Like a Frog in a Pot

Consider the following thought experiment (based, I believe, on work by the philosopher Warren Quinn):

A surgeon implants a dial into your bellybutton, with numbered settings ranging from 0 to 99. Each setting represents a level of permanent and irreversible discomfort, with 1 being scarcely noticeable and 99 being utterly agonizing. However, the difference between any two sequential settings is imperceptible. The dial can only be turned up, never down; once set to any given number, the discomfort will remain at that level for the rest of your life (unless you turn the dial up further.) The scientist who did this to you is not totally unkind, however. He offers a deal: you never have to turn the dial; it can just stay at 0 for your whole life. But if you do turn the dial, he will pay you $10,000 for each setting you reach. What do you do?

The crux of this question is that consecutive settings differ only imperceptibly. So once the dial is set to 1, there seems to be no reason not to turn it up to 2 and collect the additional money. And because the difference between 2 and 3 is imperceptible, why stop at 2? And so forth all the way up to the excruciating 99th setting. Eventually you may find yourself in constant and terrible pain, having crept to that point by imperceptible degrees.

Beer of the week: Devils Backbone Vienna Lager – Based on the reading of the week, one might have expected a beer from Sierra Nevada, but that’d be too obvious. Instead, I’ve chosen a beer named for a different mountain. This amber lager has a delicious, bready aroma. This Virginia beer is loaded with lots of toasted malt flavor with hints of caramel. It is a very nice brew.

Reading of the week: Mountaineering in the Sierra Nevada by Clarence King – The theme of imperceptible gradual change is explored in this reading. King describes how the the forests of the Sierra Nevada mountains transition gradually from “a great, continuous grove, on whose sunny openings are innumerable brilliant parterres” to “a dismal thicket, a sort of gigantic canebrake, void of beauty, dark, impenetrable, save by the avenues of streams, where one may float for days between sombre walls of forest.”

Question of the week: Would you turn the dial? If you do, is there any way to keep yourself from eventually working your way to 99?

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Has an octopus a soul?

This post was made possible by a generous contribution by John toward the BeerAndTrembling education fund. To sponsor a blog post or otherwise help send BeerAndTrembling to Cornell University, check out the crowdfunding campaign here: BeerAndTrembling’s IndieGoGo Campaign

In and around Korean seafood markets, there are often restaurants that will prepare fish that has just been purchased from the market by the customers. So one may make a purchase from a fish monger and then have that fish expertly cooked within minutes. Fresh as it gets.

Of course, not all seafood is cooked. Very fresh fish is often sliced and served raw. The fish markets usually also have live octopus. A popular way to serve octopus is a dish called 산낙지 or san-nakji. The octopus is killed, cut up and served while still wriggling. The pieces continue to squirm for some time. They also respond to stimuli, moving more actively when dipped in soy sauce, and grabbing onto the plate, chopsticks, even the eater’s teeth. In fact, it is widely believed (and quite plausibly) that several people choke to death on octopus every year because a sucker clings to the inside of the eater’s throat.

Why do the arms of the octopus continue to move after being severed from the brain? Or, put into provocative Latin-root terms, what animates the parts of the octopus? Is it the same animus (soul, psyche, life force) that lately animated the whole, live animal? And if it is the same, how did a single living being become a plateful of animated parts? How did the chef’s knife divide the animus?

A possible explanation for the active pieces may be that octopuses have less centralized nervous systems than mammals, with their neurons distributed throughout their bodies. As a result, cutting an arm off does not immediately rob the arm of all function. While we think of the brain as the sole seat for the soul, of an octopus soul exists, it is more dispersed throughout its body.

Additionally, experience teaches that dipping the meat into soy sauce increases its motion. A biochemical explanation is that electrolytes in the sauce facilitate or cause additional nerve cell activity.

But those explanations don’t get to the metaphorical heart of the metaphysical question: has an octopus a soul? I don’t know the answer, but I won’t be eating octopus any time soon.

