Nov 10 2008 12:08 am

the possibility of a favorite beer

There are a lot of beer blaggers.  More beer blaggers than fish blaggers probably.  Beer blaggers do this thing where once a month a bunch of them write on one topic and send the links to a chosen blagger that then collects them in a single post.  I participated in the first session and hope to participate in the next now that fish blogging is slowing way down what with the cold weather and all.

The latest session, #21, asks what your favorite beer is and why.

Somewhat predictably, there was a not insignificant level of resistance to the very possibility of having a favorite beer.  One of my favorite beer writers, nay, beer personalities, is Lew Bryson.  This is probably because he is from Pennsylvania, where everything is great.  But then again, my second favorite beer personality is also from Pennsylvania, so perhaps Bryson has some other qualities that make him my favorite.

But I digress.

Lew Bryson has a problem with the idea of a favorite anything.
  This is just the kind of thing that might benefit from the careful attentions of a philosopher, you know, clarify the issue, lay bare the conceptual space and all that.  And I just got back from the Philosophy of Science meeting, so I’m feeling particularly analytical.

His problem with the notion of a favorite beer is as follows: he maintains that having a favorite beer would mean that you would never drink any other.  I’ll call this the favorite exclusivity premise, or FEP.  And because variety is the spice of life, you would get bored and boredom is bad.

It seems like having a favorite beer does not force you ignore all other beers.  Commenter Bill points this out as well.  But I think there is deeper issue here even if we grant Bryson’s FEP.  Bryson is merely saying that he has decided not to acknowledge a favorite beer so that he won’t be constrained by it.  This is fine and addresses the topic of the session.  But if it is possible to have a favorite beer and know what it is then Bryson could say what his favorite is but choose to act as if he did not have a favorite.

There is a metaphysical question: is it possible to have a favorite beer?   And an epistemological one: can I know what my favorite beer is?  (There also seems to be another metaphysical question about whether we can pry apart acknowledging a favorite and acting a certain way because of that acknowledgement but let’s just assume that we can for our discussion).

Let’s tackle the metaphysical question first.  What do we take ‘favorite’ to mean?  I presume it’s something along the lines of: my favorite beer gives me more pleasure than any other.  Now this is pretty open ended, but that’s fine.  We can define ‘more pleasure’ any way we want (see Hales 2007 for a good discussion of the finer points of pleasure and beer drinking, though I’m not sure they bear on the argument I make here).  It can be about the flavor of the beer, the memories a beer makes us recall, the psychotropic effects of the beer etc.  I think we can even include cases of a beer in a given context.  For example, I had some of the best beers of my life in Dusseldorf Germany in 2001 with two of my best friends after graduating college, but in any other context they wouldn’t have been so great.  What matters is whether it is possible to rank order the amount of pleasure a given beer experience produces.  It also seems to be necessary to include a premise that the pleasure metric is stable across beers, but we might avoid this simply by saying that we’re concerned about perception of pleasure, not actual pleasure, if that distinction is even coherent (my X100 students had better say that it’s not for Descartes and Berkeley).  Thus the metaphysical issue requires that different beers can produce quantitatively different perceptions of pleasure.  Now I grant that it is possible for two or more beers to produce the exact same level of pleasure.  In this case, there is simply more than one favorite beer.  The metaphysical issue doesn’t seem to be too problematic.

The epistemological question, on the other hands, seems to be a bit thornier.  Granting the metaphysical claim that it is possible for different beers to produce different amounts of pleasure, then there is an objectively right way to rank order all my past beer experiences in terms of the pleasure they produced.  But can we have knowledge of this rank ordering?  Or more importantly, can we know which beer experience is ranked number one in the ordering?  Assuming that we’re generally aware of our perceptions (kind of built into the notion of perception), there are still a couple ways things might go wrong.  We simply might not remember which beer produced the highest level of pleasure.  We might remember the second beer on the list, but not the first, and thus report erroneously that the second is our favorite. 


I think a more pernicious possibility is that even though our perceptions at the time they are produced can be objectively rank ordered, our memory of those perceptions may change over time.  Maybe I’ve come to realize that I don’t like Altbiers all that much since my trip to Dusseldorf and that has caused me to rank beer experiences that occurred after that realization higher despite the fact that those experiences’ corresponding pleasure perceptions were not actually greater than the one I had in 2001.

I’ve pointed out some metaphysical and epistemological issues regarding the notion of a favorite beer that seem to apply even if we grant Bryson his FEP.  I think that the metaphysical issues are not terribly troubling.  The epistemological issues, however, may preclude making any justified claims about what one’s favorite beer actually is. 


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