Trouble on the Border

Do you have trouble with borders? Does it bother you that the line between red and orange is vague, like the line between afternoon and evening, or the line between child and adult? Even the sharp line of a knife edge begins to look fuzzy if you magnify it. Reality is annoying to those who insist that edges must be sharp and borders must be precise, because it refuses to draw the lines for you.

How do people who are sure about things handle the uncertainty of borderlines?

To see the answer, consider that knife edge. Seen close under a magnifier, it may look fuzzy, but it cuts just fine. To test how sharp it is, you do not use a magnifier; you slice a tomato. Whatever range of measurements the edge has when magnified, that range is what you call sharp, because that is what slices the tomato.

Examined closely, borderlines always occupy a range of measurements. To mentally step back so they look sharper, you can conceptualize them. You can make that range into a concept encompassed by a word. You can talk about red-orange, or twilight, or teenagers.

People who are contentious about borderlines may not be satisfied. One might say, for example, "Teenager tells me nothing! I want to know exactly at what point this teenager changes from being a child to being an adult."

Here's an answer: "By point, do you mean the year, the month, the day, the hour, the minute, the second, or the precise millisecond of the transition?"

That refers back to the knife edge. The issue of borderlines is an issue of how much precision you need for a particular purpose. The edge that slices tomatoes will not work to slice atoms. The law makes arbitrary distinction between adult and child at a particular birthday, but parents know that the real borderline is a decade wide.

"Okay," says Contentious, "So precisely when does that decade start and end?" The answer is that you cannot handle reality without accepting it. You cannot handle a continuum by turning it into a corner.

Wherever in reality there is a sharp line in fact, then scientific measurement can discover it. Wherever one thing fades by degrees into something else, then conceptualization can handle that. When you talk about the development of children, or the characteristics of teenagers, you are discussing how to handle a continuum.

The method is to look for essentials.

Children cannot take care of themselves. Adults can. Those are the essentials, and the continuum is a progress from one essential to the other. Different parts of the continuum can be examined from various angles by finding the proper essentials. You can discuss pre-walkers, pre-schoolers, and pre-teens. The biological essence of teenagers is puberty. The psychological essence is that they see themselves as adults, while others see them as children.

The contention that things cannot be handled without finding the edge, confuses edge with essential. Whether or not you need to find a precise edge, you must first find the essentials, so that you know what edge you are looking for. Where there is no edge, the essentials define a continuum. Since reality sometimes turns a corner, and sometimes fades together, sorting it all out has to be done by essentials.

In other words, to avoid border trouble, never try to substitute edges for essentials.

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