What the Tortoise said to Achilles: An Interview with the Prime Minister of Akrasia

Written by  //  March 27, 2011  //  National Politics  //  7 Comments

The Tortoise is the Prime Minister of the Perfectionist Republic of Akrasia.  In his former avatar he was a scholar steeped and dyed in metaphysics and logic, and author of the seminal ‘Studies in Tetrapyloctomy’. He gave up his Professorship in Deflationary Logic to join public life in Akrasia. He has now completed seventeen glorious years in office.

[Note: In Greek, as in Akrasian, the word Akrasia denotes a lack of command over oneself leading to a motivational paralysis. The isomorphism of the Republic’s name with this concept is purely coincidental]

Achilles is a journalist who will be interviewing the Tortoise on some controversial and apparently inexplicable decisions taken by him recently, for which he has come under a lot of criticism.

Achilles and the Tortoise go back a long way. Lewis Carroll chronicled their dialogues on logic which had spanned a few decades. Achilles, who was then a young logician, was trying to impress upon the Tortoise that if he accepted the premises of the argument he must also accept the conclusion. But despite his best efforts Achilles was unable to convince the tortoise that if he accepts that ‘all’ tortoises are mortal then he must also accept that ‘He’, Mr.Tortoise was mortal. The Tortoise expounded eloquently on how one cannot blindly assume that what was true for ‘all’ tortoises was also true of ‘any’ particular tortoise. A dejected Achilles gave up logic and became a journalist.

[Note: A full account of their logical dialogues can be found in Lewis Carroll ‘What the Tortoise Said to Achilles’ Vol 4 Mind (1895) 278.]


Achilles: Good morning, Mr.Tortoise. Let me begin my interview with the customary and now, I am also told, mandatory certificate of honesty. Let it be known that I pay lip service about you being honest, of impeccable integrity, logically above board, and so on and so forth…

Would you like to shed some light on your highly controversial appointment of a goat- a gluttonous one, might I add- as the chief gardener of Akrasia and also on your being pulled up by the Supreme Oracles of Akrasia for that appointment?

Tortoise: Let me begin by paying customary lip service to how much I respect the Supreme Oracles’ judgment etc. With that ritual out of the way let me expound on the logical flaws underlying the verdict.

The ruling will put us on a slippery slope at the end of which I can only see an unimaginable paralysis of government; an akrasia of sorts, if you’ll pardon the pun. Let me explain.  Now someone says goats shouldn’t be gardeners… then you will say dacoits shouldn’t be policemen or still worse that paedophiles shouldn’t be primary school teachers. Where are such arguments going to end?  Knaves shouldn’t be chancellors? Deflationary logicians shouldn’t be Prime Ministers? At this rate governmental machinery will grind to a halt. This is what I was trying to impress upon the Oracles. As I have explained in my seminal, ‘Studies in Tetraplyoctomy’ this is an argument from wishful thinking the grand mother of all clinchers in logic. By the way.. don’t you think it is time my book was admissible evidence before the Oracles?

[Achilles remembers that all elementary books on logic classify the wishful thinking argument as a logical blunder. But he recognizes that as an argument of deflationary logic, it is unimpeachable]

Achilles: But recently after the Oracles decided to send the goat packing you argued before the Parliament that you didn’t know that the goat ate grass and that it would pose a threat to the gardens.

Tortoise: Yes. That is true. I had no idea that the goat in question ate grass. The leader of opposition told me that ‘all’ goats eat grass and this is a goat and so, sure as fate, it will eat grass; hence this goat shouldn’t be made gardener. But, you will no doubt appreciate; this is a far-fetched argument- you cannot leap from ‘all’ goats eat grass to this goat eats grass, just because it is a goat. You had wasted decades trying to prove this obviously flawed argument to me till better sense prevailed. You see the leader of opposition commits the same fallacy. She concludes that what is true of all goats is true of this goat- just because it is a goat. They would benefit greatly from a reading our dialogues as chronicled by Lewis Carroll. I am sure you would whole heartedly agree!

Achilles: But aren’t you contradicting yourself? Your argument before the Oracles was that the goat should be allowed to be gardener despite you knowing that it will eat grass and yet later you argue in the Parliament that you didn’t know that the particular goat in question would eat grass. The implication being that if you knew the goat in question ate grass you would never have appointed it as gardener.  You can’t blow hot and cold in the same breath. Contradiction is the cardinal among logical sins.

