Equipollence

This is the fourth and final post in a series on skepticism (and Goose Island beers.) The earlier posts can be found here.

One of the hallmarks of Pyrrhonism is arguing equipollent claims. Pyrrhonic skeptics set up opposing philosophical accounts as proof that we are incapable of forming reasonable beliefs. They are always willing to take a contrary position, with the goal of showing that we cannot be firm in any opinion and should therefore suspend judgment. As Montaigne put it:

“If you propose that snow is black, they will argue on the other side that it is white. If you say it is neither one nor other, they will maintain it to be both. If by a certain judgement you say that you cannot tell, they will maintain that you can tell. Nay, if by an affirmative axiom you swear that you stand in some doubt, they will dispute that you doubt not of it, or that you cannot judge or maintain that you are in doubt. And by this extremity of doubt, which staggereth it self, they separate and divide themselves from many opinions, yea from those which divers ways have maintained both the doubt and the ignorance.”

Contrary accounts, with nothing to chose between them, leave us in a state of suspended belief, and therefore άταραξία.

But in The Apology of Raymond Sebond, Montaigne does not restrict himself to openly arguing both sides of any question. Even when he is not explicitly setting up equipollent claims, his overt claims are often undercut by the method of his argument.

At one point, Montaigne derides book learning and the search for knowledge. In part he relies on the quote from Ecclesiastes: “he that acquires knowledge acquires travail and torment.” In context, however, the overt argument against learning seems totally subverted by Montaigne’s delivery. The essay is (at least nominally) a defense of a book by a Catalan philosopher who claimed that man could learn all about God and religion by applying his reason to the world around him. A book that Montaigne had translated himself. And the essay is brimming with quotations from scripture and antiquity. Quotations which Montaigne had, no doubt, learned over a lifetime of diligent study. (And, in many cases, had inscribed on the ceiling of his impressive library.) So on the one hand, he argues that education is actually detrimental, and on the other hand, he relies very heavily on his excellent education to support that claim.

Likewise, Montaigne’s argument against the power of human reason has a strong undercurrent that subverts his overt claim. He sets out to show that man is no more intelligent than any other animal. And, because our faculties are not greater than that of the animals, we have no right to rely upon them. Humans, in short, are simply not that smart. But the next twenty pages are dedicated to showing how very intelligent animals are. (And for Montaigne, twenty pages is a decent chunk of writing; many of his essays are only a couple pages long.) So although his overall point appears to be that human reason is not reliable because it is no greater than that of the animals, the vast majority of his argument is spent on raising our opinion of the intelligence of animals. Again, there is a contradiction that may justify withholding our opinion.

It seems significant that Montaigne is constantly and consciously undercutting his own arguments. I think that it shows that even when he appears to be taking a position, he recognizes that there is always another argument or explanation. And because there is no reason to pick one explanation over the other, the better course is to withhold judgment altogether.

But, to quote Montaigne, “what do I know?”


Beer of the week: Four Star Pils – The name of this beer is a reference to the flag of Chicago, the birthplace of Goose Island Beer Co. Four Star is a pretty golden pilsner with a nice, foamy head. It is a bit if a departure from traditional pilsners, in that the hops are less aromatic and have a little more bite in the back of the throat. It tastes more like the hops of an American IPA (in variety, not quantity) than a Czech pilsner. But it is by no means too strongly hopped, with plenty of malt to balance the flavor. Quite an enjoyable beer.

Reading of the week: The Apology of Raymond Sebond by Michel de Montaigne – It seems that the only copyright free English version is over 400 years old. But it will do for our purposes. This reading describes why the skeptics “desire to be contradicted, thereby to engender doubt and suspence of judgement.” Montaigne maintains that the skeptics oppose dogma by being willing to argue the opposite of any position. But this section has curious subversive tones similar to the ones discussed above. The excerpt is about how the skeptics contend against dogma, which is often simply a product of upbringing and culture. The final lines, though, include an exhortation to “addresse and commit our selves to God.” That exhortation certainly seems to imply some dogmatic belief.

Question for the week: Is it true that everything admits of more than one plausible argument? Is there nothing that we can be sure of?


Time-Atoms

This is the third in a series of posts on skepticism (and Goose Island beers.) The earlier posts can be found here.

We are told by Moses Maimonides that the predominant Muslim scholars of his day were atomists. Much like most people today, these mutakallimūn believe that all matter is composed of indivisible particles. More controversially, however, they also believe that time itself is composed of time-atoms. Maimonides claims that this belief is derived from Aristotle’s assertion that time, space, and motion “are of the same nature” because they can be divided in constant proportions to each other. So if all matter is divisible into a finite number of atoms, then time cannot be infinitely divisible. To maintain constant proportions to the nth degree, time must also be divisible only a finite number of times. The result of the final division is an indivisible unit of time.

