What if I’d Been Someone Else?

I think most people ask themselves this from time to time. What if I’d lived in the sixties? What if I’d grown up on the corners of West Baltimore circa 2002? Sometimes it’s not a question, but a wish or fear: wouldn’t want to be that guy. At its best, this kind of identity projection motivates gratitude (“thank God I wasn’t born in a refugee camp”) and empathy (“could’ve happened to me”).

As intuitive as it feels to ask these questions, upon some analysis, they don’t seem to be as meaningful as they initially appear.

I have to disambiguate here. I’m not talking about wondering what it might be like to be, say, Björk or Emma Goldman. There’s nothing particularly troubling about that. I assume there actually is some way that it is like to be Dan Harmond (at least for a given moment, or maybe for an average moment within some time range). There’s nothing odd about wondering what that’s like.

What’s odd is for me to wonder what it’d be like for me to be Larry David (my apologies, but I’m going to keep doing that). After all, when I say “me”, that’s supposed to refer to who I actually am. So, to ask what it’d be like for me to be Rasputin is to ask what it’d be like for William Nava (the person he, in fact, is) to be Rasputin (the person he, in fact, was). But isn’t that silly? Because if William Nava were, say, Ed Wood, he would, among other things, not be William Nava.…

Continue Reading →

A Quick Note on the “It’s Meaningless” Solution to the Liar Paradox

In an earlier post, I discuss one good reason to reject the solution to the Liar paradox that says that it’s meaningless: it means calling some other sentences, like “This sentence is in Japanese” and “This sentence has five words” meaningless, though they seem to be obviously meaningful.

Anyone who defends this solution has to bite the bullet on these sentences. It’s a tough bullet to bite, but at first it doesn’t seem implausible. Maybe those sentences only seem to be meaningful, though they aren’t really.

I came across three sentences today that convince me that rejecting all self-referential sentences is, in fact, utterly ridiculous. I found them in Tim Urban’s newest amazing article on Elon Musks’ newest mind-blowing venture, Neuralink. (By the way: go read it. Now. Elon Musk is turning humanity into the Starchild from the end of 2001 and you’re reading about loopy sentences? Get out of here!)

Here are the three sentences:

That’s why we still communicate using technology Bok invented, it’s why I’m typing this sentence at about a 20th of the speed that I’m thinking it, and it’s why brain-related ailments still leave so many lives badly impaired or lost altogether.


Right now, your eyes are making a specific set of horizontal movements that allow you to read this sentence.


None of this stuff will take any effort or thought—we’ll all get very good at it and it’ll feel as automatic and subconscious as moving your eyes to read this sentence does to you now.

Continue Reading →

Twin Earth, Part 2: The Practice of Naming

Yesterday I explained how Putnam’s Twin Earth thought experiment suggests that meaning cannot be only in the mind. I now propose an objection.

Imagine that an interdimensional alien transports water from Earth to Twin Earth, and leaves some at Agatha’s doorstep. Agatha at first calls it “water” and doesn’t have any idea that it’s anything different from the water she’s used to. However, since her body is composed largely of XYZ, not H2O, she feels sick as soon as she drinks some. She concludes this must be some different kind of water. She brings it to the community, who come up with a name for this mysteriously different water. They call it “fool’s water.”

Notice that there was only an impetus to change the name after something different was discovered about the water. Let’s change the scenario and say that H2O reacts to the Twin Earth body in the same way that XYZ does. In this case, Twin Earth doesn’t discover “fool’s water” until after certain advancements in chemistry.

The point is that Twin Earth only finds a reason to distinguish between water and Twin Earth water when they discover something that alerts them to their being two kinds.

This can always happen. For any kind of thing, we can always discover something about it that compels us to split it off into more than one type. We do that splitting by renaming.

Putnam’s error, therefore, is assuming that what the referent of a name really is is its current scientific description.…

Continue Reading →