Insufficiency Theory of Language

I’m not an ethical subjectivist. The truth* is that I am a non-cognitivist. I gravitate more toward Ayer‘s Emotivism. Stevenson‘s Expressivism and Hare‘s Prescriptivism add the element of intention. This may seem like hair-splitting, but the distinction lies in the taxonomy of meta-ethics.

Emotivism and the rest are categorised under the non-cognitivist branch whilst ethical subjectivism falls into the cognitivist bucket. Intuitively, humans appear to have an innate bias toward accepting cognitivism, much in the same way as they seem to be wired to believe in supernatural concepts and see images of Jesus in toast. Whether these are vestiges of some successful evolutionary strategy is beside the point, but the problem it creates is that, in contrast, non-cognitivism is perceived as counterintuitive.

In its essence, cognitivism can be distilled down to the belief that moral statements are truth-apt, which is to say that they can be evaluated as true or false. Because of the current created by intuitionists, I lead with my fallback position, which is one of ethical subjectivism or more likely error theory.

Heads I win; Tails you lose

Although for reasons I’ll articulate later, entering a conversation assuming truth-aptness, the conversation can at least focus on the compositionality and universality components because whether I believe that moral statements cannot be evaluated as true or false, the default cognitive position of the general population is that they can be. This is not to say that I identify as a quasi-realist, which is to believe that there is no truth-aptness but to behave (pretend) that they do.

coin-flip - Captioned
Image: Deciding the truth-aptness of a moral claim

God Is Dead

In his critique of Enlightenment beliefs, Nietzsche declared that ‘God is dead’ as he understood the implications of a society absent a justification for not only believing that morality claims are truth-apt but that they are true, divinated from some metaphysical, supernatural, and universal power. In practice, the Enlightenment replaced God with a rather animated and interactive concept of Nature, hence were born all sorts of natural rights. You may get a sense of some déjà vu, as humans, not being particularly creative, just reappropriated and rebranded the same tropes Theists use prior to that. They just performed a search-and-replace of God with Nature in a manner similar to the Christian appropriation of pagan holidays.

Image: God is dead

Non-cognitivism has generally fallen out of favour primarily because it was sort of painted into a corner by the Frege-Geach (embedding) problem, but this issue is only intractable if you accept the given frame.

I should probably just link out to a different source to explain the Frege-Geach problem because I feel it’s a red herring, which only presents a problem if you accept the frame established by the Structuralist

The problem here is that language is a complex, socially constructed communication system. Even if we accept Chomsky’s theory of the innate ability to parse language, the syntax, lexicon, and grammar are still arbitrary human constructs. I can’t likely repeat this point often enough: humans have a poor track record of creating and comprehending complex systems, examples of which are the various half-cocked socio-political, economic, jurisprudent, and philosophical systems. Hubris is evidently a successful evolutionary selection factor, as it persists everywhere and certainly in people of power.

The logical positivists ran into a similar problem when they proposed the verification principle that asserted that a statement is only truth-apt if it is either an ANALYTICAL statement or a SYNTHETIC statement, and yet this assertion with neither analytical nor synthetic, so it itself does not meet the verification principle. It’s simply a normative prescription.

Fundamentally, this quandary underscores the deficiencies of the constructed language system more than anything else, what I am developing with a working title of Insufficiency Theory. A tangent to this theory is my concept that the only moral truth (and many social truths) are simply rhetorical victories—situations where one agent employing rhetorical devices has convinced others as the truth of some condition.



A problem with writing an unstructured stream of consciousness is that you look up and realise your post is getting pretty lengthy, and there is a lot more depth than you expected. Due to this, I am going to unpack this over several posts over several days.


DISCLAIMER: I am not a professionally-trained philosopher, linguist, psychologist, or gynaecologist for that matter. I had considered studying Linguistics at uni as well as Philosophy, but I opted instead to study Economics and Finance, as these appeared to be more pragmatic. As relates to philosophy and language, I am an autodidact. This said, this particular area is new to me, so I am certain that I am missing key elements and may have large gaps in my understanding. In some cases, I’ve read more excerpts and others’ perspective on these people and their work than their actual work product. I am trying to catch up, but that leads me to a place fraught with selection and affirmation bias—though I do try to comprehend counter arguments as well. Moreover, I am painfully well aware of the Dunning-Kruger effect, and I am trying to allow for enough time to elapse to move further along this curve.

Chart: Dunning-Kruger Effect

Article head  image cropped from here:



* Truth: (n) an opinion or held belief


Post-Post-Modern Subjectivism

I’ve just finished reading Steven Pinker‘s The Blank Slate. Originally published in 2002 (and re-published with an afterword in 2016), it still feels fresh. Pinker offers compelling rationale for accepting that humans are not blank slates entering the world.

Though I am somewhat of a social justice warrior in principle, I am still a moral subjectivist, a post-modern thinker. Pinker shares his strong feelings against subjectivism, but he provides no evidence of the moral objectivism he advances, relying instead on an emotional appeal; in fact, he employs the same defensive tactic his detractors employ, which is to try to make an empathic connection to the reader.

All he does is to claim that there is an objective morality because everybody feels and knows that X is better than Y, taking a strawman approach. It’s not that I disagree with his Xs and Ys; it’s just that they are subjective not objective measures. He tries to slip in an appeal to popularity by claiming that everybody would (or should) feel this way when push comes to shove.

