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« Philosophers' Annual | Main | Google perplexity »

February 22, 2005

Phil in words of one syll

Denis Robinson of the University of Auckland has embarked on the monumental project of translating the key ideas of philosophy into words of one syllable.  This project was pioneered in George Boolos's 1994 paper in Mind, "Godel's Theorem translated into words of one syllable", the upshot of which was "If math is not a lot of bunk, then no claim of the form 'X can't be proved' can be proved".  Denis has now extended the project to one-syllable formulations of many of the key questions of philosophy, including some key questions in ethics, the philosophy of mind and language, epistemology, and metaphysics.  There are a lot still to go, though!  So your contributions to this project are welcome.  Denis's contribution follows.


If each word was a word of just one sound, what could we do, when we did our work, and how would that fact bind us?

Not that "a word of just one sound" quite gets the thing one tries to say here - but no way I can find to try to say it is as good as this one, but this one.

"It is a tale told by a dolt, full of sound and rage, which does not mean a thing". - Said by the man who shakes a spear.

Why not take a stab and go for broke? Let's ask: what would our work be like if when we thought things through or sought to know how to sort things out we had to use no word which does not have just one sound? It's hard to make a whole text when we sign up to this deal. But we could think of what we make up when we do this as to be thought of as shards of a text to be read at a time when now is long in the past, though of course a time which will then be "now".

Some of the things we in our line of work might ask would look like these:

Is it wrong to do what you want to when there are those who don't want you to or who will be hurt if you do?

Is the right thing to do what makes most folks glad? Or should we say not quite that, but that the right thing to do is the thing which most makes folks glad, where when you count folks you weight each one by how glad it makes them?

How do we think? Must we think by means of words? Could a cat or a dog think what we think? If all thought is by way of words, what words would cats or dogs use, and where would they come from?

Is there some one thing which all of us can mean and which all of us can know we mean when we all use the same word? How can we know that my word means what your word means? Does the fact that it is the same word make it less hard to know this?

Might it be that the man who came by space ship from Twin Earth could say in truth when he got here "it was good to drink, on my way here, not for the first time, the rich red wine which flows in the streams of Mars, but now I feel sad, for I will go there no more, and soon will die, by the shores of a sea not my own, though it be to each sense one just like it"? If I said that such a man said that, though I said too that what I said was not true, but just a tale, would it make sense for what I said he said to make us sad or glad? And would such a tale show that the stuff of his sea might be not of the same kind as the stuff of our seas, though it might be to each sense we have, just like it?

What if there is no right or wrong? Should we fear that harm or loss must come to us all if we start to think this? Could God make it so? Could God make what is right right, or what is wrong wrong? Could God make the wrong thing right or the right thing wrong?

If all that we know is through what we can see, hear, touch, taste, or smell, how can we know that things are as we see, hear, touch, taste or smell them to be?

If one thing could be two, must that mean that all things could be one?

February 22, 2005 in Frivolity | Permalink


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Here's a question close to my heart:

Could a chap have just the same sort of brain as me, and not feel a thing?

Or, to more strictly respond to a challenge from Denis to formulate a psychophysical supervenience thesis:

Could two folks have just the same sort of brains, and not think and feel the same things?

Posted by: djc | February 22, 2005 at 08:56 AM

First question on the first-year course here:

If I had a ring that let me do what I want and no one would know it was me that did it, what would I do when I wore it?

Posted by: David Wall | February 22, 2005 at 10:52 AM

If God is dead, then is it all right to do what we want?

Where do I go when I die? Or will I just die and be no more?

I am Blas, French. Should I trust God to be, so that if He is He will give me full bliss when I die, or should I not, and risk full pain? It is clear that I should trust! The bet is well worth it!

All things we say may be, in fact are, though not in the same world that we live in. It is weird, true, but don't look at me like that!

The Scot Dave Hume thought that we can't know if the sun will rise next day; we can only trust so. (By the way, he said that we can't get from "is" to "ought", too).

Posted by: Alejandro | February 22, 2005 at 11:53 AM

Some more:

If Van Quine were with some guy who did not speak his tongue, and a hare passed by and the guy spoke, Van would not know if the guy had meant "lo, a hare!" or not.

The small bits that make us and all things seem quite weird. Are they there when we don't look at them? If so, just _how_ are they there? If one of them may or may not kill a cat in a box, is the cat dead or not while we don't look in the box? If we sent two of them, one East and one West, wait a while, and then look at the East one, shall the West one "know" it? (Bell said it can't know, but it seems it can). Some say that to ask these things has no sense. Some say it is the mind that makes this bits be as they are -they are so just when we look at them. And some, like Dave here, think that the world splits each time we look at one of them. How could we tell that, if it were true?

Dan says there is no more "feel" in thought than lots of drafts in charge of stuff on their own; there is no need for one main Thought or Feel. Dave asks him if there could not be a guy with all the drafts there, but no real feel nor thought. Dan says that to ask that makes no sense: no one could tell if the guy were like that, for the guy would say he had Feels too! Who is right?

Posted by: Alejandro | February 22, 2005 at 08:39 PM

Unger on Skepticism (1974)

If I know that P, must I be sure that P? Yes, I must.

And if I am sure that P, and it seems to me that the world is not P, must I say that the world is not as it seems? Yes, I must. (Saul tells me I should say this...)

But it seems that for all P, a Voice that I trust might tell me that not P. And I would have to say to the Voice: "what you say is not true!"

But to do this would be mad! For the Voice *could* be right.

So, for all P, no one can be sure that P. And this means that for all P, no one knows that P.

