Monthly Archives: December 2010

Dante and the three beasts

In the first canto of the Inferno, Dante, having gone astray in a dark wood, reaches the base of a sunlit hill (later described by Virgil as “the mountain of delight, the origin and cause of every joy”) and begins to climb — only to find the way blocked by three beasts. First, a leopard appears.

And almost where the hillside starts to rise–
look there! — a leopard, very quick and lithe,
a leopard covered with a spotted hide.
He did not disappear from sight, but stayed;
indeed, he so impeded my ascent
that I had often to turn back again.

It is a spring morning, and “the hour and the gentle season” give Dante “good cause for hopefulness” upon seeing the leopard — but then he sees a lion.

but hope was hardly able to prevent
the fear I felt when I beheld a lion.
His head held high and ravenous with hunger —
even the air around him seemed to shudder —
this lion seemed to make his way against me.

When the third beast appears, Dante gives up hope entirely.

And then a she-wolf showed herself; she seemed
to carry every craving in her leanness;
she had already brought despair to many.
The very sight of her so weighted me
with fearfulness that I abandoned hope
of ever climbing up that mountain slope.
. . . I retreated down to lower ground.

Allen Mandelbaum, in his notes to his translation of the Inferno (which is the version I have quoted), writes, “For most early commentators — and, after many alternate proposals, for many moderns — the leopard represents lust; the lion, pride; the she-wolf, avarice or cupidity.” In what appears to be the most popular of the alternate proposals, the three beasts, instead of representing a seemingly arbitrary subset of the seven deadly sins, stand for the three divisions of Dante’s hell: incontinence, violence, and fraud. Everyone who advocates this latter scheme agrees that the lion represents violence, but there is no agreement as to which of the other two beasts maps to which of the remaining categories of sin. (The leopard’s spotted hide could represent camouflage and thus fraud, or it could be “spotted” in the sense of being impure — macolato as the opposite of immaculate — and thus represent the lusts of the flesh.) In any case, regardless of the details, commentators are unanimous in interpreting the three beasts as allegories of sin and in associating at least one of them with lust or incontinence, and it is in this general sense that I wish to discuss them.

There is, on the face of it, something very odd and counterintuitive about portraying lust as an intimidating beast which stands uphill from the pilgrim, blocking his ascent and forcing him to turn back down the mountain. Surely people are lured from the path of virtue — not intimidated — by lust, and a more natural allegory would have depicted lust as an enticing siren located downhill from the pilgrim, drawing him towards her rather than scaring him away. The same is doubly true of pride, if that is indeed what the lion is meant to represent. How can it possibly make sense to say that the pilgrim had been full of hope until his own pride struck terror into his heart? What has trepidation to do with pride? If the beasts are sins, whatever particular sins they may be, one would expect them to be portrayed as tempting Dante rather than frightening him — but when Beatrice tells Virgil of how Dante is “hindered in his path along that lonely hillside,” she says nothing about temptation or going astray; rather, she reports that her friend “has been turned aside by terror.”

So it appears that what bars “the shortest way up the fair mountain” is not sin but fear of sin, not temptation but the avoidance of temptation. When Dante repeatedly turns back and retreats, this does not symbolize sinning or backsliding; rather, he is abandoning his spiritual quest for fear that if he continues he will fall prey to sin. Ascending the mountain — which surely symbolizes spiritual advancement and drawing closer to God — nevertheless exposes Dante to the danger of sin, which no longer menaces him when he retreats to lower ground.

Perhaps this lower ground, where one can be safe from sin and yet unsaved, is the ground taken by those Dante later encounters in Canto III,

the sorry souls of those
who lived without disgrace and without praise.
. . .
The heavens, that their beauty not be lessened,
have cast them out, nor will deep Hell receive them —
even the wicked cannot glory in them.
. . .
and their blind life is so abject that they
are envious of every other fate.
The world will let no fame of theirs endure;
both justice and compassion must disdain them;
let us not talk of them, but look and pass.

