The apparent deceptiveness of the world

by John Quiggin on August 29, 2006

Googling around in connection with my review of Unspeak, I came across an old LanguageLog post on The apparent deceptiveness of the world, which cites the paradoxical statement

Appearances are not deceptive; it only seems as if they are.
and invites Brian to analyse it (Since this predates both CT and Technorati, I’m not sure if there was any followup), saying
Clearly, if this is true, then it has to be false, and if false, it must be true. Yet it is not a standard liar-paradox sentence like as in classic liar sentences like This statement is false, or Everything I tell you is a lie, including this. It does not mention truth or falsity, or refer to itself. It is a metaphysical claim, as far as I can see. It speaks not about language or truth but about the nature of reality. It says (contrary to the old proverb) that reality does not present itself in a way that deceives our senses, and any perception we may have to the contrary is incorrect.

I think we can extract a coherent claim with the aid of Hamlet’s observation “For there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so”. I’d read the statement as saying something like “First appearances are not deceptive; it’s thinking about them that leads you astray”.

While this is obviously false as a general statement, it’s arguable that direct perceptions are usually closer to the mark than the results of the kinds of analysis (Freudianism, a lot of marxist and marxisant thinking, most public choice theory) that purport to strip away surface appearances and reveal the underlying truth.

{ 41 comments }

1

chris y 08.29.06 at 5:22 am

If you amended this to: “Appearances are not deceptive; neither are they necessarily sufficiently explanatory”, would it be contentious?

2

Brendan 08.29.06 at 6:10 am

The problem surely is not so much the ‘stripping away appearances’ as the methodology by which this is done and the level of accessability that people have to this ‘truth’.

For example, if we are doing building work, and you are standing on the roof and it ‘seems’ stable to you, but I can see things from a different angle and I can see that the roof is unsupported and that, in fact, you are shortly going to fall through it, I am not being ‘undemocratic’ or whatever in pointing this out to you. I really do have a better (‘deeper’) view of the situation than you have.

But note that even if you don’t fall through and break your neck, I can still take you aside and POINT out to you that what seemed like a stable position was in fact, not.

In other words, the facts about the roof were not inherently private. They were ‘private’ to you because you could not see them, but that was simply contingent (i.e cos you were standing on the roof).

Now: that’s a very different situation from

a: phenomena which underly reality which are ‘inherently’ private and

b: phenomena which underly reality which are not inherently private, but where the method by which they are to be made public is in some way unclear or vague, or ‘subjective’.

To take examples of both: according to Chomskyan linguistics, the seemingly heterogenous phenomena of language use are, apparently, merely a surface feature. ‘Underneath’ this seeming chaos there is (allegedly) order, in the form of rules. These rules are stored, allegedly, in the brain, but in a part of the brain which is unconscious to us and which must of necessity always remain unconscious.

In other words, these alleged cognitive structures are inherently private. There is no conceivable development in scientific practice that will ever result in them being observable.

In a seemingly completely different way, Marxism and Freudianism function in much the same way, except in terms more of issue number ‘b’, not ‘a’. Marx, for example, insisted on the existence of ‘deep structures’ that underly capitalism. (He talked of the difference between ‘appearance’ and ‘essence’ but this is essentially what he meant). Capitalism (according to Marx) seems to be x,y, and z, but in reality (i.e. ‘underneath’ it) it is actually very different.

Now according to Marxist materialism, there is nothing inherently private about these ‘structures’ or ‘phenomena’. They could be made public and, indeed, in Capital Marx believed he had made them public. The problem is: what if you read all of Capital, understand its arguments but simply don’t agree with it? What in other words, if you ‘see’ all that ‘Marx’ saw but still don’t ‘see’ the underlying structures that are the REAL moving forces of capitalism that Marx (and Marxists) saw?

The same issue with Freud (which is not such a different theory from Chomskyan linguistics, except in reverse. Chomsky sees a logical structure ‘underneath’ a seemingly illogical (chaotic) ‘surface’, Freud sees an ‘illogical’ (irrational) ‘structure(s)’ ‘underneath’ seemingly logical phenomena i.e ‘rational’ human behaviour).

