Bush’s Paradox

by John Holbo on December 14, 2005

Bush on the war: “Whether or not it needed to happen, I’m still convinced it needed to happen.”

Maureen Dowd, on this bit from the interview [sorry, NY Times select]: “The Bubble Boy can even contradict himself and not notice.” It does seem like a deeply irrational thing to say, yet it clearly is not a contradiction, per se. In fact it seems like a disjunctive variation on Moore’s paradox. Bush’s version (inadversion, rather) is perhaps rather interesting. “Whether or not P, I believe P” has the same truth-conditions as “I believe P”. So one can turn any of one’s own belief statements into a Bushian bit of madness without impairing its truth. (Just try it at home.)


Bonus points for working in the following lines from the interview:

Bush: “I’m interested in the news. I’m not all that interested in the opinions.”

Brian Williams: “So what is truth, Mr. President?”

Getting back to the paradox, I think the proper diagnosis of the peculiarity of Bush’s statement must run as follows. For Gricean reasons, you wouldn’t preface a belief statement with a tautology, in this way, unless you meant to conversationally implicate the irrelevance of one question to another. (That’s not adequate, and there’s got to be a better way to say it.) Example: ‘whether Bush sincerely believes the war was a good idea or not, I believe the the war was a bad idea.’ That’s completely coherent. (It also highlights the inadequacy of my brief gloss: obviously I don’t think Bush’s mental state is totally irrelevant to an assessment of the wisdom of the war plans. But I think the question about the war plans can be answered without settling that other thing.) Anyhoo, to complete the thought: what is odd about Bush’s statement is that he is conversationally implicating that facts about P are irrelevant to/do not determine his beliefs about P. An epistemic bubble, yes, but not a logical contradiction.



William Goodwin 12.14.05 at 3:19 pm

Way too much work here to interpret a statement whose meaning, in context, was obvious, and not at all a contradiction. Bush (rhetorical wizard that he is not) got tangled up using “needed” in two different ways. His first use of it meant something like “was unavoidable” — in response to Williams’ question about the war being elective — while the second meant “was demanded by the situation” (as in, was the right thing to do in response to the situation). So:

“Whether or not war could have been avoided, I’m still convinced the situation demanded it.”


antirealist 12.14.05 at 3:20 pm

Surely all Bush means is that, whatever the final judgement is on the merits of the decision to invade, he believes that it was the right decision, given the epistemic situation he was in at the time.

It’s not the clearest articulation of that thought, but it’s not an entirely stupid thing to say in the context of his other remarks.


Grand Moff Texan 12.14.05 at 3:27 pm

“Whether or not it needed to happen, I’m still convinced it needed to happen.”

Safe. Contentless. Strong. Epistemology is not the point. Evoking recognizeable images with the proper associations is the objective. It works.

he is conversationally implicating that facts about P are irrelevant to/do not determine his beliefs about P. An epistemic bubble, yes, but not a logical contradiction.

It’s called making a sale. (OK, I didn’t say it was a very good example of salesmanship) The content need not have anything to do with anything, so long as it is pursuasive enough to get the mark to turn over his money. After that critical point, it doesn’t much matter what happens.

The total lack of a case for war, perplexing to many, was beside the point. Were the things that were said under the pretext of making a case for war the kind of things that looked plausible to the target audience? Were they, for instance, the kinds of things you would expect to see in a movie where an actual case for war was being made? Yes? Then that’s enough.

It was not necessary even to achieve majority support for the invasion (majority support that only appeared when the shooting started) so long as there was the appearance of a consensus on Tee Vee.

The epistemology of Untelligent Design is much the same. There’s no sense in evaluating the argument, because there isn’t one. The objective is to create the appearance of a controversy. The appearance alone is useful, no matter how wrong you are or how little support you have.


abb1 12.14.05 at 3:29 pm

he believes that it was the right decision, given the epistemic situation he was in at the time

Not at all, he’s still convinced it needed to happen. Even if it didn’t need to happen. It means: being stubborn, unreasonable, bullheaded.


bryan 12.14.05 at 3:29 pm

I think that would have been great if Rumsfeld could have done the backup vocals.


Grand Moff Texan 12.14.05 at 3:31 pm

it’s not an entirely stupid thing to say in the context of his other remarks

Ah, the soft bigotry of low expectations. Yes, in the contents of Bush’s staggering blather, “mambo dogface to the banana-patch” would not be out of place. Millions of eyes would fail to be batted.

