This post starts with a somewhat technical exploration in the philosophy of language, which I hope that I’ve made fairly accessible to a lay audience. It finishes off with a very important, practical lesson for our eberyday discourse that is very dear to my philosophy of how we should do political discourse. Please bear with me as I plow through the abstract philosophy in the first half in order to appreciate the political conclusions of the second half.
Adam and Beth are having a disagreement about the weather outside. A. says that it’s raining outside and B. says that it isn’t. This a disagreement that can easily be solved by peering out of the window. If it is raining outside, then A. is right and if it isn’t then B. is right.
Suppose that A. and B. are inmates in a maximum security prison where they gave no access to the outside world. Simply peering out of the window to check the weather is not possible. Their disagreement is not one that can easily be settled, but it is still a well-defined disagreement with well-defined truth-conditions and verification-conditions. Let me explain what these last two terms mean.
The truth-condition of a proposition p (e.g. the proposition “it is raining outside”) is the state of the world that would need to obtain in order to make p true. For example, the state of the world in which it is raining in Adam’s and Beth’s vicinity is the truth-condition of Adam’s proposition “it is raining outside”. That is the state of the world that renders Adam’s proposition true. Similarly, the state of the world in which it isn’t raining in Adam’s and Beth’s vicinity is the truth condition of Beth’s proposition “it isn’t raining outside.”
The verification-conditions of a proposition p is what it would take for an agent uttering p to verify that p is true. In our initial scenario, the verification conditions for Adam’s proposition is looking out of the window and seeing water droplets raining down. Similarly, the verification conditions for Beth’s proposition is looking out of the window and seeing a clear sky and a dry surface.
While the truth-conditions for Adam’s proposition in both scenarios (the one where they are at home and the one where they are in prison) are identical (i.e. that it is raining in their vicinity), their verification conditions are very different. In the prison scenario peering out of the window is not a legitimate verification-condition, as there is no window. Instead, the verification conditions for Adam’s proposition are, leaving the prison, stepping outside and seeing rain drops pouring down.
Similarly for Beth’s proposition, the verification conditions for her proposition in the prison scenario are, leaving prison, stepping outside and seeing a clear sky and a dry surface.
Now, in the prison scenario Adam and Beth have no way if settling their disagreement as they cannot fulfill their verification conditions. That is, they cannot leave the prison and step outside to assess the weather. Nevertheless, their disagreement is very well defined. The truth-conditions and verification-conditions for their respective claims are very clear. They both know what state of the world would show which of them is right (the truth-conditions) and they both know how one would (hypothetically) obtain knowledge of that state of the world (the verification-conditions).
For this reason, their disagreement is very clear, even if they might not be able to settle it.
Let’s now look at examples of disagreements that might not be so well-defined. Suppose Adam and Beth are eating a curry and Adam says, “this is spicy”, to which Beth replies, “no, it isn’t”.
On the surface, this looks like a classic disagreement about the state of the world. A. is saying something about the curry (that it us spicy) which Beth negates. But let’s try and find what might be the truth-conditions and verification-conditions of their respective propositions. First the truth-conditions.
What does the world need to be like such that Adam’s proposition comes out true (or, “obtains”)? Well, intuitively, we’d say that Adam’s proposition is true if it is the case in the world that the curry is spicy. But is “being spicy” an objective state of the world? Spicy to whom? How spicy? Surely having a micro-trace of chilly doesn’t make it spicy, so “containing chilly” won’t do as an objective criterion, so how much chilly does it need to contain for us to be able to say that it us objectively spicy?
Well, at this point you are probably thinking that “being spicy” is just not an objective state of the world. Rather, it contains subjective and traditional qualities. And you’d be right. But that also means that we can’t construct truth-conditions for Adam’s claim or for Beth’s. That means that we cannot specify what state of the world would make Adam right and what would make Beth right.
We can go through a similar process with the verification conditions and we’ll find out that there are no objective tests or experiments that we can carry out to discover whether the curry is indeed spicy or not.
So we have seen that Adam’s and Beth’s disagreement about the curry is nothing like their disagreement about the weather. In the latter case it was a well-defined disagreement about the state of the world, whereas in the latter case it isn’t.
But what is it then? Are they disagreeing at all? I won’t go into this in this post (maybe in another one!), but what is taking place is definitely not a surface-level disagreement. They might be disagreeing about whether most people would find this curry spicy (this has well-defined truth- and verification-conditions. The truth-conditions are that if all people in the world eat this curry, they find it spicy. The verification-conditions are feeding this curry to all people in the world and nothing down their response on whether or not they found it spicy and then tallying up all responses to find that a majority reported that they found it spicy).
Alternatively, Adam and Beth might not be disagreeing at all. Adam’s claim is really just shorthand for “I found this curry spicy” and Beth’s response is shorthand for “I didn’t”.
Now all of this was me just building up philosophical tools in order to make a very important claim about social, political and moral disagreement. I think if people took on board what I’m about to say and that they took it seriously and internalised it, then our political landscape would be far less toxic, polarised and dogmatic.
Here is the claim:
The vast majority of our political, moral and social disagreements are like the curry disagreement and not like the weather disagreement. That is, our political disagreements almost always lack truth- and verification-conditions. As a result it is never clear what we ate disagreeing on and whether we are even disagreeing at all.
“There is systemic racism in the police force”. “No there isn’t.”
“We live under a patriarchy.” “No we don’t.”
“Religion is the opiate of the masses.” “No, it gives people meaning and fulfillment.”
“The government is being incompetent in handling this situation.” “No, it is doing whatever it can to keep this country running.”
These are just a few examples of seeming disagreements where defining truth- and verification-conditions is impossible and it is as a result not even clear what the disagreement is about, or whether there even is a disagreement at all. I’d love to go into the details to show why these cannot be analysed as surface-level disagreements, but for now this is left as an exercise to the reader. Hint: try defining the truth- and verification-conditions for the seemingly opposing propositions. Try to find the state of the world that would render one of the interlocutors as clearly right and the other as clearly wrong. Try to find verification conditions that will satisfy both interlocutors that one of them is right and the other wrong.
So what are the implications of this analysis for how we do political discourse? Well, I think it should make us all far more sceptical in the certainty of our own beliefs and opinions. I think it should make us far less angry at our political opponents and far less certain that they are wrong or bad. I think that it should make as have a far more nuanced position on politics and morality and a deeper understanding of their limitations. I think it should make us overall more tolerant of opposing beliefs and of those supporting them.
Let me know what you think and whether you’d want me to expand any particular point or in any particular direction.