Best of All Possible Blog Posts

Aside from his work in mathematics–and lending his name to a brand of butter cookie–Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz is best known for his philosophical optimism. He opined that ours is the best of all possible worlds. To oversimplify:
1. God, being good, chose to create the best world.
2. God, being omniscient, was able to evaluate all of the infinite facts and truths of all of the infinite possible universes to determine which is most perfect.
3. God, having determined to make the best possible world and having determined which world that would be, created this world.

Like God, people always act in pursuit of good. As Leibniz wrote in his Discourse on Metaphysics, God’s first decree on human nature “is that men should always do, although freely, that which appears to be the best.” This tracks with Aristotle’s claim at the beginning of his Nicomachean Ethics that “every action and pursuit is thought to aim at some good.”

Unlike God, however, people are not omniscient, and therefore cannot infallibly determine what is best. “Each soul knows the infinite, knows all, but confusedly. As in walking on the sea-shore and hearing the great noise that it makes, I hear the individual sounds of each wave, of which the total sound is composed, but without distinguishing them.” Consequently, although we always act in the way that appears best, we very often misjudge what is best and/or how to achieve our objective. Without perfect knowledge of what is best, we “must often be content with the simple twilight of probability.”

So what can we do to improve our probability of identifying what is best and most accurately aiming our actions toward it?

One possibility (not suggested by Leibniz, to my knowledge) is to conserve rational energy by minimizing unnecessary decision-making. Have you ever come home from a particularly difficult day at work and felt like you simply could not decide what to have for dinner? This all-too-common experience is the result of an important reality: decision-making takes energy. And rational energy is limited. If you spend all day making important business decisions or solving problems, it shouldn’t be surprising if, at the end of the day, you lack the energy to make even mundane choices such as what to eat.

By reducing the number of choices one must make in a day, one may conserve some of that precious decision-making energy. Supreme Court Justice David Souter famously ate the same lunch every day: yogurt and an apple. Steve Jobs’ constant turtleneck and jeans combination was part of a conscious effort to reduce decision fatigue. By eliminating trivial decisions, one frees up brain power for more important issues. Hopefully, by saving mental energy, we can make the best possible decisions in this best of all worlds.

Beer of the week: Alter Ego – Some people even drink the same beer all of the time. Once you know what you like, why not stick with it? No regular reader will be surprised to know that I enjoy the decision-making that goes into picking what beer to drink. So even though I have had various “go-to beers” over the years, I would never commit to a single brew for long. Alter Ego is a hazy, orangish IPA from Tree House Brewing Company. Its rocky head hangs around for quite a while. The aroma is quite fruity, and the flavor is of tropical fruit with a decent malt body.

Reading of the week: A Letter of Leibniz – In this excerpt, Leibniz uses two synchronized clocks as a metaphor for how one’s soul and body can be perfectly in sync, even though physical and non-physical bodies cannot act on each other. In typical Leibniz style, he ends the passage with the claim that he has more profound proofs, but the clock metaphor will suffice.

Question of the week: Were Leibniz and Aristotle correct in asserting that every human act is aimed at some good?

Where the Story of Christmas Begins

I don’t know if you have had the same experience, but the snag I always come up against when I’m telling a story is this dashed difficult problem of where to begin it. It’s a thing you don’t want to go wrong over, because one false step and you’re sunk. I mean, if you fool about too long at the start, trying to establish atmosphere, as they call it, and all that sort of rot, you fail to grip and the customers walk out on you.

Get off the mark, on the other hand, like a scalded cat, and your public is at a loss. It simply raises its eyebrows, and can’t make out what you’re talking about.

P.G. Wodehouse

The Christmas story–the nativity of Jesus, not the beloved 1980’s movie with the BB gun–comes from the gospels. But each gospel writer took a different starting point for Jesus’ origin story.

Matthew starts the story 42 generations earlier, with Abraham fathering Isaac. The genealogy goes on through Jacob and Judah, Kings David and Solomon, and finally Joseph, husband of Mary. (Also in that bloodline are Jehoshaphat, Salmon, and Zerubbabel, whose names are curiously absent from most popular baby name lists.) Matthew goes into the annunciation (when an angel announced the holy pregnancy,) then the birth, and then the visit of the wisemen from the East.

