Why Fahrenheit is Better than Celsius

The madness has won when most people prefer to measure things by water than by people. The Fahrenheit temperature scale sets “96” as the temperature of the human body (it was a little inaccurate when first established). The Celsius or Centigrade scale sets “100” as the temperature at which water boils. At the chillier end of things, Fahrenheit chose “0” as the point at which a particular brine mixture would freeze, and, according to the story, because it was the coldest temperature he measured in Danzig. Celsius, of course, chose “0” to be the point at which water freezes.

But never mind the technicalities. Think of F and C like this: If it’s 0 C or 0 F outside, it’s cold. If it’s 100 F, it’s hot, but if it’s 100 C, you died long ago. So which is the more human scale?

Where the numbers are round in Celsius, where the tens click into hundreds, water can survive but you cannot. And yet, thousands of people with too much time on their hands across the globe are convinced measuring by when water (or steam) survives is the One Right Way, the logical way, the Scientific way. It doesn’t matter that Fahrenheit has smaller degrees (5/9 the size of a degree C) and is thus more precise. It doesn’t matter that those more precise degrees stretch across a vast range of temperatures assignable to mundane human experience It doesn’t matter that it’s possible to qualitatively know the difference between 80 and 85 F for more easily than 80 and 85 C even though the latter are further apart because the degrees are larger. It doesn’t matter that Celsius is a more dishonest Kelvin, pretending for the first 40 degrees or so to be a human-compatible temperature scale and then for the majority of the numbers merely describing cooking temperatures or chemical changes.

No, none of that matters, they insist, because water shouldn’t freeze at 32 and boil at 212.

Water doesn’t even make thermometers.

Okay, maybe water doesn’t make thermometers, but don’t numbers in some sense make thermometers? Because really, the choice of Celsius is a choice of more easily divisible numbers, a selection of more straightforward calculation. Water isn’t even used to define the Celsius scale anymore, the Boltzmann constant is, and the actual melting point of ice is now below 0 C, which just goes to show you, Celsius is for nerds.

I am not trying to insult the nerd community. There is no particular reason that the average human need to comment on the weather (it’s 93 degrees out there!) supersedes the human need to calibrate a thermometer or divide things by ten. However, there is also no reason the latter should replace the former. It’s simply an arbitrary choice of priority. If it insults your sensibility for water to freeze at 32, a seemingly-arbitrary number, then you prioritize Celsius, and you are a quant, generally definable as a person who wants the numbers to fit.

Being a quant is like preferring chocolate ice cream; it’s indefensible because the entire category is arbitrary. Some hugely influential early modern scientist quants such as Johannes Kepler echoed ancient quants like Pythagoras in their literal math worship. An obsessive devotion to numbers inspired their more accurate theories in astronomy. Their madness has been to the great benefit of humankind.

In general.

(Source: Wikipedia)

The path of least resistance is a commonsense rule that does not fit within physics, where it is too general and loses accuracy, but physics fits within it. Physics (the modern version, it goes without saying) is a quant’s paradise, and to be a quant is the path of least resistance.

I wasn’t entirely honest a couple of paragraphs ago when I said choosing to be a quant is just like choosing a favorite ice cream flavor. It’s more like choosing a favorite ice cream flavor in Maoist China, and Mao loves rocky road. Although there is no way to choose a ‘right’ flavor theoretically, there is undoubtedly a particular flavor that’s pragmatic and wise to eat. The rocky road here is quantification, and Mao is power (just like in real life). If power matters to you, if your survival depends on strength, then quantification can be very useful, as everyone from the Apache to the Zulu learned.

And no one, we assume, quantifies better than a quant. You want someone whose whole reality is numbered measuring your gunpowder so your cannon shoots more accurately than the other guy’s. That guy may have a pocket protector or thick glasses, and he probably thinks Celsius is better than Fahrenheit, American military might notwithstanding.

Ceding the decision to the eggheads and their knuckle-dragging overlords may make us mighty and give us a sense of control over nature, but it also makes thermometers less meaningful to the average human being. What to do? The path of least resistance says if we must use force to stay alive anyway and Celsius is leading the charge to conquer nature, why mess with any other way? Let us build a life around this little nugget of power that water boils at 100, you and I!

But paths of least resistance are not the rule in our universe. Just because the quant is useful does not mean he’s always right. Indeed, they have yet to invent (despite attempts drowning vast lands in blood) a quant who lives in a quantified world. So far, all the physicists awaken to an ambient temperature many years before conducting their first lab experiments, and are raised by parents who discuss the weather as just another thing they experience.

Who could possibly pretend that math working is the measure of all things?

I’m not one for conspiracy theories but if there is a “big lie,” then scientism might be it. Scientism is the belief, usually left unsaid because of how silly it sounds, that everything there is to know can be known by science. This belief may be useful just as Celsius is useful, but it cannot be true. Since it is sometimes marketed as true, it is worse than useless, the way marketing rocky road as objectively the best flavor is worse than useless.

