Why All Philosophical Theories Are Non-Sensical

 

by Rosa Lichtenstein

 

Preface

 

This Essay was written as part of a discussion on the far left about the nature of Traditional Philosophy, but it isn't necessary to know anything about that debate in order to follow the argument.

 

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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 been derived from Wittgenstein's work.

 

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

 

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

 

The vast bulk of the supporting evidence and argument found in Essay Twelve Part One 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 all but synonymous. Marxist dialecticians understand the second of these two terms in their own rather unique way. I have justified my use of it here and here.

 

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

 

Also, throughout this Essay I have used several 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 rather 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 that I have achieved that particular objective.

 

[Latest Update: 13/01/21.]

 

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 Non-Sensical

 

(b) No Way Back

 

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

 

Metaphysical Theses

 

The Difference Between Ordinary Truths And 'Philosophical' Theses

 

The following is a typical metaphysical sentence:

 

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 (no pun intended).

 

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 expressed 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.

 

[For our purposes, logical form refers to those features of indicative sentences that (i) Enable us to understand them, and (ii) Allow us to make valid inferences from them. These two points should become clearer as this Essay unfolds.]

 

Expressions like M1 look as if they reveal profound truths about reality since they appear to 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 the following 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 (a) facts about time, and (b) facts about perception and its relation to what does or does not exist.

 

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

 

First of all, 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 -- that is, whether or not Blair does own a copy of the said book.
 

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).

 

Of course, some of those reading M1 and M3 might fail to grasp what they are trying to say -- if they know nothing about Leibniz or Berkeley's ideas. The point is that as soon as M1 and M3 are understood (howsoever long that takes!) their truth-status (true/false) follows immediately. We are supposed to accept or reject them solely on the basis of what they are trying to express, not on any evidence.

 

So, as soon as they are understood their (presumed) truth-status follows automatically, and that truth-status will be based on one or more of the following considerations:

 

(1) The meaning the words they contain;

 

(2) The definitions of the terms employed -- or those of related expressions;

 

(3) A series of (short or long) supporting arguments;

 

(4) One or more 'thought experiments'.

 

However, in each of the above cases, it will depend solely on the supposed meaning of yet more words.

 

So, no evidence is needed. Indeed, it isn't possible to devise experiments or observations that could validate propositions like M1 or M3, even in theory.

 

[Naturally, it is always possible to reject M1 and M3 out-of-hand, but that repudiation won't be based on evidence, either. It will often have been motivated by yet another, perhaps rival, philosophical theory -- again, involving yet more words, but still no evidence!]

 

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 evidential confirmation, and hence not with a confrontation with the facts. Their truth-status is independent of the search for supporting evidence -- of which there is none anyway.

 

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

 

By way of contrast, understanding M2 is independent of knowing whether or not it is true. 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 -- that is, on the facts -- and doesn't solely depend the meaning of certain words, as is the case with M1 and M3.

 

M2: Tony Blair owns a copy of Das Kapital.

 

No amount of 'pure thought' will tell you whether M2 is true or whether M2 is false --, unlike M1 and M3.

 

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; they need no evidence to establish their veracity. Understanding them is of a piece 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, limitations also placed on them by the use of ordinary language, as we will see.

 

M1: Time is a relation between events.

 

M3: To be is to be perceived.

 

This dogmatic approach to 'knowledge' was justified because it 'allowed' those who adopted it 'uncover' nature's "hidden secrets", its underlying "essence", in the comfort of their own heads. This forged a permanent link between philosophical language and the 'invisible, fundamental structure of reality' tucked away beneath 'appearances', and which was created by a 'deity' of some sort, often given the grandiose title, "Being".

 

[There is more on that here.]

 

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 'hidden secrets' like this, and way beyond anything the sciences could possibly discover, still dominates much of traditional thought, even though its theological motivation has largely been abandoned. That is why metaphysical 'truths' are still being derived solely from language or thought, even by atheists.

 

Theses like M1 and M3 were thus said to be "necessarily true" (or "necessarily false", as the case may be), and which thereby represent the fundamental nature of reality, unlike empirical propositions such as M2, whose truth could alter with the wind direction. 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, or even remain forever without a copy. But, philosophical knowledge -- genuine knowledge -- can't depend on such contingencies.

