You don't mean that, do you? - Comedy Open Mic Round 15
In a dingy university snack-food shop, a short and unassuming looking man shuffled towards the cash register and cleared his throat. “Ahem.” The depressed looking shop assistant’s gaze never left his phone.
“Hmph, ahem!” Looking up, he saw a wizened face semi-hidden under a grizzled beard, staring back at him with barely contained glee as he placed two large packets of confectionery on the counter. “Hello…” the old man peered at the name tag “...Michael, just these please.”
Michael sighed the sigh of someone whose heart was sinking, and scanned the lollies through. “That’ll be thirteen-fifty”. The beard oscillated - its underlying chin drew tiny excited circles as a its owner’s hand slid a note towards him.
“I don’t think so Michael. I think this is only five dollars”
“No sir, it’s definitely thirteen dollars and fifty cents.” Michael tapped the register’s display, which clearly read $13.50.
“Well, I think it’s a fiver.”
“Ok, so $7.80 plus $5.70 is $13.50. I can add up that much you know.”
With practised ease, and more loudly than Michael thought was necessary, the customer launched into his explanation: “I’m not saying your arithmetic is faulty. Rather, I’m saying you might be mistaken about the meaning of ‘plus’. You think that it signifies a case where you should “use the plus function”, he made the air-quotes with a flourish, “whereas I think it signifies a case where you should use quus, with quus being the same as plus, unless one of numbers involved are bigger than 5.7, in which case the answer is always 5.”
“Look, I know what 'plus' means!”
“Are you sure? Maybe you took some that LSD you kids are always talking about, and you’re just deluded into thinking you know the meaning.”
“I’m pretty sure I’d remember that.”
“Son, that depends on the acid. Anyway, here’s the money.”
“It’s not $5 it’s $13.50.”
“Oh really? I hypothesised that you meant quus, and you that you meant plus. You can have the $13.50 if you can prove me wrong!”
“I remember how to add, and it's definitely $13.50. I’ve done lots of this sort of thing before.”
“But have you added these two numbers before?”
“I’m not sure. Maybe not.”
“So you don’t know for sure that the answer is 5.”
“That’s not how plus works.”
“Isn’t it? Have you tried to apply plus to every number, just to see if the rule changes?”
“No, but rules like this don’t change, ever.”
“Or maybe they just haven’t changed yet. This whole rule that continues infinitely into the future thing seems a bit dubious if you ask me. Where’s the empirical evidence?”
“Fine. It’s $13.50 because plus means addition.”
“Maybe by addition, you actually meant quaddition, where quaddition is the same as addition, unless one of numbers involved are bigger than 5.7, in which case you mean quus, and the answer is 5.”
“No, by addition I mean the sum of the two numbers…”
“But if I have two piles of coins, one of $5.70 and one of $7.80, if put them together and count them...”
“You mean quount them!”
“I quite clearly meant count, as in the enumeration of elements in a finite set."
“Quenumeration - look I can go on like this all day. You’re just defining words using other words - and they have to be defined using more words. If there’s doubt about what words mean, this isn’t going to work.”
Michael looked up at the slowly growing line of disgruntled university staff clutching various pancreas-detroying snacks.
“OK then. The register said it was $13.50.”
“Maybe it’s broken.”
“How do you know that?”
“Because it gives the correct answers.”
“Really? How do you know? “
“Because the numbers aren’t wrong?”, said Michael tentatively.
“Aren't wrong - pfft! That’s crap and you know it. I think the register is either broken of has been programmed by someone suffering the delusion as you. I think your notion of ‘correct is nothing more than the machine giving the answer you expected.”
From the back of the line a woman’s voice carried an interjection, “For heaven’s sake, get on with it! Numbers are just constructs, they aren’t real.”
Michael scowled in response, “Why are waiting in line to use them to pay for stuff then?”, before returning his attention to the cheerfully malevolent gnome at the counter. “I think that quus would feel different to plus, so I think it’s plus.”
“When I was a child I had a fever, my hands felt like two balloons - don’t look confused son - it’s a classical reference - that doesn’t mean that they were actually inflated rubber things.”
“Call me Saul, I’m not a medieval knight.”
“Saul, I appreciate your interest in me charging you the right price, but what you or I think about it is of no consequence. $5.70 plus $7.80 is $13.50, that’s just the way the universe is. I don’t need to think about it.”
“But if you don’t think about it, how do you know that the answer you give is the correct one? We can tell a perfectly good story explaining why you answer as you do, but that’s not the same as a explanation of why you should answer a particular way. You have no answer, and you know it. And if you can’t even be sure about something as simple as ‘plus’, your overall notion of meaning is shot to shit.” The little man drew himself up to his full but modest height and declared: “There is no fact in virtue of which you mean anything by any word, therefore there is no fact that means I owe you more than $5!” His wrinkled hand slammed a banknote down on the Formica with an emphatic air of triumph.
The shop assistant paused for a long time before replying, “Look, Saul, we are here talking, using words. So you must believe in some sort of communication, right?”
“Yes, well, words have conditions under which speakers will or won’t accept certain uses, but that’s not the same as a ‘real’ meaning, and doesn’t entail that I really have to pay you $13.50.”
Michael noticed that the heckler had left without paying, taking the bulk of the line with her, but didn’t care. “So these conditions of acceptable use, something causes them right? I mean, they aren’t magic, are they?”
“Of course not, the very thought!”
“This means that the ways that words were used previously, which are facts, are what sets the conditions of correctness for words right now, right?”
“So it’s a fact that quus isn’t in the history of arithmetic in the same way that plus is, isn’t it?”
Saul shuffled and seemed to consider something fascinating on the floor before answering. “Yes”.
“So if there is no history of the use of quus to date, there is no possible reason for either of us to think we should use it, rather than plus. So, that’ll be $13.50, please”.
“I only haf fi dollis”, the man mumbled awkwardly."
“I lost my wallet. I only have five dollars. And a snow-globe of a brain in a vat that Putnam gave me. And a sheet of acid.”
“Do you have your phone? We take most cryptocurrencies”
“I swapped it for the acid.”
Glancing up at the security camera above him, Michael sighed.
“Fine, but please try to bring some more money next time Professor, I can’t keep doing this every time you come in.”
Saul’s face lit up with a mischievous grin; he wiggled his eyebrows, yelled “Yoink!”, and bolted away with the bags of processed sugar.
Michael put the snow-globe on top of the register, bit a corner off the sheet of acid, closed his eyes and tried to find some inner calm. Fucking philosophers, he thought to himself, before taking a deep breath and calling out. “Next please.”