Philosophy, Top Stories

Deepities and the Politics of Pseudo-Profundity

The word deepity, coined by the philosopher Daniel Dennett, refers to a phrase that seems true and profound but is actually ambiguous and shallow. Not to be confused with lies, clichés, truisms, contradictions, metaphors, or aphorisms, deepities occupy a linguistic niche of their own. The distinguishing feature of a deepity is that it has two possible interpretations. On the first reading, a deepity is true but trivial. On the second, it’s false but would be mind-blowing if it were true. 

Consider, for instance, the phrase “love is just a word.” On one reading, this is true but trivial. It’s no deep insight that “love”—like “Ethiopia” or “subdermatoglyphic” or “word”—is just a word in the English language. But on a second reading, “love is just a word” asserts something mind-blowing if true: there is no emotion called “love,” and everyone who thinks they’ve felt love is either lying or self-deceived. If true, this would change everything we thought we knew about our emotional lives. But it’s plainly false. Whatever love is—an emotion, an illusion, a pattern of neuronal firings—it’s not “just a word.” By virtue of its ambiguity, the phrase “love is just a word” doesn’t even achieve coherence, much less profundity.

The problem with deepities is not that they are arguments that initially seem convincing but collapse under scrutiny; it’s that they aren’t even arguments to begin with. Once you disambiguate a deepity—that is, once you notice it has two distinct meanings—you see that it contains no real argument at all, only an empty space where an argument should be. (Think of phrases like “love trumps hate” and “everything happens for a reason.” Do they seem both true and important after you disambiguate them?)

Yet, despite their emptiness, deepities often pass for profound insights. They achieve this effect because the listener switches back and forth between their two different interpretations unwittingly, and each interpretation seems to make up for what the other lacks. Upon hearing a deepity, the skeptical part of the listener’s mind is pacified by the true (but trivial) reading, while the emotional part of the listener’s mind is stimulated by the mind-blowing (but false) reading. Before the listener has a chance to realize that the allegedly deep insight is actually pseudo-profound bullshit, the speaker has already moved on.

Although the famously atheistic Dennett introduced the concept of deepities in order to deflate the rhetoric of theologians, it’s equally useful for deflating the rhetoric of intellectuals, politicians, and pundits—rhetoric designed, as George Orwell put it, to “give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.” Below are some contemporary examples. 

“All Politics Is Identity Politics”

Identity politics is often criticized because it presumes our interests, values, and beliefs are attached to immutable traits like race and sex. By way of rebuttal, some commentators resort to a rhetorical judo-move of sorts and assert that everyone engages in identity politics.

All politics is identity politics,” argues Ezra Klein of Vox, “all voters—even white ones—have identities. The question is which identities are being activated in any given election.” Matthew Yglesias, also of Vox, has made a similar argument: “People have identities, and people are mobilized politically around those identities. There is no other way to do politics than to do identity politics.” On this view, there’s no standpoint from which to criticize identity politics without falling victim to one’s own critique. Indeed, being a “critic of identity politics” is itself an identity, and therefore an expression of identity politics.

Like all deepities, this only seems profound because it’s ambiguous. In one sense, it’s true that all politics is identity politics, because politics involves people, and people have identities. But this is a trivial banality. By way of illustration, Yglesias offers a useful example. When “President Obama talks about how he likes Star Trek,” Yglesias claims, this is Obama engaging in “representational identity politics.” On behalf of which identity group? Scientists! If “scientist” is an identity and “black” is an identity, the rationale goes, then advocating for scientific research is identity politics in the same way as demanding, say, reparations for slavery.

But this is to misunderstand critics of identity politics, who object specifically to politics based on immutable identities—like “black,” “white,” “male,” and “female”—not mutable identities, like “scientist.” If we redefine “identity politics” to include mutable identities, then, at a glance, it’s true but trivial to observe that all politics is identity politics. A second reading of this deepity, however, reveals the controversial proposition that politics based on immutable traits (like skin color) are morally equivalent to politics based on mutable interests (like scientific research.) This dissolves a category distinction between advocating for slavery reparations and student loan reform, or between demanding a white ethno-state and NASA funding. None of these can be criticized for focusing on identity, because they are all expressions of identity politics. Such a moral equivalence is plainly false and nobody with modern ethical sensibilities—Yglesias and Klein included—would endorse it. But it would have profound implications for ethics and politics if it were true.

To be sure, there are coherent ways to defend identity politics. You could argue, for instance, that black identity politics is necessary because blacks lack political and cultural power, whereas white identity politics is detestable because whites already have power. That’s a real argument with premises and a conclusion. Indeed, it was more-or-less the rationale behind the Civil Rights Movement. But the premise no longer holds; it’s no longer true that blacks lack political and cultural power:

Yes, racism exists, but it’s no longer an obstacle to success. Times have changed. And with the passage of time, yesterday’s indispensable arguments have become today’s anachronistic delusions.

The claim that “all politics is identity politics,” is not coherent. On one reading, it says something that’s true but irrelevant. And on another reading, it says something that’s false, but would be highly relevant if true. Like all deepities, there is no third reading—one that is both true and relevant at the same time. Indeed, the phrase “all politics is identity politics” no more defeats the critique of identity politics than the phrase “love is just a word” disproves the existence of love.

“No Human Being Is Illegal”

On one reading, this claim is undeniable. Legality is a concept that applies to actions, not people. People can be male or female, introverted or extroverted, blind or sighted; but they cannot be legal or illegal. Like the claims, “no act of kindness is red” and “no prime number is lethargic,” the claim, “no human being is illegal,” is simply a category error.

The term “illegal immigrant” is similarly misleading. It’s not the person that is illegal (whatever that could mean) but the act of moving across a border without following certain procedures. Since the claim “no human being is illegal” is neither true nor false, it literally cannot be denied—that is, you can no more argue that “some human beings are illegal” than you can argue that “some prime numbers are lethargic”—and because the claim is undeniable (in the literal sense), it can sound plausible, and even obvious.