To remain in safety at the foot of the mountain is to be one of these “wretched ones, who never were alive.” To attempt the ascent is spiritual suicide, a sure path to damnation — for the she-wolf, Virgil explains, “allows no man to pass along her track, but blocks him even to the point of death.” Dante is quite literally damned if he does and damned if he doesn’t, and he escapes his predicament only through divine grace, when the saints in heaven (the Virgin Mary, St. Lucia, and Beatrice) send Virgil to his aid. The remainder of the Comedy — the grand tour of hell, purgatory, and paradise — is nothing but the detour Virgil arranges for Dante because “the shortest way up the fair mountain” is blocked.

*

Dante’s dilemma brings other heroes to mind — Gilgamesh, for one, who also finds his mountain path blocked by fierce beasts, but who reacts rather differently:

At night when he came to the mountain passes Gilgamesh prayed: ‘In these mountain passes long ago I saw lions, I was afraid and I lifted my eyes to the moon; I prayed and my prayers went up to the gods, so now, O moon god Sin, protect me.’ When he had prayed he lay down to sleep, until he was woken from out of a dream. He saw the lions round him glorying in life; then he took his axe in his hand, he drew his sword from his belt, and he fell upon them like an arrow from the string, and struck and destroyed and scattered them.

What the lions meant to the Mesopotamian poets is unknown, but that they represented “sin” or anything of that nature seems unlikely, so the Dante-like imagery of this episode is probably a coincidence. Nevertheless, the parallels are more than superficial. In broad terms, Gilgamesh faces the same dilemma as Dante — whether to ascend the mountain and dare damnation or to settle for the safety and stagnation of moral circumspection — and he makes the other choice. Gilgamesh is perhaps the earliest prototype of the Faustian man, and it is Faust even more than Gilgamesh who comes to mind as a counterpart to Dante, one who is put in the same predicament and chooses the other path. As Terryl Givens puts it in an insightful essay comparing Faust to Eve,

Dr. Faustus conveys the pathos of what it means to be Eve in a claustrophobic garden: Logic, medicine, law—the entire medieval curriculum he has mastered. His narrow study, like the boundaries of Eden, fits only “a mercenary drudge . . . too servile and illiberal for me.” So finding his only road to self-actualization is the path of sin, he takes it.

Dante also finds that his only road to self-actualization is the path of sin, and he retreats to lower ground. Of course, Dante reaches heaven in the end, while Faustus is damned, all his daring and striving ultimately as futile as Gilgamesh’s. Only in Goethe’s version is Faust saved — and, like Dante, only by grace. “Whoever strives with all his might,” say the angels in the closing scenes of Goethe’s drama, “we are allowed to save.”

Goethe uncannily echoes the Book of Mormon here — “it is by grace that we are saved, after all we can do” (2 Ne. 25:23) — and Givens in his essay sees Goethe’s conception of Faust as parallel to Joseph Smith’s conception of Eve. Smith taught that the Fall was not an unfortunate catastrophe, but rather a necessary step along the road to salvation; had Adam and Eve not fallen, they would have remained in a state reminiscent of the “sorry souls” encountered by Dante, “having no joy, for they knew no misery; doing no good, for they knew no sin” (2 Ne. 2:23). Dante, in contrast, follows the more orthodox understanding that it would have been better if Adam and Eve had not fallen, that had they chosen pusillanimity instead of sin, God could have saved them from that as well.

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Free will and the limits of reason

When we say that a person has free will, we generally mean that he chooses his own actions and that, for every choice he makes, he could have chosen otherwise.

That “could have” is a little slippery. Usually we mean it in a counterfactual sense. When a falling stone just misses my head and I say that it could have hit me, I am not claiming that the motion of the stone was not deterministic; I mean simply that it would have hit me if conditions (my location, the direction of the wind, etc.) had been slightly different. When we say that a person could have chosen otherwise, it could likewise be interpreted to mean that would have chosen differently if certain conditions (such as his character, motives, or mood) had been slightly different — but proponents of free will generally mean something much stronger: that exactly the same person in exactly the same situation and the same mental state could have chosen otherwise — that precisely the same set of causes could just as easily have resulted in a different effect. The actions of a person who has free will are supposed to be impossible to predict even in principle, even by a psychic Laplace’s demon with complete information about the person’s character and mental state. But — and this is where the contradiction comes in — the actions are still seen as being decided by the person.

