Field of Science

If words have definitions, they have odd definitions

Last night, when the KU-Memphis NCAA basketball championship went into overtime, one of the announcers remarked, "Kansas knows what it's like to be in an overtime championship game."

This struck me as an odd statement, since they had mentioned only a few minutes ago that there hadn't been overtime in an NCAA basketball championship since 1997. A few moments later, we learned that the announcer was referring to a triple-overtime game in the 1950s.

The 1950s! There may have been some in the audience who remember that game, but I doubt anybody directly associated with the KU basketball team does.

You may be willing to view this as announcers spewing nonsense as they usually do, but it's actually an example of an incredibly odd feature of language (or, perhaps, of the way we think). Chomsky's favorite example is London, which has existed for a thousand years, during which nearly every pebble has been replaced. You could tear down London and rebuild it across the Thames a thousand years from now, and it would still be London.

More colloquially, there is a joke about an farmer who says, "This is an excellent hammer. I've had it for years. I've only had to replace the head three times and the handle twice."

This problem applies to people as well. It turns out (I don't remember where I read this, unfortunately) that every molecule in your body is replaced every few years, such that nothing that is in your body now was in it a decade ago. Yet you still believe you are the same person.

Clearly, humans are comfortable with the notion that the object remains constant even if all the parts change. This interestingly squares well with work in developmental psychology which suggests that infants recognize objects based on spatial cohesiveness (objects don't break apart and reform) and spatial continuity (objects don't disappear and reappear elsewhere). However, they are perfectly comfortable with objects that radically change shape -- for instance, from a duck into a truck. It isn't until about the time that children begin to speak that they expect ducks to stay ducks and trucks to stay trucks.

1 comment:

derekjames said...

You're talking about The Ship of Theseus:

We associate identity and labels with amalgams that exhibit spatial contiguity and temporal continuity. You're right...this is interesting, and key in understanding how we think.