But the second reading of this deepity asserts something extremely controversial: everyone should be able to go anywhere on Earth with no legal or procedural barriers; every border should be fully permeable; strangers should be able to occupy your property—after all, no human being is illegal, and strangers are still human beings when they’re on your property. Needless to say, even advocates of open borders would not endorse this view in full. But if the view were ethically correct, then it would have profound implications for property law, the existence of nation-states, and the very concept of personal space.

“Science Is Just Another Belief System”

On one reading, this claim is obviously true. The enterprise of science rests on a set of specific beliefs—that reality is intelligible, that our deepest intuitions about rationality cannot be doubted without contradiction, and we can increase our understanding of the world by testing hypotheses against reality. Other belief systems—like Greek mythology, Hinduism, and Shamanismalso rest on specific but different beliefs. In this sense, it’s trivially true that science is “just another belief system.”

But a different reading makes a mind-blowing claim: the foundational assumptions of science are no more valid than the foundational assumptions of Greek mythology, Hinduism, Shamanism, or any other belief system. If this were true, we might look to Zeus, Vishnu, or our local witch doctor to cure cancer and combat climate change. But we don’t do that; we look to science for solutions to such problems, because no other belief system has led to the invention of vaccines, airplanes, antibiotics, and the countless other life-and-labor saving technologies that the world enjoys today. In this sense, science is not just another belief system; it’s a belief system with a track record—measured in increased prosperity, diseases eradicated, and lives saved—that puts every other belief system to shame.

“We Must Come to Terms with the Legacy of Slavery”

In our national conversation about racial inequality, we are often reminded that history matters. A recent example comes from New York Times columnist Charles Blow. Recalling the brutal Tulsa Pogrom of 1921, Blow claims, “History doesn’t stay stuck in the time that it happens. That is only where it is born, after which it is alive and moving with us through time and space.” Such reminders, however, tend to take the form of admonitions such as “We must come to terms with the legacy of slavery” or “We must grapple with the enduring, embedded, entrenched legacy of segregation.”

Although this message can be rephrased in various ways, nearly all such historical reminders are deepities. Yes, it is obviously true in a trivial sense that history matters. If you start watching a sports match in the middle, then you won’t understand why the score stands where it does. The same is true everywhere in life. Without knowing what has already happened, it’s impossible to understand why anything is the way it is—racial disparities included. But this is just to say that causes precede effects. If you want to know what caused something, then you must study the past, because every cause, by definition, is in the past. This observation is hardly profound.

Interpreted a second way, however, historical reminders of this sort (falsely) imply that knowledge of America’s checkered past will provide us with the answers to today’s pressing and complex policy questions. It won’t. Which crime reduction techniques work and which ones don’t? What is the best way to reform the criminal justice system? Which social programs work and which ones don’t? What are the ongoing causes of racial inequality of outcome? To all such questions, history, on its own, responds with silence.

To the vague demand that we “come to terms with the legacy of slavery,” I give the same response given by the writer John McWhorter: What terms, exactly? We can all agree that slavery and Jim Crow happened; and we can all agree that racism exists. But what terms and conditions, specifically, must we sign onto in light of these facts? Mere deepities about the legacy of decades-old (or centuries-old) crimes answer none of the hard questions about racial disparity that we face today.

But then, deepities are not meant to answer the hard questions. They are meant to make the speaker seem like a person of high moral character while lulling the listener into a complacent slumber.

 

Coleman Hughes is a Quillette columnist and an undergraduate philosophy major at Columbia University. His writing has also appeared in the Spectator, City Journal, and the Heterodox Academy blog. You can follow him on Twitter @coldxman

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94 Comments

    • Actual Яussian Troll says

      “The word deepity, coined by the philosopher Daniel Dennett, refers to a phrase that seems true and profound but is actually ambiguous and shallow.”

      My nomination to the list of deepities:

      “the philosopher Daniel Dennett”

      Never has so much been said to so little effect as the collected worketies of the Double D. “Coiner of words” might be a better description than “philosopher.”

      • Charlie Rode says

        Consciousness Explained was one of the best works on the philosophy of mind I’ve ever read.

  1. Is “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.“ a deeptiy?

    • Peter from Oz says

      Alex

      “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.“ is a classic deepity. It is patently wrong on its face, as the history of any society is much more than a history of class struggles. Much history is about a struggle between members of the same class. Much history isn’t about strugglles at all. Though Mrx’s crap sounds profound on its surface it really is total rubbish. I have always been amazed how people can be taken in by such intellectual vapidity.

      • But a false statement isn’t a deepity, it must have two meanings. It better classified as an over generalization or exaggeration.

        • Ray Andrews says

          Yeah. We could use a word for that kind of thing too: a Grand Truth that is incorrect.

    • Agreeable Contrarian says

      “In this sense, science is not just another belief system; it’s a belief system with a track record—measured in increased prosperity, diseases eradicated, and lives saved—that puts every other belief system to shame.”

      This piece is a dog’s breakfast.

      Science is not a belief system, and to say it is shows the author’s callowness (and I suspect his anti-theism). Science is descriptive, a discipline of thinking. It’s no more a belief system than Spanish or bushido. If anything, science is the opposite of a belief system, a way of consciously setting aside the wholistic, mysterious, and complex-emergent for specific ends, like estimation of physical laws.

      Science didn’t eradicate diseases, increase prosperity, or save lives. The tradition of science as started by the Greeks went on for 2000+ years without doing any such thing. Science only became associated with better life quality when it was paired with advances in heuristic engineering (which is NOT science and dates from the first flint ax head) and habits of procedure, among other things.