 

Or, so we have been told, once more.

 

M2: Tony Blair owns a copy of Das Kapital.

 

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 'metaphysical truths' about the fundamental nature of 'Being'.

 

So, metaphysical propositions 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.

 

M1: Time is a relation between events.

 

M3: To be is to be perceived.

 

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 dictate the 'logical form' (i.e., the hidden structure) of any possible or conceivable world.

 

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In the previous paragraph, "logical form" is being used in its older, metaphysical sense as an expression of the idea that the deep structure of 'reality' has a 'logic' to it that can be ascertained by thought alone, and which was put there by the 'deity' (or, for Christians, by 'the Logos', the "Word of God"). Human beings -- or, rather, a very select minority -- are capable of accessing this 'logical form' since they were somehow in tune with the 'deity', and were thus capable of reflecting 'His' thoughts. Either that, or they were mere conduits, messengers of the 'gods', like Hermes.

 

This idea is explicit in Plato, but more esoteric in Hermeticism -- a doctrine that exercised a profound influence on Christian Mysticism, and hence on Hegel. Here is Plato:

 

"If mind and true opinion are two distinct classes, then I say that there certainly are these self-existent ideas unperceived by sense, and apprehended only by the mind; if, however, as some say, true opinion differs in no respect from mind, then everything that we perceive through the body is to be regarded as most real and certain. But we must affirm that to be distinct, for they have a distinct origin and are of a different nature; the one is implanted in us by instruction, the other by persuasion; the one is always accompanied by true reason, the other is without reason; the one cannot be overcome by persuasion, but the other can: and lastly, every man may be said to share in true opinion, but mind is the attribute of the gods and of very few men. Wherefore also we must acknowledge that there is one kind of being which is always the same, uncreated and indestructible, never receiving anything into itself from without, nor itself going out to any other, but invisible and imperceptible by any sense, and of which the contemplation is granted to intelligence only." [Timaeus, 51e-52a. Bold added.]

 

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This helps account for the frequent use of modal language (i.e., such terms as, "must", "necessary", and "inconceivable" -- implied or employed) in Metaphysics; 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 that 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 completely misleading.

 

From this we can draw the following conclusions:

 

(1) The world dictates to us whether M2-type sentences are true or whether they 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.

 

(2) With respect to M1-, and M3-type sentences things are the other way round; because their truth-status can be determined independently, and in advance of the way the world happens to be, philosophers formulated 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, 'concepts', or definitions. In that case, just as soon as they are understood, propositions like M1 and M3 guarantee their own truth or their own falsehood. Hence, they are true or they are false, a priori.

 

["A priori" used in this way means that the supposed truth of a given indicative sentence may be inferred in advance of any supporting evidence (and for which none is needed anyway). An example of a genuine a priori idea might be the following: despite the fact that you won't ever have experienced this, and never will, you know that ten billion marbles added to twenty billion marbles will total thirty billion marbles (although, I prefer to call this inference the application of a rule). A bogus a priori idea might involve, for instance, an attempt to prove the existence of 'god' from 'his' definition, as Anselm of Canterbury attempted. Yet another would involve an attempt to show that everything in 'reality' is governed by 'contradictions', a dogma based solely on a 'linguistic argument' of sorts -- as Hegel himself endeavoured.]

 

The intimate connection between M1-, and M3-type sentences and the language they use 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. In effect, they supply 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 that world, independently of the facts.

 

[I return to this point below since it is integral to the main aim of this Essay: to show why M1-, and M3-type sentences -- indeed, why philosophical theories --, are non-sensical.]

 

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

 

This is one of the reasons why sentences like these were regarded an expression of "hidden", "esoteric", or "occult" cosmic verities. While 'appearances' might sometimes seem to contradict them, their truth-status remains forever impervious to the facts, hermetically sealed against such easy refutation.

 

Again, this is totally unlike M2-type propositions.

 

M1: Time is a relation between events.

 

M2: Tony Blair owns a copy of Das Kapital.

 

M3: To be is to be perceived.

 

Nonsense Vs Non-Sense

 

Unfortunately, the Super-Scientific nature of Cosmic Verities like these means they rapidly collapse into non-sense.