Basically, the claim that I have free will boils down to an assertion that both of the following propositions are true:

  1. I determine my actions.
  2. My actions are not determined.

Thus, the claim that I have free will is logically false. Free will is not just something which we happen not to have because the universe is deterministic; it is something fundamentally incoherent, which could not possibly exist in any conceivable universe.

*

When I made a similar argument in my post Free will: a problem for everyone, Bruce Charlton left the following comment:

Reason reasons-about only that which follows reason. Therefore if there was anything which did not follow reason, such a phenomenon would necessarily be invisible to reason.

So, the argument you make excludes the possibility of free will, from the initial assumptions. . . . reasoning excludes free will a priori – reason does not disprove free will.

Dr. Charlton goes on to compare reason’s exclusion of free will to the way science excludes miracles and the supernatural — not because it can disprove them, but precisely because it cannot disprove them, because they are deemed untestable and thus outside the domain of science.

Like science, reason supports some things, disproves others, and excludes still others from its domain. Simple propositions, for example, are excluded. Reason can’t tell you whether all men or mortal or whether Socrates is a man; it can only tell you that if those two propositions are true then it follows that Socrates is mortal. All our first principles and empirical facts come from outside reason and cannot be disproved by reason. What reason can disprove is a related set of propositions, and it does this by showing that the set is self-contradictory — but this is precisely what reason does with regard to free will, as I have shown above. If reducing something to a contradiction doesn’t count as disproving it, it’s hard to imagine what would qualify.

*

So, given that reason disproves free will, is there any respectable way to go on believing in free will anyway? Usually when you run into a contradiction, you can question the premises, but in this case the only two premises are part of the definition of free will; to reject either or both of the premises is to reject free will. (You can still use the term “free will” for whatever is left — that’s what most philosophers do — but you’d still be rejecting free will in the sense that most non-philosophers intuitively understand and believe in it.)

Since ditching the premises is out, the next option is to remember that deductive reason is infallible only in theory. Not everything that is logically true is obvious (that’s why math tests are hard), and an argument which looks airtight could still be fallacious in ways that escape our notice. Most people justifiably reject Zeno’s proof that motion is impossible even if they can’t find any logical flaw in his reasoning; the overwhelming empirical evidence that fleet-footed warriors can in fact catch tortoises overrides the claims of reason. In a similar way, and on similar empirical grounds, most scientists continue to treat both relativity and quantum theory as true even though they are known to be logically incompatible.

So, if there were strong empirical evidence that we do in fact have free will, it would be reasonable to dismiss the above disproof of it as a curious paradox which, like Zeno’s, must somehow be wrong even if we can’t understand how — if there were evidence. But in fact the only evidence we have for free will is summed up well by Spinoza (Ethics II, Prop. 35, Schol.):

Men are deceived in that they think themselves free, i.e., they think that, of their own free will, they can either do a thing or forbear doing it, an opinion which consists only in this, that they are conscious of their actions and ignorant of the causes by which they are determined. This, then, is their idea of freedom — that they do not know any cause of their actions.

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Bladder stones in sugar gliders

Two of our sugar gliders recently underwent surgery to remove calcium oxalate bladder stones which were obstructing their cloacae, and which would have been fatal had they not been removed. Some years previous, we lost a glider to what, though it was misdiagnosed at the time, was also (in hindsight) almost certainly cloacal obstruction caused by a bladder stone.

There is virtually nothing on the Internet about bladder stones in gliders, and even the very experienced exotic-animal vets I consulted had never encountered them before, so I’m posting what we’ve learned (such as it is), in the hope that it will prove useful to other sugar glider owners and perhaps even save a life or two.

