Some mistake surely
by NT

The right of self-definition. I am who I say I am. It is an essential human right, and must be protected. No problem there. But is it quite as simple as current liberal theory supposes? Clearly not. Consider the following statement, ‘Their are two mistakes in this sentance.’ True or false? True (count up the spelling mistakes). A neat little piece of self-reference, in which a statement talks about itself.

What about this one? ‘Their are three mistakes in this sentance.’ True or false? Two spelling mistakes and one in counting the number of mistakes makes three. Therefore it is true? It is a more interesting proposition and quite a bit more confusing, and suggests a deeper level of self-reference, but is it true?

If it is, the most worrying consequence is that both statements are now true: there are both two and three mistakes in the sentence. Which is not a happy outcome. One solution is to define what sort of mistake we are considering before we make the statement. This too is worrying. If we have to give most of the answer before we ask the question, that seems an unwarranted restriction. And all over one trivial statement.

The easiest solution is to rule that the second statement is simply invalid; it is not playing by the rules. Except that it is much the more the interesting of the two. There is a subtlety about it that is intriguing (to those of us who like logical conundrums). And have you tried to imagine a third layer of reference and so come up with the answer ‘four’?

How much more complicated is a person than a single proposition. If a lowly sentence has difficulty with self-reference, and cannot possibly come close to self-definition, why do we believe that a person can? I have no problem with people’s right to self-definition (after all, isn’t that what we all demanded as adolescents), but I have doubts. Not of other people’s ability to define themselves, but my own. The life of prayer, weak as mine may be, shows me that I cannot define my life, that the one person who can, and whose judgement I ought therefore to listen to, is not me but God.

NT

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