We are, after all, talking about the man who gave us “peeance and freeance.”

Another test: if your meaning would be clear to someone watching the staged event even if they didn’t speak the language, then the meaning is clear even though it’s all bunk. Pretend you’re in a Bollywood movie, but don’t speak Hindi (nor sing in Urdu), and still need to make your meaning clear.

You are the fearless white hunter protecting the world from the impotent wog chained in the corner, despite all those people who aren’t idiots trying to stop you. Now …. ACTION!


Grand Moff Texan 12.14.05 at 3:34 pm

It means: being stubborn, unreasonable, bullheaded.

No, it doesn’t. But it does entail making the kind of noises your media people have told you will be effective, hence the nonsense. It’s not that words don’t matter, not entirely. But you must sprinkle your argle-bargle with occasional words likely to come out of the type you are playing, in this case the hero.

“Bold” was the word today, for instance.

Just think of it as Cocteau Twins with a body-count.


Jeremy Osner 12.14.05 at 3:38 pm

“Whether or not P, I believe P” == “The truth-value of P is of no interest to me”.


Voice From The Singularity 12.14.05 at 3:39 pm

I you add “in bed” to the end, it’s more sensible.


Grand Moff Texan 12.14.05 at 3:41 pm

“Whether or not P, I believe P” has the same truth-conditions as “I believe P”.

Whether or not the baseball player tested positive for steroids, Bush believes he did not do them. Is the president’s content stable enough for us to conclude that this is an acceptable form of argument for him, or is it possible that the monkeys been at the typewriters again?


Matt Weiner 12.14.05 at 3:45 pm

Looking at context, I think Bush is using two different sense of ‘needed’. He says that the war didn’t need to happen because, after all, if he hadn’t given the order it wouldn’t have happened. So it wasn’t metaphysically or nomologically necessary. But then he’s saying that he thinks the war needed to happen in the sense that he was obliged to go to war — that’s moral necessity, or necessity with respect to whatever goal it is that he thought he was trying to accomplish. (I confess that the interview does not help me figure that out. WMD terrorists blah blah blah, I guess).

As for the paradoxicality of the statement if you don’t see it as involving two senses of “need,” think of it this way:

First of all, the “I believe” operator is raised (or is this lowered?). If I say, “If Cheney resigns, I believe that Rice will be the new Vice President,” then I believe the following conditional: If Cheney resigns, then Rice will be the new VP. But I may not believe that Rice will be the new VP, because I do not think that Cheney will resign.

Indeed, suppose that Cheney does resign. If my original statement were the conditional “If A, then I believe B,” then it would be proper to say, “Well, A happened, but in fact you didn’t believe B, so your wrong.” But this would be absurd. Clearly what I said should be interpreted as “I believe: If A then B.”

Now we’ve turned Bush’s statement into: “I believe: If P or not-P, then P.” Now “If A or B then C” is equivalent to “If A then C, and if B then C.” (In two-valued logic. Other logics make this messier, but I think this works now.”) So a statement of the form “If P or not-P then P” turns into “If P then P, and if not-P then P.” And the second conditional is absurd (well, in two-valued logic it’s equivalent to P, but never mind that), so it would be absurd to assert belief in it.

So “Whether P or not-P, I believe that P” ultimately amounts to asserting, in part “I believe that if not-P then P,” and that’s an absurd thing to believe.


Grand Moff Texan 12.14.05 at 3:52 pm

Matt: after years of observing politics in my country, I have concluded that the following words and phrases have specific functions not altogether clear from their literal meaning:

“I believe” = [/burden of proof]

“moral” = [/standards of reasoning]

And furthermore there is

“some say” = [/source criticism]



abb1 12.14.05 at 3:58 pm

He says that the war didn’t need to happen because, after all, if he hadn’t given the order it wouldn’t have happened.

Um, why, then, “whether or not it needed to happen”? If you’re correct, then should’ve been simply: it didn’t need to happen but it needed to happen.


Matt Weiner 12.14.05 at 4:20 pm

Well, it seems to me that you can say something like that in many cases. Compare:

Before the war, there was good reason to believe that Saddam did not have the capacity to threaten the U.S. with WMDs.
But whether or not Saddam had the capacity to threaten the U.S. with WMDs, it’s ridiculous for Bush to say he would do everything over again without acknowledging that this means the WMD argument wasn’t a sufficient casus belli.

Or: What Bush said wasn’t actually self-contradictory.
But whether or not what he said was self-contradictory, he’s showing a shocking lack of awareness that his arguments for the war have been undercut.

