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.
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?
According to legend, the Chinese sage Liu Ling was at all times followed by a servant carrying a wine bottle and a shovel. The purpose of the wine is obvious; Liu Ling liked to drink. The shovel’s purpose was somewhat darker. Liu Ling thought of the whole world as his home. “The sun and moon [were] the windows of his house; the cardinal points [were] the boundaries of his domain.” Because he felt equally at home wherever he ranged, he had no sentimental desire for his mortal remains to be laid to rest in any particular place; no “bury me on the old farmstead” for him. More important than his detachment from any specific place, it seems that Lui Ling had no particular sentimental attachment to his own body. Consequently, he did not care where it was buried. And so Lui Ling’s servant carried a shovel, ready to inter his master’s corpse wherever he should happen to drop dead.
Many centuries later, Lui Ling’s thoughts on mortality (and on alcohol consumption) inspired Jack London. In his autobiographical novel John Barleycorn, London reminisces about “Liu Ling, a hard drinker, one of the group of bibulous poets who called themselves the Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove and who lived in China many an ancient century ago.” In particular, London seems to agree with Lui Ling’s statement “that to a drunken man the affairs of this world appear but as so much duckweed on a river.”
But why the do affairs of the world appear as duckweed? When alcohol reduces the drunken man’s problems to mere trivialities, is it because the alcohol blinds him to the true extent of his troubles? Or does it make him neglectful of things that actually matter? It seems more probable that the drunk man is actually seeing more clearly than before. The alcohol helps him to understand the transience and insignificance of human concerns, a realization that is perhaps difficult for a sober mind to bear. Like Liu Ling himself, the drunken man sees the whole world as his home and all eternity as but an instant.
Beer of the week: Pearl River Beer – This Chinese brew pours clear and golden with little carbonation. The aroma is mostly of grass and rice. The flavor is rather plain with some lingering sweetness. It isn’t a particularly bad beer, especially considering its nation of origin. On the other hand, if it has to travel halfway around the world, it had better be pretty good.
Reading of the week: The Genius of Wine by Liu Ling – The translator tells us that the “old gentleman” of this story is Liu Ling himself. This very short passage gives a couple hints of Liu Ling’s philosophy, and relates how he withstood the intervention of “two respectable philanthropists” who tried to get him to quit drinking by berating and lecturing him.
Question for the week: Why are so many people so adamant about what should become of their mortal remains?
An original poem on some of Zeno’s paradoxes:
Traverse a line? Don’t make me laugh!
Each segment’s segment’s cut in half.
One cannot simply walk the line,
‘cross infinite halves in finite time.
Swooping down from high above
The eagle catches fleeing dove,
Yet swift Achilles, to this day,
Cannot o’ertake his tortoise prey.
We see the arrow fly through air,
But surely there’s no motion there.
The arrow, ne’er before it’s caught,
Moves where it is, nor where it’s not.
In the hippodrome they run their course,
Speeds are measured in length of horse.
Opposing directions they fly past,
Each to the next seems doubly fast.
At the risk of over-explaining, a quick note on the four paradoxes mentioned in the poem:
The first verse deals with a paradox known as the “dichotomy”. This is probably the most well known of Zeno’s paradoxes. For a runner to reach the finish line, he must first reach the midpoint. In order to reach the midpoint, he must first go half way to the midpoint. And so on. As a consequence, before any distance can be traversed, an infinite number of smaller distances must be covered. And to take an infinite number of steps must take an infinite time. Therefore, the runner cannot possibly run even a short distance.
The second verse deals with the paradox of Achilles and the tortoise. It is actually quite similar to the first. Although Achilles is much faster than a tortoise, he can never catch it because in the time that it takes him to reach where the tortoise was, the tortoise will have moved a little further away. Therefore, before Achilles can ever catch up to the tortoise, he must first reach all of the infinite points where the tortoise had already been.
The third verse is the paradox of the arrow. An arrow, just like any other physical body, always takes up a space equal to itself. So at any given instant the arrow cannot move inside that space because the space is exactly the size and shape of the arrow. But it also cannot move outside of that space because it is perfectly contained. Therefore, motion is impossible.
The final verse treats the paradox of the stadium. If two teams of horses, four horses long each, pass each other in opposite directions, an observer will notice that in the time that the lead horse has covered a total distance of two horse-lengths, it will have actually passed all four of the other team’s horses. Therefore the chariot, despite its constant speed, travels two different distances in the same amount of time, which is absurd.
Beer of the week: Cerveza Monterrey – The term “Corona knock-off” gets thrown around a bit, and this isn’t the first beer I’ve reviewed that might merit that description. This extremely pale Guatemalan lager is very carbonated. On its own, it is fairly watery and tastes of corn. The addition of lime and sea salt, however, makes this a reasonably palatable hot-weather drink. With a lot of lime, it is rather refreshing.
Reading for the week: Lives of the Eminent Philosophers by Diogenes Laërtius, Parmenides, Melissus, and Zeno of Elea – Zeno’s own writings are lost to us. However, Diogenes Laërtius (among others) preserved some of his ideas. Diogenes also relates the gruesome details of Zeno’s death, including the part where Zeno bites off the ear (or nose) of a tyrant. To help give context to Zeno’s life, this reading includes the lives of his teacher (and lover?) Parmenides and his contemporary Melissus.
