Friday, May 04, 2012

Negation, denial and the Principle of Contradiction

In learning negation I asked whether we learn the principle of contradiction, and the concept of negation, by observation and experience, or whether it is somehow 'hard wired' into our consciousness. I didn't spell it out, but I was implicitly making two claims. One, that negation is 'hard wired'. Two, that the principle of contradiction follows directly from our concept of negation, i.e. anyone who insists on the possibility that "Socrates is white and Socrates is not white" simply cannot have understood the meaning of 'not'.

Taking the first. It is absurd that the concept of negation is anything we could learn. How, e.g. could you see that something is not white without understanding what negation was, even if you hadn't learned the word 'not' which corresponds to it. Understanding that something is not the case is no less fundamental than understanding that it is the case (presumably those who believe we learn the concept of negation would not defend the learning of affirmation – how would we learn the idea of being the case?). Ergo, the concept of negation is hard-wired.

The second point is harder to prove. I would like to argue that it is a consequence of the position which I have frequently defended here, namely that to assert that p is true is simply to assert p, and that to say that p is false is simply to deny that p. I.e. truth and falsity reduce to affirmation and denial.  Does the principle of contradiction follow from this?

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18 Comments:

Blogger Jason Hills said...

Perhaps.

I would say that "distinction is hard-wired." Once we get the idea of something--anything--then we can come to negation through privation of that thing.

Not sure if empirical science can prove any of this.

1:10 pm  
Blogger Anthony said...

"It is absurd that the concept of negation is anything we could learn. How, e.g. could you see that something is not white without understanding what negation was, even if you hadn't learned the word 'not' which corresponds to it."

I have no idea what you are saying.

Is the concept of blue something we learn? How can you see that something is blue without understanding what blue is, even if you haven't learned the word "blue" which corresponds to it.

3:01 pm  
Blogger Anthony said...

>> anyone who insists on the possibility that "Socrates is white and Socrates is not white" simply cannot have understood the meaning of 'not'

What if they misunderstand the meaning of "Socrates", or the meaning of "white", or the meaning of "is", or the meaning of "and"?

3:09 pm  
Blogger Anthony said...

>> Not sure if empirical science can prove any of this.

Is logic empirical?

3:11 pm  
Blogger Edward Ockham said...

>>How can you see that something is blue without understanding what blue is, even if you haven't learned the word "blue" which corresponds to it.
<<

I'm talking about the meaning of the word 'not', rather than the meaning of the word 'blue'.

3:19 pm  
Blogger Edward Ockham said...

Why is it that it is not both the case that it is raining, and that it is not raining. Is it that the world does not happen to be that way? Or is it a fact about language or the structure of language or something like that?

3:21 pm  
Blogger Anthony said...

>> I'm talking about the meaning of the word 'not', rather than the meaning of the word 'blue'.

And what is that meaning? What is the definition of "not"?

It is absurd to believe that the concept of negation is something that we are born with. Newborns don't even a fully developed concept of existence. They don't understand object permanence. How could they have the concept of negation?

5:42 pm  
Blogger Jason Hills said...

We're asking the Meno question here, and I think it a worthwhile pursuit. If we assume that we are born with literally nothing, which is untrue, then how could we come to know anything? It seems that EO is treating it more from a logical perspective than developmental psychology.

5:46 pm  
Blogger Anthony said...

"Why is it that it is not both the case that it is raining, and that it is not raining."

What "it" are we talking about?

Right now, right here, it is not raining. So it is not the case that it is raining. So it is not both the case that it is raining, and that it is not raining.

"Is it that the world does not happen to be that way? Or is it a fact about language or the structure of language or something like that?"

Surely the former. Even if there were no language, it would still not be raining and not-raining, in the same place at the same time.

But so what?

5:47 pm  
Blogger Anthony said...

"If we assume that we are born with literally nothing, which is untrue, then how could we come to know anything?"

What does it mean to be born with literally nothing? You're going to have be more specific than that. Barring congenital disabilities, we're born with arms, and legs, and a brain, and a heart, and certain reflexes, and the ability to sense light...

5:57 pm  
Blogger Jason Hills said...

