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A Dark Horse? Three Philosophical Enquiries About the Unusual

What is this?
The answer, as you may have already seen, is a zebra with spots Your class will almost certainly work it out, and then you can show them the other photo in this article.
There are three philosophical areas you can explore here: truth, definitions, and induction.

Truth
Which of these statements are true (and why)? These are just examples that probe the importance of quantifiers (all, some, most), and logical relationships such as “if…then”.

A zebra has black and white stripes.
All things with black and white stripes are zebras.
Zebras are recognized by their black and white stripes.
Most things with black and white stripes are zebras.
If something doesn’t have black and white stripes, it isn’t a zebra.
All zebras have black and white stripes.
We know that all zebras have black and white stripes.
If it is a zebra, then it has black and white stripes.
Zebras normally have stripes.
Every zebra has stripes.
If it has black and white stripes, then it is a zebra.
Some zebras have black and white stripes.
There are no zebras that don’t have stripes.
Zebras have black and white stripes.
If it is a zebra, you can expect it to have black and white stripes.
Most zebras have black and white stripes.
At least one zebra does not have stripes.
A horse-like creature with black and white stripes is a zebra.
A zebra is a horse-like creature with black and white stripes
A zebra is a zebra because it has black and white stripes.
Almost all zebras have black and white stripes.

Some of these might not be true in a strict sense, but are still useful for everyday purposes. Does the existence of this spotty zebra contradict the claims people make about zebras, or can it just be put to one side and ignored.

What makes an X an X?
Start by asking, “What doesn’t make a zebra a zebra?” before exploring, “What makes a zebra a zebra?”

Then proceed, via, “What doesn’t make an X an X?” before exploring, “What makes an X an X?” – for any X, obviously, so that you are looking at the problem of definition in its most general terms.

There are various philosophically interesting ways the conversation might go. You might get definitions in terms of necessary and sufficient conditions (what X must have, and what is enough to make an X an X).

Or by the category it belongs to and what differences distinguish it from other types in that category as its own sort of thing. The classic example from Aristotle is that man (species) is a rational (difference) animal (genus). Within biology, genus and species have developed their own technical meanings, but this is where they come from. See this article.

The Problem of Induction
Rather like the famously unsettling discovery of the black swan, our spotty zebra is also a good pretext for thinking about the problem of induction – how we attempt to form knowledge by expecting the future to resemble the past. For example, having seen many instances of stripey zebras, we expect (wrongly?) any and every future zebra we see to be stripey. But we can only use our past experience of the past being a good guide to the future… to ground our expectation that the past will be a good guide to the future!
There are good resources in this article.

In fact, the most likely explanation for this zebra’s unusual appearance is that its pigment-producing melanocyte cells “don’t know where they are” and so aren’t forming the normal patterns. In between saving the nation and being hounded to his death by it, Alan Turing researched the mathematics of such patterns – you can read an excellent article here. I’m grateful to Laerke Groth of Filosofi Patruljen who drew my attention to the zebra story.

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