Symptoms

  • General listlessness is the first symptom to appear: ears down, eyes dull, no interest in exercise. The glider will often avoid other colony members and sit by itself.
  • Loss of appetite, soon developing into a refusal to eat or drink anything at all
  • No urination or defecation, even when the cloaca is stimulated. The glider will make the panting/hissing sound which usually accompanies defecation, but nothing will come out.
  • Instead of normal excretion, a foul-smelling brownish or whitish liquid may leak out of the cloaca. The fur around the cloaca may be wet even though there is no urination.
  • You may (or may not) be able to feel a hard mass in the glider’s abdomen.
  • One of our gliders suffered cloacal prolapse. The other two did not.
  • A few days before the end, the glider who died began experiencing seizures and sudden attacks of rigor mortis-like stiffness. Once this starts happening, it’s probably too late.

Diagnosis and treatment

Gliders are too small for ultrasound, so the vet will have to x-ray it. Be sure he takes a side-view x-ray as well, since the tail bones may obstruct the view of a bladder stone lodged near the mouth of the cloaca.

For some reason, x-rays of sugar glider bladder stones look quite different from those of other animals such as rabbits and tortoises. A mass will be visible, but the fact that it is a bladder stone may not be obvious. When the vet operated on the first of our two recent cases, he was expecting to find an intestinal obstruction, which quickly leads to inoperable necrosis of the intestines. He told us that the chance of saving the glider was very very low, but fortunately we opted to go ahead with the surgery anyway. We sent him into the operating room fully expecting that we would never see him again, and when the vet came out with the announcement that it had actually been a bladder stone (much easier to operate on), it seemed like a miracle.

Surgery is, as far as I know, the only effective way to treat — and, in some cases, even to diagnose — a bladder stone in a sugar glider. It is a relatively low-risk procedure, and full recovery takes about a week.

Cause and prevention

Obviously, after having three gliders with bladder stones, we’ve been reconsidering the diet we’ve been feeding them. The stones are calcium oxalate, and gliders necessarily eat a lot of calcium (calcium deficiency can lead to paralysis and bone damage), so the most important thing is probably to limit their intake of oxalic acid (oxalate). This is the same advice given to humans who suffer from calcium oxalate kidney stones, and there are various “kidney stone diet” sites out there which give lists of high-oxalate foods. The main culprit in our case seems to have been spinach, which our gliders love but will not be allowed to eat anymore. (Low-oxalate green vegetables which can be used instead include lettuce and cucumber.) Other foods to avoid are potatoes, nuts and beans of all kinds, celery, and many kinds of berries. Of course, making sure they drink enough water is also important.

We’ve just started our gliders on a low-oxalate diet, so I can’t report on the results yet, but I certainly hope this will solve the problem and that no more operations will be necessary. I’ll be updating this post with any new information that comes my way, and I encourage comments from anyone else who has experience with this.

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Free will: a problem for everyone

(This is a repost, slightly edited, of something I wrote in 2006.)

In October 2006, atheist biologist Richard Dawkins and Catholic journalist David Quinn had a debate (MP3) on the existence of God, and both of them came out looking a little dumb. One of Quinn’s main arguments had to do with free will.

Quinn: If you are an atheist, if you are an atheist, logically speaking, . . . you cannot believe in free will. . . . An atheist believes we are controlled completely by our genes and have no free actions at all. . . .

Dawkins: I certainly don’t believe a word of that. I do not believe we’re controlled wholly by our genes. . . . [There’s] environment, for a start.

Quinn: But no, hang on, that also is a product of, if you like, matter, okay?

Dawkins: Yes, but it’s not genes.

Quinn: Yes, okay. But what part of us allows us to have free will?

Dawkins: Free will is a very difficult philosophical question and it’s not one that has anything to do with religion, contrary to what Mr. Quinn says.

Quinn: It has an awful lot to do with religion, because if there is no God there is no free will, because we are completely phenomenon.

Dawkins: Who says there is no free will if there’s no God? What a ridiculous thing to say.

Quinn kept bringing up the subject, and finally Dawkins said, “I’m just not interested in free will.” He never offered an atheistic explanation of it. Of course, Quinn never offered a theistic explanation, either, but many listeners were probably still left with the impression that theists can account for free will but atheists cannot. Dawkins is widely perceived to have lost the debate. (This is a common tactic: “If there’s no God, how do you explain X?” — where X is something nobody can explain, with or without God.)

