Speaking Essentially and the Root of the Problem

Let me tell you about unicorns. Unicorns are white-coated creatures, with bodies resembling those of horses. The unicorn’s hooves are cloven, and it has a single, spiral horn protruding from its forehead. The horn has a property which allows it to purify water and cure disease on contact. The animal itself has the ability to detect human female virginity and is highly attracted to the same, so much so that it exhibits a stereotypical set of behaviors in the presence of said females.

I can now make some meaningful statements about unicorns. I can say, for instance, “A unicorn is a unicorn if and only if it has one horn.”

I now say, “You should be able to recognize a unicorn if you see one.” Is that true? If it is true, what about it is true? That is to say: Does my statement reference a unicorn, the inherent possibility of a unicorn, or all that stuff I just said about unicorns? If it is the latter, does that necessitate anything beyond a bare, opaque unity?

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19 thoughts on “Speaking Essentially and the Root of the Problem

  1. Abietarius says:

    A statement does not have to apply to reality. For instance: The color green tastes like E-sharp. What does that have to do with reality? It doesn’t.

    The ability of a person to present obscure and abstract concepts, with words, shows not the truth of the abstract, but the glorious ability of humanity with words.

    When you say “you should be able to recognize a unicorn if you see one” is as equal to “you should be able to run naked while dressed or else you are not a true wizard”. It’s not true, and it can’t be true.

    Why is it not true? What is truth? Truth is, basically, a thing that existed or exists. For example: if I say to you that I love you that would be false, not true, because the hormones which activate my sensation of “love” are not activated, thus I do not love you – which means they did not exist nor existed – thus, not true.

    Saying “you WILL be able to recognize a unicorn if you see one” is predating the future – thus this statement cannot be, in any way, true – because it neither existed nor existing – it WILL (wishfully) exist.

    • keithnoback says:

      Thanks for the comment. You would require some empirical correspondence to say anything at all is true of unicorns?

      • Abietarius says:

        I, specifically, do not need any – because no empirical evidence was put forward to present that there ARE unicorns. It’s like Bertrand Russell’s teapot (with some adaptations of my own) – I say that there is a teapot between earth and mars and it’s the size of both of them combined, but you can’t feel it or see it – prove me wrong.

        It’s a logical fallacy. In order to refute something it needs to be proven first.

    • keithnoback says:

      Well, there’s nothing to which “A is A” specifically corresponds. There is no “A” to offer evidence for the statement and it cannot be proven without reference to the same consistency which it claims in the first place. Yet you are content to use identities as if the claimed consistency were true – you do so when you accuse me of a category error. It demonstrates a function as much as observation of the orbiting teapot would. Are you still willing to say that there is nothing true about my unicorn story?

      • Abietarius says:

        Yes, there is nothing true about your unicorn story because you assume two things: A. That the burden of proof doesn’t lay on you (which it does); B. That you assume something is “true” in the future, which is impossible because something “true” is something that has existed or exists.

        You have no ability to either prove the existence of the unicorn, thus rendering it as “utterly improbable”, and you assume that we WILL recognize a unicorn once we WILL see it, yet assumptions of the future does not constitute “truth”.

    • keithnoback says:

      So you don’t think my statement about your ability to recognize a unicorn refers to an actual unicorn; got that. You seem to be saying that it also does not refer to the possibility (whatever the probability) of an actual unicorn. Is that true? If so, are you completely denying – eliminating – the contingent statement and claiming that you would not recognize a unicorn if you saw one?

      • Abietarius says:

        The point is asking if “you WILL recognize a unicorn” being true or false leads to the single conclusion of “false” – because there is no ability to term my ability or inability in the future as true – because it did not happen yet.

        In regard if I will now recognize a unicorn, hypothetically, is another thing. Hypothetically if a horse-like creature with a single horn on his head will appear before me I will PLAUSIBLY, though not at all conclusively and not even close to probably, recognize it as “unicorn” using my understanding of the English term “unicorn”.

        To go as far as saying that the recognition of a unicorn in the future is absolutely certain, i.e. true, is meaningless – because it cannot be true.

        The fact that you can say something that is not true is, once again, one of the greatest ability humanity possesses – language.

  2. Luckily, free will is not a unicorn. It refers to an objectively observable phenomena in the real world. But, it is not a “thing” but rather a “process”.

    “Thinking” is like “walking”. Both describe real world phenomena that two or more people can describe and say “this is an example of walking” or “this is an example of thinking”.

    Both processes happen in the real, physical, deterministic universe. We all know what “walking” is and we all know what “thinking” is.

    “Choosing” is an example of one kind of thinking. We may need a new car. But there are lots of choices out there. Do we want a small, gas-efficient model? Or perhaps we’d rather have the larger hybrid? At first we’re uncertain. So we think about the pros and cons of each choice. We might even make a list on paper. After considering the benefits of each choice, we decide which car we WILL buy.

