Saturday, August 22, 2009

Three Thought Experiments

Thought Experiment One

Charlie, walking down Main Street, spots a Baskin Robbins ice cream store ahead of him. “Boy, I’d like some chocolate chip ice cream,” he says to himself as he makes his way to the shop. “I really want some chocolate chip,” he says to himself again, as he takes a number and waits his turn. (You always have to wait on line at Baskin Robbins.)

When the counterperson calls out number thirty-seven, Charlie steps forward. “I’ll have . . . er . . . that is I’d like . . . um . . . ok, two scoops of maple walnut ice cream with sprinkles.”

Charlie finishes his ice cream cone and says to himself, “The maple walnut was good, but I really wanted chocolate chip.”

Question: What did Charlie really want—maple walnut or chocolate chip?


Thought Experiment Two

At exactly the same moment, two boy babies were born many hundreds of miles apart, one in a hospital in Rome, Italy (to parents of Italian ancestry dating back umpteen generations) and the other in a hospital in Stockholm, Sweden (to parents of Swedish ancestry dating back umpteen generations). Almost immediately, “some night-tripping fairy
. . . exchanged/ In cradle-clothes [the] children where they lay” (I Henry IV). A few days later, the babies were taken home by their unsuspecting non-birth parents, who proceeded to raise them quite normally.

Question: Viewed from the perspective of five years on, which child was the Italian, which the Swede?
(Would it make any difference if the cities were Dublin and Dubrovnik, or Haifa and Hanoi?)


Thought Experiment Three

On January 1, 2010, every native speaker of English in the British Isles, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, the United States, etc. wakes up, looks out the window, sees the great golden ball in the sky, and calls it “the cranston.” All native speakers of English, that is, except for a forty-five-year-old teacher of high school English in Scarsdale, New York, who looks out her window and sees “the sun.”

As the days, weeks, months go by, this woman gets testier and testier as she cannot make friends, family, colleagues, or strangers acknowledge that that thing in the sky should be called “the sun,” not “the cranston.”

Question: Is she right to insist that that heavenly body be called “the sun”?
(Would it make any difference if the woman was a physical education teacher?)

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