      If unclear in the abstract, think of it this way:

      Any silly Christian or Hindu with access to health engineering tools and the ethics to follow the procedure “Always wash your hands with soap before/after the following activities…” saves lives, increases prosperity, and eradicates disease like crazy. He might not know a lick of scientific reasoning or biology.

      On the flip side, doctors who have lots of biology and scientific know-how and quote Stephen Hawking furiously but ignore hand-washing procedure kill patients left and right. This is a terrible problem today in hospitals … lots of highly trained scientists not washing their hands before putting them on patients. They also kill a lot of patients by prescribing them opioids against the heuristics of health engineering and professional procedure.

      Medical doctors are not alone. Scientists who beg the question and define belief by what they can measure and then denigrate or deny the matters that defy measurement often seem to wind up with an insufferable belief in their own infallibility. It’s hard to put a tape measure to ethics, but they sure can keep you from screwing up and participating as a scientist in human experimentation in death camps.

      • LouzyNucOperator says

        “Any silly Christian or Hindu with access to health engineering tools and the ethics to follow the procedure “Always wash your hands with soap before/after the following activities…” saves lives, increases prosperity, and eradicates disease like crazy. He might not know a lick of scientific reasoning or biology.”
        The scientific process is in fact a process, but for people that don’t understand the basis behind why the process works, only that it works, it becomes a belief in, or rather faith in the fact that it works. Your average person doesn’t pore over the minute details behind why a process works or even how the process operates. They operate, based sometimes off of personal or perceived anececdote that something works without underlying understanding. That becomes a belief system. Those that wash those hands probably don’t know or understand what is techinally causing their hands to be “clean” but they do it because they believe they’ll be clean.
        I believe that numerous things in this world work based off of peer reviewed research, engineering fundementals and scientific methodology but I haven’t sat down and done my own study or anything else on these things. I just have “Faith” or “Belief” that these things operate on their proposed theory.
        I’m not saying there are no truths, thats a pretty dumb leg to stand on. I’m just saying a belief in science and in the proccesses that others have undertaken are a belief system in the way the writer articulated.

      • Peter from Oz says

        Well said, Agreeable Contrarian.
        The global warming alarmism is a great example of how scientists really are not infallible. That is an area where sceince has to a some measure given way to belief.

        • @ Peter from Oz

          ” The global warming alarmism is a great example of how scientists really are not infallible. That is an area where sceince has to a some measure given way to belief.”

          Based on what? And who are you again?

      • Ray Andrews says

        Fabulous. I keep a file of the best examples I can find of fallacy and bad reasoning, with which to test the thinking powers of my students. This will have an honored place in that file. This goes to prove that one can put grammatical sentences together and string them into paragraphs that seem to be saying something, yet they are saying nothing. We identify the components of an argument and thus we might suspect an argument is being made, but the components are not assembled into any argument.

    • Damian O'Connor says

      No. Just completely wrong. When reading this article I was inevitably reminded of Ward Churchill and the infected blankets.

      Dr Damian O’Connor
      Author of ‘A Short Guide to the History of South Africa.’

  2. abondarenko01 says

    Hmmm… I’m not sure if your analysis of “We Must Come to Terms with the Legacy of Slavery” is entirely correct, or at least, I think you might be a little too strong in your claim (or perhaps I’m just nitpicking).

    “Effects” of the present are oftentimes fixed by correcting past causes, and so we need to understand what those past causes are.

    Understanding that, say, the US had racist laws in the time of Jim Crow requires an understanding of the historical root of this racism – the enshrined laws themselves, which was overtly upheld in the entrenched system, not allowing for equal treatment of blacks. This recognition of said laws seems to be an acknowledgement of history in and of itself.

    Take a lot of the conservative argumentation around the disparities between blacks and whites now. If, as many (like Larry Elder) argue, that disparities between blacks and whites are to do with internal cultural issues (rather than systemic oppression or racism), surely history is required to diagnose that this is the very issue in itself? That seems entirely key to the discussion of policy now because that will dictate the shape — the starting foundation as it were — of the sorts of policy changes that are to be implemented (at which point we’d need contributions from economists, policy makers, lawyers, etc. etc.)

    As such, I’m not sure the phrase “We Must Come to Terms with the Legacy of Slavery”, is actually expressing a deepity of the form you are suggesting, in that history certainly does have something to say with regards to implementations of the solutions (because it shapes what solutions we need to be looking for)

    I think, really, if there is a deepity to the phrase, it would go something more like this:

    Trivial truth: We must understand that history often has negative effects in the present.

    False radical: Coming to terms with the legacy of slavery means recognising that America is inherently racist.

    I don’t think the phrase is meant to be a statement about the value of history at all, but rather, is a statement about a certain interpretation of history, and thus acts as a virtue signal to identity politics.

    I’m happy to be wrong, though.

    • Peter from Oz says

      I think the paragraph commencing with “Take a lot …” needs to be clarified before we can make sense of your comment. There seems to be a word or two missing or some syntactical problem. Could you elucidate?

      • abondarenko01 says

        I’m not sure if it’s syntactically problematic, but maybe I’m just terrible at writing and don’t realise it!

        My point is that history gives us the appropriate foundation from which to build policy discussions in the now. I take issue with the author saying that “To all such questions, history, on its own, responds with silence.”

        It seems to me that history on its own sets the stage for the discussion, so it’s not silent per se. Sure, it’s not sufficient for solving our issues, but then again, no single branch of knowledge usually is when it comes to solving social or political issues.

        In other words, it would be able to tell us what constitutes and appropriate line of questioning and policy implementation because it would prima facie sketch what the problem is, and thus what options not to take.

        For instance:

        If systemic oppression is the cause of racial disparity, we would need to validate this as historical and present fact in terms of legislation, or whatever else. We’d then need to make appropriate changes from there – affirmative action, changing legislation, etc.

        If the issue, however, is due to, say, the culture of these groups, we would need to perform some historical investigation to verify this, and thus this would set the scene for how we would fix these issues.

