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.
Accepting the “it’s meaningless” solution means saying that those three sentences are literally not saying anything at all; that they are equivalent to gibberish.
That’s absurd. The meaning of those sentences is perfectly clear. The fact that “This sentence has five words” and “This sentence is in Japanese” are given out of any clear context, and the fact that they’re fairly abstract, make it seem plausible to call them meaningless despite appearances. When we look at these examples of self-referential sentences being in used in context, it becomes silly to insist that they should be called meaningless.
Any language that calls these sentences meaningless is, from a pragmatic standpoint, more deeply flawed than a language that accepts that the Liar is a contradiction. It’s a language that allows us to do less with words. It also less accurately reflects natural language use. It’s paradigm case of medicine worse than the disease.
Other posts on this topic:
Interested in paradoxes? Check out this primer on the Sorites Paradox and its solutions.