Are you familiar with the question posed by Meno in the Meno, Plato's dialogue? That's what I mean.

Moreover, how can you invoke negation without an explanation of what negation is? We can do it as a practical matter, but if I am understanding EO, the logical question is being raised. It's been gone-over a number of times, and I gave my response and hoped that EO could plausibly infer what I did not say.

6:19 pm  
Blogger Anthony said...

"Are you familiar with the question posed by Meno in the Meno, Plato's dialogue?"

No, I'm not. Sorry.

Perhaps by "born with literally nothing" you mean "born tabula rasa", "born without any knowledge"? Maybe I was being an ass by taking you literally. But in my defense, you did use the word "literally". :)

"Moreover, how can you invoke negation without an explanation of what negation is?"

Sorry, but once again you're going over my head. "invoke negation"?

Perhaps this thread is too advanced for me to participate in.

6:45 pm  
Blogger Edward Ockham said...

>>Moreover, how can you invoke negation without an explanation of what negation is?
<<

I'm wondering if this suggests a solution to the second problem. Is there an explanation of negation which would involve explaining the principle of contradiction?

@Anthony - the Meno problem is one of those things everyone learns in their first year of philosophy. I'll try and dig something up on it.

8:25 am  
Blogger Anthony said...

Thanks. On the one hand, I'm sorry for being such a pain.

But on the other hand, I wonder why introductory philosophy concentrates so much on history. It's not like first year Chemistry students are forced to focus on alchemy.

11:18 am  
Blogger Jason Hills said...

Anthony,

You presume that "old" means "outdated" in philosophy, which is strictly not true. Moreover, many contemporary concepts rely upon historic under-pinings to understand them--to even conceive them--correctly. Finally, only small areas of philosophy proceed by abduction, the logic of the sciences, that leads to the "moving" nature of science. I won't saying "progressive nature" as that is too presumptious.

1:14 pm  
Blogger Anthony said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

6:15 pm  
Blogger Anthony said...

>>You presume that 'old' means 'outdated' in philosophy

Not at all. I'm not saying that everything which is old is wrong. There is much in the writing of Aristotle, for instance, that ought to be taught even today.

Plato's theories of innate knowledge, on the other hand, have no value other than historical.

>> Moreover, many contemporary concepts rely upon historic under-pinings to understand them--to even conceive them--correctly.

But Plato's theories of innate knowledge are wrong, so any contemporary concepts which rely upon Plato's theories of innate knowledge to understand them, are wrong.

>> Finally, only small areas of philosophy proceed by abduction, the logic of the sciences, that leads to the "moving" nature of science. I won't saying "progressive nature" as that is too presumptious.

Sorry, you're going over my head again.

6:24 pm  
Blogger David Brightly said...

>> How, e.g. could you see that something is not white without understanding what negation was, even if you hadn't learned the word 'not' which corresponds to it. <<

Let's suppose we live in a binary world and 'not white' means 'black'. I think it's conceivable that we could see that something is black and could be able to say 'this is black' without understanding the connection between black and white, and without being inclined to say 'this is not white'. One just discriminates the two visual sense data of white and black and associates distinct words with them.   But it seems that one does have to know how the word 'not' is used in order to be able to say 'this is not white' in the same circumstances.  Seeing that something is not white doesn't require that you understand what 'not white' means, I think.

>> Understanding that something is not the case is no less fundamental than understanding that it is the case (presumably those who believe we learn the concept of negation would not defend the learning of affirmation – how would we learn the idea of being the case?).  <<

I agree that affirmation and denial are on a par, and 'not' merely transforms one into the other.  But I'm still not sure that they are not learned.  Don't we learn how to affirm and deny at an early stage?  For what are they above a certain propensity to say 'yes' and 'is' in certain circumstances, and 'no' and 'isn't' in certain others?   Only later, if at all, do we learn that these speech acts are called 'affirmation' and 'denial'.  So we can affirm and deny without having the concepts of affirmation and denial.

>> The second point is harder to prove. <<

Doesn't it follow from the meaning of 'and' and the idea that affirmation and denial are duals related by 'not'?  And this is independent of the learning issue.

11:35 pm  

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