Hotdogs are not sandwiches, but one day, they could be sandwiches
Through a series of tragic accidents, philosophy sometimes oozes its way into our conversations in the stupidest of guises. “Is a *hotdog a sandwich?”, asks a Tinder user — presumably, the answer will lead to eternal marital bliss or to a swift and merciful fated love assassination by left-swipe.
- referring to a hotdog as the wiener/bratwurst in a bun, not by itself
I actually love the question. It’s dumb as hell on the surface but quickly reveals the spiderwebbed foundation that supports our dear language. We can of course just say “yes” or “no” and move on with our lives — but why would we want to do that? Is a hotdog a sandwich? How could we possibly answer this question?
Categories and Classifications
Different areas of science have tackled this question similarly. In cognitive(/neuro) science, our love of eyeballs has led us to focus on vision as a tool for classification. The idea is this: eyeballs take in light and that light hits the retinas (on the back wall). The retinal cells react to this light, triggering pulses up into the brain, across the back, and then kind of all around the rest of the brain. Somehow and at some point, this pulsing gets transformed into the experience of things — the visual world that we experience is this. During this process, some information gets suppressed and transformed and interpreted into concrete and rich objects that are more than simple shapes but are instead objects with their own potential uses and misuses. In other words, there are points at which little subsystems dress up and interpret what once was just light, turning that into stuff. This isn’t the end of the process — rather, it’s the beginning. Our very first impression. When I open my eyes and see my cat, there’s a recognition of cat, combined with a peripheral recognition of that cat being my cat. When I continue to look, I pick up on features like food dust around his mouth and tufts of fur jutting out (likely from his dumbass feuding with the neighbor cat, whom we’ve named “cowcat”, on account of his cow-patterned fur). I also experience feelings of recognition and warmth and annoyance and so on. Moreover, I recognize that I could use my cat as a paperweight or cage fighter. In short, I see not just the lines that make up a cat but the entire cat, including his features and qualities and possibilities. All of experience is like this.
Now, what does this have to do with hotdogs? Everything. There’s a history in brain science of reduction. All this fancy talk of possibilities and feelings attached to object perception can be ignored if all we want to focus on is function. What matters is whether we can use our parts to reliably navigate the world and reproduce. Therefore, we can assess the sandwichness of hotdogs in a systematic way. What makes a sandwich? Two units of bread + something in the middle, right? Or, to put this in math and thus make it more formal:
Sandwich = bread1 + something + bread2
Under this stunning and brave formula, a hotdog is in fact a sandwich, right? We’ve got bread + something + bread. But that bread’s attached to itself… seems like we’re breaking a rule here. But aren’t there hoagie things like that? Plenty of sandwich places will keep the bread attached. We don’t argue with them when they claim they sell sandwiches.
Well, there you go. Hotdogs are sandwiches.
I’ve taken to asking my students this as a kind of ritual — for some reason, this is the conversation that somehow gets all of the normally quiet ones all riled up. Generally speaking, it usually starts with a few people who have thought about this before proudly declaring that hotdogs are sandwiches. The people who haven’t had the boundless pleasure of confronting this question usually go along with the hotdogs-are-sandwich philosopher kings. Some quibble and wonder — what about lettuce wraps? What about KFC’s heretical Double Down? Are these sandwiches? They’re sold as such. I used to put banana slices between Wheat Thins — those sure seemed like sandwiches to me. Or, let’s go international — Taco Bell has those double tostada things. Certainly seems sandwich-like. Pulling back the curtain even more, what about conceptual sandwiches? What if I wrote this post in a sandwiched way? I could have soft and fluffy bread in the beginning, the meat of my content in the middle (“say hello to the meat” — the meat), and some more fluff at the end. Is this a sandwich?
Again, this is a monumentally stupid question but it is also monumentally interesting. And it has many siblings. Just this morning, I heard this one repeated: Is cereal a soup? We can try the same reductionist approach and turn it into math, right? Water-based liquid in a container + stuff in it = soup. But what about broth? Stew? They all soup? What about a vase of Pepto Bismol with crickets swimming about? Soup? For that matter, are there holes? Does a straw have one hole or two?
If we rely on strict classification, we run into a near-infinite number of restrictions, many of which would be impossible to agree upon. Some people are much more liberal in their sandwich inclusivity than others. Hell, there’s a study for you right now — collect your Nobel Prize at the door. I’ll bet $1000 Internet bucks that political liberals are more sandwich inclusive than conservatives. This all raises the question: can we vote on this? Now we’re getting somewhere.
In doing computer science with machine learning in the wild these days, we’ve learned that classification is really hard. And more importantly, it’s a shifting target. If we have machine learning try to identify sandwich versus non-sandwiches, the answer will ultimately depend on the humans involved in the process calling the shots. Even an intelligent agent will produce results that any one person’s classification formula will disagree with — it’s impossible for one person’s ideal sandwich to be everyone’s ideal sandwich. And this of course applies to soups and holes. In a way, machine learning classification is just a form of voting, where the thing we vote on is the inclusion into the training data, the algorithms used to do the classification, and the interpretation of the resulting data. It builds a non-human agent but that agent isn’t really any better at determining sandwichness than any particular human agent, including the author (hello, reader!).
This all aside, I did say that voting on this was a way to solve our problem — is a hotdog a sandwich?
But it’s not the kind of voting that we (by “we”, I mean our senior citizens — the youth do not vote, obviously) do on election days. It’s covert social voting that we do all the time on everything, from morals to gods to sandwiches. We vote through the actions we take in response to our conversations. Is a hotdog a sandwich? The answer is found in our behavior — not in any formula.
Here’s my response to the question: How surprised/annoyed would you be if you asked me for a sandwich and I handed you a hotdog? If you would be surprised and annoyed, then a hotdog is not a sandwich. That’s it.
Our answer is contextual and requires action to reveal and is entirely amenable to change — which might be obnoxious to you, but that’s just how things are. In fact, this understanding is gently infiltrating physics, which is coming to terms with the idea that the universe is not in fact made of stuff but is instead an unfolding process with semi-predictable aspects. Never thought you’d get quantum physics in a blog post about a really stupid question, did you?
A hotdog is probably not a sandwich for most people right now today, but this doesn’t mean it will always be that way. If I were to fetch you hotdogs on repeated occasions when you innocently asked for and expected a traditional sandwich, you would quickly adjust to my hotdogged idiosyncrasy. Instead, you might ask for an old-school sandwich, in which case I wouldn’t be likely to fetch you a hotdog… until/if the “old-school” sandwiches classification grows to include hotdogs. The target is constantly moving and it’s on us to continue to develop and grow to understand this.
There are a great number of implications in this way of thinking about things, beyond merely overturning space and time. Categories are always changing — gender, age, ethnicity, morals, belief, etc. — the way we talk about and act is evolving and it’s important to recognize that we are and will always be swept along. Let’s be cheery about it. Hotdogs might not be sandwiches today, but who am I to say they won’t be tomorrow?