The Philosophical Edge

At what point does a subject become philosophy? Or how to keep satellites from falling out of the sky.

Ordinary questions like “What does 1 + 1 equal?” are fairly easy to satisfactorily answer without invoking philosophy.

What if we modify our question slightly and instead ask - “How does 1 + 1 equal 2?” Well, that too, seem like a question that a grad student could scrape together a reasonable response for. Perhaps Bertrand Russell already answered it a hundred years ago.

Now, what happens if we ask - “How do we know that 1 + 1 equals 2?” Hmm. This could be answered mathematically but I am sure there’s an equally likely philosophical answer as well. So is this the point where philosophy enters the debate? Did it enter because the question moved from a process/statement to a meta-process, i.e., how do we know. What does knowing even mean?

Here’s another question - “What happens if 1 + 1 does not equal 2?” Oh no. That would probably break all of mathematics and satellites would start to fall out of the sky. A mathematical answer to this would probably go along the lines of changing the values of constants and reevaluating assumed results, i.e., if 1 + 1 does not equal 2, then it probably does equal something else (say $x$) and simply by adjusting all of mathematics for that $x$ we could get our train back on the track.

Aside: I feel there are some underlying assumptions in this response. The mathematician it appears is bent towards making things work. It’s a pragmatic response. Perhaps it would be better to call it a physicist’s or engineer’s response instead?

That’s not what the question was though, was it? The question asked “what happens if 1 + 1 ≠ 2”. Instead we answered “how can we keep the world running if 1 + 1 were to equal something else instead of 2”.


Considering for a moment that 1 + 1 ≠ 2, would anything change in the world around you? Would a satellite really fall out of the sky? Would the world be taken over by anarchy? Would your dog stop trying to sniff his butt?

I see a shimmer of the light at the end of the tunnel now.

Yes, a literal satellite might actually fall out of the sky if it is unable to compute its path correctly owing to the change mathematical reality. Perhaps banks would lose all records, all debt and riches wiped off, the internet indefinitely shut down, there might even be a significant loss of life assuming means of transport and medical appliances would halt regular functioning as well.

But would you, sitting in your comfy chair with your legs on the settee, find out about it? Would your dog? Would you be unable to cook a meal? Talk to a friend? Go for a swim? Look at the stars? Tell a story? Make love? Pray to your gods? Play with your kids? Host a party?

Perhaps not.

I believe you can see where I am getting with this. We’ve organised the world in a manner that heavily depends on 1 + 1 being equal to 2. And if that rule were to breakdown, a big part of the world would also fall apart and cause collateral damage. But our very existence as biologically-organised stardust would remain unperturbed.

So a philosopher might answer our original question with - “yes but no.”

Have we reached a satisfactory endpoint then? I don’t think so. This is where the mathematical philosopher could wedge in the “discovered vs invented” debate about mathematics. Is mathematics a fundamental reality of the universe (much like the gravitational force is) or is it something humans conjured up for the convenience of building iPhones? If it is the latter then our above discourse stands, however, if it is the former then our original question is hinting at a much deeper idea than we have hitherto examined.

“What happens if 1 + 1 does not equal 2” then hints at the very reality of the universe changing. Let’s explore this with an analogy. Two Hydrogen atoms combine to form a Helium atom. What if they stopped doing that? What if instead they combined to form an Oxygen atom? The nature of the universe would fundamentally change! Perhaps there’d be exponentially more lifeforms than we currently theorise to be. Or if the Hydrogen atoms just stopped combining at all, we’d be left with a pretty boring (and explosive) universe.

So in this sense, if 1 + 1 does not equal 2, the question of satellites falling out of the sky becomes moot because not only the satellites even the sky probably would not exist.

That was a bit unexpected. But let us return to the seed of this essay - when does a subject become philosophy?

We explored this with a mathematical question above. Similar explorations could be undertaken for other subjects as well. Here’s a few -

  1. “Why should the democratic law treat all citizens equally?”
  2. “What happens if dogs grow wings?”
  3. “Where would the edge of the planet be?”
  4. “How do we know what blue is?”
  5. “What makes the train go?”
  6. “What effect does old age have on mood?”

On the face of it, these seem like easy questions to answer. They can be neatly fit within the realms of political science, zoology, geometry, visual art, kinematics and psychology. But once you start to look at the underlying assumptions and take a macroscopic perspective, philosophy starts to creep in.

So perhaps a reasonable response (whatever that means) to the question would be -

A subject becomes philosophy when we remain dissatisfied with the answer.

That was unexpected.

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