Equipollence

This is the fourth and final post in a series on skepticism (and Goose Island beers.) The earlier posts can be found here.

One of the hallmarks of Pyrrhonism is arguing equipollent claims. Pyrrhonic skeptics set up opposing philosophical accounts as proof that we are incapable of forming reasonable beliefs. They are always willing to take a contrary position, with the goal of showing that we cannot be firm in any opinion and should therefore suspend judgment. As Montaigne put it:

“If you propose that snow is black, they will argue on the other side that it is white. If you say it is neither one nor other, they will maintain it to be both. If by a certain judgement you say that you cannot tell, they will maintain that you can tell. Nay, if by an affirmative axiom you swear that you stand in some doubt, they will dispute that you doubt not of it, or that you cannot judge or maintain that you are in doubt. And by this extremity of doubt, which staggereth it self, they separate and divide themselves from many opinions, yea from those which divers ways have maintained both the doubt and the ignorance.”

Contrary accounts, with nothing to chose between them, leave us in a state of suspended belief, and therefore άταραξία.

But in The Apology of Raymond Sebond, Montaigne does not restrict himself to openly arguing both sides of any question. Even when he is not explicitly setting up equipollent claims, his overt claims are often undercut by the method of his argument.

At one point, Montaigne derides book learning and the search for knowledge. In part he relies on the quote from Ecclesiastes: “he that acquires knowledge acquires travail and torment.” In context, however, the overt argument against learning seems totally subverted by Montaigne’s delivery. The essay is (at least nominally) a defense of a book by a Catalan philosopher who claimed that man could learn all about God and religion by applying his reason to the world around him. A book that Montaigne had translated himself. And the essay is brimming with quotations from scripture and antiquity. Quotations which Montaigne had, no doubt, learned over a lifetime of diligent study. (And, in many cases, had inscribed on the ceiling of his impressive library.) So on the one hand, he argues that education is actually detrimental, and on the other hand, he relies very heavily on his excellent education to support that claim.

Likewise, Montaigne’s argument against the power of human reason has a strong undercurrent that subverts his overt claim. He sets out to show that man is no more intelligent than any other animal. And, because our faculties are not greater than that of the animals, we have no right to rely upon them. Humans, in short, are simply not that smart. But the next twenty pages are dedicated to showing how very intelligent animals are. (And for Montaigne, twenty pages is a decent chunk of writing; many of his essays are only a couple pages long.) So although his overall point appears to be that human reason is not reliable because it is no greater than that of the animals, the vast majority of his argument is spent on raising our opinion of the intelligence of animals. Again, there is a contradiction that may justify withholding our opinion.

It seems significant that Montaigne is constantly and consciously undercutting his own arguments. I think that it shows that even when he appears to be taking a position, he recognizes that there is always another argument or explanation. And because there is no reason to pick one explanation over the other, the better course is to withhold judgment altogether.

But, to quote Montaigne, “what do I know?”


Beer of the week: Four Star Pils – The name of this beer is a reference to the flag of Chicago, the birthplace of Goose Island Beer Co. Four Star is a pretty golden pilsner with a nice, foamy head. It is a bit if a departure from traditional pilsners, in that the hops are less aromatic and have a little more bite in the back of the throat. It tastes more like the hops of an American IPA (in variety, not quantity) than a Czech pilsner. But it is by no means too strongly hopped, with plenty of malt to balance the flavor. Quite an enjoyable beer.

Reading of the week: The Apology of Raymond Sebond by Michel de Montaigne – It seems that the only copyright free English version is over 400 years old. But it will do for our purposes. This reading describes why the skeptics “desire to be contradicted, thereby to engender doubt and suspence of judgement.” Montaigne maintains that the skeptics oppose dogma by being willing to argue the opposite of any position. But this section has curious subversive tones similar to the ones discussed above. The excerpt is about how the skeptics contend against dogma, which is often simply a product of upbringing and culture. The final lines, though, include an exhortation to “addresse and commit our selves to God.” That exhortation certainly seems to imply some dogmatic belief.

Question for the week: Is it true that everything admits of more than one plausible argument? Is there nothing that we can be sure of?

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Cannibal Chic

The Question of the Week from my last post was whether the advice from Rudyard Kipling’s poem If— was equally appropriate for men and women. He tells his son how to “be a man”, but would the same qualities (level-headedness,  a stoic attitude toward adversity, and always giving one’s best effort) make his daughter a woman? I suspect that modern feminists would agree that all humans, regardless of sex, are made great or virtuous by the same virtues. Although this seems like a departure from traditional evaluation of the sexes, this view is in line with a much older philosophical tradition.