A consequence of these time-atoms is that each moment must be discrete from that which precedes or follows. And, more importantly, the characteristics of each time atom adhere to that time-atom alone and do not transfer from one moment to the next. So all accidents (“such as colour, smell, motion, or rest”) lack duration. For example, the only reason that a beer is amber in color one moment and continues to be the same color in the next moment is God actively creating each atom in each moment. If we were to add green food coloring to beer (for some reason), it would probably turn green. But the “greenness” of the dye ceases to exist in the very instant that the beer comes in contact with it, and God must create the greenness anew in the beer.

Obviously, the beliefs of the mutakallimūn are not consistent with skepticism. (The fact that they are beliefs at all is a dead giveaway.) But some of their consequences certainly appear skeptical. For one thing, these beliefs implicitly deny cause and effect. The addition of green food coloring to beer may result in green beer 10 times out of 10, but the mutakallimūn attribute the change to the will of God, not to some principle of the dye acting upon the beer. This is quite reminiscent of Hume’s argument against inductive reasoning. We cannot come to a rational conclusion that some specific cause always has some specific effect, because that is merely an assumption based on our limited experiences. It is always possible that we are missing something or that some change might disrupt our supposed “law” of cause and effect.

Likewise, the idea that physical attributes do not have duration squares with a thought of Hume’s. Hume argued that to believe in causation, one would have to first identify some law that the future is always similar to the past. But even if such a law does exist, we have no way of knowing it. As a result, it is unreasonable to form any belief as to what will happen in the future, even with things that we observe to be regular and predicable. Although the mutakallimūn apparently believe that God constantly creates attributes through time to create the appearance of continuity, they, like Hume are unwilling to acknowledge any law that the future must be like the present.

The great caveat in this whole line of thought is that one need not actively deny that the addition of food coloring will change the color of the beer. We are entitled to rely on practical experience to help us through our day. The issue is whether we can, through reason, come to believe that causes will always have effects and that the so-called laws of the universe will be the same tomorrow as they are today. The mutakallimūn doubt both of those, but believe in a certain explanation of the universe and that the will of God creates the illusion of continuity. The skeptics, on the other hand, simply withholds belief outright.

Honkers Ale

 

Beer of the week: Honkers Ale – No doubt about this offering from Goose Island. This copper-colored bitter is quite nice. It is just a solid, malty ale with a finish that is just bitter enough to balance it out.

Reading of the week: The Guide for the Perplexed by Moses Maimonides – This selection from Chapter LXXIII of Part I lists the twelve propositions common to all mutakallimūn, as well as some of the consequences of those propositions. Regarding time-atoms, Maimonides writes “The Mutakallemim did not at all understand the nature of time.”

Question of the week: How can one square the skeptic’s rejection of causation and the reasonable confidence that flicking the light switch actually does cause the lights to come on?


Induction and Expectation

This is the second in a series of posts on skepticism (and Goose Island beers.) The other posts can be found here.

For those who cannot view the video above, it goes something like this:

A baseball bat flies through the air toward a flower vase. A bowling ball rolls toward a wine glass. A brick is hurled at a light bulb. A hammer flips end over end in the direction of an egg. And then: destruction. The bat splinters to pieces. The bowling ball bursts. The brick crumbles. The hammer head shatters.

These images are a bit jarring because they are inconsistent with our expectations. We expect the vase, the glass, the light bulb, and the egg to shatter. But why?

According to David Hume, our expectations related to cause and effect are the product of experience, not reason. If we had no experience with eggs and hammers, or wine glasses and bowling balls, we could not have reasoned out what we expect to happen when they collide. Even if we had no experience with bowling balls, but we were to analogize to some object more familiar, we would still only be anticipating the result based on experience rather than pure reason. “The mind can never possibly find the effect in the supposed cause, by the most accurate scrutiny and examination. For the effect is totally different from the cause, and consequently can never be discovered in it.”

Because effects cannot be reasoned from causes, we can never discover the first cause. As we work our way backward from effect to supposed cause to the supposed cause of that cause, we quickly find that we have inadequate experience to make any sort of guess about what the ultimate causes of our world are. By means of experimentation and observation, we may gain the required experience to make ever greater connections, but “as to the causes of these general causes, we should in vain attempt their discovery; nor shall we ever be able to satisfy ourselves, by any particular explication of them. These ultimate springs and principles are totally shut up from human curiosity and enquiry. Elasticity, gravity, cohesion of parts, communication of motion by impulse; these are probably the ultimate causes and principles which we shall ever discover in nature; and we may esteem ourselves sufficiently happy if, by accurate enquiry and reasoning, we can trace up the particular phenomena to, or near to, these general principles.”

