Philosophy and Ethics

This blog follows up issues and ideas from my website: Philosophy and Ethics.

Friday, 5 June 2015

Can a heap of sand prevent baldness?

This is one of the 35 topics in 
The Philosopher's Beach Book
your ideal holiday read!

Thanks to Eubulides of Miletus, a Greek philosopher from the 4th century BCE, those who are balding can now take comfort from considering heaps of sand.

Eubulides, a pupil of a pupil of Socrates, is best known for his many paradoxes, by which he intended to set people thinking. In what is known as his Sorites paradox (from the Greek word meaning ‘heaped up’), he poses the question of how we can logically justify applying the term ‘heap’ to a pile of pebbles or – since you are metaphorically (if not literally) on a beach – sand. Eubulides also produced a parallel argument, known as the Phalakros paradox, about going bald, but more of that in a moment.

Pile up a heap of sand or, if you have a small bucket to hand, make yourself a sand castle. If asked why you are doing such a childish thing, just answer that you are a philosopher! Now there is no doubt that what you have before you is a ‘heap’. Thousands of grains piled up in one place deserve, without possibility of contradiction, to be termed a heap. Take one grain away and it remains a heap; take another, then another.  At what point do you consider that your heap of sand is no longer a heap? Would three grains constitute a heap? Would a single grain?

Of course one might aspire with William Blake to gain some vision of the world in a single grain of sand. But, mystics aside, one grain definitely does not seem to me to qualify as a heap. But at what point did the heap stop being the heap? And how do you define what constitutes a ‘heap’ without allowing extreme conditions when commonsense tells us the term should not apply?

And here we can start to move out from what sounds a very narrow question to explore its implications.  People have a strong urge to define – to say that one thing is good and another bad, that something is a success or a failure. They define themselves and others by general terms, which is inevitable, for without such general terms how else would we be able to say anything? We need words, and words are general, not specific. We put the individual thing we have before us into a category – and the more categories we have, the more clearly the object is categorised and the better we describe it. 

But here’s where the Sorites paradox comes into play.  In the real world, there are no clear-cut categories. Between success and failure, good and bad, there are a million gradations. To start to define – this is a heap, that is not – is already to violate the particularity of that pile, heap, castle (help, I’m using general words again!) of sand.

People tend to prefer clear, unqualified descriptions, and are often frustrated by those who describe themselves as ‘mainly’ vegetarian or ‘generally’ pacifist – but more often than not, in real life as opposed to logic, there is a span of possibilities without any clear defining lines.
People sometimes use an extreme example in order to make a general point. If over-indulgence in alcohol or food is clearly bad, they want to apply curbs to even moderate drinking.  Life has to be one thing or the other; you either believe it or you don’t.

There is a particular problem with terms that designate a collection. After all, a class of pupils is still a class if one pupil is removed. But can you have a class with a single pupil? Presumably, yes. But a class with no pupils? Sometimes we can turn such ambiguities to our advantage. If you want to claim that a book you have written is your ‘bestseller’ you only need to produce two complete failures, and ensure that the third sells a single copy.

So how can all this prevent baldness?

In his Phalakros paradox, Eubulides points out the obvious fact that anyone with a full head of hair cannot be described as bald. Pull out a single hair and the head of hair remains. Pull out another… and so on. At what point do the few remaining hairs constitute ‘a head of hair’? At what point does the person become bald? My step-grandson, casually surveying my own shining pate, declared ‘Little tiny one!’ He had found a hair, so I am no longer bald; or am I?

I may secretly allow a few more hairs to grow. Most will still think me bald; but I may beg to differ.
So a heap or a bald head only becomes one when you choose to call it so. But surely, it’s either a heap or not a heap, you are either bald or you have a head of hair, albeit thinning. I’m not deaf, just a bit hard of hearing! He’s not effeminate, he’s sensitive! She’s not overweight, just nicely rounded!  But when does the plain person start to be considered beautiful? When does the intelligent youngster become a prodigy?

It’s said that nobody aspires to be average. To be average it to fail to qualify for those descriptions we most crave – successful, wealthy, elegant, beautiful.  But a moment’s thought will show that every one of those descriptions is threatened by the Sorites paradox – success for one is relative failure for another; one person’s wealth is another’s poverty. When it comes to describing quality and quantity, we either compromise or qualify terms out of existence.

Or you can rebel against ambiguity. There came a point in my own balding process when I could no longer stand a head that resembled a desert criss-crossed with sparse vegetation. I took the ‘Nietzschian’ option and applied a razor.  We force things to be one thing or another.