Again, the phenomena which lies ‘underneath’ the human personality (superego, id, etc.) are not inherently private in Freudian parlance, and in fact Freud believed that they could be make public via psychoanalysis: the problem is what if other people listening in on a ‘session’ do not hear the discourse produced as evidence for the existence of the phenomena in question?

The problem in my opinion, is that all three of these viewpoints base their views on Galilean/Newtonian physics. But in physics the ‘structures’ that underly phenomena have a public guarantor: experimental prediction. It really doesn’t matter whether you ‘believe’ in (e.g.) force, or energy or whatever. You can make predictions that are right more often than not, and this functions as a public demonstration of the validity of the ‘private’ (unviewable) structure or phenomena (or whatever).

But in neither of the three views above is this is the case, and when it is, the results are usually embarassing. In the Grundrisse, for example, Marx predicted (apparently) that real communism should come into existence about 150 years after he was writing: i.e. the very first few decades of the 21st century. This prediction (assuming that Marx made it) does not give one faith in Marxism’s continuing relevance, nor in the superiority of his insights into capitalism over anyone elses.

An even deeper problem with Marxism (and for that matter Chomskyan linguistics and Freudianism) is that they don’t seem to see the problems posed to their theories by underdetermination .

3

bi 08.29.06 at 6:32 am

“Appearances are not deceptive; it only seems as if they are.”

What this quote is really about is — drum rolls please :) — the appearance of an appearance.

Which, incidentally, sounds like what Lewis Carroll was getting at in Through the Looking Glass:

-=-=-=-=-
‘… The name of the song is called “HADDOCKS’ EYES.”‘

‘Oh, that’s the name of the song, is it?’ Alice said, trying to feel interested.

‘No, you don’t understand,’ the Knight said, looking a little vexed. ‘That’s what the name is CALLED. The name really IS “THE AGED AGED MAN.”‘

‘Then I ought to have said “That’s what the SONG is called”?’ Alice corrected herself.

‘No, you oughtn’t: that’s quite another thing! The SONG is called “WAYS AND MEANS”: but that’s only what it’s CALLED, you know!’

‘Well, what IS the song, then?’ said Alice, who was by this time completely bewildered.

‘I was coming to that,’ the Knight said. ‘The song really IS “A-SITTING ON A GATE”: and the tune’s my own invention.’
-=-=-=-=-

Regarding the general issue about the reliability of direct observation: what Brendan said, and we should also be on the lookout for unfalsifiable theories.

4

turkish bill 08.29.06 at 6:46 am

They say there’s more of this kind of thing about than they say there is…

5

John Emerson 08.29.06 at 7:05 am

“People who say or think that appearances are deceptive are usually wrong”. This would be a pretty reasonable anti-paranoid, anti-occultist, anti-mystification statement, and probably is about what the original statement was trying to say.

I, however, am a paranoid, and I disagree with the thrust of the statement. In key cases, though not necessarily in the majority of cases, appearances are in fact deceptive.

6

Steve LaBonne 08.29.06 at 7:49 am

Appearances, apparently, appear to be deceptive. Or so it would appear.

7

Dan Kervick 08.29.06 at 7:54 am

Apart from whatever wisdom the quoted statement might or might not contain, or hint at, it is not paradoxical – in conjunction with a couple of highly plausible background premises, it simply generates an ordinary contradiction in a non-paradoxical way, and is thus false.

Suppose we accept:

1. Anything that appears to be something that it is not is deceptive (background premise)

2. Every appearance (a) is not deceptive, and (b) appears to be deceptive. (the quoted statement)

3. There is at least one appearance. (background premise)

Universally instantiating on 3 and applying 2 we have:

4. X is not deceptive

5. X appears to be deceptive

from 4 and 5:

6. X appears to be something that it is not

and then from 1 and 6, we have:

7. X is deceptive

which contradicts 4.

Thus 1, 2 and 3 appear to be an inconsistent set of statements, and 2 is clearly the weakest link.

OK, so can we also generate a contradiction running in the other direction? Suppose we now begin with the denial of 2:

2*. Some appearance either (a) is deceptive or (b) does not appear to be deceptive.

Existentially instantiating to an arbitrary Y, we have:

8. Y is deceptive OR Y does not appear to be deceptive.

But I don’t see how one can go from here to generate a contradiction. Indeed 2* seems very plausible. It would be held unproblematically by any person who believes that there is at least one deceptive appearance or, barring that, that all appearances are veridical and at least one of them does not even appear to be deceptive.

