The men on the beach

The Philosopher Developer

January 29, 2023

Two traveling men meet on a vast, endless beach.

Both men are traveling with carts full of useful items that they've collected throughout their lifetimes.

The first man, Saul, has built up his collection by finding things beneath the sand. Every day, he digs countless holes. Most of the holes lead nowhere, but every now and then he finds something.

The second man, Sy, has a much larger and more impressive collection. Saul asks him how he has found so much. Sy shows Saul a magical device. It is shaped like a long, straight stick with a couple of concentric rings on one end. Sy holds the stick and moves the ringed end along the sand as he walks, gesturing for Saul to follow him. The two men walk together until eventually the stick makes a noise. Upon hearing the noise, Sy digs, and finds a shiny object.

Sy explains that once he discovered this stick and learned how to use it, it changed everything for him. He claims that the stick always works: when it makes the sound, and he digs, he never fails to find something. Saul is incredulous. Sy invites him to try it out for himself.

The two men walk together some more, this time with Saul holding the stick. Eventually it makes a sound again, and Saul digs. Sure enough, once again the stick has located something useful.

The men keep walking together for some time. After too many successes to count, Saul is fully convinced. The stick works.

By now the men have become friendly with each other. Sy reveals that he has a second magic stick. He offers it to Saul as a gift. Immensely grateful, Saul accepts. As the day ends, the two men go their separate ways.

Years have passed. Both men are much older. One day, they happen to meet again on the same beach.

Their collections have grown. Saul now has two carts connected together, while Sy's collection is so large, it fills a long train of almost twenty carts. While Sy is still carrying his magic stick, he is surprised to see that Saul seems to have his stashed away. He is even more surprised to learn that Saul has been digging holes without using the stick.

Sy asks Saul why he has gone back to digging random holes. Saul admits that the stick was very useful, and he still uses it sometimes. But he explains that over time, he started to suspect the stick wasn't able to find everything there was to find. He now has his collection divided into two carts: one holds everything he's found with the stick, while the other holds things he found just from digging, without the stick.

Sy is dismayed. Why would Saul not always use the magic stick? He starts looking through the items in Saul's second cart. Quickly, he finds items that he has in his own collection. He shows these to Saul, hoping to persuade his friend that there is nothing special about these things; the stick can find them, much faster than random digging.

Perhaps, Saul admits. But he points out that some of the items in his cart don't appear anywhere in Sy's collection, even though Sy's collection is much larger. Sy responds that this should not be surprising. By chance, over a lifetime, surely anyone would find some things that Sy hadn't found with the stick. But this is just pure luck. He insists that his stick would eventually find these things. Saul is not so sure.

After debating for some time, the friends realize they are not going to agree. The day is coming to an end. They shake hands once more, and part ways for a second time.

As he leaves his friend, Sy feels sadness knowing that Saul will spend the rest of his days wasting considerable time digging holes in the wrong places.

Saul meanwhile carries on with lingering doubt. Maybe Sy is right, and he is wasting his time. But he still has a feeling that there are things the magic stick cannot find. It saddens him to think that, as long as his friend Sy refuses to dig holes without using the magic stick, he might never find these things.