Here's a picture of me with my humans. They were being silly, so I was trying to look dignified:
Suppose you asked me how many things there are in this photo. I would woof at you and give you one of my stares, because that would be a silly question. How many whats? There are two humans, three mammals, one pair of glasses, two hats, one dog, and thousands of gorgeous black and white hairs. Sadly there are no sticks (the number of sticks is zero). A thing is something you can count, and every thing is some sort of thing (dog, human etc.).
If I told you all the things there were in the universe would I have told you about everything that exists? Are things all there is? The human philosopher Quine seems to have thought so. And I agreed with him until the other day.
One of my humans was letting me outside for my morning wee, when a strange sight greeted my eyes:
The human told me that this white stuff was snow. I barked at it and then I ate some. Snow is not a thing. I cannot count snow (I can count snowflakes whilst they're falling, but that's different). If you say "there's some snow outside", and I barked "how many?" it wouldn't make sense. But if you told me that there were some squirrels outside, I could bark "how many?" (although I wouldn't do that, I'd run out and try to catch the squirrels). Squirrels are things, snow is a stuff. Stuffs are blobby and can't be counted - like snow, water, and oil. My favourite stuff is Horlicks, which I like as my bedtime drink.
I lie on a bed, trying out a new sleeping position. By my front left paw is my favourite toy: my aged, trusty ball. In fact, this is more than just a toy: it came with me from the rescue centre, and is also a companion and comfort in times of woe. It smells good.
Yet an itchy thought plays on my mind. Is my ball still a ball at all? It’s been punctured so many times that it’s now far from spherical. Maybe that’s ok: American footballs aren’t spherical, and they’re still balls. But, unlike an American football, my ball no longer bounces. Maybe that’s ok too: snooker and golf balls don’t bounce much but, again, we’re happy with them being balls. But while an American ball bounces and a golf ball is spherical, mine is neither of these things – in fact it lacks most of the things that other balls have.
I ask my friend Ludwig the lion what he thinks. ‘Well’, he says, ‘Maybe having a particular thing or set of things a ball needs to have to be a ball is the wrong way of looking at it. Take families: some people in a family have the family long nose, some the blue eyes, some the waggly ears, and some a mixture of those. Maybe no one person has all those features, and maybe not one of those features is shared by all of them – but they might have some overlapping features so we can say they have a “family resemblance”’.
Hm, I think, maybe. That explains why an American football and a golf ball are balls: one of them has the family ‘nose’ (being spherical) and one of them the ‘waggly ears’ (having a good bounce), while other kinds of ball might have both of those things. But what about my ball? It seems to share no ball ‘family resemblances’. So is it a ball at all?
I muse on the matter as I drift in and out of sleep, affectionately dreaming of my ‘ball’.
I like meeting other dogs. It's an excellent opportunity to share my thoughts about the nature of reality, and to show that I am better at running than them. Here's a dog which I met earlier this month.
I had a lot in common with this dog. Not only are we both dogs and both philosophers, we also liked sticks. And we both had some black hairs (the big dog was covered in them, I only have a few, on my spots).
Exactly the same is true of my friend Roxy, who I've been spending Christmas with.
All this meeting dogs with whom I have a lot in common has got me thinking. When two things (whether they are dogs, humans, sticks, or squirrels) have something in common do they literally have something in common? Is there such a thing as doginess that the big dog, Roxy, and me have in common? Or is this just a loose way of speaking, perhaps saying that you humans use the same word 'dog' of all of us? Is there no more to be said than that Lola is a dog, Roxy is a dog and the big dog is a dog? Or does doginess exist, but only because human beings have categorised us in a particular way?
I enjoyed thinking about this and was excited to learn that humans had thought about this stuff before. For now, though, I've had enough of thinking about doginess and I think I'll focus instead on the tastiness of my dinner.
It’s a fine muddy winter's day, full of good smells, and I’m out for an early morning walk with one of my humans. She throws a stick for me. As I run for it, it hits the ground and breaks in to two. I pause. Which is now the stick that was thrown? One is slightly longer than the other. Does having ‘more’ of the original stick give it a better claim to being that stick? But it’s only slightly longer, and the other contender has the more distinctive feature of the original – a bit where the stick branches into two. So, which IS the original stick: the one that is closer in size, or the one that has the original stick’s main distinctive feature? Or are both the original stick? Or even neither - are there now two sticks, newly brought into existence?
I ponder for a moment, then find a more satisfying stick to sink my teeth into.
Mental walkies with Lola,