Beer of the week: Skipjack – Skipjack tuna is also ever-present at Korean seafood markets. But Skipjack lager is brewed and canned by Union Craft Brewing on the other side of the world, in another seafood hub: Baltimore. This “true bohemian lager” (again, from Baltimore, not Bohemia) is brewed with Bohemian Pils malt. The aroma is led by bright hops. The beer is silky smooth and very malty but with Plenty of clinging hops in the finish

Reading of the week: Has a Frog a Soul, and of What Nature Is That Soul, Supposing It to Exist? by T. H. Huxley – This is a very engaging essay on the question of whether the soul (or whatever you want to call the thing that distinguishes living things from non-living things) is material or immaterial. The reading, however is not for everybody. Huxley describes in some detail his experiments on live frogs, and it gets downright unpleasant. But this sort of experimentation is crucial to understanding our world and our place in it. So while I personally would not enjoy chopping up live frogs and subjecting their severed limbs to various stimuli, I am glad that Huxley thought to do it.

Questions for the week: Has an octopus a soul? Would you eat a plate of wriggling octopus?


A Cheeky Pint From the Bottle-O

A popular trend in American brewing is packaging beer in 19.2 ounce cans, known as stovepipes. Naturally, the first time that I saw that size, I was somewhat perplexed. And no intuitive explanation for the 19.2 figure presented itself to me.

Of course, the internet had the answer for me: 19.2 American fluid ounces is (approximately) equal to one imperial pint. Because an imperial pint is about one-fifth larger than an American pint, stovepipe cans are popular at sporting events, concerts, and the like, where patrons are keen to minimize time in the beer line.

When I learned that stovepipe cans are actually imperial pints, I had two distinct revelations. First, a scene from George Orwell’s 1984 suddenly made sense to me. Second, Australian drinking habits began to seem (slightly) reasonable.

First, in 1984, there is a scene at a bar in which an old man is perturbed that beer only comes in liter or half-liter glasses. He repeatedly orders a pint, only to be told that the barman–raised after the adoption of the metric system–has never heard of pints, quarts, or gallons. The old man complains that  “a ‘alf litre ain’t enough. It don’t satisfy. And a ‘ole litre’s too much. It starts my bladder running. Let alone the price.” This struck me as odd when I read it long ago. To me, half of a liter has always been more than a pint, not less. In America, a liter is just a bit over two pints. But a liter is somewhat less than two imperial pints; each imperial pint is 0.57 liters or thereabouts. So the old man seems to have a legitimate complaint about his beers being more than two imperial ounces smaller than they used to be.

Second, when I was staying in Australia, I found that bar patrons generally did not buy draft beer by the pint. Rather, they drank rounds of smaller beers. The explanation offered to me was that a pint is a just a bit too large a unit. Being familiar only with American pints, I found this odd. Now that I know the Australian pint is about 19.2 American fluid ounces, the explanation for the smaller beers seems more plausible. (Of course, the people I drank with never had just one round, so ordering smaller beers generally smacked of inefficiency.)

My bemusement on this point was multiplied by the puzzling names for the variously sized smaller beer glasses; Australian glass sizes make Orwell’s Newspeak seem comparably reasonable. All of the sizes are officially in milliliters, but are clearly intended to approximate imperial ounce units (for example, beers of about 7, 10, or 15 fluid ounces are common.) But nobody calls the glasses by their actual (metric) or approximate (imperial) volumes. Rather, Australians employ names such as schooner, pot, or middy. And these names also vary from place to place, making it extra hard to know how much beer one may receive at any given bar across the land. For example, a South Australian in Brisbane may be pleasantly surprised when he orders a schooner, and gets 1.5 times as much beer as he expected. And virtually any traveller to Adelaide would be distressed to order a pint and receive only 15 imperial fluid ounces–five fluid ounces less than an imperial pint and some 1.5 American fluid ounces less than an American pint. Anybody planning on visiting Australian public houses should consult Wikipedia’s helpful chart on the subject.

