One’s thoughts can’t be profound unless they’re true.

I had the following text-based conversation with a friend, Matt Thornton (@aliveness_ape). The conversation resolves around the meaning and role of profundity. Comments and feedback would be appreciated. If my reasoning is in error, please let me know.

 

PB: Did you say this to me or did I make it up?: One’s thoughts can’t be profound unless they’re true.

MT: I’ve long believed that.

PB: The only way a thought could be profound is if it’s true, no?

MT: Yes. For something to be profound, it first has to be true.

PB: So what if one thinks a thought is profound, but it’s not true? What could we say about his epistemic predicament?

MT: It would still be alluding to something that was, and the part that was would be profound, no?

PB: But his predicament would have to be “worse” than just being wrong. If he was just wrong (about a complex math problem, for example) and didn’t think his answer was profound, it seems to me that’s not as bad as thinking his response is both correct and profound.

Does the feeling of profundity trap one into ways of thinking about the world?

MT: If one falsely thinks something is profound, when in reality it isn’t even true, then the consequences could be fatal, depending on the belief. That’s called “religion”.

PB: True. But let’s say there are no consequences because it’s about something that has no significance. For example, someone’s convinced Bigfoot died years ago, and they think that’s profound. Doesn’t the fact that they think it’s profound make it “worse”.

MT: Probably, yes. Profound then would be a subjective label.

PB: Does it follow from this that we should try not to think what we’re thinking is profound? Because we could always be mistaken. So profundity seems like a trap. A sinkhole. And a dangerous one.

MT: It might be.

PB: Is it that thinking a thought is profound makes it less likely that one will revise the thought?

MT: Perhaps.

PB: Thinking a thought is profound does nothing to improve one’s thinking. It’s a byproduct of thought. And it may be a dangerous one.

MT: Solid point. If you’re reasoning is correct, what does one do with this?

PB: I don’t know.

31 COMMENTS

  1. This is where MT’s logic gets fuzzy for me:
    “It would still be alluding to something that was, and the part that was would be profound, no? ”

    Confusing.

    Perhaps it’s best to let others decide if our thoughts are profound.
    Perhaps thinking our thoughts are (or might be seen as) profound will tend to make us more careful in our thinking and expressing.
    To guide respondents, it would help to know the specific definition of profound we are discussing.
    That said, I tend to disagree that thoughts must be true to be profound.
    Does profundity presume truth? (I don’t think so.)
    Can thoughts or ideas be profoundly stupid or wrong or untrue? (I think so.)

  2. As a musician I have have what I believed to be profound thoughts in my development as a player throughout my life. I think we have to perhaps go through a cycle of semi truths in order to come to a clear conclusion about many things. I’m not sure if it has to be truth from the offset,especially when coming to conclusions about how to create good music…

  3. A thought (statement, opinion; whatever) is either true or it’s not, yes? The truth status may not be known, however.

    If it’s true, then it could be considered “profound”… though I’d associate a certain amount of subtlety to it. Things that are profound shouldn’t be obvious, though obvious things can be true as well.

    This is why I’m not a philosopher!

    Steve

  4. This is also why neither of the interlocutors are philosophers either. Neither bothered to clarify what was to be understood by the word ‘profound’ in this wee discussion of theirs.

    ‘Profound’ is not a particularly significant word in philosophy; it just means ‘deep’, in all its senses, literal and figurative, though we tend in English to use ‘deep’ mostly in the literal senses and ‘profound’ mostly in the figurative senses. The whole vacuous conversation is a good example of an extended deepity!

  5. PB, Your way of reasoning is all right. I wonder why this MT thought that thoughts can’t be profound unless they’re true. I am going to say something silly perhaps, but in my opinion there are no profound thoughts. I do not know a definition of something profound, so how can I detect or decide if some thought is profound? For me thoughts are neutral, we hearing them, decide upon their meaning and purpose based on our knowledge and feelings. It is subjective as You both agreed.

