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Logic and rhetoric
Deepity is a term employed by Daniel Dennett in his 2009 speech to the American Atheists conference, coined by the teenage daughter of one of his friends. The term refers to a statement that is apparently profound but actually asserts a triviality on one level and something meaningless on another. Generally, a deepity has (at least) two meanings: one that is true but trivial, and another that sounds profound, but is essentially false or meaningless and would be "earth-shattering" if true. To the extent that it's true, it doesn't have to matter. To the extent that it has to matter, it isn't true (if it actually means anything). This second meaning has also been called "pseudo-profound bullshit".
The example that Dennett used to illustrate a deepity is the phrase "love is just a word." On one level the statement is perfectly true (i.e., "love" is a word), but the deeper meaning of the phrase is false; love is many things — a feeling, an emotion, a condition — and not simply a word.
The phrase is almost equivalent in meaning to "troll's truism", an earlier phrase coined by the philosopher Nicholas Shackel in the same essay in which the term motte and bailey was coined. The essay argued that many areas of postmodern philosophy have motte-bailey fallacies at their core that are also deepities.
- 1 Examples
- 1.1 The businessman and the manufacturer are more important to society than the artist and the professor
- 1.2 You learn about nothing from philosophy
- 1.3 Good without God becomes 0
- 1.4 The Theory of Evolution is only a theory
- 1.5 A human zygote is a human
- 1.6 There is no 'I' in team
- 1.7 Everything is connected
- 1.8 Killing is killing
- 1.9 Nothing is both real & imaginary
- 2 Examples that are (sometimes) not examples
- 3 Extension to theology
- 4 Science
- 5 Criticism
- 6 See also
- 7 External links
- 8 References
The businessman and the manufacturer are more important to society than the artist and the professor
In a trivial sense, this is at least half true since school and art supplies need to be manufactured. However, it is also technically true that the artist and the professor can be, or even are, their own kinds of "businessmen and manufacturers", even if a larger part of the "product" in which they are doing business is more subtle than is the case for most businessmen and manufacturers, not to mention that universities usually have business administration departments and there can and perhaps should be much introspection in business and manufacturing.
You learn about nothing from philosophy
The first reading is that the study of philosophy can teach about the concept of nothingness, which is true, but trivial. The second interpretation, which is implicit, is that philosophy is useless, i.e. "You learn nothing by studying philosophy."
Good without God becomes 0
This is a deepity constructed from a Use-mention distinction, combined with a confusion of the letter "o" with the number "0", which are both represented by similar symbols.
In the first reading, we have the trivial, but true, statement that the word "Good", without the three letters "God", becomes the letter "o". The second reading, in which we consider the meanings of the words, implies that any good that is done without God is worth nothing ("zero"), which is false, but plays on your acceptance of the evident truth of the trivial first sense to misdirect or confuse. If taken to be true, the second reading would have important implications.
This is additionally a potential linguistic fallacy, because such claims can seldom be made in other languages, and can be co-opted when rephrased. For example, one could just as well claim "righteousness without Jesus is right on."
The Theory of Evolution is only a theory
In the first reading, the meaning is that the "theory of evolution" is a "theory" which is true, but trivial. This usage assumes the scientific sense of the word "theory" as a well-established scientific explanation.
However, since there is another sense of "theory", as a word which means a hypothesis or an unsubstantiated guess, this is exploited by the second reading, which brings to mind the idea that life does not actually evolve, since in their mind, evolution is not a real phenomenon, just an abstract idea.
Note: this phrase is also a prime example of equivocation.
A human zygote is a human
In the first reading, this statement is true, but trivial; the zygote is the earliest developmental stage of the human embryo. In the second reading, the statement could be interpreted to mean the zygote is a human person; this is false, but would be profound, if true. The statement is obviously false, because a person cannot be a single-celled organism, any more than they could be a paper shredder. The statement would be profound (if true) because a large percentage of zygotes fail to implant in the uterus, and thus, die. The deaths from this would far exceed deaths from abortions or maladies, such as breast cancer or childhood leukemia, and thus would mandate society to immediately divert massive government funds to stop the crisis. Certainly, any problem killing a massive percentage of children deserves a large percentage of NIH funding.
There is no 'I' in team
In the first reading, this statement is true; the letter I is nowhere to be found in the word team. In the second reading, the statement is meant to exhort the listener/reader to remember they're part of a group and to put aside "selfish" feelings and interests. The problem is, this doesn't actually provide a reason to support the group, and the premise of the statement is a non sequitur: what difference does it make whether the letter "i" happens to occur in a given word? Additionally, while there is no I in team, neither is there a you, we, or us; but if you scramble the letters, there is a me. People who use this gem tend to react negatively if you turn their own "logic" against them along the lines of "And there's no 'us' in victory!"
