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March 23, 2011 / theslowblitz

The Cow in the Field

Quoted from: http://www.toptenz.net/top-10-most-famous-thought-experiments.php

“One of the major thought experiments in epistemology (the field of philosophy that deals with knowledge) is what is known as “The Cow in the Field.” It concerns a farmer who is worried his prize cow has wandered off. When the milkman comes to the farm, he tells the farmer not to worry, because he’s seen that the cow is in a nearby field. Though he’s nearly sure the man is right, the farmer takes a look for himself, sees the familiar black and white shape of his cow, and is satisfied that he knows the cow is there. Later on, the milkman drops by the field to double-check. The cow is indeed there, but it’s hidden in a grove of trees. There is also a large sheet of black and white paper caught in a tree, and it is obvious that the farmer mistook it for his cow. The question, then: even though the cow was in the field, was the farmer correct when he said he knew it was there?”

I don’t find this question very fascinating; it seems to me that may senses of ‘correct’ are rolled up in one word, which the experiment points. I find it interesting enough to write a bit about however. Perhaps I am interested because idea of ‘correct’ or ‘true’ is integral to logic itself.

The first thing to note is that the farmer reached the correct conclusion. He observed that his cow was in the field, and his cow was indeed in the field. If we go into the details, that he visualized his cow where the paper was, then even the conclusion might have been wrong because the cow was in different location, location being a detail that was lost in the translation from thought to speech. There is then two senses of ‘correct’, one that is in the mind and specific to the observer, and one that is elaborated outside the mind, that can be observed by a second observer watching the first.

The second interesting point is the evidence. The farmer saw the black and white paper and mistook it for his cow. At first glance it would seem he was blatantly wrong, and drew the wrong conclusion from paper. In this way, the claim by the farmer that he knew the cow was in the field is wrong because his premise was wrong. But the farmer could not have known that the patch of black and white was in fact a piece of paper and not his cow. If his assumptions were reasonable, could they have been wrong? I think there are two more senses of ‘correct’, one which is reasonably accurate, and the other which is absolute. After all, when we say someone has made a ‘correct’ decision, we can not possibly have all the information needed to be absolutely certain.

You know, the more I think about this, the more interesting it gets.

To say that a cow is in the field there must be a definite cow and a definite field. The field must have a border, and the cow must be in the border. If a landlord decides to buy the half of the field the cow is in, more complexity is added into this thought experiment.

Moreover, how does the farmer conclude that the patch of black and white is indeed his cow? There are many possibilities, it being paper included. It might be his neighbour’s cow. It might be a piece of plastic bag. It might be an ultra realistic cow suits for all he knows! Somehow, when he sees that patch of black and white, he assumes it is his cow. How reasonable of an assumption is this? Is the reasonableness of his assumption based on his knowledge, or an observer’s knowledge? Either way their knowledge might be wrong.

I think that after his cow went missing, his brain was primed for ‘cow’. But how does that work? I think he simply never thought of all the explanations, having assigned the patch of colour as ‘cow’, and thus having no reason to search for other explantions. But what is within the neurology of the brain that constructs this narratives?

I think that once again the link between my header and my ending has gotten tenous, so I’ll end here.

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