If you enjoyed Daniel Dennett’s Canons of Good Spin last time, you’ll really enjoy a term he unveiled shortly afterward in the same speech: deepity.
A deepity is a proposition that
- seems to be profound because it is actually logically ill-formed;
- has at least two readings and balances precariously between them;
- on one reading is true but trivial; and
- on the other reading is false but would be Earth-shattering if true.
The true-but-trivial reading is enough to slide it into your brain, where the false reading sneaks out and messes up your head.
Dennett gives one example: Love is just a word.
The first reading would put quotes around love: “Love” is just a word. Yes, it is a word. It has four letters. True and trivial.
The second reading is without the quotes: Love is just a word. As Dennett says, whatever love is, it is not a word. It may be an interpersonal relationship, an emotion, the most wonderful phenomenon in human psychology, or it may be an illusion. But whatever it is, it is not a word. To say it is, is to commit a use-mention error: confusion the use of the word with the mention of it.
Here are more you may have heard.
We’re just arguing over semantics. The confusion here arises because many people don’t know what “semantics” means. They think it means “just words” but it actually means “the meaning of words.”
True but trivial reading: We’re arguing about word choices.
False but profound reading: Discussions about meaning are a waste of time.
Free will and predestination are in tension.
True but trivial reading: In theology, “free will” and “predestination” are ideas in opposition to each other.
False but profound reading: God predestines us to be saved or damned, but we can choose for ourselves.
Beauty is only skin-deep.
True but trivial: You can’t see underneath someone’s skin.
False but profound: Beauty does not or should not matter. If you care about it, you are shallow. The fact is that an important part of being human is being attracted to beauty, including beauty in the opposite sex. Furthermore, a person’s supposedly unimportant looks are often the result of choices they have made as a result of their supposedly all-important character. Few people are so irredeemeably ugly that they cannot appear beautiful on the outside if they are beautiful on the inside. In that sense, you can see underneath someone’s skin.
Are there any deepities you would like to add to this list?