Tuesday, May 17, 2022

A near lie

Alice knows that her friend Bob has no pets and no experience with birds. While recommending Bob for a birdkeeping job at a zoo and having discovered or to be surprisingly ignorant about birds, she says:

  1. Bob has a fine collection of Southern yellow-beaked triggles.

It seems that Alice is lying. Yet it seems that to lie one must assert, and to assert one must express a proposition. But Alice’s sentence does not express a proposition since “triggle” is meaningless.

Sentence (1) seems to entail the falsehood:

  1. Bob owns some birds.

But entailment is a relation between propositions, and (1) neither is nor expresses a proposition. We might want to say that if it did express a proposition, it would express a proposition entailing (2). But even that isn’t so clear. After all, maybe a world where “triggle” denotes a science-fictional beaked reptile is closer than a world where it denotes a kind of bird (imagine that some science-fiction writer almost wrote Southern yellow-beaked triggles as reptiles into a story but stopped themselves at the last moment).

Here is what I think I want to say about what Alice did. According to Jorge Garcia, what makes lying bad one linguistically solicits trust that what one is saying is true, while at the same time betraying that trust. Alice did exactly that, but without asserting. So, while Alice did not lie, she did something that is wrong for the same reason that lying is.


Brandon said...

I'm actually not convinced that assertion requires asserting a proposition (rather than asserting something *as* a proposition), but even setting this aside, (1) seems straightforwardly false; Alice is proposing that Bob has a fine collection of what cannot be collected at all. If I say "John drew a square circle" or "Pedro owns a fine xksksksa", the fact that my predicate term includes something nonsensical or meaningless doesn't make these nonpropositions but false propositions -- no inventory of what can be drawn will ever include square circle, no inventory of what Pedro owns includes xksksksa. Likewise, no inventory of what Bob has a fine collection of will ever include a triggle.

ASBB said...
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ASBB said...

Independent of the grounds for why lying is wrong, it still seems true to say that Alice attempted to lie. Now if lying is always wrong (or at least wrong in this circumstance) that Alice was acting wrongly in attempting to lie. That fact may be sufficient to satisfy our intuitions about where Alice has gone morally wrong in this scenario.

Alexander R Pruss said...


If a proposition is false, its negation is true. "Pedro doesn't own a fine xksksksa" would then be true (at least given that Pedro exists; otherwise, we would opt for the broad scope negation). But what would that say about the world? What is it that he doesn't own?


But Alice knows that she is uttering nonsense. She isn't trying to speak sense and failing.

Brandon said...


It seems obvious to me that "Pedro doesn't own a fine xksksksa", which is strictly the negation of the proposition, is true; if we took a complete inventory of what Pedro owns, xksksksa would not indicate anything on it. The error, it seems to me, is thinking that an object tucked inside a predicate has to exist or even be meaningful in order for the preciate to be meaningfully applied to the subject.

Compare: "Pedro is drawing a square circle." This is false, at least if by 'drawing' we mean really drawing and not merely trying to draw, because square circles cannot be drawn. Its negation, "Pedro is not drawing a square circle", is true. It doesn't make any sense to reply to this, "What in the actual world is it that he is not drawing?" We are simply saying that 'square circle' is not in any accurate inventory of what Pedro is drawing (because it can't be any inventory of anything actually drawn). If we didn't say something like this, it would be impossible for us to assert anything about impossibilities.

Now, one could argue that we can give nominal definitions of impossibilities like 'square circle', even if not real definitions, and that this is a potentially significant difference between the two cases, since in the square circle case we have an inconsistent definition and in the xksksksa and triggle cases we have no definition at all. But we do know enough to know that xksksksa and triggle are not actually corresponding to anything, as opposed to just being foreign words or even words of a conlang; and we know that as such we can dismiss any attempt to place them in any inventory of owned or collected things. They fall outside of the particular universe discourse, which in all other cases (even ordinary cases) indicates the truth of the negation. If I say, "There is a black cat," when talking about a particular group of cats, but determine that in that universe of discourse, i.e., that particular group of cats, there is no black cat, then it's false. The same thing is true of the square circle case, since it's false because square circles necessarily fall outside of the relevant universe of discourse. Thus by parity we should say the same of 'Pedro-owned xksksksa'; xksksksa is just not able to be in the universe of things owned by Pedro. Therefore "Pedro owns a fine xksksksa" is necessarily false. It has to be false if we at least can know enough about the use of 'xksksksa' to know that it is meaningless, since we know that meaningless things fall out of the universe of discourse.

This would differ from purely meaningless statements, in which we cannot establish a universe of discourse at all.

Alexander R Pruss said...

If "xksksksa" is completely meaningless, we can't even parse "Pedro owns a fine xksksksa". Is "fine" a noun or an adjective? Imagine that "xksksksa" is a meaningless rasping cough. Then the sentence is: "Pedro owns a fine [cough, cough]". Then "fine" is a noun. (What does it mean to own a fine? That's not clear, either. Is it like owing a fine or someone owing one to you?) Or what if "xksksksa" means the same thing as "nothing"? Then "Pedro owns a fine nothing" is a weird way of something that he is without possessions.

There is a difference between something like "square circle" and merely gobbledy-gook. We understand the phrase "square circle". Indeed, it is because we understand it that we know that it is impossible to have one.

Brandon said...

If "xksksksa" is completely meaningless, we can't even parse "Pedro owns a fine xksksksa".

I don't think this is right; we can easily parse it. A part of speech is a function, and xksksksa is being put in a direct object place, and therefore is operating functionally in this sentence as something that can be a direct object. The meaninglessness of the word itself does not imply that it is not being put forward as serving a function in the sentence, and it is the latter that is captured when we are parsing. 'xksksksa' has no meaning, but the sentence in which it occurs can be straightforwardly parsed, on the basis of which we know that "Pedro owns a fine xksksksa" is trivially false. And in fact, this is necessary: we very often have to parse sentences even if we don't know what the meaning of particular words.

Indeed, this capacity to parse sentences without requiring particular words to have meaning is essential for natural language regimentation and formalization. Consider: "Pedro owns an X" or "There is an X such that Pedro owns it". We can parse this, make sense of the sentence, despite the fact that a variable is not a word with a meaning. "All S is P" is easily parsed even though neither the subject nor the predicate mean anything. It's because parsing is about function and not about content that we can have formal systems.

IanS said...
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Alexander R Pruss said...

"Pedro owns a fine always."
"Pedro owns a fine---nohedoesn'townanythingfine!"