The Arbitrary

An arbitrary statement is a statement without reason or justification. It is unsupported by any facts or reasons. Epistemologically, we may accept the validity of a statement for various reasons. The more support we have for the statement, the more likely we are to believe its validity. Arbitrary statements, though, have no support at all.

Often the arbitrary statement is absurd. An example of an arbitrary statement is claiming the possibility that all blue objects will turn green after a particular date. These absurd statements are usually softened by asking whether it is at least possible. In this way, the speaker tries to gain some legitimacy be referring to reality in judging whether the statement is known to contradict reality. This appearance of legitimacy is fake. The statement has no support from reality and therefore it doesn't need to be contradicted in order to be dismissed. The proper response to any arbitrary statement is to treat it for what it is: a statement made without any factual support or reason.

Not all arbitrary statements are absurd; some might conform to possibilities we accept. If someone stated that there was alien life on a specific planet, it wouldn't necessarily be absurd. We may accept that, given our knowledge of life, it certainly is possible elsewhere. The statement could be true, since it conforms to our knowledge, and we may have reason to believe it exists on some planet. It's arbitrary because someone specified a specific planet, without reason or facts to support it.

People sometimes insist that you disprove one of their arbitrary statements; logically, this is flawed. The burden of proof is on those that make a claim. One need not and should not attempt to disprove arbitrary statements. As it is impossible to disprove a negative, attempting to do so leads to accepting any ideas, no matter how arbitrary they are. Since the ideas are groundless, there is no means by which they can be integrated with the rest of one's knowledge. Later, if knowledge is discovered that contradicts the arbitrary idea, the knowledge will be more likely dismissed. The proper response to an arbitrary statement is to ignore it.


Copyright 2001 by Jeff Landauer and Joseph Rowlands