Pensées sur taxonomie…
A project which was taken up this past winter break was sifting through my grandfather’s library. He passed away in 1995, the Lord rest his soul. A learned man, very much beloved and respected by his family, friends and colleagues, both in his pedagogical profession and also in his Armenian activities.
He had amassed quite a collection over the years, and my job was to sort it all out. I spent very many very pleasant hours not just going through interesting tomes, but also gleaning aspects of the life of this close relative of mine, with whom I did not quite get the opportunity to forge a mature relationship.
The additional sentiment that I want to share, which is the main reason I am writing this, really, is how I began to categorise the books, which immediately reminded me of that first bit of freshman lab at St. John’s. Who says a Johnnie education does not have practical value? I asked myself, “What is the telos of this taxonomy? What is the purpose of this item?”, and, suddenly, it became clear which volume belonged in which pile. :-)
Fast forward about a week. I came across a fascinating, fascinating toy this evening. A little spherical object, with a single-line screen and just a few buttons. “Q20”, it is called, or something to that effect, as it’s simply a twenty questions game. It starts by asking “Animal, Vegetable, Mineral, Other or Unknown?”, and after that, one chooses answers “Yes”, “No”, “Sometimes” and “Unknown” to… well, simple questions, really, such as “Is it bigger than a sofa?” or “Do people use it everyday?” or “Does it come in many colours?”.
Believe it or not, the little machine figured it out every single time (barring the particularly obscure, “unfair” ones we had in mind, to which it would often be hard to answer the given question). Anything from “horse” to “cow”, to “komodo dragon”, “pen”, “coal”, “gold”, “ghost”… It was really remarkable. Uncanny.
And it got me thinking, naturally, as to how the machine works. Let’s say it has a database of every conceivable object. Somehow, it narrows them all down, at least initially, to three more or less concrete and two perhaps vague categories, and then, question by question, the specific object is “defined”. Fascinating, stuff, of course, just to think about it.
Now, surely EVERYTHING can’t be described in this way…? On the other hand, there are presumably a finite number of “things” in the universe, so they can all fit in somewhere, even if a part of it ends up under “Unknown” (I know my grandfather’s books had a “Miscellaneous” pile).
The implication of a machine – that too, a little dinky thing – being able to carry out such an operation is at the same time startling and frightening. What would I answer to the telos of the little Q20’s categorisation? “To determine what’s on the player’s mind”…? Okay, but it still includes just about every conceivable thing. So, when I do my taxonomy practicum freshman lab, what is my telos then? “To determine what’s on MY mind”…? What do scientists think about when they categorise and sub-categorise? I suppose it makes science, the organisation of knowledge, easier…
One must not forget, too, that it was a human mind, after all, which programmed that little machine, and entertainment, to say nothing of some income and profit, was probably a telos very much under consideration.
Okay, this has already turned into a ranting, rambling note. Let me end it before this gets consigned to the “incoherent” pile. :-)