Recent Responses

In a reply to a question about the sorites paradox, Professor Maitzen writes: "Logic requires there to be a sharp cutoff in between those clear cases -- a line that separates having enough leaves to be a head of lettuce from having too few leaves to be a head of lettuce. Or else there couldn't possibly be heads of lettuce." However, there is no justification that clearly leads from his premise to his conclusion: obviously we can have heaps of sand without knowing exactly how many grains of sand are required to distinguish a "heap" from a pile of individual sand grains, or else there would not be a so-called "paradox" in the first place! The premise as he presents it sounds like a tautology, not a logical argument. What makes a "heap" of sand is not only how many grains of sand there are, but also how those grains are arranged. If you took a "heap" of sand and stretched it out in a line, you would have the same number of grains, but it would no longer be a "heap." You could take a head of lettuce and separate it into its individual leaves, but then you'd no longer have a head of lettuce. So you can clearly have a head of lettuce without knowing the exact number of leaves required, since we can easily validate that assertion through an appeal to empirical experience. The sorites paradox tries to impose a degree of precision on a concept that by design is meant to be indeterminate in number. His answer does not address that consideration at all, but merely insists that a heap "must be" determinate in number or else it could not exist.

What makes a "heap" of sand is not only how many grains of sand there are, but also how those grains are arranged. If you took a "heap" of sand and stretched it out in a line, you would have the same number of grains, but it would no longer be a "heap."

Agreed! Even so, there must be a sharp cutoff between (a) enough grains to make a heap of sand if they're arranged properly and (b) too few grains to make a heap of sand no matter how they're arranged. An instance of (a) would be 1 billion; an instance of (b) would be 1.

Why must there be a sharp cutoff between (a) and (b)? Because otherwise (a) can be shown to apply to 1 (which clearly it doesn't) or (b) can be shown to apply to 1 billion (which clearly it doesn't). That's what the sorites argument shows.

...obviously we can have heaps of sand without knowing exactly how many grains of sand are required to distinguish a "heap" from a pile of individual sand grains, or else there would not be a so-called "paradox" in the first place!

You seem to be saying that the sorites paradox is simply that we have heaps of sand without knowing the smallest number of grains that's enough, if arranged properly, to make a heap of sand. I don't see why that gap in our knowledge would itself be paradoxical, any more than it's paradoxical that the moon exists but we don't know its exact mass in grams. Plenty of exact measures elude our knowledge without thereby being paradoxical.

The sorites paradox tries to impose a degree of precision on a concept that by design is meant to be indeterminate in number.

The sorites argument doesn't impose a sharp cutoff between (a) and (b) that can't exist; instead, it reveals that a sharp cutoff must exist. As I suggested in my previous reply, the everyday sorites-prone concepts aren't designed to be indeterminate. They're not designed at all. We're taught those concepts by being shown clear positive cases; our teachers simply don't comment on the other cases. The indeterminacy results from omission rather than by design.

I recently watched a tv show that produced a line of questioning in my head on the virtue of reality. How do we define reality? What's the difference between reality and a world that is the perfect replication of reality? What would be the difference between the two worlds? Is it truly possible to know when we are living in reality? I guess I'm mostly asking if there is work form past philosophers that I could read on the subject?

A perfect replica of reality would be like reality in all respects. It would contain trees—real trees. It would contain people—real people. It would contain fake butter—real fake butter. And if it were a perfect replica, everything in reality would be in the replica. So in every sense that matters, it would be real.

But I have the feeling you're worried about how you can know that you're not systematically deluded or deceived about more or less everything. This was Descartes' question in Meditations. He thought that there was one thing he couldn't be deceived about: that he was having doubts and therefore that he, the doubter existed.

From there to anything substantial, like trees and people and electrons and burritos is a long way. Descartes thought that just by reasoning about it, he could prove that there's a God who is not a deceiver, and therefore that even though he was no doubt wrong about some things, he wasn't systematically wrong.

Most philosophers don't think his argument was very good. Most philosophers also think that if what you're looking for is some irrefutable philosophical proof, then you're out of luck. And yet most philosophers—none that I know personally— worry about this. There doesn't seem to be much of a reason to take wholesale skepticism about the external world seriously. It could be true, in some weak sense of "could," but that goes for a lot of things that no one takes seriously. (Bertrand Russell's example was the possibility that the work came into existence five minutes ago, looking for all the world as though it had been here since the non-existent-under-that-assumption Big Bang.)

Questions about reality tend to be better the less far they float into the stratosphere. Is that a real Gucci bag or a knock-off? Is that actor in that movie scene really Eksie McWhy or is it her stunt double Aybee Dee? Is the grape flavor in the punch real or a laboratory concoction? Is that a real diamond or a piece of costume jewelry? Questions like that get their grip because they're set against the backdrop of the (perfectly sensible) assumption that we typically know what's what—at least about ordinary stuff and middle-sized dry goods. The farther our questions float away from this sort of grounding, the bigger the risk that there won't be enough air beneath their wings to keep them afloat.

