The one about one

Once, there was one over there. Then, that one moved over here. Now, that one over there is this one over here. How many ones are there? How many ones have there been?

Is the one over there the same one when it becomes first the one that’s moving and then the one over here? Is there just one one? And if there is, is it “the one over here” — or is it “the one, over here”?

Is x the same when y changes? Is “1” the same one in “(1,3)” as the one it is in “(1,2)”? Is there such a thing as “(1,)”? If not, is there such a thing as “1”?

Is “1” the same as “one”? How about “uno”–is it the same as “one”? or as “1”?

Are these real questions? If they are, what’s really in question when one asks them? And if they’re not real questions, if they’re just confused and confusing words, what does that mean for what we can say, and what we can know, about all of the real ones into which one runs?

Any rationalist former philosophy student out there now expects a nostalgic reprise of Kantian categories and a discussion of the ding an sich. That’s not going to happen, at least not directly. My purpose in presenting the tortured word puzzles above, aside from the pure fun of tongue- and brain-twisters, is simpler: to introduce the idea that you can’t use word games to prove anything, for the simple reason that you can use word games to prove anything.

There’s a bit of truth in this nonsense, and in the questions above there’s one real question: Are these real questions? Put it another way — Is something a question simply because it can be put as a question? Simply put, I don’t think so.

There are questions which are inherently nonsensical, like “What’s the colour of love?” That any number of self-help gurus and writers of personal growth books make very good livings asking “questions” like this — and making their followers believe that they’re answering them — doesn’t make them real questions.

There are questions which are real, in the sense that their words go together, but which can’t have answers, questions like “What’s the largest whole number multiple of two?”

We’re getting closer now to the kinds of questions which concern me here. There are questions which make no sense, like the first above, and there are questions which make sense but allow no means of answering them, like the second. There are also questions which appear to make sense, but which have no answers. They sound like questions, and their answers sound like answers, but they are only questions in form, not in kind.

Many of these questions are the sorts that non-rationalists ask — and believe that they’re answering. (You knew that I’d get around to fundamentalists sooner or later!)

Questions like “What was the universe like before the Big Bang?” and “What’s outside the universe?” are unanswerable questions of the type outlined above, and they have no answers. They have no answers because they combine logically incompatible terms. They are in the same category as the question “What is the positive whole integer before 1?” The words to ask the question exist, but the words describe a state or property that not only doesn’t exist but can’t exist.

Couldn’t there be a universe, a cognitive realm, in which there is a whole number between 0 and 1? Maybe, but not one with which we can have any interaction. Our universe exists within the parameters of the laws of nature which allow, perhaps which compel, it to exist. If a universe in which there is an integer between 0 and 1 exists, it’s not a universe in which we exist, so for all practical purposes it doesn’t exist.

What on earth does any of this have to do with fundamentalists? Just this. According to the fundamentalists, God exists outside of the laws of nature. In fact, God created the laws of nature. It’s his nature to create laws, and he created this particular set of laws, which we call the universe, to achieve his purposes, one of which was to create us.

Well, ok, let’s ignore for now all the other problems with such a claim, even the obvious total lack of evidence, other than assertion, for the existence of such a God. Let’s grant, just for the fun of it, that he exists. Use your imagination.

How in the world, literally, are we supposed to know that God exists? A God who exists outside the laws of nature cannot be perceivable to us, just as we cannot perceive an integer smaller than 1; and a God who exists within the created universe is, by definition, not God, since he would not be outside the same limits which limit us. Either he exists, in which case he is forever unknowable to us, or he isn’t God, and therefore doesn’t exist. In either case, in any universe in which we live, God doesn’t exist.

Does that make sense to you? It shouldn’t. It’s just a word game. And that’s just the problem with words — we can make them prove anything, which means that they can’t prove anything.

For proof, despite the objections of non-rational critics operating outside their competence, is real — at least real to us, which is exactly the same as being real in se, for the reasons outlined above. What’s real may be described by words, may be explained by words, may be understood by words, but words aren’t what proof is. Proof is the real things into which we really run, to which words apply. Proof is things. Things that are real. They exist. Nobody has to propose them as premises or assume them as givens for them to exist.

Take the Dr. Johnson test.
Kick a big rock.
Does your foot hurt?

Thought so.