A tolerable response to intolerable sophistry

Here’s a terrific video from Minute Physics (via), in which they take a silly question and respond with far more seriousness, and creativity, than it deserves.

What happens if an immovable object meets an unstoppable force?

The conclusion, if you can’t watch the video linked and embedded above, is that “an immovable object” and “an unstoppable force,” if they’re to be understood to mean anything real at all, “are really just the same.”

And, abiding by the semantic silliness of the riddle, if they were to collide, “they must pass right through each other with no effect on each other at all.”

The fun thing about this is that they cheerfully take the riddle at face value — as though it were an actual, honest question about objects and forces rather than just a pretzeled bit of word-play, in which opposite adjectives are employed to create a linguistic paradox that doesn’t correspond to anything real. The question isn’t about physics, the question is about language and the way that language can be played with to destroy meaning rather than to convey it.

All of which is why I’m bookmarking the link for this video as my new response for the routine right-wing harrumph of “Oh yeah? Well if you’re so tolerant, how come you won’t tolerate my intolerance?

The semantic game of immovable object vs. unstoppable force is intended as a game — as an impish bit of wordplay that most people recognize is only that and not an actual attempt to say anything meaningful about anything real.

The sad thing about the “I demand you tolerate my intolerance!” harrumphing is that those folks don’t seem to realize that what they’re saying is just a semantic game. They’ve gotten stuck inside their own linguistic pretzel and imagine it still communicates some idea or corresponds to some reality rather than just demonstrating the pliability and liabilities of language.

Which makes me wish that an omnipotent God would make a rock so heavy that even he couldn’t lift it, then drop it on them. But instead, I’ll just refer them to this video.

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  • I only have one response:


  • AnonymousSam

    To quote a comic’s punchline to this same idea,

    “Huh. I think I’m crazy now.”

  • Superman’s answer to the old irresistible/immovable question is, I think, definitive.  http://images.wikia.com/marvel_dc/images/7/79/Ultrasphinx_Superman_Answers.PNG

  • EllieMurasaki

    What’s the context?

  • stardreamer42

    Asimov had a good answer for this one too, which boiled down to “an irresistible force and an immovable object cannot exist in the same universe by definition, so they will never meet”.

  • Long story short, the Ultra-Sphinx will kill Lois unless Superman gives a satisfactory answer to its riddle, which of course is “what happens when an irresistible force meets an immovable object?” because the four-legs-two-legs-three-legs gag is for lesser sphinxes.

    In slightly more detail: http://dc.wikia.com/wiki/Ultrasphinx_(All-Star_Superman)
    But since it’s part of arguably the single greatest Superman story of all time, I recommend just reading All Star Superman.

  • EllieMurasaki

    Oh okay. Thanks.

  • arcseconds

    It’s not unreasonable to view the ‘can God make a rock that They can’t move’ as a reductio ad absurdum that shows the incoherency of omnipotence.

     There’s no guarantee, after all, that some property we define won’t turn out to be self-contradictory. 

    The barber that shaves all and only those who do not shave themselves is a good example. 

    (I’m inclined towards Fred’s view, though: it’s also true that not every sentence we create has meaning)

  • Matthias

     I don’t see how this sentence should show the incoherency of omnipotence. The answer is quite clear (at least to me): Yes, God can make a rock They cannot move and in doing so lose their omnipotence.

  • MikeJ

      it’s also true that not every sentence we create has meaning

    I think Kurt Gödel had something to say about that.

  • MikeJ

    I thought of another way to talk about those linguistic pretzels.  Programmers know that when you talk to a computer, there are two different levels of “correctness”. 

    First there is “does it parse?” That simply means, is it written in a language the computer knows, with all the semicolons in the right place and using only commands you’ve defined. At the second level is, “does that code do anything useful, or even what you meant for it to do?” Errors in the first level can be caught by the computer in the same way a spell checker works. Errors in the second level require stepping outside the system and applying logic to understand how all the moving parts interact.

