The Autophagy of Falsehood

It is easy to see that thoroughgoing skepticism devours itself. If we can’t know the truth, then we can’t know that we can’t know the truth.

Postmodernism, likewise, obviously. If all texts are tendentious, then the texts that propagate postmodernism are tendentious.

But here’s a question: do all false propositions devour themselves? Are they autophagous? I.e., is it the case that if any false proposition were true, it would under the force of some necessity or other – logical, causal, historical, etc. – be false, or meaningless?

I think it may be.

There are two sorts of truths: those pertaining to contingent facts, and those pertaining to necessary facts. But with respect to both sorts of fact, the whole set of truths is necessarily coherent. There can be in it no contradiction whatever; no truth can contradict another. A contradiction of one truth contradicts the whole of truth.

Take the necessary truths, as of math, logic, or metaphysics.

No proposition about necessary facts can be expressed except under terms that purport to pertain properly to the whole of truth – of, i.e., all the necessary truths. The definitions of the terms themselves must be correct in order for true theorems to follow. Get the definition of a single term wrong, and you will generate false theorems, that will work havoc throughout your doctrinal stack. You’ll be forced either to abandon your false proposition, or redo the entire system of theorems and their instantiations.

The necessary truths constitute a seamless interdependent web of mutual implication. They must all be true, or none of them can be true. Change one, and you must change the rest to go along with it, so that they all fit together without contradiction.

False propositions are very expensive to believe.

Let’s drill down a bit.

False propositions in mathematics cannot but be expressed in terms whose definitions entail theorems. We can’t say that 2 + 2 = 5, e.g., except by the implicit invocation of terms from number theory. From the definitions of those terms, the theorems of number theory logically follow, together with the whole network of their implications for other fields of mathematics. The instantiations of those theorems in arithmetical operations then implicitly presuppose those theorems; the operations could not proceed as they do, were the theorems other than they are.

If it is true that 2 + 2 = 5, then what we had been meaning by 2 and 5 must be incorrect. So then logically are all the theorems that derive from the terms as they had been defined. In that case, the statement that 2 + 2 = 5 will remain simply meaningless, until we arrive at some other meanings for 2 and 5 – and by an inescapable logical necessity, all the other numbers, and ergo numbers as such – that will endow it with intelligible meaning. But when we had done that (supposing we could), we would then discover that our modifications to the meanings of numerical terms logically entailed a different set of theorems than had formerly been instantiated in our previous arithmetical operations.

All those operations would then be falsified, or rendered incoherent. And among those operations would be 2 + 2 = 5. To express 2 + 2 = 5, you can’t do without addition. But under the new numerical paradigm, addition would be a different operation than it had been under the old. To make 2 + 2 = 5 meaningful under the new paradigm, you’d need something other than +, or perhaps than =. Under those new operations, the operations employed in 2 + 2 = 5 would be inapposite. 2 + 2 = 5 presupposes and invokes definitions, theorems and operations that its truth renders nonsensical.

Any false proposition in mathematics must somehow eventually contradict one or another of those definitions or axioms or theorems that it implicitly presupposes are proper or true, and from which therefore its own meaning derives.

2 + 2 = 5, then, is autophagous. If it is true, it must be incoherent. So it is necessarily false.

The autophagy of falsehood may be easier to see in the case of contingent truths – causal truths – especially historical truths. E.g.: we cannot state that the sun exploded yesterday unless it is false that the sun exploded yesterday. The truth of the statement would render the statement itself impossible. The statement presupposes its own falsity.

This is somewhat harder to discern in respect to false statements about less imposing facts than the explosion of the sun. But, explosion of Sol : baby’s spilt milk :: galactic collision : explosion of Sol. At any scale, an assertion of a historical falsehood can occur only in a world that in its historical outworking has rendered that falsehood a statement about a different world than the world in which it is uttered. That different world to which the false statement of historical fact refers is false to fact; it is not the true world. It is not the factual world that has given rise to the false statement, and made it possible for the false statement to take its place coherently in the causal nexus of true facts.

