How many beans make five?

Geoffrey asked:

How many beans make five?

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

I’m cheating slightly because I asked this question. I realized only last night that there is a non-tautological answer which is incredibly simple. (And it’s not abitrary, like the number of beans in five ounces of beans — What type of beans? British or US ounces? And why ounces, not grams?)

Bear with me.

Here’s an example of a series that you might find in an IQ test: m, t, w, t, f, s, s… What’s the next letter? The answer? It’s m. You expend endless mental energy assigning numbers, counting the gaps between the letters but the answer has nothing to do with calculation. The letters stand for days in the week.

Here’s another one. How high is a Chinaman? (It’s supposedly not politically correct to tell a joke or even a riddle about race or nationality but at the present moment in time one can forgive a joke or riddle at the expense of the Chinese.) The answer in this case: That wasn’t a question. Hao Hi is a Chinaman. Or, to be politically correct, Hao Hi is a ‘Chinese Man’. Hao Hi is his name, and that wasn’t a question either. (Maybe you were thinking, ‘The Chinese are not that tall,’ etc. etc.)

This is about Philosophy. I said, ‘bear with me.’

How many beans make five? The answer is five, but as I said that answer is in fact not tautological. (Googling one finds the same thing over and over, that ‘He/ she knows how many beans make five’ means ‘He/ she knows his/ her stuff’, or ‘A bean, another bean, another bean, another bean, half a bean, and half a bean.’ Rubbish!)

Think LCDs. Well, you might say that question was asked long before LCDs but the principle is the same. Here’s a clue: Two beans make one, five beans make two, five beans make three, four beans make four… Et cetera. Get it now? Answer: There are seven cells in each digit in the LCD display on your Casio watch. How many beans or LCD cells does it take to make the numeral five? Yes, five. It takes five to make six, three to make seven, seven to make eight, five to make nine.

Crucially, five is tne minimum number of beans required to write a mark recognizable as the numeral ‘5’. That’s why the answer is not arbitrary. (You can if you want make ‘1’ out of one bean, ‘7’ out of two beans, etc. which look like the numerals they were intended to represent. )

Here’s one more example, from TV this time. There was a series on British TV around the 90s called ‘Jonathan Creek’. Locked room mysteries. (I talked about this in one of my recent videos.) In one episode an empty wardrobe was carried up three flights of stairs. Seconds later, when the wardrobe door was opened, the dead body of a woman fell out. How on earth did it get there? I won’t spoil your enjoyment by telling you the answer but it was brilliant, although in this case the script writer had more than one solution to choose from. The challenge in this case was to find any solution that wasn’t completely ridiculous.

In Philosophy one gets stuck on ‘problems’ and ‘questions’. And the problems are not solved, the questions are not answered because went looking in all the wrong places. You made a wrong assumption somewhere. And the answer was hidden in plain sight all along. If you’ve never had that experience then you haven’t finished your education in Philosophy however much you think you may know.

There’s no subject in the curriculum where lateral thinking is more important. Questioning our assumptions. I’m sceptical about the idea that you can do a course in lateral thinking (Edward De Bono, etc.) but he was most definitely on to something. Get off your doggy track. Think different. (That was an Apple advert.)

Here’s what I wrote in 1997:

Much has been made of the contrast between logical and creative approaches to problem solving, between ‘vertical’ and ‘lateral’ thinking. One of the most significant features of philosophical problem solving is the way that both approaches are closely integrated… The philosopher prizes equally the faculties of logic and vision, yet also learns to appreciate the completely unexpected move, the gift of serendipity.

(‘Why Study Philosophy?’

In just about every answer I’ve written recently I’ve talked about my riddle, which I call the ‘idiotic conundrum’. I might not have existed but someone exactly like me might have existed in my place. A lot of people don’t get this, and many of the rest either think they know the answer (I think they are wrong!) or they are not gripped, as I am. But then again, I could be the one who is in the wrong, but I just can’t see it. Can you?

One of the things that make a good philosopher is not getting stuck on idiotic conundrums. Do something else. Look at a different problem, anything. Think different. The answer to your conundrum may still come, when you are lying in bed, or brushing your teeth, or waiting at a red light. — I tell myself this, over and over, but as often happens one doesn’t heed one’s own advice…

4 thoughts on “How many beans make five?

  1. Wow! It means philosophy is a long way way from here. Yet it is just at hand the moment you attempt to go on the journey. That is what thinking is all about

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