long live the king

sorry for the recent lack of posting, but we're getting ready to head back to school...

and because of that, a lot of my recent laptop and linguistics time has been spent on mmy Semantics final from last semester, so i thought i'd share some puzzles from that.

Bertrand Russell posed this simple and now-famous problem to truth-conditional semantics: what is the truth value of the sentence "The King of France is bald"? is it false in the same way as "the Queen of England is bald"?

Russell argues that the use of definite descriptions such as 'the king of france' actually asserts the existence of the king, so that someone who says "the king of france is bald" is actually saying "there is a king of france, there is only one king of france, and that individual is bald," and if any of these three assertions is false, the entire sentence is false.

people have proposed three-place truth conditions to handle sentences like this, with T, F, and N (not determine, or something), but their truth tables got more complicated...

then Strawson came along and answered Russell on his own king-of-france turf, arguing that the existence of the king of france is presupposed by the sentence, and that the sentence itself cannot be evaluated as true or false - only statements made with contexts to go with them can be true or false.

anyway, i don't know if any conclusions have been reached on this, but it's an interesting puzzle, and my grade depends on it.


Adam Fastman said...

we do not answer questions! we just put another handle on them for better gripping and steering.

So, what's the status of fiction when it comes to the discussion of varying truth values?

The statement "Aragorn is the rightful King of Gondor" doesn't suppose Aragorn's actual existence...

But I venture that it's a "more truthful" statement than "Aragorn is a filthy man-hating Orc in the service of the Enemy."

Neither statement is 'true' in the sense of truth as it's understood by the pidgin logician or analytic philosopher; which is to say there is no one named Aragorn, there is no such place as Gondor, there is no such thing as an Orc outside of the imaginary realm. No 'objective reality' to these statements.

But I have to put it out there that the very idea of an 'objective viewpoint' is flawed, flawed, flawed, maybe moreso than any other idea I've come across so far... A view-point... which occupies no point-of-view? The idea that so many people, scientists, journalists, and otherwise, worship the absolutely impossible as the only means of truth-verification is high comedy, as I see it.

The closest thing to the 'objective viewpoint' that these people seek in vain, I think, would have to be a subjective viewpoint that was a synthesis of all smaller subjectivities at once.

Now. The actual occupation of such a viewpoint is just as impossible for the mortal human as the sudden discovery of the mythical 'objectivity'. But what this different understanding of truth might give us is a MOMENTUM to ride, rather than a PRINCIPLE to seek in vain. The perspective which unifies two seemingly contradictory perspectives would have more of a 'truth-value' here than either of the two which were opposed.

What happens here is that I start to see 'finding truth' as less of a process of codifying particular facts into one big fact and more of a process of moving towards more and more generally accurate positions. The result is that we never stop seeking. Knowledge and discourse become more like a dance than a fight. Agreement becomes more valuable than the possession of verifiable facts.

The statement "Aragorn is the King of Gondor" is true because it is USEFUL to the understanding of a rather grand and powerful metaphor. There is an even more useful statement than that regarding Aragorn that would grant greater understanding of the story. And moreso than that one as well. Meanwhile the extent to which a story is understood increases a person's understanding of stories in general, and of their sources in the authors and the world from which those authors came.

And we don't stop going, we don't reach 'conclusions', we make this a continual striving where we never nail ourselves down to anything, and that's how I think we ought to go after truth. Like children playing astronauts.


Seb (speculatively) said...

I've read this post a couple times and am not really sure what to make of it.

My impression of the project that the analytic philosophers are undertaking is that they are trying to formalize our intuitions about truth. Is that fair?

If so, it seems like their project would be served by saying that "The King of France is bald" is false in a different way from "The Queen of England is bald" in a different way (maybe) from "Aragorn the rightful king of Gondor is bald."

So personally I have no objections to making a broader spread of options for "truth-value"--truth, falseness, indeterminacy, a continuum of accuracy or usefulness, etc.

But I guess my fear here is that our intuitions might really defy formalization--they may just not be coherent enough to be translatable into a set of rules like this without those rules communicating immense complexity and uncertainty.


Then there's the problem of Russell et al.'s methodologies--if they are trying to put their finger on our intuitions, they really ought to be starting with an empirical study of people's intuitions, no?

On the other hand, if their project is really to discover the truth value of "The King of France is Bald," then I think you would agree with me that they need to step back a second and examine what assumptions are inherent in their concept of "truth," since they really ought to be willing to scrap it and choose another if the first turns out to be problematic.

I'm not sure if I have a point or anything here, but that's my two cents.

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