Nietzsche, I think, had it right in Beyond Good and Evil when he pointed out the dual moral systems of masters and slaves. Although a moral (just) system might be best constructed from scratch in the manner of Rawlsveil of ignorance, we are not starting from a blank slate. The power structures are already in place. There is a possibility for upward and downward mobility, but large jumps are not likely except in the manner of a lottery. Other than this, it’s unlikely that one will move from one quintile to another and even less likely to skip a quintile, especially on the upward trend.

In any case, the issue is not whether some might feel subjectively better; it’s whether—across all possible dimensions—a relative, stable equilibrium can be found. Even here, this is not objective, even if it’s not otherwise arbitrary or capricious. The larger problem is one of epistemological empiricism—apart from the ontological question—, whether we can know that we’ve found the objective truth or if we’ve just settled on something that works for our current station.

As much as I really do like Steven Pinker, and I await his next book, Enlightenment Now, I do so only to read how he couches his argument in support of Enlightenment and Humanism, two concepts I feel are tainted by hubris

Anarchy, State, and Utopia

I’ve been reading Robert Nozick‘s Anarchy, State, and Utopia because it was recommended by Ian Shapiro. Although I am only about a quarter way through, and he seems to have tried to hit all the angles; unless I missed it, perhaps hits these bits later on.

He thoroughly raises issues and works to resolve them, but, as with Descartes with his Discourse, Nozick seems to exogenously accept certain aspects in an appeal to tradition sort of way. With Descartes, he stripped all belief in the truth of his senses, but then he injects God into the equation from out of nowhere. For Nozick, he just takes property and value as given.

I understand that the Western Enlightenment tradition has a thing for life, liberty, and property—especially Libertarians—, but these are just philosophical notions derived from nowhere. (Wittgenstein, stage left) That he uses utility theory instead of prospect theory as a foundation can be forgiven, but that is shaky ground, too.

And so it goes…

Workmanship Ideal or Convenience?

One of the biggest issues I have with modern, Western political theory is Locke‘s so-called ‘workmanship ideal‘, a concept stemming from the Enlightenment belief that a maker of something should be the rightful owner of something. The Age of Enlightenment (AKA Age of Reason) was supposed to have divorced science from other rationale, whether divine rights (as ascribed to kings) or something else. The problem—the same problem Descartes had in his Discourses—is that God (even if vis-a-vis ‘nature‘) is injected exogenously and irrationally into the works. Philosophers even into the 21st century, if barely, have concluded that this concept breaks down when we attempt to secularise it, but we are subjectively comfortable with the notion. Of course, the more our beliefs lean towards ‘higher powers‘, intelligent design and the such, the more comfortable we are apt to feel.

I was originally inspired to write this when researching Rawls and happening upon Ian Shapiro‘s Yale open course, The Moral Foundations of Politics. James Murphy has this to say in his essay, The Workmanship Ideal : A Theologico-Political Chimera?

What’s in Store for 2017?

Going into 2017, I am going to focus more attention on Universal Basic Income (UBI) otherwise known as minimum income. Providing everyone with a safety net in the spirit of life, liberty, and happiness. Hopefully, this will take some focus away from or redirect the negativity I am anticipating under the Trump regime, but I make no promises, expressed or implied. I’ll attend to the detractors as well.

I’ve been peripherally aware of the concept of UBI for a couple of years now—Martin Ford’s Rise of the Robots and Erik Brynjolfsson’s The Second Machine Age, among others. Although I don’t envision it as a permanent solution—after all, what is permanent? —but it is a solution that works within the existing (and woefully wanting) economic framework. It does, however, have a way to go relative to the current socio-political constructs.

The solution is not permanent primarily because the current economic system based on markets, supply, demand, income, and production is tenuous, so building on a platform of shifting sand is bound to fail—not because it is a bad idea considering the given system, but because the system itself is faulty. Capitalism is a house of cards, a tenuous MacGyver-ed system held together with spit and bubble gum (and who knows what else). I don’t have a replacement system in mind, and most people are not quite ready to abandon their cherished ragdoll owing to indoctrination, propaganda, and escalating commitment.  Entropy is at play, and the establishment needs to apply more and more external force to keep it together. We can look to history and the French revolution of 1789 as a guide—or perhaps the fall of tsarist Russia. These systems were inherently unstable.

Regarding these societies of serfs, the gutting of the middle class and the expanding inequality along with technological trends seems to have a trajectory along a vector to return us there, and the results can be expected to be as disastrous.

The United States was founded during the so-called Enlightenment with dashes of a Calvinistic work ethic and rugged independence, whatever that means. ‘Enlightenment,’ like ‘modern’, is a flattering term given to self-describe a period, but this description is mostly wishful thinking. I am not opposed to much of the thought that came from the Enlightenment, from Diderot to Locke to Montesquieu—thoughts such as freedom and separation of powers—, hijacked by the likes of Franklin and Jefferson on these shores, but they, too, were built on shaky grounds—the grounds of gods or God, and nature—, so our laws are built upon nothing; this is worse than shifting sand: at least there was sand to shift.

Language tries to obfuscate the divine with the euphemism nature. From so-called ‘natural laws’ we derive property rights, but take away the premise of natural law, and we lose the basis for such an assertion. And don’t get me started on the further foundationless logical leap to intellectual property rights.