One of the great debates in the history of mathematics was that between Isaac Newton and Gottfried Leibniz. Newton had invented (or discovered, if you please) calculus, but did not publish any works on the subject. Some time thereafter, Leibniz also invented calculus, but he had his work published. Newton accused Leibniz of having stolen his idea, while Leibniz maintained that he had reached his conclusions independently.
It is possible, of course, for separate individuals to discover or invent the same methods independently. (In nature, an analogous process exists called convergent evolution, and it is freaking awesome.) Perhaps the most important aspect about language is that it allows humans to advance technologically. Because Leibniz was able to write down his method for calculus and share it with others, every future mathematician is spared the effort of inventing calculus herself.
And this is true of more than just mathematics. How many times must the wheel have been invented, lost, and reinvented until it was effectively passed down to enough people that we will never again have to re-invent the wheel? Likewise, beer may have been independently invented at various times around the world, but if every new batch could only be brewed by re-discovering fermentation, how could we ever have achieved the tremendous selections of beers available today?
The fantasy of an individual human in the state of nature (totally outside of society) is a popular notion. It features prominently in the philosophical works of Locke, Rousseau, and others. It also appears in fictional works such as Kipling’s Jungle Book and Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe. A philosophical and fictional book that is an excellent example of the theme is Philosophus Autodidactus (or Ḥayy ibn Yaqẓān) by Ibn Tufail. The main character of that book is a foundling that is nursed and raised by a female deer. Over time, this man outside of society is able to discover a great deal about the world. But while the story is meant to show the capacity of humans to learn from their surroundings, I think that it unreasonably downplays the greatest advantage that we have when it comes to learning: the ability to learn from others so that each individual does not have to re-discover everything that has previously been learned before he can go any further.
Beer of the week: Carta Blanca – Ibn Tufail’s writing is steeped in the epistemological concept of “tabula rasa”, a Latin phrase meaning “blank slate.” So it seems that Carta Blanca (Spanish for “white/blank card”) should be a good pairing. This Mexican beer is pretty good for what it is. It is a clear, refreshing lager. And, like so many Mexican beers, it really shines with some salt and lime. And home-made fish tacos.
Reading for the week: Philosophus Autodidactus by Ibn Tufail – Considering the fact that this book is about an entirely self-taught man, it is somewhat ironic how much of an influence it has been on so many important thinkers in the generations after it was first published in the early 12th century. In this excerpt, the title character learns about fire and performs crude experiments in biology.
Question for the week: Ibn Tufail’s character discovers not only a great deal in the field of natural philosophy, but he also discovers the precepts of natural religion. How far could an intelligent individual get if he had to start accumulating knowledge independently from the beginning?
Ken M., one of the world’s finest internet trolls once complained that “today’s archeologists seem hellbent on making discoveries at any cost, leaving nothing for future generations.” He followed that statement up with the opinion that “they should at least plant new discoveries to replace the ones they harvested.”
It is a bizarre joke, but I think that it is hilarious. The funniest party is that people take him seriously despite his ludicrous statements. What makes the position so ridiculous is the implicit position that there may one day be nothing left to learn; that someday soon, man might reach the end of knowledge. But as Seneca wrote in his Natural Questions, “the world is a poor affair if it do not contain matter for investigation for the whole world in every age.”
What would it even mean for humans to reach the end of knowledge? Is it even conceivable for there to be nothing left to discover? On the sci-fi cartoon Futurama, alien beings got close to obtaining all knowledge, but they were then forced to destroy the universe before any new information was created. The world is always changing, so there is always more to learn.
And even in situations where immense quantities of raw information are known, that does not amount to knowledge. It is still necessary to interpret and synthesize the data. So do not give in to Ken M.’s fear that discoveries will run out. Seek boldly to learn everything that you can, knowing that there are plenty of mysteries left for the rest of us.
Beer of the week: Two Brothers Prairie Path – Speaking of new discoveries, somebody has discovered how to use enzymes to break down gluten. When I first got this beer, I did not notice that it is “Crafted To Remove Gluten”. Rather than brew the beer with gluten-free grains such as rice and sorghum, Two Brothers brews this beer with malt and then treats it with an enzyme that breaks down the gluten. Prairie Path is a pale, orange-gold color. The head fades very quickly. The aroma is vaguely of citrus and rice. The beer itself is a bit citrusy but feels very thin. It is a perfectly acceptable, easy-drinking beer. But I feel bad for those who are gluten intolerant if this is the most flavor they can get in a gluten-reduced beer.
Reading of the week: Natural Questions by Seneca, XXX & XXXI – After discussing the slow advance of knowledge from generation to generation, Seneca goes on to chide his countrymen for giving up the vigorous pursuit of knowledge and virtue in favor of indecency and vice. Among other things, he accuses others of “[d]issolute effeminacy and corruption”.
Question of the week: Is there any field in which humans have genuinely learned all there is to know?
Identify the correct statement:
A. Tomatoes are fruits.
B. Tomatoes are vegetables.
C. Tomatoes are berries.
D. All of the above.
The key to this question is the key to most questions: first agree on definitions. If the terms are not adequately defined, then there is no real hope of reaching a consensus on the right answer.
