A Paradox On Beginning and End
Unger and the Sorites Paradox
Peter Unger is my favorite living philosopher. Like Peter Singer, he has argued that we are morally obligated to donate substantial amounts of money to famine relief organizations. Again like Singer, Unger has actually followed through on this by making significant donations to Oxfam and related charities. Unger even took it so far as to consider soliciting donations from his students while in class, although objections from fellow faculty members prevented him from ever doing so. In addition to significant works within ethics, his 1975 book Ignorance: A Case for Skepticism played a major role in reviving radical skepticism as a serious philosophical question. This week’s piece examines one of his many skeptical arguments, the “sorites paradox.”*
If someone empties a 50-pound sack of beans onto the ground, those beans will form a heap (or a pile, or a mound, or whatever term you want to use to indicate a large grouping). Suppose someone then takes one bean off the top of the heap and places it on the ground a few feet away – how many heaps are there? It seems obvious that the single bean by itself is not a heap, and the large grouping of beans is still a heap. We get the same conclusion if we relocate a second bean to the same spot, and a third bean, and a fourth bean. In fact, it seems we could keep moving beans one at a time from the heap to the non-heap and never reach the point where we can say “This is the bean that makes all the difference!” There will never be a moment when the addition or removal of one single bean will cause the newer grouping of beans to become a heap, or the older grouping of beans to stop being a heap. If you think otherwise, please – go ahead and try it. Dump out a jar of dry beans, move one bean at a time to a new location, and tell me which bean is the key bean to either make or eliminate a heap (and why).
Frankly, beans are boring, and I won’t lose any sleep at night if it turns out that there are no heaps of beans in the world (there goes our Goya advertising). What is a bit more worrying, though, is Unger’s application of this argument to humans. Humans are made in a process similar to the heap of beans, except we’re composed of cells. We start as a fertilized egg, and the cells slowly multiply. This process continues for years: we are born, we keep growing by adding new cells, we shed a few old cells, and we eventually die and lose all of our cells through decomposition. But like the growing grouping of beans, when in all those years do we cross the threshold from being just a cluster of cells into being a human? As Unger himself succinctly put it, “Can a single cell here mean the difference between me and no me? That’s almost an affront to my dignity!”
Unger’s solution to the problem, while just as simple and clear as the quote above, is not nearly as easy to accept: “there aren’t any human persons now, and there never have been any.” That’s right, you don’t exist (Unger actually published a paper called “I Do Not Exist.”) In fact, almost nothing exists. Tables, chairs, books – anything composed of parts is a potential target for the sorites paradox, and therefore does not exist.
Your first reaction to this argument should be “Oh, bullshit.” But once the annoyance has worn off, and you genuinely consider it, the sorites paradox does seem to contain a grain of truth and significance. It seems impossible to pin down an exact moment when there is the transition from a simple cluster of parts to a complete whole. If that really is the case, then nothing that is defined by its physical composition can be said to exist. But then, how DO things exist? Maybe we’re thinking about existence in a totally wrong way, and we shouldn’t let physical composition determine when something exists. Maybe existence should be defined in terms of function – my dictionary doesn’t physically “exist,” but the thing which tells me how to spell and define certain words does exist. This new way of thinking has some pretty serious implications for debates surrounding issues like abortion. If we accept the conclusion of the sorites paradox, then debates over how developed a fetus is are completely irrelevant to determining whether or not abortion is acceptable. The sorites paradox effectively shows that some of our very basic assumptions lead to some very weird conclusions. Maybe we should reconsider some of those assumptions.