Conceivabilism, inconceivabilism and someone with 200 arms and legs

Dr-ElsterSometimes, philosophers like to construct highly exaggerated imaginary scenarios in order to test the validity of theories – conjuring up, for example, human bodies with a pair of spare eyes in their shoulders. Since there’s  no  very little limit on how exaggerated such propositions might be, some take on outlandish proportions. Such ideas can push the boundaries of what philosophers call ‘Conceivabilism’ (which considers that which can be reasonably conceived) and stray into the territory of what Improbable calls ‘Inconceivabilism’ (that which can’t).

Some examples are presented in a paper by Dr. Jakob Elster (pictured) from the University of Oslo, Norway in the Journal of Applied Philosophy, Vol. 28, No. 3, p. 201 entitled : How Outlandish Can Imaginary Cases Be?

Dr. Elster cites the work of professor Kasper Lippert-Rasmussen of Aarhus University, Denmark, specifically the paper ‘Against Self-Ownership: There Are No Fact-Insensitive Ownership Rights over One’s Body’ in: Philosophy and Public Affairs, Vol. 36, No. 1, 2008, p. 86-118. which he says, is “a cornucopia of outlandish cases.” e.g.:

“Let us consider an eye redistribution scheme in which half the population is born with two pairs of eyes and the other half with no eyes. In sighted individuals, one pair of eyes is located normally and fulfills the usual function. The other pair is located inside the human body, say, in the shoulder. Although this latter pair would enable those who have them to see if they were surgically moved to the eye sockets, they play no role where they are. Indeed they cannot perform any visual or other bodily function without being moved. Suppose further that the body of a person born with two pairs of eyes will expel the spare pair when that person reaches twenty years of age. The pair can then easily be reabsorbed into the shoulder of its owner, or the owner can transfer his spare eyes to a blind person.”

Or, instead, or additionally :

“Suppose, for instance, that people are born with huge bodies they can barely move, bodies with two hundred legs and arms. At any given moment, they can at best sense and control 1 percent of their bodies, although they can readily determine which percent that is. Since their bodies heal very easily, their ability to control their lives is promoted best if 99 percent of each body is removed in such a way that these abnormal individuals end up with what are, for us, normal human bodies.”

Are such outlandishisms justified, or indeed helpful? Dr. Elster concludes his paper thus :

“I have argued that we do sometimes need to consider outlandish cases in order to arrive at the true moral principles which we need for this world. But if we are, as I have suggested, unable to imagine these outlandish cases, we might never be able to identify the true moral principles we need. So even if we adopt a ‘method of avoidance’, bracketing general scepticism for the purpose of developing a sound ethical methodology, a new form of scepticism reappears as the result of this methodological discussion. How this new scepticism can be dealt with is an issue for further investigation.”