“More people have written about this than I have”

May 8th, 2004  |  Tags:  |  5 Comments

If the title of this post makes sense, think about it for a minute.

There’s a fascinating series of posts on this sort of sentence at the Language Log, which is rapidly becoming one of my favorite weblogs. The first, Plausible Angloid Gibberish, describes the phenomenon — that of a meaningless sentence that appears meaningful at first blush. Mark Liberman then observes that these sorts of sentences have something in common with endless-staircase pictures, and David Beaver presents an analysis of such a sentence in the wild.

Personally, I think that these sentences are somewhat better envisioned as the “devil’s tuning fork” — I perceive the devil’s tuning fork when I’m just glancing at it out of the corner of my eye, perhaps not focusing on it, as a three-pronged fork. Upon closer examination, the image falls apart, and it’s not clear what’s left — one knows why it isn’t a three-pronged fork, but one can’t exactly make sense of where the illusion falls apart. (Upon extremely close examination, it is just confusing; it took me about half an hour to make the above figure!) I may just have unusual patterns of perception, but the “devil’s tuning fork” is a more compelling visual paradox for me than the endlessly-rising staircase.

Some would argue that this is the same phenomenon witnessed in the Sorites paradox, of local validity but global invalidity. Look above, at the two halves of the devil’s tuning fork. On the left, there is clearly part of a two-pronged fork, but on the right there are clearly three prongs. When one puts them together, where does one become the other? Where does the figure stop making sense? It seems that, if the epistemicists are right, a solution to this problem will also be a solution to the Sorites. (I’ll have more to say on the matter once I’ve formulated an opinion about Roy Sorensen’s Vagueness and Contradiction, which I’ve been reading lately.)

I’m currently listening to Symphony no.49 in F minor, “La Passione”: Adagio from the album “Haydn: Symphonies nos. 26, 35 and 49” by Northern Chamber Orchestra / Nicholas Ward