I would conclude that 2 is simply false, and its denial 2* is unproblematically true.

8

abb1 08.29.06 at 8:07 am

9

kid bitzer 08.29.06 at 8:09 am

one reason why this is not really comparable to standard paradoxes (Liars e.g.):

it’s a conjunction.

There’s nothing terribly interesting about a conjunction that contains two conjuncts that contradict each other, implicitly or by presupposition.

So if we label the following sentence P:
” Appearances are not deceptive; it only seems as if they are.”

then the original author was wrong to say of P that “if this is true, then it has to be false, and if false, it must be true.”

Instead, if the first conjunct of P (P1, say) is true, then the second conjunct of P (P2) is false, and if the second conjunct is true then the first conjunct is false.

Which means that the conjunction as a whole, P, is always false. No matter how you evaluate individual conjuncts.

Which is what we’d expect from a contradiction.

But it’s not an *interesting* contradiction, because (to repeat myself), it’s just a conjunction. (look for the conjunction where the semi-colon is).

And any conjunction of a statement and its negation, or of two statements that are otherwise incompatible, will exhibit the same behavior.

Not logically interesting.

Not a bad joke though; I’ve been using it in lecture for years. (Usually in the form “it may appear that there’s a difference between appearance and reality, but in reality there isn’t one.” Choose your phrasing for your sense of elegance.)

10

kid bitzer 08.29.06 at 8:11 am

sorry–
I see I used “conjunction” once up there to mean “conjunction-operator”, i.e. where the semi-colon is. My point being that if you offer a logical analysis of this, you have to put an “and” or equivalent where the semi-colon is.

11

JR 08.29.06 at 8:31 am

Einstein said it more beautifully:
Subtle is the Lord, but malicious he is not.

12

kid bitzer 08.29.06 at 8:56 am

looks to me like I should have read Dan Kervick above–he’s already on to the fact that it’s just a conjunction (but said it in more detail).

13

Dæn 08.29.06 at 9:05 am

In key cases, though not necessarily in the majority of cases, appearances are in fact deceptive.

Totally agree. That darn universe, always stymieing our noble attempts to shoehorn its dizzying complexity into aphoristic form! But somehow, an elegant catchphrase that’s only right half the time always seems to triumph over “sometimes yes, sometimes no,” satiating our rage for order even as it balkanizes our perceptions.

14

emmanuel.goldstein 08.29.06 at 9:26 am

1. Appearances are not deceptive; it only seems as if they are.

Here’s an alternative solution. There’s no paradox at all if appearance and seems are read equivocally. Suppose appearance in the first conjunct refers to primary appearances, (e.g. the redness of the apple), and seems refers to secondary properties of appearance e.g. (the brilliant redness of the apple). We’d then have:
1.* primary appearances are (generally) non-deceptive, and secondary appearances aren’t.

1* seems plausible.

15

kid bitzer 08.29.06 at 9:42 am

E.G.–
yeah, that’s Quiggin’s solution, substituting your primary/secondary for his “first appearances/thinking about them”. Not that those are equivalent, but that you both think the trick involves an ambiguity. (I don’t).

notice that epistemically, this disambiguation doesn’t help us much.

The difference between a primary appearance and a secondary appearance may appear (primariy? secondarily?) not to be the sort of thing you could go wrong about; but it appears (secondarily? primarily?) that we do so all the time.

16

john c. halasz 08.29.06 at 10:59 am

Wittgenstein’s response to the “liar’s paradox” was to say, “yes, one can go back and forth on that forever, but so what?” In other words, why would anyone actually say that, in what context and with what intention or effect? But if there is never any actual context in which something would be said in a natural language, then that utterance can have no illocutionary force, and hence can have no meaning. It’s not paradoxical, but merely nonsensical, meaningless. It’s really not that much different of a case from syntactically correct, semantically nonsensical “sentences”, such as, “the automobile swam under the ocean.”

More generally, the temptation to produce or become ensnared in nonsensical or contradictory sentences like the one posted above, I think, results less from a failure to reason with logical clarity, than from a conceptual impulse toward generalization that fails to pay attention to applicability: we have distinctions such as that between appearance and reality (or “essence”) because they have uses and are applicable in grappling with certain problematic situations, without necessarily generalizing across the whole field of problems concerning reality. If metaphysics results from the bad reification of such distinctions, the effort to undo metaphysics or think non-metaphysically can produce it own forms of nonsense.

