Wednesday, 13 March 2013

A Counter-Eulogy for Hugo Chavez

Wasn't it a little ironic, last week, to hear people "RIP"ing a man who had such an unhealthy enthusiasm for the exhumation of his own political hero? Perhaps "rest in peace" is not quite the right phrase.

Chavez was a perfect example of how easy it is to dupe the Western left: paint yourself as a socialist and an anti-imperialist and you can do what else you like. Chavez proliferated nukes, expressed contempt for the Monroe doctrine and laughed with Ahmedinejad about the idea of nuking the US. He armed illegal organisations like the Tupamaros, La Piedrita, the FBLN and Colombian guerrilla forces. He had a never-ending reservoir of praise for brutal and oppressive regimes, governments and war criminals, including Robert Mugabe, Idi Amin, Ahmedinejad, Kim Jong Il, Assad and Gaddafi. He espoused conspiracy theories about 9/11 and the moon landing and reckoned capitalism killed life on Mars. No, seriously.

But the real problem with Chavez was his contempt for democracy. He attempted a coup d'état in 1992, for which the Guardian crowd spared a moment of wistful admiration. He shut down more than 30 radio and television stations for being critical of his government; imprisoned people without trial for years; imprisoned people for crimes of opinion; fired tens of thousands of public employees for signing a petition for a referendum. He prevented his opponent Leopoldo Lopez from running for office, on a charge levelled by Chavez himself, despite the fact that the courts had not found Lopez guilty. During the Chavez reign the homicide rate of Venezuela tripled, but only 11% of homicides led to a conviction because judges were clamouring to prove alliegance to him. Even from his death-bed he had a supreme court judge fired for disagreeing with his politics. By systematically undermining the agents of democracy this way - the media, the courts, the politicians - he made himself a democrat by name only.

Freedom of speech, Rosa Luxemburg wrote to remind Stalin in 1940, is only freedom of speech if it's free for everyone. Allowing freedom only to those you agree with contradicts the whole cause. Well the same goes for free elections: Chavez disavowed a referendum in 2007 because he lost it. Manipulated the elections in 2010 to make sure the opposition didn't get more than a third of seats in Parliament even though they got 51% of the vote. (His margins of victory continued to shrink even in spite of this bullying. Some man of the people.) his defenders protest that at least his other election victories were bona fide, but this is just incidental. His corruptions of democracy make it clear that, had they not been, it all would have been to the same effect. By staging several elections, and cherry-picking which ones you think should count, apparently you can dupe vast swathes of people into thinking you're no dictator. If only fooling that people were that easy for the rest of us.

Tuesday, 12 March 2013

The Iraq War Saved Lives

A strong point of criticism of the Iraq war has been its death toll. If you've been reading the anti-war literature, the number you've probably heard is 655,000, or something like it. This number comes from the Lancet's study of the number of deaths between March 2003 and July 2006, and what they actually say is that in that 40 month interval there were between 426,369 and 793,663 deaths.

Any study of death tolls with a margin of error of 367,294 deaths should raise alarm bells. So agreed the Iraq Body Count Project, who released a peer-reviewed analysis and criticism of the Lancet study (which is, by the way, not itself peer-reviewed). Among the problems they find with the study are its implications that "less than a tenth of [seriously injured Iraqis] received any kind of hospital treatment" and "Half a million death certificates were received by families which were never officially recorded as having been issued". They point out that another study used a comparable method to that of the Lancet study, but worked with a considerably larger sample, an found a far lower death-toll estimate. UN reports find 80 violent deaths a day but the Lancet study would imply 1,000 deaths a day. Let that sink in: by the UN's reckoning the 655,000 figure is a twelve-and-a-half-times overestimate. The IBC's criticisms go far beyond this, and are positively damning - the Lancet quotes false and unsourced figures, underestimates the pre-war death rate, implies that the Iraqi media is mostly only reporting the smaller incidents of violence, and ignoring the larger ones, and so on - so I won't waste any more time on it.

An even larger figure the less scrupulous and honest members of the anti-war movement sometimes tout is that of the ORB survey, which cites a death toll of 1,033,000. Again, it's drivel. A peer-reviewed paper published in Survey Research Methods strongly criticises the ORB survey, "describes in detail how the ORB poll is riddled with critical inconsistencies and methodological shortcomings" and concludes the ORB is "too flawed, exaggerated and ill-founded to contribute to discussion of the human costs of the Iraq war". Epidemiologist Francisco Checci and the IBC agree. Journalist John Rentoul puts it this way: the ORB estimate "exaggerate[s] the toll by a factor of as much as 10" and that "the ORB estimate has rarely been treated as credible by responsible media organisations, but it is still widely repeated by cranks and the ignorant."

