I’m going to start sketching out rules for moves that are allowed in discussions about the empirical world. The idea is that if you break these rules, you’ve failed in some way to make a valid empirical statement, ie, you’re being unempirical. For example, one rule might be that at least one of your nouns can be observed. If I say fictional planet “Able” is 10 miles away from fictional planet “Baker,” that’s a perfectly good English sentence. But it’s unempirical.
The thing is: to make sense of the world, our brains have to posit all kinds of fictional planets. A hunter-gather 10,000 years ago can ask the question: why does a rock fall down instead of up? But he can’t answer it. So he fills in the blanks with a bunch of made-up bullshit. It lets him sleep. But what happens when he starts talking with a buddy about his made up bullshit? Now you have a conversation where one hunter-gatherer says that rocks fall down because there’s a little man in the rock who wants to go down and the other hunter-gatherer says that’s wrong, that the real reason rocks fall down is that there is a giant man looking at us from the sky and he’s the one steering the rock.
But he first guy has more charisma. The tribe likes his answer. It makes them fell better. All good. But now, whole debates can occur about the clothing choices of the men inside the rocks. Everyone is expressing perfectly intelligible thoughts. It’s good English. But what are they talking about? We all hear that warning sound that I call “unempirical”:
Wayne: “My priest says the little men in the rocks wear green. ”
Garth: “Simple logic dictates that they can’t wear green because the men in trees wear green. The men in rocks obviously wear brown. ”
Wayne and Garth sound stupid now, but lots of things that sound stupid now we’re once considered not just smart, but intellectual achievements. For example, Anselm’s ontological argument which purports to prove the existence of God, from The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy:
The argument in this difficult passage can accurately be summarized in standard form:
- It is a conceptual truth (or, so to speak, true by definition) that God is a being than which none greater can be imagined (that is, the greatest possible being that can be imagined).
- God exists as an idea in the mind.
- A being that exists as an idea in the mind and in reality is, other things being equal, greater than a being that exists only as an idea in the mind.
- Thus, if God exists only as an idea in the mind, then we can imagine something that is greater than God (that is, a greatest possible being that does exist).
- But we cannot imagine something that is greater than God (for it is a contradiction to suppose that we can imagine a being greater than the greatest possible being that can be imagined.)
- Therefore, God exists.
Insane, right? No need to bother with the world outside your mind! Just think about the word and you’ve proven your case.
So one rule for keeping things empirical, that is, for successfully making an intelligible claim about the world we live in:
- No reasoning from the meaning of words.
A giant clue that this rule is being broken: the word “about”.
So this comment on a previous post of mine:
Rape is always about power. That’s what makes it rape.
Unempirical. Might as well talk about the distance between two fictional planets.
So... Perfect islands? What’s that about?
One of the standard counterargumets to Anselm, again quoting The Internet Encyclopedia:
- It is a conceptual truth that a piland is an island than which none greater can be imagined (that is, the greatest possible island that can be imagined).
- A piland exists as an idea in the mind.
- A piland that exists as an idea in the mind and in reality is greater than a piland that exists only as an idea in the mind.
- Thus, if a piland exists only as an idea in the mind, then we can imagine an island that is greater than a piland (that is, a greatest possible island that does exist).
- But we cannot imagine an island that is greater than a piland.
- Therefore, a piland exists.