Wednesday, May 2, 2007

Self-refuting Statements

I've become increasingly sensitized to the presence in our everyday language of ideas and statements that are self-refuting. A self-refuring statement is logically absurd (self-referentially absurd) and thus deserves no further consideration. It makes an assertion that, when applied to itself, commits suicide. Let me share a simple example.
No coherent English sentence can be formed without including an adverb.
Since this sentence itself is coherent and does not include an adverb, it falsifies itself. Now, obviously, that particular assertion (about sentences and adverbs) is fairly innocuous. But as it turns out, much of the wrong thinking of our age, those "lofty opinions raised against the knowledge of God" (II Cor. 10:5), suffer from this exact fatal flaw; they are self-refuting positions. Specifically, the epistemological positions (the theories about how we know things) at the core of both postmodernism and scientism are self-referentially absurd. Take the following postmodern assertion:
There is no such thing as truth.
Oh, really? Is that a true statement? If not, it deserves our contempt. If so, it provides a significant counterexample to the claim being made, thus falsifying that claim. Again, we are warranted in dismissing it as nonsense.

Now, postmodernists have long ago become sufficiently sophisticated in their portrayal of their view to avoid articulating it in such an obviously self-refuting way. But no matter how they say it, the postmodern view is ultimately self-refuting. How about this form?
There is no knowledge of truth in the objective (correspondence) sense, because each individual or group is inescapably separated from that reality by the barrier of that individual's or group's language.
Sounds better, eh? This one isn't as obviously self-refuting. But that's just because it's a bit more complex. To see that it is nonetheless fatally flawed, ask yourself this: "What am I to make of this statement? Is it a valid, truthful statement about reality, one that deserves my consideration and acknowledgment? But if so, how did the person making the claim escape the inescapable language construct in which she is confined in order to be able to discover this (seemingly objective) truth about the way things really are?" If it is not meant as a statement about the way things really are, then why would this person be sharing it with you? Doesn't she hope to be taken seriously?

Postmodernism is the spirit of our age, and, despite its illogic, is being taught in schools and universities throughout America. As such, it warrants further attention, and I will post thoughts about it from time to time. For now, however, I want to make clear that many of the epistemological claims made by scientists suffer the same problem. For example,
The only valid knowledge is that which comes through scientific testing.
One can only trust that which can be perceived by the senses.
Both of these statements about knowledge are self-referentially absurd. The statements themselves fail the tests inherent in their claims. The assertions themselves were not arrived at through scientific testing or through sensory perception and so are--according to their own claims--not valid or trustworthy.

So keep your ears and eyes open for self-refuting claims. They are all around you, and some have a significant effect on how people understand (or rather, misunderstand) the world in which we live.

Let me leave you with a Berrism, a saying of baseball great Yogi Berra, made in reference to a popular restaurant...
Nobody goes there anymore--it's too crowded.


B said...

Great stuff, it's amazing how "conditioned" one can become to not readily notice these type of statements.

ken said...

I wish everybody in the church would read this stuff!!