How self refutation- arguments are too quick

I remember the first time I saw the power of arguments based on self-refutation: for example, you hear someone say that all knowledge or belief is determined by behavioral conditioning, or culture, or political power, or linguistic structures, or natural forces, or the divine will etc., and then you point out that if that were the case, then the standard itself is merely a product of behavioral conditioning, or culture…etc. The refutation is one of the first philosophical arguments that one can learn. Over time, however, the refutation becomes unsatisfying. One reason is that it becomes familiar, but another is that the refutation itself seems to be missing something. One quickly develops unease that the refutation is too easy, and is confused by continually confronting those who can look the self refutation right in the face and still think that they are better off accepting one contradiction if that is the “only” cost of the clarity and power of seeing a single cause for all events and behaviors.

Clinging to a contradictory position is irrational, to be sure, but the desire to cling to the position in this case is understandable. The sorts of causes that tend to be involved in self refuting arguments aren’t just any old causes, but extremely powerful and universal causes of behaviors and beliefs and events. Things like culture and language and natural forces are what St. Thomas called universals in causando: they are divine sorts of causes that simultaneously extend to more things and penetrate more deeply into their effects than proper causes.

Neither the one who says “all things are conditioned by ____” nor the one who self-refutes it try to identify the actual sphere of events that the cause has dominion over. The one who mistakenly applies the universal cause to all things is too confused or lazy or excited to find the proper limits in which his cause is effective, and the one who refutes the position with a liar paradox usually thinks he has refuted the point and therefore doesn’t need to think about it anymore.

I was struck by this yesterday while reading Karl Popper: he claimed that “all reality is falsifiable, and what is not falsifiable is not reality”. As it stands, this position can be refuted by a high-schooler- but to figure out exactly the limits in which this is true would be an incredibly rewarding thing, and would cast a great deal of light on the nature of the sciences and their place in human knowing. In virtue of what is something falsifiable? In virtue of being a natural science? Not quite: for the truth that all swans are birds belongs to natural science, but it is not falsifiable. How does one parse out the limit between “all swans are white”, which is falsifiable (and falsified), and “all swans have bodily organs”, which is not?

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