Here’s a perfectly simple sentence: “You should think for yourself”.
Here’s another fairly straightforward sentence (put aside whether you agree with it or not): Thinking that you should think for yourself is just thinking what the people who think that you should think for yourself think you should think.
How do we get from the first sentence to the second? Well, the second sentence applies a general principle to a specific instance. The general principle is that for any belief x you might hold, holding it amounts to thinking what those who think x think you ought to think.
The second sentence is cute because it sets as the x a sentence that seems to contradict the spirit of the general principle.
An aside: this principle is true if you take out the word “just”. But, then, if you take out the word “just”, it becomes trivial. Keeping the “just”, the principle is obviously false. We sometimes think things for other reasons than agreeing with those who also think them.
What happens if we take the second sentence and take is as the x for a new application of the principle? You get this:
Thinking that thinking that you should think for yourself is just thinking what the people who think that you should think for yourself think you should think, is just thinking what the people who think that thinking that you should think for yourself is just thinking what the people who think that you should think for yourself think you should think, think you should think.…
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.…
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.