ruling out -- indeed, as soon as we attempt to do this by means of M5 we end up changing the subject of the original sentence!), we can't then say the original sentence is true.

 

Why that is so will now be explained.

 

By declaring a sentence like M1 "necessarily true", we seem to be ruling some things conclusively in, and thus ruling other things conclusively out as "necessarily false" -- just as we would if we declared M2 true, we'd be automatically ruling M4 out. The truth of M2 rules M4 out, and vice versa.

 

M2: Tony Blair owns a copy of Das Kapital.

 

M4: Tony Blair does not own a copy of Das Kapital.

 

And yet, in relation to M1, what we think we are ruling out is M5. But, M5 has a different content to M1, so we aren't in fact ruling M5 out!

 

In that case, we now have no idea what we are ruling out since it is plain that M1 has no negation. And, if that is so we have no idea what we are ruling in, either.

 

M1: Time is a relation between events.

 

M5: Time isn't a relation between events.

 

When sentences like M1 are entertained, a pretence (often genuine) has to be maintained that they actually mean something, that they are capable of being understood, and thus that they are capable of being true or are capable of being false. In that case, a further pretence has to be maintained that we understand what might make such propositions true, or their 'negations' false, so that those like M5 can be declared "necessarily false".

 

But, with philosophical 'propositions' like M1 and M5, this entire exercise is an empty charade, for no content can be given to them.

 

In order to declare M1 true, we must also declare M5 "necessarily false". But, to do that, the possibility of M5's truth must first be entertained otherwise we'd not know what we were trying to rule out by declaring it false.

 

And yet, no one who accepts M1 as true is in any position to do this, and that isn't because it would be psychologically impossible for them to do it; it is because to do so changes the subject. So, it isn't possible to specify conditions that would make M5 false without changing this subject.

 

That being the case, we can't declare M1 true -- and thus not false -- since we would now have no idea what would make M1 false, even if we wanted to rule that possibility out. And if we have no idea what would make M1 false, we are certainly in no position to declare that it isn't false.

 

But, if we can't say under what conditions M1 would be false, we can't say it is true either. In which case, we are in no position to declare M1 either true or false! Any attempt to do so must fall apart, and for the above reasons.

 

No Way Back
 

Hence, metaphysical propositions can't be true and they can't be false. They have no content.

 

They thus lack a sense, and there is nothing that can be done to rectify the situation.

 

Our use of language actually prevents them from expressing a sense, let alone being true.

They are thus non-sensical strings of words.

 

[And that, of course, includes the theses propounded by Dialectical Materialists.]

 

It is also possible to show that metaphysical propositions (and the theses concocted by Dialectical Materialists) aren't just non-sensical, they are incoherent non-sense to boot, but that won't be attempted in this Introductory Essay.

 

On that, however, see here.

 

Is This Essay Non-sensical, Too?

 

Some have tried to argue that the above analysis is susceptible to its own critique -- in that it looks no less metaphysical (because it asserts this or that about "sense", or the semantics of "true" and "false", etc., etc.) --, hence it, too, is non-sensical!

 

I have addressed that seemingly knock-down response, here.

 

[Remember, the above link (and many of the others on this page) won't work properly if you are using Internet Explorer 10 (or later) and have ignored the advice given at the top of this page!]

 

Latest Update: 12/02/16

 

Word count: 4850

 

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