Everything is connected
In the first reading, this statement is true, since everything in the world has some kind of influence on everything else (e.g. gravity, molecules touching each other). In the second reading, the statement becomes somewhat obsolete, because some connections just don't matter much in the grand scheme of things, as in the hair color of a scientist doing scientific work.
Killing is killing
In the first reading, the statement is obviously true. X = X.
The second reading might imply that the killing of non-human animals is the moral equivalent of killing people or that the execution of a murderer is just as bad as murder. Both examples are highly controversial and not obviously true.
Nothing is both real & imaginary
Mathematically, the number zero (nothing) is generally accepted to be a valid real number as well as a valid imaginary number.
The "profound" meaning, on the other hand, suggests a fundamental distinction between reality and imagination, and has nothing to do with mathematics.
Examples that are (sometimes) not examples
Age is just a number
This timeless classic, which is in the same vein as Dennet's example "Love is just a word", may be used to justify a romantic/sexual relationship between individuals of greatly varying ages, implying that it's A-OK because love/lust wants what it wants. While semantically true, there should be plenty of emotional and physical differences to be found between (for example) a 16-year-old and a 50-year-old. When encountering someone using this phrase, helpfully complete it by saying, "…and jail is just a room."
Some people often justify their arrogant, condescending, contemptuous attitudes towards younger people and their ideas as though their age magically endows them with wisdom, knowledge, or intelligence, or as if their age earns them respect by default. It does not.
When countering this type of arrogance, saying "age is just a number" is NOT a deepity.
There is a 'do' in dogma
In the first reading, this statement is true; the word do is to be found right there in the beginning of the word dogma. In the second reading, the statement is meant to exhort the listener/reader to remember to be careful what they're letting or making themself or others believe. Although the premise of the statement sounds as if it should be a non sequitur since it makes no difference whether the word "do" happens to occur in a given word, beliefs in psychological and sociological fact do create practices (and work with them to create a religious community). In other words, karma, at least in the context of the same individual, in reality does not "run over" dogma as a common bumper sticker would have it, but is the other side of the same coin.
Everything happens for a reason
This is a fairly common pseudo-deepity often employed in tragic situations, as a misguided attempt to provide comfort to, for example, the bereaved. Simply stating this, however, does nothing helpful - since it is already a given that most things have some sort of cause (e.g., if Sandra loses her husband Saul to cancer, then obviously it "happened for a reason" - he had cancer. It isn't going to stop her crying). Thus, it comes across as a profound statement but merely reaffirms what we already know.
However, when used to suggest that there is a rational explanation for something - it just might not be immediately apparent - then arguably it is not a deepity (though whether the "reason" given is valid or not isn't accounted for).
Extension to theology
As well as a criticism of bad prose and poetry, the term "deepity" can refer to many religious sentiments and some of the more meaningless rhetoric. Dennett argued that theology is full of deepities, and notes that the sophisticated theological statement "God is no being at all" is equivalent to "No being at all is God." Other deepities he refers to are "God is Being itself" and "God is the God beyond God."
Some people are more prone to view "deep" bullshit as more profound than others. In a paper entitled On the reception and detection of pseudo-profound bullshit, social scientists proposed a "bullshit receptivity scale" using phrases of randomly generated "profound sounding" words against common sayings to identify if accepting one bullshit statement as profound predicts accepting others as profound over and above a baseline level of profundity. The net result of the research is that there is indeed clustering that suggests that some people are more bullshit prone than others.
The concept is not without its critics, however. Some believe that Dennett was attacking the right of people to use metaphorical language. Other critics claim that the Universe and physics already exhibit "deepities" that don't bother atheists, so they shouldn't complain about religions using them.
Furthermore, it should be noted: merely stating that something is a deepity isn't enough to prove that it is one.
- The Evolution of Confusion, Dennett's speech at the 2009 AAI Convention on YouTube
- A random deepity generator.
- Ice-Cream Koan, TV Tropes
- Character in the film "Mystery Men" that speaks almost entirely in Deepities
- On the reception and detection of pseudo-profound bullshit by Gordon Pennycook et al. (2015) Judgment and Decision Making 10(6): 549–563.
- Motte and Bailey Doctrines. blog.practicalethics.ox.ac.uk, 5 September 2014.
- Nothing is both real & imaginary by Elon Musk (11:58 PM - 29 Jul 2018) Twitter.
- Ask Dr. Math: Is Zero Considered a Pure Imaginary Number (12/02/2003)
- On the reception and detection of pseudo-profound bullshit
- Daniel Dennett: the Vanquisher of Religion — and Poetry?