So what is a fruit? In the botanical sense, a fruit is the structure that bears the seeds of a flowering plant. In the culinary sense, a fruit is a sweet plant part. Culinary fruits are usually botanical fruits, but it is not always true that botanical fruits are culinary fruits. For example, apples, cucumbers, acorns, and pumpkins contain the seeds of their respective plants, and are therefore botanical fruits. But of those, only apples are usually considered to be culinary fruits because they are sweet and fleshy. Likewise, tomatoes have seeds, so they are botanical fruits. However, they are not considered culinary fruits because they are generally not prepared the way that sweet fruits are. So answer A. is correct, so long as the broader definition is used.
What is a vegetable? Again, there are broader and narrower definitions. A vegetable may be any edible part of a plant. Or it may be a culinary vegetable: leaves, stems, roots, or some of the less sweet botanical fruits. Nuts, for example, clearly fit into the first definition, but may not fit into the second. The same can be said of grains. So tomatoes are definitely vegetables under the broader definition, and also under the culinary definition.
What is a berry? You’ve guessed it, there are multiple definitions. The colloquial definition is a small, fleshy fruit that is usually sweet. This includes strawberries, blackberries, mulberries, and cherries. But none of those fruits fit within the botanical definition of a berry. Botanically speaking, berries are fleshy fruits that do not have stones that are produced from the single ovary of a single flower. So blueberries, elderberries and grapes are botanical fruits. But so are pumpkins, bananas and, indeed, tomatoes. So although they are not berries in the common sense of the word, C. is a correct answer if the question is about the botanical definition.
Ultimately, the question is more “what definitions are being used?” than “what is a tomato?” People often argue at length about things that are no less trivial than the categorization of tomatoes. And frequently the source of their disagreements are at the definitional level. One of the great flaws of language is that no matter how many words we have, they are all but poor representations of ideas. Try to focus on agreeing on definitions before jumping into an argument where you are likely to be talking right past each other.
Beer of the week: Shiner Ruby Redbird – Grapefruit is considered a “modified berry” because, unlike most berries, it has a tough skin and internal segments. Ginger is either a spice or a vegetable, depending on what definition is used. And both are ingredients in this beer. Ruby Redbird was originally a summer seasonal. However, it is now available year-round. It pours with a fluffy head that fades quickly. Ginger dominates the smell and the aftertaste. There is a hint of citrus at first, but the ginger is so strong that everything else is really secondary. That’s not a bad thing, mind. As long as you are ok with ginger flavored beer, this is a very tasty and refreshing option.
Reading of the week: How I Edited an Agricultural Paper by Mark Twain – Like the narrator of this great short story, I don’t really know much about agriculture. (But at least I know that turnips don’t grow on trees.) This story is very funny, but it also ends with a great critique of newspaper editors that is equally applicable in a digital age where everybody, no matter how ill-informed, can spread his opinion to the masses.
Question of the week: Is baseball a sport? Or, more accurately, is there any reasonable definition of “sport” that excludes baseball?
Writer’s block has proved to be a very fruitful topic for a number of authors. When heeded, the classic advice “write what you know” leads to an awful lot of writers writing about writing and writing’s attendant struggles. The film Barton Fink, for example, is a film about a screenwriter who can’t seem to get any words on paper. It is no mere coincidence that the Coen brothers wrote and produced that film while taking a hiatus from writing and producing Miller’s Crossing. Unable to find the right way to finish the first film, they turned to writing about writer’s block. (Unsurprisingly, Barton Fink features many of the same cast members as Miller’s Crossing. But that might have more to do with the fact that the Coen’s work with the same actors repeatedly.)
A quick google search turns up innumerable pieces of advice on how to overcome writer’s block. From a change of scenery, to a change of diet, there are heaps of “sure-fire ways to get your creative juices flowing.” But nobody seems to ask the question: should the person be writing at all?
In Phaedrus, Socrates relates a myth about the god called Theuth. Theuth was a great inventor, who devised mathematics and astronomy as well as “draughts and dice”. His greatest invention, however was writing. Theuth congratulated himself on giving such a great gift to humanity. But as it turned out, his gift was not as beneficial as he had expected.
People now do not have to remember anything, since they can always just reread anything they don’t recall. As a consequence, apparent knowledge is everywhere, but actual knowledge is seldom seen. Likewise, writing does not make people more wise. One does not become wise by reading, but by internalizing and understanding. Particularly where there is a very large amount of available writing (for example, a library or the internet,) one is apt to read more but understand less.
As a result of these contemplations, I have elected not to write a blog post this week. Kindly disregard the foregoing. (I wrote the beer review beforehand, so you might as well read it.)
Beer of the week: Dundee Stout – After declaring that I was done with winter beers last week, the weather forced me to reconsider. It snowed the next day, as well as several subsequent days including this morning. I suppose that one more hearty stout is in order. This very dark brown brew pours with a pretty tan head that fades just a bit too quickly. There are hints of ripe, dark fruit in the aroma. Although stout is not my favorite type of beer, I really enjoy this one. The dark roasted malt gives a sort of chocolate-covered espresso bean flavor to this beer. I did not expect much of Dundee (brewed by the the same company as Genesse,) but I think they might actually be one of the best values in American beer.
