Essay:Tautological roadblock

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Definition soup[edit]

Limits of atheism[edit]

I recently went a bit stir crazy over trying to carve out a self-identity that didn't involve having the word "atheist" in it. Here's the most abridged version of the thinking behind that: I simply don't like the idea of defining a "belief" in terms of what labels I reject. As atheism is a lack of belief in God or gods, it simply raises the question of what a "god" is anyway, and so introduces countless cases of ad hoc special pleading every time someone presents to you a new god that might not gel with your previous description. Can you do this with all gods known and unknown? No - you haven't enough knowledge to do so. "God" in this case is just a label and traditionally atheism is about rejecting this label, which is absurd. Yet so many atheist forums will see this sort of argument made again and again and again. So instead, I tried turning the entire "God question" around and asked the following: What are the properties of objects that I do not believe in? This is considerably more concrete as it doesn't rely on labels, only testable properties, and so ad hoc reasoning to avoid "believing in God" no matter how twisted or inclusive the definition becomes (Spinoza's God, for example) simply isn't needed. I don't need discrete and comprehensive knowledge of a specific god to not believe in it if it possesses properties I reject - as it would posses those properties whether I know about it or not. This focus on properties also avoids ridiculous specifications for what type of God or gods or their names, after all, there are a hell of a lot of them - and conveniently it answers the riddle of whether atheists shouldn't believe in ghosts by definition.

My end result for my "identity" is that I don't believe in things that I can't gain experience of. Again, simply put, if I can experience something it's effect is pretty real - although it's important not to think of it in terms of "first hand" experience. I'll accept the power of prayer as real if a statistically significant effect is observed between a group of people being prayed for and a control group that isn't being prayed for - this is because there is no difference between a test for somethings existence and it's actual effect on us. If there is no difference between a group being prayed for and a group not being prayed for, then prayer does nothing. Full stop. Period. End of story. Game, set, match. It does nothing. So, if you think God is real, yet can't exert a force on the world (formally, this is deism, but you'd be surprised how much this assertion also applies to the likes of Cafeteria Christians) then there is no use in believing in God, there is no sound reason for hanging on to the belief except for reasons of cognitive dissonance.

Yet we can conceive of deism as a concept, and we also know that that some people assert that there is "something more" to the universe, something beyond science, beyond reality, or as they're often fond of saying/mis-quoting: "there are more things in heaven and Earth than in your philosophy". So perhaps "real = something that can be experienced" is a naive statement?

Limits of reality[edit]

Clearly, the problem then lies in defining "real" to go with this statement of things being observable. People might well be comfortable with "real" things that don't exert observable properties, much like Sagan's dragon owning nutter, and religious believers are key textbook examples of this.

So how do you get around this particular problem? Naturally, people want to create a set definition for "real", but arguing by definition can get you anywhere you like, so there's no real point to it. If I define "religion" a certain way, I can say "atheism is a religion" consistently. If I define "book" to just be "item that has words written on it, then this essay counts as a book and I as a published author of a book. I can prove anything that way. So instead, it's worth saying what I actually mean by "real". If a believer said something else, I'd be interested in hearing it - but it would be proving that we weren't talking about the same thing anyway. When I say "real" I mean something that I can experience, something that has an verifiable effect on me. So when I say "what I can experience is real" I really mean...

Oh, wait...

A circular tautology[edit]

Here is where the tautology comes in: I've boiled it down to the bizarre phrase "what I can experience is what I can experience". It's almost meaningless, isn't it? "I can see what I can see" conveys as much information as "the sky is blue because it is blue". We rightly point out that tautologies are things to avoid. If A leads to A (A > A) then we've said nothing. The root of begging the question/circular logic is that good argumentation must start with the unknown and deduce the known. Otherwise no meaningful information is conveyed. And so, by boiling down what I believe in and my own definition of reality to what I mean by them, I get a tautology of "what I experience is what I experience".