So why does this matter? If the true death toll (shouldn't that be "life toll"?) was less than than a twelfth of the Lancet's figure, that's still a lot of people, and they all count. According to Slate journalist Fred Kaplan, who strongly opposed the 2003 invasion of Iraq, that's precisely why it matters: "Here lies the danger of studies that overstate a war's death toll. The war's supporters and apologists latch on to the inevitable debunkings and proclaim that really 'only 100,000' or 'only 200,000' people have died. It's obscene—it sullies and coarsens the political culture—to place the word 'only' in front of such numbers."

Well, if the Iraq war costing lives counts against it, then saving lives must count its favour, right? Let's do some number-crunching.

The Iraq Body Count project, which is rather more reputable among epidemiologists, at my time of writing places the death toll at "111,593 - 121,997" deaths, and concedes that its methodology is more likely to provide an underestimate than an overestimate. For a liberal estimate, then, I'm willing to take the upper limit and double it. That's 243,994 deaths in a period of 120 months; 2,033 deaths per month on average. Contrast this with the Lancet's estimate of 655,000 in 40 months, or 16,375 per month on average.

The Human Rights Centre in Kadhimiya was formed by Iraqis after Hussein (why does everybody feel they're on a first-name basis with him, by the way?) was toppled from his throne. By going through the archives left by the Hussein regime, which kept records of all the people it killed (as a punishment for things like political dissent), they found that around 70,000 people per year were being killed by the state. That's 5,833 people per month on average.

Add to this the ~500,000 people who died as a consequence of the sanctions Iraq was under between August 1990 and March 2003 - that's an average of 3,311 people per month.

So here are the figures, as best we know them: according to the Lancet survey, 16,375 per month died as a result of the war. According to my doubling of the IBC study, 2,033 died per month as a result of the war. According to the alternative, 5,833 plus 3,311 - that is, 9,144 - were dying per month as a result of the peace.

This is why it matters that the Lancet survey was an extreme overestimate - were it not, the Iraq war would have cost hundreds of thousands of lives. As it stands, it saved them.

 photo Casualties-1.png

Wednesday, 6 March 2013

The Comedy of Errors

Here are some quotations from the notorious Abu Hamza;

"We do not hate Jews because they hurt each other; we hate them for their corruption on earth. A Jew cannot look a Muslim in the eye or pass him knowing they have oppressed a Muslim or some other Jew had oppressed a Muslim elsewhere. So nation of Mohammed must regain their dignity and this dignity would not be regained unless with blood."

"Bring up your daughters to that manners [not to answer back] otherwise they going to be divorced in the first week of their marriage or slapped in the face."

"Kafir" in the following context refers to non-Muslims:

"Killing a Kafir who is fighting you is OK. Killing a Kafir for any reason, you can say it, it is OK - even if there is no reason for it."

Now consider Chris Morris telling us "Martin Amis is the new Abu Hamza" and Russell Brand telling us that Richard Dawkins is "Abu Hamza of atheism". Can anybody point me to anything either of these critics of religion have said which even compares to Hamza's incitements to violence? Or perhaps it's about time people stopped listening to the ignorant political spoutings of people whose job it is, simply, to tell jokes?

Saturday, 21 April 2012

United Obsoletion

British MP George Galloway, among others, has laid stress on the argument that the flouting of international law by the UK and US, in the 2003 invasion of Iraq, has undermined the concept of international law in general, and therefore made the world a more dangerous place in the future.

There are several problems with this position. It's not actually a settled question whether the invasion was in fact illegal under UN law. The UN Security Council has not been called upon to hold trial, and by UN law all individuals are innocent until proven guilty. It's fine to be suspicious of Bush and Blair, but by the same standard we should have to be suspicious of Saddam Hussein's involvement with weapons of mass destruction - which would have mandated the invasion - and members of the anti-war movement such as Galloway seem to want to have it both ways,

The US and UK are two of five states that have absolute veto power in the UN; this means that any attempt by the Security Council to investigate and punish the Bush and Blair can be instantly dismissed by the UK. Veto power wasn't acquired by force; all members of the UN, when entering into the deal, were aware that the US, UK, France, Russia and China would have veto power. They willingly entered anyway; this is tacit admission that the US and UK won't necessarily be punished for anything they do. Thus, even if illegal, Bush and Blair's actions can be considered decriminalised; it's analogous to making marijuana possession illegal but unpunishable. This is, in my opinion, a fundamental flaw with the structure of the UN, but cannot be construed as a flaw with the Iraq invasion itself.

We shouldn't heed Mr Galloway's implicit premise that the UN charter was ever taken seriously in the first place. China was one of the original signatories of the UN Charter and it took them just four years to begin their ongoing occupation of Tibet. The US, Israel, Iraq and others have been ignoring UN rules for as long as anyone cares to remember; Bush and Blair can hardly undermine an institution which nobody pays attention to anyway.

