Dec. 2001 - The great unicorn debate
This thread is for discussing Massimo Pigliucci's Rationally Speaking
article entitled The great unicorn debate.
N. 19, December 2001
The great unicorn debate
"I will give you one hundred dollars if you can demonstrate that there is no such thing as an immaterial unicorn in this room." When I said that to my class of Honors students engaged in a course on science and pseudoscience, they looked at me in disbelief. I suspect that the incredulity wasn't generated by the obvious impossibility of the task at hand, but by the idea that their professor would put a hundred bucks of his own money on the table to prove a point. So started the great unicorn debate which lasted for several weeks, until the intellectual energy of the participants was exhausted.
The first attempts at solving the problem were generated simply by a misunderstanding of the question: one of the students claimed it was really a straightforward matter; just flood the room and the body of the unicorn would displace a certain volume of water, which would reveal the presence or demonstrate the absence of the beast (apparently, ethical concerns about the possibility of drowning the unicorn did not enter in the proposal). "I said 'immaterial', not 'invisible,'" I remarked. Water, as everyone knows, just goes through an immaterial body without being displaced. "Oh!" Successive attempts were crafted more carefully.
A particularly clever effort