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The “Oh Yeah / So What” Dilemma

November 7th, 2006 · No Comments

I owe it to John Doris’ fascinating book Lack of Character to say something at length about his general—and unsettlingly compelling—argument for a deep psychological situationism and skepticism about broad and consistent personal character. But for now I just want to call out an amusing phrase—I’m not sure whether it’s his original coinage—he invokes in considering different kinds of objections to his theory: The “Oh Yeah / So What” Dilemma.

He’s actually voicing a certain frustration at the inconsistent kinds of attacks one must face: One opponent will say your view is plainly false, another will regard it as an obvious point that doesn’t actually change anything. But lots theoretical propositions which seem interesting and contentious at first blush actually turn out, on further scrutiny, to be either plainly false or empty tautologies, depending on exactly how you interpret them. In my more cynical moods, I sometimes suspect certain obstinately obscure writers of deliberately exploiting this kind of ambiuity in hopes that readers will split the difference between definitional truth and empirical falsehood and come up with profundity. But sometimes it seems clearly accidental: Psychological egoism is a case like this, where people who find it plausible are often surprised to realize, when you point it out, that they’ve been shifting between a robust and narrow definition of “self -interest” that is meaningful but not all that hard to find counterexamples for, and a vacuous definition where it’s just taken to mean “whatever you wanted to do, as evidenced by the fact that you did it.”

In any event, it’s an apt phrase for a common phenomenon. We’re naturally especially interested in surprising claims that seem like they might be true. But the more we learn about any given subject, the harder it becomes to come up with propositions that are both really shocking and defensible, since this means they’ll have to contradict the expectations generated by an increasingly refined and well-supported antecedent body of theory. The “oh yeah / so what” ambiguity is one way of squaring that circle, so it shouldn’t be surprising if a lot of theories that attract broad (initial) attention turn out to have this character.

Tags: Obedience and Insubordination