IT’S HEARTENING to see our nation’s colleges are still tackling the existential quandaries of man. Case in point: “Philosophy on Tap: Pint-Sized Puzzles for the Pub Philosopher” (Wiley-Blackwell, $19.95), by Matt Lawrence, a philosophy professor at Long Beach City College.
This fun paperback considers the Big Questions that have troubled college sophomores since Aristotle had his tenure. Like:
If a pint spills in the forest and no one is there to hear it, would it still make a sound?
What is the sound of one glass clinking?
And the classic:
Can God make a keg so big that He himself can’t lift it?
Lawrence answers 48 of these timeless questions while thoughtfully offering beer-pairing suggestions for each poser. For example, while pondering Descartes’ thoughts on doubt and certainty, you might consider a bottle of Dogfish Head Raison D’Etre (French for “reason for being”). The name is a pun, of course, because this strong, dark ale is made with raisins. But as Lawrence reveals, it’s also the cornerstone of Descartes’ declaration, “I think, therefore I am.”
Sometimes the connection between beer and philosophy is not so obvious, as evidenced by his glossary, which offers the definitions of, in alphabetical order: Scotch Ale, Shiva, Skunkiness, Social Construction, Sour Ale, Skepticism, Steam, Stout, Subjectivism . . .
Ah, but “Plato” is defined as both a student of Socrates and a measurement scale to determine the density of beer wort. Thus, Lawrence’s analysis is mostly full-bodied, not mere froth.
For example, why is it that a woman who looks like a 2 at 10 p.m. is transformed into a 10 at 2 a.m.? You or I would chalk it up to beer goggles. But Lawrence wades into cognitive sciences expert Daniel Dennett’s “Consciousness Explained” and suggests the transformative experience is the product of “parallel, multitrack processes of interpretation and elaboration of sensory inputs . . . “
I had to read that section three times before I comprehended it, possibly because I followed Lawrence’s advice of pairing the essay with a heavy-duty (10 percent alcohol) Flying Dog Horn Dog Barley Wine.
On the other hand, I finally grasped a small part of the concept of the “space-time continuum” while skimming his essay on Zeno’s Paradox. It’s the oldest puzzle in the book, so he suggests a Weihenstephan Original Lager made by world’s oldest brewery.
In Lawrence’s version, the 5th-century Greek philosopher’s paradox states that before sipping this age-old brew, the pint must first be hoisted up to your lips. If the distance to your mouth is 12 inches, the pint must first pass the halfway point – 6 inches. And then it must pass the next halfway point – 3 inches.
Again and again, the glass must reach another halfway point; in fact, there is an infinite number of halfway points. “And since it’s impossible to pass an infinite amount of points in a finite amount of time, you will never get to taste this beer!”
One answer is that the pint doesn’t really move at all. It exists at a variety of points along the space-time continuum, and the appearance of motion is an illusion caused by the fact that you can’t see the pint’s past or future.
Let that one sink in and pour yourself another. Or should you?
“To drink or not to drink?” That is Lawrence’s final philosophic question.
Given all the potential “evils” of beer (alcoholism, drunken driving, the spread of STDs) . . . how can one justify drinking? He asks: “Shouldn’t we take our indirect contributions to the problem more seriously?”
Lawrence’s reply: ” . . . The good of beer might outweigh its evils.”
He might’ve been more definitive if he hadn’t suggested pairing that question with O’Doul’s, a beer whose absence of alcohol renders it unthinkable.