Paradox of the heap and the messiness of language

Derek asked:

What is the point of the Sorites paradox? I’m a regular listener of the Rationally Speaking podcast, and couldn’t help but notice that Julia Galef concludes ‘that philosophers think there should be a precise definition or a right answer’. I’m of the opinion that the point of the thought experiment is to help us realize the ‘messiness’ of language. Which of us is closer to the truth?

Answer by Jürgen Lawrenz

I wish I could help you with your first sentence. I can’t figure it out either, nor can I think of the slightest use of arguing such questions. One way of resolving the issue would be to look at the languages we speak and just acknowledge that they are full of paradoxical cliches for the simple reason, that they reflect the experience of their speakers over many generations; and you can be sure that none of them (at the primitive forefather stage) was ever concerned with asking ‘when is a heap not a heap anymore?’, or ‘when does blue paint shade into green as I keep adding drops of green paint?’ So you are certainly on track with your surmise of ‘messiness’.

I think this is the kind of imprecision that stings logicians like a nail in the toe. They can’t cope with the messiness of language use. The quote you offer from Julia Galef is plainly an opinion from that stable. Efforts to improve the logical structure of language have been going on for almost 200 years and all failed. I suspect the reason has to do with the fact that we learn our language as babies. Terence Deacon in his book The Symbolic Species offers the theory (based on years of studying in situ the emergence of creole speech at the intersection of two or more languages) that such new languages are created by children. So it seems that philosophers are not the right people to ‘fix up’ the spontaneous language behaviour of humans!

It seems to me that another issue plays into this problem. Our intuitive (spontaneous) apperception of a plurality is restricted by what our eyes can take in at one glance (and to some extent what our fingers can feel and our ears can separate among sounds). When you look at the stars, you’re looking at a heap. Stargazers over the millennia got around to ordering the stars into small heaps, like the Pleiades (seven stars). They are not really a group; but they form a heap that can be grasped instantly. This is because our eyes spontaneously group pluralities into small geometrical patterns up to 12. And now, when you look at our ancient number systems based on 12, you can discern in it a clear build up of clean geometrical patterns based on 2 and 3. With 13 and higher, intuition begins to wobble uncertainly and we start sensing heaps!

I guess this leaves the opposite issue unresolved, which perhaps should attract equal attention from logicians. When does a heap become a hump, a mound, a dune, a hill, a mountain? Can we have some quantifying precision to these expressions as well, please, while you’re at it?


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