Duhem-Quine in power: dead men bleed as philosophy goes to war

LouPaulsen LouPaulsen at attbi.com
Sat Jan 25 09:53:46 MST 2003

A long time ago I developed something which I called the "First Rule of
Information": "Anything proves anything."  Later on I was disappointed to
realize that this rule had previously been discovered by reputable
philosophers, and in fact had a name: "The Duhem-Quine Thesis."  If I had
discovered it a few decades earlier, students at the University of
Washington would be studying the Paulsen Principle instead of reading the
handout below:


"Any sentence could be maintained against any evidence, if other changes to
the belief set are made."

This principle underlies the joke (most of you have heard this) about the
man who goes to a doctor and declares that he is dead.  The doctor tries to
reason him out of this belief: surely a dead man cannot talk as you are
doing, move around, etc.?  The man will not be convinced: no, we hear plenty
of stories about the walking and talking dead, so that doesn't prove
anything.  Finally the doctor gets the man to agree that "dead men do not
bleed."  "You're sure of that, right?  You would agree that dead men do not
bleed?" "Correct."  The doctor then takes a sterile needle and pricks the
man's finger, and a drop of fresh blood wells up.  "Well, I'll be damned!"
says the man.  "Dead men DO bleed!"

The Bush administration has now elevated Duhem-Quine to a principle of
international relations.  The 'sentence' which can be maintained 'against
any evidence' is that 'Iraq is a threat to the United States' because of its
'dangerous weapons of mass destruction.'  If Iraq doesn't allow in weapons
inspectors, it proves they're afraid of their weapons of mass destruction
being found.  If they DO allow in weapons inspectors, it means they're
confident of hiding their weapons of mass destruction.  If the weapons
inspectors find weapons of mass destruction, then of course there are
weapons of mass destruction.  If they don't find weapons of mass
destruction, then it's because weapons inspections are inherently incapable
of finding weapons of mass destruction that don't want to be found.  If the
weapons inspectors testify that there is no serious accumulation of weapons
of mass destruction in Iraq, it means that they are stupid or venal
"so-called weapons inspectors", as Bush referred to them this week.

All of this of course leaves aside the whole questions of whether the US war
motives really have anything to do with "weapons of mass destruction", and
WHO really has dangerous weapons of mass destruction, and who nuked two
cities with them, and why some old shells of mustard gas, if Iraq has them,
are more dangerous than the US armada of nukes and cruise missiles, and
whether ordinary 2000-pound bombs shouldn't qualify as weapons of mass
destruction, particularly if you drop a lot of them, and whether Iraq
wouldn't have a perfect moral right to obtain chemical, biological, and/or
nuclear weapons, and to hide them and lie about them, considering the fact
that the United States is threatening to commit genocide upon it from one
minute to the next.  As another columnist pointed out recently, comparing
North Korea and Iraq, 'the lesson for small countries is that the way to
avoid being destroyed by the United States is to be as dangerous as
possible.'  (The corollary to which would be that, since the United States
IS planning to destroy Iraq, they probably have reliable intelligence that
Iraq does NOT have weapons of mass destruction.)

These are all important issues, and it is unfortunate that so many people in
the world are focused on the issue of whether the above mentioned 'sentence'
about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction is true or untrue.  However, given
that there is such curiosity on this point, attention is more and more being
given to the U.S. government's policy of "maintaining this sentence against
any evidence."  Consider the issue of Iraqi scientists.  Of course if the
scientists don't talk to the inspectors, it proves that they are producing
weapons of mass destruction.  If they talk to the inspectors in the presence
of Iraqi officials and say that they are not producing weapons of mass
destruction, then it means they are lying about it, afraid of being killed,
etc.  So of course the answer is to take them out of the country to be
interviewed!  Or so you might say.  But you would be forgetting that ANY
results of ANY experimental situation can be reinterpreted in such a way as
to maintain the original sentence.  OR, as an article in the LA Times puts


'Former weapons inspector Timothy McCarthy, however, warned that even if the
scientists agree to leave the country, the move might be a red herring. "It
sounds to me like a typical Iraqi trap," he said. "There's going to be a
hugely publicized trip of a scientist out of the country, and then he'll say
there's nothing there."'

[ My lovely wife, who tends to fume about some things, reacted to this by
saying, "Then why talk to them at all?? Isn't it a big waste of time??  Why
not just say, 'WE'RE GOING TO KILL YOU NO MATTER WHAT?'"  She has little
patience with the Bush administration at this point, it must be said. ]

Lou Paulsen

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