Like the logical truths, the historical truths are a seamless web. You can’t change one of them without changing the whole shooting match. But if you change the whole shooting match, you delete the world in which the false statement factually exists, and replace it with some other world. So doing, you delete the statement itself.

A false statement of historical fact then is an assertion that we live in a different world than the one in which the statement itself exists. It is a statement that the world in which the statement exists does not exist. It is therefore a statement that the statement itself does not exist.

So, yes, it appears that all falsehoods respecting either contingent or necessary facts are autophagous.

23 thoughts on “The Autophagy of Falsehood

  1. Pingback: The Autophagy of Falsehood | @the_arv

  2. @Kristor – Not sure about this, in the absolute sense.

    We can know truth, but due to many limitations that knowledge is partial and biased. But we can really know truth – albeit from our persepctive, within limits of time, effort, ability etc.

    The consequence partly depends on motivation – if truth is the motivation then falsehood will be autophagous over time, there will be a corrective process, a movement towards truth.

    Aside – the obvious problem here-and-now is how clear and dishonestly motivated falsehoods survive for so long – the main answer, I feel, is fragmentation of thinking, and Not thinking (except by ‘automatic’ programmed processing…)

    • Falsehood does not equal our knowledge of falsehood, and just because we don’t realize an assertion is autophagous doesn’t mean it isn’t. The limitations under which we necessarily labor in no way mitigate against the thesis of the OP.

    • Bruce, I’m not quite altogether sure of the thesis in the absolute sense, either. Intuitively, though, it has the familiar feel of being on the right metaphysical track; and I’ve not yet encountered any scandals in its traversal.

      As to the persistence of *obviously* absurd notions in cultures – yeah. It’s a puzzle. I put it down in the end to lies, and the Father of Lies. Fortunately for creatura, the instability of evil is the morality of the cosmos (Whitehead). Lies all fall in the end before the scythe of GNON.

  3. Pingback: The Autophagy of Falsehood | Reaction Times

  4. If all texts are tendentious, then the texts that propagate postmodernism are tendentious.

    Well duh. Do you think this is some kind of novel insight? It’s postmodernism 101.

    The point of critical theory (like that book I linked to yesterday) is that while its obvious that (eg) feminist writings are tendentious, the “master narratives” that they are critiquing are equally in service of particular interests, but interests that have become so entrenched they seem like objectivity.

    You don’t have to agree with this, or like it, but it’s probably a good idea to have a grasp of the fundamentals of what you are arguing with. Read some Foucault.

    • A.morphous, it is nice to find that you agree with me that postmodernism is so *obviously* autophagous.

      Here’s the next question for me to chew on: if we take it that falsehood is autophagous per se, then may we likewise be certain that autophagy is a certain index of falsehood? Sure seems like it, prima facie.

  5. “Interests that have become so entrenched [that] they seem like objectivity.” The perfect description of Pomo, and of its Bible, The Great Book of Foucault!

  6. Thomas Carlyle wrote in 1837:

    “Great is Bankruptcy: the great bottomless gulf into which all Falsehoods, public and private, do sink, disappearing; whither, from the first origin of them, they were all doomed. For Nature is true and not a lie. No lie you can speak or act but it will come, after longer or shorter circulation, like a Bill drawn on Nature’s Reality, and be presented there for payment,—with the answer, No effects. Pity only that it often had so long a circulation: that the original forger were so seldom he who bore the final smart of it! Lies, and the burden of evil they bring, are passed on; shifted from back to back, and from rank to rank; and so land ultimately on the dumb lowest rank, who with spade and mattock, with sore heart and empty wallet, daily come in contact with reality, and can pass the cheat no further.

    “… Honour to Bankruptcy; ever righteous on the great scale, though in detail it is so cruel! Under all Falsehoods it works, unweariedly mining. No Falsehood, did it rise heaven-high and cover the world, but Bankruptcy, one day, will sweep it down, and make us free of it.”