When you say “whether or not” in these cases you’re saying “this consideration isn’t important, the main issue is….” So Bush might be saying, “It’s not important that I had to give an order to send the troops to war, the war had to happen in this other sense because…” And then, as grand moff texan points out, what he says after the “because” is pretty weak.


antirealist 12.14.05 at 4:48 pm

A. “Whether or not P, I believe P” has the same truth-conditions as “I believe P”

B. “Whether or not P, I believe P” == “The truth-value of P is of no interest to me”

A is true. B is not true.

Suppose P is the Goldbach conjecture. Assuming (despite my nom de net) that the Goldbach conjecture has a truth value, no one knows what it is. But I can still believe it, even though I know it may be false. So A is nothing like Moore’s paradox.

Of course if the truth value of Goldbach’s conjecture is ever established, I can revise my belief accordingly. In fact my belief in Goldbach’s conjecture might stimulate me to attempt to prove it myself à la Wiles/Fermat. So the LHS of B does not imply the RHS, and the equivalance fails.


abb1 12.14.05 at 5:09 pm

“It’s not important that I had to give an order to send the troops to war, the war had to happen in this other sense because…”

So, it goes something like this: “whether or not I had to give the order, the war had to happen”. So, the B half is: “I didn’t have to give the order, but the war had to happen”. Sounds like: “someone else would’ve ordered it anyway”.


Shelby 12.14.05 at 5:15 pm

Isn’t it a bit unfair to apply so much logical analysis when English is plainly not Bush’s first language? There must be some sort of family tradition to use a lost or invented language when the kids are growing up.


bryan 12.14.05 at 5:45 pm

I believe members of the Bush clan are brought up speaking pig latin.


bryan 12.14.05 at 5:46 pm

oops, I meant:
Whether or not the Bush family is brought up speaking the ancient and noble dialect of the Illuminati elders, I believe they are brought up speaking pig latin.


Ben 12.14.05 at 5:50 pm

“You can call me anything you want,” he said, “but do not call me a racist.”

… from the same interview. Seems more logically flawed to me.


Matt Weiner 12.14.05 at 6:09 pm

whether or not I had to give the order, the war had to happen

On my reading, you’ve still got two different senses of the word “had to” there. I’m thinking of something like this–suppose a friend who had recently done me a big favor asks me to pick him up at the airport. I say yes. “Did you have to say yes?” someone asks me. I say, “Well, I didn’t have to in that no one was making me; but I had to in that it would have been really ungrateful of me not to.” Bush’s thought process may be something like that.

But really, I’m just here for the nitpicky linguistic analysis.


roger 12.14.05 at 6:34 pm

As I understand Gricean implicature, it starts with four maxims, one of which is the Maxim of Quality, which states that you do not state what you don’t believe to be true, or that for which you have no evidence that it is true. Bushian implicature is a triumph over this rule. The Maxim of Quality for Bushian implicature is the following: never give a sucker an even break.


grackel 12.14.05 at 7:04 pm

it seems to me Bush was using the kind of verbal shorthand all of us use conversationally. The first part of his statement, “Whether or not it needed to happen,” means that Bush is indicating an unknowable factual proposition; i.e we can’t know absolutely what the necessary course of action is, therefore I (Bush) have acted on my best sense of things– even though he places the second part of the statement in the passive voice–“I’m still convinced it needed to happen.” At least the man is consistent about these sorts of things. This is really a restatement of his oft repeated view that he is not going to second guess himself.


Jonathan Ichikawa 12.14.05 at 7:47 pm

I think we can make sense of this one ok. “Even if I’m wrong, I still think that p.” Or: “The only way that not-p could be the case is if the evidence is very misleading; I’m still convinced of p.”

The more shocking and ridiculous line in there, I think, is this one:

Williams: Do you concede those three points might not have gone as planned?

President Bush: Review them with me again.

Williams: Number one — that we’d be welcomed as liberators?

President Bush: I think we are welcomed. But it was not a peaceful welcome.


dearieme 12.14.05 at 7:48 pm

Whether ’tis better to be inarticulate like Bush, or a fluent liar like Blair…


goatchowder 12.14.05 at 10:52 pm

It’s hypnosis. That kind of junko logic is right out of NLP, or Milton Erickson.

Listen to the inflection and tonality to hear the repetitive mantra too. “Whether or not IT NEEDED TO HAPPEN, IT NEEDED TO HAPPEN.” Command received: “It needed to happen”. Of course. Where do I sign?