Mark starts with a quotation from the prophet Isiah. He then skips Christmas altogether, and introduces John the Baptist and Jesus as adults.

Luke, not content to let the story speak for itself, starts with something of an author’s prologue. He addresses the gospel to someone called Theophilus (which, if my Greek is any good at all, must mean something like “God’s friend” or “God’s beloved” or “God-lover”.) Before getting into the classic Christmas stuff, Luke spends the better part of a chapter on the conception of John the Baptist, the annunciation, and John’s parents. It isn’t until chapter two that we get the birth, the manger, and the shepherds.

John famously starts his gospel “In the beginning…”, which seems reasonable enough. But the beginning that John identifies predates creation itself (if anything can be said to “predate” the very notion of time.) John covers the entirety of pre-creation through the birth of John the Baptist in about six verses. The birth of Jesus gets a single verse, and then jumps right into the exploits of adult Jesus.

As usual, a closer look raises more questions than answers. Why is the Christmas story relatively unimportant to most of the gospel writers? Why did the gospel writers start in such different ways? Who is Theophilus, anyway?

Beers of the week: Our Special Ale (2017 & 2019) – Our Special Ale is Anchor Brewing Company’s annual holiday beer. Having got my hands on a cellared bottle of the 2017 edition I decided to compare it with the 2019 version. (Although Anchor does not particularly recommend aging their holiday beers, they do claim that it will mellow with age.) The recipe changes from year to year, so differences between the two can’t be attributed solely to the aging.

The 2017 edition is very dark brown, with just a hint of red, and a tan, rocky head. Its aroma has notes of smoke and black licorice. The main flavors seem to come from dark-roasted malt, without much hops to speak of.

The 2019 is dark red-brown, with a lighter, more uniform head. The aroma has some bright hops. The flavor is nicely balanced, with some dark malt notes and a bit of bright hops and spice.

Between the two versions, I certainly prefer the 2019. It is brighter and more carbonated, probably because it wasn’t aged. And, whether it is attributable to the aging or not, the 2017 seems a bit flat and one-note.

Reading of the week: Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton, Prologue – As Wharton points out in her introduction to the second edition, “the climax, or rather the anti-climax, occurs a generation after the first acts of” Ethan Frome. As a result, she set the prologue of the book long after the principal action, introducing the title character as a fifty-two-year-old with a bad limp. The reader must cross many chapters and two decades to learn the limp’s cause.

Question for the week: Where would your story begin? At your birth? At the birth of your most distant known ancestor? Or, like Tolstoy’s Ivan Ilyich, would your story begin at your funeral?

Tetrapharmakos – First Dose

This is the first in a series of four posts on Epicureanism (and South American beers.) The rest of the posts can be found here.

In his Life of Epicurus, Diogenes Laërtius relates forty Principal Doctrines of the Epicurean school. The first four of these doctrines came to be known as the Tetrapharmakos: the four-part cure. The Tetrapharmakos is a prescription for living a good life.

Step 1: Ἄφοβον ὁ θεός – Don’t Fear God

There are a number of ways to arrive at this maxim. The traditional Epicurean way is rather pious. Epicurus and his followers believe in God. Well, the gods. And for the Epicureans, God is perfect. But, a perfect being could have no cause to act at all, let alone act in a response to the thoughts or deeds of an infinitesimally insignificant such as man. Diogenes Laërtius put it this way: “A blessed and eternal being has no trouble himself and brings no trouble upon any other being; hence he is exempt from movements of anger and partiality, for every such movement implies weakness.”

Lucretius, the poet laureate of Epicureanism, expressed this belief in verse:

For all the gods must of themselves enjoy
Immortal aeons and supreme repose,
Withdrawn from our affairs, detached, afar:
Immune from peril and immune from pain,
Themselves abounding in riches of their own,
Needing not us, they are not touched by wrath
They are not taken by service or by gift.

God is simply too perfect–hence perfectly content–to be moved to either anger or love by humans.

Another (significantly less pious) way to arrive at the maxim may seem obvious to us: atheism. If there is no God, then there is clearly no need to fear God. Lucretius certainly does not entertain that line of thought directly, but gets within spitting distance. He writes:

Likewise, thou canst ne’er
Believe the sacred seats of gods are here
In any regions of this mundane world;
Indeed, the nature of the gods, so subtle,
So far removed from these our senses, scarce
Is seen even by intelligence of mind.
And since they’ve ever eluded touch and thrust
Of human hands, they cannot reach to grasp
Aught tangible to us. For what may not
Itself be touched in turn can never touch.