 

This happens because their inventors, or their proponents, succeed in undermining either the vernacular or the logical and pragmatic principles on which it is based. [Why that is so will be explained presently.]

 

It is worth pointing out that "non-sense" (as that term 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" -- assuming. of course, that that isn't a code of some sort).

 

The term "non-sense", on the other hand, applies to indicative sentences that turn out to be incapable of expressing a sense (that word will also be explained presently) 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 this 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, at least, certain parts of it) would have to be like for it to be true, or what the world (or, at least, 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, remarks will also become apparent as this Essay unfolds. Some might object that ownership is a rather complex, or even a vague, notion. I have dealt with that objection here and here, where it will become clear that the alleged vagueness or complexity of that term 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 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.

 

That is, we know what (possible) state of affairs M2-type sentences express.

 

[Attentive readers will no doubt have noticed the intimate, even logical, connection between a state of affairs -- like Blair owing a certain book -- and the truth or the falsehood of M2. Why that is so is beyond the scope of this Essay since it concerns the nature of empirical propositions, not the nature of metaphysical sentences.]

 

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 (i.e., their truth or their falsehood) associated with ordinary empirical propositions -- that is, if we try to exclude the possibility of their falsehood or we try to exclude the possibility of their truth.

 

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 alternatives (i.e., their actual truth or their actual falsehood -- their "semantic status"), and with that any sense the original proposition might seem to have had vanishes, rendering it non-sensical.

 

M1: Time is a relation between events.

 

M3: To be is to be perceived.

 

Recall: an empirical proposition (not already known to be true or not already known to be false) leaves it open whether that proposition is actually true or whether it is actually false. That is why its actual truth-status (true or 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 that 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 supposedly about the world -- but which is really about its 'essence', or its underlying, 'rational structure' -- then it is plainly metaphysical.

 

['Super-Truths' superficially resemble ordinary scientific propositions, but they are in fact nothing at all like them; they transcend anything the sciences could possibly confirm or confute. M1 and M3 are excellent examples of this. Their 'truth' depends solely on the supposed meaning of a handful of words, not on the way the world happens to be. Metaphysical 'Super-Truths' thus go way beyond any conceivable body of evidence that could be offered in their support, which exalted status had been intended for them all along. As Plato noted, they are meant to transcend the base world of evidential support. (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 hence dependent on evidence, on facts. They wouldn't be based on thought alone. That explains why the 'comprehension' of a metaphysical proposition appears to go hand-in-hand with knowing its automatic truth-status; 'comprehension' of such sentences is based exclusively on thought, language and meaning, and so is their supposed truth-status. As soon such sentences are 'understood', their truth, or their falsehood, follows directly. Their semantic status is of a piece with their 'comprehension'.

 

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 -- by the facts -- should we choose to do so). 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. On the contrary, 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.

 

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

 

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

 

The crucial 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 appears to be empirical, and yet it can only be true, or it can only be false, then, as we will soon see, it loses both options.

 

We can appreciate why that 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.

 

M2: Tony Blair owns a copy of Das Kapital.

 

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

 

As we have seen, the alleged truth-status of M1 is capable of being derived solely from the meaning of the words it contains (in fact, M1 is a definition, which establishes what its key term ("time") is supposed to mean).

 

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

 

Again, that 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" will plainly have a different meaning in M5 from the meaning it has in M1. And, if that is so, M1 and M5 can't relate to the same supposed underlying state of affairs -- unlike M2 and M4.

 

So, despite appearances to the contrary, M1 and M5 are therefore logically unrelated sentences -- unlike the relation between M2 and M4, which are linked by a common possible state of affairs -- Blair owing the said book.

 

M1: Time is a relation between events.

 

M5: Time isn't a relation between events.

 

So, 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. M6 and M7 thus have two different subjects. They are true, or they are false, under entirely different conditions since they don't have the same sense, the same empirical content. They express different possible 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. So it isn't possible to derive the falsehood of M5 from the supposed truth of M1. M1 and M5 are logically unrelated. The 'truth' or 'falsehood' of one has no bearing on the 'truth' or 'falsehood' of the other -- unlike M2 and M4.

