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  • Writer's pictureRicky

Holey Shit

I just watched a philosopher give a talk on holes.

(He had spent a year studying absence.)

So here’s a golden ring. You see the hole, right?

Actually, there were two holes. I was hiding a second ring behind the first one.

Now that you’ve been punked, here’s the big question:

“When did you first see the second hole?”

As a good experimental philosopher, this guy decided to poll the audience:

How many of you think I first see the second hole after I move the rings apart?

One hand, then another went up.

How many of you think I see the second hole before then?

Four or maybe five hands (in a room of about thirty).

Philosophers can sense a trick coming.

It’s evident something puzzly’s afoot.

Here’s the speaker’s solution:

Holes do not block holes.

That means we can see through the first hole to the second hole.

(Getting fancy: The first hole does not occlude the second hole.)

But, sorry…what’s this project exactly?

We already have a mathematical definition of what it means for something to be a hole from the study of topology:

I’ll assume you did not, in fact, just click on a math video, but that’s okay.

On our brain-bending mathematical definition (I’ll spare you), a coffee mug and a donut both have one hole, because you can continually deform one into the other.

That mathematical definition probably doesn’t track our common usage perfectly. (Doesn’t a coffee mug have two holes I could cover?) But it’s been useful enough to solve…you know, math problems.

So this philosopher is offering his own definition of a hole:

  1. He starts by tracking how the word “hole” works in our common usage across a series of puzzling cases.

  2. His goal is to come up with an analysis of the word “hole” that captures this common usage in a principled way.

  3. Maybe he can even improve our common usage, or tell us how to extend it in new circumstances.

But since we already have one consistent definition from mathematical topology, why do we need another one, this time based a bit more closely on our common usage in real life?

Why not just let the topologists tell us what holes are?

I don’t always understand the point of linguistic puzzling for its own sake where we can make peace with multiple ways of speaking, yet continue to fight on with less-than-fully-decisive arguments.

Note that I’m NOT saying this practice is valueless or that we won’t learn anything from it!

But what’s the practical upshot? Is one way of speaking more useful than the other when tackling any real problems? I feel like I need some kind of answer to understand what standards would count as improving our understanding. What problem is this second definition trying to solve?

The speaker said to such naysayers:

Here’s the problem is I’m inconsistent! That’s the problem!

I’ve been thinking about that response for a while.

And not just because we’re inconsistent all the time—tremendously, self-deceptively, self-servingly inconsistent. I’m just not sure inconsistency is always bad, or that consistency is always better.

Say we do all this puzzling and find the perfect definition that doesn’t just match our ordinary usage but even renders it more consistent. Will that necessarily make it more useful?

I honestly don’t know!

Some inconsistency is probably fine. Our language is pretty loose in a lot of places, and only really gets tightened up where our talk puts practical demands on us to regulate and specify further (in places like law, business, and so on). Why tighten things up in advance of external practical demands?

I don’t feel the need to update the way I talk every day in light of the mathematical definition. So can I just hear a bit more on why I should feel differently about the results of this methodology?

(Whose ordinary talk is this, anyway?)

I’m all for puzzling for puzzling’s sake. I’m a philosopher! Puzzles are good! But what does it mean to solve this one well? Again, I’m not saying that this puzzle is bad or useless! I just don’t know how to evaluate it.

And to be frank, if my ordinary usage of the word “hole” does turn out to be inconsistent or confused, I don’t feel like this is the first inconsistency or confusion in my thinking I’m eager to hunt down.

If you’re looking for weird puzzles, Parfit’s are a lot weirder. And to me, the stakes are a lot more evident:

Is that still me on the other side of this weird brain surgery?

Will *I* survive the operation or not?

What’s science fiction today could be science fact tomorrow. So I can see how, maybe sooner, maybe later, we might need to decide what we think about these sorts of cases, and not just for legal reasons, but for ethical reasons that could deeply affect how we live our lives. The reach of our medical technology is growing longer all the time in terms of what is medically possible. We might want to take that seriously.

If certain medical procedures would end my life or kill me, I’d very much like to know that, thanks!

You can see how we might have some pressing ethical questions in the near biomedical future!

I don’t know what to do with this guy’s definition of holes. But if you want a sense of what topology is just watch this, the first words he says are,

Math ain’t about numbers! If you think math is about numbers, you probably think that Shakespeare is all about words.

Seriously, he’s great:

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