The consistent anti-war movement also needs to recognise that ignorance of UN rules works both ways. The Clinton administration put pressure on the UN to reconstrue the Rwandan genocides as something less, in order that Clinton would not be forced to invade. One of the worst massacres of the decade ensued as a consequence.

Most importantly, the UN shouldn't be taken seriously. This is an organisation which recognises the self-determination of brutal dictators, but not of their people. Johann Hari put it like this:

But when it comes to legality, you have to answer a basic question: who is sovereign in Iraq? If you believe the Iraqi people are sovereign, then there was no crime, because Iraqis and now their elected government say they wanted the invasion to proceed. You can’t invade the willing. The problem is that currently international law does not recognise peoples as sovereign.

Rather than pretending that the morality of the invasion at all relies upon its legality, we shall have to assess it on other terms. Until the UN can function like a democracy it cannot be of relevance.

Friday, 1 April 2011

The Beast From The East

Liberating Libya

All the usual protests have emerged from the anti-war movement in recent weeks: our motives may be no better than theirs, intervention will only incite more animosity among East-West relations, there are worse dictators about. I want to challenge the validity of each of these, and moreover, to suggest that they function only as distractions from the really important issue.

UN Motions and US Motives

Doubtless, there are strategic advantages to Libyan intervention which make it a favourable target for military intervention. The first thing to note is that it has the 10th largest oil reserve in the world, and has one of the largest GNP per capita in Africa. Most of Libya is Sahara desert, and the vast majority of its small population lives at or near the coast, making it easily accessible both in trading and military terms. It's also sandwiched between the Middle East's two newly revolved democracies, Tunisia and Egypt, so a regime change would help to create a band of young democracies, with newly formed strong ties to the West; for these reasons it serves as a potential lynch-pin in the Middle East.

For all these reasons, among others, we might be skeptical of any Western involvement (or equally, we might be elated, depending on our perspective). But since we're assessing motives and incentives: what about the dictator's own? Firstly, the colonel receives some support among sympathisers for having accepted the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in December 2003 - despite this being a matter of weeks after the US invasion of Iraq, and despite his continued attempts to get hold of nuclear weaponry for the preceding 31 years. In December 2003, the idea that the world's primary superpower was toppling regimes because they had nuclear weaponry was still a popular one, so I shouldn't need to spell this out any clearer.

Gaddafi was never elected into power, but took control by means of a coup d'état in 1969, just ten years after Libya's oil reserves were originally discovered. Oil production - now and then Libya's main, almost sole export - was just about to peak, as shown:


Is it too brusque to suggest that Gaddafi's own intervention might have been inspired by the wealth and power which comes with oil? Is there not something unctuous about this man?

So What Does Gaddafi Spend His Money On?

Despite Libya's respectable GDP per capita, the majority of its citizens are forced to live in abject squalor. At the beginning of his reign, Gadaffi nationalised and socialised the economy, completely abolishing the private sector. As a result, the eastern half of the country slipped into poverty; it is possible that this state of affairs could exacerbate an already vitriolic rivalry between the eastern and western regions of Libya. The Gaddafi family lives in opulence.

Throughout Gaddafi's reign, most of his wealth has been spent on funding terrorist programs against Western countries. Gaddafi was connected to the Berlin Discotheque bombing of 1986 (an action which led to a retaliatory massacre by the no-less-ghastly Ronald Reagan) and funded the IRA from 1982-1987, providing semtex, flamethrowers, Kalashnikovs and a plethora of other arms and ammunitions.

When the treasury began to run dry in 2003-2004, Libya opened more than 40 embassies with other countries to stimulate its economy. Part of these newly formed international relations involved buying weaponry (a standard practice for a Middle-Eastern state) from Russia. In February this year a Libyan transport plane was reported to have visited a military stockpile in Belarus, one of Europe's last remaining authoritarian outposts.

A 2004 report from the Chemical Weapons Convention verified that Libya owned 23 metric tons of mustard gas and a further 1,300 metric tons of precursor chemicals.

Gaddafi funds both foreign and domestic aggression by means of hiring mercenaries. In 1987, an offensive into neighbouring Chad was launched, sparking an ethnic conflict which would later lead to genocide. Most of the soldiers in Gaddafi's army were mercenaries hired from Pakistan and poor Sahelian countries. Again, in March and April 2011, the Gaddafi loyalist forces have been comprised mainly of Serbian and Ukrainian mercenaries, massacring protesting Libyan citizens.

A Brief History of Crime

When Gaddafi assumed power in 1969, he instigated a nationalist form of socialism, dubbing his regime the "Third International Theory" (does any of this sound familiar?). Shari'a became the official doctrine of the state, and alcohol and gambling were outlawed. Dissenters, as well as deserters, were imprisoned without trial. Many were hung in public stadiums and broadcast on television. Death squads, composed of revolutionary committees, were formed in order to hunt and kill dissenters.