In fact, Dawkins is quite correct that free will has nothing to do with religion. It is a logical problem, not an empirical one, and is unaffected by the existence or non-existence of God, spirits, or anything else. It’s not that we, being wholly material animals, happen not to have free will; it’s that beings with free will (at least as that term is popularly understood) are logically impossible. The problems materialism seems to pose for free will are problems that exist in every possible world. Perhaps materialism makes those problems easier to see and understand, but they are no less present in theistic conceptions of the world.

The problem

A given action is either caused — determined — by something prior to it, or it is random, or it could be a a combination of causation and randomness. That exhausts the logical possibilities. The idea that free will is to be found in something which is neither chance nor necessity nor a combination of the two is a non-starter.

If my actions are completely random, unrelated to anything prior to themselves, then they are obviously not freely chosen. They are not chosen at all, since I cannot cause or influence them in any way. And if my actions are partly random, then they can at best be only partly free. Despite the fact that “determinism” is popularly seen as the negation of free will, deterministic actions are the only ones that can even conceivably be freely chosen. If my actions are not determined by anything, then they are certainly not determined — chosen — by me. Random events are no one’s responsibility.

The problem with determinism, though, is that though my actions may be caused (chosen) by me, they are not ultimately chosen by me. Trace the line of causation back far enough, and everything I do is ultimately caused by events that took place before I was born. If my actions were predetermined before I even existed, how can I have any responsibility for them?

Yes, but it’s not matter

When Quinn says materialism means we’re controlled by our genes, and Dawkins responds that there’s also the environment, we can all sense that he’s missing the point. “Yes, but it’s not genes,” he says. But of course the problem isn’t genes, per se. It’s the idea that we’re controlled by something — anything — other than ourselves. Whether or not that something happens to be deoxyribonucleic acid is irrelevant. If my actions can be wholly explained in terms of things (such as genes and environment) which are beyond my control, then I am not free.

For Quinn, genes and environment are equally problematic because they are are both “product[s] of, if you like, matter.” Religion supposedly solves the problem of free will by proposing that our actions are caused by something non-material — spirits, souls, God, what have you. But this is also missing the point. The problem is not that we are controlled by genes, not that we are controlled by matter, but that we are controlled — full stop.

Let’s imagine that Christianity is true. Instead of a brain that was created by genes, environment, evolution, and the Big Bang, we have a soul that was created by God. How does that make us more free? God, just as much as our genes, existed before we did and is beyond our control. We are no more ultimately responsible for out actions that we would be under materialism. (Saying “God created us with free will” is no more meaningful than saying “We evolved with free will.”)

Mormonism, the religion I grew up with, recognizes this problem and tries to deal with it by saying that the soul (or equivalent; Mormonism uses different terminology) “was not created or made” by anything or anyone, but has always existed and “was also in the beginning with God” (D&C 93:29). This is a step forward for theodicy — it absolves God of ultimate responsibility for human actions (sort of; even if God didn’t create us as we are, he would still presumably have the power to change us and would be responsible for not exercising that power) — but it does nothing to solve the problem of free will. If nothing caused me to come into existence (with a particular sort of mind), then I exist (and have that sort of mind) for no reason, and there is ultimately no reason that I do the things I do. Things which happen for no reason are nobody’s responsibility.

Conclusion

The bottom line is that you didn’t create yourself. Given that a cause must precede its effect, it’s logically impossible for you to have created yourself. No matter what you believe about human nature or human origins, it is inescapably true that you are not ultimately responsible for what you are; either something or someone else made you that way, or you are that way for no reason. No matter how you slice it, it’s not your fault.

(Even if we postulate that time is circular, that causation bends back on itself, and that in some sense you did create yourself, why are you in that particular endless loop of causation rather than a different one? Either that question has no answer, or the answer must lie outside of the loop itself and therefore outside of you. Again, it can’t be your fault.)

