Never heard of a sorites paradox? I hadn’t either until I stumbled upon the subject the other day while looking up sorites polysyllogism, a logical cousin of the paradox, it seems. Found a fine article on sorites-related problems by Prof. Dominic Hyde of the University of Queensland. Prof. Hyde is the boss of all matters soritical. Anyway, one Eubulides of Miletus is credited with some famous logic puzzles including the “Heap” puzzle (soros means ‘heap’). It goes like this: Does a single grain of wheat make a heap? No. How about two grains? No? … Eventually we’re going to have what we can agree is a heap of wheat, but we cannot say at any one point exactly where “heapness” has been attained. Even if we could do so, were we to remove a single grain of wheat, would we then no longer have a heap? How about two grains? Three … ?
A sorites paradox thus depends on two factors: a vague collective term in the predicate of a statement, and small individual increments that might make up that collective whole but do not permit a precise definitional limit. We might say “x grains of (a particular kind of) wheat make a gram” because of the standardized specificity of a gram weight. But we can’t do that with a “heap” because we can’t define a vague term in exact constituent units.
As it happened, I had also just been reading several articles about Diversity (the social movement, not the real thing) and affirmative action. The first piece is “Assessing Affirmative Action” by Peter H. Schuck in National Affairs, the second is by W. Lee Hansen for the Pope Center, and the third is Terry Eastland’s “The Nitty Gritty of Diversity” in The Weekly Standard. These essays all concern the same question: how do we know when some imagined “critical mass” of individuals in an institution or organization has been gathered such that we can then — and only then — say that the institution or organization is now satisfactorily “diverse?”
As the good Prof. Hyde wrote to me, “we might not be able to know of any particular point in the growing diversity of a group that it is the point at which a non-diverse group becomes diverse (i. e. we cannot know that sharp boundary), but this does not rule out our knowing of some cases that they are clear cases of a diverse group.” A wheat heap’s very vagueness permits general agreement that it is indeed a heap of wheat. And we can, I think, just as generally agree that the people in a given organization present a great variety of human characteristics, real diversity, that is.
You can see where I’m going with this. Proponents of Diversity and affirmative action are attempting to define a desired heap of students by calculating student grains. They seek precision in something that by definition can only be vague. The very definiteness they desire (an exact ratio of persons of African descent) cannot construe any real diverseness, even at only one point in time. Hence the endless contradictions, inconsistencies, and absurdities. For example, assume that in some college Diversity has at last been achieved. If a single student drop out, is the college then no longer diverse until it replaces that dropout with an exactly similar student unit? Perhaps it is time to add illogicality to the list of things that are wrong with the Diversity movement and affirmative action.