Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The Paradox of the Heap and My SLR Paper

It's a day after my birthday. I'm 25, I've just gained 4 pounds in the span of a week, and I'm surrounded by the detritus of yesterday's festivities. I've been staring at this screen since early this morning, wrestling with the philosophical and linguistic concepts I plan to use as a framework for my Supervised Legal Research (SLR) paper. The first draft is due within the week. Yes, this is indeed cause for alarm.

Internet sources comrpise the bulk of my research materials. I've been using Microsoft OneNote, Word and this complicated citation software called Endnote to prevent that dreaded P-word. So here I am, armed to the teeth with the latest in in publication software, feeling that despite all the available technology at my disposal, writing my paper isn't any easier than when... I dunno, probably whenever it was the SLR was first invented.

Consider: pre-Google research writing involved going to the library, hoarding books, lots of analytical thinking, and then the actual typing. Today, however, if you type in your research topic in any search engine, THOUSANDS of papers appear. This, of course, adds one more step to the modern student's research writing process: the period purely devoted to existentialist angst. This phase can last from a few hours to an entire semester. It's bad enough that there are more materials to read, but just thinking about the competition is terrifying I am but ONE research drone in a sea of research drones (except THEY have PhDs, JDs and/or about 30 years of work experience), what is my purpose?

Now let's apply, for example, the Paradox of the Heap, also known as the Sorites (from the Greek word "soros" which means "heap") which is attributed to the Greek logician and all-around jokester Eubulides. The Sorites is one of the illustrative devices I'm using for my SLR, and I think it applies to the problem at hand, i.e. writing my SLR paper. The Sorites problem arises when there are two assumptions that both seem reasonable, but result in a unreasonably strange conclusion when combined.
Assumption One: 1 grain of wheat is not a "heap".
Assumption Two: If 1 grain of wheat does not make a "heap" then 2 (then 3, 4, 5, etc...) grains of wheat do not likewise make a "heap".
Conclusion: No finite number of grains of wheat qualify as a "heap".
What is the purpose of such arguments? Well, other than to annoy, it's a way of spotting the problem arising from the use of vague predicates, e.g. "heap" just how many grains of wheat do you need for it to qualify as a "heap" or "non-heap"?

Another vague predicate is the term "prepared". Like when have I "prepared" enough to start writing my paper? Of course, I have to read literature related to my topic. Is reading one word enough? No. That's like jumping off a cliff without a parachute. How about adding one more word? No. What's two more measly words? Now add another word, and another, and another ad infinitum. It never ends!
Problem: How many words do I have to read so that I've prepared enough for my SLR?
Oh those infuriating Greeks!

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