        That is, we need history to determine what our issues are in the first place, which is important to determining solutions.

        • petros says

          The “deepity” (a silly neologism, but I’ll play along) you may be looking for is the word “racism.”

          Taken from the French, “racist” mean someone who was partial and nationalistic toward his own (“race” and “nation” being more fluid at that time, like “The French race”). It was coined as a disparaging term for those who didn’t see the glorious advantages of internationalism and globalism just starting to poke their heads up in the early 1900s.

          Then it took on the more modern denotation of one who hates others because of their particular race, whether or not the speaker is particularly fond of his own nation, race, et al.

          The obvious part: most people are both partial to their own nation or community and suspicious of those who are in significant respect different, at least until they get to know them.

          The seemingly deep but not really: that the words seems to encompass a Grand Unified Theory of Hate, enchaining love and preference toward one’s own with nastiness to others. It’s horse manure. You can think France is the greatest country in the world and like Canadians just fine.

          I tend to think France is the place where everything is more annoying. But that’s just my racism.

          • Damian O'Connor says

            During much of the 19th century, the terms ‘race’ and ‘nationality’ were almost interchangeable.

            Dr Damian O’Connor
            Author of ‘A Short Guide to the History of South Africa.’

        • Peter from Oz says

          Thanks for the comment . I agree with your very pertinent analysis.

    • I think you might be right. Having learned the concept of deepities from this article, some of the examples don’t seem to fit.

      The phrase ” We must come to terms with the legacy of slavery” is not necessarily true, but the even if we assume it is, it is still an open question to how we come to terms. It is only cultural or conversational context that would lead us to think it means anything specific.

      How do we come to terms with the legacy of slavery is a valid question. A parallel phrase might be: “We have to fight poverty.” Coming from a socialist, it would implicitly be an argument for socialism, but a capitalist could argue that he has a better solution.

      The fallacy here is that there is one response, as long as the moral value is here. So, I am morally right, so my solution is also right.

      • What exactly is the legacy of slavery? Or are we just talking about racism, which predates slavery, occurred during slavery, and continued after slavery (though of course we’re talking only US slavery, overturned by rich old white men, as slavery continues across the globe).
        The legacy of slavery to me is that government can use it’s coercive violence and social control against it’s own people and many “good citizens” will stand by and cheer, just as they cheer welfare, being tough on crime, affirmative action, etc. while noting that these have done very little to help blacks or cure us from racism.

        • Michael says

          “The legacy of slavery to me is that government can use it’s coercive violence and social control against it’s own people and many “good citizens” will stand by and cheer, just as they cheer welfare, being tough on crime, affirmative action, etc”

          I’m a bit confused. Slaves were brought over by private parties, sold to other private parties, and managed by those parties in work to enrich private parites. Other than the fugitive slave act, I can’t think of a time when the anti-abolition side of the debated wanted more government intervention. Generally, what the wanted from government was to keep their nose out of it.

    • Ray Andrews says

      I think you are wrong, but only because a meme like the one you quote comes with an entire load of baggage attached to it. That is: “We Must Come to Terms with the Legacy of Slavery” is not merely a neutral sentence with content, it is the invocation of an entire narrative, and that narrative has content hugely greater than the sentence that invokes it. Thus your ‘fix’ of the deepity is not required since your false radical is already invoked as the meme stands now. That is, we read the invoked meaning automatically and independent of the literal merits of the meme.

  3. David G Anderson says

    Let’s have some “snappity” comebacks for deepities…

  4. all matter is merely energy condensed to a slow vibration, we are all one consciousness experiencing itself subjectively, there is no such thing as death, life is only a dream, and we are the imagination of ourselves.

  5. Vincent Vega says

    I wonder what future lies ahead for young Coleman. He possesses the admirable trifecta of equilibrium, stratospheric intelligence and the ability to write in crystal-clear English. He reminds me of Pinker, Harris and Russell.

    • Walter says

      After watching Dave Rubin’s recent interview of Mr. Hughes, I think your trifecta should be expanded to something like pick-six.

      • Reader says

        Watching Hughes on Rubin was simultaneously refreshing and frustrating, as he regularly took Rubin’s overloaded and “culture war”-themed questions and turned them into much more nuanced and thoughtful responses.

  6. Chris Martin says

    Add this to Burnham’s formal and real meanings, the motte and bailey fallacy and other various techniques in sophistry, and one trusts one’s own ability to reason less and less.

    • Michael says

      The most important thing I learned from my philosophy degree was that for any belief I held, there are people smarter then me, who had spent a lot more time than I had considering the matter, and disagreed, and people just as smart and hardworking who agreed. I think the second most fruitful habit of mind for anyone is, before beginning any research or discussion, is to remind yourself “I’m almost certainly wrong about a lot of stuff.” The most important is courage: argue your position fiercely even when you’re VERY uncertain.

  7. Abhik says

    Coleman’s articles are always a pleasure to read and enlightening too. Look forward to any book you may eventually write.

  8. Diogenis Chatzistratoglou says

    Interesting point in general but I’m afraid the your definition of a deepity and kind of…a deepity itself.

    For example, in the analysis of “No human is illegal” you are making a big logical leap when you try to connect the demand for open borders with the invasion of private space! Yes, maybe in the long run the demand for open borders challenges the idea of private property, but even in a society without private property, private space is still private space. Don’t mix up the terms. The fact that a person does not own property doesn’t deprive that person of the right to have access to personal privacy. In other words, the conclusion that open borders means strangers coming out of the blue and literally sitting on your shoulders is a ridiculous one.

    You make similar logical leaps when you analyze “identity politics”, which I personally don’t even support, when you claim that skin colour is no longer an obstacle to success. Where do you exactly base that fact? Do you have a comprehensive study that shows it?