    Does it follow from this that we should try not to think what we’re
    thinking is profound?

    I do not think so.

    Thinking a thought is profound does nothing to improve one’s thinking.
    It’s a byproduct of thought. And it may be a dangerous one.

    Why would anyone think that their thoughts are profound? Profound in relation to what? I do not understand. What profound means?
    Dangerous? To whom? To the listener? But that depends on listener inner world of feelings and knowledge is it not so?

    MT: Solid point. If you’re reasoning is correct, what does one do with
    this?

    PB: I don’t know.

    hahahahaha… this sounds like a joke. … words are neutral, and they are what we make of them. I still do not know what profound means. Uh, I am no help at all, hahaha… .

  6. Exactly so, Cairsley. Such ‘discussions’ are rather annoying, since they turn around something vague and imprecise or non-existant. “Deepity” is the best possible name for them, not to mention a clever pun.
    It’s a bit like most religious discussions, isn’t it? Questions of just how human or divine Jesus was, or how long an ancient prophet lived, or whether God can create something so heavy he can’t lift it. The kind of pseudo-intellectualism one has to deal with at polite parties with strangers, and online.

  7. Stephen of Wimbledon Dec 29, 2014 at 7:38 pm

    The word profound is merely an adjective, a word used to add stress or weight to a noun.

    It is usually used to indicate depth of perception, (- as in Einstein’s concepts of relativity).

    It is also used by fumbling, self-deceiving obfuscators, to try to impress, but usually only indicates how far they are out of their depth, profoundly confused, profoundly deluded, and profoundly wrong.

  8. Hi Jonathan,

    Thank you for taking the time to help me out.

    This is about the weight one attaches to beliefs.

    What I get from that is that when PB asks: “what if one thinks a thought is profound, but it’s not true? What could we say about his epistemic predicament?” he’s pointing out that some people give weight to statements that are not true – and this is a problem because if the statement is not true then they are, in fact, vacuous – they are of no consequence, they are the opposite of profound.

    MT then responds by asking whether the same statement: “[might] still be alluding to something that was [true] and [that] part [of that statement] … would be profound, no?”

    To this PB responds: “But [the person believing the statement was profound even though not true has a] predicament [a predicament that is] worse than just being wrong. If [the person] was just wrong (about a complex math problem, for example) and didn’t think his answer was profound, it seems to me that’s not as bad as thinking his response is both correct and profound.

    So at this point PB and MT appear to agree that for a statement (idea) to be profound it must also be true and PB is saying there is also a ‘weight of wrongness’ (for want of a better expression) attached to believing that a statement is profound when we do not know if it is true, or if it is false?

    We are then given the unattributed question: “Does the feeling of profundity trap one into ways of thinking about the world?”

    This seems to me to be a statement of the obvious but, knowing that philosophy is often about challenging our assumptions, I’ll ride along.

    MT then takes my position (above) and extends that in two ways – one way is to look at cause and effect: “If one falsely thinks something is profound [in your terms, Jonathan: If we give weight to false beliefs by claiming or believing them to be profound] when in reality it isn’t even true, then the consequences could be fatal … ”

    The other way MT extends this argument is to look definitions: “… depending on the belief. That’s called religion.”. It seems to me that this is a perfectly reasonable, common sense, extension. As far back as the ’80s Douglas Adams likened the arguments between users of Microsoft software and Apple software to religious arguments.

    PB’s response appears to be an attempt to marry the obvious statement (feelings of profundity trap us in bad thinking) to his proposed ‘weight of wrongness’ scale.

    PB proposes an experiment: ” … let’s say there are no consequences because it’s about something that has no significance. For example, someone’s convinced Bigfoot died years ago, and they think that’s profound. Doesn’t the fact that they think it’s profound make it worse?”

    Taking my cue from you, Jonathan, I see PB saying: Believing in things you don’t know is bad. Adding that your belief is profound adds to the untrue side of the scales.

