A fly
We tie knots in our minds from our misunderstandings of language, according to Wittgenstein. He wanted 'to shew the fly the way out of the fly-bottle': liberate us from cases like Moore's paradox by making language less ambiguous and more truth-apt.


Last time we discussed paradoxes that emerge from self-referencing, which leads to contradictory statements in set theory. Today we deal with an epistemic problem: Moore's paradox.



Named after G.E. Moore, Moore’s paradox illustrates how it may be possible to make logically valid statements containing contradictory beliefs. To borrow Moore’s own example, ‘It is raining but I do not believe it is raining’: ‘P and I believe not-P’. Intuitively, this seems bizarre! How is that statement valid?!

Belief isn’t a simple statement of facts. The paradox rests on there being a genuine belief about the world (it’s an epistemic paradox). It arises from your believing something in contradiction to what you just said.

Moore suggested that the solution is to say P isn’t an assertion but an implication: it’s not contradictory to undermine only an implication. However, fellow analytic philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, who was greatly influenced by this paradox, offered a different take.

He blamed language in the first-person point of view for the source of Moore’s paradox, which doesn’t arise in the third person (‘It is raining but she does not believe it is’) or past tense (‘It was raining but I did not believe it was’).

Wittgenstein thus called for clarification of the expression ‘I believe’, arguing that it isn’t intelligible: things are either true or they’re not. In Philosophical Investigations he writes:

'How did we ever come to use such an expression as "I believe . . . "? . . . Did we observe ourselves and other people and so discover belief?'



Hence ‘I believe’ is really just equivalent to ‘This is the case’. Thus ‘P’ and ‘I believe not-P’ are just two propositions of the same kind which do contradict each other, dispelling an unavoidable paradox.

Belief, true or false, is usually taken to be meaningful: it’s matched up against some kind of objectivity (e.g. through justification). This undermines Wittgenstein’s view that false beliefs aren’t possible. But, when we lift all of our pride about it, can we say such objectivity exists? Wittgenstein’s own version of truth is ‘deflationary’. For him, truth has no explicit meaning (e.g. it’s not verifiable). Rather, it is implicitly fixed to its own conditions for being true, making it superficial and expressive.

But isn’t it radical for Wittgenstein to deny the meaning of ‘I believe’? We mentally report on what we think to be true every day . . .

Either way, feel free to ignore Ludwig’s advice and commit Moore’s paradox.

Will you?

You will and I believe you won’t.