    • Walter says

      He didn’t use the term “private space,” but rather “property.” I think the point is that settling in the US without legal permission is logically similar to settling in a stranger’s living room without legal permission. Saying “No human is illegal” justifies neither.

    • Depends on what you mean by obstacle, as the law precludes such racial obstacles (and in fact we have affirmative action as a way to buy votes by legalizing racial quotas). Rich blacks and poor whites, educated blacks and illiterate whites, and no laws allowing race to be a valid discriminating feature, suggests that any obstacles don’t stop blacks or ensure the success of whites.

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  10. Some Science Dude says

    “it’s no longer true that blacks lack political and cultural power:”

    Your citations supporting this super huge claim are a YouTube video and another Quillette article. Would you accept that level of evidence from a political opponent?

    • Adrian says

      those were not sources but a hint of what he’s talking about. you know that, don’t act surprised.

  11. Aylwin says

    Yay. Superb article. I believe that getting folk to be aware of their seduction by deepities might be a key to unlocking self delusion.

    There appears to me, though, another type of deepity which is more typical of religion. It’s a play on language such that the pseudo profundity is manufactured by flawed grammar. “Jesus is Lord” gets your mind to flit around trying make sense of it. Is it saying “Jesus is the Lord”? Is it instantiating the unspoken part – “Jesus is Lord [of everything]”? Both interpretations would be grammatically correct, but banally assertive of a fanciful fiction. Without the explicitly correct grammar it becomes a deepity. Similarly, “I am the light and the way”. This is trying to make a person into a path (with, um, street lights). In some sense these versions of deepities are poetic. But it’s the cheap, teenager’s bedroom poster type of poetry.

    I’m not aware of any equivalent Islamic deepities. After grinding my way through a tortuous three or so chapters of (a translation) of the Koran I found nothing but painfully un-poetic drivel. Perhaps it’s only the King James version of the Bible that has this kind of “poetry”, and perhaps there are more “poetic” translations of the “for their’s shall be the fire” of the Koran.

    • Clark Coleman says

      It seems that you cannot accept literary devices in the Bible, then complain of the boring lack of literary devices in the Koran.

    • That doesn’t make sense. You seem not to understand metaphors. Or poetry. Or what Lord means.

    • petros says

      @Aylwin

      “In some sense these versions of deepities are poetic. But it’s the cheap, teenager’s bedroom poster type of poetry.”

      I’m going assume from your analysis that you’re not one of the countless thousands of incredibly intelligent scholars (Isaac Newton among them) who have devoted some or all their lives to exploring the ideas of Christianity and refer you to Williamson’s First Law:

      “Everything seems simple when you don’t know f— all about it.”

  12. stephen buhner says

    Thank you for your article; it added some needed vocabulary and parsing of meaning to my own work. I thought it very well thought out. I would, however, ask that you parse more subtly your section on science. There are two points that bear examination. The first is that science is not an entity. You used the term far less egregiously than many but still, we don’t look to “science” but scientists and their research. This is an important distinction. And it ties in with the second. The positive attributes you ascribe to “science” are in most instances produced by scientists not the entity science (but not solely, some are inventors, which are something else again). It is a common observation (no real need to put in sources here but there are a great many of them which i could cite) that what you are calling science is founded quite often on inaccurate assumptions about the nature of the external world (and sometimes, as well, non-provable assumptions). Your example of antibiotics is a perfect representation.

    Researchers once assumed (as far too many people still do) that the exterior world was rather stupid, that human beings are the only intelligent life form on this planet, and that we could disassemble the parts of nature in order to further human goals without repercussion. Antibiotics, their use and spread, and their presumed unalloyed moral good were predicated on inaccurate beliefs about living organisms which does include bacteria. Because of the inaccurate beliefs of researchers antibiotics (as well as every pharmaceutical that is used in large numbers) are destabilizing the ecological underpinnings of the planet. One very minor symptom of this is the rise of antibiotic resistant organisms, as well as their exponential learning curve. Bacteria, by the majority of bacterial researchers, are now understood to be extremely intelligent, possessed of culture, language, and to be some of the most adaptable organisms on the planet. They are actually coordinating responses across all species to the threat of antibiotics. Because all organisms on earth have similar physiological underpinnings, every pharmaceutical that affects us also affects them. The moral good of these drugs do have significant repercussions that most scientists, and the general population, remain ignorant of.

    I do agree that your parsing of the deepity regarding science is well done and pertinent, however i think the deepity itself points to an inability to articulate of the people who parrot it. In part what I think it is meaning to say is that the underlying beliefs that scientists have about the nature of the exterior world are often incorrect, that assuming that science (and its resultant technological expressions) are an unalloyed good is not wise, that scientists; research and conclusions are often based contaminated by or based on incorrect assumptions which, when expressed through technology, creates terrible side effects, and that questioning the scientific enterprise is often met with emotional hostility, not reasoned response or argument.

    So, again, i think it would be useful to do some more subtle thinking in this area. From some 40 years of study, I have come to feel that unexamined comments about science are often themselves deepities.

    best to you in your work
    stephen buhner

    • stephen buhner says

      sorry a couple of misspellings in my post, i can never figure out how to edit a post in quillette. my apologies for the resultant unclarity.

      • Actual Яussian Troll says

        @stephen buyer

        It’s too late.

        You have been judged and found wanting for your typos.

        Prepare to be banished from the comments section forever.

  13. Leo Strauss says

    “In this sense, science is not just another belief system; it’s a belief system with a track record—measured in increased prosperity, diseases eradicated, and lives saved—that puts every other belief system to shame.”

    Right, no one doubts the material blessings that science has brought to human beings. But, you could also add that it has, as no other “belief system,” hitherto, brought into being the means by which we can end human existence forever. Science has increased our power and comfort, but, it is hard to say that it has benefited our moral wisdom. Other belief systems make attempts at showing us how we can guide our lives well. They allow us to interpret our suffering in a meaningful way and find our place within the whole.

