The apparent deceptiveness of the world

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 Weatherson (who’s now one of the crew at Crooked Timber) to analyse it, 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, I think direct perceptions are usually closer to the mark than the results of the kinds of analysis (Freudianism, large parts of Marxism, a lot of public choice theory) that purports to strip away surface appearances and reveal the underlying truth.

9 thoughts on “The apparent deceptiveness of the world

  1. Prof Q
    Your thoughts remind me of one of my first emloyers (an eminent barrister who was later elevated to the bench) who used to say “First appearances are deceptive, particularly when they turn out to be right”.
    He explained this by saying that when presented with a complex legal problem a good barrister should never jump to a conclusion but analyise its elements carefully then draw his/her conclusions. Often,at the end of the process you ended (TS Ellot like) where you started, with nothing more than a dozen or more reasons why your initial observation was correct. Oh, and a large legal bill to present to your client as well!

  2. Of course the paradox in the first phrase only exists if we insist that “all appearances are not deceptive” rather than the more realistic claim that “most appearances are not deceptive”. In other words the paradox only exists in the most extreme case of generalisation.

    For me the saying that “the map is not the terrain” is adequate enough.

    It is trivial to convert the a classic liar sentence into a global metaphysical claim with paradox.

    1. This statement is false.


    2. All statements are false.

  3. Well it all depends on the definition of ‘appearances’.

    If its defined as ‘the visual information emitted from a state or thing’ (which I woudl agree with as a definition) then I agree with the statement, because the ‘seems’ would be another agent altering this information.

    If its defined that appearances means ‘the total information actually received by a person about a state or thing’ then I would disagree with the statement.

    Or to put it another way, the statement is saying that any distortion does not lie in appearances, we therefore need to examine the nature of appearances.

    Well that what I think.

  4. There’s a particular name for that paradox but it escapes me at the moment. I will try to get back to you on it.

  5. This is an interesting question for an economist – since economic knowledge is so mediated by statistics, all problematic to greater or lesser extent, there is no such thing as ‘direct perceptions’. There’s a risk that taking them as ‘usually closer to the mark’ than theories purporting ‘to strip away appearances’ means ‘common-sense economics’, which is pretty dodgy.

  6. I thnk Dave’s correct.

    If “appearances” are taken as being identical to how things “seem”, then it IS a paradox.

    However if the way something “appears” is merely how it “looks” while the way it “seems” is how that appearance is interpreted for meaning, then no paradox. Just a wrong proposition.

  7. the paradox of the savant: you don’t see what is out there, but impose your prior expectations (built from prejudices based on your experiences) the savant is literal, and sees just what is there.

    but what did you expect? the world is as it is – the way we approach it will determine how we see it.

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