Confession: for a guy who hosts a podcast, I don’t listen to all that many of them. I used to enjoy 99% Invisible, and I still recommend it. But for me, it doesn’t go into quite the depth I prefer for the medium. Others do go into quite a bit of depth, but get bogged down by (often political) dogmatism and pettiness from the host (I’m looking at you, Waking Up). The Joe Rogan Experience is sometimes cool but is often too chatty and too much of Joe spitting his by now boring opinions.
I’ve recently become enamored of the physicist Sean Carroll. He works primarily in cosmology and is known, among other things, for being a strong proponent of the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics. However, he’s also a generally curious guy with broad intellectual interests. (To give credit where it’s due, I discovered him through Rogan.)
Carroll recently started a podcast, Mindscape, and it may be my favorite I’ve found so far. He tackles a wide variety of topics, always interesting, always fairly in-depth. He’s reasonable, smart, and not into politically-minded shit-talk. His most recent interview is with none other than my boss(ish), Tyler Cowen. But he’s also done some very cool interviews on the science of aging (and how we might go about indefinitely postponing aging), cryptocurrency, string theory, and other cool stuff.
It’s become hip to scoff at ideological labels. You’ll sometimes hear the ultra-woke deny all ‘isms’. I agree with the spirit. “Think for yourself!” “Why put yourself in a box?” “Attachment to labels is tribalism!” These are all fine points.
Except for the fact that there are really only two ways to avoid ideological labels:
Have no positions; or
Refuse to name your positions.
(1) isn’t as bad as it seems. You probably should withhold opinion on matters into which you have not put significant analysis or research. (This is assuming you want to hold your opinions because you’re justified in thinking them to be more likely correct than alternatives, and not simply for sport.) But (1) is not the reason for the anti-label imperative. The same people who tell you to avoid labels will also tell you to think through the issues and come up with your own answer. So they would not agree with (1).
(I hope it’s obvious by now that I have no concrete examples of who these ‘people’ are who supposedly argue against labels. I hope you know who I’m talking about. If not, alas, this post is not so serious.)
(2) is, of course, silly. Naming things is necessary for reference and communication, activities I highly recommend.
So, what’s up?
I think the problem isn’t with labels in general, but with labels that are insufficiently specific. Unspecific labels have a tendency to conceal the substance of positions. My favorite example of this is ‘capitalism’. As Roderick Long has helpfully noted in a clip short enough that some people might actually watch it, ‘capitalism’ sometimes means ‘free market’; sometimes ‘means of production owned by capitalists instead of workers’; sometimes ‘this economic system we have in the contemporary west’.…
Consider the sentence C: “If this sentence is true, then David Ripley is a purple giraffe”. Suppose the sentence is true. Then the antecedent of the sentence (“this sentence is true”) is true. According to the inference rule modus ponens, if an if-then sentence (such as C) is true and its antecedent is true, then its consequent (“David Ripley is a purple giraffe”) must be true. It follows that if C is true, then David Ripley is a purple giraffe. But this conclusion is C: in other words, by simply supposing how things might turn out if C were true, we have proved that C, in fact, is true. So C is true, and since C’s antecedent is the claim that C is true, its antecedent is true as well. Now we can use modus ponens again to show that C’s consequent must be true. In other words, David Ripley really is a purple giraffe. QED.
This argument is Curry’s paradox. Obviously, the choice of “David Ripley is a purple giraffe” is arbitrary; a sentence of the form of “If this sentence is true, then X” can be used to prove any claim X. Now, in actual fact, David Ripley is not a purple giraffe, but a philosopher of language and logic. According to Ripley, solutions to paradoxes like Curry’s (as well as the Liar and the Sorites) fall into two broad categories: those that solve the paradoxes by messing with the meanings of important concepts (such as the meaning of “if-then”, truth, “not”, etc.) and those that solve them by changing the structural rules of inference by appeal to substructural logics.…