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Snow introduces the Sorites Paradox (also known as the paradox of the heap) and raises questions about testimony.
Snow. First, one snowflake falls. Then two snowflakes. Nobody thinks the snowflakes will amount to anything. Nobody, that is, except one little boy. “It’s snowing!” A boy and his dog celebrate the first snowfall and their city is transformed.
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Guidelines for Philosophical Discussion
Snow is a fairly simple story that introduces several complex and interesting philosophical concepts that students can engage with at different depths according to their abilities. This book deals with logic, mind, and epistemology. It is well-suited for intermediate to advanced philosophers.
The book displays disagreement about whether or not it is snowing, which is resolved as the number of snowflakes falling continues to rise until the answer is obvious–it’s definitely snowing. This disagreement provides a good introduction to the Sorites Paradox. This paradox deals with vagueness surrounding where you can draw the line between certain concepts. It’s easiest to approach the paradox with a classic example. We say a man with no hairs on his head is bald. A man with one hair on his head is still bald. A man with two hairs on his head is still bald. If someone is bald, it doesn’t seem like the addition of one hair will ever make him not bald! Yet finally, we say a man with 100,000 hairs is not bald. The paradox is found when we start at bald, and at each additional hair we don’t switch over; we eventually reach 100,000 hairs and still must call this man bald. But that’s absurd! The problem is that it’s not clear how to avoid arriving at this conclusion since each step toward it seems like the right step to take.
The same works for snow, though we found it easier to use the word “snowstorm” instead of “snowing” because some might say that one snowflake does mean that it’s snowing: Nobody thinks that one snowflake is a snowstorm, nor two, but eventually we call some quantity of snowflakes a snowstorm. This problem has kids engaging with a fairly complex issue. On one level they are engaged with thinking about how to resolve a specific paradox. This can serve as their first introduction to paradoxes. On another level, because idealized logic and language are the sources of the paradox, this allows the kids to question philosophy’s role in the lives of people. What sorts of things is philosophy useful for and might it be less useful for? The paradox can act as a catalyst for these sorts of discussions. The instructor can choose to introduce simply or to ignore the various formal methods of resolving the paradox. One method involves proposing that languages, like English, are vague and therefore outside the realm of logical reasoning. Maybe the paradox reveals a problem with how we reason. Or maybe there is no problem, and we learn something about how the world really is through this seeming paradox: maybe at some point the addition of one more hair really does make someone who was bald not bald anymore!
Problem of Testimony/Belief
Throughout the book, different sources tell the boy that he is incorrect and it isn’t really snowing, but the boy doesn’t seem to pay any attention. This can lead to a discussion about why the boy doesn’t listen to the assertions of the others, whether empirical evidence outweighs testimony, and when we should believe someone. The problem that appears when you say that knowledge you receive from another person’s testimony can be trusted, is that people can lie or be mistaken with no concrete evidence available to show that their knowledge is untrustworthy. Yet humanity gains most of its knowledge of the world from others’ testimony–if we can’t believe something based on what anyone tells us, then we can’t justifiably believe most of history or what we hear on the news. We don’t really know there is a conflict in Syria, and many of us don’t know that Cuba exists. There must be something that makes it rational for us to believe lots of testimony. What is it about someone that makes us justifiably believe that what they say is true? The way they look or act? Their job? How confident they sound? Past experience? Does testimony deserve belief only if the speaker meets those criteria? Are there different criteria depending on the topic we are being informed about? It seems a subjective statement like “apples taste good” is something we can or can’t trust in a very different way than “the earth goes around the sun.” Are there kinds of testimony that we believe implicitly, without needing to know anything about the person telling us (maybe the time of day, what the weather currently is, something related to their current experience)? The boy in Snow doesn’t believe the testimony of others when deciding whether it is snowing, not even sources he might implicitly trust such as an experienced grandfather or the news. The information his senses are giving him seems to outweigh the testimony the other characters give him. Is this always reasonable? What sorts of problems could this lead to? Does empirical/sensory evidence always outweigh testimony?
Questions for Philosophical Discussion
- In the beginning of the story when there are one, two, and three snowflakes, would you say it’s snowing hard? On which page do you think it started snowing really hard?
- Do you think adding just one snowflake can ever make the difference between snowing softly and snowing hard? If yes, how do we decide that number? Is it between 1,000 and 1,001 or 1,000,000 and 1,000,001? Why?
- Do we think there is a problem here? If yes, can you explain the problem? If no, why not?
- How can we maybe fix the problem? Is it a problem with our language? Is it a problem with how we think?
- Why fix the problem at all? Does it matter? Is the problem with the world or with us?
- Why doesn’t the boy believe everyone when they tell him it’s not snowing?
- Do you think he’s right to believe what he sees instead of believing the others? Why?
- Is something wrong with believing something just because someone tells you it’s true? Why or why not?
- If we know the person really well, should we always believe what they tell us? Why or why not?
- Most of what we learn about we only know because someone told us. If we can’t believe what people tell us, what can we believe?
- Do you think it would make more sense to believe some of the speakers in the story than others? Which ones? What makes them more believable?
- If you asked someone what time it was, would you believe them more if they were a certain person/kind of person? Why?
- What if you were asking them how to build a rocket? Would you believe some people more than others? Why?
- Can you give an example of something that you know is true even though you haven’t experienced it yourself?
- Draw some clouds and a landscape. Start drawing dots one at a time and ask the students to raise their hand and keep it up when they think there are enough snowflakes to form a snowstorm. You can point out to the students that they raised their hands at different times to get across the idea of vagueness.
- Show pictures or clips of different people making statements. Some of the statements could be basic information, like what the weather is, some could be specialized knowledge or theories, some could be aesthetic judgments. Ask the children which people or which kinds of statements they believe more and what makes them more believable.
Original questions and guidelines for philosophical discussion by Felicity Carroll and Samuel McHugh. Edited June 2020 by The Janet Prindle Institute for Ethics.
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