The Liar’s Paradox Naturalized

by rsbakker

Can the Liar’s Paradox be understood in a biologically consilient way?

Say what you will about ‘Truth,’ everyone agrees that truth-talk has something to do with harmonizing group orientations relative to group environments. Whenever we find ourselves at odds either with one another or our environments, we resort to the vocabulary of truth and rectitude. The question is what this talk consists in and how it manages to do what it does.

The idea here is to steer clear presumptions of intentionality and look at the problem in the register providing the most information: biomechanically. Whatever our orientation to our environments consists in, everyone agrees that it is physical in some fundamental respect. Strokes are catastrophic for good reason. So, let’s stipulate that an orientation to an environment, in distinction to, say, a ‘perspective on’ an environment, consists of all physical (high-dimensional) facts underwriting our capacity to behaviourally resolve environments in happy (system conserving) ways.

We all agree that causal histories underwrite communication and cognition, but we have no inkling as to the details of that story, nor the details of the way we solve communicative and cognitive problems absent those details. Heuristic neglect simply provides a way to understand this predicament at face value. No one denies that human cognition neglects the natural facts of cognition; the problem is that everyone presumes this fact has little or no bearing on our attempts to solve the nature of cognition. Even though our own intuitive access to our cognitive capacities, given the complexity of those capacities, elides everything save what our ancestors needed to solve ancestral problems, most everyone thinks that intuitive access, given the right interpretation, provides everything cognitive science needs to solve cognitive scientific problems.

It really is remarkable when you think about it.  Out of sight, out of explanatory paradigm.

Beginning with orientations rather than perspectives allows us to radically reconceptualize a great many traditional philosophical problematics in ‘post-intentional’ terms. The manifest advantage of orientations, theoretically speaking, lies in their environmental continuity, their mediocrity, the way they comprise (unlike perspectives, meanings, norms, and so on) just more environment. Rather than look at linguistic communication in terms of ‘contents,’ the physical conveyance of ontologically inscrutable ‘meanings,’ we can understand it behaviouristically, as orientations impacting orientations via specialized mechanisms, behaviours, and sensitivities. Rather than conceive the function of communication ‘intersubjectively,’ as the coordination of intentional black boxes, we can view it biologically, as the formation of transient superordinate processes, ephemeral ‘superorganisms,’ taking individuals and their environments as component parts.

Granting that human communication consists in the harmonization of orientations relative to social and natural environments amounts to granting that human communication is biological, that it, like every other basic human capacity, possesses an evolutionary history. Human communication, in other words, is in the business of providing economical solutions to various environmental problems.

This observation motivates a dreadfully consequential question: What is the most economical way for two or more people to harmonize their environmental orientations? To communicate environmental discrepancies, while taking preexisting harmonies for granted. I don’t rehash my autobiography when I see my friends, nor do I lecture them on the physiology of human cognition or the evolution of the human species. I ‘dish dirt.’ I bring everyone ‘up to speed.’

What if we were to look at language as primarily a discrepancy minimization device, as a system possessing exquisite sensitivities (via, say, predictive processing) to the desynchronization of orientations?

In such a system, the sufficiency of preexisting harmonies—our shared physiology, location, and training—would go without saying. I update my friends and they update me. The same can be said of the system itself: the sufficiency of language, it’s biomechanical capacity to effect synchronization would also go without saying—short, that is, the detection of discrepancies. I update my friends and they update me, and so long as everyone agrees, nary a word about truth need be spoken.

Taking a discrepancy view, in other words, elegantly explains why truth is the communicative default: the economical thing is to neglect our harmonized orientations—which is to say, to implicitly presume their sufficiency. It’s only when we question the sufficiency of these communications that truth-talk comes into play.

Truth-talk, in other words, is typically triggered when communication observably fails to minimize discrepancies, when operational sufficiency, for whatever reason, ceases to be automatically presumed. Truth-talk harmonizes group orientations relative to group environments in cases of communicative discrepancy, an incompatibility between updates, say. [Would it be possible to build ways to do new things with existing polling data using discrepancy models? How does consensus within a network arise and cluster? What kind of information is salient or ignored? How do modes or channels facilitate or impede such consensus? Would it be possible, via big data, to track the regional congealing of orientations into tacit cooperatives, simply by tracking ingroup truth-talk? Can a discrepancy view subsume existing metrics? Can we measure the resilience or creativity or solidarity or motivation of a group via patterns in truth-talk activity?]

Neglecting harmonies isn’t simply economical, it’s also necessary, at least to the extent that humans have only the most superficial access to the details of those harmonies. It’s not that I don’t bother lecturing my ingroup on the physiology of human cognition and the evolution of the human species, it’s that, ancestrally speaking, I have no way of doing so. I suffer, as all humans suffer, from medial neglect, an inability to intuit the nature of my cognitive capacities, as well as frame neglect, an inability to put those capacities in natural context.

Neglecting the circumstances and constitution of verbal communication is a condition of verbal communication. Speech is oblivious to its biological and historical conditions. Verbal communication appears ‘extensional,’ as the philosophers of language say, because we have no other way of cognizing it. We have instances of speech and we have instances of the world, and we have no way of intuitively fathoming the actual relations between. Luckily for us, if our orientations are sufficiently isomorphic, we can communicate—harmonize our orientations—without fathoming these relations.

We can safely presume that the most frequent and demanding discrepancies will be environmental discrepancies, those which, given otherwise convergent orientations (the same physiology, location, and training), can be communicated absent contextual and constitutional information. If you and I share the same general physiology, location, and training, then only environmental discrepancies require our communicative attention. Such discrepancies can be resolved while remaining almost entirely ‘performance blind.’ All I need do is ‘trust’ your communication and cognition, build upon your unfathomable relations the same blind way I build upon my own. You cry, ‘Wolf!’ and I run for the shotgun: our orientations converge.

