Blind Leading

“Always let your conscience be your guide,” Jiminy Cricket tells Pinocchio. And so we are constantly telling one another: We seem to believe that following our convictions, whatever they are, is better than “giving in to temptation,” regardless of the outcome. Similarly, resisting temptation and doing what I feel is morally right is somehow praiseworthy, even if it can be shown that my convictions were mistaken. We are saying:

If you believe it is wrong for you to do X then it is wrong for you to do X.

And if you do have such a conviction:

You believe it is wrong for you to do X.

Then combining these statements produces the disconcerting conclusion

It is wrong for you to do X.

This seems to mean that all my convictions about my moral conduct are correct, regardless of the facts of the matter, the substance of my convictions, and even whether I’ve considered them.

“Needless to say, this is deeply implausible,” writes University of New Mexico philosopher G.F. Schueler. “For one thing, not only do these ‘proofs’ not depend on the content of our moral convictions; they don’t depend in any way on how we arrived at these convictions. They ‘prove’ the convictions not only of the moral philosopher who has spent her life seriously reflecting on morality, but also those of the most superficial ditz, who has never read or thought about anything more profound than comic books or video games, not to mention the racist bigot who is convinced that it is wrong for her to allow blacks to vote and the religious zealot who thinks all those who don’t accept her religion should be driven out of the country. They ‘prove’ absolutely everybody’s convictions equally.” And that means we must doubt and study even our own convictions … which is much harder than relying on a cricket.

(G.F. Schueler, “Is It Possible to Follow One’s Conscience?”, American Philosophical Quarterly, 44:1 [January 2007], 51-60.)

Al Fresco
Image: Wikimedia Commons

In 1848 the French commune of Le Plessis-Piquet distinguished itself with a restaurant built in the boughs of a chestnut tree. Owner Joseph Gueusquin named it Le Grand Robinson, after the treehouse in Swiss Family Robinson.

“Word spread and people started to make the eight-mile pilgrimage from Paris,” writes Pete Nelson in Treehouses of the World. “Soon, other entrepreneurs began opening their own treehouse restaurants. At the height of its popularity, there were ten such restaurants and countless other treehouse attractions.”

The trend persisted even into the 1960s, drawing a steady stream of curious diners to Le Plessis-Piquet — in fact, in 1909 the commune officially changed its name to Le Plessis-Robinson, after Gueusquin’s pioneering idea.

Double Talk
Image: Wikimedia Commons

Gottfried Leibniz held that no two distinct objects can have exactly the same properties.

But, Max Black asked, “Isn’t it logically possible that the universe should have contained nothing but two exactly similar spheres? We might suppose that each was made of chemically pure iron, had a diameter of one mile, that they had the same temperature, colour, and so on, and that nothing else existed. Then every quality and relational characteristic of the one would also be a property of the other.”

(We might object that the two spheres are discernible because they occupy different positions in space, but this is true only if we have a third object to use as a reference point in establishing the “objective” location of each sphere. If the only things in the universe are the two spheres, then their positions can be established only in relation to each other, and these would always be identical — for example, each sphere is five miles from another sphere.)

“Now if what I am describing is logically possible,” wrote Black, “it is not impossible for two things to have all their properties in common.”

Sort of vaguely related:

On a visit to Princeton, E.H. Moore began a lecture by saying, “Let a be a point and let b be a point.”

Solomon Lefschetz asked, “But why don’t you just say, ‘Let a and b be points’?”

Moore said, “Because a may equal b.”

In Indiscrete Thoughts, Gian-Carlo Rota writes, “Lefschetz got up and left the lecture room.” Rota calls this “an example of mathematical pedantry.”

(Max Black, “The Identity of Indiscernibles,” Mind 61:242 [April 1952], 153-164.)

Minor Threat

CUNY philosopher Noël Carroll notes, “It is a remarkable fact about the creatures of horror that very often they do not seem to be of sufficient strength to make a grown man cower. A tottering zombie or a severed hand would appear incapable of mustering enough force to overpower a co-ordinated six-year-old. Nevertheless, they are presented as unstoppable, and this seems psychologically acceptable to audiences.” Why is this?

(From his Philosophy of Horror, 1990.)

