Truth

I just ran across the sentence “Unicorns don’t have wings.” It strikes me as a good example of the sticky problem of truth-conditions. We say that a statement is well-formed iff it describes a possible world. It is true iff it describes an actual situation in that possible world. You can say “Harry Potter has a scar” and this is true because in the possible world of Harry Potter (yes, we have a loose definition of “possible” here) he does have a scar. You can say “Harry Potter is married to Hermione,” and although well-formed, this statement is false. The statement to be true need not describe this world, merely one that is “possible.” In a possible world with unicorns, the statement “Unicorns don’t have wings” is true.

Similarly, we can say “There is no such things as unicorns” and this statement is true.

But what if you say *”Unicorns don’t have wings, and there is no such thing as unicorns.” That doesn’t even seem well-formed; it’s neither true nor false, but meaningless. And if you reverse it, it’s even more clearly ill-formed: *”There is no such thing as unicorns, and unicorns don’t have wings.”

I think the problem is that the two statements are not consistently describing the *same* possible world. To say “unicorns” is to presuppose the existence of unicorns, and to immediately shift to a possible world different from this one.

But wait. Let’s say “The King of France drives a sports car.” Fine, there might indeed be a possible world where the King of France drives a sports car, but in our world there is no King of France. My instinct is that this sentence doesn’t invoke a possible world the same way that the mention of the unicorn does. Is it because we could plausibly assume that someone in our world might not realize that France does not have a king? If I say this sentence someone would be justified saying “Wait, there is no such thing as a King of France.” If I say “Unicorns don’t have wings,” I’d find it at best oddly marked for someone to gravely inform me that there is no such thing as a unicorn.

What if I say “The king of France rides a unicorn.” Huh, my instinct, purely my instinct alone, is that this is not as ill-formed as “The king of France drives a sports car.”

Huh. Is there a semantic feature of certain words that invokes a possible world, thus asserting a different set of truth conditions? If so, what? +[mythological], maybe. That would mean that semantics interact with pragmatic schemata. But if that’s the case, it’d seem possible and maybe even reasonable to imagine that other features might trigger other schemata. In fact, it seems — just guessing here, I’d have to figure it all out formally — but maybe semantic features are just schematic triggers or something of that nature.

Normal people lie in bed thinking about their bills. Me, it’s semantics. I have a vague recollection of reading something along these lines in grad school. I should dig through my files and see if I can find it.

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2 Responses to “Truth”

  1. “Well, now that we have seen each other,” said the Unicorn, “If you’ll believe in me, I’ll believe in you.”
    –Lewis Carroll, *Through the Looking Glass*

    There’s definitely something happening with counterfactuals here. “If unicorns existed, then they would not have wings.” You’re proposing a world much like our own, but for one change – the existence of unicorns – and then exploring the implications of that change. Although in this case, the extent of your fiat – how much you can “change” the world in one fell swoop – completely determines the truth-value following statement about unicorns not having wings, since you’re determining by sheer fiat what a unicorn would be.

    I actually think the statement about the automotive preferences of the King of France is less clear-cut. I mean, hypothetically we could travel to another planet and find something sufficiently horse-like, except with one horn growing from the forehead, just as long as whatever physical and biological laws which hold for our world don’t explicitly exclude such a possibility. (And given the breadth of nature’s evolutionary approaches, not to mention the empirical existence of narwhales, I hardly think we could exclude the possibility of unicorns from our possible catalogue of xenobiology.) But we commonly agree France has specific borders and – crucially here – an ostensibly republican form of government since the French Revolution. By common agreement, we exclude – by definition – the very possibility of monarchy in France.

    But this latter case is a matter of definition, whereas – provided you don’t actually insist on your unicorns breaking any serious laws of existence – the supposed non-existence of unicorns consttutes an empirical question, which always remains in principle open to revision. Now if you want to make statements about whether they have wings, then you’re back into definitional territory.

    Whether our ideas about unicorns themselves have some sort of reality apart from our silly notions of fiat, I will leave an open question. (But then, I conflate certain philosophical notions about the idea with certain occult concepts about the spirit.)

    Bright Blessings!

  2. I didn’t know you read “Girls With Slingshots”!

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