Gaddafi's entire reign has been tainted (if such a malodorous monstrosity can be tainted) with racism; despite the existence of Berber tribes in Libya, Gaddafi has always refused to recognise the Berber presence. Persistent Persecution of Jews - religious and racial - has caused the Jewish demographic of about 36,000 to almost entirely dwindle, largely through emigration.

In 1996, nearly 1,200 prisoners were massacred in Abu Salim prison at Colonel Gaddafi's command, as a punishment for demanding fair trials and palatable living conditions.

Most notoriously, 270 people (259 on board and 11 on the ground) were killed over Lockerbie due to a bomb that Libyan-backed terrorists had planted on an aeroplane. Gaddafi is also suspected in connection with the bombing of UTA flight 772 in 1989, which cost the lives of a further 171 people.

In 1987 the Islamic Legion began a series of regular raids across the Libya-Chad border, and stationed 2,000 troops in Darfur. The resultant conflict and trauma escalated into a genocide, with around 9,000 lives lost. Many members went on to form Janjaweed, a genocidal organisation that has ranked up a murder toll with estimates ranging from 19,500 to 400,000 losses.

The 2011 protests had resulted, by february 2007 (long before any UN, US or NATO intervention, and when Libya was just one Middle Eastern country among many facing protests) in a death toll of more than 400, as the Libyan military was opening fire on rioters. On March 21st, civilians were being used by the loyalists as human shields.

Let us not forget that this ogre is only in power in the first place, by means of a usurpation; so, even had all these acts been moral and legal, he would have had no mandate to any of them.

Hopefully, this is enough to put to bed the notion that Gaddafi is not nefarious enough. It should also be plain that, regardless of what opportunism may underline western motives, Gaddafi's motives were no more deserving. However,

Won't This Increase Animosity Between Us And Them?

There's a current of non-interventionalist thought, not worth overlooking, that the populations in the region view western states such as the US and UK as hypocritical, hamfisted, bloodthirsty and oilthirsty. This is not unjustified, as the henious records of men like Reagan, Kissinger and Clinton will testify, as well as the ongoing US support for Israel's crimes against Palestine.

On the other hand, Gaddafi isn't popular in the region either, and our failure to act may easily (and justifiably) be interpreted as support for him.

Firstly, the Arab League already cut its ties to Libya, declared the regime illegitimate and requested a no-fly zone over the country. This is not an insignificant act.

Secondly, there's a newly formed democratic administration on either side of Libya, which shows that the zeitgeist among the region's populations is shifting, as they begin to favour western ideals.

Thirdly, Gaddafi's relations with the surrounding countries have never been endearing. Continually refusing to recognise Israel as a state, and calling for its destruction, Gaddafi has vetoed any attempts at diplomatic relations between the two countries. At the Arab League summit* in 2009 Gaddafi was petulant toward King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia; he maintains poor relations with Tunisia and Morocco. Back in 1971, near the beginning of his reign, Gaddafi attempted to merge Libya with Sudan, but president Nimeiry declined, saying: "He has a split personality -- both parts evil."

With those common complaints put to bed, then, I think there is a bigger issue at stake here:

Democractic Progress in the Middle East

Since Mohammed Bouazizi set fire to himself in Tunisia on December 17, 2010, there has been a not inconsiderable domino effect of uprising in the region:


January 14: Tunisia revolts, and declares Fouad Mebazaa president.
February 11: Egypt revolts, and Suleiman announces Mubarak's resignation.
February 23: Bahrain leaders free political prisoners to pacify protestors.
February 24: Algeria lifts the state of emergency, to appease the population.
March 9: King Mohamed VI promises Morocco constitutional reforms.
March 10: Saleh promises constitutional referendum.
March 13: In Oman, legislative power is delegated to people outside the royal family.
March 14: King Abdullah of Jordan sets a 3 month deadline on constitutional reforms.
March 15: The government of the United Arab Emirates agrees to greater media transparency.

It is true that various less promising events have occurred, such as imprisonment of, or violence toward, protestors in several countries. The unrest so far has consisted of a tug-of-war between oppressed peoples demanding dignity, liberty and security, and states trying to maintain their authority. Some states - such as Morocco - have been frequently violent; some - such as Bahrain - have been consistently oppressive. But only one state has been consistently, frequently brutal toward any attempts to challenge its regime, and that is Libya.

So here's what it all pivots on: if outside forces fail to act, Gaddafi will crush the rebels, set an example to the Arab world, and the domino effect in the Middle East will doubtless cease. The prolongation of theocracy and despotism will be indefinite.

Alternatively, we can set the example ourselves: that there is hope for revolution, and these struggles have not been and will not be in vain. Just as Gaddafi learned in December 2003 to abandon his nuclear weapons program, the regimes of Morocco, Mauritania, Oman, Yemen, Iraq, Iran, Bahrain and Syria can now learn to treat protests with care.