But definition and the way in which we understand description often lead us astray. You may find that the advertised ‘sea view’ from your hotel window requires neck-aching contortions, indeed you may find that there is hardly space to perch yourself on your ‘balcony’ in order to get the advertised sea view.  Both balcony and sea view may be correctly so described – after all, you can get out of the door and onto this narrow pelmet of concrete projecting from the sheer face of the hotel wall, so it’s a balcony. It is also possible, for those with the head for it, to lean over said balcony and squint in the direction of the sea. Your complaint cannot be upheld – it is indeed a balcony with a sea view, but it is not what you expected. Why? Because we attach to words some ideal meaning, and are frustrated when reality does not match it.

Plato considered particular things to be no more than copies of some ideal ‘form’. Every tree is so described because it is a copy of the form of the tree.  But actually, as biology evolves we see that it is no longer viable to make absolutely categorisations of that sort. All living things are related to one another. One species blends at its extremes into another.   We categorise and carve up life and think that we have thereby understood it. In reality, all life is fluid and changing. Nothing is permanently or accurately defined.

Logic and science define and classify – genera, species, classes of things. We set them all out and appreciate their differences. Except that life is never like that. There are no identical human beings, even if all come under that classification. There are no identical, standardised balconies or sea views – every one of them is unique, that’s the joy of life, but that’s also its frustration.
Should you think such questions trivial, apply the Sorites paradox to the unborn child. At what point does this bundle of cells become a living being? At what point a human individual? Day by day, throughout its time in the womb, the child is changing. Medical science and ethics require that we mark certain significant point along that path towards birth, so that we can justify how we regard the unborn.  Is it a human person or is it not?

Of course, if there’s money involved, it’s wise to call in the lawyers to get everything specified to the point at which any ambiguity can be eliminated or at least made defensible in law. Where there’s government involved, the tendency is to specify exactly what is and what is not a failing school or a good hospital. And because what seems like success in one place may be failure in another, there is the tendency to go for evidence and statistics. Everything is measured and evaluated on that basis.  And yet, as teachers and medics will be quick to point out, we know the extremes when we see them, but defining the point at which failure grows into success or vice versa cannot be an exact science.
So we have our fundamental question: how do the particulars we encounter relate to our general words? When is a balcony not a balcony? What counts as a genuine sea view? Am I bald or not? And is this a heap of sand?

For further reflection:
Eubulides was a pupil of Euclid of Megara, founder of what is known as the Megarian school of philosophy. He opposed his contemporary, Aristotle, who liked to classify everything.  Information on both is available on the web, and you might like to ask yourself whether classification, which has been key to much science and philosophy since Aristotle, enables us to grasp reality, or only gives us the illusion of doing so.

Thursday, 4 June 2015

Is moral progress an illusion?

We live in a world of change; everything evolves, nothing is fixed. Whether we look at the evolution of species or the changes happening in society, we try to make sense of change as though it were a story, and ask about the ending. Faced with change or development we tend to ask ‘Where is it going?’ Progress – as opposed to random or circular change – implies a direction and an end point.
History is always a story told from a particular perspective; facts in themselves do not make history. In the same way, descriptive ethics – the catalogue of who does what in what society and during what era – does not touch on the fundamental issues of normative ethics. It does not ask if society is ‘better’ now than in Greek, Roman or Medieval times. We may not burn witches, but do we still torture? Is the freedom to be openly homosexual progress? Or is it simply a return to the enlightened times of the Greek city state, recovering from a temporary period of unfair repression? Is there a new world order emerging through social media, or is universal communication merely giving the opportunity for people to exploit  one another more widely?
If facts alone cannot make a normative moral argument, then facts alone cannot prove that there is moral progress.
Hence, any attempt to prove moral progress will hit the same problem that utilitarianism finds – that there is no end point at which all the evidence is in and we can make a definitive judgement. At that level, moral progress remains an illusion, never unambiguously proved or demonstrated.
And yet … If there were no sense of progress, of trying to improve a situation or cultivate a virtue, would right and wrong continue to make any sense? Is having a conscience compatible with an absence of hope or any sense that life could be better? The art of living as a human being involves thinking, creating, hoping, willing; it is always oriented towards the future. We may look back, but we live forwards. Without any hope that morality makes sense and it going to improve things, the very experience of morality becomes nonsense. In this sense, moral progress is a necessary hope – for without it, the rest of moral discussion loses its significance. There may be no evidence whatsoever that things are actually improving. But in the face of that bleakness, the moral impulse is to want to make it so – to construct a life according to our intuitions of what is right.
Progress is therefore a bit like freedom; analyse it empirically and it vanishes. I am utterly determined by events beyond my control, and yet I sense that I am free to choose what to do. In the same way, I have no evidence of progress, but every time I sense that something is wrong, or that there is something I ought to do, I open up the possibility that things can and should improve. 
(This entry is adapted from my comments on this topic in Understand Ethics.)