Is the Sorites paradox really a paradox, or is it more properly considered to be a logical fallacy? By definition, the term "heap" is indeterminate. Yet the Sorites paradox tries to force a specific definition on what is by design an indeterminate concept: the very idea of defining the term "heap" as a specific number of grains of sand is fallacious, is it not? I don't see a paradox here as much as I see confusion about how terms are defined. How many grapes are in a bunch of grapes? How many leaves are in a head of lettuce? How many grains are in an ear of corn? How many chips are in a bag of potato chips? in each of the above questions, the answer will vary from one example to the next, the exact number is not particularly germane to the concept. So what makes a heap different from a bunch or any of the other examples?

I see the sorites paradox as a very serious problem, not a logical fallacy that's easy to diagnose and fix. The paradox arises whenever we have clear cases at the extremes but no known line separating the cases where a concept applies from the cases where the concept doesn't apply.

Clearly, 1 grape isn't enough to compose a bunch of grapes. Just as clearly, 100 grapes is enough to compose a bunch of grapes. So which number between 2 and 100 is the smallest number of grapes sufficient to compose a bunch of grapes? If there's no correct answer, then the sorites paradox shows that the concept enough grapes to compose bunch of grapes is an inconsistent concept. But inconsistent concepts, such as the concept colorless red object, necessarily never apply to anything, in which case it would be impossible for anything to be a bunch of grapes.

One might reply, "Okay, fine. Necessarily there are no bunches of grapes. Life goes on." The problem, however, is that the sorites paradox applies to every vague concept, including the concept human body, and presumably we don't want to deny the logical possibility that our own bodies exist: who would be doing the denying in that case? The lesson is that classical logic requires the existence of an arbitrarily precise cutoff falling somewhere in between the clear cases, even if we can't hope to know where the cutoff falls. Many philosophers have tried non-classical logic or non-classical semantics to avoid the need for sharp cutoffs, but all of the attempts I know of either fail to eliminate sharp cutoffs or come to grief in some other way.

Yes, the number of leaves in a head of lettuce varies from one case to the next, but there are limits. A head of lettuce can't have zero leaves, whereas this year's prize-winning head of lettuce at the state fair clearly has enough leaves. To repeat: Logic requires there to be a sharp cutoff in between those clear cases -- a line that separates having enough leaves to be a head of lettuce from having too few leaves to be a head of lettuce. Or else there couldn't possibly be heads of lettuce.

Incidentally, I don't think it's true that "heap," "bunch," etc., are defined as indeterminate. Instead, we learn to apply those words by being shown only clear cases of heaps and bunches. Our teachers simply don't bring up the words in unclear cases (or, I think, in clearly negative cases either). So the indeterminacy results from omission rather than from any deliberate definition.

Do people owe a debt for investments made in them which they never had an option to refuse? Some examples might be: Debt to society for paying for your childhood education Debt to parents for raising you Should it be considered ungrateful for someone to discontinue their affiliation with the investor if they feel that the relationship isn't beneficial to them?

You pose the question twice: first by asking if people owe a debt and second by asking if behaving in certain ways would be ungrateful. I think the difference matters.

I don't know whether a child owes a debt to her parents—at least not in a certain strict sense. The primary use of the language of debt deals with contracts, promises and, in any case, cases of mutual consent. There are other uses, but the further they are from the primary ones, the harder it is to be sure of their force. Fortunately, it doesn't matter. Suppose we agree that the child doesn't literally owe her parents a debt for raising her—even if they did it lovingly, conscientiously and well. But would it be ungrateful for her to turn her back on her parents because, say, her new social circle made it embarrassing for her to have these people as parents?

I think the answer is obvious enough.

Asking what the daughter owes to her parents invites quibbles and evasion. But moral language is broader and more supple than the legalistic part. Someone who turned their back on parents who had done their best just because the relationship was no longer beneficial to them sounds like a selfish jerk. We should repay our debts when we have them, but we should also not be selfish jerks.

J. L. Austin once remarked that we'd do well to worry less about the beautiful and more about the dainty and the dumpy. The same point goes for moral language. This case is a good illustration.

Is it ethical to favour one soccer team over another?

The answer is surely that it's not unethical or wrong or immoral to favor one team over another. But there's an interesting issue in the background. At least some views of what morality calls for say that we should be impartial. If I'm a utilitarian, then everyone's pleasure and pain count equally. If I'm a Kantian, then I should act only on maxims that I could will to be universal laws. But in that case, it seems, I can't favor particular people—or particular sports teams.

Whether this is really what utilitarianism or Kantianism call for, this would be crazy. It's also an issue that comes up in an important essay by the British philosopher Bernard Williams ("Persons, Character and Morality," 1976.) Toward the end of the essay, he considers a hypothetical raised by another philosopher, Charles Fried. Fried imagines a man who is in a position to save one of two people, one of whom is his wife. Fried is clear that it should be acceptable for the man to save his wife instead of the stranger. But Williams isn't happy with the way that Fried makes the case: Fried offers considerations meant to show that perhaps somehow, in this case, the man isn't actually being unfair.