As Philippe Legrain put it: "whatever happens in Libya in coming weeks, don't forget Gaddafi vowed to slaughter people of Tobruk & Benghazi house by house."

Some Further Objections

"Western nations only invade states when they want oil"
"Western nations only support dictators when they want oil"

The mutual cancelling of these complains should be obvious enough; apparently, anything we can possibly can only be done out of a desire for oil. So, it makes no difference whether we intervene or not, there will still be those claiming that we are simply exploiting the nation.

Either of these claims might be easier to defend, were it not for the fact that, in March 1982, an embargo was placed by the US on government on all Libyan oil. This no-trade policy continued, in effect, until 2004, when Gaddafi's terrorist project began to lack funds, and then new embassies were opened between Libya and the West.

If the objective here were oil, why would 32 years have passed with no action from the US? Why would they wait until the embassy were open? Why not invade in late 2003, when there was no trade and no embassy - particularly given that many claimed the invasion of Iraq was oil-motivated (and not without good reason; the original title for Operation Iraqi Freedom was "Operation Iraqi Liberation").

"Libya is the military soft touch of the Middle East"

Again, this leaves too many questions untouched: why didn't we invade it in 2003? Libya's military credentials have never been as strong as Iraq's and particularly so in 2003, before Libya opened its embassy with Russia (whence it acquires most of its military stock).

"Why leave it until now?"
"Why not one of the worse dictators?"

This is another set of cancelling complaints. Do we really have to draw up a league table of dictators? Fine then; with a couple of exceptions aside, most despots don't rise straight to the top of the league table. Particularly in Gaddafi's case, it has taken the accumulation of years and years of smaller atrocities. By the time his track record reaches the status of one of the worst, he's already been in power for almost four decades. Given the consistency of his thuggishness, ought this man be given any more mitigation?

"Aren't the rebels' motives questionable too?"

Well, arguably. The original protests in Libya were calling for the emancipation of Ferthi Tarbel, a lawyer banged up for his activism regarding the 1,200 massacred in Abu Salim. These 1,200, it should be noted, were members of a militant Islam group; but this is a tenuous link at best. The protesters were rioting and throwing stones, but stones don't compare to war-planes. In the worst case scenario, then, we have one proven radical-theocratic dictator at war with a group of possibly radicals. If this does turn out to be an Islamist skirmish, all the more need for UN presence, to ensure that the victorious regime is nothing too extreme.

Here's the most valid complaint, straight out of the mouth of an oppressive dictator himself:

"Wherever it is appropriate, [the US and its allies] stand with despotic rulers ... and when necessary, they sacrifice them to ensure their own interests" - President Ahmedinejad of Iran

I will grant Ahmedinejad this claim, because it's patently true, and shameful. So we have two choices: continue to stand with dictators, or not. And hopefully it has been illustrated that the Western motives can't be explained away, this time, in terms of oil.

A slightly more refined charge is that the US & co. only stand with dictators as long as they remain stable. This may well be true, and is consistent with the current case.

So, let's give the people of the Middle East an incentive to destablise their dictators.

Alot of the anti-war movement, I think, is motivated by a kind of knee-jerk reactionism; "the West has made too many mistakes in the past". But our mistakes run both ways; our failure to intervene in Rwanda and Bosnia is no more admirable.


* And here is a further point about motives: it may be suggested that Gaddafi's attempts at uniting Africa have been somehow progressive. But he did not simply want a United States of Africa; he presumed the title "King of Kings", and nominated himself "leader of the Arab leaders" and "Imam of the Muslims". To me, "progressive" seems like too generous an accolade.

Sunday, 30 January 2011

A Problem You Can't Define

There is some disagreement, particularly pertinent in the recent debates about whether science conflicts with religion, about what kind of things constitute, or determine, a truth. Leaving aside the debate about the existence of intangibles, most people still accept at least two kinds of truth: empirical truths - that is, the true statements about the facts of our world - and truths by definition - that is, statements which are true purely by virtue of what they mean. It is the latter notion which I wish to discuss.

Most people agree that logical truths, such as

(1) all cats are cats

are true by definition. It does not matter what goes on in the world around us, they say; "all cats are cats" is true under all possible circumstances, and we know this just so long as we know the meanings of the words.

There is some problem with ambiguous terms which may be misleading; suppose that, in the first instance of the word "cats" we are just saying it the way Keith Richards says it, and in the second use we are talking about felines, then our statement will be false. Obviously if a word can have more than one meaning, then we need to know which meaning it has in the context.

This lead some theorizers to suggest that it is not the words (as in the sounds or symbols), but the concepts which they represent, which are to be the constituents of truths by definition. This seems more intuitive but it isn't particularly explanatory, as "concept" is just used the same way as "unit of meaning", and we need some notion of what meaning actually is. We'll come back to that later.

