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2.3 The sophists
For the “sophists”, who lived in Greece around the fifth century BC, speaking, and therefore also thinking, is only a game; it is not possible, according to them, to put into words the nature of things; they argued their skepticism by inventing problems that led to dead ends. A famous paradox had been formulated by Zeno of Elea, who lived about 490 BC: let’s suppose that Achilles wants to measure himself at a speed race against a turtle and gives it a certain advantage; this distance of advantage can be decomposed from our thought into two halves first, then into four parts, and so on endlessly; this means that it can be divided into an infinite number of parts and therefore consists of an infinite number of portions. Then Achilles will never reach the tortoise, because first he would have to overcome this infinite number of distances.
We will not let ourselves be discouraged by the difficulties shown by the sophists: we appreciate their awareness, but we believe that even if speaking, understanding and understanding each other are actions that imply difficulties, they are still activities whose results, despite everything, still succeed to be appreciated. The warning from these philosophers remains however useful: in fact we often immerse ourselves in so many discussions, forgetting that our ideas are only a small tool to understand something, a tool that can sometimes even jam, freeze or idle. This does not mean that we have to give up the study of any question too easily: we just have to do it with humility, looking critically at the tools we are using to know reality, and without losing sight of the positive possibilities they are able to offer; it is the criterion with which every scientist or scholar tries to proceed, even if it is not easy to moderate oneself to the right point or to know in advance how far we can arrive with the language we have available, since we are human beings with many limits.
There are other reflection games, paradoxes, which serve to show that our ideas often go haywire. For example: let’s suppose there is, in front of his judges, somebody sentenced to death, with the possibility of choosing between being hanged or beheaded. The convicted makes a proposal; he tells the judges: “Now I will say a sentence; if it is true, you will have my head cut off; if it is false, you will have me hanged”. The sentence is: “You will have me hanged”. Then the judges begin to reflect. Suppose we hanged him. But he said that if his statement is true, we must behead him; however, if we decapitate it, his statement becomes false, and in this case we must hang him… Finally they got tired of this endless circle and decided to free the condemned.
Other games of this kind are that of the barber, invented by Bertrand Russell (1872-1970), in which a barber who wants to shave all those who do not shave themselves cannot decide if he should also shave himself , and the similar one of the catalog that wants to contain the list of all the catalogs that do not contain themselves. In another one, one wonders if God is able to create a big stone, but so big and heavy that he cannot raise it himself. In another one, one says: “I lie” and it is impossible to establish whether by saying this he lies or tells the truth.