It's tempting to add qualifiers to make it less tautological, producing the phrase "what I can experience is what I can experience that has consequence", but that's just gluing unnecessary remarks to a succinct phrase. It doesn't actually add anything new because it's obvious that an experience has consequences - indeed it is consequence itself. It may as well be "what I can experience is what I can experience that is an experience" and no one would think that means anything interesting. I can easily be invited to add qualifiers to both sides of the statement and say "what I can experience with consequence is what I experience because it has consequence" - this doesn't improve the phrase at all.

So I only believe in things that I can experience, precisely because I can experience them. That's pretty circular.


This has acted as a roadblock for some time. Why assert a tautology like that? I can't say "real = experience" because someone else can turn around and use their own definition of real, and hey presto, God, ghosts and ghouls can all exist and there's nothing I can do about it. It's necessary to avoid this whole "other plains of existence" bullshit entirely.

But then I thought this: is it really a tautology? Or in other words, what am I actually trying to do with this statement? I've boiled down what I believe into what looks like a circular statement, but it actually isn't. Not at such anyway. It's slightly circular and self-referential, yes I'll concede that, but that doesn't put it in the same category as logical fallacies and information-free assertions. For this, I'm going to indulge in a mathematical analogy.

Some simple mathematics[edit]

We're all aware of the following sum:

In fact, it's so simple and so obvious that I doubt anyone over the age of 6 ever takes their time to work it out. You simply know it as a meme, or trope that reads "2 + 2 = 4" and bring it out of your brain's storage far faster than it would take to calculate it from base principles like splitting it into 1+1+1+1 or using Hofstadter's pq system: --p-q--- is axiomatic, therefore --p--q---- is a theorem and 2 + 2 = 4 is true, yadda yadda. But why is 2 + 2 = 4 correct? It's correct because the left hand side matches the right hand side. 2 + 2 is a convoluted representation that can collapse to 4, so we can rewrite it thusly:

It's so obvious it hardly needs stating, but that we can write 4 = 4 is why the expression 2 + 2 = 4 is correct. It works for more complicated examples, here, in a stepwise manner we can show that two apparently different things are actually the same:

Both sides of the equals sign are identical. It's correct - more accurately, consistent and free of illogical contradictions. What if we took this one:

This formula is clearly wrong - we're assuming base 10, of course, normal no-nonsense representations, no trick questions. We know it's wrong precisely because we can work out and collapse the left hand side to get:

The sides aren't equal, despite the equals sign. This crops up in numerous "proofs" of things like why 2 + 2 = 5, or that 1 + 1 = 1. These sorts of proofs aren't valid precisely because you end up producing such statements as 5 = 4. This is a contradiction and it indicates an error; it is the actual proof that there is a mistake somewhere.

Relevance to this tautology[edit]

In a sense, 4 = 4 is tautological. It conveys no information as stands. That also means that 2 + 2 = 4 is also somehow tautological, but is just a more complicated and less efficient way of expressing it.

By boiling down to what I mean by "real" and what I believe in, and so getting to the point of saying "what I can experience is what I can experience", I have only done the equivalent of working out two sides in an equation to produce the same result. I've ensured some degree of consistency in that on both sides of the equation I'm talking about the very same thing - this apparent tautology proves this as much as a contradiction would prove otherwise. However, I'm not dealing in a mathematical equation but something else, I'm talking about consistency in belief - the maths is only an analogy to start thinking in terms of "=" and how contradictions and consistency work. So the "equation" we're actually dealing with could be generalised to something like this:

[Word] = definition

[Word] being, of course, how I actually use it in practice and the definition being what I say if pushed for one. It should be obvious that they should match up, but they don't always. The connotations associated with certain things don't usually match the definition we claim to use. The dictionary tells us that a "black man" is a male human with a darker skin tone. It won't tell us that a black man is a "inferior sub-human that causes crime and is going to stab me" - yet still some people think this. And so this equation may not match up terribly well.

