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Pensively looking out

Knocking Yourself Out

March 28, 2023

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In one of Edward St. Aubyn’s novels, a man is asked if he was his own worst enemy. “I certainly hope so,” the man replies. “I dread to think what would happen if somebody else turned out to be better at it than me.” 

In the life of the mind, one way to be your own worst enemy is by means of self-defeating statements, such as, “I am not writing in English right now” or “I never, never, never use the word never.” A self-defeating statement cannot possibly be true because the claim being made is undermined by the claim being made. A statement that is self-defeating is like a mixed martial arts fighter who knocks himself out (yes, this happens). 

Timothy Keller, author of The Reason for God, provides other examples of self-defeating statements: “Everyone in the world is an evangelist. Even telling someone they can’t proselytize is a form of proselytizing your views.” He notes, “Everyone makes exclusive truth claims. You may say ‘no religion should say their view of reality is superior to everyone else’s’ but at that moment you are claiming that your view of reality is superior—more worthy of acceptance—than theirs.” Keller also points out that “to insist doctrine doesn’t matter is really a doctrine itself” and “How could you possibly know that no religion can see the whole truth unless you yourself have the superior, comprehensive knowledge of spiritual reality you just claimed none of the religions have?”

Pointing to self-defeating statements may seem like a verbal trick. But the self-defeating nature of such claims is grounded not in trickery but in reality. What reality? Aristotle pointed out that all thinking, all speaking, and all doing relies on the bedrock reality of the principle of noncontradiction—namely, that “a thing cannot be and not be at the same time and in the same respect.” Even children playing hide-and-seek implicitly use this principle. They know that their friend cannot both be and not be hiding in the pantry. 

The fundamental claim of scientism that “science and science alone provides the truth” is not proven scientifically.

Of course, some people do deny the principle of noncontradiction. In such cases, the medieval Islamic philosopher Avicenna suggested tough medicine, “Anyone who denies the law of non-contradiction should be beaten and burned until he admits that to be beaten is not the same as not to be beaten, and to be burned is not the same as not to be burned.” A more gentle approach is to point out that all people (including those who deny the principle) rely on the principle of noncontradiction every day whenever they think something, say something, or do something. They are thinking rather than not thinking, speaking rather than not speaking, doing rather than not doing. Even to deny the principle of noncontradiction is to unwittingly rely on the principle of noncontradiction.

Given the principle of noncontradiction, a statement cannot both be true and not true at the same time and in the same respect. If it were true that each and every sentence I write is exactly three words long, then this sentence would also be exactly three words long. But it isn’t. 

Scientists are not immune from expressing self-defeating statements. For example, Richard Dawkins writes, “Truth is real and science is the best way we have of finding it. ‘Alternative ways of knowing’ may be consoling, they may be sincere, they may be quaint, they may have a poetic or mythic beauty, but the one thing they are not is true.” Science does indeed help us discover various truths, and it is indeed the best way to discover particular kinds of truth, like what medications are best for asthma treatment. But it does not follow from these claims that other ways of knowing—philosophy, for example—are not true. The claim that “alternative ways of knowing are not true” is not itself a claim of science, so any attempted justification must be based on alternative ways of knowing. The fundamental claim of scientism that “science and science alone provides the truth” is not proven scientifically. There is no experiment in physics or biology or chemistry or any other science that shows that science and science alone is true. So Dawkins must rely on “other ways of knowing” in his denial that “other ways of knowing” can come to the truth. 

Ludwig Wittgenstein wrote, “Even if all possible scientific questions be answered, the problems of life have still not been touched at all.” Should I marry this person? Should I have a child? How should I spend my limited time, treasure, and talent? Some of the most important questions in life are simply questions that science cannot answer. Among the most important questions we can ask are questions about God.

The late, great film critic Roger Ebert wrote, “I no longer lost any sleep over the questions of God and infinity. I understood they could have no answers.” But, of course, to assert that questions about God have no answers is itself an answer. The person who responds to the question “What can be known about God?” with “nothing at all” is offering no less an answer than St. Thomas Aquinas, who believed that using reason alone we can know of the existence of one God who is intelligent, good, and loving

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Self-defeating statements are even found among philosophers. In his 1748 book An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, David Hume provided a great example in what is called Hume’s fork:

If we take in our hand any volume; of divinity or school metaphysics, for instance; let us ask, Does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matters of fact and existence? No. Commit it then to the flames: for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion.

But note, does this quotation from Hume contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matters of fact and existence? No. Then, according to Hume’s own principles, we should commit his writing to the flames: for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion. With his fork, Hume stabs himself.

In 1936, a twenty-four-year-old philosopher named A.J. Ayer developed Hume’s view in his book Language, Truth, and Logic. In what is called logical positivism, Ayer taught that no proposition is meaningful if it is neither a tautology (e.g., “A bachelor is an unmarried man”) nor empirically verifiable (by scientific experiments, at least in principle). But the claim “No proposition is meaningful if it is neither a tautology nor empirically verifiable” is itself neither a tautology nor empirically verifiable. So, logical positivism, according to its own standards, is meaningless.

In 1976, Bryan Magee asked Ayer, “Logical positivism must have had real defects. What do you now, in retrospect, think the main ones were?” Ayer replied, “Well I suppose the most important of the defects was that nearly all of it was false.”

Who says philosophy never makes progress?