Sorites Paradox: When Does a Heap of Sand Stop Being a Heap of Sand?

Philosophy, besides being a good major of choice for fast food workers (kidding! No hate mails please - those fries will get cold if you don't bag them right away), makes for a pretty good blog reading.

You'd think that after a few thousand years of thinking, all philosophical problems would be solved, but that isn't so. Road Tickle has a list of 4 unsolved philosophical problems for you to ponder. For example:

Sorites Paradox

What’s the problem? Language uses many poorly defined predicates. A fine example is measurement; assume that you define a heap of sand as having one-million grains. You then establish that taking away a single grain doesn’t unmake the heap and it is still defined as being heap. If you accept both of these as fact then what does your definition of a heap actually mean? When does it stop being a heap?

By not giving the heap an precise definition you are simply stating that the heap does or does not exist in some form. Meanwhile, you realize you’ve been sitting and counting individual grains of sand for the sake of a hypothetical question.

What’s the answer? Defining a change in the object require you to set specific boundaries. If you can say that a heap of sand is only a pile of sand if it contains nine-thousand or fewer grains then you can say that a pile is only a heap when it contains more than nine-thousand grains.

At least, that’s one answer. Sorites paradox is what’s referred to as an unsolved problem in philosophy, meaning there is no one method of approaching the question as to solve it universally. Because it’s hinged on definition and perception, the answer is going to vary from individual to individual without a commonly accepted answer overlapping.


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A similar famous debated paradox is:

When is a man officially bald? when he loses the last hair on his head? When it no longer covers the top? WHat percentage? what if it's just really sparse and thin?

Fun stuff. One of my personal favorites is the Ship of Theseus.
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Define the words. Problem solved.

That's the problem with being human. We call a wall a wall because we don't want to list every atom that consists of said wall (or every subatomic particle that consists of those atoms, etc). Language is all just a method of optimization, and it's lack of definition to words that causes problems like that. It gets even more confusing when you realize in 5 years they might not call them walls anymore, and instead use a word with slightly different definitions.

That was the whole problem with Pluto and it being a planet. We can't explain to everyone the size and mass of each body of material in our solar system every time we talk about it. We call them planets (and now dwarf planets) instead. And then if you need to adaptively contrast your definitions, you can go further and say said planet is Earth, then go even further and say that Earth's surface is 30% solid, then you can say what percentage of the crust is titanium, then you can go on to explain the physical properties of titanium if you really need to.

Adaptive sampling!
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