Small World

As children Maurice Baring and his brother Hugo invented a gibberish language in which the word for yes was Sheepartee and the word for no was Quiliquinino. This grew so tiresome to the adults around them that they were eventually threatened with a whipping:

The language stopped, but a game grew out of it, which was most complicated, and lasted for years even after we went to school. The game was called ‘Spankaboo.’ It consisted of telling and acting the story of an imaginary continent in which we knew the countries, the towns, the government, and the leading people. These countries were generally at war with one another. Lady Spankaboo was a prominent lady at the Court of Doodahn. She was a charming character, not beautiful nor clever, and sometimes a little bit foolish, but most good-natured and easily taken in. Her husband, Lord Spankaboo, was a country gentleman, and they had no children. She wore red velvet in the evening, and she was bien vue at Court.

There were hundreds of characters in the game. They increased as the story grew. It could be played out of doors, where all the larger trees in the garden were forts belonging to the various countries, or indoors, but it was chiefly played in the garden, or after we went to bed. Then Hugo would say: ‘Let’s play Spankaboo,’ and I would go straight on with the latest events, interrupting the narrative every now and then by saying: ‘Now, you be Lady Spankaboo,’ or whoever the character on the stage might be for the moment, ‘and I’ll be So-and-so.’

“Everything that happened to us and everything we read was brought into the game — history, geography, the ancient Romans, the Greeks, the French; but it was a realistic game, and there were no fairies in it and nothing in the least frightening. As it was a night game, this was just as well.”

(From his Puppet Show of Memory, 1922.)


Shozo Hayama spent 50 years collecting jinmenseki, rocks that resemble human faces, before founding the Chinsekikan (“hall of curious rocks”) in Chichibu, Japan, two hours northwest of Tokyo.

Inside are 900 such rocks, from Elvis and Jesus to E.T. and Nemo from Finding Nemo. The only requirement is that the effects occur naturally, without human artifice.

Hayama passed away in 2010, but his daughter keeps the museum running today.

(Thanks, Randy.)


In 1967, a foot powder was elected mayor of a town in Ecuador.

During municipal elections in Picoazá, an urban parish of 4,000 people on the Pacific coast, a foot deodorant company called Pulvapies offered the advertising slogan “Vote for any candidate, but if you want well-being and hygiene, vote for Pulvapies.”

That’s innocent enough. But “on the eve of the election, the company distributed a leaflet the same size and color as the official voting papers, saying: ‘For Mayor: Honorable Pulvapies,'” reported the New York Times.

The result was that, when the votes were counted, the foot powder had been elected by a clear majority. Dozens of defeated candidates threatened to sue the pharmaceutical company that ran the ads, leaving the national election tribunal to sort out the mess. I haven’t been able to learn the outcome. It’s a shame — that’s one candidate that would have served both left and right.

(Thanks, Ethan.)

A Peruvian Puzzle
Image: Bruno7

In the Pisco Valley on Peru’s Nazca Plateau is a band of 5,000 to 6,000 holes, each about 1 meter in diameter and 100 centimeters deep. The band, which averages about 20 meters in width, starts at the edge of a valley and extends about 1.5 kilometers up a hill understandably known as Cerro Viruela, or Smallpox Hill. (You can see its extent in Google Earth.)

No one knows who dug the holes or why. They’re circular and lined with stone, resembling pits found elsewhere that serve as resting places for mummies. But these are empty. Possibly they were designed for storage by users of the Inca road system, or possibly they were used to measure quantities of produce owed as tribute to the Inca state. Archaeologists are still investigating.

The Mystery Tombstone

In Plymouth, Tobago, lies a tomb with an enigmatic inscription:

Within these walls are deposited the bodies of Mrs. Betty Stiven and her child. She was the beloved wife of Alex B Stiven to the end of his days will deplore her death which happened upon the 25th day of Nov. 1783 in the 23rd year of her age. What was remarkable of her, she was a mother without knowing it, and a wife without letting her husband know it except by her kind indulgences to him.

Theories abound, but there’s no consensus as to its meaning.

Sound Sense

What is sound? We’re told that it’s a wave traveling through a medium, but we don’t hear sounds as existing in the air; we hear them as located at the place where they’re generated. Is sound a quality of an object or of the surrounding medium?

“Listening to the birds outside your window, the students outside your door, the cars going down your street, in the vast majority of cases you will perceive those sounds as being located at the place where they originate,” writes St. Joseph’s University philosopher Robert Pasnau. “But if sounds are in the air, as the standard view holds, then the cries of birds and of students are all around you. This is not how it seems.”

Properly speaking, then, where should we say a sound is located? At its point of origin, or filling the air?

(Robert Pasnau, “What Is Sound?” Philosophical Quarterly 49:196 [July 1999], 309-324.)