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May 8, 2017 | by  | in Philosoraptor |
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Philosoraptor

If I asked you to list people who really hate sand, you might start with Anakin Skywalker. But you should certainly also include Eubulides of Miletus, the Greek logician who invented the Sorites Paradox, or, more charmingly, the “Paradox of the Heap.” Eubulides asks you to agree with the following three intuitive statements:

  1. One grain of sand is not a heap.
  2. Adding a single grain of sand to a pile of sand that is not a heap does not make that pile into a heap.
  3. 10,000 grains of sand is a heap.

As soon as you’ve agreed that all three of these premises sound pretty sensible, Eubulides gets to indulge in a philosopher’s favourite activity: the “gotcha!” moment. Because if we start with a single grain of sand and continue adding single grains one by one, premise one and two… lead us to believe that we can never generate a heap, contradicting premise three. We have a paradox on our hands!

The common response to this apparent paradox is to say that the concept of a “heap” is just something we construct and it’s intentionally a bit vague, so it’s fine to draw an arbitrary line somewhere — say, at 100 grains — and say for convenience that piles with 100+ grains are heaps, while other piles are not.

And for sand, this works — it doesn’t really matter whether a certain pile of sand is a heap or not. But what about things that do matter? The (sadly recently deceased) philosopher Derek Parfit believes that personal identity is one of those things. We seem to think that there’s a very fundamental difference between some person being me or not being me, and that there’s always a yes-or-no answer as to whether a certain person is me or not me.

But Parfit thinks that these beliefs run afoul of the Paradox of the Heap. He asks us to imagine that we’re on an operating table, with a neurosurgeon doing some pretty weird stuff to us. In particular, the surgeon starts replacing our brain cells with Napoleon’s brain cells, one by one.

Parfit thinks it’s clear that when only a couple of our cells have been replaced, we’re still the same person — after all, when someone hits their head, or binge drinks a bit too much, we don’t say that they’ve become a different person! Yet Parfit thinks it’s also clear that when our entire brain has been replaced with Napoleon’s brain, we are no longer us — we are Napoleon. And finally, Parfit believes that the alteration of a single brain cell — something we probably wouldn’t ever notice — can’t be the difference between being us and being Napoleon.

So what gives? Parfit believes that this thought experiment shows that we should reject our commonsense views about personal identity. He believes that, similarly to the concept of a heap, the concept of personal identity is indeterminate — at some points, when my brain is about half me and half Napoleon, there is simply no yes-or-no answer to the question of whether the resulting person is me or Napoleon.

These are some pretty crazy thoughts! But in some ways, they’re comforting. Parfit believes that his theory of personal identity makes death less scary, because it makes the boundaries between us and other people less fundamental. And he believes that it makes altruism more rational. If only he could have had a chat to Anakin Skywalker.

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