Posted by: Tamar | February 23, 2005 at 02:01 AM

Kant's Ground work, in words of one syl

To be good, make it your plan to do what you must.
What must you do? Do not act on a plan if your sane part could not make it a rule for all.
Or, what means the same thing, do not treat the sane part in you, or in all who have a sane part, as a mere tool. It is a rare good, so give it its due.
Or, what means the same thing, act only on a plan if all who have a sane part, and who lived in the same state, would want that plan to be a law of that state, a law that they all live by.
But why is this what you must do? Here is why:
Since you are sane, you must act on your sane part's plans.
If you act on your sane part's plans, then you think what you pick will be up to you (else why pick?). You think your plan will be up to you, too, up to your sane part.
But if you think what you pick and your plan will be up to you, then you think you, that is, your sane part, and no one else makes the plan and picks.
What plan would your sane part make?
Since all sane parts are the same, it would be a plan that could be a plan for all with a sane part.
And that is the same thing as what you must do to be good.

Posted by: Robert | February 23, 2005 at 07:37 AM

Charming idea. Given Mr. Chalmers' background, perhaps we might also launch a similar monosyllabized programme with famous mathematical proofs. (No symbols, diagrams or encoding.) 'Kay. Who's up for Maxwell's Theorem?

Posted by: Strange Doctrines | February 23, 2005 at 11:05 AM

Can’t help but do one more:

It came to me in a dream, in a small hot room, one night while at the wars.

If I think, and it is true, that if I think then I am, then I am.
I can not but judge that if I think then I am, and if I judge this then I know that I do. And to judge is to think.
So I can be in no doubt that I am.

Posted by: Denis Robinson | February 23, 2005 at 12:51 PM

Say that you see a star at dusk and name it Dusk Star, and then you see a star at dawn and name it Dawn Star. And say it turns out that the star at dusk is the same star as the star at dawn. Then when you say that Dusk Star is Dawn Star, you seem to say the same thing that you say when you say that Dawn Star is Dawn Star. But when you say that Dusk Star is Dawn Star, you say a thing that you have come to know through hard work.

How can this be? Do your two names for the star mean the same? I say that your names do not mean the same. The names both name the same thing, but they do not name it through the same mode of view. So the two names do not have the same sense.

Posted by: djc | February 23, 2005 at 03:19 PM

A New Quiz

Let us say you are in a room with a box on each side of you. Box one is clear, and in it you can see some cash. Box two is not clear. You are told that if you choose one box, you get to keep the cash in it as a prize; if you choose both, you get to keep the cash in both of them. But, when you came in, a bot that is good at this kind of thing has read your brain, and it thinks it knows if you will choose one box or if you will choose both. If it thought you would choose both, then it put cash in just the clear box (box one). If the bot thought you would choose just one box, it put some cash in box one, but it put much, much more in box two. Should you choose just box two, or should you choose both?

Posted by: painquale | February 23, 2005 at 04:28 PM

Here's another stab at a Twin Earth story:

Twin Earth is just like our world, but for the fact that where we have gold, they have a stuff that looks and feels just like our gold, but is made up of wee parts that are not the same as the wee parts that make up all our gold.

You take me to Twin Earth, but don't tell me all this. I point to a lump that shines and say, "Ah, there's some gold!" Lots of guys think that what I said is false - the lump is not the sort of thing that I mean by "gold", for it is not made up of the same sorts of wee bits as all the things I've seen and called 'gold'.

On Twin Earth, I have a twin who is just like me in that all the parts that make him up are just like the ones that make me up. But my twin has lived his whole life on Twin Earth and used his term 'gold' to talk about the stuff there. My twin walks up to the lump and says "There is some gold!" This is true, for the lump is in fact made out of the same sort of stuff as my twin has learned to call 'gold'.

This shows us that, at least in one sense, what we mean is not fixed by all the parts that make us up - for I and my twin are just the same in all these ways, but we don't mean the same thing by 'gold'.

Posted by: Justin F | February 23, 2005 at 05:33 PM


When I ask "What is four plus six?" it seems clear that the right thing to say is 'ten'. But, what makes it be that this is what I must say to use the word "plus" in the way I've meant to use it in the past? How can we rule out the thought that, in fact, I've meant 'plus' to mean a way to join two things that yields their sum when that sum would be less than ten, and yields *one* when that sum would be more than ten.

I have not asked "What's four plus six?" in the past. (Or if you won't buy that, we could choose a case with things as high as you like, and the same points would still hold. To save breath, I'll stick with this case.) So we can't just say that I had fixed last time what the right thing to say now is. (And if I *had* asked this in the past, how would we know that the right thing to say now would be the same as what I said then? The right thing to say when one asks "Is the sun out?" is not the same at all times, so why think that the right thing to say to "What is four plus six?" should be the same at all times?)

Sure, I am such that when you ask me if four plus six is ten, I will tend to say yes; but what does that show? I have been wrong lots of times in the past - I have said yes to sums that weren't right. So why think that since I tend to say yes to this one, that should mean that this one is right?

So, the hard task is to say what it is in me or you or in our past that makes it be the case that the *right* thing to say to "What's four plus six?" is 'ten' rather than 'one' or some third thing.

Posted by: Justin F | February 23, 2005 at 06:09 PM

Say I'm locked in a room and I get a large batch of Greek prose. I know no Greek. Then I get a batch of rules (in my own tongue) on how to come up with more Greek prose based on the first batch of Greek prose. To Greek folk who are not in the room, the words in the first batch are things that they ask me, and the words that I come up with are is neither affiliated with the authors of this page nor responsible for its contents. This is a safe-cache copy of the original web site.