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Dear AskPhilosophers,

Dear AskPhilosophers, I am struggling to understand a point about Verificationism, which as I understand it is a doctrine that says that a statement is only meaningful if it can (in principle) be proved true or false. One interesting aspect of this doctrine is that is suggests that the sentence "The Earth is very old" is meaningless, as it is impossible to verify whether the Earth really is very old or whether we and it popped into existence a few seconds ago with all our beliefs about its age 'pre-coded' in our heads and various clues as to its age (fossils, radiometric dating etc) planted there to trick us if we choose to investigate in the future. But doesn't this mean ANY statement is meaningless under a verificationist account, since it is impossible to distinguish between "P" and "I, and anyone I choose to consult on this topic, are being systematically deceived into believing P"? Can a verificationist give an account of a sentence that she would find meaningful? Thanks very much

Your class of problematic cases is problematic for verificationism only on the assumption that the distinct sentences you pair with each other differ in meaning (refer to distinct propositions). But this is what a verificationist might well want to deny. She might say that, if two sentences coincide in their truth conditions, then they have the same meaning (refer to the same proposition, make the same claim). And this claim can then still be meaningful because empirical evidence can be brought to bear on deciding whether this claim is true or false.

Consider

(A1) The universe is between 6.23 and 6.24 billion years old.

and

(A2) The universe was created very recently but everything has been arranged to suggest to human inquirers that the universe is between 6.23 and 6.24 billion years old.

If no empirical evidence can possibly decide between these two sentences, then they express the same claim or proposition A. And this proposition is meaningful because empirical evidence can be brought to bear on deciding whether A is true or whether instead some other claim B or C or D is true -- propositions that can once again be expressed in many different sentences such as

(B1) The universe is between 5.1 and 5.2 million years old.

and

(B2) The universe was created recently but everything has been arranged to suggest to human inquirers that the universe is between 5.1 and 5.2 million years old.

Your class of problematic cases is problematic for verificationism only on the assumption that the distinct sentences you pair with each other differ in meaning (refer to distinct propositions). But this is what a verificationist might well want to deny. She might say that, if two sentences coincide in their truth conditions, then they have the same meaning (refer to the same proposition, make the same claim). And this claim can then still be meaningful because empirical evidence can be brought to bear on deciding whether this claim is true or false. Consider (A1) The universe is between 6.23 and 6.24 billion years old. and (A2) The universe was created very recently but everything has been arranged to suggest to human inquirers that the universe is between 6.23 and 6.24 billion years old. If no empirical evidence can possibly decide between these two sentences, then they express the same claim or proposition A. And this proposition is meaningful because empirical evidence can...

Is it possible to understand "left" without understanding "right"?

Is it possible to understand "left" without understanding "right"?

This is a clever and interesting question. Much depends on how we understand the word "understand."

In one sense of "understand" the answer to your question is yes: we can train a guide dog (or a robot or a child) the command "left" -- and successfully so, in the sense that the dog (or robot or child) really turns left whenever it receives this command -- without teaching it the command "right" (or any other command that makes it turn right). But this dog (or robot or child) then has an impoverished understanding, one that fails fully to appreciate the role the word "left" plays in our language game of spatial orientation.

I would offer this analogy. A child can, in some very rudimentary sense, understand what a knight (in chess) is without knowing anything at all about any of the other pieces: she simply knows how a knight can move around the chess board. But someone who actually knows how to play chess has an understanding of what a knight is that's much richer than the child's.

This is a clever and interesting question. Much depends on how we understand the word "understand." In one sense of "understand" the answer to your question is yes: we can train a guide dog (or a robot or a child) the command "left" -- and successfully so, in the sense that the dog (or robot or child) really turns left whenever it receives this command -- without teaching it the command "right" (or any other command that makes it turn right). But this dog (or robot or child) then has an impoverished understanding, one that fails fully to appreciate the role the word "left" plays in our language game of spatial orientation. I would offer this analogy. A child can, in some very rudimentary sense, understand what a knight (in chess) is without knowing anything at all about any of the other pieces: she simply knows how a knight can move around the chess board. But someone who actually knows how to play chess has an understanding of what a knight is that's much richer than the child's.

Hi! I think this is a philosophical question concerning language.

Hi! I think this is a philosophical question concerning language. I just read this in a newspaper: "They share neither an underlying raison d'ĂȘtre nor a modus operandi." And the question is: what is the language of this sentence?

There are other sorts of examples that pose a more interesting question. There is a phenomenon known as "code switching" in which a bilingual speaker will begin a sentence in one language and end it in another. A simple example would be something like "The man in the funny hat tiene un perro loco". There are examples, better ones, in which it's clear the syntax isn't that of either of the two languages used by the speaker, since, taken as a whole, it violates both. This one is close, since, in English, adjectives generally precede the modified noun whereas, in Spanish, they generally follow the modified noun, but there are exceptions in both cases.

One of the things that is interesting about these examples is that the places switching may take place are determined by the underlying grammatical form of the sentence, as described by theoretical linguistics, not by the surface form of the sentence. So this kind of phenomenon provides an interesting sort of evidence for the "psychological reality" of the structures linguists describe.

The sentence says that they -- the European Union and NATO, I think it was -- have different purposes and different ways of operating. What's the language of this sentence, you ask. Well, what's the color of the American flag? Red, white and blue, I would say. The sentence is a (somewhat pompous) composite of English, French and Latin.