Monday, August 26, 2013

The First Detective Story: Solomon and the Baby

One of the most famous stories in the Old Testament and certainly the most famous one among lawyers is that of Solomon and the baby.  I am reflecting on this text tonight, as tomorrow I begin a class on judicial politics.  Here is the passage from 1st Kings 3. 16-28.
16 Then came there two women, that were harlots, unto the king, and stood before him.
17 And the one woman said, O my lord, I and this woman dwell in one house; and I was delivered of a child with her in the house.
18 And it came to pass the third day after that I was delivered, that this woman was delivered also: and we were together; there was no stranger with us in the house, save we two in the house.
19 And this woman's child died in the night; because she overlaid it.
20 And she arose at midnight, and took my son from beside me, while thine handmaid slept, and laid it in her bosom, and laid her dead child in my bosom.
21 And when I rose in the morning to give my child suck, behold, it was dead: but when I had considered it in the morning, behold, it was not my son, which I did bear.
22 And the other woman said, Nay; but the living is my son, and the dead is thy son. And this said, No; but the dead is thy son, and the living is my son. Thus they spake before the king.
23 Then said the king, The one saith, This is my son that liveth, and thy son is the dead: and the other saith, Nay; but thy son is the dead, and my son is the living.
24 And the king said, Bring me a sword. And they brought a sword before the king.
25 And the king said, Divide the living child in two, and give half to the one, and half to the other.
26 Then spake the woman whose the living child was unto the king, for her bowels yearned upon her son, and she said, O my lord, give her the living child, and in no wise slay it. But the other said, Let it be neither mine nor thine, but divide it.
27 Then the king answered and said, Give her the living child, and in no wise slay it: she is the mother thereof.
28 And all Israel heard of the judgment which the king had judged; and they feared the king: for they saw that the wisdom of God was in him, to do judgment.
You can see why this story is of interest to lawyers.  It is a classic metaphor for “splitting the difference.”  It is not, of course, about that at all.  No one, let alone Solomon, thinks that splitting the baby is an acceptable compromise.  Well, no one except the false claimant.  The story is in fact much richer than that. 
I note first of all that two harlots have standing to bring a case before the King himself.  That suggests a recognition of the lowest status under the law. 
The second thing I would note is that this might count as the first detective story in the history of literature.  The story (18-21) is not murky.  Two women deliver babies in the same house at roughly the same time.  One woman’s child dies.  That woman “arose at midnight” and switches her dead child with the other woman’s living child while she is asleep.  This we learn from the testimony of the woman who claims her child was stolen.  Bear in mind that she couldn’t really know that midnight was the hour of the crime, since she was sleeping.  That “midnight” bit is poetic license, either on the part of the woman or the storyteller.  The account of the crime is speculation on her part; but it is certainly a plausible theory, as the lawyers say. 
Now consider the words from verse 18. 
there was no stranger with us in the house, save we two in the house
This testimony intends to eliminate any third party mischief and focus responsibility on the two women alone.  This much the woman claiming the theft of her living child can testify to.  Again, a good detective story. 
The story is plausible both from the perspective of common sense memory and modern sociobiology.  It is not unprecedented for a woman whose maternal instincts are frustrated to attempt to steal someone else’s baby.  It is Solomon’s job to shift the evidence with his little grey cells in order to uncover the nuggets of truth. 
This he does with his brilliant device.  If both women claim the same baby, cut the baby in half.  The reaction of the two women exposes the truth.  The question is why it works so well.  The usual interpretation is that it is simply a test of who loves the baby more.  The true claimant is willing to surrender her claim if that is what is necessary to save her child.  The false claimant is willing to split the difference because it isn’t really her baby. 
That doesn’t wash.  If the primary motive of the false claimant was frustrated maternal instinct, she would scarcely have been so satisfied with half a son.  Solomon, however, being not only a wise king and judge, but also a good detective, was attentive to detail. 
What exactly happened to the false claimant’s child?  Verse 19 tells us:
And this woman's child died in the night; because she overlaid it.
This is what the true claimant tells us.  He rival’s child perished not of natural causes but of carelessness.  It is likely that she expressed the same opinion to the other woman at the time.  At any rate, the other woman guessed that she was being judged.  That is what identifies the false claimant’s motive.  She despised the true claimant, perhaps for recognizing her own terrible error.  She took the living child as an act of revenge.  That is why she is later willing to accept the King’s dreadful proposal.  She won’t win a son but at least her rival will lose one.  Such is the calculus of guilt and revenge.
Solomon deserves a place as the father of all sleuths.  His famous stratagem probed not for genuine love but for a more sinister motive and found it.  Solomon knew what he was looking for because he was wise enough to understand that human beings act simultaneously of out opposing motives and because he paid attention.  Such a man is a man to be feared, at least by those of us who have something to hide.  That would be all of us.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Plato's Protagorus & the Drama of the Academy