    It is possible to write entire programs that make sense at level 1, but are gibberish at level 2.  One of the most famous examples is the poem/program “Black Perl”.  It is perfectly valid perl code that the parser will happily accept. Running it may fill in the blanks for Fred’s ghost story post, but I’m afraid to try. :)

     (I hope this pastes ok, I always have bad luck with disqus)

    BEFOREHAND: close door, each window & exit; wait until time;
    open spell book; study; read (spell, $scan, select); tell us;
    write it, print the hex while each watches,
    reverse length, write again;
    kill spiders, pop them, chop, split, kill them.
    unlink arms, shift, wait and listen (listening, wait).
    sort the flock (then, warn "the goats", kill "the sheep");
    kill them, dump qualms, shift moralities,
    values aside, each one;
    die sheep; die (to, reverse the => system
    you accept (reject, respect));next step,
    kill next sacrifice, each sacrifice,
    wait, redo ritual until "all the spirits are pleased";
    do it ("as they say").
    do it(*everyone***must***participate***in***forbidden**s*e*x*).
    return last victim; package body;
    exit crypt (time, times & "half a time") & close it.
    select (quickly) and warn next victim;
    AFTERWARDS: tell nobody.
    wait, wait until time;
    wait until next year, next decade;
    sleep, sleep, die yourself,
    die @last


  • MikeJ

     Damn you disqus!  Even when using a code tag it ate the spaces.  It still compiles (this ain’t python) but it’s ugly.   Read the source at the link.

  • The_L1985

    Just out of curiosity, since a perl compiler will accept the code (and I don’t have one to test this with), what does happen? :) I only know a wee bit of C++ and graphing-calculator BASIC, so perl’s a bit beyond me.

  • MikeJ

    mike@malawi ~ $ perl -X black.pl
    mike@malawi ~ $

    nada.  No output.

  • Alger

    Cute, but the makers of the video escaped one linguistic trap through an appeal to another definitional frame.
    Mas simple; they answered the question by changing what the words mean.

  • Vulpis Contra

    A much more elegant response than my default, which is along the lines of ‘we ARE tolerating your intolerance, notice how you have not been beaten/fired/lost your house/subjected to ‘corrective’ rape/etc. after expressing your viewpoint.’

  • Ross Thompson


    Yes, God can make a rock They cannot move and in doing so lose their omnipotence.

    Or: God can make a rock so large that “lifting” stops having meaning. We might call these rocks “planets”.

  • Jeff Weskamp

    Lucian of Samosata, a Greek writer from the 2nd Century, wrote several satires that express the same ideas that Fred does.  Lucian’s didn’t have a lot of respect for most philosophers of his day.  He felt that most of them simply indulged in semantic wordplay to make themselves sound smarter than they actually were.

  • ako

     Yeah, most of the “I demand you tolerate my intolerance!” people have a very demanding definition of tolerance.

    I fully support the right of even the most intolerant bigot to express their horrible views without being arrested, beaten, tortured, or killed, and think they should get that level of tolerance.  I don’t even want to give them any fewer legal rights than other people!  That’s a perfectly reasonable and appropriate level of tolerance to extend.

    However the “You’re being intolerant of my intolerance!” crowd is demanding that we not only put up with them, but we give them a platform, make an active effort to be pleasant to them, and don’t criticize their opinions in ways they might find upsetting.  This is no more a legitimate claim of intolerance than it is to equate a disapproving response with censorship, or claim that I’m religiously persecuting someone by objecting when they try to legally force me to follow their religious beliefs. 

  • Baby_Raptor

    The server crashes!

    Oh, wait. We’re not talking about the Alterac Valley faction weapons from vanilla WoW? Dang. 

  • Matthias

    No they didn’t. Because if you cannot accelerate an object it is unmovable. If a force is unstopable it cannot be slowed down.

