Tautologies Not Trivial

In mathematics and logic, one sometimes speaks of a “trivial truth” or “trivial theorem”, referring to a tautology. Thus for example in this Quora question, Daniil Kozhemiachenko gives this example:

The fact that all groups of order 2 are isomorphic to one another and commutative entails that there are no non-Abelian groups of order 2.

This statement is a tautology because “Abelian group” here just means one that is commutative: the statement is like the customary example of asserting that “all bachelors are unmarried.”

Some extend this usage of “trivial” to refer to all statements that are true in virtue of the meaning of the terms, sometimes called “analytic.” The effect of this is to say that all statements that are logically necessary are trivial truths. An example of this usage can be seen in this paper by Carin Robinson. Robinson says at the end of the summary:

Firstly, I do not ask us to abandon any of the linguistic practises discussed; merely to adopt the correct attitude towards them. For instance, where we use the laws of logic, let us remember that there are no known/knowable facts about logic. These laws are therefore, to the best of our knowledge, conventions not dissimilar to the rules of a game. And, secondly, once we pass sentence on knowing, a priori, anything but trivial truths we shall have at our disposal the sharpest of philosophical tools. A tool which can only proffer a better brand of empiricism.

While the word “trivial” does have a corresponding Latin form that means ordinary or commonplace, the English word seems to be taken mainly from the “trivium” of grammar, rhetoric, and logic. This would seem to make some sense of calling logical necessities “trivial,” in the sense that they pertain to logic. Still, even here something is missing, since Robinson wants to include the truths of mathematics as trivial, and classically these did not pertain to the aforesaid trivium.

Nonetheless, overall Robinson’s intention, and presumably that of others who speak this way, is to suggest that such things are trivial in the English sense of “unimportant.” That is, they may be important tools, but they are not important for understanding. This is clear at least in our example: Robinson calls them trivial because “there are no known/knowable facts about logic.” Logical necessities tell us nothing about reality, and therefore they provide us with no knowledge. They are true by the meaning of the words, and therefore they cannot be true by reason of facts about reality.

Things that are logically necessary are not trivial in this sense. They are important, both in a practical way and directly for understanding the world.

Consider the failure of the Mars Climate Orbiter:

On November 10, 1999, the Mars Climate Orbiter Mishap Investigation Board released a Phase I report, detailing the suspected issues encountered with the loss of the spacecraft. Previously, on September 8, 1999, Trajectory Correction Maneuver-4 was computed and then executed on September 15, 1999. It was intended to place the spacecraft at an optimal position for an orbital insertion maneuver that would bring the spacecraft around Mars at an altitude of 226 km (140 mi) on September 23, 1999. However, during the week between TCM-4 and the orbital insertion maneuver, the navigation team indicated the altitude may be much lower than intended at 150 to 170 km (93 to 106 mi). Twenty-four hours prior to orbital insertion, calculations placed the orbiter at an altitude of 110 kilometers; 80 kilometers is the minimum altitude that Mars Climate Orbiter was thought to be capable of surviving during this maneuver. Post-failure calculations showed that the spacecraft was on a trajectory that would have taken the orbiter within 57 kilometers of the surface, where the spacecraft likely skipped violently on the uppermost atmosphere and was either destroyed in the atmosphere or re-entered heliocentric space.[1]

The primary cause of this discrepancy was that one piece of ground software supplied by Lockheed Martin produced results in a United States customary unit, contrary to its Software Interface Specification (SIS), while a second system, supplied by NASA, expected those results to be in SI units, in accordance with the SIS. Specifically, software that calculated the total impulse produced by thruster firings produced results in pound-force seconds. The trajectory calculation software then used these results – expected to be in newton seconds – to update the predicted position of the spacecraft.

It is presumably an analytic truth that the units defined in one way are unequal to the units defined in the other. But it was ignoring this analytic truth that was the primary cause of the space probe’s failure. So it is evident that analytic truths can be extremely important for practical purposes.

Such truths can also be important for understanding reality. In fact, they are typically more important for understanding than other truths. The argument against this is that if something is necessary in virtue of the meaning of the words, it cannot be telling us something about reality. But this argument is wrong for one simple reason: words and meaning themselves are both elements of reality, and so they do tell us something about reality, even when the truth is fully determinate given the meaning.

If one accepts the mistaken argument, in fact, sometimes one is led even further. Logically necessary truths cannot tell us anything important for understanding reality, since they are simply facts about the meaning of words. On the other hand, anything which is not logically necessary is in some sense accidental: it might have been otherwise. But accidental things that might have been otherwise cannot help us to understand reality in any deep way: it tells us nothing deep about reality to note that there is a tree outside my window at this moment, when this merely happens to be the case, and could easily have been otherwise. Therefore, since neither logically necessary things, nor logically contingent things, can help us to understand reality in any deep or important way, such understanding must be impossible.

It is fairly rare to make such an argument explicitly, but it is a common implication of many arguments that are actually made or suggested, or it at least influences the way people feel about arguments and understanding.  For example, consider this comment on an earlier post. Timocrates suggests that (1) if you have a first cause, it would have to be a brute fact, since it doesn’t have any other cause, and (2) describing reality can’t tell us any reasons but is “simply another description of how things are.” The suggestion behind these objections is that the very idea of understanding is incoherent. As I said there in response, it is true that every true statement is in some sense “just a description of how things are,” but that was what a true statement was meant to be in any case. It surely was not meant to be a description of how things are not.

That “analytic” or “tautologous” statements can indeed provide a non-trivial understanding of reality can also easily be seen by example. Some examples from this blog:

Good and being. The convertibility of being and goodness is “analytic,” in the sense that carefully thinking about the meaning of desire and the good reveals that a universe where existence as such was bad, or even failed to be good, is logically impossible. In particular, it would require a universe where there is no tendency to exist, and this is impossible given that it is posited that something exists.

Natural selection. One of the most important elements of Darwin’s theory of evolution is the following logically necessary statement: the things that have survived are more likely to be the things that were more likely to survive, and less likely to be the things that were less likely to survive.

Limits of discursive knowledge. Knowledge that uses distinct thoughts and concepts is necessarily limited by issues relating to self-reference. It is clear that this is both logically necessary, and tells us important things about our understanding and its limits.

Knowledge and being. Kant rightly recognized a sense in which it is logically impossible to “know things as they are in themselves,” as explained in this post. But as I said elsewhere, the logically impossible assertion that knowledge demands an identity between the mode of knowing and the mode of being is the basis for virtually every sort of philosophical error. So a grasp on the opposite “tautology” is extremely useful for understanding.

 

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