Tortoise: [Unfazed] Contradiction is a sin alright but I cannot see why I should be guilty of it. My second argument before the Parliament was without prejudice to the first one before the Oracles. Thus when I make the second argument, you will have to treat the first as a supposition, not an assertion. See… the problem vanishes. There is no contradiction; there can never be. In fact, you cannot accuse me of a contradiction even if I tell you ‘It is raining, but I don’t believe that it is raining’. I can never contradict even when I contradict.

Anyway without prejudice to both the above arguments, I would like to add … no one told me that I was appointing a goat as gardener. See, how smoothly without prejudice arguments work.

Achilles: Left to yourself  who would you have appointed  as gardener?

Tortoise: Only the dullest of minds would let a goat be a gardener when there is a whole range of bovine options to choose from. I would have gone for a fine ‘ruminating’ milch cow , if you’ll pardon the pun.

[Looking back at this argument a few days later Achilles could spot a few dozen flaws.At that moment though, the flaws in this argument succeeded each other so rapidly that his brain was pinged into a cognitive akrasia of sorts disabling him from spotting any of them. The Tortoise’s puns also may have contributed to the akrasia]

Achilles: Moving on…You once said you feel that on occasions the Supreme Oracles impede the implementation of your grand metaphysical vision and stop you from turning Akrasia into a haven of deflationary logic. Could you please elaborate on that?

Tortoise: Copy and paste that lip service as a prefix to this answer as well.

Unfortunately they at times end up doing just that. At times the Oracles interfere by taking too practical an approach, in the process glossing over some of the logical complexities surrounding the art and science of governance. Take for instance that order on distributing grains gloriously ageing in the granary.

Achilles: Isn’t ‘ageing’ just a euphemism for saying that those grains were ‘rotting’? Surely the Oracles were right on this. Why let the grains rot when there are millions starving? In what world would that be Constitutionally justified?

Tortoise: You too, just like the Oracles, gild and stain the issue with your emotion. Let me give you a logically impeccable justification. The granary is a functional concept. Like the knife is there to cut, and the clock to keep time, the granary is there to stock grains. A granary which does not stock grains falls short of its Platonic ideal of being full of grains. Hence when our granaries were full, we thought it would be a matter for celebration: the moment when a functional concept lives up to its Platonic ideal. To translate for the less Platonically inclined, It is the metaphysical equivalent of winning the world cup. But the Oracles broke up the party. They failed to grasp the subtle logic. All they wanted was for the granaries to be emptied. But isn’t that a violation of a metaphysical right of a functional concept? Metaphysical rights vs conventional constitutional rights? Hardly a choice, is there? One is sewn into the fabric of the cosmos, the other a mere mortal invention. I appreciate that this is a subtle argument; one that is not intuitively easy to grasp; but nevertheless it is valid. You tell me what use is a Prime Minister if he doesn’t do the logically and metaphysically right thing? You could  get a soap opera star to run things for you if all you wanted was gilding and staining with tears and emotion and let logic go… to the place where Plato currently is.

[Achilles is not convinced; but for a moment is unsure where the Tortoise was going wrong. It was to strike him later that of course Platonism was the metaphysical equivalent of a conjurer’s sleight of hand. He gets a little annoyed with the Tortoise. He must act tougher with the Tortoise he thinks. He is instanly reminded of a very blunt interviewer who he admires a lot. He then decides that being blunt is the only way he can put the Tortoise in a spot]

Achilles: A very serious allegation has surfaced recently. The charge is that three years ago you bribed some parliamentarians to keep you in power . I want to ask you just one blunt question- Did you not bribe them?

Tortoise: Achilles you ask me two questions in the garb of one. I will split the question into two and answer them separately. The first question – is it true that I bribed them? And the second- Did ‘I’ bribe them?

Let me answer the first question first. Well …actually your first question is premised on a logical error- that things can be only either true or false- and so I don’t really need to answer it. But let me answer it without prejudice anyway.  You err because you  don’t allow for the possibility of the middle way – where things could be neither true nor false, both true and false and either both true and false and neither true nor false.  Please refer to my ‘Studies in Tetraplyoctomy’ which outlines a system of logic far superior to your naïve and monotonous logic which only allows for true or false.

