Best of All Possible Blog Posts

Aside from his work in mathematics–and lending his name to a brand of butter cookie–Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz is best known for his philosophical optimism. He opined that ours is the best of all possible worlds. To oversimplify:
1. God, being good, chose to create the best world.
2. God, being omniscient, was able to evaluate all of the infinite facts and truths of all of the infinite possible universes to determine which is most perfect.
3. God, having determined to make the best possible world and having determined which world that would be, created this world.

Like God, people always act in pursuit of good. As Leibniz wrote in his Discourse on Metaphysics, God’s first decree on human nature “is that men should always do, although freely, that which appears to be the best.” This tracks with Aristotle’s claim at the beginning of his Nicomachean Ethics that “every action and pursuit is thought to aim at some good.”

Unlike God, however, people are not omniscient, and therefore cannot infallibly determine what is best. “Each soul knows the infinite, knows all, but confusedly. As in walking on the sea-shore and hearing the great noise that it makes, I hear the individual sounds of each wave, of which the total sound is composed, but without distinguishing them.” Consequently, although we always act in the way that appears best, we very often misjudge what is best and/or how to achieve our objective. Without perfect knowledge of what is best, we “must often be content with the simple twilight of probability.”

So what can we do to improve our probability of identifying what is best and most accurately aiming our actions toward it?

One possibility (not suggested by Leibniz, to my knowledge) is to conserve rational energy by minimizing unnecessary decision-making. Have you ever come home from a particularly difficult day at work and felt like you simply could not decide what to have for dinner? This all-too-common experience is the result of an important reality: decision-making takes energy. And rational energy is limited. If you spend all day making important business decisions or solving problems, it shouldn’t be surprising if, at the end of the day, you lack the energy to make even mundane choices such as what to eat.

By reducing the number of choices one must make in a day, one may conserve some of that precious decision-making energy. Supreme Court Justice David Souter famously ate the same lunch every day: yogurt and an apple. Steve Jobs’ constant turtleneck and jeans combination was part of a conscious effort to reduce decision fatigue. By eliminating trivial decisions, one frees up brain power for more important issues. Hopefully, by saving mental energy, we can make the best possible decisions in this best of all worlds.

Beer of the week: Alter Ego – Some people even drink the same beer all of the time. Once you know what you like, why not stick with it? No regular reader will be surprised to know that I enjoy the decision-making that goes into picking what beer to drink. So even though I have had various “go-to beers” over the years, I would never commit to a single brew for long. Alter Ego is a hazy, orangish IPA from Tree House Brewing Company. Its rocky head hangs around for quite a while. The aroma is quite fruity, and the flavor is of tropical fruit with a decent malt body.

Reading of the week: A Letter of Leibniz – In this excerpt, Leibniz uses two synchronized clocks as a metaphor for how one’s soul and body can be perfectly in sync, even though physical and non-physical bodies cannot act on each other. In typical Leibniz style, he ends the passage with the claim that he has more profound proofs, but the clock metaphor will suffice.

Question of the week: Were Leibniz and Aristotle correct in asserting that every human act is aimed at some good?


The Authoritative Quarantine Reading List

Around the world, the spread of Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) has caused remarkable disruptions to travel, sport, and society in general. Many people have been subjected to quarantines, but a great many more have been advised to work from home and otherwise keep their “social distance.” Whether the response has been unconscionably slow or dramatically overblown, time will tell. Those considerations are beyond my ken.

Whether you are in a full-on quarantine, are keeping your social distance, or are simply looking for something to do now that the NCAA basketball tournaments have been cancelled, I’ve got you covered. I have compiled The Authoritative Quarantine Reading List ™.  

The qualifications:
– It must be public domain and readily available online; quarantine means no trips to the library.
– It must deal with an epidemic; otherwise, it would just be a reading list.
– It must be long; if you are going to be cooped up for a fortnight, a short story or a single poem won’t chew up enough hours.

I Promessi Sposi by Alessandro Manzoni. Milan, 1629. The plague is about to hit, hard. Although the main plot of this novel is a love story, the book is full of historical details about the plague and society’s response to it. Indispensable quarantine reading.

The Decameron by Giovanni Boccaccio. Florence, 1348. The Black Death has all but depopulated the city, and ten men and women retreat to a country villa. To pass the time, they take turns telling stories on various topics. The tales are generally witty and urbane, and one can see how a small group in quarantine would find them very diverting.

A Journal of the Plague Year by Daniel Defoe. London, 1665. It is rumored that the plague resurfaced in the Middle East, or Turkey, or Cyprus. “It mattered not from whence it came; but all agreed it was come into Holland again.” And soon it would cross the Channel. It is not clear how much of Defoe’s account is fiction and how much is just compiled firsthand accounts.

History of the Peloponnesian War by Thucydides. Athens, 430 BC. As if being at war were not bad enough, Athens faces a devastating epidemic that throws their polity into tumult. Yet, a mere 15 years later, the Athenians and their allies sent an expedition of 10,000 men to Sicily. Imagine surviving a plague just to die of starvation in a make-shift POW camp in a rock quarry.

That should keep you busy until this all blows over or we all die, whichever comes first. Stay safe. Cheers!

