The value of meaninglessness

G.W.F. Hegel

Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel

Self-consciousness recognizes its positive relation as its negative, and its negative as its positive; or, in other words, recognizes these opposite activities as the same, i.e. it recognizes pure Thought or Being as self-identity, and this again as separation.

—G. W. F. Hegel1

Do you believe that?

What would it even mean to believe that?2

Hegel’s version of Idealism dominated British philosophy for most of the 1800s:

Time and space are unreal, matter is an illusion, and the world consists of nothing but mind.3

Logical positivism began with the revelation, around 1900, that this was nonsense, and much of Hegel’s writing was incoherent gibberish.

With a sense of escaping from prison, we allowed ourselves to think that grass is green and that the sun and stars would exist if no one was aware of them.4

Aristotelian logic said that all statements were either true or false. This was the Law of the Excluded Middle: there is no third alternative.

Is Hegel’s statement above true or false? A century of philosophical effort was wasted trying to figure that out. Logical positivism cut the Gordian knot: it’s neither. It’s meaningless. The problem is not that we don’t know (an epistemic problem), but that the world doesn’t work in a way that could answer the question (an ontological problem).

Meaningless was a new truth value, added to the two traditional truth values true and false. This seemed a significant advance, enabling philosophers to declare that many traditional difficulties were meaningless pseudo-problems that should be forgotten.5

Adding meaningless to formal logic worked just fine, technically. For example, “either snow is white, OR colorless green ideas sleep furiously” gets the truth value true because “snow is white” is true, and it doesn’t matter that the other bit is meaningless. Likewise, “snow is white AND colorless green ideas sleep furiously” has truth value meaningless.

The logical positivists declared, further, that statements are meaningless just in case there is no way of finding out, in principle at least, whether they are true or false. This was due to their “positivist” conviction that rationality (including empiricism) is sufficient, in principle at least, to gain complete knowledge.

With a third truth value added, the door was open to add still more. Another was unknown: the belief status of sentences whose truth in the world you are uncertain about. Now logic could express epistemic uncertainty!

And we could add sortof as another truth value:

“Is Immanuel awake yet?”
“Well, sort of.”

A Hegelian might have these beliefs:

Sentence Believed
Snow is white True
Ravens are magenta False
Ludwig has fed the dog Unknown
Immanuel has woken from his slumber Sort of
Self-consciousness recognizes its positive relation as its negative, and its negative as its positive; or, in other words, recognizes these opposite activities as the same, i.e. it recognizes pure Thought or Being as self-identity, and this again as separation. True

But reality may be different:

Fact Truth
Snow is white Sort of
Ravens are magenta False
Ludwig has fed the dog True
Immanuel has woken from his slumber Sort of
Self-consciousness recognizes its positive relation as its negative, and its negative as its positive; or, in other words, recognizes these opposite activities as the same, i.e. it recognizes pure Thought or Being as self-identity, and this again as separation. Meaningless

This multi-valued or non-Aristotelian logic solved some important problems in the early 20th century. It was widely adopted by philosophers, and entered popular consciousness as well. It became a mid-century shibboleth of open-minded intellectualism, and significantly influenced 1970s alternative spirituality.

It was, however, inadequate in practice, and was abandoned by philosophers around the same time it became popular among lay people.

It’s too coarse-grained. It’s rarely useful to hear merely that it’s “unknown” whether the dog has been fed; you want to know how confident to be, and why. If you are married to Hannah or Martin, learning that they are “sort of” having an affair may seem insufficient; you’d want to know some specifics.

Also, as we’ll see, hardly anything is “absolutely” true or false; at best they are “pretty much” true. So almost everything would get as its truth value either meaningless or sortof, if you took that seriously.

So multi-valued logic turned out to be a dead end, and is now mainly a historical curiosity.6

Multi-valued logic was replaced, in part, by probability theory. That gives a finer-grained account of the epistemological problem of uncertainty, using numerical degrees of confidence. However, probability doesn’t deal with ontological issues such as “meaningless” and “sort of true.” And, we’ll see that it has fatal flaws of its own, if it is misinterpreted as a general theory of epistemology.

Meta-rationality requires a more sophisticated account of truth than any of these. It must do justice to cases like “is there any water in the refrigerator?”—the problem The Eggplant opened with. And, as we’ll see in the next chapter, cases like “that is true de jure but not de facto” and “that analysis is true as far as it goes.”

  • 1. Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Lectures on the History of Philosophy: Medieval and Modern Philosophy, p. 550. I’ve slightly simplified his sentence to remove context-dependence.
  • 2. Decades after logical positivism had failed, David Stove made fun of this particular Hegel quote in his rationalist manifesto, “What is Wrong with Our Thoughts? A Neo-Positivist Credo,” which is brilliant, savagely funny, and completely wrong. Definitely worth a read, or several, though! Stove understood that rationalism had failed, and how it failed, but not why it failed. To paraphrase: “Look, the logical positivists were right to reject metaphysics, to demand that all claims rest on unambiguous physical observations, and to insist on talking clearly enough that we know what we’re saying. I know it didn’t work, but there must be some way to fix it up!”
  • 3. This is logical positivist Bertrand Russell’s summary of Hegelian Idealism, not Hegel’s own statement.
  • 4. The quote is from G. E. Moore, one of the founders of logical positivism; in context, “we” refers specifically to Bertrand Russell—the foremost logical positivist—and himself.
  • 5. Some philosophers advocate applying this approach to the “present king of France” problem discussed in the previous chapter. The problem there seems to be different, though. Most people would agree that “the present king of France is bald” makes perfectly good sense, and isn’t meaningless in the way Hegel’s sentence seems to be. There is something wrong with it, but meaninglessness is not it.
  • 6. There are exceptions, for example in relational database systems. According to many but not all theorists, those should implement a three-valued formal logic, in which NULL represents “unknown.” NULL is indeed commonly used to mean “unknown” in database software, although most systems do not completely consistently conform to three-valued epistemic logic.

Navigation

This page is in the section Part One: Taking rationalism seriously,
      which is in In the Cells of the Eggplant.

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