 

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". [That, too, will be explained presently.]

 

As we have seen, an ordinary empirical proposition and its negation have the same content (i.e., they are made true or they are made false by the same 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 doesn't 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 in advance what to look for, what we are ruling in and what we are ruling out, and thus what 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 automatically reject M2 as false if M4 is true, just as we can automatically reject M4 if M2 is true. The same content tells us what we can rule in and what we can rule out.

 

It is this shared content that connects the two.

 

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

 

["Content" here is taken to express what an indicative sentence purports to tell us about the world, what state of affairs it expresses.]

 

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, but it is connected with the fact that M1 and M5 express no actual or possible state of affairs.]

 

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) won't in fact have been ruled out, since M5 has a different subject, and hence a different 'content'.

 

Why is this important?

 

It is important because to declare a sentence "true" is ipso facto to declare it "not false". The 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 of it), and then perhaps think again. Of course, if a supposed proposition is neither true nor false, it wasn't a proposition to begin with.]

 

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 that by means of M5 we end up changing the subject of the original sentence!), then 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 appear to be ruling some things conclusively in, and thus ruling other things conclusively out as "necessarily false" -- i.e., it looks like we are ruling out the same presumed state of affairs. But, in this case there isn't one. There is no state of affairs here at all, shared or otherwise. M1 picks out no state of affairs -- even in theory -- neither does M5.

 

If there were a state of affairs that M1 and both M5 expressed, we would be able to negate M1 legitimately (i.e., using M5), and hypothesise that M1 doesn't obtain even in theory. But we have just seen we can't even do that. In relation to M1, what we think we are ruling out is M5. But, M5 has a different supposed content to M1, so we aren't in fact ruling M5 out!

 

M1 thus has no content at all, and neither has M5.

 

If they had a content then M1 and M5 would be logically connected, and there would be no change of subject between them. But, that isn't so. Hence, they don't share the same content and so have no content at all.

 

In that case, they are both telling us nothing at all.

 

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 -- i.e., in this case, at least, that they depict a theoretical state of affairs, time being a relation between events, in this instance. To that end, a further pretence has to be maintained that we understand what might make such propositions true -- or, indeed, their 'negations' false -- so that those like M5 can be declared "necessarily false".

 

We imagine they depict at least a theoretical state of affairs -- which we have just seen they can't.

 

Again: if there were a state of affairs that M1 picked out, we would be able to negate M1 legitimately, but as we have seen we can't do that without changing the subject.

 

Hence, with philosophical 'propositions' like M1 and M5 this entire exercise is an empty charade, for no content can be given to them. They depict no state of affairs, even in theory.

 

M1: Time is a relation between events.

 

M5: Time isn't a relation between events.

 

In order to declare M1 true, we pretend that a theoretical state of affairs (at least) is being ruled out (i.e., what M5 says); but, we have just seen that this isn't so. Nothing is being ruled in or out, since M1 is incapable of depicting anything. It has no content.

 

So, nobody who accepts M1 as 'true' is in any position say what it depicts, even in theory. That isn't because it would be psychologically impossible for them to do that, it is because it is logically impossible to do it. If M1 could depict something (even in theory), we could legitimately negate it; but doing so changes the subject (M5). By declaring M1 true, or "necessarily true", we would normally be declaring M5 false, or "necessarily false". But, it isn't possible to specify conditions that would make M5 false, and hence M1 true without changing the subject.

 

But, if we can't say under what conditions M1 is true (since it is now clear it depicts nothing at all), we can't say it is false, either. In which case, we are in no position to declare M1 either true or false! Any attempt to do so falls apart, for that would imply that two logically unrelated sentences (M1 and M5) were related after all.

 

No Way Back
 

Hence, metaphysical propositions can't be true and they can't be false. They have no content. They express no state of affairs, even in theory.

 

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, and therefore being true or false.

They are non-sensical, empty strings of words.

 

[It is also possible to show that metaphysical propositions aren't just non-sensical, they are also incoherent non-sense, but that won't be attempted in this Introductory Essay. On that, however, see here and here.]

 

Isn't 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 riposte, here.

 

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

 

Latest Update: 13/01/21

 

Word count: 6,300

 

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