Back Off Science

The heap

Posted in philosophy by backoffscience on December 1, 2009

An ancient philosophical dilemma. How many grains of sand are there in a heap?

Grains of sand

From wikipedia: The paradox of the heap (Sorites paradox) is an example of the paradox which arises when one considers a heap of sand, from which grains are individually removed. Is it still a heap when only one grain remains?

My solution is this. A heap of sand is a thing. A heap of sand is a concept. We are able to use the word to describe it, are able to use arguments and justifications in borderline cases. Each heap of sand is also a number of sand particles. The number of sand particles in heaps as opposed to piles or mounds is based on counting the sand in piles we decide are heaps. The edges of the definition are ambiguous, the existence of heaps of sand is not. Under certain conditions we might be happy to set a number, in others to take survey results, in another become totally confused and be unable to decide.

The argument is that we live our lives in a world both material and conceptual. This duality means facts about the world are fundamentally ambiguous. The material facts about sand can’t tell you how many grains are in a heap. The grammar of the word heap cannot tell you the chemistry of sand.

But the concept does not exist in the material world – we stand towards the world as if it is conceptually organized, there is no space for thought, for conscious interpretation. Any yet we share the concepts. They are communal. They are not my creation, but ours.

There are two basic epistemologies – the foundational of reductive science, and the contextual, of expansive conceptual life.

Scientific truth is ambiguous. The thing is matter organised conceptually, not either just matter or just concept. The boundaries of the heap are not consciously decided by us, the decision is made in the way we use the concept – the way we talk about heaps in different contexts. But it is still the thing there, the grains piled up. With both physics and gramatical certainty as its basis.

In the world there is such overlap between matter and concept that we become confused about how we are able to talk.  We fear ambiguity lets in mystery, that it throws things somehow up in the air, but in reality an enmeshed and interweaved ambiguity is everywhere in our lives. That something is ambiguous does not mean that it is nothing (although it is nothing useful for science).

With the certainty of science glaring down at us, we are tempted to say there is no heap, the heap is just in our minds. That is the start of all this bother.

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4 Responses

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  1. Alan Slipp said, on December 2, 2009 at 6:34 pm

    “With the certainty of science glaring down at us, we are tempted to say there is no heap, the heap is just in our minds.”

    I would say that “heapness” is just in our minds. Not to be dismissive, just to indicate that the quality of being a heap is not a property of the sand itself, but a part of how we think about it. “Heapness” is an inescapable result of our thinking in language.

  2. backoffscience said, on December 2, 2009 at 11:14 pm

    Yeah, I think its really tempting to say that, and it’s obviously right that the mechanism for organizing the world in concepts is in our brain, but I’m not sure the word mind really means anything here. Is it the same as the brain? It looks a bit like a soul.

    Isn’t the heap a thing in the world in any normal sense? If you say heapness is in the mind, then the mind and the world are in some ways the same and in some ways not, but it’s not clear what the difference is. I find it very easy to get lost in the mind. It’s an ambiguous situation I guess.

    If you were talking normally, you wouldn’t talk about heapness being in your mind, but in some connection between all the heaps. What the concept is, is a question of grammar, not psychology. In Wittgenstein terms, we stand towards the heap as a heap. There’s no space for thought, and no separation from life for a word like mind to creep in.

  3. Alan Slipp said, on December 4, 2009 at 4:32 am

    Well, normally speaking, of course heaps are things in the world. So are chairs, cats, ping pong balls, you name it. In philosophical terms, we have to make a distinction between the physical object we call a heap (or a cat, or a chair, etc.), and the set of conceivable objects that “heap” can refer to. I think the difference between actual objects and conceivable objects is rather stark.

    As far as concepts being a question of grammar rather than psychology, I would say that you need the latter before you can have the former. Without consciousness, there is no language.

  4. backoffscience said, on December 7, 2009 at 6:01 pm

    No, you misunderstand. That concepts exist is dependent on the fact of consciousness and the fact of our being able to use language. But what the concepts actually are is only comprehensible through a grammatical investigation. Concepts are words, after all.

    There is obviously a difference between conceivable and actual objects, but for there to be objects differentiated from all matter at all requires the organizing function of our language use. Or something like that. Perhaps that is another dead end actually.

    I’m trying – and failing – to say that “normally speaking” is the best we have. That the world in which we live, the real world if you like, is not understood as fundamentally material. Because the world in which we live is clearly taken by us to be conceptually organised, that is what it is. It doesn’t matter how that happens, we are just in this situation and have to work with it. The other option is to pretend to take a position where you believe that the world in which we live some kind of second order phenomenon, at the same time as you yourself treat it as everything.

    The terminological distancing is an illusion which forces us to think in a way that clouds the issue. What is a heap? A certain pile of sand and a certain organisation of neurons. But then what is the purpose of that definition? It doesn’t help us in any way to resolve the problem, whereas just accepting that we quite easily talk about heaps without getting confused is an answer. At least it destroys the question as an oddity.


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