The problem, of course, is that all communicative discrepancies amount to some insufficiency in those ‘actual relations between.’ They require that we somehow fathom the unfathomable.

There is no understanding truth-talk without understanding that it’s in the ‘fathoming the unfathomable’ business. Truth-talk, in other words, resolves communicative discrepancies neglecting the natural facts underwriting those discrepancies. Truth-talk is radically heuristic, insofar as it leverages solutions to communicative problems absent information pertaining to the nature of those communicative problems.

So, to crib the example I gave in my recent Dennett posts: say you and I report seeing two different birds, a vulture versus an albatross, in circumstances where such a determination potentially matters—looking for a lost hunting party, say. An endless number of frame and medial confounds could possibly explain the discrepancy between our orientations. Perhaps I have bad eyesight, or I think albatrosses are black, or I was taught as much by an ignorant father, or I’m blinded by the glare of the sun, or I’m suffering schizophrenia, or I’m drunk, or I’m just sick and tired of you being right all the time, or I’m teasing you out of boredom, or more insidiously, I’m responsible for the loss of the hunting party, and want to prevent you from finding the scene of my crime.

There’s no question that, despite neglect, certain forms of access and capacity regarding the enabling dimension of cognition and communication could provide much in the way of problem resolution. Given the inaccessibility and complexity of the factors involved, however, it follows that any capacity to accommodate them will be heuristic in the extreme. This means that our cognitive capacity to flag/troubleshoot issues of cognitive sufficiency will be retail, fractionate, geared to different kinds of manifest problems:

  • Given the topological dependence of our orientations, capacities to solve for positional sufficiency. “Trump is peering through a keyhole.”
  • Given the environmental sensory dependence of our orientations, capacity to solve for the sufficiency of environmental conditions. “Trump is wandering in the dark.”
  • Given the physiological sensory dependence of our orientations, capacities to solve for physiological sufficiency. “Trump is myopic.”
  • Given the communal interdependence of our orientations, capacities to solve for social sufficiency, or trust. “Trump is a notorious liar.”
  • Given the experiential dependence of our orientations, capacities to solve for epistemic sufficiency. “Trump has no government experience whatsoever.”
  • Given the linearity of verbal communication, capacities to solve for combinatorial or syntactic sufficiency. “Trump said the exact opposite this morning.”

It’s worth pausing here, I think, to acknowledge the way this radically spare approach to truth-talk provides ingress to any number of philosophical discourses on the ‘nature of Truth.’ Heuristic Neglect Theory allows us to see just why ‘Truth’ has so thoroughly confounded humanity despite millennia of ardent inquiry.

The apparent ‘extensionality’ of language, the way utterances and environments covary, is an artifact of frame and medial neglect. Once again, we are oblivious to the astronomical complexities, all the buzzing biology, responsible for the systematic relations between our utterances and our environments. We detect discrepancies with those relations, in other words, without detecting the relations themselves. Since truth-talk ministers to these breakdowns in an otherwise inexplicable covariance, ‘correspondence’ strikes many as a natural way to define Truth. With circumstantial and enabling factors out of view, it appears as though the environment itself sorts our utterances—provides ‘truth conditions.’

Given the abject inability to agree on any formulation of this apparently more than natural correspondence, the turn to circumstantial and enabling factors was inevitable. Perhaps Truth is a mere syntactic device, a bridge between mention and use. After all, we generally only say ‘X is true’ when saying X is disputed. Or perhaps Truth is a social artifact of some description, something conceded to utterances in ‘games of giving and asking for reasons.’ After all, we generally engage in truth-talk only when resolving disputes with others. Perhaps ‘Truth’ doesn’t so much turn on ‘truth conditions’ as ‘assertion conditions.’

The heuristic neglect approach allows us to make sense of why these explanatory angles make the apparent sense they do, why, like the blind swamis and the elephant, each confuses some part for some chimerical whole. Neglecting the machinery of discrepancy minimization not only strands reflection with a strategic sliver of a far more complicated process, it generates the presumption that this sliver is somehow self-sufficient and whole.

Setting the ontological truth of Truth aside, the fact remains that truth-talk leverages life-saving determinations on the neural cheap. This economy turns on ignoring everything that makes truth-talk possible. The intractable nature of circumstantial and enabling factors enforces frame and medial neglect, imposing what might be called qualification costs on the resolution of communicative discrepancies. IGNORE THE MEDIAL is therefore the baseline heuristic governing truth-talk: we automatically ‘externalize’ because, ancestrally at least, our communicative problems did not require cognitive science to solve.

Of course, as a communicative heuristic, IGNORE THE MEDIAL possesses a problem-ecology, which is to say, limits to its applicability. What philosophers, mistaking a useful incapacity for a magical capacity, call ‘aboutness’ or ‘directedness’ or ‘subjectivity,’ is only useful so far.

As the name suggests, IGNORE THE MEDIAL will crash when applied to problems where circumstantial and/or enabling factors either are not or cannot be ignored.

We find this most famously, I think, in the Liar’s Paradox:

The following sentence is true. The preceding sentence is false.

Truth-talk pertains to the neglected sufficiency of orientations relative to ongoing natural and social environments. Collective ‘noise reduction’ is the whole point. As a component in a discrepancy minimization system, truth-talk is in the business of restoring positional and source neglect, our implicit ‘view from nowhere,’ allowing (or not) utterances originally sourced to an individual performance to update the tacit orientations of everyone—to purge discrepancies and restore synchronization.

Self-reference rather obviously undermines this natural function.

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