A Brief Response to Moore's Paradox

It is contradictory to simultaneously say “P and not-P”, but could someone coherently say “It is raining, but I don’t believe it is raining”? This odd little sentence is the heart of Moore’s paradox, what Wittgenstein thought was the most significant discovery G.E. Moore ever made as a philosopher. Moore’s sentence doesn’t strike me as obviously contradictory in the same way as “P and not-P”, but it is strange nonetheless. Presumably you would say “it is raining” when you can clearly see it is raining, so how could you not believe it? If you know it is raining such that you say it is raining, the rules of mental logic seem to suggest you should also believe it is raining, otherwise why say “it is raining”?. My solution to the riddle is that the claim about whether it’s raining is ambiguous between different criteria for satisfying the condition “it’s raining”. “It is raining” could mean that water is falling from the sky in a way that looks natural, or it could mean that natural precipitation is actually falling from the clouds. Why would you need the former locution? Suppose you work on a Hollywood set and you know that the artificial rain machines sometimes come on. All of a sudden it starts raining in the sense that water is falling from the sky in a way that looks natural (until you glance up at the giant machines). Now it becomes perfectly sensible to say “It is raining, but I don’t believe it is raining”. This in essence says “Water is falling from the sky but I don’t believe it is natural precipitation”. This is clearly a sensible thing to say in the circumstances.

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “A Brief Response to Moore's Paradox

  1. Dictionaries, with their enumerated definitions, lull us into thinking
    that word meanings are discreet things. In fact, however, people use the same words for different things, in different senses along a continuum all the time.
    Generating and interpreting natural language is less like symbol
    evaluation in a mathematical sense than it is like tuning
    a complicated musical instrument. Your use of “raining” is like this;
    its exact sense changes from use to use even within the same sentence.

    I talk about this in an essay about language and meaning:
    http://www.jrg3.net/mind/language.html

    In it, I discuss tautologies, sentences of the form “x = x”, which
    logically should not convey any meaning at all, but in actual human
    conversation can be loaded with meaning because of the way one sense of
    a word can slide into another sense:

    “Every time I think about the holocaust, it shocks me all over again. You’d think that
    after hearing and reading about it all these years, I’d be jaded, or numbed,
    but no. I still can’t get my head around the enormity of it, the reality of it.”
    “Hey, what happened, happened.”
    “What do you mean? It wasn’t just something that happened. Real people did it!
    A government staffed by human beings coolly presided over the deaths of millions!”
    “People are people.”
    “How can you say that? Killing six million Jews is not normal human behavior!”
    “Well, you know, Jews are Jews after all.”
    “You jerk! What kind of a Nazi are you, anyway?!”

  2. Interesting little puzzle. It strikes me that adding almost any additional words to the sentence (that are sensible) makes the sentence instantly non-paradoxical. I wonder if the problem isn’t one of insufficient specification, as your not suggests. Note the sensibleness of the following sentences:

    “I experience it as raining, but I do not believe it is raining.”
    “I see the raining, but i do not believe it is raining.”
    “Let us pretend that though it is raining, but I do not believe it is raining.”
    “He said ‘it is raining’, but I do not believe it is raining.”
    “I said ‘it is raining’, but I do not believe it is raining.”

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