Shrub is perhaps the best living hypnotist today– I think he’s even better than Bandler. His dad was pretty good too. Might even be a connection there: Bandler and Grinder supposedly did hypnosis training the CIA in the 70’s, and I have heard tons of Bandler-like patterns in Bush The First’s “scrambled” speech. Just a wild outside speculation.

Not to say that any of this is really new anyway. Salespeople, preachers, religious demagogues, and shamen have been using hypnosis for thousands of years. The advertising business is riddled with it. Shrub’s is just the modern political version of it.

Here’s a trick: if you hear a statement coming out of someone’s mouth, which makes no sense, and yet a significant number of people actually agree with it, chances are excellent that you have hypnosis happening there. If you find YOURSELF agreeing at first with nonsenese statements, and then have to kind of shake your whole body violently to snap out of it, you are most definitely experiencing hypnosis.

Just remember: if it doesn’t fit, you must acquit!


abb1 12.15.05 at 3:13 am

So, Matt, you’re reducing the first clause to trivial “nobody held a gun to my head” and the whole thing becomes: “I felt then and still do that it needed to be done”. But the construct “whether or not” works against your theory; you don’t say: “whether or not I had to pick him up at the airport, it needed to be done”, you simply say: “I didn’t have to, but I felt I ought to”.

The “whether or not” seems to indicate that destiny might’ve played a role here. Explain the “whether or not”, please, since that’s what you’re here for.


rea 12.15.05 at 6:06 am

And the LORD said, Behold, the people is one, and they have all one language; and this they begin to do: and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do.

Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech.


nnyhav 12.15.05 at 8:10 am

No paradox. Performative epistemics.


GP 12.15.05 at 8:47 am

It’s the dawn of a new field: Results-Oriented False Logic, aka ROFL!


CKR 12.15.05 at 8:48 am

A lot of time and thought on something that may or may not warrant it.

Bush prefers to use a very colloquial English for his speeches, and he’s not very good at thinking on his feet, or at least giving us the product of that thought in English.

This kind of confusion is the reason that presidents and others who must (not “need to”) make their meaning clear have used very prepared, very constructed scripts.

Bush presumably uses scripts, but his preference for what he thinks in the language of the common man and probably muddy thinking as well (by him? by his speechwriters?) lead to nonsense.


Matt Weiner 12.15.05 at 10:25 am

abb1: I still think that, as in my comment 14, it is possible to use “whether or not” to mean “let’s ignore this point, which I just expressed an opinion on.” But I admit that it is a little weird for Bush to have acted as though there might be some doubt as to whether he had a choice about starting the war. Perhaps it is part of a pattern of attributing weird beliefs to his critics: “My opponents think this was a war of choice, in the sense that I actually had to make a decision” is the flip side of “Those who oppose this particular war, which has occasionally been packaged as spreading freedom, must think that certain people are not ready for democracy.”

(That’s Rice, not Bush, but I was surprised to see that the White House site had even one hit for that exact phrase of straw. I know Bush has expressed the same sentiment, but don’t feel like looking for it right now).


Stephen Frug 12.15.05 at 12:06 pm

I think that those interpreting this statement generously (by which I mean those making it make sense by e.g. reading “need” in two ways) are missing the emphasis, which should be on the second part (“I’m still convinced”) not the first part (“whether or not”). In a great many situations, Bush has shown himself to use faith-based reasoning: believing something is sufficient evidence that it’s true, or is sufficient that its truth is irrelevant (which it is varies, and can vary, since it’s not the point). Further, Bush clearly believes (and in this case with good reason, I fear) that this sort of logic is convincing to much of the country. This statement is a reassertion of faith: he is still a believer, and anything that his opponents bring up, facts or whatnot, is irrelevant to that. He is, as the Medium Lobster might put it, showing resolve — all that matters in this view.


abb1 12.15.05 at 1:06 pm

So, Matt, it goes something like this: “whether or not a majority of people think it needed to happen, I’m still convinced it needed to happen”.

Yeah, this would be a decent statement. Too bad the fella couldn’t remember all the words.


alexc 12.15.05 at 9:09 pm

Maybe there is some sort of Straussian flim-flammery going on, akin to ‘whether or not Jesus is god, I profess Jesus is God’

‘Whether or not the public reasons for war hold up, the private reasoning still stands’

In another instance: ‘Whether or not Delay is guilty, my legislative programme requires him to be innocent’


abb1 12.16.05 at 3:30 am

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