Friday, May 27, 2011

A heap of ideas

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, philosophy

I believe it was in 1994 that the film Reality Bites was released, and a niche neologism became mainstream. Almost any water-cooler tale of mild misfortune is answered with, "That bites!" So when I saw a book jacket emblazoned with "Philosophy Bites" I wasn't sure how to take it.

Just above the title is the Wittgenstein "duck-rabbit" drawing, which I've always thought was a really bad rendition of either animal. In this case, I take it as a cheeky tip-o-the-hat to the pun, because the book is about a series of podcasts of the same name, which actually take off from the term "sound bite". Each podcast is an edited interview with a philosopher on a specific topic, a philosophy bite.

The book Philosophy Bites: 25 Philosophers on 25 Intriguing Subjects, by David Edmonds and Nigel Warburton, is primarily a transcript of 25 of these podcast interviews. Each podcast lasts some 12-15 minutes, and each chapter of the book is 9-12 pages, so the reading is a bit quicker than the listening (at least at the speed I read).

While many people think of philosophy as an exercise in terminal navel-gazing, or in armchair quarterbacking of an imaginary human condition, these interviews strive to meet philosophy's more practical aspects, where the rubber meets the road, you might say. For example, the opening chapter explores "Yuk!" reactions (the interviewee is Julian Savulescu), and how taste changes over time, so that certain pleasant and unpleasant settings and experiences can change places, while others seem permanently rooted. I thought of the reaction I had to reading that Martin Luther, in common with many people of his time, "enjoyed" a teaspoonful of his own feces daily, considering it a health-promoting dose. Then there is the very widespread fear of genetically-engineered "monsters" of all kinds, whether BT corn or chimeric sheep, while nearly an equal number of people are fascinated by the prospect.

The chapter I found the most esoteric was Timothy Williamson on Vagueness. There is even a term for this: The Sorites paradox, based on the Greek word for "heap". Dump a bucketful of sand on the lawn. Is it a heap? Most people would agree that it is, though some might call a single bucketful a rather small heap. But how small can a heap get? Remove one grain; is it still a heap? Keep doing so. At what point do you not have a heap any more?

The chemistry professor once handed a student in my Organic Chemistry 301 class a stick of chalk, and asked, "What is that?" The student dutifully replied, "A piece of chalk." The professor asked him to hand back half a piece of chalk. The student broke it in two and handed over one. The professor, replied, "This isn't half a piece. It is a piece of chalk!", thus pointing up the vagueness of the word "piece". It may have been half of a stick of chalk, but as a piece, it was simply a piece. If you keep breaking the half into halves, then one of those in half and so forth, at which point do you say of one of the tiny bits, "This is not a piece any more."? Is it when the remaining bit is a single diatom shell, or portion of one, or must it be even smaller? Certainly a single molecule of silica is no longer a piece of chalk, but where is the borderline? Similarly, four sand grains, three in a triangle holding the fourth aloft, constitute the smallest possible "pile" or "heap" of sand, but nobody would really call that nearly invisible thing a heap. Where is the borderline?

Well, this is one place that philosophy seems to become impractical. But it is a very real aspect of machine learning and machine recognition of natural language. My GPS unit, a nice Tom Tom unit, has voice recognition, and is very good at figuring out when I have said, "Drive me home." But when I've tried to say, "Find a hardware store," it usually either asks, "Do you want to go to Wendy's?" or jumps into the "Pick a State, now pick a City, now tell me an address" mode in which it seldom can figure out the way I pronounce street names. It'll be a long time before, "Drive to that heap of a hotel on Ninth Avenue," can be parsed.

Much more practically, Michael Sandel discussed Sport and Enhancement. Is a competition between two steroid-buffed, oxygen-bloated teams going to draw crowds the way more "naturally" trained athletes would? Is it that much different from watching robots compete? I say we have such a situation already: professional wrestling. Those guys may as well be machines, and in some ways, some of them already are. They draw huge audiences.

Then there is a discussion of Art with Derek Matravers, specifically on how art is defined. A lot of the words were spent on Marcel Duchamp's signed urinal, and whether it is sufficient to admit that art is what an "artist" says it is. But who decides if the person is an "artist?" Are artists totally self-declared? It turns into an infinite regression. My own take is, to be art, a piece must require more skill than that required to sign one's name legibly.

What made the book so engaging to me is that I found I had an opinion about every issue discussed. I suppose I could produce a paragraph on my own thoughts about every chapter (Not a bad idea; maybe I'll keep the book handy as posting fodder on slow days!). But whoever might read this, I'll leave it to you to enjoy the interviews, and have opinions of your own, on your own. This is a great book to be curled up with on a rainy day or two.

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