Harvesting Discoveries

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.

Prairie Path Ale

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?


Tomato, Fruit or Vegetable?

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.

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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?


“I’ve given the Muse the day off.”

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.)

Dundee Stout

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?


Le Début et la Fin du Monde

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.

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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?


“Beauty is truth, truth beauty”

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?


Seeing v. Believing

In his Discourse on Method, Descartes compares all sensory perception to the sight of somebody with jaundice. The jaundiced man sees everything with a yellow tint and it would be a mistake for him to believe that everything in the world really is yellow simply because he sees it that way. To Descartes, everybody is in this situation: our perceptions and impressions are not perfect, so it is a mistake to assume that everything actually is the way we see it.

Descartes uses the stars as an example of how flawed our perception is; the moon looks much larger than the stars, but we “know” that the stars are tremendously larger than the moon. However, it seems outrageously impractical to go about doubting all of our perceptions. When I buy a bottle of beer, I know that it will fit in my refrigerator by looking at it. I never stop and say, “this bottle looks to me as if it is smaller than my refrigerator, but I know that my senses are not to be trusted, so I had better measure it.” There are, of course, times when “eye-balling” is not adequately certain and measuring really is necessary, but for most day-to-day activities these cases are the exception rather than the rule.

Occasionally we do misjudge the height of a stair or mistake a glass wall for an open door, but how does that small inconvenience compare to the paralysis that would come from completely doubting our senses? Seeing is believing, and for the most part, that is a good thing.

Beer of the Week: Henninger Lager – This German import smells almost like a classic pilsner; the aromatic hops predominate. The flavor, however, is more malty, almost bready, with a faint hint of citrus. The finish has a nice little bit of spice from the hops. Unfortunately, the mouthfeel is a bit “wet” and “sticky”. Overall, it is not too bad a beer.

Reading of the week: The Ghosts by Lord Dunsany – This very, very short story is pretty interesting. (Also it contains a reference to Euclid, and that is pretty sweet.) In it, the narrator relates an  “experiment” he undertook to prove to his brother that one can see ghosts without believing in ghosts.

Question of the week: Was the experiment a success?


Know Thy Beer!

A post by a facebook friend of mine notified me that it was Fasnacht Day (also called Shrove Tuesday, Fat Tuesday, Carnival or Marti Gras.) Unfortunately, I am some 14 time-zones ahead of that friend, so I was already in Ash Wednesday. Ever the rules lawyer, I bought a box of donuts Ash Wednesday morning on the grounds that it was still Fasnacht Day in my home town. In case you were meaning to give something up for Lent but haven’t gotten around to it, I have another loophole ready for you; according to the Orthodox Christians, Great Lent doesn’t start until Clean Monday! That’s right, you can be as intemperate and gluttonous as you want this weekend, just settle down in time for Vespers on Sunday evening.

If you don’t observe Lent (because you are a Mennonite or Atheist or Sihk) that is no reason that you should not take this opportunity to reflect a bit on the subject of temperance. We could all use a bit of temperance now and then. But not too much, that would be intemperate. Maybe. I am not even totally sure what temperance is.

In the Socratic dialogue Charmides, Critias proposes a definition of temperance as “self-knowledge.” Socrates proceeds to thoroughly  tear Critias apart, but only after slyly replacing “temperance” with “wisdom” and getting Critias to shift from “self-knowledge” to “the science which has itself as its object.” And then at the end, there is a very awkward back and forth between Socrates and Charmides that makes it really look like they are about to have sex. But ignoring all of these shenanigans, let’s consider on our own what it would mean for temperance to be self-knowledge.

Temperance has, on occasion been used to mean something like total avoidance. The so-called “temperance movement” was organized for the total ban of alcohol. Various religious groups have used the word temperance in conjunction with sexual abstinence. However, temperance is more commonly understood as moderation. This understanding is very much in line with the idea that temperance is self-knowledge.

Take, for example, drinking beer. It will be generally agreed that moderation is the best course with regard to this action. (We take for granted here that totally abstaining from beer is no virtue and drinking to excess is a vice.) Still, it takes a deal of self-knowledge to stay in control of the situation, especially as the more beer one drinks, the less important moderation seems.

The same is true of almost everything. Many great minds have recommended “moderation in all things,” but think of how much self-knowledge is required to know what a “moderate amount” is. So this is temperance: know thyself! And here is where the concept becomes difficult.

When you “know” that you shouldn’t eat that last donut, but you can’t help yourself, you don’t really know it. If you really had full knowledge of yourself and your situation (something that seems impossible,) you would never knowingly act in a way that is to your own detriment. I can feel you objecting through the internet. Seriously though, it is only a lack of knowledge that makes you act in ways that hurt yourself. People act this way all the time, but if they really honestly new better, they wouldn’t. Even if you say to yourself every single day “I know I should go to the gym” but you never actually get there, it isn’t because you are lazy. (Well, not only because you are lazy.) It is because you don’t really know that working out will improve your life any more than lying around in your pajamas watching an entire season of whatever television shows you watch entire seasons of. In fact, it is possible that you are wrong for feeling guilty about not going to the gym; maybe what you are doing instead really is better for you and you are more self-aware than you think.

In the end, the more self-knowledge you have will lead to choices that are more advantageous. And in general, these decisions will tend to be moderate since extremes are rarely the best choices. The better you know yourself the more moderate you will be. And, in the end, the healthier and happier you will be. Once you know yourself, being moderate is much less of an effort, it is only doing what you know is in your best interest.

PS. Only eating a box of donuts all day Wednesday was NOT the action of a temperate man. Hopefully I learned something about myself and will be more temperate in the future.

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Beer of the Week: KEO Premium – KEO is the perfect beer to celebrate the arrival of Great Lent because KEO’s majority owner is the Orthodox Church of Cyprus. This is an exceptionally pale and clear beer. Slight malt and just a hint of noble hops on the nose. Good white head. There is something oddly familiar about the taste of this beer but what is familiar is unclear and not good. The finish is light but distinct and slightly sweet, with very soft notes of lemon and vanilla.

Reading of the week: Charmides by Plato – Here, Critias does what I wish more Socratic interlocutors would do; he admits that Socrates has somehow trapped him and simply says that if any of the things that he assented to lead to a contradiction, he is willing to “withdraw them.” But he still asserts that it is not clear whether Socrates or he is “more right.”

Question of the week: How close can one get to perfect self-knowledge? What about perfectly right self-opinion?