Beer of the week: Cerveza Cantina – Corona would have been too predictable. (Besides, I’ve already reviewed Corona Extra, Corona Light, and Corona Familiar. I thought about finding some Corona Premier, but paying $10 for ultra-light Mexican lager did not appeal to me.) Instead I went with a beer from El Salvador, a country under a national quarantine but (so far) zero confirmed COVID-19 cases. Cantina reminds me vividly of Cafri, Korea’s answer to Corona. It is crystal clear and refreshing. It is a bit too sticky, but not bad overall.

Reading of the week: The Masque of the Red Death by Edgar Allan Poe – As a short story, The Masque of the Red Death did not meet the criteria for The Authoritative Quarantine Reading List ™. But it is an excellent length for a reading of the week. The story shows the importance of “social distancing”. Throwing an elaborate ball in the middle of an epidemic was just a bad move. But you almost have to admire that dedication to partying. Literally half the population had recently died of a horrifying illness, and the prince said, “Screw it! Let’s rage!”

Question for the week: What would you put on your reading list if you were quarantined for two weeks?


Partly Cloudy

This post was made possible by a generous contribution by Eva and Matt toward the BeerAndTrembling education fund. Now that the campaign is no longer live, I encourage readers to participate by reaching out in the comments or through the “Make a Recommendation” page.

My wife recently asked me why I wear the same pajamas in winter that I do in summer. I replied, “because I live indoors.” William Faulkner once complained that “there are no seasons at all any more, with interiors artificially contrived at sixty degrees in summer and ninety degrees in winter, so that mossbacked recidivists like me must go outside in summer to escape cold and in winter to escape heat.”

It is not merely our living spaces that have lost their seasonality. For many of us, particularly those of us who work in offices, the most pronounced way that the seasons affect our work-day is in our commute. I, for example, wake and return home in the dark during the winter. The character of my work, however, remains the same year-round. I do not exactly envy the landscaper who annually parks his lawn mower and tunes up his snowblower, but at least the seasons prevent his work from being entirely monotonous.

Schoolchildren, of course, know the value of the seasons. In the winter, the prospect of an unplanned day off of school is truly magical. And, although they may lament the end of sledding and snow days, a child’s enthusiasm for summer is without parallel. Aside from vacation as a respite from schoolwork, summer weather is all but universally more conducive to play.

We adults should be better at living seasonally, in two ways at least: eating and playing.

Eating seasonally means eating fresh and eating local, both of which have clear benefits. Eating local produce means less waste: less spoilage, less delivery fuel, and less packaging. It also means supporting local farms and markets. A fresher more local diet is also much more salubrious. Vegetables are most nutritious when they are most ripe, and vegetables that must be shipped a long distance must be picked well before they are ready.

Play is, perhaps, our closest tie to the seasons. With our most of livelihoods protected from the elements, it is only our recreation that still relies on the weather. Consider two examples:

1. A friend of mine, an avid alpine skier, (very) often comments that winter is his favorite season. While others focus on the ways in which winter weather interferes with their otherwise year-round activities–such as commuting–he focuses on the ways that winter weather allows him to play in a way that he cannot most of the year. And once the last of the snow melts, he breaks out his croquet set, yet again playing in a way that conduces to the season. And, although I gather that he does not eat especially well, he drinks local, seasonal beers.

2. Another friend lives in central Florida. He golfs every weekend, year-round. His dinner menu is virtually unchanging for 51 weeks of the year. (Although his vacation diet, I understand, is very local and very seasonal.) He drinks the same macro-brew every night. Even though his world appears to be without seasons, they still affect his play. As an avid sports fan, he breaks up the calendar, not into winter, spring, summer, and fall, but into football, hockey, and baseball seasons. The weather under the dome of Tropicana Field may always be the same, but the baseball season is still dictated by the weather of the rest of the country. His play remains seasonal despite his removal from seasonal weather.

Faulkner’s complaint about our loss of seasonality is as true today as when he published it in 1962–if not more so. But many of us are starting to question the homogenization of our lives, and getting back to seeing the seasons as part of our own natural cycles.

Beer of the week: Partly Cloudy IPA – Part of recognizing the role of the seasons in our lives is not wishing away inclement weather. Without cloudy skies, clear skies would lose meaning. Virginia’s Solace Brewing Company produces this cloudy IPA. The aroma is of citrusy hops with grass undertones. Although fairly bitter, I don’t think the fruity hops notes are as prominent in the flavor as in the smell. Partly Cloudy is a nicely balanced, not overly-hopped beer.

Reading of the week: Song of Solomon, Chapter 2 – Beautiful though a crisp winter day may be, the coming of spring always evokes strong positive emotions. “Rise up, my love, my fair one, and come away,” writes Solomon. “For, lo, the winter is past; the rain is over and gone. The flowers appear on the earth.” (By the way, I picked the King James Version for this reading. Is it the most poetic translation? No. The most literal? Not likely. I picked it because the KJV has “turtle” for “turtle dove”, which conjures images of trees budding in the spring sun, while flocks of shelled reptiles precariously perch on their branches and “sing”. I find that very amusing.)

Question for the week: How do the seasons affect you? Do you make any effort to embrace each season?