    If (a big if) I understood that correctly … MT appears to understand in a certain way when he follows with: “Profound then would be a subjective label.”. Saying that something is profound adds to someone’s wrongness in the sense that if there is any question about the factual basis of the statement then calling it profound should make a big flashing question mark appear above their credibility and therefore their reputation.

    PB then asks if we can all learn from this: ” [should we] try not to think what we’re thinking is profound?

    Well; DUH!

    PB: “Because we could always be mistaken. So profundity (adding weight to our beliefs) seems like a trap … a dangerous one.”

    After pausing for a moment in shock (a Philosopher came to a conclusion), I read on.

    PB restores balance to the universe by immediately asking another question: Does thinking a statement is profound makes it less likely that one will revise our beliefs about that statement? After all, Thinking a statement is profound does nothing to improve one’s thinking.

    In other words, as scientists are always keen to point out, all beliefs should be judged potentially temporary – subject to the possibility that they will be undermined by new evidence. Beliefs are only as profound as the number of facts that support them.

    I hope I got that right?

    If so, I don’t think my original summary was so far from the truth.

    Peace.

  9. “One’s thoughts can’t be profound unless they’re true.”

    A thought is only true in the mind of the thinker – even if it’s a lie – so profundity of thought exists only in the mind of the thinker. Profundity of speech is therefore profound to the hearers, but even then, the statements can be false, and profoundly false. So I disagree with the original statement.

    What a strange discussion.

  10. Hi CumbriaSmithy,

    “One’s thoughts can’t be profound unless they’re true.” A thought is only true in the mind of the thinker – even if it’s a lie …

    Is the dialog between PB and MT internal. On that basis your solipsistic view appears to be redundant?

    … profundity of thought exists only in the mind of the thinker.

    One dose of solipsism isn’t enough?

    Profundity of speech [may be] profound to the hearers, but even then, the statements can be false, and profoundly false. So I disagree with the original statement.

    Agreed.

    Peace.

  11. Hi Alan,

    Thank you for your response.

    While I appreciate that many philosophers understand their job description to mean, at least in part; to argue semantics, I can’t help thinking that your approach is superior: go to the dictionary, or grammar reference (thus post #1).

    That said, there is a sub-text to the discussion. PB & MT are exploring one of the more obvious outward signs that someone may be suffering from being doxastically closed. Once people close their minds to the possibilities they seek to organise, to classify, to order their supposed knowledge. Adjectives are one way to do this – though alternative interpretations (including different dictionaries) are notorious for being too flexible.

    Peace.

  12. Hi Doug,

    I believe – from the evidence of the conversation context – that MT was trying to say:

    It [the idea judged as profound] [c]ould still be alluding to something that was [true], and the part that was [true might] … be profound, no?

    The statement / idea / belief as partly true and partly untrue or vacuous is not new. For example, I use the name here of Stephen of Wimbledon. It could, in certain limited contexts, be judged 100% true. But I could never fill in a government form, court paper or insurance application using that name.

    MT touched too lightly, in my view, on an important aspect of the relationship between truth and how we describe truths to each other.

    In my view PB is right to propose that the word profound is used, alongside other adjectives, to create supposed hierarchies of truth. MT’s additional proposal; that there are half-truths, quarter-truths and so on … is complimentary.. Does anyone seriously doubt that we are often only partly right? This does not, of course, exclude the possibility that many people are often wholly wrong.

    But, and it’s a big but, does that really help those of us interested in bringing truth to everyone?

    The only lesson I can see to take away from this discussion is that people who are cut off from the truth by their thinking just dig deeper holes.

    The use of the word profound may, therefore, be a useful indicator that someone is not doxastically open. Problem: I use profound a fair bit. But that’s my problem, not yours.

    You ask: Should we only allow listeners to use adjectives, to classify arguments for truth according to their own judgement?

