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Hi, my name is Jim Macdonald, and I have an odd assortment of interests. In no particular order, I love Yellowstone, I am an anti-authoritarian activist and organizer, and I have a background in philosophy, having taught at the college level. My blog has a lot more links to my writing and my other Web sites. In Jim's Eclectic World, I try to give a holistic view of my many interests. Often, all three passions show themselves interweaving in the very same blog. Anyhow, I think it's a little different. But, that's me. I'm not so much out there, but taken together, I'm a little unusual.

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    Monday, October 22, 2012

    The Infinite Beauty of Tautologies within the Gallatin Valley

    Tuesday, December 6, 2011
    Jim Macdonald
    Living in the Gallatin Valley in such close proximity to the most beautiful place in the world - Yellowstone National Park - surrounded as we are by mountain ranges on every side of us, immersed with a sky so big that you can see forever even on the vast majority of cloudy days - we derive our sense of beauty from the striking and endless beauty around us. The valley floor contrasts with the rise of the Bridger Mountains. Very cold waters in the region mix with very hot. The colors in our morning and evening skies are like few places in the world. It is not hard for me to write just these few sentences because my view at work gives me a striking vantage on the Bridger and Tobacco Root Mountains. I know if I could turn 90 and 180 degrees that I'd have equally stunning views of the Madisons and the Gallatins.

    We can muse forever on what makes this place beautiful. One of the notions that seems obvious to me is that beauty provides a kind of endless diversity, one that never grows dull on the senses. The place will not allow you to take it for granted for very long. It is always full of pleasing new dimensions.

    Let's shift gears radically.

    In philosophy, there are these obvious truths called tautologies. Perhaps, the most famous one is expressed in the law of identity - "p = p." You are you; I am me; something is the same as itself. There are other forms of tautologies. What we need to remember is that tautologies are always true; we also need to know that they can connote needless repetition or the stating of something so obvious that it does not need to be said. Either I am here, or I am not here. You will either be or you will not be.

    Tautologies seem quintessentially uninteresting. You might even argue that they are the ugliest things you can imagine. Not only do they not say anything new, but also they dull you by saying it in a needlessly bulky way. Do I really need to say, "I am me"? Isn't it enough that I am?

    However, I think tautologies are infinitely fascinating and that even our love for this valley or for anything anywhere else we may live is nothing more than a new way of expressing a tautology. When we mistake the staid quality of particular tautologies like "p = p", we run the risk of confusing the mere body of the tautology with its beautiful embodied soul.

    What possibly could I mean by that metaphor?

    Let's try to reduce truth to its smallest possible component. What if instead of saying "p = p", I said instead "p"? I walk up to you on the street and gleefully announce, "p!" You probably are going to wonder where someone urinated or something of that sort. You do that because saying "p" by itself is never enough to express any truth. You have to fill in the blanks. What is this "p"? You sniff around, hop up to avoid stepping in it, but you have no idea what it is I really mean unless you know what "p" actually is.

    So, okay, maybe I should say something like "p is." Yes, you might think that's a strange thing to say and still have little idea what that means, but at least it's a complete sentence. Yes, indeed, whatever "p" is, it most certainly is. Or it is not. Yet, you can still have some conversation about it. Yet, notice what your mind has done. In order to grasp the meaning of a simple sentence with a subject and a verb, you have unwittingly in your head turned it into a tautology. Either "p" is, or "p" is not. Another way you can put that is that "p is p", which logically means the same thing as the disjunction "either p is or p is not." You will still fill in a context for which the "is" relates.

    We cannot assert truth, then, by reducing it to something less than a tautological form. There is no "om" that reduces the world to itself unless one means that "om is om." Try expressing anything true without a context. There is no way to do so. We can spend more time expressing why, but that is true of anything. Any attempt you make to express why you can simply say "p" or "p is" will result in you saying something more. However, go ahead and say "om" and see if I understand you without either of us making reference to anything else. If you can, it's a wonder that you could make sense of my sentence asking you to do that.

    So, not only are tautologies true, but also truth cannot be simplified beyond its tautological form.

    Now, this is fascinating. Why? If "p is p" but you cannot assert simply "p" by itself, then it means that the nature of "p" is such that it has to be expressed as containing some diversity within itself. What I mean is that "p" must also have as part of its nature that it must be expressed by a subject and with a predicate. It doesn't matter that the predicate of "p is p" is self referential; it is still necessary to its concept that it be expressed through aspects which are not the same. Predicates and subjects are not the same in any sentence, even if "p" is still "p." That means the simplest notion of identity still entails a kind of internal diversity.

