Unicorns Exist!

One of the things that people often first object to when considering Protagoras’ notion that, “Humans are the measure of all things,” is that it seems to suggest that all knowledge is relative, that anyone can say anything they want to about anything, and that it must be considered as valid and true.

Indeed, this is what Plato is gesturing to in the excerpt from the dialogue Euthydemus that Dillon provides in The Greek Sophists, when Ctesippus and Dionysodorus are discussing whether contradiction is ever possible.

“Is it possible to say something false? That’s what your argument indicates, isn’t it? That when someone speaks, they either say what is true or they say nothing?”
He agreed.
“So it is impossible to say something false, but possible to believe it?”
“Not even to believe it,” he said.

This idea, that it is both impossible to say something false, but also impossible to believe something false, seems extremely problematic to most people. In fact, I would suggest that most of us have been brought to think about things in such a fundamentally platonic way that this passage seems at first like nonsense.

But if you break it down and think about it carefully, it isn’t as strange as it first appears.

If I say, “Unicorns exist!” am I saying something false? Let’s evaluate this on three levels.

First, if we change the statement, “Unicorns exist!” into, “I believe that unicorns exist!” on what level can this phrase be disputed? If you say, “I want to eat a Cuban sandwich for lunch,” or, “Paris is the most romantic city in the world,” or, “Jesus died for our sins,” on what basis can I deny the truth of any of these claims? I could certainly say, “Well, I think Cuban sandwiches are gross,” or “No, Rome is the most romantic city in the world,” or “Actually, the purpose of life is self-cultivation and personal enlightenment,” but in saying these things, I am not denying the truth of what you believe, I am simply asserting the truth of what I believe. That is, I can disagree with the truth you believe as it applies to me, but I can’t really say that the truth of what you believe  is wrong as it applies to you! The most I can say is, “Well, how’s that belief working out for you? You know, you could believe something else if you wanted!”

This is what is meant by the first part of the idea expressed above, “When someone speaks, they say what is true…” When someone asserts some-thing that they believe to be true, they are speaking the truth as they understand it.

“But Sheldon,” you may object, “Unicorns don’t really exist!” which brings us to the second point. You might say the statement is wrong because it doesn’t correspond to some-thing in the real world. Indeed, in the Western philosophical tradition, the logical truth of any proposition is largely understood as the connection between the conditions described in the statement and observable reality. Thus, if I say, “It’s snowing inside my office,” and I know for a fact that it isn’t snowing inside my office, then what I am saying isn’t true.

But this is what is meant by the second part of the idea expressed about, “…or they say nothing at all.”

If I say, “It is snowing inside my office,” and I don’t actually believe it’s snowing in my office, I’m not really saying anything. I am asserting some-thing I don’t believe, and if you question me on it, I can either continue to lie (asserting something which is no-thing), or I will eventually relent and admit the truth, which is that I don’t really believe it is snowing inside my office, either.

But on the third level (and this is what most people have trouble wrapping their heads around!), when I say “Unicorns exist” or “It’s snowing inside my office,” by the sheer fact of uttering these statements, I am also creating a reality in which there is in fact a correspondence. Unicorns do exist, in the sense that they are mythological creatures that have played an important role in our culture for centuries. I say, “Unicorns exist!” and you say, “No, they don’t!” and I can take you to any bookstore in America and prove you wrong. Indeed, there’s been a lot written about this some-thing which is no-thing! I can point to movies and TV shows and internet sites and the weathered bumper-sticker on my car that reads: I Brake for Unicorns! and you can’t really deny that there is something called a unicorn anymore. Similarly, when I say, “It is snowing in my office,” I have created an image in your head, I have caused a shift in how you perceive reality, because now you are imagining the possibility of what snow falling inside a building might look like. By the sheer act of stating something, I have made some-thing exist, even if it’s only an idea.

But ideas have incredible importance, and consequence!

Santa Claus is an idea, and yet one that accounts for trillions of dollars in consumer spending every year, and countless hours of excitement for millions of children around the world, and has taken on such mythic, psychological, and intellectual power in our culture that it is nearly impossible to imagine a world without this “thing” which is “no-thing” but actually “some-thing.”

And so we are left with the last part of the passage, which in some ways might be the easiest section to understand:

“So it is impossible to say something false, but possible to believe it?”
“Not even to believe it,” he said.

In what way is it impossible to believe something false? Well, if we cannot say anything false–if the act of uttering something causes it to exist, if only as an idea–than the act of believing something is true means that it is true, if only for the people who believe it.

Think about the Birthers for a moment: these are people who believe that Barack Obama is not really the President of the United States because, as they say, he was not born in the U.S., and is therefor ineligible to hold the office. These people adamantly believe that President Obama was born in Kenya, and no amount of evidence to the contrary seems likely to dissuade them of their beliefs.

In what ways can these people be said to hold “false” beliefs? Well, certainly these beliefs aren’t false in the sense that they don’t actually believe what they say they do! These people absolutely believe that there has been a massive conspiracy to hide the fact that Obama is not qualified under the Constitution to be President. These people believe that Obama has lied. These people also believe that large sections of the “mainstream media” are in cahoots in maintaining this conspiracy. These people have websites and listservs and blogs, they organize meetings and conventions, they write and publish articles and books. These people vote.

These beliefs are real and they have enormous consequences for the people who hold them. But are they true? When someone says, “Barack Hussein Obama is not qualified to be President of the United States!” (and these people almost always use Obama’s middle name!), is this statement true? The vast majority of people–including government officials and members of the press who have been given access to President Obama’s birth certificate–deny the truth of the Birthers’ claims. But does this really stop them from believing what they do?

I think Protagoras would say that this is the role (and importance) that rhetoric can have: in changing people’s minds about what it is they think they believe, and in the process, to create a new reality for themselves. But more on that later!

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