    My answer is no. I know that my thinking is sometimes sloppy. The quality of our thinking – how we receive, qualify, quantify and classify evidence is a crucial first step in making decisions. Assuming we want to make decisions based on truth … we should be getting people to improve their thinking, not to use short cuts like adjectives.

    Peace.

  13. Hi Agrajag,

    A thought (statement, opinion; whatever) is either true or it’s not, yes?

    No. Truth may be dependent on context. Which way is up in zero gravity? Hats are a must have accessory for men this year (true for most of the 20C, and several other centuries … but not right now). Then there are half-truths: Women are treated as Second Class citizens – true for the majority of women in most situations, but not always, and the true picture depends on place, time, family, connections, profession (where allowed), and so on.

    Truth is often, in addition, dependent on evidence. The truth of my birth is evidenced by my existence. But I can only claim my rights as a citizen because it is attested to by my birth certificate – evidence of the place, time and my parentage.

    The truth status may not be known, however.

    If your paraphrasing Donald Rumsfeld “there are known knows … ” etc. then yes, fair enough, truth is elusive in some situations.

    If [something is] true, then it could be considered “profound”…

    To call every simple truth profound seems a bit, I don’t know, dramatic … ?

    Peace.

  14. Something can be emotionally or subjectively profound, such as music even if it has nothing at all to do with truth. You are seemingly conflating and confusing the subjective feeling with objectivity. That is not profound!

  15. It seems to me that the premise is incorrect. In my opinion, ‘profound’ is an emotional response. It refers to a sense of intense revelation which one can have and still be wrong. In reality, I do not believe there is such a thing as an absolute truth except perhaps in some very restricted scenarios – tautologies, math, etc. I would say that the concept that something can only be profound if it is true implies that we can ever know for certain that something is true; which we cannot.
    I can see the use of the term profound to have a non-emotional meaning if you use it in the sense that the consequence of the knowledge is significant. That is to say that the consequence of the revelation is profound. In that case though, the concept is profound regardless of whether it is true or not because it dictates a significant response.
    I took the following definition out of Google and it seems to me that the first definition does not imply in any way the truth of something. The second perhaps does but ‘knowledge’ gets us into a debate about agnosticism (that is whether or not we can ever ‘know’ something’) In any case, it seems to me, the truth of a notion is irrelevant to its profoundness.

    pro·found
    adjective
    1. (of a state, quality, or emotion) very great or intense.
    2. (of a person or statement) having or showing great knowledge or insight.

  16. paulstjohnsmith Dec 31, 2014 at 5:29 am

    Something can be emotionally or subjectively profound, such as music even if it has nothing at all to do with truth. You are seemingly conflating and confusing the subjective feeling with objectivity. That is not profound!

    As Stephen pointed out in comment 1, “profound” is an adjective which can be widely applied to different topics.

    You correctly make the point, that people may have profound personal emotional reactions, but these should not be confused with factual discoveries which have profound implications in a wider community for our understanding of science, for technical applications, or for identifying further areas of new discovery.

  17. Well, as usual, I’m not a profound enough thinker. 😉

    Thanks for your expansion of my remarks. I agree with you about context and its influence on truth status. The rest of it just makes my brain hurt.

    Cheers and Happy New Year!

    Stephen (of Mundelein)

  18. I had the following text-based conversation…

    That may or might be your problem right there. You can’t expect deep insight when your medium of communication is one that permits emoticons. The Algonquin Round Table members didn’t express their wit via Christmas cracker mottos.

    Re the Owl Problem, Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen, or Rinse… I mean Ring Cycle (that’s the problem I find after Christmas: there’s always so much laundry), remains pretty profound even though there is reason to believe none of that work’s dramatis personæ ever actually existed.

    “Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”

    What’s a Grecian urn? Not as much as he did before the collapse of his country’s economy.

