Published online by Cambridge University Press: 09 October 2009
The ancients were already well aware that the sorites is not just about heaps. It brings into question the very existence of the gods, or at least the rationality of religious belief. If modern philosophers of language (who in recent years have been much preoccupied with the sorites paradox) seldom know this, a magisterial paper by Jonathan Barnes has now made clear the range and richness of the ancient material on the subject. Some of this material looks strange by modern lights. All the more reason, therefore, why enthusiasts for the sorites should take an interest in its history.
The history begins, as everybody knows, with a memorable example fashioned by the past master of paradox, Eubulides of Miletus (4th cent. b.c.), known also for his purveying of the Liar, the Bald Man, the Nobody, and other logical delights (D.L. 11 108).
I say: tell me, do you think that a single grain of wheat is a heap? Thereupon you say: No. Then I say: What do you say about 2 grains? For it is my purpose to ask you questions in succession, and if you do not admit that 2 grains are a heap then I shall ask you about 3 grains. Then I shall proceed to interrogate you further with respect to 4 grains, then 5 and 6 and 7 and 8, and you will assuredly say that none of these makes a heap.(Galen, On Medical Experience XVII 1, p. 115 Walzer)