“This sentence is false”. Is that sentence true or false? If it’s true, then what it says must hold; but what it says is that it’s false, so it must be false. But if it’s false, then what it says must not hold; but what it says is that it’s false, so it must not be false. But if it’s not false, it must be true. So if the sentence is true, it is false, and if it is false, it is true. The sentence, therefore, seems to be both true and false, which seems absurd.
Philosopher and logician Stephen Read is one of the preeminent scholars on this “liar paradox”. He is known, in large part, for rediscovering and defending a long forgotten solution to the paradox first proposed by the medieval philosopher Thomas Bradwardine. In this first half of our conversation, Read covers the paradox’s rich and influential history. It was first discovered, in its full form, in the 4th century BCE by Eubulides (who also first set down the sorites paradox). It became a central problem in the 20th century via its association with Russell’s Paradox, a major problem in the foundations of mathematics. Later in the century, two thinkers – Alfred Tarski and Saul Kripke – proposed monumentally influential theories of language and truth motivated, largely, by the paradox. But even after their contributions, the consensus is that the paradox remains unsolved. …
I recently published a post in defense of dialetheism. I argued that in the case of statements about “man-made” states of affairs, it is obvious that some contradictions are true. For example, the law can easily contradict itself in such a way that a statement about what is legally mandated be a true contradiction. I invented “Timmy the Square Circle” to show that, similarly, there can be true contradictions about fictional characters. If this doesn’t seem intuitively obvious, read that post before this one.
The concluding paragraph included this teaser:
It is perhaps now tempting to draw a sharp line: the world of man-made ideas allows for true contradictions, reality doesn’t. However, this line is not so sharp.
If we grant that there are true contradictions about what is made up, does this tell us anything about whether there are true contradictions about objective reality? To say there are is a stronger, and intuitively harder to swallow, version of dialetheism. As we’ll see, however, there is no way to say anythingabout anything without talking, in part, about the man-made. This inescapable fact leaves open the possibility of true contradiction in claims about the physical world, even if it’s the case that the physical world itself, independent of our descriptions of it, cannot be contradictory.
Conceptual reality: Liar and Sorites paradoxes
We first need to establish that there are different “levels” of objective reality, and accepting a contradiction in one level may be much more counterintuitive than in another level.…
The problem of vagueness stems from the sorites paradox. A heap of sand cannot be turned into a non-heap by removing a single grain of sand. A short person cannot become tall by growing one millimeter. Someone who is sober cannot become drunk by ingesting one-tenth of a milliliter of alcohol. These conditionals hold regardless of what we take as our starting conditions. But if this is true, we can iterate the conditionals many times over, until we can prove that one grain of sand makes a heap, an 8-ft. tall man isn’t tall, and someone who’s just ingested a liter of alcohol is sober.
This ancient paradox has become one of the toughest puzzles in contemporary metaphysics and philosophical logic. During our conversation, Professor Timothy Williamson explains and rejects a few approaches, including supervaluationism, fuzzy logic, nihilism, and contextualism. His preferred solution, known as epistemicism, is much simpler: all vague predicates have a precise cutoff point – we just can’t know where it is. Williamson supports this counterintuitive view with compelling accounts of meaning and knowledge. Meaning, he explains, is determined in part by aggregate use; since we cannot know all of the factors of aggregate use, we cannot know the exact meanings of vague terms. From this, we can infer that there are many cases in which we know something but do not know that we know it.