In his essay Upon Some Verses of Virgil Montaigne writes:

“I say that males and females are cast in the same mold, and that, education and usage excepted, the difference is not great. Plato indifferently invites both the one and the other to the society of all studies, exercises, and vocations, both military and civil, in his commonwealth; and the philosopher Antisthenes rejected all distinction between their virtue and ours. It is much more easy to accuse one sex than to excuse the other; ’tis according to the saying ‘The Pot and the Kettle.'”

So we see that from antiquity, certain philosophers recognized that men and women have the same virtues, capacities and inherent rights. (Even if political rights are not meted out equally.)

Montaigne, however, can be a tricky author to nail down. This statement of equality seems somewhat at odds with his glorification of the natives of Brazil, whose “ethics are comprised in these two articles, resolution in war, and affection to their wives.” These virtues are specifically masculine since in their culture war and wife taking are for men alone. The only real mention of women’s role in Of Cannibals is the preparation of the beverages. Personally, I think that sounds like the most noble of all occupations.

Beer of the Week: Xingu Black Beer – True story: the first words out of my mouth after I tasted this Brazilian dark lager were “Come on Brazil, get your act together!” Judging by the copious carbonation and the sticky, sweet taste, I suspect that there was a translation problem and what was meant to be a cola came out as a beer or vise versa. I am not sure which is worse, but this beer is that one. As a man of science, I always try a beer twice before writing up an official review. Upon trying it a second time, I did detect some of the familiar flavors one gets from a dark roasted malt, but I still didn’t finish my glass. I simply do not like this beer. According to their website, it is based in part on a drink brewed by the natives of Brazil. If the native women had served this to the men of the tribe, I suspect that they would have ended up being served as the next dish at the cannibal feast.

Reading for the Week: Of Cannibals by Montaigne – In this excerpt, Montaigne describes the daily lives and living situation of the Brazilian natives. He also (with the natives and the Scythians) comes down pretty hard on false prophets. He writes: “such as only meddle with things subject to the conduct of human capacity, are excusable in doing the best they can: but those other fellows that come to delude us with assurances of an extraordinary faculty, beyond our understanding, ought they not to be punished?”

Question for the week: “Love for your husband” is a straight-forward female analog for “love your wife.” Is there such an analog for “be resolute in war” if women are not warriors?


Not too much

“Taken moderately, it is pleasant and useful; but… in the end it renders a man brutish and vicious.” This observation of Montaigne’s rings very true. How delightful is a little indulgence? And how often does one encounter somebody who has gone to far, somebody who’s has rendered himself incapable of reasonable interaction with other human beings? That is exactly what becomes of a man who reads too much Nietzsche.

After all, Montaigne was not writing about over-indulging in beer; he was writing about over-indulging in philosophy. Excessive pursuit of philosophy, he argues, carries with it the same negative effects as other excesses. “Excess,” he writes, “enslaves our natural freedom.” One loses his liberty when he gives himself over completely to philosophy (or to drinking, love, or anything else regardless of whether it is a good thing in smaller doses.)

Since we’ve just entered Lent it seems like a prudent time to address moderation. Many people give something up for Lent. This has many purposes and can be very useful. Giving up something for Lent can help one appreciate what is really important in life. It can also lead one to contemplation about the value of sacrifice (and direct one’s thoughts to The Sacrifice.) It can teach a lesson about self-control. But a gentle touch is required; giving up too much or focusing too much on the deprivation can be just as bad as over-indulging. One must always keep in mind that the deprivation itself is not the goal. “The archer that shoots over, misses as much as he that falls short.”

Beer of the Week: 333 Export – I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: rice probably should not be an ingredient in beer. Rice is, however, a main ingredient in Budweiser and just about every Asian beer. In a general sort of way, rice beers can be pretty good, but not great. And 333 is not good enough to be the exception that proves the rule. The carbonation level seemed more appropriate for a soda pop than a beer and it had very little hoppy bitterness. What it did have was a tropical sweetness that I could not place. The aftertaste made me think of banana and clove, but neither really captures the familiar but illusive flavor in 333. Perhaps the brewers of 333 strongly advocate moderation, because (even though it is actually fairly decent) I could hardly imagine drinking more than one or two glasses of this sweet beer.

Reading for the Week: Excerpt from Of Moderation by Michel de Montaigne – As is somewhat typical of Montaigne’s essays, Of Moderation quickly jumps from thought to thought. This short and lively essay begins with the claim that even virtue can be made into vice by squeezing it too hard and ends with stories of human sacrifice by Native Americans.

Question for the Week: When people are asked if they would like some beer (or some cream in their coffee or syrup on their pancakes) they often reply with “yes, but not too much.” I’ve always hated that expression because “too much” is obviously more than they would want; otherwise, it would not be “too much.” But could it be that the expression isn’t as stupid as it seems at a glance? Might it actually reflect our innate desire for excesses and represent a sort of mastery over that desire? Perhaps “not too much” is actually short for “I know that I would over-indulge if I gave my desire its head, so although I would consume too much, this time I will be moderate.”