If NASA had paid attention to current philosophical thinking on theories of naming and identity, it could have at least avoided a multimillion debacle, even if you feel international humiliation of American academia is not that important.

A Philosophical Approach to Describing Planets
A Philosophical Approach to Describing Planets

If you look on the NASA website about Pluto, you will now see a rather short description saying Pluto is a 'dwarf planet.' What it does not say is how NASA arrived at this decision, and how it got a whole load of egg on its face trying to do so Maybe if NASA had thought philosophy was more important, it would not have appeared so stupid. [1]. Some years ago, NASA actually decided that Pluto was not a planet, because it discovered larger orbital masses that would also have to be planets by its existing definition [2]. So it spent millions of dollars on an education campaign to teach the public that Pluto is not a planet, and to sponsor appropriate discussion in schools so every one would know NASA was right. The NASA site states the argument was only about size. In fact, the debate was not only about Pluto's size, but was also about orbital characteristics; whether the stellar body is heavy enough to form a sphere; and other characteristics. NASA said, due to new findings, there are actually 12 planets instead of 9, or only 8;and it had decided the solution was to stop calling Pluto a planet.

Had they first consulted with any philosophers on the current theory of how objects are named, NASA would have known this endeavour was totally pointless. Its efforts to 'redefine Pluto as a non-planet' remains in line with the naive idealism which formed the United States: that there is some 'ideal version' of all concepts to which we strive to understand;that there is some ideal 'truth;' some ideal 'justice'; and likewise, some ideal 'planet.'

In modern philosophy, the idea of such 'ideal concepts' is generally considered an extended form of naive realism. In modern thinking, names are attached to the real world by some act of 'baptism' or 'dubbing,' [3] but the objects to which the act of such dubbing is performed is not one ideal object, but only referred to by a collection of abstractions called 'properties.' Some attempt to argue this causes infinite regression, as the properties themselves are ideal concepts (this is a form of naturalism). However logicians avoid the infinite regression by saying that the properties themselves are not concepts, and do not refer to 'a thing in itself' (as ontologists believe). They see no necessity for the connection between a property of an object and some ideal concept. Instead, it is held, in accordance with Wittgenstein's later thought, that the concept of connection of a property to an object is an 'anomalous reference,' formed by mutual agreement in consensus, that does not hold any necessary correlation to a 'thing in itself.'

Well that is very complicated, so what does it mean? Let's put it in layman's terms.

Imagine two people are working on a building site, and agree that a piece of wood is a 'bloppit.' They can talk meaningfully with each other about what to do with the bloppit, without needing for there to be some innate essence of bloppitness. One builder can say to the other, 'hand me a bloppit, please,' and the other builder understands what to do. It is amazing to consider how many people have totally ridiculous but meaningful discussions about the true nature of the bloppitness of some thing. Including Plato. For example, imagine the people are not talking about a piece of wood, but some higher-order concept, such as 'justice.' they can have a very long discussion about the 'true nature' of justice when in fact there was never any such thing.

Now consider the properties of justice. What are they? They are simply other forms of 'bloppits.' The terms they use to describe the bloppitness of something are just other forms of bloppits. So the argument about 'justice' being 'good' or 'forcing equality' or 'enabling punishment' are themselves just other collections of bloppitdnesses.

One may ask then, what is the form of a bloppit itself? If they are all different forms of bloppit, is there some ideal form of a 'bloppit' which is an ideal thing in itself, as Plato wants there to be?

And that goes straight back into formal logic, discussed in previous sections, because a 'bloppit,' in generalized form, is a symbol for a collection of properties which either are themselves other plobbits, or relationships between them which can be defined in a system of logic. If the system of relationships cannot be resolved formally, it is irrational, but still meaningful in later Wittgensteinian thought.It is, in fact, finding the meaningfulness in irrationality, and the ability to name objects anomalously, that is the dual benefit of this perspective, because most logical systems cannot encompass such variation in semantics.

SO BACK TO PLUTO

So now, if a 'planet' is simply a collection of properties we ascribe to a stellar body, then obviously, any discussion of 'what REALLY a planet is must be totally ridiculous.

Any number of the properties ascribed to planets could be found not to exist, or to exist, in some new combination, for another stellar-scale object, opening the same debate again.That would result because there is no 'ideal' of a planet towards which our learning attempts to progress.Instead, we had agreed upon a convention as to what a planet is, and then found the definition inadequate, in light of new information. Instead of changing the properties which most people assign to those of planets, NASA tried to force everyone to change their concept of planethood.

And the debate on Pluto, which will make a great thesis one day, ended with NASA being forced to change its opinion back from stating that Pluto was not a planet. Now NASA calls it a 'dwarf planet.'

This was because, in the end, other countries did not want to spend money redesigning all their astronomy displays, and then rewriting all their textbooks, to say that Pluto is not a planet. They met in an international debate to argue with NASA. And in the end, the international community of astronomers accepted three properties of stellar objects that enabled the current definition of the number of planets in the solar system to be kept to 9.

But this was after NASa had already changed all its literature to say Pluto was not a planet, and sponsored a national school forum to teach everyone their idea of a planet was wrong. Then it was forced back to a different convention by the international community of astronomers who did not want to waste so much money, and the USA had to change all its definitions a second time.

If the American government could even get as far as thinking philosophers have something to contribute, let alone epistemologists and logicians, this whole stupid affair of deplanetization, replanetization, and NASA's failure in international repute could have been avoided.

References

  1. "why Pluto is no Longer a Planet"
    http://www.universetoday.com/13573/why-pluto-is-no-longer-a-planet/
  2. NASA: "What is Pluto?"
    http://www.nasa.gov/audience/forstudents/k-4/stories/what-is-pluto-k4.html
  3. "Causal Theory of Reference"
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Causal_theory_of_reference