Finally, although not in the nature of a realization, I wonder why the brewers stopped at 19.2 ounces and didn’t push right up to twenty. The 19.2 figure seems somewhat affected when compared to 20. Twenty is such a fine, round number. And 20 ounce beers are already popular at bars and taprooms across the United States, many of which offer 20 ounce pours.

To recap:

A 19.2 ounce can of beer in America is appreciably more than a half liter and significantly short of a liter. It is also the same as a pint in Australia (with the exception of Adelaide.) It is equal to two pots of beer (in Brisbane or Melbourne) and is larger than a schooner by one-third. And finally, it is (to nobody’s great surprise) 3.2 ounces more than an American pint, and .8 ounces shy of a 20 ounce draft.

Beer of the week: Dragons Milk – This popular bourbon-barrel-aged stout comes from New Holland Brewing Company in a bomber bottle, a popular size for craft beer bottles. At 22 fl. oz., bombers are a fair bit more voluminous than stovepipe cans. But it’s not just size that counts. Dragon’s Milk is 11% alcohol by volume, and the alcohol is clearly noticeable in the taste and aroma. There are also notes of coffee and caramel. Dragon’s Milk is extremely smooth. The whole experience is like a not-too-sweet malted milkshake. It is so rich and boozy that I wouldn’t recommend having much more than one 22 oz. bomber (or a couple American pints or a brace of schooners or a half liter or a few pots…) in one sitting.

Reading of the week: An Essay towards a Real Character and a Philosophical Language by John Wilkins – The principle purpose of this essay is to propose a universal second language. However, this excerpt discusses the related notion of a universal and rational system of measurement. Although he suggests specific existing units, Wilkins greatly modifies the units so that they are all tenths of the next largest units. He also suggests, but does not press, the notion that we should abandon decimals for octals, because an octal number system is particularly well suited to the mathematical process of bipartition.

Question for the week: What is the best size for a beer?


Vital Air

Science and beer go together like philosophy and beer. Or art and beer. Or pretzels and beer.

Around the time of the American Revolution, brewing played an important role in the early study of chemistry. Dr. Joseph Priestley was one of the first people to isolate oxygen and identify some of its remarkable properties. He wrote a six-volume work entitled Experiments and Observations on Different Kinds of Air in which he describes a number of different “airs” – “gasses” in modern English – and his experiments with them.

His “fixed air” – our “carbon dioxide” – was readily supplied by a nearby brewery. The fermenting beer provided such a great and steady supply of the gas that it became a favorite subject for experimentation. Dr. Priestley found that in fixed air, “a candle would not burn, and a mouse would have died presently.” He even used an upside-down beer glass for his make-shift gas chamber:

If I want to try whether an animal will live in any kind of air, I first put the air into a small vessel, just large enough to give it room to stretch itself; and as I generally make use of mice for this purpose, I have found it very convenient to use the hollow part of a tall beer-glass… which contains between two and three ounce measures of air. In this vessel a mouse will live twenty minutes or half an hour.

For the purpose of these experiments, it is most convenient to catch the mice in small wire traps, out of which it is easy to take them, and, holding them by the back of the neck, to pass them through the water into the vessel which contains the air. If I expect that the mouse will live a considerable time, I take care to put into the vessel something on which it may conveniently sit, out of reach of the water. If the air be good, the mouse will soon be perfectly at ease, having suffered nothing by its passing through the water. If the air be supposed to be noxious, it will be proper (if the operator be desirous of preserving the mice for further use) to keep hold of their tails, that they may be withdrawn as soon as they begin to show signs of uneasiness; but if the air be throughly noxious, and the mouse happens to get a full inspiration, it will be impossible to do this before it be absolutely irrecoverable.

If that description made you feel bad for the mice, you should know that you are not the first to have that reaction. At least part of the time he was making these experiments, Dr. Priestly was a tutor at the Warrington Academy. A colleague of his at Warrington had a daughter named Anna Laetitia Aikin, later Anna Laetitia Barbauld, who grew up to be a prominent woman of letters. One of her early works was a poem, dedicated to Dr. Priestley, called The Mouse’s Petition. The poem was written from the point of view of a mouse that had been trapped by Dr. Priestley and lamented it’s prospective demise on the alter of scientific research. As the story goes, Anna placed the poem in the trap with the mouse, and when Dr. Priestley found it in the morning, he set the mouse free. Scientists, after all, are not completely heartless.

