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?

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On Esoterism

Descartes chose Latin as the language for his Meditations on First Philosophy, in which he famously strips philosophy bare and restarts with the single principle “I think, therefore I am.” He made that decision because he “thought it would not be expedient to illustrate [his philosophy] at greater length in French, and in a discourse that might be read by all, lest even the more feeble minds should believe that this path might be entered upon by them.” His fear, apparently, was that he may lead weaker men into error by giving them access to ideas they could not quite grasp and methods that they could not follow.

This is somewhat reminiscent of Romans 14Paul makes it clear that there is no food that is “spiritually unclean”. But he also exhorts believers not to flaunt that knowledge in front of people who are weaker spiritually, lest they should misunderstand and stumble in their faith. Like Descartes, Paul seems to think that some people are more likely to be led into error than to a higher truth, so it is best to hide certain ideas from them. In a way, this seems terribly patronizing. If it is correct, however, it is extremely prescient and even charitable.

A more skeptical interpretation of Descartes’ decision not to make his work widely available might be to suggest that he was interested in protecting himself rather than protecting “feeble minds”. If his work were read in a certain way, he may have greatly offended the powers that be (either by upsetting individuals of status or by earning the disdain of the masses.) There are certainly times when it is dangerous to speak the truth, and the truth is often more dangerous to the speaker than to the people at large.

Luckily, I am not in the same position since I am sure that my readers are far from feeble-minded.

Beer of the Week: Staropramen – This Czech pilsner begins with spicy aromatic hops that are so typical of the style. There is a bit of bready malt in the flavor, but in general it is the hops that dominate. That is not to say that it is very bitter, it is actually very well rounded. Overall, this beer is very nice.

Reading of the week: Meditations on First Philosophy by René Descartes, Preface to the Reader – For as well known as the principle “I think, therefore I am” is, it is often forgotten that the next step of Descartes’ philosophy is to demonstrate that God also exists. Not, perhaps, the God that we are used to, but a “Deity… incomprehensible and infinite.”

Question of the week: Do you often refrain from saying what you really think? If so, do you do it for your own sake or for the sake of others?


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?