So the nature of God is so subtle that it is utterly beyond our senses, and only very faintly perceptible by our reason. But if we can’t perceive God, and we cannot affect or be affected by God, then it really makes no difference whether God exists at all, right? So although Epicurus and Lucretius were clearly not atheists, their philosophy seems open to those who are.

So much for why the faithful and why atheists should not fear God. But what about those who doubt God’s perfection and consequent aloofness? What if God is active in the world? In that case, God must be unpredictable because we cannot know what will move God to wrath or good humor. Such a God is not worth fearing because no amount of worry or supplication can assure us of ending up on the right side of an unpredictable and capricious God.

So, whether you are a believer or an atheist, take the first dose of the Tetrapharmakos and don’t fear God. For best results, take with beer.

Beer of the week: Chicha Tu Mare – This Peruvian sour ale is brewed with corn, quinoa, and honey. It is a hazy, orangish brew with big, quickly-dissipating bubbles. Sour fruit notes dominate the aroma. The beer is both sour and astringent. The astringency makes one’s mouth feel dry, then the sourness activates the salivary glands. The honey is very subtle, mostly in the aftertaste. I suppose that a light body is typical of sour beers generally, but I think I’d like this beer to be a bit heavier.

Reading of the week: Lives of the Eminent Philosophers by Diogenes Laërtius, Epicurus – As mentioned above, the Tetrapharmakos only refers to the first four of forty total Epicurean Principal Doctrines. This reading consists of is the whole list, including number 34: the controversial position that acting unjustly is an evil only so far as it creates a fear of being caught and punished.

Question for the week: Can the maxim “don’t fear God” be squared with religious revelation? Or does it really only work for those who have reasoned the existence of a perfect God (or reasoned the non-existence of any God)?

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?


This is the forty-fifth in a series on The Harvard Classics; the rest of the posts are available here. Volume XLV: Sacred Writings 2

It is the time of the year when we celebrate the birth of a god in human form who would later overcome death. The god-man’s was a virgin birth, foretold by angels and prophets. The birth occurred en route to his earthly parent’s familial home. I refer, of course, to the birth of Siddhartha Gautama, Buddha. Or Jesus Christ. Or both.

Aside from the similarities alluded to above, there is a great deal in common between Christianity and Buddhism. But is that because they share a common source, one religion influenced the other, or mere coincidence?

One of the core beliefs of the Baha’i faith is that all of the world’s major religions, including Christianity and Buddhism, were divinely inspired for their specific places and times. Consequently, the similarities between these religions are no mere coincidence. Each religion is revealed and shares in the universal and essential points. Those issues upon which the religions differ are simply minor details to adapt the one true religion to various times and places.

The Baha’i point of view, of course, has never amounted to a majority, let alone a consensus. Generally, it appears that similarities between Christianity and Buddhism are mere coincidences for the most part, and generally more superficial than they may seem. In fact, the term “parallelomania” was coined specifically to give a name to authors taking such apparent similarities between religions too far.

Still, it is certainly worth considering what leads disparate people to arrive at similar religious tenants. “In their later developments Buddhist and Christian ceremonies show an extraordinary resemblance due in my opinion chiefly to convergence,” wrote Sir Charles Eliot, a British diplomat to the Far East. (Not to be confused with Dr. Charles Eliot, president of Harvard and editor of the Harvard Classics.) “[T]hough I do not entirely exclude mutual influence.”

Perhaps, rather than some direct or indirect interaction between Christians and Buddhists, that “mutual influence” is some deeply embedded aspect of the human psyche. Something about Christmas (and Buddha’s Birthday, and countless other religious beliefs and observances) strikes a chord within us all.

Beer of the week: Chang Classic – Aside from China, Thailand has the largest Buddhist population in the world. This Thai lager has some nice herbal hops in the aroma. It pours a clear, pale gold, with lots of big bubbles that fade fast. The flavor is a bit sweet, dominated by adjunct grain. It could do with a bit more hops, but it is a light and refreshing beer.