Beer of the week: Rusty Red Ale – Building on the work of Dr. Priestley, Antoine Lavoisier demonstrated that respiration and combustion are forms of oxidization: oxygen bonding with other elements. Like respiration and combustion, rust forming on iron is a form of oxidization. This red ale is from Wisconsin’s O’so Brewing Company. It pours a dark red-brown with a head that dissipates very quickly. The aroma is mostly of roasted malt. The beer is bready, and the flavor follows. It is pleasant and malty, but I’d like a little more flavor. Even more caramel malt or more hops bitterness. Or both.

Reading of the week: The Mouse’s Petition by Anna Laetitia Barbauld – Barbauld’s narrator mouse makes compelling appeals that are both philosophical and sentimental. The poem also has a line that makes me curious about how intimate the author was with Dr. Priestley’s work. The mouse claims that “The cheerful light, the vital air, / Are blessings widely given.” The term “vital air” was one of the names given to oxygen, so it is possible that Barbauld was making a specific reference to Dr. Priestley’s experiments with different gasses. Also, lest the reader get the wrong idea about the good doctor, Barbauld added a note to this edition of the poem to say that she did not mean to attribute any cruelty to Dr. Priestley, of whom she maintained the highest regard.

Question for the week: The use of animals in scientific research is a touchy subject. Some extremely important discoveries have resulted from the death and suffering of countless animals. Is there anything like a clear line that can be drawn between acceptable and unacceptable animal testing? For example, might we agree that testing cosmetics on animals is never ok, or that testing prosthetics on animals is always ok?


Woman’s Ornament

In my experience, people tend toward one of two extremes when analyzing the writings of the ancients (and, to varying degrees, those of other bygone eras.) The one extreme is to assume that the authors, as products of a primitive time, have nothing to offer. We are so much more enlightened now; all of the ancients must be regarded as quite ignorant. The other extreme is to ignore the faults of the ancients, or, if they cannot be ignored, to make every possible contortion to explain them away. The ancients could not err when it came to thinking because, as Homer’s heroes could single-handedly lift boulders that a dozen modern men could hardly budge, the philosophers of old possessed intellectual powers far beyond those of any modern genius.

Take, for example, the treatment of women by Aristotle and Plato. Our modern understanding of the differences between men and women is very much at odds with the apparent opinions of Aristotle and Socrates on the subject. What do we do in the face of these problematic ancient texts?

One approach is to throw out Aristotle and Plato entirely. Sexism is so embedded in their thought, some opine, that their writing can have no value in our modern world. Even as early as the 15th century, William Caxton wrote that “if [Plato] had made fault in writing of women, he ought not, ne should not, be believed in his other dictes and sayings.”* (As we will see shortly, Caxton does not actually find fault with Plato’s treatment of women.) Likewise, Aristotle was extremely wrong about the role of the female in sexual reproduction, so his philosophy on humans generally can’t be trusted. These “dead white men” are so out of touch with our modern knowledge and sensibilities that they can hardly be considered authoritative on any philosophical question.

(I pause to note that the bland dismissal of these thinkers as “dead white men” always amuses me. The ad hominem attack itself adopts the language of racism, implying that the value of the authors is somehow related to their skin color. At the same time, it ignores the fact that classifying Aristotle and Plato as “white” should certainly raise a few eyebrows.)

