Suppose I say “what I’m saying isn’t true.” If what I said was true, then as I said, what I said wasn’t true. Does it follow that my words weren’t true? The famous paradox is that if so, then since that’s what I seem to have said, I seem to have said something true. A fairly popular resolution takes my words to have been meaningless, so that I didn’t say anything. But if my words had been meaningless, you could hardly have known what they would have meant had they been true. Is our ordinary conception of truth shown by such Liar-style sentences to be deficient? Let’s see why not.
......To begin with, such sentences are in some ways like Truth-teller-style sentences. If I said “what I’m saying is true,” for example, what would I be saying? Not much. Questions of truth are essentially questions of how well our words describe the world, and “this is a good description” isn’t much of a description. Still, it might not be too bad a self-description, precisely because there isn’t much to describe. If someone saying “what I’m saying is true” intended to be speaking the truth, should we deny that she was telling the truth? It may be hard to say, but therefore it might be that such sentences are not so much vacuous as vague. Since “what I’m saying isn’t true” also addresses nothing but its own descriptive power, might it also be, in its own way, rather vague? Consider the following analogy.
......If I said of some colour, “I wouldn’t say that it’s blue,” I might not be saying that it wasn’t blue, because colours don’t divide into those that are blue and those that aren’t. To see that, consider a spectrum: On the two sides of any such line, between the blue and the other colours, there would be colours that were indistinguishable. So there’s no such division; so there’s some colour of which, rather than saying it was blue, or that it wasn’t, I’d prefer to say, more precisely, that it was bluish but not very blue. (Since the perception of colour is subjective, you might say it was blue, or that it wasn’t.) Our perception of colour is also context-sensitive, e.g. it’s affected by surrounding colours, and by our preconceptions. So if I wondered if our colour really was blue, I might thereby see it as not blue, while if I then wondered if it was therefore not blue, it might seem pretty blue (even to me).
......And similarly, it’s when “what I’m saying isn’t true” has been thought of as definitely not true that it seems most clearly to be true. More precisely, while those words aren’t giving us a very good description of their own meaning—they’re self-contradictory—we therefore have a description that isn’t too bad, insofar as it’s saying that it’s not a very good description. In short, they’re rather nonsensical (and false), but therefore fairly true (and false). And that’s basically how Liar-style sentences are compatible with our ordinary conception of truth. We need a bit more clarification, but it should soon become clear that while we can always be more precise, there’s no threat to truth here.
......What is truth, if not a sufficiently accurate description? Usually we describe things accurately enough for some obvious purpose, or else we don’t, so we tend to assume that truth is black-or-white. But it’s really a matter of degree, in a context-sensitive way. E.g. the table at which I’m writing this is flat enough for that purpose, so “this table is flat” is true enough, but might be false were I writing about geometry. And in general, our words tend not to be much better defined than our purposes have required them to be. So natural language has a ubiquitous—since ordinarily unobtrusive—vagueness (whence the way to resolve paradoxes, and uncover other fallacies, usually involves clarifying some terms). Of course, the words of “what I’m saying isn’t true” have clear enough meanings, so there’s no simple equivocation to discover. But it should help us to resolve the paradox if we don’t demand anything too unrealistic. (Similarly, we shouldn’t demand that colours be either blue or else not blue.)
......Liar-style sentences present themselves as misrepresenting themselves, so their meaning is self-undermining. And they can be read (or heard) in two basic ways—each a necessary part of the other’s context—because their meaning self-undermines in a loopy sort of way. Insofar as Liar-style sentences are true they’re also false, and they need concern nothing but their own truth, so they can certainly be read as nonsensical. But they’re not just senseless, and hence not at all true, because insofar as they’re not true they’re easily read as true. So they also have that sense. But they can’t be nothing but partly true and hence partly false, because that would leave nothing for them to be true or false about.
......This resolution—that Liar-style sentences are fairly true, in that loopy way (they’re fairly true because they’re rather nonsensical, and they’re rather nonsensical because insofar as they’re true they’re also false)—is a strengthened version of the resolution that takes them to be nonsensical. So for those who believe that an omniscient being is logically possible, it allows a similar reply to Divine-Liar-style sentences. E.g. the problem with “no omniscient being knows this” is that it can’t be true if there’s an omniscient being, but if it isn’t true then, since no one could then know it, it would seem to be true. My new reply is that if it’s only fairly true (in this loopy way) then no epistemically perfect being would have to know it, except to know it for what it is. And note that “no omniscient being knows any of this” is simply false, e.g. such a being would know those words. (Similarly, “what I’m saying isn’t at all true” is fairly false.)
Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass; Booker T. Washington, Up from Slavery - *Introduction* *Opening Passages:* From Douglass's *Narrative*: I was born in Tuckahoe, near Hillsborough, and about twelve miles from Easton, in Talbot c...
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