    This is not a suggestion to abandon science, but, rather a plea to the authro to take seriously what the other belief systems are offering that science does not.

    • You have to use “belief” in a new way, as science works on evidence, repeatability, etc., which we tend to be think as being more about facts and reality than about simple belief. When it’s just a belief, it’s not yet science.

      • Leo Strauss says

        I was only using the phrase as the author had used it.

      • Peter from Oz says

        Law also works on evidence, repeatability, etc.

    • Michael says

      That’s not a proposition. It’s an injunction. It’s not the sort of thing that can be true or false, so I can’t imagine how it could be a deepity.

  14. Andrew says

    Logocentrism in its progressive propaganda form. Derrida would be proud of the application of his pseudo-intellectual gibberish to a higher purpose, game theory.

    • Peter from Oz says

      Game theory.
      Is that the theory of woodcock, partridge or guinea fowl?
      Personally, I think Derrida is so wet you could shoot snipe off him.

      • @ Peter from Oz

        Pete. Have you ever actually read a book of his or even anything about him? It is the way you comment, I think not.

  15. “Yes, racism exists, but it’s no longer an obstacle to success.” I just can’t fathom how both of these claims can be true. Is racism a non-factor in success? Is it supportive of success? Perhaps the extent to which it is an obstacle has diminished over the decades, but this sentence is making a much stronger claim.

    • Michael Overlake says

      Perhaps you are conflating “racism” with “systemic racism,” Tim? Here in Seattle I once met an old white man who proudly expressed an irrational hatred of all black people at the same time that Norm Rice was our popular African-American mayor. If that old racist had been hiring manager for the position of mayor, Mr. Rice would have remained in his previous (TV) job. Instead, Rice successfully served for eight years. The chance that one may run into an actual racist (and discriminating illegally, we need to posit) in a job interview or admissions office could be an “obstacle to success,” but how much of an obstacle? These days, there is (approximately) always another door that opens when one closes. That might be usefully contrasted to conditions for qualified black Americans in, oh, I don’t know, say Columbia, SC in 1935.

      I would guess we all experience obstacles to success. So, as an absolute conclusion only, racism may be occasionally such an obstacle to an individual. I don’t think that is what today’s black militants are asserting.

      • As it relates to “racism” vs. “systemic racism”, I merely quoted the author. I think the line gets blurred between these two concepts anyway. This is only my opinion, but it seems pretty clear that, all else equal, on average, having black skin presents at least SOME obstacle to thriving. This seems especially true when one gets pulled over or applies for an apartment or a mortgage. Also, even if the issue is not “systemic” or institutionalized, there has to be some disadvantage to a subset of the population having a racial animus or being biased against you. I’m not saying I’m in 100% agreement with so-called “black militants”, but I think if MLK were alive, he would agree that his movement still had some work left to do.

        Apologies for the duplicate post.

    • @Tim

      Racism can exist in individuals, without structures being in place that create racist outcomes. What percentage of American racists are in positions of power over x race that could hold x race back? That seems the point. I happen to disagree with Coleman here, from a few perspectives.

      1. There were studies (I cannot recall the source and its possible they were less rigorous than I was led to believe) done that showed individuals with “black names” were less likely to be selected from job applicant pools. I’m not sure, however, if the affirmative action demanded in some companies might statistically correct for this on a group basis. Meaning, could selecting in (affirmative action) or out (racism, implicit bias, etc) for black candidates produce a net benefit for black Americans? Even if it did, it would still be true that racism/implicit bias affected individual lives.

      2. To debate the notion of structural racism, it is likely essential to acknowledge that in many states throughout the country voter suppression efforts and gerrymandering could reasonably be argued to be structural racism. They are targeting and suppressing the electoral power of a group. This seems like structural racism. That said, one might not ineffectively argue that racism itself is not the root of this structural racism, which would be fascinating to accept indeed. Instead, it is simply party politics and the fact that the black community has largely been treated like a cheap date by Democratic candidates. In the same manner that poor whites were, until perhaps the earnest growth of the tea party, the cheap date of the Republican party. In this view, Republicans redrawing these districts and suppressing these votes do not actually hate black people, but there actions may so harm black lives that in effect it is worse than individual racism.

      3. Sentencing guidelines for certain non violent crimes were unequivocally racist. Coleman should not ignore this. Drugs used/possessed/sold by black individuals were often punished more harshly than those used/possessed/sold by whites. There is strong data to support this. There is also strong data to show that black men receive longer sentences for the same crimes as white men. Now, one might venture some of that could have to do with black individuals not being able to afford the same quality of attorney. I’m not sure if data exists in a targeted enough way to account for this. Meaning, are poor whites and poor blacks sentenced similarly?

      I do believe Coleman makes strong points on the topic of structural racism. He may largely be highlighting the work done by others I’ve not read, but he does it well. That said, I think the nuance he uses in deconstructing certain leftist holy truths should be turned in equal measure towards right wing crap. Just because the far left is arguing without nuance, does not mean there are not nuanced, data driven support for certain leftist positions. The key word in the IDW seems to me to be intellectual. This is the foundation. Honest, informed, good faith discussion. Which is why idiots like Candace Owens should ultimately be gatekept or challenged more rigorously. And someone like Ben Shapiro needs to moderate his impulse towards these kind of “libsmacks” that might be momentarily pleasurable but are ultimately shallow and come slathered in bad faith. Coleman, I think it is patently clear, is operating in good faith. I would hope that if presented with these statistics, he could incorporate them into a more nuanced view of structural racism and racism writ large.

      I’ve written too much.

      • You didn’t write too much. Thank you and I appreciate your points. I was starting to get worried with the lack of criticism of this piece.

    • Isaac says

      It’s pretty simple. Every single individual life comes with its own collection of advantages and disadvantages. Racism exists, but presents so small of a disadvantage that it is, in fact, no longer an obstacle to success. Other external factors matter much more.