To get back on the point, consider this case:

Real = definition

Here is the traditional case of creating a definition for the word "real". Does it match up, though? On one side there are all the connotations of "real" and on the other side its definition. But before filling in the gaps I'd like to re-jig the equations parameters somewhat to avoid what looks like a simple language game rather than something meaningful.

Assertions about the nature of reality = consequences of those assertions

Phrasing it this way is very much the same as the whole "[Word] = definition" version. On the left hand side we have what we believe in, on the right hand side we have what is claimed that it means when pushed to exemplify it. Do the two sides match up? If we assert something about reality it must have a consequence of some kind, because by the same virtue that a real effect and its test are the same, the nature of something is also a consequence. So religious believers need to answer the following question, a "solve for x" type thing:

I believe in God = consequence

Let's make it a bit more specific and add in a "guess" of what x is, according to a believer, perhaps skipping a step or two to get to a good starting point that looks familiar to many people:

I believe God answers prayers meaningfully = prayer is beyond science to prove

Let's get this answering prayers out of the way and reduce it to what they mean:

I believe God affects the world = prayer is beyond science to prove

I don't think this is a particular straw man. If you assert God gives you an answer, then God is affecting the world. If God didn't exist, God would be unable to provide such an answer and the world would go on unchanged. If you believe in God, in the usual sense, you undoubtedly think he affects the world, right? Now let's take on the right hand side:

I believe God affects the world = God produces no empirical observations

Again, not a terrible leap of logic here; science is just looking at empirical observations. So lets collapse the last "2 + 2" into a "4":

I believe God affects the world = God doesn't affect the world

A contradiction arises. 3 = 4, 2 = 1, 6 x 7 = 4 + 4. It is inconsistent. It is wrong.

I experience what I experience[edit]

Now just to address the apparent tautology in the same way. Let's start with the assertion that reality is all there is, and that science is what explores that reality. This is what skeptics, atheists and rationalists are accused of constantly as if it's a Bad Thing:

Reality = Only what science can tell me

Okay, so what about the definition of "reality". We can go "something that exists" but that's just silly and gets us no where as it screams "what does exist mean?". If it exists, it must be able to affect us in some way as we must be able exclude things like garage dwelling invisible dragons - if we don't then every conceivable thing is real. If every conceivable thing is real, then reality is useless as a word and concept because it conveys no information. This is the actual crux of going down this route. Just as if we redefine "religion" to include "atheism" we make the word "religion" meaningless, if we make "reality" include every conceivable thing regardless of its real world affect on us, we make "reality" meaningless. We can therefore say this:

Everything that has meaningful consequence = Only what science can tell me

But what is a meaningful consequence? It's an experience. And it's something that doesn't go away when you stop believing in it.

What I can experience = Only what science can tell me

Of course, what is another word for science?

What I can experience = empirical observation

And one final step as the last 2 + 2 becomes 4:

What I can experience = What I can experience

What I can see is what I can see. It's not a tautology, but a simple proof of consistency in how I view the world and what I expect from it.

So what?[edit]

I think this is another way of approaching consistency in beliefs. This is important because you can't assert a contradiction and claim to be correct, or rational. If you have a contradiction in a mathematical expression such as 3 = 4, then which side is wrong? Is 3 wrong? Is 4 wrong? You can't prove it either way because it's actually the wrong thing to ask: it's actually the fact you've put them there with an equals sign that is the wrong aspect. So when someone who is spiritual, or believes in God, or any such nonsense wants to hide their beliefs from science (I'm looking at you, NOMA) they contradict themselves - you can't do it.

Meanwhile, I'm ensuring consistency in saying "what I experience is what I experience". I'm asserting what my view of the world is correct on both sides of the equation. I'm using "reality" in terms of what I experience, and I'm also using the consequences of reality in terms of what I experience. Both the connotations and meaning behind what I'm asserting is "real" matches up exactly with what I expect from that assertion - arriving at an apparent tautology proves it. A believer, hiding their belief from empirical scrutiny does the opposite, and their contradiction proves it.