    They just used a more formalised language. It is the same as saying “the car is covered by a Iron(III)hydroxyoxide” vs. “the car is rusty”

  • Magic_Cracker

    Pliabilities & Liabilities is my new language-themed RPG, one where language is magic and does effect reality, provided your character has the willpower realize it.

  • LL

    RE  “those folks don’t seem to realize that what they’re saying is just a semantic game”

    Yeah, I’ve noticed a lot of religious arguments are like this. They’re unfamiliar with using reason or logic, so they don’t know how, or actually, more often, just don’t like it when they’re required to use reason or logic. 

    They play these silly little word games with each other and think they’re clever (in the way only not-really-clever people can) and then think the rest of us will do the same. When we don’t, they get all mad, like a 3-year-old being told to do something he/she doesn’t want to do. 

    It’s why I usually don’t bother “debating” anything with these people. It’s like trying to debate a toddler. 

  • Magic_Cracker

    Hrm… “affect reality” — /blush

    Also, character classes could include: Poet, Sophist, Semiotician, etc.

  • Magic_Cracker

    Shit, can’t get this idea out of my head: Sophist = Thief; Poet = Magic User; Semiotician = Cleric; but what equals Fighter…? Rhetorician?

    And what about the subclasses? There goes doing anything productive with my day…

  • DavidCheatham

    The problem with saying ‘You do not actually know what intolerance is’ to those people is that in _their_ universe, as Fred pointed out, they are being persecuted for simply saying what they think, and have no idea whatsoever what it is like to be anything but them.

    This is obviously stupid and wrong, but the answer ‘You are being tolerated’ is not useful. So my solution is: Go with their premise. It makes them look like children.

    Answer something like this: 

    You, sir, have misunderstood the premise. It is not to tolerate everyone, it is to reduce the total level of intolerance. You are actively increasing intolerance by what you say and do. When I am intolerant back, I’m not ‘intolerant’ of you to just be intolerant or whatever nonsensical reason _you_ have for being intolerant of others, I am opposing _your actions to increase intolerance_.

    This might, indeed, result in small temporary added level of intolerance, just like a parent who wishes their child to be happy might have to punish them by taking away their toys. You, on the other hand, appear to be a small child running around taking people’s toys _because you can_. You don’t even want to play with them!

    You might have noticed that _my_ intolerance of you is a fairly trivial one, simply being that I have spoken out against your beliefs, unlike the level you are currently practicing against others. Unlike the example of a parent punishing, I have actually taken nothing from you that you rightly possess. I am not proposing any harm or even inconvenience come to you. You, however, are still playing keep-away with other people’s civil rights for no reason that anyone can see. And then you whine because I reach over to take their toy out of your hands and say ‘Stop doing that.’.

    And then you ask ‘But I should get to be happy, too! Why do you keep demanding people be allowed to have toys to play with so they can have fun! I am having fun keeping these toys away from other children, and I find it hypocritical you won’t let me do that if you’re in favor of fun, as you claim!’

    That’s worded in a fairly sophisticated way, but it’s an argument, and a behavior, that anyone who has been around children knows well.

  • Oh, wait. We’re not talking about the Alterac Valley faction weapons from vanilla WoW? Dang. 

    We are uncertain what happens when  [The Unstoppable Force] meets [The Immovable Object], but we do know that it will involve High Overlord Saurfang and Chuck Norris’ mother might die.  

  • I think this post misses that point of the argument. Tolerating intolerance is supposed to be a contradiction, because it shows that tolerance cannot be a primary good. 

  • EllieMurasaki

    What point are you trying to make? I can read your comment in mutually contradictory ways.

  • EllieMurasaki

    What point are you trying to make? I can read your comment in mutually contradictory ways.

  • Hth

     And that’s why I’ve all but given up using the word “tolerance” in general.  Tolerance is like courage: it’s frequently a lovely thing, but when you apply it toward some horrible goal, it just makes you all the more horrible than you would’ve been with some appropriate boundaries/healthy fear.

    I don’t bother with tolerating people, nor do I ask for tolerance in return.  I am interested in justice.