So how can a definition generate a truth such as in statement (1)? Gottfried Wilhelm Liebniz proposed a fundamental cleavage of "truths of reason" and "truths of fact"; that the former class were true of all possible worlds, and the latter only of our own. Logical truths, therefore, were necessary, whereas factual ones were just contingent. But how are we to test which things are true of all possible worlds, when we can only observe this one we are in? Saul Kripke's notion of necessity suffers the same paucity of information; and it is this question that the idea of "analytic" truths - that is, truths by definition - was supposed to answer. [1] [2]

Immanuel Kant proposed that an analytic truth was one in which the predicates are contained within the subject. So for instance, in

(2) all bachelors are unmarried

"unmarried" is contained within "bachelor". W.V.O. Quine pointed out that this suffers two major flaws. Firstly, it is not particularly explanatory, because we don't have a way of finding out whether a subject contains a predicate; worse, the word "contain" is surely metaphorical in this instance. In short: what does it mean for one concept to contain another, and how are we to find out whether it does in any particular instance? [3] [4]

The second problem is that we cannot apply this to statements such as

(3) either it is raining or it is not raining

in which we do not simply have the form "[subject] is [predicate]"; we rather have the form "([subject] is [predicate]) or ([subject] is not [predicate])". If such statements are analytic, then Kant's explanation will not do; and if they are not, then analyticity fails as an explanation of logical truth, at least within non-Intuitionistic logics. Furthermore, surely nobody claims that (3) was not true before the invention of language? If it had been false factually, would it still have become true analytically upon the invention of languge? If so, what is the use (or even the sense) of linguistically generated truth?

It has been suggested, alternatively, that a truth-by-definition is a statement the denial of which entails a contradiction. This is no better, however, because a contradiction is surely just a falsehood-by-definition. How do we test whether two concepts contradict each other?* And what does that mean exactly?

How do we know that a predicate is implicit within a subject? Statement (2) is of the form "(all A are B)", so its analyticity is not formally explicit. What we need is definition, because this gives us a means of transforming non-logical truths into logical truths* (and vice versa). For instance, if we can define "bachelor" as unmarried man" then we can show (by substitution) that "all bachelors are unmarried men" is synonymous with

(4) all bachelors are bachelors

and so we have a logical truth. We need, therefore, to do two things: (a) to show that logical truths such as "all A are A" are analytic, and (b) to show that definition can function without presupposing the analyticity of logical truth.

(a) Definition: The first problem is that not all terms can be explained in terms of definition, because the last term would have nothing in terms of which to be defined. This is known as the problem of the status of the primitives: if the last term is empirically understood then its meaning is uncertain, and so must be everything which is explained in terms of it. In natural English there are a vast plethora of such terms; within an artificial language, Rudolf Carnap managed to get it down to the word "is". Nonetheless, there must always be one such term, and so, the rest of the class of statements belonging to the language can be on no firmer ground than this undefinable term. [5]

(b) Definition prior to logical truth: The second problem is that we have some sort of circularity. Consider Carnap's notorious example of how to stipulate a "truth by definition" (or in his word, "convention"):

(i) For every x, y and z, if z is the result of putting x for "p" and y for "q" in "if p then q", and x and z are true, then y is true.

This tells us that if we have a true conditional statement with a true antecedent, then the consequent of the conditional is true. Suppose we already know:

(ii) z is the result of putting x for "p" and y for "q" in "if p then q", and x and z are true

then we can infer

(iii) y is true

but only if we use the logic of "if-then". The fourth English word of (i) is "if" and the fifth from the end is "then"; we know that given (i) and (ii) we can infer (iii), because we understand the English expression "if_then_". But this understanding is not provided by (i); rather it must be presupposed by it, in the sense that we can only understand the import of (i) if we already understand the notion if-then. More generally, the statement of definitions cannot be what determines logical truths or logical relationships, because it is only by virtue of logical relationships that logical truths or relationships are derivable from them.

Beyond this, we have another, simpler problem with definition. The fact that we are able to stipulate a definition (such as "every mare is a horse") by no means demonstrates that we have created a truth. What would stop Darwin from stipulating that

(5) species arise by means of evolution

is a definition? In other words: when somebody makes an assertion, what distinguishes it as the creation of a truth by definition, rather than merely as the (true or false) expression of a fact?