We have a nifty way for stating this middle position- we say we can neither confirm nor deny. You will find my government employing this phrase to good effect. And my answer to your first question is – I can neither confirm nor deny.

Now on to your second question- Did ‘I’ bribe them? Again you err logically in posing this question. Because you presuppose that the same ‘I’ which existed three years back is the same ‘I’ that exists before you now. Since you gave up logic, you have missed the seminal works on Tionian and Uqbarian logic which establish conclusively that no entity can exist through a period of time. Thus the ‘I’ that is accused of bribery three years ago is no longer in existence and this ‘I’ can hardly be blamed for what that ‘I’ did. As good old Heraclitus once said ‘ you don’t step into the same river twice’. For those uninitiated in this logic, the Tionian and Uqbarian rule is the metaphysical equivalent of a statute of limitations: a time bar of sorts. Just yesterday I appeared in the Parliament and stated this proposition beautifully. I said  you cannot try to hold me responsible for what may have been done by the time barred ‘me’ three years ago. The river has flown below that bridge no less than three years ago, if you’ll pardon the pun.

[Achilles is unsure what annoys him more: the Tortoise’s bizarre metaphysical argument or his puns. He is tempted to press the Tortoise on this queer metaphysical statute of limitation, which he takes to be the grand father of all bizarre arguments;too bizarre even by the pretty bizarre standards of the rest of the Tortoise’s bizarre arguments . But he feels compelled not to, as time is running out, and he has quite a few blunt questions to go through]

Achilles: Are you suggesting that there is no way in which we could question the time barred ‘you’ for your alleged actions?

Tortoise: I never meant to say that. I am always accountable in theory to the great nation of Akrasia. Of course that ‘I’ who may or may not have bribed may or may not be responsible, depending on whether that ‘I’ bribed or not. Fortunately there is a way of finding out. It is possible to travel backwards in time, hold an enquiry and also administer punishment to me retrospectively if I am found guilty.

I am also happy to report to you that I appointed a fiercely independent commission that travelled backwards in time, held an enquiry and pronounced me not guilty. If the time barred ‘I’ was guilty, the time barred ‘I’ would have forthwith( in past tense) handed in ‘my’ resignation to the time barred Parliament of three years ago. I hardly need to add, even had I done that ‘I’ would still be Prime Minister today. So even if my former ‘I’ was guilty, it would be silly to ask me to resign now. Without prejudice, of course, I can neither confirm nor deny the guilt of the former ‘me’.

Achilles: Are you going to table that report in the Parliament?

Tortoise: Of course I did retrospectively table the report… in the time barred Parliament. You are free to read a copy by travelling backwards in time. As you know we take right to information very seriously.

Achilles: But there is one problem with your account. We have not developed a time travel mechanism as yet.

Tortoise: I am aware there is not one as yet. But when did I ever claim that I used a time travel machine which is available at present?

[Achilles is really keen on pressing the Tortoise on this cryptic suggestion. Unfortunately though, the time slotted for the interview runs out and the Tortoise has to meet his dear friend the President of The Republic Dystopia who on a state visit to Akrasia.

On his way back home Achilles is reminded of the closing passage from ‘Studies in Tetraplyoctomy’ which has now become the motto of many a doctoral thesis in Akrasia.

“We only speak of that which we cannot speak of…

… Let truth and silence alike fry in…

that place where Plato currently resides”

Note: The isomorphism of the concept of dystopia with the Republic of Dystopia is not at all coincidental]

7 Comments on "What the Tortoise said to Achilles: An Interview with the Prime Minister of Akrasia"

  1. Arghya March 28, 2011 at 10:54 am ·

    This is totally hilarious and acutely poignant. An incredible read, Shiv!

  2. Gautam March 29, 2011 at 3:05 pm ·

    Beyond brilliant!

  3. pritam March 31, 2011 at 11:25 am ·

    This is a great piece of satire, shiv. Though one must have the patience for a philosophical canvass to grasp the wit and criticism. I love the way the tortoise uses the various ‘I’s in time argument.

  4. Sarath April 1, 2011 at 8:14 am ·

    Appreciate the satire and sarcasm. but have to say its a little verbose!

  5. shiva santosh May 4, 2011 at 12:51 pm ·

    Hilarious! Loved the ‘I’ connect and the supposed ‘disjunctive’ reading of the contradictory statements.

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