On the other side, there are those who would wave away the apparent sexism of the ancients. The easiest way to do that is to simply call them a product of their times and move on. But some offer more convoluted explanations in an effort to keep the ancients from ever being “wrong”. Caxton wrote, “I cannot think that so true a man and so noble a philosopher as [Plato] was should write otherwise than truth.” And because Plato must have been right, Caxton was forced to come up with a way to reconcile the apparently sexist writings of Plato with the more enlightened views of his own day. He did so by concluding that if Plato ever said anything derogatory about women, he was only speaking of Greek women. “For I wot well, of whatsoever condition women be in Greece, the women of [England] be right good, wise, pleasant, humble, discreet, sober, chaste, obedient to their husbands, true, secret, steadfast, ever busy, and never idle, attemperate in speaking, and virtuous in all their works—or at least should be so.” So if Plato says, for example, that teaching a woman to write is multiplying evil upon evil, that may true of ancient Greek women, not of modern English women.

A more modern defense of that same type is to find esoteric meanings that are different from the ancients’ explicit meanings. So when Aristotle, in Book I of his Politics, says that “silence is a woman’s ornament,” he actually means nothing of the sort. The line is actually a quotation from Sophocles’s play Ajax. In the play, Ajax has gone insane by the time he utters the line. Obviously, Aristotle would have been familiar both with the play and the context of the quotation. So when Aristotle says “silence is a woman’s ornament,” he is slyly hinting that only a mad man would actually believe what he is saying. See? Aristotle was never sexist in the first place!

As usual, I favor the course of moderation. We should neither discard the ancients (or any author, really) out of hand, nor should we engage in mental gymnastics to defend the position that any author is always right. There is untold value in studying our intellectual predecessors, but nothing is gained by accepting their writings uncritically.

Beer of the week: Furious IPA – This aggressively-hopped ale from Minnesota’s Surly Brewing Company pours with a nice fluffy head. The piney hops certainly dominate, but there is a good balance with caramel malt notes. The label says that this beer defies categorization, but the IPA label seems right to me.

Reading of the week: Hymn To Aphrodite by Sappho – Here’s a crazy idea: if you want to know the ancients’ views on women, how about reading the poetry of an ancient woman? This is the only complete poem that has survived from Greece’s greatest poetess.

Question for the week: Is there any extant writing older than, say, 1,000 years that is actually not worth studying? Is it possible that anything has survived that long without some serious merit?

*Caxton actually discusses the sayings of Socrates as if Socrates himself was the author of the Socratic dialogues. I have substituted Plato into the quotations to give Caxton the benefit of the doubt; surely he meant to discuss what Socrates said and what Plato wrote.


Natural Beauty

This is the thirty-seventh in a series on The Harvard Classics; the rest of the posts are available here. Volume XXXVII: Locke, Berkeley, Hume

It is shockingly easy to forget just how amazing our surroundings are. Every so often, one needs to be reminded to look on the natural world with awe. Consider this your periodic reminder, care of George Berkeley:

“Look! are not the fields covered with a delightful verdure? Is there not something in the woods and groves, in the rivers and clear springs, that soothes, that delights, that transports the soul? At the prospect of the wide and deep ocean, or some huge mountain whose top is lost in the clouds, or of an old gloomy forest, are not our minds filled with a pleasing horror? Even in rocks and deserts is there not an agreeable wildness? How sincere a pleasure is it to behold the natural beauties of the earth! To preserve and renew our relish for them, is not the veil of night alternately drawn over her face, and doth she not change her dress with the seasons? How aptly are the elements disposed! What variety and use in the meanest productions of nature! What delicacy, what beauty, what contrivance, in animal and vegetable bodies! How exquisitely are all things suited, as well to their particular ends, as to constitute opposite parts of the whole!”

So go outside with a beer and gaze in wonder at how the trees have changed from just a few weeks ago, how the clouds undulate in the sky like foam on a freshly poured beer, or how a stream’s flow is both constant and ever-changing.

Beer of the week: Avalanche Amber Ale – An avalanche is a terrifying and devastating event, but it also has something of a Berkeley’s “pleasing horror.” Avalanche Amber Ale is not terrifying, but it is terrific. It pours with a fluffy tan head atop a dark amber beer. On the nose are bread and caramel. This ale has a surprisingly light mouthfeel and just enough hops to balance out the plentiful malt. Breckenridge seems to know what they are doing.