  19. Over the past couple of years I’ve been doing a lot of reading on social science (I realize some on this site consider that an oxymoron) and philosophy topics and I think you have hit on one of the most fundamental problems with the vast majority of work in both camps. They do the following: Let’s look at the way a certain phrase is used in English for example “free will” or “consciousness”. As we do that we find all sorts of inconsistencies and apparent paradoxes. Person X uses Free Will this way but if it means that it is not consistent with what we mean by free will in this context. There are all sorts of people that are considered deep thinkers: Hillary Putnam, Sam Harris, Quine, actually most of the people that a grad student in American philosophy — assuming any still exist — would have the misfortune to have to read.

    And my reaction to these discussions is always the same: “Wow, you found that English is used imprecisely and inconsistently? Way to go Captain Obvious” Why people think that serious science (or call it what you want if you don’t want to be accused of scientism essentially anything that could count as knowledge) can result from these kinds of investigations is beyond me and I’m kind of amazed it took me this long to figure out the fundamental flaw. The first thing we do in actual science is define our terms. And if we do that if we say “my definition for this context for free will is X” most if not all of the apparent paradoxes and controversies go away.

    I had a revelation on this when I was reading Chomsky (I know that’s a big surprise to anyone who follows my comments) but he had a great discussion of a specific example, related to the definition that critics of linguistics like Putnam make about theories of meaning not based on reference. Chomsky pointed out that even for something as apparently straight forward as water defining what exactly it is supposed to reference is not at all clear. Is it H2O? Clearly not since nothing out of the tap is that. Do we define some basic level of impurity? That is also clearly counter intuitive and non-sensical to think when I say “get me a drink of water” I mean “H2O with less than X% impurities”. Of course there are plenty of cases where we can say this or that water is over or under the line but the basic definition and the status of all sorts of examples (he has other more interesting ones but I’m already going on far too long as I always do). And I think that general point applies to a whole shitload of pointless verbiage that passes for philosophy but is basically ill defined and meaningless.

  20. And Truth is seldom a boolean. In the real world, except for mathematical truths, I think it’s rare we find things that we can say with strong certainty are completely true or false. BTW, I have a similar problem with the standard philosophical definition that truth is “justified true belief”. Here is one of my favorite examples. Suppose you are Isaac Newton. You just figured out calculus and calculated the orbits of the planets with much better accuracy than was ever possible. Was that profound? Was it knowledge? I would say hell yeah, in fact don’t get more profound.

    But to some extent it was still wrong. Most of the variance was so small it couldn’t be measured, perhaps even not with today’s technology but some like the orbit of Mercury could be. So clearly Newton was wrong about the orbit of Mercury. So does that mean his theory wasn’t profound? Or does it mean that it wasn’t knowledge since it was justified but it wasn’t true (at least not completely). To me that shows that these definitions are not on the right track for a modern theory of epistemology.

  21. I have profound thoughts all the time being a talented artist designer…..who goes on amazing thought trips and who stuns myself with the rich visions in my head…but none of it is true…..those visionary concepts in my head may become true in the future which would then allow it to be called profound…..I suspect the writer to be suggesting that nature and physics contain many profound facts…that are true and not imagined by humans…..but the author claims to know the capabilities of every human mind….not all humans think the same…..some are wired up slightly differently….and have more profound thoughts for breakfast than any religious person would process in a lifetime….

  22. I had a far more profound text exchange with a friend about our favourite cheeses. However I didn’t feel the need to publish it, so perhaps it was less pretentious, but probably more true. Or at least those conditions applied until I alluded to it in this comment.
    What I can say with some certainty is that I’ve had more profound thoughts about hot dinners than I’ve had hot dinners, an assertion which is not only untrue but also not profound.

  23. headswapboy Jan 4, 2015 at 11:12 am

    I had a far more profound text exchange with a friend about our favourite cheeses.

    Aha!

    Spectator I: I think it was “Blessed are the cheesemakers”.

    Mrs. Gregory: Aha, what’s so special about the cheesemakers?

    Gregory: Well, obviously it’s not meant to be taken literally; it refers to any manufacturers of dairy products.
    http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0079470/quotes

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