Thursday, January 8, 2015

“What is truth?”, they said. “What is meaning?”


Finally, they came to the granite. “This is alive,” Leavitt said. “It is living, breathing, walking, and talking. Only we cannot see it, because it is happening too slowly. Rock has a lifespan of three billion years. We have a lifespan of sixty or seventy years. We cannot see what is happening to this rock for the same reason that we cannot make out the tune on a record being played at the rate of one revolution every century. And the rock, for its part, is not even aware of our existence because we are alive for only a brief instant of its lifespan. To it, we are like flashes in the dark.”
The Andromeda Strain, Michael Crichton, 1969.

If, like in my year 7 science class, we take “alive” to mean “responsive to stimuli, converting one form of energy to another, self-reproducing”, then technically, yes, anything from fire to organised religion is exactly alive.

If we take “murder” to include intentionally causing the death of a specific person, then technically, yes euthanasia is murder, and so is capital punishment, and so is failing to give kidney transfusions to that world-class violinist who turned up in your sitting room.

(And, of course, if we take “people” to mean featherless bipeds, then human foetuses and kangaroos are people, and abortion is murder, and meat is murder. If we take “people” to be those displaying certain kinds of cognitive activity, then perhaps some squids have more personhood than some coma patients.)

If we take “benevolent sexism” to include systemically supported behaviours reifying the notion that people of a specific gender ought to be protected and supported in doing perfectly everyday things, then yes, unsolicitedly (and disproportionately) offering to help women lift heavy objects, not to mention a constant refrain of “let me get that for you”, absolutely counts, as does implementing affirmative action programmes at your company or institution.

(Patch the leak in an ‘objective’ definition by adding mental state — say mens rea or the recipient’s reaction towards the behaviour — and instead you have a term you can never be sure whether to apply. Though, judging by the state of how society deals with those kinds of definitions, someone would probably argue that a prolonged three week courtroom drama consisting entirely of character assassination is a direct conduit to this kind of truth.)

If we take “true” to mean “having supporting empirical evidence”, then perhaps the Riemann hypothesis is true.

If we take “real” to mean something you can run your fingers across, something you can see or taste or hear, then of course a supernatural God isn’t real, nor is love, nor is the number seven, nor is analytic philosophy.

So what?

None of these conclusions mean anything about the world. They’re just… facts about whether a definition applies to a concept. The pronouncements are as a priori as anything and would be just as true if it were the crown philosoraptor prince-queens of bizzaro!Earth (where our world is naught but an amusing thirdbedtime story) discussing whether the fictional humans’ concept of ‘real’ applies to the fictional humans’ concept of ‘love’ or to ‘electrons’ at the ‘Planck scale’. Hell, maybe bizzaro!electrons are human!real; maybe not.

Definitions of words aren’t wrong or right; they’re merely… relevant or irrelevant, accepted or unaccepted, intuitive or unintuitive, clarifying or misleading, practical or impractical. These are all subjective judgements, dependent on the people using them, their speech community, the context of the dialogue, everything.

Never forget that words are a social construct (nor that ‘social construct’ is words).

The intuition that murder is bad isn’t wrong, it’s just incomplete. It’s a heuristic. The ‘bad kind of murder’ is as ineffable as ‘bad’, tied as it is to our individual intuitions and learnt beliefs about morality, about what kind of deaths cause that emotional reaction. We get a long way tying that concept to a word, and tying the neat technical definition of “wilfully ending another person’s life” to a word, and pretending that the word isn’t there, that the thread connecting our definition to that thing we truly want to talk about is uninterrupted Platonic truth.

(And that’s the thing. Most of the time it almost is. Strip away the corner cases, the strange examples that send people spiralling into definitional arguments, the rough edges where my intuition about right and wrong and pleasant and unpleasant doesn’t line up with yours quite the way society wants us to pretend it does… and the problem is gone. If only that were possible.)

Words are all sorts of wonderful things. They’re labels. They’re semantic compression optimised for the human brain. They’re strings of phonemes glowing with the potential for rhyme, meter, rhythm, and assonance. They’re shortcuts to elicit emotional reactions. They’re carrier pigeons that can escape the walls of one person’s subjective experience and pass a little something along to another’s. They’re symbols, and in some sense symbols are all we have to make meaning with.

But words... they aren’t real. Not until we say they are.