Plato’s Protagoras is one of the most dramatically rich of the dialogues.  It begins with and encounter between Socrates and “a friend.”  Who is this friend?  Could it be Plato?  The friend opens with a question: “where have you been, Oh Socrates?”  After a little banter concerning Socrates’ love life (Alcibiades.  Was Plato jealous?), Socrates tells the tale. 
He was awoken in the middle of the night by a young man, Hippocrates.  The young man has learned that the famous sophist Protagoras is in town.  As becomes apparent, Hippocrates wants to gain entry to the house of Callias, where Protagoras and a great many other intellectuals are gathered.  He expects (correctly) that Socrates can get him past the door. 
When the two do get inside, we are greeted with a marvelous spectacle.  Protagoras is walking in a circle around a garden, giving a lecture as he walks.  He is followed by a considerable entourage of disciples and fellow travelers, with those in the rear (presumably lower on the totem pole) trying hard to hear what he is saying.  From time to time he reverses course and the entourage parts, allows him to pass, and reforms behind him.  All on its own, that is a marvelous meditation on academic culture.  That is only part of the spectacle. 
In one corner Hippias of Ellis sits “on a high chair” surrounded by his own flock, discussing astronomy.  In a side room Prodicus of Ceos, still in bed, has pulled a third group into his intellectual orbit. 
This spectacle, taken as a whole, reminds me forcefully of Raphael’s School of Athens.  Perhaps Raphael was trying to remind me of the Protagoras.  Philosophers and scientist sort themselves into tribes and parties just as political men do.  There is no avoiding this.  Genuine philosophy, however, always begins by challenging some party line, even if the challenge in turn creates another party line. 
Listening to one of my favorite podcasts recently (Buddhist Geeks), I heard this quote (if I remember it right): philosophers do not seek the truth, they seek peace.  I think that this is right, in the long term.  The philosopher seeks the peace of wisdom, which is settled in knowledge of all the important things.  In the short term, however, (and the short term is still going on) the philosopher makes not peace but war.  He challenges what is settled, agreed upon, what everyone knows or what we, the enlightened, know. 
Socrates’ entry into the conversation breaks up all the order.  Protagoras stops circumambulating.  Hippias gets off his highchair and Prodicus gets out of bed.  That is what philosophy looks like. 

Saturday, August 17, 2013

No Infinity

Infinity is not quite an endlessly useful concept, but it is a very useful one.  That doesn’t mean that there are actual infinities.  Tom Hartsfield has some mathematical reasons for rejecting infinity as something that can describe the real world.  I am very much inclined to agree.  My favorite example is not mathematical but logical. 
Suppose that there is a grand hotel with an infinite number of rooms (presumably serviced by an infinite number of modestly paid workers).  The hotel is completely booked on Labor Day weekend, when another guest shows up and requests a room.  No problem!  The hotel manager has every guest move to the next highest numbered room, so the guy whose wife kicked him out of the house moves from room one to room two and the meth addict in two moves to three, etc. ad infinitum.  Given the infinite number of rooms, each guest will always be able to move up one.  So the hotel manager can accommodate the new guest.  Likewise, the manager could have each guest move to the next highest odd numbered room.  That would free up an infinite series of even numbered rooms.  Let’s hope he has plenty of towels. 
So: here we have a hotel that is completely booked and yet has room for an infinite number of guests.  That is a logical contradiction and so no such hotel can actually exist. 
I am pretty sure that that is right.  Infinity has intrigued and troubled philosophers since before the time of Socrates.  The most famous example are the marvelous paradoxes of Zeno.  Zeno was a monist who wanted to show that actual change (in this case, motion) involved logical contradictions.  Thus reality was one and unchangeable. 
The simplest of his paradoxes goes like this: Achilles wants to run across the stadium.  That looks easy enough.  Half way across, however, it occurs to him that before he can complete his run he must cover half the remaining distance (one quarter of the stadium field).  After he has done that, he will have cross the next eighth, etc. ad infinitum.  No matter how fast he runs, he will always have some remaining portion of distance to cover.  He collapses in existential despair. 
In fact, Achilles has every reason to believe he can make it.  If he runs at a steady pace, he is covering each portion at half the time.  So if it takes him one minute to cover the first half, what will be true at two minutes?  He will be over the finish line.  One half plus one quarter plus one eighth, etc., is how much shorter than one?  Shorter by an infinite amount, one might say.  Whatever theoretical significance that might have, it has no practical significance at all.  Shorter by an infinite degree is just as long. 
Infinity in either direction, small or large, isn’t real.