Well, I just broke my rule against Wikipedia, but it saved me from a strange mistake. The “sorites paradox” is the fallacy of the heap: if you remove one grain of sand at a time from a heap, at what point does it cease to be a heap? On the other hand, how many hairs may a man have, before he ceases to be bald? Thersites is a bald man; or at least, partly bald (Wikipedia again).

There is a connection with the question of “things” versus “stuff”: a heap is a discrete entity. Consider the example of dog turds: quantity is not important. If the dog does it all in one go, you have one turd; if he moves in the middle, you have two. Or bottles (or indeed, glasses) of wine, which contain “stuff”, and can be counted. What about clouds, though? Is the difference between two clouds the clear blue sky that separates them? We know that they are formed of droplets of water vapour, and clouds are the result of an interaction between humidity and air temperature, leading to condensation; but one drop does not make a cloud.

Considering this set of puzzles within the history of philosophy, there is an affinity with the paradoxes of the Eleatics, too; and Parmenides. Aristotle’s solution to the problem of how you can have things that both persist and change, and also, how things can come to be and cease to be, is the thoroughly weird concept of “substance”. Kant turns it round and makes things an artifact of how they must of necessity be perceived. That is so oversimplified it can hardly be correct, but let it stand as an indication that there is a broader context within the forward motion of intellectual history. Some time in a library is needed.

The connection I hoped to make when I jotted “Thersites”, and a familiar name, in my journal was with my post here recently about the excluded middle. Seeing things in black and white is about how one draws a line through a continuum. One example where we don’t seem to feel the general need to do so is height. There are, to be sure, tall people and short people, but most people are neither particularly short nor particularly tall. We can easily determine that one person is taller or shorter than another, but most of us are in the middle. When I was at school, my mother once took me to task for saying a boy in my class was short, because how could I tell, given we were all still growing? Surely it makes no difference, though, because we were still a cohort showing variation that would probably have made a nice bell curve. A class of schoolchildren is a living, breathing exemplar of standard deviation. As a question of psychology or perception, it might be the case that either short or tall people have to diverge more from the mean in order to be perceived as such, but that is not salient, and would be quite hard to study. Maybe tall or short people are more inclined to perceive height in a skewed way, too; but I couldn’t guess which way round that might work.

Yet it seems to be very difficult to transfer this intuitive understanding to other domains, as for example with risk. We would like both risk and uncertainty about it to be zero, and that translates pretty directly into a cluster of unreasonable beliefs. It is, indeed, to ask the impossible.

1 comment
  1. This is a test. WordPress tells me today that “Thersites” was sent to four people (I wonder who you are?) and I want to see if they also receive comments. And I’d better stop editing my posts after “publishing” them.

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