Last time, I introduced three little puzzles from the history of philosophy.
In the first case, Wittgenstein’s view of identity is not very popular, but it still has some partisans. In my view it can be refuted by noting that in mathematics identity is often proved, not simply “known.” Similarly, in factual science, identity claims are often great discoveries. Consider the discovery that minding is the specific function of parts of the nervous systems of animals or that the mean molecular kinetic energy of a gas is its temperature.
Why does the latter matter? Because we don’t know every aspect of everything. Coming to realize that one is dealing with the same thing is thus informative. There are also famous mystery stories (and some science fiction versions of same) where the plot twist is that the detective and the criminal are the same person and yet this was not known to him. Why would these be potentially interesting if Wittgenstein were correct?
The second was harder to answer. I think it can be solved by recognizing that knowledge comes in degrees and also is, ideally, a system. In the latter case the partial correctness of the so-called coherence theory of truth applies: While truth does not consist in coherence, it may well be an indicator of it. Stray propositions are, to that degree, less likely to be the case. So we can learn by accretion, as it were. This is only a partial answer and runs into problems of complete novelty, much as discussions of creativity do. I think our previous discussions of expertise are useful, as well. Is there a sense in which the “recognize an expert” problem is exactly the same as Meno’s paradox?
The third was a bit weird, and gives rise to the literature on ceteris paribus “laws” and whether or not they count as such. I have already stated in an earlier column my view that no strict law statements are known except for conservation laws. In which case: So what if there is a rider to a law statement? It is amazing to my mind how much power the “slippery slope” argument to vacuity has had.
For September, I would like to discuss a “metapuzzle.” I am borrowing from a classical Chinese text to create this puzzle, but the meta idea is mine. Interpret “White horse is not horse” in various ways. Which ones are true? Which ones are false? Is it true that it is not quite standard English? You may have to rewrite it slightly in the interest of charity. If confronted with this sentence, which way would you interpret — charity in mind?
Now for the weirdest twist of all. Keeping in mind I’ve called it a metapuzzle, does it matter that I, in a column such as this, am asking you to solve this?