    Look at the Soviet Union, a state with strict gun control, a huge military, total control of media, education, banking, etc., one-sixth of the Earth’s land area, thousands of nuclear missiles, and still it collapsed under the weight of its own lies.

    • Look at Western Europe, great believers in the falsehood of sexual revolution and the economics of debt. When the circulation of this falsehood ends, there might not even be any Europeans left to pay the bill. Post-modernists would probably imagine this as a victory, of course, a beating of the system by suicide.

  7. Falsehood is indeed autophagous. I think this in part explains the tendency of late Liberalism to immediately resort to censorship. It is as though the SJWs and their like intuitively grasp that any critical scrutiny sets the process of autophagy (“deconstruction”, in their own jargon) into motion.

    • It has always seemed to me that all men – except perhaps for the most extreme sociopaths, who seem to be missing something basic in their neural equipment – are at bottom quite aware of what they are doing wrong when they speak or act falsely. I have referred to it in passing now and then, typically by saying something like, “But no one is fooled; everyone knows exactly what is going on.” Not just about the truth or falsity of their own thoughts and acts, but (to a lesser degree) of the utterances and acts of others.

      The name for this faculty is of course the conscience – the still small voice.

      I have long also thought that the conscience is the voice of Truth, speaking to us at all times directly, as the basis and forecondition of each of our novel acts of becoming as they wink into actuality from nothingness. But it’s a bit richer than that. The basis and forecondition of this our present act is of course also the basis and forecondition of all its precedents and fathers. It spoke in them, too, and shaped their acts, all; for the most part (no one gets along in life by doing most things wrong; most people get most things right, or they die).

      So those acts of our forefathers and precedents shaped us, too. The still small voice that spoke in them is then echoed also from them as it were the susurration of an enormous choir from the very fabric of our being, of our bodies and all their constituents – which, of course, could not perdure from one moment to the next with any sort of integrity or durability except insofar as they were in all their motions overwhelmingly loyal to Truth.

      Our bodies and their histories, and all that they have inherited from our forebears and all who were in communion or fellowship with them – to include our friends, aye and even our adversaries, in all the various taxonomical Kingdoms – are together the immense scaffold and praeparatio of each of our acts. Insofar as the elements of that scaffold have perdured down to the present moment, they have somehow or other fitted themselves properly to Reality, so to each other, so as to achieve some coherence, resilience, sturdiness – which is to say, righteousness, virtue, excellence. The elements of the scaffold stretch back, linked together in their millions to those of our first ancestors.

      Our bodies work to begin with because they are almost immaculately fitted to the Real. So likewise our minds.

      Almost. Too bad about those doggone maculae.

      When in a moment that is – as each of our moments are – the end and purpose of that whole scaffold we do something wrong, or false, the whole of that scaffold stands quiet witness against us. For, in doing wrong, we disagree with that scaffold, that has made us who we are; we disagree with ourselves. We dispute, not just with Nature and her God, but with our very bodies.

      It is an occasion of pain.

      So: I feel pretty sure that most men know exactly what is going on when they do wrong. Their own bodies stand witness against them in Satan’s prosecution.

      They feel guilty; to manage that, they project. Always. I mean, we all do it, but if you are like the Leftists professionally committed to a falsehood, you have to do it *really hard.*

      Feeling guilty, they know they are apt to be found out, and scaped as goats for their impurities, and to expunge the insult to the justice of the polis that their immoralities inflict upon its innocent corpus. They might even be scraped: ostracized; out-grouped; expaled; bewildered. So they engage in a feverish hunt for someone a bit less pure than themselves, who is therefore an somewhat fitter scapegoat. And they do their best to confuse the discussion of the question in the agora, and if that fails, to shut it down.

  8. It is possible to express subjectivism, but not the way it’s currently done. The Daoists mistrusted language, which is why they never used formal arguments, only parables and metaphors.