      Other disadvantages that exist: being short, being overweight, being unattractive, having a disability, being from a poor family, living in a bad neighborhood, being extremely clumsy, having an annoying neighbor’s dog that won’t let you get any sleep, having cancer, having an abusive parent, having only a single parent, having no parents, having asthma, being allergic to eggs, being socially awkward, having horrible acne…

      How many of the above would you choose over the disadvantage of being Black?

  16. Michael Overlake says

    Mr. Hughes, thank you for taking the time to write this article. Stealing time from my studies, I needed to read it rather quickly. I will take more time with it later. But already it forms part of an answer to a question that such platitudes or “deepities” always raise with me. Like, how do people fall for such nonsense? At your conclusion, you state that these deepities serve to lull “the [willing or vulnerable?] listener into a complacent slumber.” That seems to be correct. But I’d assume that it creates a similar effect on the speaker’s mental state. Maybe not complacent; more a “woke” slumber. In any case, stultifying irrationality. Am I wrong?

  17. As it relates to “racism” vs. “systemic racism”, I merely quoted the author. I think the line gets blurred between these two concepts anyway. This is only my opinion, but it seems pretty clear that, all else equal, on average, having black skin presents at least SOME obstacle to thriving. This seems especially true when one gets pulled over or applies for an apartment or a mortgage. Also, even if the issue is not “systemic” or institutionalized, there has to be some disadvantage to a subset of the population having a racial animus or being biased against you. I’m not saying I’m in 100% agreement with so-called “black militants”, but I think if MLK were alive, he would agree that his movement still had some work left to do.

    • Isaac says

      I somewhat concur with this, but at a certain point trying to “eliminate racism” becomes as futile, and self-defeating, as trying to eliminate the common cold.

      Racism (the White-on-Black kind) is completely taboo in pretty much all of polite American society, racists are despised, and racist discrimination is illegal. At this point, a host of other things (for example, being short or being poor) are demonstrably a bigger obstacle to success than being Black. There are actual 100% White people who have gone to great lengths to pass themselves off as Black these days.

  18. Farris says

    “We must come to terms with the legacy of slavery.”

    This phrase is intentionally vague.
    What slavery, Egyptians enslaving Jews, Romans enslaving Christians, whites enslaving blacks?
    (As Mr. Hughes noted) what terms, aside from the fact slavery existed?
    What the speaker of the phrase “we must come to terms with the legacy of slavery” is attempting to communicate is, “I, unlike the audience, have come to terms with the legacy of slavery and therefore you must follow my advice, recommendations or cures.”

  19. Peter from Oz says

    In my family we have long had a game of making up deepities from fragments of literature. A current favourite is from Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited. “They’re all sodomites with unpleasant accents”

  20. Itzik Basman says

    Simply and generally, this is a terrific piece.

    It’s exhilarating to read such clear and clearly stated thinking—the two go together hand in hand.

  21. The legacy of slaves has very little to do with history, it has to do with present feelings of resentment and humiliation. Any diving into what really happened, where, and by whom will not in the least change these feelings (as well of victims as of so called descendants of perpetrators with so called guilt).

  22. The bit on science could have gone further. It includes an open process for finding new truths, including ones that may disagree with existing truths. It doesn’t represent a body of knowledge that relies on its believers to simply have faith in its truths. Instead, it challenges them to overturn those truths but requires such challengers to show their work.

  23. Excellent piece, as always for you, but I have an issue with your characterization of the Civil Rights Movement as identity policies, even along the definition you stated. The Black Power Movement that followed, maybe even grew out of, the Civil Rights Movement was obviously identity policies, but the fact that there is a distinction between the two says to me that the Civil Rights Movement was not identity politics. The Civil Rights Movement had as its demand race neutrality in the law and civil society, and included within its ranks anyone who subscribed to that goal, and excluded even those blacks (such as Malcolm X) who did not. That seems to go squarely against identity politics.

  24. Jesse D says

    I think these “deepities” can become much more profound with a little editing and shuffling of the words.
    “Everything happens for a reason” becomes “Reason happens for everything”.
    Try it!

  25. Daniel says

    Thanks, Mr. Hughes. Another home run.
    Regarding “we must come to terms with the legacy of slavery”, I’d like to toss out a term and introduce some specificity: paternalism.
    Shoutout to Eugene Genovese’s book, Roll Jordan, Roll, where he describes the two psychological institutions that worked together to make slavery justifiable for slave owners as racism and paternalism. Paternalism allowed the better-natured slave owners to tell themselves that black people couldn’t function independently. It was a force that compelled them to create institutions of dependency, while allowing them to feel like swell benefactors.
    We’ve come to terms with racism, but what about the other half of this ideology? I submit that paternalism is stronger than ever, and every bit as pernicious today.

  26. Your writing is simply exceptional. It reminds me of Sam Harris in many respects – the courage to hold fast to a controversial opinion, the habit of breaking down a claim to its core epistemology, and of course, the “cut through the bullshit” spirit that permeates every sentence. As Sam joked on the podcast, the fact that this kind of writing quality is coming from an undergraduate student is “incredibly annoying,” but as an undergraduate with a passion for writing myself, it’s also incredibly inspiring. Keep doing what you’re doing, you’re on a roll.