  • BC

    Yeah, what they’re really saying is that you don’t respect their intolerance.  Tolerate and respect are not the same thing – and what they want is for you to respect them even if the espouse unrespectable ideas.

  • arcseconds

     Gödel sentences, if that’s what you’re referring to, seem perfectly meaningful (in the formal system in which they’re expressed).   They just can’t be proven true using that system.

  • John__K

    To be fair, I don’t think anyone literally believes that tolerance is a primary good. No one ever received a medal for not lighting a cross in front of someone’s house. What most people demand, rather, is that we allow other people to exist as long as they are not causing harm (in rough terms). 

    The ‘why don’t you tolerate my intolerance’ crowd misunderstands this — they don’t realize that there is a difference between being ‘racist’ or ‘sexist’ (as opposed to ‘black’ or ‘gay’) in that the former two groups actually cause harm to other people as a direct result of those traits (ranging from legal discrimination to murderous violence) while the latter two groups clearly don’t.

    It’s perfectly consistent to be prejudiced against racists but not against specific racial groups; hating a belief or an action is not the same as hating an entire class.

  •  “Effect” reality is also good: “cause” reality, i.e. create it.

    Which seems appropriate to your semantics-based RPG there. You could have a different set of effects depending on how one spells (see what I did there?). Do you affect the commonly-perceived reality or create your own?

  • arcseconds

     The same is true of English, of course, it’s just that there’s a big grey area.

    You can create grammatically correct sentences that are completely meaningless, the most famous is probably :

    Colourless green ideas sleep furiously

    And of course there are perfectly meaningful sentences, too.

    The problem is that grey area :] 

    There have been a lot of attempts to rid language of that grey area, one of the most famous (or infamous) being logical positivism, which attempted to identify a sentence’s meaning with its verification criteria.   If it has verification conditions (i.e. clearly stateable circumstances under which it were true) it’s meaningful; otherwise meaningless.

    One target for biffing onto the rubbish heap of meaninglessness was something like

    The true is prior to the good

    (which is from Aquinas, I believe)

    Although I can’t remember who exactly had this sentence explicitly in mind as a target (may have been the logical positivists, but it might well be Russell).

    I’m not really sure the computer program analogy really helps here, because there’s not much of a grey area in computer programs, generally speaking.  Normally one writes programs to do something quite practical, not to express things like ‘the true is prior to the good’ or to display the plight of existence in a cold, mechanical universe ruled by an unfeeling God.  Although that is an interesting idea…

    (One could say that the logical positivists were attempting to make natural language closer to what is the case in computer programming)

    (And I do rather like Black Perl – thanks)

  • Edo

    My maternal grandfather served in the Pacific Theater during World War 2, the experience left him with PTSD he self-medicated into belligerent alcoholism. For imaginable reasons he Did Not Approve when Mom brought home her Japanese fiancé to introduce to the family; they were worried it’d end badly. It was icy cold, but my grandfather was properly civil throughout.

    That’s tolerance. Tolerance is not about affirmation. Tolerance is about endurance, about how well we can suffer the unacceptable. (Which is why it gets conflated with “acceptance,” although they’re separate virtues.)

    I’ve never had anybody directly say the “tolerating my intolerance” to me, but my answer is that I will tolerate “intolerance.” As best I can tell, only two people have asked me to do anything of the sort; both are still friends.

    What I refuse to do is accept and affirm insufferability. And in practice, that’s what “tolerating intolerance” overwhelmingly means.

  • Magic_Cracker

    Indeed, I saw what you did there. Point of fact “grimoire” and “grammar” share the same Greek root, grammatikos, “knowing how to read and write.”

    Do you affect the commonly-perceived reality or create your own?


    Other possible titles for a semantics-based RPG: Bluster & Bluff or Bombast & Bullshit.