Reading of the week: The Birth of Buddha – This story is translated from the Jātaka tales. These stories describe some of Buddha’s many births, in both human and animal form.

Question for the week: Is there some important aspect shared by all religion?

You Also!

This is the thirty-sixth in a series on The Harvard Classics; the rest of the posts are available here. Volume XXXVI: Machiavelli, More, Luther

It has been said there is no surer sign that an intellectual adversary is defeated than when he stops attacking your ideas and starts attacking you. Martin Luther writes in his Letter to Pope Leo X, “when we can repel the truth by no other pretence, we escape by attributing bitterness, impatience, intemperance, to our adversaries.”

Anybody who follows political news should be aware that this is the standard tactic of all of the most prominent politicians and pundits. (Obviously not the ones that you like and support. You are far to intelligent to fall for such an obvious logical fallacy. And your favorite politicians and talking heads are too upright to stoop to such petty tactics.) Rather than throughly rebutting and defending ideas, these people simply attack the ideas’ proponents. Consider this representative hypothetical:

A: “We should have a flat tax.”
B: “A is a philanderer.”

It is easy, in such a case, to identify the ad hominem and dismiss it as irrelevant. So what if A is a philanderer? That tells us nothing about whether his proposed tax policy is good bad or indifferent. B’s attack is totally unrelated to A’s proposal.

However, one of the most popular forms of ad hominem can be harder to spot. The appeal to hypocrisy (also known as tu quoque or whataboutism) often appears to be on point. For example:

A: “We should support traditional family values.”
B: “A is a philanderer.”

In this case, B’s statement seems relevant. The fact that A is a philanderer certainly appears to bear on the topic of family values. This appeal to hypocrisy is so attractive precisely because it has the semblance of logical refutation. But on closer inspection, the response does not actually refute A’s statement. Rather, it simply attacks A personally. It is totally possible that A’s statement about family values is right, no matter how bad of a spouse A is personally.

The biggest problem with analyzing ad hominem attacks is that if they are true, they may actually have some decision-making value. Whether A is a philanderer does not directly bear on the merits of his tax plan, but it does call into question whether he can be trusted to direct public funds. If his spouse cannot trust him, how can the voters?

(By the way, this example is particularly fertile ground ground for the appeal to hypocrisy. Politicians across the spectrum have bashed opponents for marital infidelity while defending members of their own ranks on the grounds that their personal lives do not effect their ability to govern. Whether they are right when they bash or right when they defend is not important for our purposes. At best, the very fact that they are inconsistent calls into question their motives. At worst it calls into question their reasoning powers. But in any event, it doesn’t really tell us anything about any substantive arguments, only about the people making them.)

And of course, this is true of most ad hominem attacks. Calling somebody a hypocrite, racist, or misogynist is not a refutation of any of their particular ideas or positions; it is merely a personal attack. But if the allegation of hypocrisy, racism, or misogyny is true, it (quite reasonably) makes us question their motives, reliability, and capacity.

The key, as I see it, is to readily identify ad hominem attacks, and give them the weight that they deserve. In the context of a debate of actual issues, that weight extremely low. When possible, ideas should be assessed on their own merits, not on those of their proponents.

Beer of the week: Julius Echter Hefe-Weissbier – This wheat beer from Würzburger Hofbräu is named for Julius Echter von Mespelbrunn, a leader of the Counter-Reformation, who used his power as Prince-Bishop of Würzburg to combat Lutheranism. I doubt he’d like me pairing this beer with a reading in which Luther writes that the Catholic Church “stinks in the nostrils of the world.”

As for the beer, it is hazy and orangish. The foam consists of large, quickly dissipating bubbles. The aroma has some of the classic banana notes of a German hefeweizen. Ultimately, the flavor is a bit underwhelming. This beer is pretty good, but not great.

Reading of the week: Martin Luther to Pope Leo X – It is no mere coincidence that this post was inspired by a Luther reading. Nearly three years ago, I wrote a post addressing a particular ad hominem criticism of Luther. In this letter, he follows up his statement about ad hominem attacks with several paragraphs of blatant ad hominem criticisms, ending with calling the Catholic Church “the most lawless den of thieves, the most shameless of all brothels, the very kingdom of sin, death, and hell; so that not even antichrist, if he were to come, could devise any addition to its wickedness.” What a hypocrite!