Any meaningful conception of free will must deal with the impossibility of being ultimately responsible for one’s actions. This is true whether or not there are such things as gods and spirits. Free will as popularly understood is impossible; other versions of free will (see Daniel Dennett’s Elbow Room) are both possible and consistent with materialism; but I am aware of no conception of free will which is possible only in a world that contains spirits. Richard Dawkins was right: Free will is a difficult philosophical question that has nothing at all to do with religion. It’s not just a problem for atheists. It’s a problem for everyone.

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What is eternal?

In a recent post entitled “Everything matters or nothing matters: Original sin versus nihilism,” Bruce Charlton (whose blog has grown tremendously more interesting these days; I really can’t recommend it highly enough) makes the case that any coherent view of the world must fall under one of the two headings given in the post title.

The concept of “mattering” is a slippery one which I won’t even attempt to engage directly here, but I think I can say with some confidence that two of the necessary conditions for anything really mattering are (1) permanence and (2) consciousness. Whatever is fundamentally temporary, neither eternal in itself nor exerting any eternal influence on the cosmos, is nothing but a now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t illusion and cannot possibly matter. In the same way, nothing can possibly matter unless it matters to someone; in a world without consciousness — or with only temporary consciousness — nothing can possibly matter. These two conditions may not turn out to be sufficient, of course, but they at least give us somewhere to start. In this post I want to look at four possible answers to the question “What is eternal?”

1. Nothing

One possibility is that, as Utnapishtim told Gilgamesh, “there is no permanence” — that not even the universe itself is eternal, that everything will eventually come to an end and be as if it had never existed. Obviously, nothing could possibly matter in such a universe; nihilism would be inescapable, though I suppose we could console ourselves with the thought that, after all, it doesn’t matter that nothing matters.

2. Stuff

As Dr. Charlton puts it in a comment on the post linked above:

Of course an atheist can believe that everything is eternal, in the sense that stuff is eternal (like the steady state theory of cosmology). And most pagans also believe this – that the universe always has been always will be.

But in that world view nothing matters.

In such a world, there would be permanence but no permanent consciousness, so it would still be impossible for anything to really matter. This would, I think, be largely true even if the presence of non-permanent conscious minds were a permanent feature of the universe — that is, if the universe were such that it generated an endless succession of consciousnesses, no one of which was permanent. Did your tenth-great grandfather have a good life? Does anyone know or care anymore? Does it matter? If the line of his infinitely-great grandchildren continues for all eternity, will it matter then? The only way such a scenario could be consistent with mattering would be if each in the infinite series of transient minds cared about the same things — mind you, not corresponding things (I care about my happiness, you care about yours), but the very same things. And this they manifestly do not.

3. Souls

A world populated by deathless consciousnesses — immortal human souls and/or God — is the “everything matters” scenario Dr. Charlton has in mind. In this universe, “nothing is forgotten, we are never alone, souls are eternal, reality is endless, awareness is total.”

Would everything really matter in such a world, though? An eternal soul need not have eternal concerns, after all. Most of the things that “mattered” to me as a toddler, even as a teenager, later turned out not to have mattered at all. If my soul still exists a billion billion billion years in the future, will there be anything at all about my current life about which it will be able to look back and say, “This mattered. It matters still”? Will that soul even still be “me” in any interesting sense? Personal immortality isn’t actually so different from the endless succession of consciousnesses considered above.

God, to the extent that his course is one eternal round, would be an exception. If he exists and is the same yesterday, today and forever — if the same things have always mattered and will always matter to him — then then it is possible for everything to matter. (Of course, the very characteristic which makes God’s concerns permanent — the impossibility of anything changing or affecting him in any way — leads one to wonder what could possibly matter to him one way or the other, but I digress.)

4. Even this spider and this moonlight between the trees

The allusion is to Nietzsche’s Gay Science and the hypothesis of the eternal recurrence of the same events — not history repeating itself in some general sense, but the exact same sequence of events playing out again and again infinitely many times. If true, it means that everything has an infinite (if non-contiguous) duration — not just changeable abstractions like “the soul”, but every event, every moment, every feeling, every single component of existence. Dr. Charlton considers eternal recurrence a “nothing matters” scenario, but I’m inclined to think quite the opposite. At least it fulfills the minimal necessary conditions (permanence and consciousness) which we’re considering here.

