Friday, March 18, 2011

Gavagai !

[Note to nonprofessional philosophers:
The following follows the classic treatment of W.V.O. Quine, in Word and Object.]

This Sunday's papers contained an interesting report from America’s premier naturalist, Mark Trail.  It offered a curious observation, of interest to linguistic analysis in the style of Quine, and to the theory of Mind generally.

According to this consummately reliable source,  our furry friends the prairie dogs, are preyed upon by coyotes.  But they are difficult to catch, since these loveable rodents dwell in gigantic underground colonies (a single one of which, in Texas,  once numbered 400 million -- now that’s a lot of prairie dogs),  with a great many escape hatches.  The instant any one of them  spots a coyote, it lets loose with “Gavagai !!!” (or squeaks to that effect), at which distress signal everybody  -- pop!  underground.   Leaving the coyote going mad with hunger.

But!  There’s a catch.  -- Let Dr. Trail himself tell it, since we can scarcely improve upon his prose:

Sharp-eyed [ed. note: and also furry]  prairie dogs [oh and -- did we neglect to mention? -- also cute]  sound the alarm when coyotes approach, but the coyote seems to know that these creatures can’t count.   With his mate he trots along in plain sight, right through the mound city.  The inhabitants all dive into their tunnels  as he continues on his way.  But his mate stops and quietly crouches among the mounds.
The first curious rodent who pops out to watch his enemy depart  suddenly becomes the coyotes’ dinner.

Alas!  frisky and adorable, the prairie dog -- like his cousin the humble woodchuck -- is entirely unfamiliar with the Peano postulates -- or in layman’s terms, with Our Friends the Integers.   Therefore they get eaten.  Gobble gobble gobble !!!  Gone!

Now, from this we may conclude, that apud the sciurideans, the vocalization “Gavagai!” does not mean “Lo, coyotes!”, but more something along the line of “Lo, undetached coyote parts!”, or “Lo, Platonic ideal of coyotehood  currently manifested locally!”.  In any event, the denotatum is a mass noun, not a count noun, and does not obey the digital rules of subtraction.

Dr. Trail goes on to report that, by such means, the prairie-dog population has declined by a whopping 98% over the past century.

Canny Darwinians will, however, already have noted the likely result of all this.  By ruthlessly culling the fluff-head innumerates of the population, generation upon generation (quite a good idea, really), Mother Nature (note to secularists:  that's Natural Selection in drag) is insuring  that  those who are eventually left  will be the mathematically most astute animals on earth.   Already we perceive the distant sound of scribbling upon chalkboards, in the M.I.T.- corridor-like  underground tunnels.

-- This just in!  Actual footage of a prairie dog suddenly conceiving the solution to the Riemann Hypothesis!   (This fellow has generally been known, in despite of taxonomy, as the “Dramatic Hamster”, for assonance’ sake.  But he’s really a prairie dog.)

Further proof that prairie dogs have already become the linguistic wizards of the animal kingdom  here.

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