Interview with a Philosopher: On Beer and Thought

Matt Lawrence's new book, "Philosophy on Tap: Pint-Sized Puzzles for the Pub Philosopher" (Wiley-Blackwell 2011) combines two great past-times -- thinking and drinking.
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Beer and philosophy are often found together. In a previous interview, we looked at the relationship between coffee and philosophy. But there are two kinds of brew associated with deep thought. Poet A.E. Houseman wrote, "Oh many a peer of England brews Livelier liquor than the Muse, And malt does more than Milton can To justify God's ways to man."

Today I'm talking with Matt Lawrence, Professor of Philosophy at Long Beach City College, a guy who's known for putting a contemporary spin on classical philosophical questions. His first book, "Like a Splinter in Your Mind: The Philosophy Behind the Matrix Trilogy," (Blackwell 2004) brought out the deep and wide-ranging philosophical issues in the Wachowski Brothers' films. His new book, "Philosophy on Tap: Pint-Sized Puzzles for the Pub Philosopher" (Wiley-Blackwell 2011) combines two great past-times -- thinking and drinking.

Matt, you're pretty high up on the originality scale here. The basic concept of your book is to pair 48 philosophical puzzles with 48 great beers. Lately, there has been quite a bit written about how to pair beer with food, or with cheese, but you're the first to match potent brews and profound puzzles. How does that work?

Well, when you think about it, there are all sorts of ways that philosophy and beer intersect. For example, when reflecting on the idea of the soul and the question of immortality, I find that nothing beats a Rogue "Dead Guy Ale." If you are digging into the pros and cons of hedonism, you need a really decadent beer like Young's "Double Chocolate Stout." And, if you really want to get to the bottom of it all -- to the very meaning of life -- you need a beer that's as deep and dark as they come, like an "Abyss" Imperial Stout form Oregon's Deschutes Brewery.

Sounds like the perfect book for a thirsty mind! And, I'm sure it must have been great fun doing all the research. But -- 48 beers? Does the book carry a warning label for fast readers?

No, I'm just counting on folks to "read responsibly." My motto is to "drink in moderation, think in excess." So if someone's going to read a number of the puzzles in a single sitting, they'd do best to at least postpone some of the beers. The beauty of it is that you can always come back to them at a later time. Ideally, my hope is that people will use this as a discussion book. Each "pint-sized" puzzle is short enough to read in just a few minutes but perplexing enough to generate an hour discussion. And I include follow-up questions for each puzzle to help the discussion along.

What got you started on this project? Was it the philosophy or the beer?

It all started with the philosophy. I wanted to write a book that would introduce the general reader to the big philosophical issues in a way that was fun and totally accessible. Let's face it, most philosophy isn't that fun, and it certainly isn't easy to read. So with that in mind, I started working on these really short philosophical puzzles, each four pages or less, that would give the reader a sense of the kinds of issues that philosophers have grappled with for centuries: free will, God's existence, moral truth, the nature of the mind, the problem of evil, etc. After a while, I realized that these little puzzles were "pint-sized" in the best sense of the term -- they make excellent reading to accompany a cold one. As a long-time fan of robust quality craft brews, that realization was genuine epiphany. And it gave me a great excuse to try countless new beers.

All in the name of research. You, my friend, set the bar high for cleverness. And I'm sure you're not the only one who likes to do a little pondering at the pub. I suspect that there are a number of philosophical issues of special interest to the beer drinker. For example, the aesthetics of the tasting experience, the morality of drunkenness, and so on. Do you take on some of these questions?

Oh definitely. For instance, in an essay called "Mill's Drunkard," I examine John Stuart Mill's claim that the intellectual pleasures (philosophy, poetry, etc.) are superior to bodily pleasures (food, drink, sex, etc.). Is it really better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a drunkard satisfied -- as Mill seems to suggest? Or, there is "The Beer Goggles Paradox," in which I ponder the question of why people tend to look more beautiful after you've tossed back a few pints. Is it that they actually look different to you now than they did before? Or, do they look the same and only your taste has changed? Or has the lager just loosened up your standards?

Yes, you use that puzzle to examine Daniel Dennett's philosophy of consciousness. That's some pretty heady stuff that I'm sure the philosophical beer lover will appreciate.

I try to offer a nice balance of classic and contemporary philosophy and philosophers in the book. There are essays that feature the thought of some of the great philosophers of our generation, like John Searle, Peter Singer, Thomas Nagel, Catherine Mackinnon, and David Chalmers. Then I also get into Lucretius, St. Anselm, Lao Tzu, Plato, Sartre, Nietzsche, and many other great thinkers from both the Western and Eastern traditions.

I also noticed some creative and subtle fabrications in the book. Tell me about that.

Throughout the book I do tell a few lies (well, let's call them "tall tales" or "pub-stretches"), but I always set the record straight at the end. Sometimes the stretch is pretty obvious, as when I try to pass off "What is the sound of one glass clinking?" as a traditional Zen Koan. Or, when I re-frame Zeno's paradox of bisection as "Zeno's hand-to-mouth paradox" and suggest that Zeno argued it's physically impossible to lift a pint from the bar to your mouth. Other times the stretch can be pretty subtle, such as inserting a couple of words in a quote from Chuang Tzu that most people probably wouldn't realize were added. But in each case the philosophical point of the philosopher is preserved. Only the minor details are tweaked to make it more interesting to the beer loving reader.

Do you have a favorite puzzle from the book?

I'd really have a hard time picking just one. There are several essays that deal with science fictional themes that I'm rather fond of. There is one regarding teleportation, one on Robert Nozick's famous "experience machine" thought experiment, and there are three that deal with issues regarding time and time travel. These would certainly be among my favorites.

And how about a favorite beer?

Again I'd have to resist pinning myself down to just one. Much of what I like about the whole craft beer revolution is the wide variety of styles and flavors that have become readily available. But my short list of favorites from the book would have to include Deschutes "Abyss Imperial Stout," Flying Dog "Horn Dog Barleywine" and La Trappe "Quadrupel."

Well, with beers such as those, I expect that "Philosophy on Tap" will certainly widen people's drinking horizons just as much as their philosophical horizons. In fact, I can't wait to try a little philosophy and beer pairing myself. Right now, I think I can feel a classic six-pack question coming on. Thanks for taking the time, Matt.

Cheers, Tom.

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