    This is called a choice of our own “FREE will”, to distinguish it from the case where the salesman holds a gun to our head and says, “you’re going to buy a truck today!” If we buy the truck it will only be “against our will”.

    And that is all that “FREE WILL” implies. It is you, making a choice for yourself without coercion by the will of someone else.

    This “free will” is totally consistent with a physical, deterministic universe. It is you, as the final responsible cause of what becomes inevitable.

  3. Everyone knows what a unicorn is. One of the things they “know” is that it is an imaginary creature of fantasy.

    Only the a priori condition (uni = one, corn = horn) is readily observed. The other qualities would have to be demonstrated. Therefore “You should be able to recognize a unicorn if you see one.” depends upon whether the additional properties (magical horn, virgin detection, etc) are requirements to recognition or not. That is, are there other animals with a single horn that look like horses but are not unicorns because they lack magic?

    Being a fictional creature, it’s embellishments would be open to the author’s imagination. For example, there was a birthday card that had a picture of a unicorn farting a rainbow.

    And, I did in fact recognize the unicorn, even without the rainbow.

  4. keithnoback says:

    Touché. I owe you an explanation, don’t I? How we see things as being determined or not, depends on how seriously we take our notions of identity, I think. Confusion sets in when we generalize them, to say they are independently real or true out of context. I think that generates the confusion about freedom and determinism that you hint at in your comment.
    If I talk about unicorns, I am talking about unicorns and nothing more. I can make true statements about them in the context of the discussion, but the truth of the statements depends upon the context, that’s all.

    • Everyone sees everything as determined, except in the imagination. If I pick an apple from the tree, I expect to have an apple in my hand. That’s determinism. If I pick an apple from the tree and it explodes or becomes a cat, that is “indeterminism” — a nice place to visit, but no one wants to live there.

      Free will requires determinism if a choice is to have any real effect. Determinism apparently necessitates free will, because, well, here we are, thinking and choosing what will become inevitable and what will not.

      The paradox is semantic. Most of the time we use the term “inevitable” to imply something that is “beyond our control”. So that traps the mind between our ability to act or think freely and the sense that it is somehow “out of our control”. It is as if we were somehow something separate from, and controlled by, determinism. But it is quite the opposite. Our choosing and acting is essential to determining what happens next. We are natural biological organism choosing. There is no separation. What happens next is controlled and determined by the result of our mental processes choosing it. All of the other causes (our reasons and feelings, our beliefs and values, etc) are impotent until they become us choosing and acting freely upon our will.

      There’s lots of stuff that goes on without us of course. But being able to raise the temperature of the planet is hardly insignificant.

      • keithnoback says:

        Were you looking for a fight? I hope you weren’t looking for a fight. I think talking about undetermined choices is incoherent. Nobody really does that, they just get upset about whether or not the determinants belong to them. If I flip a coin to make a decision, I may feel that I’m laughing in the face of fate, but there is still a solid explanation for what makes me the kind of guy who flips a coin in just such a situation.

      • Fight? Nah. Just trying to clear out the mental cobwebs that libertarian free-willers and anti-choice determinists bring to the table. Once we realize they are both unicorns we can also drop the term “compatibilist” and just use language in a realistic and meaningful way. We’ve somehow accumulated three whole schools of philosophy around a very old and very silly semantic paradox.

        And there’s nothing worse than an atheist going after “free will” when the concept is morally meaningful in a totally secular way. It only lends credibility to the prejudice that atheists lack any rational basis for morality. And, as a Humanist, I find that prejudice insulting and I’m embarrassed by atheists suggesting that “free will” is either non-existent or an illusion.

        But, hey, why should I be taking that out on you? After all, you’re just talking about unicorns.

        Oh, I forgot to agree with you about context. If you’re the “decider”, then the fact that your decision will be inevitable is totally useless. You still have to go through the mental process before you’ll know with certainty what your decision will be. On the other hand, if you are an objective observer with omniscient knowledge about the decider (God or the guy’s wife) you could predict the decision, possibly before the decider makes it. Two different viewpoints, one in the middle of freely choosing one’s will, the other external, noting the known causes and calculating the ultimate effect.

  5. makagutu says:

    This is a complex conversation for my brain.
    Are there black unicorns by the way?

    • keithnoback says:

      There black and white, horses, sickness, health – all true in a practical sense – so of course there are black unicorns. But all that’s true about them is in our story. If I say that I would recognize one if I saw it, I really mean that I get what you are saying – I understand your references. It does not mean that you and I have agreed upon the proper description of a unicorn we have seen, or that we should go out to look for unicorns because the power of our conceptual categories may have conjured one.

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