Question for the week: Do you know of any politicians or pundits who consistently stick to the issues and avoid the ad hominem tactic?

What Hope

This is the twentieth in a series on The Harvard Classics; the rest of the posts are available here. Volume XX: The Divine Comedy, Dante

Having descended to the very pit of hell, and climbed the mountain of purgatory, Dante the pilgrim at last ascends into the celestial spheres of paradise. As was the case through Inferno and Purgatorio, Dante meets many souls in Paradiso. Among them, James son of Zebedee. St. James poses three questions about hope.

In context, the questions clearly refer to hope as a theological virtue. In the previous canto, St. Peter inquires about faith. In the next, St. John tests Dante on charity. Canto XXV is about the sister of those two virtues: hope. But how do Dante’s answers square with the common definition of hope rather than the theological?

What is hope?

Dante says that hope is the sure expectance of a joy to come. This oversteps the usual meaning of hope. It is possible to hope for a joy that never does come. (As when I hope that my favorite baseball team will win.) On the other hand, if one is absolutely certain that a joy is forthcoming, we might not call that hope at all. Such certainty would preclude mere hope.

Rather than Dante’s formulation, it seems more likely that commonplace hope is the present experience of a joy to come. Hope allows us to experience now some portion of a possible future joy. For example, I hope one day to visit Munich for Oktoberfest. That present hope of a potential future occurrence allows me to experience some joy today in the planning and dreaming. Even though I am not certain that I will ever make it back to Germany, I hope that I will. I am therefore able to take present joy in the hoping.

How does it flourish in you?

Dante does not answer this question for himself. Rather, Beatrice vouches for his hope. She tells St. James that not a single member of the church has more hope than he.

Taking the mundane meaning of hope, we may see that people are always possessed of some hope. Humans are always forward thinking. To be sure, sometimes we do not think very far ahead, but we always think ahead somewhat. Even as we reach for the beer mug, we look forward to the pleasure of taking a sip. Is the expected joy more than a moment away? No. But is it in the future relative to when we start to reach for the glass? Absolutely. Because the first motions toward any objective are aimed at the completion of that objective, there really is no such thing as “instant gratification”. Rather, every single decision is made with an eye to a future good. The only truly instant gratification that exists is hope. Even before we begin to move toward the future good, we experience some joy of it through hope.

What is its source?

Dante, still discussing the theological virtue of hope, says that its source is scripture. He singles out the Book of Isaiah, John’s Gospel, and the Epistle of St. James. (What an apple-polisher!)

Surely scripture can be a source of commonplace hope, but we need not set our sights so high. In fact, it is the smallest things that may be the greatest sources of hope. As discussed above, every action is performed with the hope of achieving some goal. The smallest actions are the most likely to succeed. I flip the light switch in hopes of lighting the room; I go to the bar hoping to get a beer; I cross the street hoping to get to the other side. In all of these things, my chance of success is so high, that I am entitled to hope for the best. Cynical as it may sound, I have virtually no hope of becoming an astronaut at this late stage in my life. So, although the potential future joy is very great, the present “hope value” is quite low. And although the joy of trying a new beer is relatively low compared to visiting the moon, the odds that I will like the beer of the week are quite high. As a result, the present hope value (to coin a term) is quiet high.

Anyway, I hope you liked this post.


Beer of the week: Mississippi Mud Black & Tan – From the celestial spheres to the Mississippi Mud. Pre-bottled black & tan misses out on the very best feature of the classic mixed beer: the layering. Layering is not only visually appealing, it allows the drinker to experience the two beers as they mix, so no two sips are ever quite the same. Even so, pre-mixed black & tan is usually delicious. This is a very tasty combination of porter and pilsner. It is deep amber in color with a creamy tan head. The aroma is of fresh sourdough and cocoa. The flavor is full without being heavy, with some nice dark cherry notes in the finish. Good thing it is sold by the quart; one glass might not be enough. Oh, and the name is a lie; Mississippi Mud is brewed in upstate New York.

Reading of the week: Paradiso by Dante Alighieri, Canto XXV – This canto is pretty well outlined above.

Question for the week: Is Dante’s definition of hope (the sure expectance of a joy to come) or my definition (the present experience of a potential future joy) better? Is there a better definition still?