In what I hope will be a regular series, I want to think about a new philosophical question each Friday. This isn’t stuff I’ve thought about deeply or for a long time, so please feel free to make suggestions or corrections.
Imagine a pile of sand. If I remove one grain of sand from the pile, do I still have a pile of sand? Well, of course, removing one grain of sand isn’t going to change the pile significantly.
So for any pile, I can remove one grain without producing a non-pile. But then if I keep removing grains of sand, I’ll end up with nothing – and surely we couldn’t say that is a pile!
The Sorites paradox is the most famous thought experiment in the philosophical study of vagueness. Vagueness is the study of concepts such as ‘pile’, or ‘tall’ or ‘rich’. In fact, almost all predicates seem to display a degree of vagueness.
Some philosophical approaches to vagueness include:
- There is a particular minimum number of grains of sand that constitute a ‘pile’. Fewer than this number is not a pile.
- There is a minimum number of grains in a pile, but nobody can know how many that is, exactly. So our association of ‘pile’ with a particular collection of grains is a probabilistic guess.
- Pile is not a predicate. There can be groups of sand that have greater or lesser degrees of ‘pile-ness’. As you remove grains the collection becomes less of a pile, until eventually one should not call it a pile at all.
- The collection of grains of sand is a pile if a reasonable number of people would call it a pile.
Any of these resonate? I think I operate mostly with the fourth approach, but all of them seem fair to me. I haven’t looked deeply into each one though, to see where the problems lie. I was fascinated, reading about the paradox, because classification is such a fundamental part of how we represent knowledge. I believe that classification is a double-edged sword: often making important differences appear more minor than they are.