    So, there is no "p" without a world of context, without a reference to something that is not merely "p" as "p." "P as subject" is not "P as predicate" even if "P is P" must be true. This is a surprising conclusion and opens up pandora's box, right? Is it not also true to say that "1 = 1" and "1 = 3 - 2" and perhaps also that "1 is the loneliest number" and even that "3 - 2 is the loneliest number"? We are not equivocating. If we are saying things which are true that follow from the nature of tautologies, then there are infinite many things which we can say while anchored to our tautologies. If identity is true, so is it true that identity entails infinite diversity of any true statement.

    Thus, to say truly that "Yellowstone is the most beautiful" and that "The view of my window of the Gallatin Valley is beautiful" is not substantively different than any other tautology. The only real difference is one of form. Certainly, "p is p" is an ugly thing to say when we can be witnessing the world from atop Baldy Mountain and realizing that such a view is beautiful. While "p is p" has its place in illustrating philosophical points and in logic classes where simplicity has its own kind of elegance, the form of the tautology is more than a little repulsive when up against the beautiful parade of waterfalls along Hyalite Creek. Yet, all of these things ultimately are tautological. We are not really doing more than asserting that a thing is itself; we are simply doing so in ever diverse ways - no doubt aided along by the magical way this place hits our senses.

    Why write about this subject? I think what I am trying to get across is that the study of philosophy is not an abstraction that is distinct in any substantive way whatsoever from the world we inhabit. When philosophers talk about Truth, Beauty, Being - with all the capital letters - they can and should be talking about notions that are really the same as the ones we are expressing about our world. They are only abstract in the sense that we talk about them as generalities, but they are not abstract in being otherworldly or perfect ideas of which our world only is a mere replica. It is to say we should not run away from the trail of truth, virtue, logic, and several thousands of years of jargon built to facilitate the discussion of our world.

    I am an activist. I do care deeply about the injustices in the world - to people, animals, the land, and our overall environment. Nevertheless, I hope I am also a philosopher. To deal with big concepts like injustice and working toward a world that looks like we want it to be, we cannot be afraid to do the hard work of gazing into the depths of these ideas. We cannot simply assert "injustice" and hope everyone knows what we mean. We have to tie it to a context; we have to reach that subject into a predicate. What is "injustice"? Well, it is injustice. Yet, to tie that to the endlessly diverse context of our lives, we need to be willing to explore the tautology further even if the path can often be littered with all kinds of ugly and ineloquent things.



    "Yellowstone is the most beautiful"

    perhaps i do not understand tautology, since i am learning the word today, but this doesn't seem like a tautology to me. you are not saying something unnecessarily repetitious. it is not Truth, with a capital T,  that Yellowstone is beautiful, this very statement is referential to the idea of "beauty" to humans. if this is off topic or not addressing your point directly please steer me in a more appropriate direction.

    When we say "P = P", even this is referential because it implies that you can "say". a tree never says "im a tree" or "tree is me" or even "I am", it simply is. once again, if this is off topic or not addressing your point please steer me in a more appropriate direction.

    When philosophers talk about Truth, Beauty, Being - with all the capital letters - they can and should be talking about notions that are really the same as the ones we are expressing about our world.

    aside from beauty which i believe to be a wholly human invention (at least as we define it)  i agree that the concepts of Truth or Being, with capital letters, exist within the universe and can and should be talked about thusly.

    Good questions ...

    When I say "Yellowstone is the most beautiful," it does not seem to be tautological because I have said something new of Yellowstone in that I've added he predicate "is the most beautiful" to Yellowstone, which may seemingly be true or false.  However, if we can truly say that "Yellowstone is the most beautiful" - that is, derive its truth from the nature of the subject "Yellowstone," then it would be tautological.  The predicate would be contained necessarily in the subject.  It would have the same truth value as "Yellowstone is Yellowstone."  Or, "Either this is Yellowstone, or it is not Yellowstone."

    It begs the question of whether Yellowstone logically implies "is the most beautiful" but that's okay.  I'm not trying to demonstrate that one predicate follows from a subject but rather to show that any subject implies a predicate.  Since subjects are not predicates, identity contains internal diversity.  It is not simply repetitious to say that "p is p."  In that statement is endless diversity.  If so, tautological statements need not appear repetitious or uninteresting or ugly.  Some are; others are amusingly so.  However, that is missing what function a tautology actually fulfills - the formal expression of truth.

    As for the other point you make about the necessity of a thinker to change "p" to "p is p", I think you are saying that "p" could be true by itself so long as there does not need to be any rational explanation of what "p" is.  If there are no humans or other rational beings (God, angels, somethin else), there are simply trees, not "trees are trees."  Thus, "p" can stand by itself even if it cannot be expressed by itself.  This is all very similar to the riddle of whether a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound?  I think you'd be saying that it would.  I would argue that there is no question of the truth of "p" without the perception of the question, that truth only has meaning in a world where it can be expressed.  We cannot imagine a world without perception because that too is a perception of the world. 

    I think your question does raise an essential issue, though, and one that needs more analysis than the long back and forths of this discussion.  So, when are you going to start that group?

    Talking thusly,


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