Concerning Brendan’s comment on Marx and Freud above, I think he is right to detect a certain tendency toward “Newtonian” objectivism in their work, or, alternatively, a dogmatic realism toward processes too complex and many-sided to be conventionally “real”, but there are also more complex readings of their work that don’t boil them down to a results-oriented scientific objectivism and to claims to have discovered once and for all the or an underlying basis of reality. In Marx’ case, his whole analysis of capitalism is “grounded” in an underlying philosophy of praxis that frames it and provides its normative commitments, such that it is not simply a question of whether his empirical results are objectively real or flatly true, without relating them to the framework in which they obtain and similarly for the claims of alternative economic analyses. The point is that a more open reading of such works renders what their interpretations still might have to offer available, in ways that a simplistic logical either-or shuts off, such that they can be confronted with other such interpretations in an inevitably plural world, without obseesion with dogma, old battles, historical triumphalism or deterministic hindsight. More or less comprehensive interpretations are limited and corrected less by objective reality than by other such interpretations and no claims about objective reality should foreclose consideration of the reasons by which people chose such interpretations or find them wanting.

17

astrongmaybe 08.29.06 at 11:27 am

Karl Kraus: “Some women are not beautiful; they only look as if they are.”

18

engels 08.29.06 at 11:46 am

I agree that it’s not a real paradox but the way I read it I don’t think either Dan or KB quite do it justice.

In particular, KB, I don’t think it is just a conjunction of contradictory premises. The purported paradox is produced by the second clause alone

it only seems [that appearances are deceptive]

and so the first clause is redundant. The “paradox” here is generated by self-reference, which is not the case in an ordinary pair of inconsistent premises.

I would suggest the following paraphrase.

(1) The appearance that “appearances are deceptive” is deceptive.

This is ambiguous and has two readings.

(1a) The appearance that “some appearances are deceptive” is deceptive.
(1b) The appearance that “all appearances are deceptive” is deceptive.

It is easy to prove that (1a) is false, while (1b) is true.

It seems to me that the “paradox” rests on a confusion between the two readings.

19

JR 08.29.06 at 11:48 am

The question turns on word “deceptive.” To “deceive” means to mislead intentionally; “deceptive” implies intent. No inanimate object or concept – such as “appearance” — can form an intent, and therefore an appearance can never literally deceive. When we say it does, we are imputing human qualities like intentionality to a non-human subject. This is a common rhetorical device, known as personification – or, to literary critcs, the pathetic fallacy. It is so common that we are often not consciously aware that we are using it, until it is brought to our attention.

The expression appears paradoxical only because it plays off a well-known cliche that makes use of personification – “appearances are deceiving.” Because this is a cliche – a dead metaphor – we do not recognize it at first as a personification, until the second clause draws our attention to it. Literally the statement is obviously true: “Appearances do not have the intent of misleading us; they only seem to have this malevolent intent.”

The quotation from Einstein that I offered makes the same point without the use of personification. It does so by positing a conscious being who formulates appearances (that is, who creates the reality that we perceive through sense impressions)- the Lord. This being is presumably perfectly capable the necessary intent to devise appearances in such a way that they deceive us regarding reality. Einstein proclaims as a matter of faith that the Lord does not do so.

20

abb1 08.29.06 at 11:54 am

Certainly at least some appearances (facades) are intentionally made to deceive.

Or coulda been, perhaps they only appear that way.

21

bi 08.29.06 at 12:20 pm

john c. halasz: All this stuff about different “readings” and “interpretations” tells us what’s so wrong about this Marxist method of “analysis”.

JR: M-W Online defines “deceptive” as “tending or having power to deceive”, so intent isn’t strictly necessary.

Steve LaBonne: rock.

22

aaron 08.29.06 at 12:29 pm

Perhaps the gist of this quote is that when we try to analyze our own perceptions, we are looking through a second lens. In other words, we think that “meta” analyses are somehow more “rational” than our immediate perception, but this is not the case.