    Frankly, it’s safer than pretending to use logic. And unlike the postmodern drivel, it does have its own consistency. Imagery and logic are fundamentally opposed, and subjectivism is just dressing up the nature of imagination as if it were a sound basis for complex decisions.

    Imagination is useful for immediate decisions, but not for long term planning. It is a very appropriate tool for a democracy, but not for any kind of individual thought.

    • Thanks for checking in, College Reactionary.

      Not sure what you mean by “subjectivism.” I’d appreciate a word or two of expatiation from you on that topic.

      Parables and metaphors supervene upon formality. A metaphor is a formal similarity (along some dimension or other) of one thing to another. Absent that formal similarity, the metaphor would be inapt. It wouldn’t work. E.g.: “Love is like a garbage truck.”

      Almost no one does formal arguments. Almost everyone who thinks he is doing formal arguments is actually doing metaphors and parables. I include myself among their number (usually). That is not at all to say that parables and metaphors are unreliable guides to Truth. On the contrary, they are reliable, precisely because they work only on account of the fact that they make manifest otherwise obscure formal relations really present in things.

      I cannot therefore agree that imagery and logic are opposed. Imagery supervenes upon logic. It is what it is like to be logical.

  9. I agree with what you’ve written here, but I think it’s also important to distinguish between theories of truth that are systematic and those which aren’t. Systematic theories of truth, by which I mean systems in which defined axioms obeying certain rules lead inexorably through deduction to a web of propositions and conclusions, are certainly useful, but as Leibniz says, a system tends to be true in what it affirms but false in what it denies. The other type of theory truth is comprehensive and characterized by synthesis rather than analysis. Such are the various world Traditions. I very much doubt anyone could take the sum of either Christian or Islamic or Hindu etc beliefs and lay them out in a kind of Principia Mathematica of faith. In order to deal with the sum of reality, the totality of what is, one also has to take qualities into account and not merely quantities, but such systems never deal with quality qua quality, so how could they ever really constitute a complete account of existence? Such systematic theories deal with quality in an incidental and indirect fashion, treating them as terms obeying fixed quantitative rules and ignoring their actual qualitative nature. So, a systematic theory of truth can never be complete.

    Another question: aren’t falsehoods a part of existence, even if only mentally (mental phenomena are very much still phenomena)? Can a theory which does not account for the existence of falsehood, in their quasi-existent sort of way, really purport to be complete?

    • Thanks, Abbé, those are both excellent points. I’ll respond to the second one first. Yes: falsehoods do exist. The theorizing of the post was not intended to cast doubt on their existence, but only, strictly, to investigate whether falsity is inherently autophagous. Nor was it trying to account for the existence of falsehoods. So, by no means was it essaying a complete theory of falsehood. It was rather picking out only one aspect of such a theory. I thought that aspect interesting only because I had never encountered or thought of it before the idea of the post struck me the other day.

      As to your first point: yes, no systematic theory can be complete. This is a succinct restatement of Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem. One consequence of that theorem is that any properly religious theory is bound to be unsystematic; for, as religious, it will be bound to appertain – to say *something or other* about – the Ultimate, the Unlimited, the Boundless, whose name may not even be spoken. It is bound also to speak truths from logical calculi up and down the infinite stack of such calculi; and it is bound finally to speak truths about the whole infinite stack of logical calculi – which can only be done from the perspective of Infinity (thus the importance to religions of Divine Revelation of truths that simply *cannot* be comprehended by any finite systematic intelligence).

      The only truly comprehensive theory that is adequate to reality is the one that comprehends all the truths of all the systematic logical calculi of that infinite stack of logical calculi.

      Religious theories then are not systematic. But, then, neither are most of the theories we use to order our daily lives. They don’t need to be. They must rather pull truths from a number of logical calculi, and deploy them in concert, and indeed rather sloppily, pivoting quickly from one to another as the situation demands.