  27. If you say the requirements of a deepity is only two possibilities then your first example is not one then.
    ” Love is just a word” has two more conations than you have explained. 3rd way of seeing this saying is that words are winds and you can say the word love as much as you like but that doesnt mean your are using it correctly. People say ‘ I love animals’ all the time and yet they don’t even blink to see them killed for a meal, or see their habitat destroyed so they can have another animal on a burger.
    They favour their pets but they don’t ‘love’ animals.
    People talk of loving their partner because of their looks or their wealth or their generosity, this is not love this is favour, these days as soon as that person is no longer making them happy they replace them for someone who does, this is not love , love is unconditional. So love is just a word when it is spoken such without understanding of its meaning. The 4th usage is similar to the first but goes beyond. Words are just words -Shakespeare wrote in R&J ” a rose by any other name would smell as sweet ” love is an energy, a vibration , love is a word we use to describe that energy, but the energy would still be same if it wasn’t described by the word ‘love’.mystics know things through feelings beyond words.
    And as correct as you may be about the no human is illegal quote and that these activists’ philosophical grammer is incorrect at least their motives are about peace and love and human unity. What are your motives other than to prove how clever you think you are.
    Shamans are very real whether you believe it of not. Their’magic’ being simply another form of science that you don’t understand.And as of late people have been turning to them to cure cancer and other illness with better success rates than our advanced machines and plastic medicine that is designed to treat but not cure in the name of profit.The only reason tribal shamans plant medicine doesn’t thrive and its power to heal recognised is because Greed Capitalists like you discredit and demonize it for the sake of pills and profit. And you’re a deceiver, you make this peice out to be about the philosophy behind words and what the mean, but its obvious your real agenda is to ridicule anything that isn’t greed capitalism.
    You want real philosophy learn the teachings of the Buddha.

    • Isaac says

      “Shamans are very real whether you believe it of not. Their ’magic’ being simply another form of science that you don’t understand.”

      Scientologists are very real whether you believe it of not. Their ’religion’ being simply another form of science that you don’t understand.

      Cannibals are very real whether you believe it of not. Their ’rituals’ being simply another form of science that you don’t understand.

      Liars are very real whether you believe it of not. Their ’lies’ being simply another form of science that you don’t understand.

      Josef Mengele was very real whether you believe it of not. His “Nazi experiments” being simply another form of science that you don’t understand.

  28. Ray Andrews says

    An excellent article and genuinely educating, many thanks.

  29. Buddhan says

    This is rather ‘petty’ philosophy.
    The pretext is little more than quibbling about language, and the main content generalized propaganda really.
    I note you fail to mention that a heck of a lot these ‘diseases’ (generalization) that modern scientific medicine is so good at ‘treating’ (I won’t use the WORD cure) are lifestyle diseases made by our toxic society in the first place.
    Oh you’re intellectual, no doubt.
    Pity you are not using that great intellect to actually help humanity make the world a peaceful loving one rather than trying to prove how clever you are.

    • Paul Lawley-Jones says

      “The pretext is little more than quibbling about language…” – Language is important; it’s how we convey meaning.

      “Pity you are not using that great intellect to actually help humanity make the world a peaceful loving one…” – How do you know that he isn’t?

    • Hear, hear. So many bright minds today are exercised in service of justifying one’s biases and grievances and defending the injustices and miseries of real people. Yes, what good could be created were these sharp minds pointed in another direction. At least point the scalpel fairly in all directions, not just away from oneself. Better yet, create true understanding and pathways for the improvement of our lives and communities.

  30. Johnno the cleaner. says

    Superbly written Mr Hughes!
    What a shame your philosophy doesn’t match.
    If only you used your fine skills to try and make the world a better place of love and unity rather than trying to ridicule those who are. No doubt these activists are nowhere near as educated as you are (ignorant peasants with their sloppy grammar)and yet at least they are doing more than stroking their own ego.And I hazard to say that some of these deepities as you call them are more memes than deepities and have a more meaning as a wider idea than a correct sentence structure.
    No doubt your sophisticated writing is exquisite, but the content is garbage.
    Wake up to your false ego master Coleman.

    • Paul Lawley-Jones says

      “…at least they are doing more than stroking their own ego…” – Are they? You know their motivations and intentions from looking at one photograph? It’s entirely possible that they may be simply Virtue Signalling.

    • Yes, very well said Johnno the cleaner. Those of us who like to argue, critique, write and analyze will always have to contend with the idea that we are merely shadow boxing, driven by our own egos and/or childhood traumas, and that the real work of the world is out there, where it is by definition messy, imperfect, disappointing and humbling – always humbling. I can easily see some of the limitations of this piece, given that his biases and blinders are not my own; but I am sure I too fall prey to my own biases and blinders when I’m as sure about something as this writer seems to be about this.

      How rare it is today, to honestly self-analyze and be self-deprecating without paralysis or defeat; to be a fair-minded critical thinker while also working to create real good in the messy world. I wish more people today boldly attempted to take this path (rather than pointing the sword elsewhere and being content with a good jab here and there).

  31. Isaac says

    A nitpick, and I’m sure I’m not the only one to point it out:

    Science is not a belief system. Science is a process. It cannot “put other belief systems to shame” because science does not compete directly with belief systems. Science can operate freely within the framework of, for example, Christian theology.

    As a matter of historical record, the Scientific Revolution, during which modern science emerged, was brought about mainly by Christians, who not only pursued the advancement of science, but celebrated and relished their discoveries.

  32. Thrash Jazz Assassin says

    Agreed.

    Also, viz. science, the picture is not as simple as Coleman portrays. Science is an epistemological method. And one that is not devoid of presuppositions. So in the sense that it is a method, we might be able to say that it is not a belief system. In the sense that it involves presuppositions, it does indeed involve belief, but of a disavowed kind. In the sense that it is an epistemology, a knowledge producing method, it gives us as its product (qualified and falsifiable) ‘justified true beliefs’.

    These are often conflated, though. So apart from that, broadly speaking in the modern public mind it constitutes a worldview, shaping belief and even perception, implicitly, that the world is like this. And is often pitted in opposition to religious beliefs, though, of course science (ideally) deals in empirical facts, not values.

    That said, it need not detract from Colman’s main point about deepities in general.

  33. Jim P says

    Dennett as I recall credited his daughter for “deepity”. As I recall he quoted her saying “Dad said a deepity”, and he was wise enough to appreciate the loveliness of the word.

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