Paradoxes are like zen koans–their purpose it to teach us something when we try to analyze or think about them, not to be a “true” or “logical” statement. Paradoxes should make us recognize and expand the limits of our thought. Among my favorites is a “legalize freedom” bumper sticker I saw once. Pretty brilliant, I’d say.

23

Christopher M 08.29.06 at 1:29 pm

The author of that Language Log post, Geoff Pullum, subsequently changed his mind about how to analyze the statement, as he explained in another post:

Sure enough, as soon as I put down my idea for Brian to reflect on, a brief emailed question from David Beaver and a very short puzzled remark by Brian began to make me see that my example:

(1) Appearances are not deceptive; it only seems as if they are.

is not paradoxical, it’s just contradictory. Its problem is not that its truth implies its falsity and conversely, as I confusedly thought; its problem is just that it is false because its second half contradicts its first half. I think that might be all that makes it so mind-bending. While appearing to say something about appearance and reality, it actually says one thing and then takes it back by saying the opposite. That’s all the analysis it really needs.

24

Brendan 08.29.06 at 1:36 pm

‘In Marx’ case, his whole analysis of capitalism is “grounded” in an underlying philosophy of praxis that frames it and provides its normative commitments, such that it is not simply a question of whether his empirical results are objectively real or flatly true, without relating them to the framework in which they obtain and similarly for the claims of alternative economic analyses. The point is that a more open reading of such works renders what their interpretations still might have to offer available, in ways that a simplistic logical either-or shuts off, such that they can be confronted with other such interpretations in an inevitably plural world, without obseesion with dogma, old battles, historical triumphalism or deterministic hindsight. More or less comprehensive interpretations are limited and corrected less by objective reality than by other such interpretations and no claims about objective reality should foreclose consideration of the reasons by which people chose such interpretations or find them wanting.’

Obviously John you’re entirely right and I don’t actually want to come across as being more anti-Marxist (or for that matter anti-Freudian) than I actually am. And to a certain extent nowadays, I am arguing against a straw man. I doubt there are many people nowadays who read Freud or Marx as though they (and they alone, perhaps) had access to some universal truth that lies ‘underneath’ reality, which would finally solve important problems (perhaps all important problems) in philosophy and science.

But of course that’s nowadays. There is little doubt that in the past people did read both Freud and Marx in precisely that way: i.e. as sort of secular prophets. It’s hardly an original though to note that Freudian and Marxists tend(ed) to react to criticisms of their ‘holy books’ in much the same way that fundamentalist Islamists reacted to the Danish cartoons. The interesting question is ‘why’? And I think it’s related to both Freud’s (implicitly) and Marx’s (explicitly) adherence to the idea of ‘appearence’ and ‘essence’, surely a metaphysical proposition. Or to be more specific, the idea of an ‘essence’ that was not grounded in experimental prediction, but which was, to a certain extent, in the eye of the beholder.

25

abb1 08.29.06 at 1:40 pm

Yessir! The Marxist doctrine is omnipotent because it is true.

26

Matt Kuzma 08.29.06 at 1:41 pm

The Shakespeare quote and the ‘paradox’ about appearances are both very commonplace thoughts in Buddhist and Taoist philosophy. The world is as it is. Appearances are what they are. We invest meaning into things by thinking and perceiving. So we are the ones who confuse appearances for reality, or decide that appearances are deceptive, or identify truth and falsehood. Without the thought process, appearances simply are.

27

engels 08.29.06 at 1:42 pm

its problem is just that it is false because its second half contradicts its first half. I think that might be all that makes it so mind-bending. While appearing to say something about appearance and reality, it actually says one thing and then takes it back by saying the opposite. That’s all the analysis it really needs.

This is dead wrong, I think, as I tried to explain in #68.

The second clause does not “say the opposite” of the first clause, quite the reverse: the first clause is implied by the second (because of the word “only”) and is therefore unnecessary. The “paradox” arises from the self-reference in the second clause.

28

engels 08.29.06 at 1:44 pm

#18, I should have said.

29

Adam Kotsko 08.29.06 at 2:01 pm

What accounts for the fact that at first glance, certain aspects of Marxist and Freudian theory appear to be true? To take the example of Freud, there is a certain plausibility to the idea that I’m having a dream about urination because I have to urinate but would prefer to stay asleep. Or that I “can’t remember” a joke because I unconsciously realize that it would be inappropriate to tell it in present company.

