Saturday, March 7, 2009
Can I believe that I am not writing this?
G.E. Moore noted the absurdity of statements on the lines of 'It's raining but I don't believe it is.' It is fairly obvious that no one would actually make such as assertion, since it cannot have any meaning in the way that it is formulated, nor is it a statement that, in its English form anyway, could reasonably be said by someone who meant something else. It is generally expressed in this anodyne form because (that's the way Moore said it and) it precludes the confusion caused by emotion: 'Elvis is dead but I don't believe it' might be ellipsis for 'They say Elvis is dead... ' which contains no contradiction, or it might be an expression of some emotionally inspired double-think, possibly playful. (English, like other languages, has carefully made distinctions, such as that between 'I don't believe' and 'I can't believe', precisely for this purpose). Moore's phrase does not seem to permit these interpretations, and the problem only arises if the sentence is understood as he intended it to be.
Much is made of the fact that both of these assertions may be simultaneously true, without contradiction and they may be stated by somone else, using a third person: 'It is raining and he doesn't believe it'; or they may be affirmed without contradiction by the original speaker at some later point in time, using a past tense: 'It was raining and I didn't believe it'. But I cannot make these assertions about myself in the present without a contradiction.
None of this would be given much consideration, I imagine, if Wittgenstein hadn't taken it so seriously. It's interest lies, presumably, in the fact that it is an example of a true statement whose truth cannot be asserted in certain circumstances. This is genuinely interesting, but it is scarcely paradoxical- the (deceptively simple) context of the assertion has been carefully constructed so that it is logically impossible for the speaker to simulaneously know that two statements which are (or may be) true, are, in fact, true.
In essence, the main pragmatic effect of an assertion is to affirm the truth of the information given. An unqualified assertion of this type is taken to include an assertion of the speaker's own belief in the truth of what he says. Therefore the simultaneous denial of that same belief is necessarily contradictory.
To me it doesn't seem worth getting worked up about. There are much richer paradoxes that can be formulated in just as simple terms.