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I'm looking for a way to describe a statement or claim made by a person that can't be disproved purely on the basis that the situation itself will never occur (or is highly unlikely to).

For instance, a person giving a talk about his commitment to a vegan diet might make the claim that "If I was stranded on a desert island with no food, I wouldn't kill animals to eat even if I was starving to death."

It's clear that there's no way to disprove this as it's highly unlikely they would ever be in the situation in the first place, so what would you call these kinds of statements?

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6 Answers 6

up vote 6 down vote accepted

Such a debate is academic:

.7. Theoretical or speculative without a practical purpose or intention. [AHD]

.3. theoretical or hypothetical; not practical or directly useful: an academic question. [RHK Webster's]

The unrealistic aspect is perhaps best described by fanciful.

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I think hypothetical works, since the OP asked how to describe the statement, not the ensuing debate. –  andi Jul 16 at 19:50
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hypothetical questions can be quite productive and don't imply anything about the likelihood of being able to be answered. "If I lost my job, would I still be able to make my house payments?" entirely possible, answerable, and useful to ask. –  John Meacham Jul 16 at 20:40
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I think "academic" and "hypothetical" may apply to the situation, but do not cover the "conveniently undisprovable" aspect which I took to be the crux of the question. –  CupawnTae Jul 16 at 21:05
    
"I'll throw in this definition given at yourdictionary then: " 'academic' is [used to describe] a question that can't be definitely answered [claim that can't be definitely disproved] but that people like to think about and discuss anyway". –  Edwin Ashworth Jul 16 at 21:18
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I don't think it's valid to directly replace "a question that can't definitely be answered" with "a claim that can't be definitely disproved" in that definition and use that as evidence. The latter is far more specific in a way that IMHO is a very important part of the original question. Also, the question is not about people liking to discuss the question, but about someone claiming something that conveniently cannot be disproven, an entirely different scenario. I think @JohnMeacham's "unfalsifiable" nails it. It would be good if the OP would chime in on this though. –  CupawnTae Jul 17 at 13:09

You could consider the claim moot.

Having little or no practical relevance

As you say, practically speaking, their belief in the claim is likely never going to be challenged, so their contention that they wouldn't eat an animal even at the cost of their own life is a moot one.

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Unsubstantiable, which means not substantiable, ie not provable (1,2,3,4,5) may serve. Here are two examples from wordnik: “the theory was something that might in the long run turn out to be unsubstantiable, and perhaps unusable...”; “you are going on a unsubstantiated and unsubstantiable flight of speculative fancy...”

The term vacuous (“Lacking meaningful content”) may also apply. In mathematical writing, it is used to characterize claims about objects which don't or can't exist.

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Indeed, vacuous is also used in mathematics and logic to describe statements of the form "If A then B" in which the antecedent A is impossible to satisfy. That fits the current situation very closely, as the claim is that the antecedent "being stranded on a desert island" will never happen. –  Nate Eldredge Jul 18 at 1:21

If it were stated as a hypothetical then I would say it is "academic" for the reasons given by @Edwin. If it were a claim then I would say that the reasoning behind the claim is "specious"

having deceptive attraction or allure

having a false look of truth or genuineness

"moot" generally implies the claim is not relevant due to factors outside the claim itself, for instance,

"If I was stranded on a desert island with no food, I wouldn't kill animals to eat even if I was starving to death."

would be rendered moot by being thrown into a prison for life where vegetarian was the only option, or if all food animals went extinct. It may or may not be true, but it is no longer important because there is no choice but to be vegetarian.

EDIT:

I believe the choice would be "unfalsifiable" which would apply when the situation were actually completely impossible to test due to its nature. It would not work for the 'highly unlikely but possible' case though.

If the opponent is known to be adversarial then you have more leeway in saying something is unfalsifiable. As in, you can take into account that the person may actively try to reinterpret the statement were the situation to occur. For instance "I can beat up the best guitar player in the world." could be called unfalsifiable if deciding who the best guitar player were left to the other person. The person can always claim whomever they failed to beat up wasn't actually the best guitar player and they think someone else is better thus indefinitely delaying the testing of the hypothesis.

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I don't think it has to be specious; the way I read the question, the claim could in fact be true, but it's practically impossible to prove or disprove. This of course makes it a lot easier to make the claim in the first place, which I took to be the point. So what I think the OP wants is a word for "conveniently undisprovable". "Academic", "hypothetical", "speculative" may all apply to the claim, but none of .them cover that aspect. I agree with you that "moot" doesn't apply. –  CupawnTae Jul 16 at 21:02
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Hmm.. I guess it depends on whether the claim is being used as evidence for an underlying assertion. I was thinking that due to his example whereby the underlying claim "I am a hardcore vegetarian" was being supported by an academic scenerio. So, when that is not the case then you are right, specious does not apply. unfalsifiable would be the answer if the situation were actually utterly impossible due to the formulation of the question, but doesn't work in the "highly unlikely" case. –  John Meacham Jul 16 at 21:07
    
I think "unfalsifiable" best captures how I read the question. –  CupawnTae Jul 16 at 21:21
    
Yeah, rereading the question I think that is correct. I was thrown a little by his example. –  John Meacham Jul 16 at 21:30

The claim can be defined as speculative:

  • pertaining to, of the nature of, or characterized by speculation, conjecture, or abstract reasoning.

  • theoretical, rather than practical.

Source: Random House Kernerman Webster's College Dictionary.

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How about a ludicrous counterfactual, where counterfactual is a term used in the field of logic to describe a supposition contrary to fact, as in "if pigs could fly, then I'd be rich."

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