Reading of the week: Phaedrus by Plato, 274c – 275e – Phaedrus intended to impress Socrates by reading to him a beautiful speech. Socrates, in typical fashion, totally derailed his interlocutor’s desired course of conversation. Instead, the couple discuss at length the art of rhetoric.
Question of the week: What do you do when you feel creatively stifled?
As the days get sunnier and warmer, I am reminded of a classic urban legend:
A woman went shopping for groceries. After she finished at the grocery store, she placed her purchases on the back seat of her car in the parking lot. She had a few more errands to run, so she left the groceries in the car while she went about her business. When she returned and entered the car, which had been warmed considerably by the midday sun, she heard a loud BANG and suffered a blow to the back of the head. She reached back to feel the point of impact and found find a gooey mass. Naturally she started to panic. With both hands she attempted to hold her brains in place and screamed for help. When other shoppers came to see what was wrong, she said that she had been shot in the head and that her brains were exposed. Upon closer examination, her brains were safely in place, but she was desperately pressing warm biscuit dough into her hair. Apparently, the heat in the car had caused a tube of biscuit dough to pop, splattering its contents on the woman. One of the “rescuers” told her, “Ma’am, you will be alright. You’ve been shot by the Pillsbury Doughboy.”
This story is a rather amusing little farce, but it says something important about sensory perception and the disconnect between our personal experience and external stimuli. The lady in the story felt warm dough on her head, but her senses did not convey to her mind the reality of the situation. The sense of touch, even when functioning properly, never totally captures the nature of the thing touched.
Descartes used a similar, although far less amusing story to make this very point. A soldier returning from the field feels a sharp pain in his side and thinks that he has suffered a wound that he did not notice in the heat of battle. Upon closer inspection, however, a strap on his armor simply became twisted, causing a buckle to dig into his side. If senses accurately and fully conveyed the nature of stimuli, then the soldier would have known immediately that the pain in his side was caused by the buckle.
To be fair, our senses are pretty trustworthy most of the time and we combine all sorts of additional context and sensory input to determine what is really going on. We are constantly and effortlessly making judgments based on our perceptions and that frees up our limited brainpower to work on more complicated questions. Questions such as what beer to drink.
Beer of the week: Fin du Monde – French-Canadian brewery Unibroue makes some very well regarded beers. Fin du Monde is probably their best known brew, a Belgian-style tripel. It smells of yeast and cider. The body is remarkably smooth and the taste is outstanding. There are hints of pepper and the considerable alcohol content (9%) makes itself known at the end. The aftertaste is similar to that of a dry cider, encouraging sip after sip.
Reading of the week: Le Monde by Rene Descarts – Although Descartes apparently intended to write a complete philosophy of the world, his work was never completed. Instead the title Le Monde (“The World”) was attached after his death to the first part of that project, Treatise on Light.
Question of the week: Humans are extremely visual, and our trust in sight as a reliable source of information is evident in the idiom “seeing is believing.” But we have all experienced optical illusions, so we know that sight cannot always be trusted. Descartes writes that “Of all our senses, touch is the one considered least deceptive and the most secure.” Is he right? Which sense most reliably presents our mind with the reality of the outside world?
My college experience included a mandatory music tutorial. Singing was a big part of the class. Everybody was required to learn and sing works by Mozart, Palestrina and, naturally, St. John’s alumnus Francis Scott Key.
Although every single student was required to take this course, rumor has it that some professors refused to teach it on philosophical grounds. Their objection was not that it was an unfair requirement or that the forced singing was cruel; their objection was that the music was too good. These professors were non-Christians, and since the bulk of the music we studied was religious, they were concerned that the beauty and power of the music would break down their rational defenses against religion. Being forced to listen to Bach’s St. Matthew Passion over and over might undermine their reason and and convert them. Music is that powerful.
Nobody seemed concerned that listening to Don Giovanni over and over might turn them into amazing lovers.
Beer of the Week: Warsteiner Premium Verum -“Verum” means “truth”. Whether the name implies that it is “truly premium” or a “true pilsner”, I do not know. Perhaps the meaning could be that this is “true beer”. Although a bit light on both smell and flavor, I could get behind the claim that this is “true beer.” This seems like a very solid, if not exceptional, European pilsner; and to me a good pilsner is true beer.
Recording for the Week: Ave Verum Corpus by Wolfgang Mozart – Instead of a reading this week, there is an audio recording. There are plenty of wonderful pieces of music that I could have used to illustrate the point about the power of music, but I could not pass up the opportunity to pair Premium Verum beer with Ave Verum Corpus. Not being able to understand Latin is no defense against the power this piece of religious music. The music is so beautiful that the words simply must be right; how can something so wonderful be wrong?
(Then again, the titular “magic flute” in Mozart’s great opera has been claimed by some to be little more than a thinly veiled dick joke. So beautiful music doesn’t always carry with it profound truth.)
Question for the week: Almost everybody has felt music effect their mood, but has it ever effected your reason?