We are no closer, then, to finding some way of determining whether a predicate contains a subject, or whether two terms are interchangeable within the right context. What we need is some clear notion of meaning itself.

a) John Stuart Mill suggested that the meaning of a proper name is its reference. Consider:

(6) Morning Star
(7) Evening Star

These terms are co-referential, but do they mean the same thing? Gottlob Frege notes that the discovery that they are one and the same was one of astronomy, not analysis of the meanings of the words; so we cannot accept reference as an explanation of meaning. [6] [7]

b) It is not extension, because

(8) centaur
(9) unicorn

are alike in extension but differ in meaning, and

(10) creature with a heart
(11) creature with a kidney

may also turn out to be co-extensional, even though they differ in meaning.

c) It is not nomination because

(12) "8"
(13) "the number of planets"

name the same abstract entity, but are not synonymous; and conversely because, as noted in the case of (1), a word can have more than one meaning.

d) Meaning is not a phenomenological state, because we may be in different phenomenological states and yet still understand each other. Consider

(14) My uncle became a lawyer yesterday

Two speakers may picture entirely different things when they think of "uncle" or "lawyer" or "yesterday", and yet still altogether understand each other. Some predicates such as "clever" seem to have no corresponding imagery whatsoever. There may be associated imagery, but this is unimportant. There is imagery associated with nonsense-syllables.

e) It is not interchangeability salva veritate. The statements

(15) 'Mare' has four letters
(16) 'Female horse' has four letters

have different truth-conditions. Even excluding the special case of quotation: in an extensional language, the truth of a statement will always depend on the extension of the referents, and not merely on their meaning; in an non-extensional language, we have the same problem with (8) and (9). We might, in a non-extensional language, get a sufficient criterion by prefixing the assertions with some modal term. Consider:

(17) Necessarily, every creature with a heart is a creature with a heart
(18) Necessarily, every creature with a kidney is a creature with a heart
(19) Necessarily, every bachelor is an unmarried man
(20) Necessarily, every unmarried man is an unmarried man

This would seem to give us a criterion of meaning, because (17) and (18) differ in meaning and are not interchangeable; (19) and (20) are alike in meaning and are interchangeable. This might seem to complete the project, if only we could get an explanation of the term "necessarily", but as we saw earlier, no such explanation which would allow us to assert the interchangeability of (19) and (20) has yet been forthcoming.

It may be the case that two terms are synonymous if neither they nor any pair of compounds respectively including them differ in meaning. For instance, (8) and (9) are co-extensional while

(21) Picture of a centaur
(22) Picture of a unicorn

are not, so we get a difference in meaning. However,

(23) Female horse
(24) Mare

are co-extensional and so are

(25) Picture of a female horse
(26) Picture of a mare

so we get a synonymy. If this serves as a criterion for synonymy, then we can build around it a notion of analyticity and necessity.


(27) description of a female horse
(28) description of a mare

differ in extension.

(29) "female horse that is not a mare"

is an example of (27) but not of (28). By this argument, it seems no two terms will ever be synonymous.

Equally, cases (29) and

(30) "mare that is not a female horse"

show that Kant's notion of containment cannot be maintained.

Perhaps we can salvage some notion of meaning from the more specific notion of synonymy (or sameness-of-meaning). So how do we test statements for synonymy?

Peter Strawson and Paul Grice suggested that "two statements are synonymous iff any experience which, on certain assumptions about the truth values of other statements, confirm or disconfirm one of the pair, also, on the same assumptions, confirm or disconfirm the other to the same degree". But this suffers a similar setback to Liebniz' attempt; how can we test a proposition against all experiences? [8]

A suggestion is that two terms of synonymous if they stand for the same Essence or Platonic Idea. This is not much help, as we do not know how to discover whether they do so.

Another suggestion is that two terms are synonymous if they stand for the same mental image. Nelson Goodman notes that "It is not clear what we cannot and cannot imagine. Can we imagine a man 1,001 feet tall? Can we imagine a tone we have never heard?" [9]

A further suggestion is that two predicates P & Q differ in meaning iff we can conceive of something which satisfies P but not Q. What exactly does it mean to conceive something? We can define a five-dimensional body, although we cannot imagine it. But by this criterion we can conceive of a square circle. It might be contested that "square circle" is inconsistent; this leads us around in an obvious circle, however, for the reasons explained near the start of this essay.

Synonymy might be explained in terms of possibility. Two predicates P and Q are synonymous iff there is nothing possible that satisfies P but not Q. However, if we know that all things satisfy (10) and (11), we no longer regard it as possible that there exists something which satisfies (10) but not (11). Proponents of the possibility criterion may protest that there is a non-actual possible which satisfies (10) and not (11). However, it is difficult to accept that there is an entity which we know cannot be actual (because (10) and (11) are co-extensional) yet still retains the status of being possible. Furthermore, this seems to confound the meaning of "is" or "exists" altogether; if an entity is non-actual, then in what sense does it exist?