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Beer of the week: 312 Urban Wheat – The name 312 is derived from the telephone area code for Chicago. As the label says, it is a wheat ale that is hazy straw colored and has a light lemon aroma. I think that the citrus in the smell is very light, but it is present. 312 is a fine beer, particularly as a change of pace stylistically. It is not as fruity or spiced as a hefeweizen, but is more like a standard pale ale with a bit of wheat.

Readings of the week: Sceptical Doubts concerning the Operations of the Understanding, Part I by David Hume – This section from An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding presents the problem of inductive reasoning. Because we learn only by experience, and our experience is wholly inadequate to cover all of the infinite possibilities of our world, it is probably best to withhold judgment.

Question for the week: The sun has risen every day for my entire life. And, so far as I can tell, it rose every recorded day before that. So we feel certain that the sun will rise tomorrow. Is this application of inductive reasoning really questionable?


The Road to Ataraxia

This post is the first in a series of posts on skepticism (and Goose Island beer.) The rest of the posts will be available here.

There are a great number of philosophies and religions in the world. And many, if not most of them promise peace of mind for their adherents. It is a fair assumption, however, that they cannot all be right. As a result, there are those who go through life, trying on a number of different beliefs, hoping to find the one that will deliver on this promise of άταραξία – peace or tranquility.

According to Diogenes Laërtius, Pyrrho was one such intellectual searcher. He travelled extensively with the philosopher Anaxarchus. With him, he visited the Gymnosophists (“naked wise men”) of India and the Magi (holy men) of Persia. But in the end, he settled on a philosophy of skepticism. Rather than finding something to believe in, Pyrrho found peace in withholding belief in anything.

According to Sextus Empericus, the search for άταραξία is only resolved when one gives up on finding the belief that will provide it. “For that which is related of Apelles the painter happened to the Sceptic. It is said that as he was once painting a horse he wished to represent the foam of his mouth in the picture, but he could not succeed in doing so, and he gave it up and threw the sponge at the picture with which he had wiped the colors from the painting. As soon, however, as it touched the picture it produced a good copy of the foam. The Sceptics likewise hoped to gain άταραξία by forming judgments in regard to the anomaly between phenomena and the things of thought, but they were unable to do this, and so they suspended their judgment; and while their judgment was in suspension άταραξία followed, as if by chance, as the shadow follows a body.”

When one has affirmative beliefs about what is good and what is bad, he is caught in an unpleasant trap. On the one hand, he is unhappy because he is aware of all of the “good” things that he does not possess. On the other hand, he is constantly afraid of losing his “goods” and being subjected to “bad” things. Whereas the skeptic does not suffer from these envies or fears.

Perhaps the most relatable application of this philosophy is the refusal to opine as to whether death is good or bad. Most people fear death because they perceive it as a loss of the good things that they have, or as a bad in itself. Some people welcome or hope for death because they believe that death (perhaps coupled with some afterlife) is a good in itself, or a relief from the evils of life. The skeptic, unwilling to judge whether death is good or bad is ambivalent. He is at peace, precisely because he is willing to withhold his judgment about whether his station is good or bad.

The road to άταραξία, in part, is the refusal to opine about which road is best.

Goose IPA

 

Beer of the week: Goose IPA – Goose Island, although regarded by some as a macro-brew sell-out, does produce some pretty tasty beers. This IPA has a pretty, dark gold pour. The aroma is slightly musty with yeast and malt. It smells like the inside of a brewery. This beer is exceptionally smooth. It is also very well balanced. Goose IPA is not overly hopped and has plenty of malt flavor. It is a very enjoyable beer.

Reading of the week: Pyrrhonic Sketches by Sextus Empericus – Unfortunately, Pyrrho did not leave any writings behind. What we know of his philosophy comes primarily from these Pyrrhonic Sketches (more often translated as Outlines of Pyrrhonism.)

Question of the week: The idea that we cannot be sure of what is good and what is bad, particularly with regards to death, sounds an awful lot like stoicism. What are the principle distinctions between skepticism and stoicism?


We, the people of the Confederate States

In Flashman and the Angel of the Lord, the titular hero asks Abraham Lincoln why was it right for the thirteen colonies to secede from the British Empire, but wrong for the Southern States to secede from the Union.
“I’m astonished that a man of your worldly experience can even ask such a question,” says he. “What has ‘right’ got to do with it? The Revolution of ’76 succeeded, the recent rebellion did not, and there, as the darkie said when he’d et the melon, is an end of it.”
Fictional Lincoln, it seems, is something of a cynic.

