Monday, April 06, 2015

Parable of the Botanist

A botanist seeking a rare tree met two country people from whom he requested information. "There is one of those trees in this wood here," says the first. The other says to him, "Take the third path that you come to. Follow it for one hundred paces. You will be at the very foot of the tree you are seeking." The botanist takes the third path, he goes a hundred steps, but he does not reach the object of his quest. To touch the foot of the tree requires an additional five paces.

Of the two pieces of information that he received, the first was true and the second was false. Even so, which of the two country people has more right to his gratitude?

Pierre Duhem, "On the Subject of Experimental Physics," Essays in the History and Philosophy of Science, Ariew and Barker, eds. & trs. Hackett (Indianapolis: 1996), p. 110


  1. Enbrethiliel3:00 AM


    An interesting twist on the parable of the man with two sons and a vineyard (the shorter "title" of which I can never remember)!

  2. Itinérante7:04 AM

    I don't quite understand it =(

  3. MrsDarwin11:56 AM

    Perhaps not relevant, but is the second piece of information necessarily false, or is it just that it was not entirely in sync with the length of the botanist's stride?

  4. branemrys6:41 PM

    The idea is that sometimes things that are not strictly true are nonetheless more helpful.

  5. branemrys6:44 PM

    I think it's quite relevant, and a worthwhile question. Duhem, when talking about things as 'true' tends to take this in a fairly strict way; if something is merely approximate, he doesn't regard it as true in the proper sense. This plays a pretty big role in his account of physics, actually, since it's the reason why he denies that theories in physics are ever true -- they are only useful. If we were to hold that there's a category of "approximate truth", we would get a somewhat different result.

  6. branemrys6:45 PM

    The language does seem rather parabolic, which is why I gave the post the title it did. You might be right that the vineyard parable is an influence here.

  7. Itinérante2:14 AM

    Oh I see! It is a little bit risky though.
    Thank you.


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