  • Random_Lurker

    “Tolerate my intolerance” is generally employed specifically because of it’s nonsensical nature.  In a discussion about racism, or w/e, the intolerant party becomes annoyed that their opinion is being assaulted, and they then complain about how the affrimative party (for lack of a better name) is being intolerant of their racism.  At this point, the “tolerate intolerance” bit is thrown out by the affirmative party in pantomime of his opponent, to demonstrate how silly it is.

    So I think that the word game is exactly the point; it’s used to point out the word games being used by someone else.  The affirmative corollary to it is “I’m extremely prejudiced. I hate bigots.” In both cases, the idea is point out what Edo says about the meaning of tolerance in the first place.

    I have no idea what sparked this post, but it seems to be a classic case of Missing the Point.  Whether by Fred, or the person who used the phrase on him, it’s impossible to say.

  • PatBannon

    I’m pondering, the next time I hear “You should tolerate my intolerance!” bit, countering it with “Well, you should be less intolerant of my intolerance of your intolerance!” Escalate as necessary.

    Won’t win any arguments, but I might confuse someone into dropping the subject, which in the face of such dreck I count as a victory.

  • Consumer Unit 5012

     Is this a supplement for Dungeons and Discourse?

    As for the “You don’t tolerate my intolerance” BS, that always makes me think of thsi Onion article: ACLU Defends Nazis’ Right To Burn Down ACLU Headquarters

  •  I think the point is actually meant to be “Gotcha! Now shut up!”

    (Years ago, I actually did hear it framed explicitly as “We eliminationists will eventually win because you tolerant liberals must always tolerate our continued existence, while we will one day happily exterminate every last one of you lefties.”)

  • Magic_Cracker

     Is this a supplement for Dungeons and Discourse?

    There goes tomorrow’s productivity.

  • arcseconds

     It shares the ‘Gotcha! now shut up!’ point with other purported identification of contradictions.  The ‘contradiction’ between the Second Law of Thermodynamics and Evolution springs to mind as another such ‘Gotcha’ point.

    The pragmatics of the ‘argument’ is often the same.  The person offering it has a preconceived view that they’re just going to support (often no matter what) and they don’t actually want to look seriously at whatever it is they’re against; they just want to shut it down.  So they find some naff ‘contradiction’ or untoward consequence or something to appeal to, not as a serious rejoinder to the opposing view(which would require understanding it, at least to some extent), but rather as a rhetorical strategy.

    It’s intellectual laziness.

    But it’s not just right-wingers and YECs that do this sort of thing.   You can find plenty of it in the sciencey-skepticy sort of crowd — the use of demarcation criteria (like falsifiability) for science,  the rejection of post-modernism as self-contradictory, and the adoption of literalist hermeneutic of religious texts are all often employed in very much the same kind of ways.

    (I used to do this a bit myself, but I like to think I’m a bit more open and nuanced these days)

    (That’s not to say that these things couldn’t be done in an intellectually worthwhile sort of way, which would actually engage with the subject matter. )

  • smrnda

    One way to think of it as tolerance for people, but not for ideas. I can tolerate the existence of people who don’t agree with things like homosexuality, but to tolerate their ideas is intolerant of members of whatever demographic they are biased against. To tolerate the open existence of GLBT people, atheists, pagans etc. does not deprive the white, heterosexual Christian of anything.

    Perhaps a problem is people who seem to fail to grasp the notions of pluralism and neutrality. They think that if we *permit* gay people to get married the State is endorsing gay marriage. Wrong, the State is only in the business of deciding what is permitted or not under the law – to some extent ‘legal’ is supposed to be about doing what is good and not doing what is bad, but it’s meant to accommodate some differences of opinion. If the State permits the construction of a Christian church the State is not saying that Christianity is true, and if the State permits the construction of a Temple to Wotan it is not saying that Wotan is a god worth worshiping. The person who complains that ‘tolerance has gone too far’ is usually simply reacting, without a lot of thought, against the fact that people are just doing things they are legally (or should be) legally permitted to do but which they don’t like. They’re used to hegemony and don’t like the fact that it’s getting weaker.