Williams thinks that going about things in this way would leave the man "with one thought too many." Williams writes: might have been hoped by some (for instance, by his wife) that his motivating thought, fully spelled out, would be the thought that it was his wife, not that it was his wife and that in situations of this kind it is permissible to save one's wife.

What is Williams' point? It is that deep attachments are part of any life that has "substance," in Williams' word, even if deep attachments risk offending against "the impartial view." Williams thinks that there is always a potential conflict between life's having depth and substance, and the requirements of our system of morality.

What about soccer? Saving one's spouse and rooting for one's team seem pretty different. And they are. But what they might have in common from Williams' point of view is that a life infused through and through by the demands of system of impartial morality would not be a good life, even if the rules of that system have a legitimate claim on us.

There are lots of issues here, and doing them justice would call for a very long essay or, more likely, a book. But extrapolating from what Williams says, if someone convinces herself that it's wrong to root for her hometown team, something is indeed wrong, but it's not the rooting. It's that in a way not altogether easy to articulate, morality has become, if not a tyrant, then something less than human.

My understanding is that philosophers like Wittgenstein held that thought without language is impossible. I've seen many people reply that they have non-linguistic thoughts all the time, and my guess is that what they mean is that they often "think" in imagery rather than words. For example, rather than saying with their inner voice, "I should advance my pawn," they picture a chess board with a pawn moving forward. Does this demonstrate non-linguistic thought?

I'm no expert on Wittgenstein, and I don't know the particular argument of his that you're alluding to. He does give a famous argument that anything properly regarded as a language must be usable (if not also used) by more than one person.

But your question is about something else: whether a being can think without possessing language, or maybe whether a being can have thoughts with no linguistic content.

I think the clearest reason for answering "yes" is given by the problem-solving behavior of non-human animals to whom we have no reason to attribute language. Mice seem able to solve mazes, octopuses can figure out and open screw-top jars, and so on, yet it seems a stretch to attribute language to them. When an octopus encounters, for the first time ever, a closed glass jar containing attractive prey, which linguistic resources or concepts must it use when it figures out how to remove the screw top? What sort of linguistic content is the octopus representing to itself? None that I can imagine. But some sort of problem-solving -- some sort of thinking -- is happening, just the same.

If the unconscious exists as part of our working brains, how can we tell what is in it? Can we find out what is in specifically our own unconscious by ourselves?

There are different theories about that but one prominent theory, namely, Freud's - that repression and resistance are the reasons why much of our mental life is unconscious and save for himself -- he thought ordinary human beings could not break through that resistance on their own. As usual, Freud overstated things a mite, but there is something to be said for the view that we need some help in understanding the meaning of what is beneath the waves of our conscious lives - but that joint effort requires the ability to tolerate vulnerability and anxiety.

My wife wants to retire to a gated community. I find the phrase to be an oxymoron, and believe that the whole gated project is morally flawed; for example, it can lead to us vs. them thinking, social stratification, etc. Is there an argument here, or just a personal preference?

Nice question - I wish philosophers thought more about questions related to domestic choices like this one!

No doubt the disagreement between you and your wife could reflect variations in personal preferences that are morally defensible. Some can tolerate noisy environments, others prefer solitude, and so on. And on its face, there's nothing objectionable in wanting living conditions that reflect such preferences.

But there does seem to be something more than personal preference at issue. I'd encourage you to research this yourself, but based on what I've learned about gated communities, they tend to be very homogenous with respect to who lives there. For one thing, the homes all fall within a narrow price range, generally toward the higher end of the income scale. They also tend to be less varied with respect to religion and race. In and of itself, these facts may not be problematic: Sometimes individuals with similar backgrounds opt to live in close proximity, as in many Jewish ghettos and 'Chinatowns.' Yet gated communities look morally different to my eye; this is not a phenomenon in which similar people happen to live near one another. They also throw up a gate with the express aim of keeping others out. The gated community turns what is ordinarily public space -- roads, sidewalks, greenspaces, and the like -- into private space available almost exclusively to community members, often policed so as to discourage outsiders from entering. In this respect, gated communities look like engines of social exclusion, both reflecting and reinforcing social divisions and inequalities about which we should be morally uneasy. As you nicely put it in your question, we should be concerned that gated communities contributes to us vs. them thinking and social stratification. For what it's worth, I don't think "gated community" is an oxymoron exactly -- those in gated neighborhoods are community in an obvious sense and may feel a strong sense of community among themselves. But community isn't the only important value — it may need to be balanced against justice, equality, etc. — and one might legitimately ask whether 'community' achieved through the heavy handed and exclusionary mechanisms of gated communities is the most desirable form of community (or even a genuine community at all!).

I'd encourage you to express these concerns to your wife, as well as asking her more about what appeals to her about a gated community. Something about the lifestyle? Worries about crime and security? Perhaps there are alternatives to gated communities that answer to her concerns without raising the moral 'red flags' that motivated your question.