Reading of the week: Three Dialogues Between Hylas and Philonous by George Berkeley – This short excerpt from the Second Dialogue comes at the end of Philonous’ argument that matter does not exist except in the perception. Just as Hylas has been wrangled into accepting the position that material has no existence independent of humans, Philonous pulls the rug out from under him and declares that material does exist because it is constantly perceived by God.

Question for the week: Where do you look for natural beauty?


Where have all the philosophers gone?

This is the thirty-fourth in a series on The Harvard Classics; the rest of the posts are available here. Volume XXXIV: French and English Philosophers

It has always seemed odd to me to refer to a living person as a philosopher. I am aware of a number of living people who may be considered philosophers, but I think of them variously as authors or professors. Or I consider them in the context of their specific fields: economists, psychologists, anthropologists, and the like.

Clearly, part of the distinction that I draw comes from the increasingly specialized nature of study. Aristotle and Bacon did not specialize; their interests and writings are wide-ranging. Even the relatively recent Darwin was more than a biologist; he was also a historian, geologist, and anthropologist. In short, he was a natural philosopher. Likewise, Maimonides was more than just a theologian and an astronomer, he was a physician at a time when the fields of endocrinology, dermatology, and oncology were still centuries from being particularized. Perhaps the lack of specialization and differentiation was key to his ability to think more universally, to be a philosopher.

That is not to put down specialists. As human knowledge becomes both broader and deeper, any given individual must focus more narrowly to make any new headway. But can a philosopher be a specialist? Isn’t universality at the heart of philosophy?

The word philosophy means “love of wisdom.” I think that it is clear that the wisdom in the word is quite distinct from knowledge. Specialization forces people to look at discrete and minute facts, perhaps prioritizing particular knowledge over universal truth.

The love part of philosophy also seems problematic today. The love of wisdom is a different sort of motivation than I perceive in most people. To pursue wisdom for its own sake is not the same sort of thing that I see in professional academics and authors. I assume that most people, even thinkers that I respect greatly have a profession rather than a passion. Perhaps I see living people as sociologists, legal theorists, or historians rather than philosophers because I can hardly conceive of them working out of a love for wisdom rather than financial and professional necessity. Even “popular philosophers” seem to be doing a job rather than philosophizing as I understand it.

J. J. Rousseau similarly questioned the motivations of purported philosophers: “But were the philosophers in a situation to discover the truth, which of them would be interested in so doing? Each knows very well that his system is no better founded that the systems of others; he defends it, nevertheless, because it is his own. There is not one of them, who, really knowing truth from falsehood, would not prefer the latter, if of his own invention, to the former, discovered by any one else. Where is the philosopher who would not readily deceive mankind, to increase his own reputation? Where is he who secretly proposes any other object than that of distinguishing himself from the rest of mankind? Provided he raises himself above the vulgar, and carries away the prize of fame from his competitors, what doth he require more? The most essential point is to think differently from the rest of the world. Among believers he is an atheist, and among atheists he affects to be a believer.”

Obviously, nobody who would prefer preeminence to truth is a philosopher under our provisional understanding of the word. And if Rousseau is right that all philosophers love their reputation more than they love wisdom, then there are no philosophers at all. I hope that he is wrong, but I wouldn’t even call myself a philosopher. And at least with me,  I have the advantage of knowing my own motivations. I think.

Beer of the week: Sea Quench Ale – This sour beer from Dogfish Head is like licking the rim of a margarita glass. It is yellow and cloudy with a slight green tinge. It smells of lime and the flavor has lots of citrus sourness and a bit of lime rind bitterness. It is really good, but so limey that it is unlike other beers, even other sours.

Reading of the week: Profession of Faith of a Savoyard Vicar by Jean Jacques Rousseau – Rousseau claimed that this section of his Emile was not necessarily an explication of his own philosophy, but simply an example of how to properly reason with a pupil. This excerpt starts near the beginning of the Vicar’s personal investigation, beginning with his Cartesian doubt of anything that he cannot reason from first principles.

Question for the week: Who is your favorite living philosopher?