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Wednesday, August 14, 2002

Aristotle's Law at Berkeley

Conceptual artist Jonathon Keats is gathering signatures in Berkeley, California, proposing that the city adopt Aristotle's Law of Identity.

Briefly stated, this law says that anything there is, is identical to itself.

Here's the sfgate story, which you've probably all read by now.

This may not seem like a great step forward in the history of thought, but remember, this was about 2300 years ago, and we were still trying to sort things out, especially, difficult concepts like that.

To be fair to Aristotle, that wasn't his One Big Contribution to the history of thought. For his time (about 350 BC), he was one sharp cookie, and his works and thought have become one of the pillars of Western civilization. There's a good short bio of the old guy here.

This quote, from one of the biographies, stands out:

He thought, indeed, that a man could not claim to know a subject unless he was capable of transmitting his knowledge to others, and he regarded teaching as the proper manifestation of knowledge.

He thought about, wrote about, and taught in every branch of knowledge that was known at the time. He was among the first to bring order out of the chaos that clouded much of the way people saw the world in those days.

Unfortunately, the Greeks believed in the supremacy of Thought over Experiment. That worked really well for Euclid, who invented geometry as we know it today. But Aristotle couldn't keep his mind off physical phenomena, or physics (which was called "natural philosophy" up until just a few hundred years ago).

Aristotle taught that things fell faster, the heavier they were. This was most likely from observing nature: the stone falls faster than the leaf. It may be that the Greeks thought that actually doing experiments with their hands was beneath their dignity as Philosophers; it may be that it just never occurred to them.

He also taught, along with Ptolemy, that the Earth was the center of it all, and that everything else we see up there was carried around on immense crystalline spheres.

Because he thought and wrote about so much, and because almost everything he wrote about turned out to be true and useful, he was considered the Final Authority on just about everything known to Man. Later on, the Church adopted Aristotelian thought, and to argue that Aristotle may have been wrong about something was to risk getting burned at the stake.

Which is partly why Galileo got himself into so much trouble back in 16th and 17th century Italy. He threw stuff off the Leaning Tower of Pisa, and showed that heavier things did not fall faster than lighter ones. He invented (or at least improved on) the telescope, and saw things that convinced him that the Earth wasn't the center of everything. When the Church found out about his irreverent actions, they threw him in the clink (much like the U.S. wanted to do with Phil Zimmerman).

But enough about Aristotle. Back to Keats.

Jonathon Keats seems to be a pleasant fellow, unfettered by any distinguishable talent. According to that news item:

The San Francisco Arts Commission once paid him to do portraits, and because he can't paint, draw or take good photographs, he took fingerprints instead.

So he set up in Berkeley, gathering signatures on a petition to make Aristotle's Law of Identity a city ordinance.

It's a good thing Berkeley isn't a university town, or he'd be laughed off the street.

[aside: What's that? It is? Good God.]

Anyway, he seems to be gaining some support:

Michelle Grisat, who has a doctorate in philosophy, signed.

Though not overwhelming:

One guy shouted that Keats needed therapy. Keats offered to do sidewalk therapy with the man, who stomped away in frustration.

Eugene Volokh, who noted the news article earlier, points out that there are a few other laws in force in Berkeley, even though they may not be on the books, among them:

"Remember: 186000 miles per second; it's more than just a good idea, it's the law."

The problem with the Aristotle/Keats ordinance is that it's very hard to break, and very hard to detect violators. I suppose this could bring about a corps of Identity Police.....

"Excuse me sir, may I see your Identity Card?"
"Is this really you?"
"And are you, in fact, you?"
"Very well, then, you may proceed."

It's easy enough to detect light-speed law breakers: they could set up radar speed traps on the main thoroughfare.

Catching them, though, seems to be a bit of a problem.

There are grounds that this law may be discriminatory: one day, there may happen to come into the city a certain barber, who only shaves those who do not shave themselves. But that's a topic for another day.

The city of Berkeley really shouldn't be wasting their time on this thing. They have a lot of more serious ordinances on their books, such as those against loitering (this draconian ordninance was later overturned), against politically incorrect coffee, and laws boycotting unwholesome organizations (a move that was less than enthusiastically appreciated by the rest of the country).

posted by Mike 2:00 PM