Question for the week: Are the paradoxes mere logic tricks, or do they point to some more profound truth?
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?
Imagine a sunny day, suddenly turned dark. But it is no cloud that is blocking the sun, and the drops that have started to fall are not rain. There is a hum vibrating the air. You look up to see that the sky is positively filled with birds. A tremendous flock of passenger pigeons is passing overhead, and the flock stretches as far as the eye can see. There are literally millions of birds and it will take hours for the entire flock to pass.
Such was the experience of those who witnessed the passenger pigeon. These birds were possibly the most numerous in the world, yet ingenious men were able to hunt them out of existence. It was the most spectacular human-caused extinction… so far.
Flocks of passenger pigeons were so dense and low flying that they provided obscenely easy hunting. Hunting, of course, is hardly the right word for the wholesale slaughter of the passenger pigeon. Native Americans would bring down birds by simply hurling sticks and rocks into the passing flock. At places, the flocks would fly low enough for long poles to strike birds right out of the air.
The introduction of firearms made the harvesting of pigeons even easier. A single shotgun blast into a thick flock could bring down a great number of the birds. Huge nets were also introduced, capable of catching hundreds or even thousands at a time. These readily killed and captured birds became an important and affordable food source for a great number of people, and commercial operations continually ramped up “production”, taking tens of thousands of birds a day.
Over time, of course, this proved unsustainable. The large-scale hunting of pigeons, particularly when they gathered to breed, caused the population to dwindle from the billions to the millions. Legislation was eventually introduced to try to prevent the eradication of the entire species, but it was ineffective.
The last large nesting happened in 1878, and the hunters were ready. Over the next five months, commercial hunters killed over seven million birds. The few survivors scattered, and breeding all but stopped. The last confirmed sighting of a wild passenger pigeon was in 1901. It was shot.
Although there were several pigeons at various zoos, captive breeding was unsuccessful. In 1914, Martha, the last passenger pigeon, died in the Cincinnati Zoo. The most prolific bird in the world had gone extinct in a remarkably short time.
So what is to be made of this disturbing tale?
A pessimist may look on the demise of the passenger pigeons as a sign of man’s cruel and destructive nature. The practice of blinding captive birds to act as live decoys (aka “stool pigeons”) to draw in other birds, sure seems to make men seem downright evil. And although the pigeon is a spectacular example, there are all sorts of other ways in which we see man wreaking unchecked havoc on our natural world.
An optimist, however, may look at how far we have come in a century. Today, hunters are leaders in conservation efforts. There are several species of animals that are slowly making a comeback from the brink of extinction. Now more than ever, we are beginning to understand the vast power we have to impact nature. As a result, we have the ability to avoid similar tragedies in the future.
A detached economic thinker may view passenger pigeon presents a remarkable real-world example of the tragedy of the commons. Each hunter personally benefited from each bird that he killed, but the whole society shared the loss. This imbalance created the incentive for hunters to take as many birds as they could, even if that meant unsustainable depletion of the entire flock.
Additionally, the demise of the passenger pigeon allows for reflection on seen and unseen economic results. We see that there are no more birds, but what we do not see is the effects that the extinction has on other groups. Farmers, presumably, are not overly upset at the loss of the passenger pigeon. The birds were tremendous agricultural pests. In fact, it has been suggested that the pigeons only reached the height of their population with the introduction of European-style agriculture. Although we have lost a valuable resource in the form of the birds, it is worth considering the positive results for the farmers who are rid of such a numerous menace.
And a maniac may think of the passenger pigeon as a wonderful opportunity to do morally questionable things with science. See, Martha and a number of other specimens have been stuffed or otherwise preserved. Given the state of cloning technology, it is not impossible that the passenger pigeon should be de-extincted. That seems like an awfully expensive project. Perhaps that money should be spent on trying to conserve other species. Maybe that would show that we have learned something from the demise of the passenger pigeon.
Beer of the week: Coopers Original Pale Ale – Thomas Cooper founded Coopers Brewery in Australia in the 1860’s. There is no reason to think that Thomas is any relation to James Fenimore Cooper. But who knows? This bottle conditioned ale is pale and cloudy. (Although the neon lighting in this picture makes it look a bit odd.) The aroma and flavor are somewhat floral. Overall, it is a delicious and eminently drinkable beer. As something of a bonus, it comes in 12.7 oz bottles. It seems that when Australia went metric, they decided to go up to 375 mL bottles rather than down to .3 L bottles like some countries.
Reading for the week: The Pioneers by James Fenimore Cooper, Volume 2, Chapter III – This novel was published in 1823, many years before any significant decline in the pigeon population was noted. The pigeon hunt described in this chapter is thoroughly impressive. In the end, a few of the characters come to see how disturbing and unsustainable the practice is. “It’s much better to kill only such as you want, without wasting your powder and lead, than to be firing into God’s creatures in this wicked manner,” says one of the main characters.
Question for the week: If the passenger pigeon could be revived through cloning, should it be done?