How are we to determine when there is a non-actual possible for some collection of predicates? It cannot be by testing whether "is P and ~Q" is consistent; because as long as P and Q are different predicates it will be logically self-consistent, and we have no means of determining whether it is otherwise consistent. In fact this latter question amounts to asking whether P and Q are synonymous, so we have come full circle. Hilary Putnam made an attempt to salvage the notion by suggesting a "one-criterion" notion of synonymy, but Jerry Fodor points out that "criterion" is on no better a footing. Furthermore. if a criterion is merely a condition for verification, then we have the same problem which confronts Strawson and Grice. [10] [11]

In conclusion, unless we can get some proper explanation of "meaning" which is not circular and does not rest upon equally dubious terms, let alone of "truth purely by virtue of meaning" then we will not have an adequate basis for supposing that any of our commonly accepted laws of logic, such as "1=1" are analytic. We will simply have to accept that they are facts about our world, and as such they should be treated as scientific theorems.


* Alonzo Church proved that there is no algorithmic means for determining, in arithmetic, whether "x = y", where x and y are arithmetical expressions. Quine claims that it follows that there can be no general means of testing for contradictoriness. [12] [13]


[1] Gottfried Wilhelm Liebniz (1714) - "Monadology"
[2] Saul Kripke (1980) - "Naming and Necessity"
[3] Immanuel Kant (1781) - "Critique of Pure Reason"
[4] W.V.O. Quine (1951) - "Two Dogmas of Empiricism"
[5] Rudolf Carnap (1928) - "Der Logische Aufbau der Welt"
[6] John Stuart Mill (1843) - "A System of Logic"
[7] Gottlob Frege (1982) - "The Basic Laws of Arithemetic"
[8] Peter Strawson and Paul Grice (1956) - "In Defense of a Dogma"
[9] Nelson Goodman (1949) - "On Likeness of Meaning"
[10] Hilary Putnam (1983) - Two Dogmas Revisited"
[11] Jerry Fodor (1987) - "Psychosemantics"
[12] Alonzo Church (1936) - "An Unsolvable Problem of Elementary Number Theory"
[13] W.V.O. Quine (1953) - "On What There Is"

Sunday, 23 January 2011

A Nonexistent Mystery?

The question "why is there something rather than nothing?" has vexed philosophers, theologians and the laity for as long as the history of discourse dates.

Physicist Victor Stenger notes that there is no reason to suppose "nothing" any more likely than "something". To illustrate the point he presses: "Current cosmology suggests that no laws of physics were violated in bringing the universe into existence". [1]

Heat tends to break down the more complex structures of matter into something simpler. Throughout most of the universe, energy is rather more sparse than it is here on earth. Stenger notes that under such conditions, complex structures would tend to last for a much longer period of time, until energy eventually took its toll on matter. Simpler structures tend to be of higher energy and therefore less stable, until they transform into more complex, lower-energy structures. We should be reminded of the second law of thermodynamics: The entropy of the universe tends to a maximum. Stenger suggests that, since "nothing" is the simplest of structures, and has the lowest entropy, it is unsurprising that it could not last forever. Nobel laureate Frank Wilczek concluded, then, that the answer to our question is that "'nothing' is unstable". [1] [2]

We might argue, however, that all of these arguments beg the question. Aren't the laws of physics inferred from the behaviour of the universe itself? And it's debatable whether we can rightly describe "nothing" as having any properties, let alone those of entropy, structure or simplicity. Maybe we are not strictly speaking of "nothing" but only of "nothing physical" or "nothing spatio-temporal" or something similar, which would seem to put us on safer footing. While we're dealing in abstractions, then, let us turn to another proposed answer to our question*.

Phrased succinctly within predicate logic, our next answer goes:

1. | ¬∃x(x=x)
2. | ∀x¬(x=x)
3. ¬¬∃x(x=x)
4. ∃x(x=x)

In English:

1. Suppose that there doesn't exist some thing which is equal to itself.
2. Then, for all things, it is not the case that those things are identical to themselves.
3. Abandon our original hypothesis, then, because it leads to a contradiction.
4. Therefore, there exists some thing which is equal to itself.

The force of this argument is that it claims "Something exists" to be a logical truth; many would claim that, therefore, it is necessarily true by virtue of its meaning**.

It might still be protested that this argument begs the question. It assumes three inferential rules, and it assumes (in dismissing the hypothesis) that self-identity must exist in all things.

The boundless opportunity for making this same style of counter-argument ought to expose the folly of the whole question "why is there something rather than nothing?". If any kind of answer we can give must either be false or circular, then surely we have grounds to dismiss the whole enquiry as a pseudo-question.


* I am told that this formulation owes to W.V.O.Quine, but I heard of it through a friend Martin Castro-Manzano, who I should duly credit here.
** This I believe to be a mistake; but that is an issue for another post.


[1] Victor Stenger (2007) - "God: The Failed Hypothesis"
[2] Frank Wilczek (1980) - "The Cosmic Asymmetry Between Matter and Antimatter", Scientific American 243, no. 6, p82-90