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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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