      • Something interesting that had occurred to me after I made my post: the Christian Tradition does include a comprehensive account of falsehood in its theory of sin (Hebrew root of sin = “chet” = error, deviation). It not only gives a full account of what this falsehood, namely, sin, is theoretically, but also gives practical demonstrations of how it functions and how it affects us. So in that sense the Christian worldview really is a comprehensive theory of truth, non-systematic, of course, and one that even includes a full account of falsehood. I imagine the Hindu equivalent, for example, would be maya, and perhaps the Islamic would be shirk.

      • Excellent, yes. All four traditions – Hebrew, Christian, Muslim, and Hindu – treat sin or error as consisting fundamentally in mistaking creatures to be somehow equal to their Creator. They treat it as amounting to idolatry. Taoism likewise: The Tao that can be named is not the Tao. Whatever it is that you are construing as ultimate, if you can comprehend it, you have fallen into idolatry; for, no creature can comprehend the Creator.

        It is a deliverance of logical calculi as such that no logical calculus, no matter how spacious its comprehension, can comprehend Truth himself. Yet every logical calculus is capable of expressing truths it cannot demonstrate under its own terms.

        So, Revelation can be expressed in the terms of the doctrine of the Church – which is indeed a systematic and consistent logical calculus – even though the doctrine of the Church cannot possibly demonstrate the truths of Revelation. The doctrine of the Church then, while itself systematic, can also comprehend truths that it cannot demonstrate. It can then proceed to calculate the consequences – moral, ritual, doctrinal, legal – of the truths of Revelation conferred upon it by the Holy Spirit, that it cannot demonstrate, but that it can comprehend.

  10. Imagine a Venn diagram: a large circle that encloses completely a smaller circle. No part of the data in the smaller circle exists among the data outside of that small circle. And no part of the data outside of the smaller circle exists among the data inside of that small circle. The data inside the small circle is unique and isolated from the data outside of the small circle. But, still, the smaller circle and its contents are considered to be part of the larger circle – in Venn diagram terms.

    How can the folks inside the small circle use the data there to say anything useful at all about what exists outside of that small circle? And yet the small circle, and the data in it, is considered to be part of the large circle.

    I have always used that imagery, in my own mind, as support for the following idea: we cannot use the data we possess “in here” to develop tools to see “out there” and make absolute proclamations that we have discovered all that is “out there” with those tools. We have no way to even know that our tools can “see” what is “out there”. Therefore, somebody from “out there” would have to be the one to tell us whether we got it right or not. I’ve always thought folks who think we can know all that is “out there”, based on the tools we’ve developed “in here” to be seriously uninformed, purposefully or otherwise.

    Kristor’s comment at 2:42 directly above is the first time I have seen someone put into words the basic idea of what I have tried to communicate with the idea of the Venn diagram. But then, I’m not a philosophy student or a comparative religion student, so there is that.

    • Thanks, Richard. The analogy of the Venn diagram is indeed quite helpful. The traditional term for the inner circle of the Venn diagram in Christian and Hebrew theology is the Firmament. The Firmament is a veil. The veil of the Temple, that enclosed the Holy of Holies, is a portion of the Firmament. Within that veil was the outside of the Firmament. The outside of the Firmament is thus also inmost to the world. This is another way of saying that this world subsists within the more expansive world that encloses and sustains it. What is within the Firmament participates what is without it, in just the same way that every bit of Earth is an aspect of the Heavens – the Earth is a Heavenly body, as much as the stars or planets – and that every finite thing presupposes and partakes infinity, and could not exist but for infinity.

      The chasuble of the High Priest was woven in the same colors and with the same fabric as the veil of the Temple. This was to show that the High Priest was himself clothed in the veil.

      The veil of the High Priest foreshadowed the Incarnation. The incarnate Logos is “veiled in flesh.” Angels can come to us veiled in the appearance of flesh.

      The Firmament is crystal. It is Paul’s glass, through which we see as yet but darkly. It is a two way mirror. Light from outside the Firmament can get through it into the center of the Venn diagram, and those outside the Firmament can see what is happening inside it. But those inside the Firmament cannot see the other side of it unless a light from outside is shone through it.


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