Dr. Charlton is also of the opinion that no one has ever actually believed in eternal recurrence, least of all Nietzsche himself. This is probably correct. Nietzsche did take the idea very seriously, though, and referred to it in The Will to Power as  “the most scientific of all possible hypotheses.” According to Nietzsche, if (1) time is infinite and (2) space is finite, eternal recurrence necessarily follows. Actually, a third assumption (not recognized by Nietzsche) is also necessary: (3) that space is in some sense “digital” — that is, that there are only a finite number of positions any given particle could possibly occupy; otherwise, matter would still be able to form infinitely many non-repeating configurations even in a finite space (Georg Simmel proved this). I don’t believe in eternal recurrence myself, since I don’t think those three prerequisites are especially likely to be true, but it’s certainly possible. Physicists may yet discover that we live in such a world.

What I do believe in is eternalism — block time, McTaggart’s C-series, temporal antisolipsism. Time is just another dimension, all points in time are equally and permanently real, and the idea that time “passes” is an illusion. I reached this conclusion on my own, only to discover later that it is implied by Einsteinian physics (due to the relativity of simultaneity) and that McTaggart had also argued for it. Like Nietzschean eternal recurrence, eternalism means that everything is eternal and allows for the possibility that everything matters.

In fact, since eternalism’s implications are so similar to those of eternal recurrence, and since the latter is easier to visualize, I find Nietzsche’s hypothesis to be a useful mental hack, a tool I can use to keep myself looking at things sub specie aeternitatis. “You will live through this again and again and again, infinitely many times,” I tell myself from time to time — knowing that this is (probably) not literally true, but that what follows from it is the same as what follows from the truth. Since I am an antisolipsist in the more literal sense as well, I sometimes expand my memento aeternitatis to “You will live through this infinitely many times — as yourself, and as your wife, and as your neighbor, and as that cat over there, and as the cockroach you just killed,” and so on.

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English chengyu

One of the distinctive features of the Chinese language is the use of what are called chengyu (成語), fixed idiomatic expressions which consist of four characters and are usually telegraphic to the point of being ungrammatical — for example 孟母三遷 “Mencius mother three moves,” which expresses the importance of finding a good environment in which to raise children (because the philosopher’s mother moved three times in order to find such a place), but which is hardly grammatical Chinese. There are thousands of such expressions, and they are very common. Japanese also has these, having borrowed them from the Chinese. English idioms, on the other hand, are almost always fully grammatical, often making them much longer than their Chinese counterparts. For instance, where English has “to kill two birds with one stone,” a grammatical verb phrase which can only be used if you conjugate it and put it in a sentence, the Chinese equivalent is the telegraphic 一石二鳥 — “one stone, two bird.” (I’ve translated it as “bird” instead of “birds” to give some idea of just how ungrammatical it is in Chinese. In any other context, “two birds” would have to be 兩隻鳥. The character 二 is used only for counting; with a noun, you have to use 兩 plus the appropriate classifier.) My Chinese-speaking students are often surprised at the wordiness of English idioms, and I have to explain that we don’t really have anything like chengyu in English — or do we? There’s “long time no see,” but that’s a bit of a special case, being a deliberate imitation of American Indians’ broken English or perhaps even a calque of the Chinese chengyu 好久不見. Once I started thinking about it, though, I came up with several other expressions that could be considered English chengyu:

  • Like father, like son.
  • Another day, another dollar.
  • Monkey see, monkey do.
  • First come, first serve(d).
  • Same shit, different day.
  • Two Jews, three opinions.
  • Garbage in, garbage out.

This kind of thing obviously isn’t as common as in Chinese, but the list is long enough to show a pattern. What intrigues me is the fact that, just as in Chinese, ungrammatical idioms tend to be four words long. It seems unlikely that this would be due to the direct influence of Chinese, so I wonder if it’s a pattern that comes naturally to people and turns up in many different languages.

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