  • Dan Audy

    I know you are making a joke here but there is actually a really neat RPG a fellow is writing that treats language as magic that effects reality.  Also it teaches you Korean while you play.

    Magicians: A Language Learning RPG

  • Magic_Cracker

    I actually wasn’t joking. Dungeons & Discourse is apparently real(ish) RPG now too.

    Shall we (i.e., me) go ahead and coin a new internet rule? Rule (d)20: If it exists, they make an RPG of it.

  • DavidCheatham

    The ‘why don’t you tolerate my intolerance’ crowd misunderstands this — they don’t realize that there is a difference between being ‘racist’ or ‘sexist’ (as opposed to ‘black’ or ‘gay’) in that the former two groups actually cause harm to other people as a direct result of those traits (ranging from legal discrimination to murderous violence) while the latter two groups clearly don’t.
    Indeed, and it is perhaps worth mentioning that people _do_ tolerate intolerance when it affects no one. We all know some racist and sexist old person…do we care? Not generally. (We probably should care, though, because those asshats vote.)

    But the problem with trying to go the ‘You are causing harm’ is it lets them cleverly say ‘But you said you cared about intolerance, not harm.’. It’s a strawman.

    In reality, when they start making the argument that you are being ‘intolerant’ of them, absolutely nothing you can say is going to fix that. They have washed their brain and can’t do a thing with it. There is no way that _anyone_ actually thinks ‘tolerance’ means ‘letting people do _anything_ they want’, they are arguing in bad faith.

    Now, going with the ‘No one care about intolerance’ _should_ work, but the problem is half these people live in a bubble where someone _complaining_ about anything that they claim has anything to do with religion is ‘religious persecution’. So they will point to that ‘harm’.

    So instead I prefer to just run with the strawman and completely short out their argument by pointing out that even if lack of intolerance was the goal, it is _perfectly reasonable_ to use intolerance in reaching that goal if that intolerance stops further intolerance.

    I point out their comment  is about as smart as ‘cleverly’ pointing out society disapproves of kidnapping, and yet takes and holds kidnappers against their will, aka, kidnapping. Or that firemen often start fire to stop forest fires.

    In an ideal world, we would not have to lock up kidnappers, because kidnappers would not exist, and in an ideal world, we would not have to disapprove of intolerance people, because intolerant people would not exist, and in an ideal world, we would not have to start fires because forest fires would not exist. That is the world we are working towards, a world without intolerance or kidnapping or out-of-control fires. Until that point we will continue to use our best efforts to stop that.

    If someone is against  intolerance, they should obviously be intolerant of something _producing_ intolerance in attempt to get that to stop and to reduce the _total_ level of intolerance. Pointing that obvious fact out makes the intolerant person sound like a fool. It probably doesn’t help convince _them_, but that never was going to happen. But by making their argument sound foolish, you stop bystanders from using that argument in the future because they won’t want to sound foolish.

  • You’ve also heard of Progress Quest? The game that takes level grinding to the most absurd extreme? :P

  • DavidCheatham

    The pragmatics of the ‘argument’ is often the same.  The person offering it has a preconceived view that they’re just going to support (often no matter what) and they don’t actually want to look seriously at whatever it is they’re against; they just want to shut it down.  So they find some naff ‘contradiction’ or untoward consequence or something to appeal to, not as a serious rejoinder to the opposing view(which would require understanding it, at least to some extent), but rather as a rhetorical strategy.
    Yes, exactly. Don’t even bother to try to argue with the person making the argument, because no one _actually_ thinks ‘tolerance’ means ‘letting anyone do whatever they want’. The people who (pretend to) believe that are not going to agree with you, ever, and everyone else just rolled their eyes.

    The best response is anything that just makes their argument look completely foolish, like ‘Yeah! And what’s with us locking up kidnappers! The legal systems says it’s against holding people against their will, and then it does it itself! Hypocrites!’, at which point you’ll discourage others from making such a dumb argument later because they don’t want to look foolish.