Some “small-government” and “states’ rights” proponents are less cynical, and even defend the failed Confederate States on the grounds that the CSA were motivated by self-determination, states’ rights, and principled politics. But do the historical documents bear that out?

There are lots of apologists out there who will argue that the Civil War was really not about slavery. That the Confederate States were more interested in states’ rights, and tariffs, and minimizing the use of federal money for local infrastructure. But a careful review of the Constitution of the Confederate States of America seems to show that the political goals of the CSA really started and ended with the institution of slavery.
The CSA Constitution differs from the USA Constitution in only a few substantial ways. The most obvious, and most important, is slavery. While the USA Constitution tip-toes around the issue of slavery, only mentioning it obliquely and euphemistically, the CSA Constitution makes repeated, explicit references to slavery, including a clause preventing Congress from passing any law that would impair the right to own slaves. Another clause allows slaveholders to take their slaves into and out of any state, effectively preventing any individual state from banning slavery within its own boarders. Not exactly a blow for states’ rights.
Perhaps the most next important thing about the CSA Constitution is what did not change. The CSA Constitution copies the vast majority of its content verbatim from the US Constitution. This embraces virtually all of the powers of Congress in Article I, Section 8, including the “Commerce Clause” and the “Necessary and Proper Clause”. Those two clauses, particularly when invoked in tandem, are widely regarded as the greatest threats to limited central government. Yet the CSA had no problem handing these same federal powers to their own Congress.
It is true that there are also non-slave related changes that add color to the claim that the interest of the CSA was in limiting federal power. The preamble was changed to include “each State acting in its sovereign and independent character.” Additionally, the states retained the rights to negotiate among themselves on the regulation of their shared waterways and to tax boats that use those waterways. Further, federal money was not to be used for infrastructure improvement. But these changes do not seem like enough to justify the claim that the primary purpose was self-determination. For one thing, the preamble adds the notion that the Confederacy is intended to be “a permanent federal government,” suggesting that any future secessions from the CSA might not be regarded as rightful. And in light of the focus on slavery and the general retention of the form and powers of the federal government, it seems pretty clear what the real intention was.
It is well worth questioning the “official” versions of history, but it is a mistake for modern conservatives and libertarians to pretend that the Confederacy was a beacon for limited government and self-determination. That ignores the plain fact that the Confederacy was created explicitly for the preservation of the despicable institution of slavery, and it alienates people who should be valuable allies for personal freedom.

Slow Ride

Beer of the week: Slow Ride Session IPA – To avoid (additional) needless controversy, I have paired this reading with a beer from a Colorado, which was not yet a state during the brief existence of the CSA. New Belgium’s session IPA is quite good. My 12-pack seems to have been over carbonated;  every can foamed over when opened. Otherwise, there is nothing to complain about. The beer is a hazy orange-yellow with lots of white foam. Some yeasty aroma makes it past the strong, citrusy hops smell. The flavor is not as strong as expected, but it is nicely balanced and refreshing with a nice citrus finish. One certainly could drink this beer over the course of a long session.

Reading of the week: The Constitution of the Confederate States of America – This is the kind of thing that every middle school student in the United States should be required to read in history class. It did not even occur to me that I should read it until I was in my late twenties. It is instructive as to the causes of the Civil War, but also a useful tool for evaluating the Constitution of the United States.

Question of the week: There are some other changes worth mentioning: the CSA president would have served for 6 years with no chance for reelection. Also, all bills passed by congress would have a single purpose (eliminating omnibus bills and unrelated riders.) Finally, the president would have the power to issue line item vetoes. Are any of the changes made by the Confederates worth considering as amendments to the Constitution of the USA?


Proofs of Prophesy

It seems that primitive peoples had a god for practically every natural phenomenon. Even the culturally and academically advanced Greeks and Romans had a literal pantheon of gods to explain everything from the daily rising of the sun to the changes of the seasons. (To be sure, there were certainly ancient philosophers who did not believe in the literal existence of the Olympians. But one of the charges against Socrates was refusal to recognize the official gods of the city, so they still took that stuff seriously.) It may well be that the eventual predominance of monotheism in the western world was in part due to advances in natural philosophy.

As we humans came to understand the world better, fewer and fewer gods were needed to explain all of the individual aspects of our reality. The more we learn about the nature of our universe, the less we need myths to explain the world around us. Inevitably, some people take this line of thought to its logical limit: as human understanding increases, we find that there is no need for any theistic explanations at all.

