Friday, September 26, 2008

On what is "obviously false".

There are really two possibilities when someone says something you consider "obviously false". Either you have failed to understand them, or they are irrational. In the former case, this could be because, say, they have not expressed themselves clearly, or because they deny an assumption you are implicitly accepting. In the latter, it could be because of dogmatism or even insanity. In any event, the appropriate response is to ask for clarification. If the clarification is unenlightening, repeat the process until you are satisfied that your interlocutor is simply irrational.

I know of no rational basis for assuming that the problem with "obviously false" statements is always on the part of the person who says them.

6 comments:

undergroundman said...

Is there really just two options here? Why must we assume that everything is easily understood, and that rationality is so easily defined?

You haven't considered the obvious other cases: 1) you are irrational, 2) they do not understand what they are saying. The latter is not necessarily irrational -- one is sometimes forced accept a theory or action, and the rational weighting of certain factors will depende upon the person's situation, based upon fundamentally different values. And of course, 3) they have been lied to, which is closely related to 2.

Sure, some values may be more rational than others. What rationality are we even talking about? When an economist says someone is rational, generally they mean that people have well-ordered and well-behaved utility functions -- in order words, they respond to incentives. That's probably a radically different definition than yours.

ADHR said...

Let's get some terms. For S and T, S says something T finds "obviously false". My options: (1) T fails to understand S, (2) S is irrational.

Your suggestions: (3) T is irrational, (4) S fails to understand what S is saying, (5) S has been lied to.

I think (3) may just be a generalization of (1). Lack of understanding is the salient sort of irrationality in this case, though. (4) looks like a clear case of (2): saying things one don't really understand is irrational, even though possibly understandable. The same would apply for (5): even though S may not be aware that S has been lied to, that S has been lied to makes S's pronouncements irrational (although, again, understandable).

Rationality here is being used in the broader sense of not only responding to reasons in rigorous ways, but also in the sense of responding to good reasons.

undergroundman said...

Good is such a vague term. There's obvious problems with applying this among axiological evaluations/actions, but even with straight calculations, it is not that simple.

Let's say T is told that the symbol "1" = 5 objects. So T says that 1 + 1 = 10 objects.

S says no, 1 + 1 = 2 objects. If they don't speak the same language, they could both end up just thinking that the other is irrational forever -- if they're not innovative to figure out that their symbols are defined differently. Neither is being irrational.

This might be grouped under (1), although you said it might be grouped under (2). One can make perfectly rational calculations with bad data. The calculation (perhaps even action) is not irrational, it's just mistaken. There's a difference.

Also, would you admit then that you didn't account for T being irrational? :p

ADHR said...

I didn't count it explicitly, but I think it was implied in (1).

If we take seriously the notion of rigid designation, then your case isn't actually possible. For what happens is T says 1(T) + 1(T) = 10, and S says 1(S) + 1(S) = 2. In other words, the symbol "1" is being used equivocally, so we need to distinguish the two uses of the same symbol. Or else we miss that their vocabularies aren't the same.

"Good reason" may be vague but that's not the same as meaningless or useless. We're pretty confident that believing you're immortal because a large rabbit that only you can see told you so is believing something for a (very) bad reason. As long as we can do it in practice, the concept is useful, surely.

undergroundman said...

Hmm. It would be simpler if you just said "there is a misunderstanding" somewhere in the exchange.

If we take seriously the notion of rigid designation, then your case isn't actually possible. For what happens is T says 1(T) + 1(T) = 10, and S says 1(S) + 1(S) = 2. In other words, the symbol "1" is being used equivocally, so we need to distinguish the two uses of the same symbol. Or else we miss that their vocabularies aren't the same.

Could you try that again in English? :p

ADHR said...

Well, we're talking about S's communication to T, so S's understanding doesn't seem as relevant as T's....

If "1" rigidly designates -- refers to the same thing in all possible worlds -- then once its referent is fixed (assuming the referents of all other number terms are fixed), it's impossible for 1+1=10 and 1+1=2 to both be true (although both can be false). So, what we would have to say, rather than accusing either T or S of speaking nonsense, is that they are using the same sound or symbol, but a different term/word, which thus refers differently. When T says/uses "1", what he means is what S means by "5".