30

Charlie Whitaker 08.29.06 at 3:22 pm

It looks to me like a paradox generated by nesting. The ‘they’ pulls the first statement through into the second statement, which then becomes contradictory: “things are not what they seem, including the fact that things are what they seem”.

31

Charlie Whitaker 08.29.06 at 3:30 pm

But it’s an odd kind of contradiction – not symmetrical. One half of it is merely qualifying the ‘fact that things are what they seem’, suggesting you take a second look, while the other half is attempting a categorical whitewash: ‘things are what they seem’.

32

Charlie Whitaker 08.29.06 at 3:32 pm

Or … ‘look again’ v. ‘stop looking’.

33

John Quiggin 08.29.06 at 5:59 pm

“I doubt there are many people nowadays who read Freud or Marx as though they (and they alone, perhaps) had access to some universal truth that lies ‘underneath’ reality”

But the same kind of thinking is now found in other places. I mentioned public choice/rational actor theory in politics, but evolutionary psychology is probably an even better example.

34

Martin Bento 08.29.06 at 8:19 pm

“It’s arguable that direct perceptions are usually closer to the mark than the results of the kinds of analysis (Freudianism, a lot of marxist and marxisant thinking, most public choice theory) that purport to strip away surface appearances and reveal the underlying truth.”

Geez, don’t tell Einstein or Bohr. While Freud and Marx claim to see below the surface, many of their basic ideas at least do not seem impossible to common observation. Which is closer to the way the universe appears – that the rich take advantage of the poor, or that time passes at different rates for different observers depending on their acceleration? That humans sometimes act irrationally due to repressed sexual impulses or that matter and energy are two forms of the same thing? If we’re going to start holding it against ideas that they are contrary to appearance, modern physics is the worst modern offender and likely the worst in history.

Here’s to looking beyond appearance.

35

Chris 08.30.06 at 12:39 am

The instantiation of the quote is another Wittgenstein anecdote;
W. “Why did people ever think that the sun went round the earth?”
Straight man “Because it looked as if the sun went round the earth.”
W. “And what would it look like if the earth went round the sun?”

36

John Quiggin 08.30.06 at 1:47 am

“To take the example of Freud, there is a certain plausibility to the idea that I’m having a dream about urination because I have to urinate but would prefer to stay asleep. Or that I “can’t remember” a joke because I unconsciously realize that it would be inappropriate to tell it in present company.”

I find the first of these plausible. On the other hand, my experience of the second situation is exactly the opposite – the jokes I can remember in social situations are frequently inappropriate.

37

shah8 08.30.06 at 2:06 am

It is surprising that yogi berra hasn’t been mentioned here. Most of his quotes are of this nature…about preemptorial anticipation of conclusions…

38

Brendan 08.30.06 at 6:33 am

‘But the same kind of thinking is now found in other places. I mentioned public choice/rational actor theory in politics, but evolutionary psychology (EP) is probably an even better example.’

Yes but EP openly derives (according to the version normally propounded by Steven Pinker amongst others) from cognitivism which itself is a kissing cousin of Chomskyan linguistics. In fact EP, generally speaking, just is cognitivism given a Darwinian gloss. And cognitivism is an ‘appearance and essence’ theory par excellence.

But that just goes to show how right you are. EP (as generally understood today) is probably the Freudianism de nos jours.

39

Harald Korneliussen 08.30.06 at 7:48 am

Everyone loves my baby,
but my baby loves nobody but me…

You know the logical conclusion.

*
*
*

I am my baby.

40

Roy Belmont 08.30.06 at 7:50 pm

Where is appearance?
Does it begin and end at the outermost surface of the appearing?
Or does it only begin there, and continue through the means of perception to the mind?
And where’s that edge?
It’s impossible to talk about appearance without talking about perception without talking about time.
Once time’s in the equation things get all relative.
Also, I have it on good faith that the solid things of the world are composed of bouncing small particles whose whirling gives me the illusion of their solidity. That solidity – neither deceptive nor true – is as much essence as any other attribute of material things.
Appearance semantically leans toward sight, but it could as well stand in for the ineluctable partiality of experience.

41

Seth Edenbaum 08.31.06 at 6:34 pm

“Appearances are not deceptive; they only appear to be”

Comments on this entry are closed.