A counter argument that has been advanced is that our growing understanding of the world is itself proof of God’s assistance. The eighth century theologian Abu Hatim al-Razi asserts that all of the great thinkers throughout time were actually prophets. Divine inspiration, he argues, is the only way to explain the genius that created Euclid’s geometry or Ptolemy’s astronomy. Knowing his own intellectual powers, he cannot believe that such tremendously insightful works can be the work of unaided humans. There is some serious appeal to that argument; I don’t see how I could ever produce something as great as Ptolemy’s Almagest.

Still, we are constantly learning more and coming to greater and greater understandings. Consequently, all great geniuses in natural philosophy are doomed to be overtaken. In the face of non-Euclidean geometry and modern astronomy, Euclid and Ptolemy look like poor prophets indeed. What good are is the prophets Newton or Darwin if their systems are sure to be found defective down the line? Can it really be divine inspiration if it invariably comes up short of later human understanding?

The final rejoinder must be that prophets never tell the whole truth or explain everything clearly. Each generation must have its own sages and prophets to build upon the divine revelations of their predecessors.  So who can say that Lobachevsky or Stephen Hawking are not also divinely inspired?

  

Beer of the Week: Odyssey Imperial IPA – Throughout Homer’s Odyssey, storms, shipwrecks, deaths, and other events are attributed to the wills of the gods. So a beer called Odyssey seems like a good choice for this post. This Imperial IPA from Sly Fox Brewing Company is delicious. The lighting in this photo is a bit off; the beer is actually more amber in color. It has a nice thick head that leaves plenty of lacing on the glass. Odyssey is quite bold, with strong, flavorful hops that totally dominate the flavor. And the hops has to be strong to cover the 8.4% alcohol. Anybody who drinks enough of this beer is surely in for an adventure.

Reading for the Week: The Madman by Friedrich Nietzsche – The famous quote “God is dead” comes from this reading. This parable(?) from The Gay Science hints at the problems of a post-religious society. The atheists in the story do not understand the ramifications of the death of God, hence the messenger of God’s death is called “the madman.”

Question for the week: Is there anything compelling about Abu Hatim al-Razi argument that all of our geniuses are divinely inspired? Or is he just moving the goalposts?


Short and to the Point

“Brevity is the soul of wit” is a wonderful aphorism.* In no small part, that is because it encapsulates a lot of what makes aphorisms themselves so delightful. Whether they are called fragments, maxims, epigrams, proverbs, or pensées, aphorisms can be awful lot of fun to read. When done well, they are pithy, profound, and memorable. But for those very reasons, they can be somewhat difficult to approach as serious reading.

One short phrase can provide enough insight to sustain a very deep discussion. And yet, it is often easy to consume multiple aphorisms at a time, like so many kernels of popcorn. This seems particularly true when the author has put his thoughts into a particular order. There is plenty of value in being able to flip open a book of aphorisms and read one at random, but that seems to discount the value of the author/editor’s decisions in arranging them. Consequently, there is a tension between attempting to read aphorisms as stand-alone thoughts or as a composed collection.

For example, in his book of aphorisms, Vectors, James Richardson wonders: “Why shouldn’t you read this the way I wrote it, with days between the lines?” But that thought is number 369 out of 500. So is it really a serious suggestion on how he thinks the book should be read? An invitation to re-read Vectors with a new focus?

It seems unlikely that there is a “wrong way” to approach aphorisms, but it is worth giving some thought to the different ways in which they can be read. It is also probably important to remain aware of context; without context, a good aphorism may be no more than a cliché.

*Now is probably a good time to mention that the line “Brevity is the soul of wit” is spoken by a long-winded character in an extremely lengthy play. This irony is, perhaps, the best thing about it.

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Beer of the week: Fat Tire Amber Ale – This is a tasty little ale from New Belgium Brewing Company. It starts with light, flowery hops on the nose, but the taste is a nice balance between the hops and malt. It gets better as it warms slightly in the glass and the bready malt starts to shine through. Pretty darn good.

Reading for the week: Maximes and Moral Reflections by François de La Rochefoucauld – These dozen selected aphorisms seem fairly representative of La Rochefoucauld’s work. And although each could stand on its own, together they exhibit a distinct line of thought. A couple suggestions on how to read La Rochefoucauld: the author himself suggests that “the best approach for the reader to take would be to put in his mind right from the start that none of these maxims apply to himself in particular, and that he is the sole exception, even though they appear to be generalities.” Lord Chesterfield recommends that one should “read in the morning some of La Rochefoucault’s [sic] Maxims; consider them, examine them well, and compare them with the real characters you meet in the evening.”

Question for the week: How do you like to read aphorisms?