Time-Atoms

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.

Honkers Ale

 

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?

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Useless Joy

In his Shah Nameh (The Book of Kings), the great Persian poet Ferdowsi starts the tragedy of the mighty paladin Rustem and his son Sohráb with a warning against reveling in youth:

“O ye, who dwell in Youth’s inviting bowers,
Waste not, in useless joy, your fleeting hours,
But rather let the tears of sorrow roll,
And sad reflection fill the conscious soul.
For many a jocund spring has passed away,
And many a flower has blossomed, to decay;
And human life, still hastening to a close,
Finds in the worthless dust its last repose.”

This sentiment is reminiscent of several of Shakespeare’s sonnets. It seems that Shakespeare often went on about the end of youth and the ravages of time. Sonnet #12 comes to mind, where Shakespeare writes:

“Then of thy beauty do I question make,
That thou among the wastes of time must go,
Since sweets and beauties do themselves forsake
And die as fast as they see others grow;”

Although it is important to confront our mortality it is equally important to carry on with the business of living. Ferdowsi says “Waste not, in useless joy, your fleeting hours.” But can that be serious advice? Is joy ever truly useless? And if joy is occasionally useless, isn’t youth the most appropriate time for such useless joy? It seems likely that “tears of sorrow” and “sad reflection” are much more useless than joy, especially if we are quickly returning to “worthless dust.” There is time enough for sadness when we are dying or dead; joy in our youth ought to be encouraged.

Sir Dunkle

Beer of the week: Berghoff Sir Dunkle – This is a Munich-style dark lager that pours a deep red-brown. The aroma is of dark, ripe fruit. The flavor is mostly dark bread, with a surprisingly full body for a lager. Overall, a very good beer.

Reading of the week: Shah Nameh by Ferdowsi – At the end of Sonnet #12 Shakespeare suggests procreation as a remedy against mortality. But for Ferdowsi, even procreation is futile in the grand scheme. Of course, that might have something to do with the subject matter of the story he is telling. This reading is the beginning of a a tragic tale in which a man unwittingly kills his own son.

Question of the week: How can one strike the proper balance between joy and sad reflection?


Pilgrim’s Pride

There are some who would call a visit to the Hall Of Fame or trip to Munich for Oktoberfest a “pilgrimage.” For the most part, those statements would be made tongue-in-cheek. But in what way does such a journey differ from an “actual” pilgrimage?

Even traditional religious pilgrimages had an element of vacation about them. Before modern transportation, it would not have been uncommon for people to live their entire life in a small village. The journey for a peasant from a remote farmstead to a city with a cathedral would have to be more than a religious or spiritual experience. He would see products, buildings and even whole classes of people that were totally novel to him. For the more well-to-do pilgrim, the vacation aspect can become even more prominent. Mecca (which has become an absolute byword for a pilgrimage destination) has swanky hotels, fancy restaurants and high-end shopping to accommodate the pilgrim of means. For Catholics, the religious experience is still important, but a trip to the Sistine Chapel is about the art first and foremost.

What really separates the pilgrimage from vacation is the aspect of sacrifice. Sure it takes time, effort and money to go on any trip, but a trip to Graceland can’t really be “offered up” as penance. Especially for the poor or ill, the hardship of the journey is actually treated as a bargaining chip with God or the Saints. “They didn’t answer your prayers when you were praying at home? Make a pilgrimage and let them know you are serious!” There is no reason to expect that Mary’s power to intercede for the ill is limited to a small town in France, but by actually making the effort to travel to Lourdes, the faithful ill make a claim that their effort deserves Mary’s attention. (Attention she apparently isn’t in the habit of giving to homebodies.)

So my trip to England may not have technically been a pilgrimage, no matter how good the beer was.

Beer of the Week: Bishops Finger – According to the label, “Bishops Finger is named after an ancient Kentish signpost found on the pilgrims’ way pointing to Canterbury and the shrine of Thomas à Becket.” What a perfect beer for this post!

Also, there is some interesting background information about the beer regarding economics and politics. Bishops Finger was first brewed to celebrate the end of malt rationing after WWII. For well over a decade after the war, the government imposed rations on food items. Barley malt being a food item, the beer industry was greatly discouraged. (Although rationing was not as severe in the United States, some well known economic thinkers have speculated that the “great depression” was ended not by war-time government spending, but by war-time austerity. Not only did people spend less on discretionary items, they saved more in the form of war bonds. The result being that when the war ended, there was a good deal of private capital accumulated and ready to be invested. But that is another post.)

And now, Bishops Finger has been granted a “Protective Geographic Indicator” by the European Union. Have you ever heard pedants prattle on about Jack Daniels not being bourbon because it is not distilled in Kentucky? Or I about sparkling wines not all being from Champagne, France? Well now they can assert that Bishops Finger is the only real “Kentish strong ale.”

History, economics and protectionism not withstanding, this is a great beer. It is a beautiful copper color with a thick head that laces wonderfully. The smell has hints of caramel and sweet malt. It is full bodied and smooth and simply delicious.

Reading for the Week: The General Prologue to The Canterbury Tales by Geoffery Chaucer – This Prologue paints an amazing picture of society, with all of its strata, in Chaucer’s time. However, this excerpt is not about the pilgrims themselves, but the spring-time conditions that inspire travel.

Question for the week: Where would you go on a beer pilgrimage? Tell us in the comments.