We know scientism is false because there is no indication that science can know scientism is true. Science has no experiment and no theory to prove that science can know everything. It has no such things because science doesn’t even understand what the human mind is or what a truth is or what it means for a human mind to know a truth. There is no reason to think it will ever have such things because everything science claims to know now, it knows by ignoring the human mind and the human mind’s ability to know. When you hear ‘science explains why the sky is blue’ it never, ever explains how you, the subjective entity reading these words with your eyes, perceive the blue of that sky. It instead deals with wavelengths and chemicals and all other sorts of things in the causal chain other than what it purports to explain, that is, why the sky is blue. And if there is no scientific explanation why the sky is blue, nor is there any scientific explanation of how I know that 1 + 1 = 2, why should anyone believe there will one day be an explanation of how all perceived truth is scientifically explicable?

On the other hand, to even conduct a scientific experiment or form a scientific theory, one must already take for granted that one knows things. It seems intuitive that while is a subset within everything we can know, the reverse relationship does not hold; we can know things (and must know them in order to ‘do science’) that science will never know.

Yet, science still appeals to the innocent public (not just the popularizers of science, marketers with advanced degrees) as the measure of all things, and it leads to all sorts of madness. An entire populace is taught in high school about Newton’s three laws, which are simple to calculate and make scientists feel strong, but which do not capture the actual reality of the universe any more widely than the ‘path of least resistance’. They are like ‘folk science’ that only works some of the time when things are simple. Things are therefore kept simple for the high school student, for no reason better than the math is easier and (I suspect) because this easier math makes better fodder for science’s propaganda arm.

Relativity, in which Einstein shows that Newton’s laws are valid…in certain contexts, blows apart some of the most comforting math in the world, such as the math describing the earth’s rotation around the sun. Man was once benighted, we are told, for believing the sun revolved around the earth. Then the quants came along, made up stories about how everyone before them for centuries was stumbling around in the dim and dreary ‘dark ages’, and shewed (as they would have spelt it) the earth to pinwheeleth around the sun. But this was not knowledge, as Einstein demonstrated. In truth, when two bodies are in relative motion, either one may be declared the reference frame and said to be still. There is no scientific demonstration that the fly is climbing up the wall rather than the entire universe moving down. We only teach kids that the earth revolves around the sun because the math is easier and it means we’re better than the middle ages with their uncomfortable ideas about actually perceiving the sky to be blue.

For if there is an unquantifiable being that can perceive unquantifiable things, then there is no new method to conquer the blue of the sky. The sky might not, in its passive observation of our rises and falls, its inky sheltering of all our triumphs and horrors, quite belong to us.

The distinction between Fahrenheit and Celsius is what we choose to be the measure of all things. Is it the math fitting more neatly to scientifically-measured phenomena, or is it the human experience? One does not reduce to the other. The number-centric approach to events is part of the human experience but will never expand to encompass the whole thing as some hope it to. To what end, then, are we to use less accurate degrees across a shorter range in our mundane experience? I like the number 32 for water freezing. It reminds us that the world cannot be divided into tens just because it makes us feel powerful. The real power is recognizing which impulses inspire such approaches, so we can control them rather than vice versa.

Four Useful Non-Jewish Ideologies

“The gentile makes gods of stone and we of theories.”
Isaac Bashevis Singer

Two questions:
(1) Is G-d true?
(2) Is G-d central to human perfection?

Judaism is not any particular combination of answers to these two questions.

If you answer no to both, you are what’s called an atheist. Atheism is the idea that G-d is not there, and that He plays no role in human perfection, which must be defined in terms of the human beings themselves. Atheism, however, is viewed as so contrary to logic that it is rarely mentioned in Judaism. It is, after all, merely an intellectually bankrupt form of idol worship and a spiritually bankrupt form of humanism.

Idol worship (a very common and relatively rational position) says G-d is true but that He is not central to human perfection. That is, there is such a thing as a Most High being, but that Most High being has abandoned the earth (or at least shared it) with lesser powers. G-d made the thunder, but some other being or concept rules it now; whether that concept is electromagnetism or Thor really makes no practical difference. G-d gave us a mind so we could bend these beings and concepts to our will, through sacrifice and understanding, to extend and improve our being. For the idolator, G-d answers a couple of bothersome questions so the real business of life, the navigation of the various finite powers, may begin. Judaism has been anti-idol since Abraham reached (or began to reach) intellectual maturity.

The opposite of idolatry is a dying art called “enlightened humanism” that says it does not matter if G-d is not technically true, since He is the center of a well-ordered life. In the beauty of art or the profound joy and pain of the human experience lies something once rightly called other, sublime, otherworldly. If philosophy cannot prove that these experiences point to an actually existing Infinite Creator, that makes little difference, since so much of our greatest artistic and intellectual endeavors point toward that Creator. Humanism is like the Pantheon in Rome. A beautiful classical structure with a high dome, at the center of which there is a hole, which at the time of its construction demonstrated a wondrous innovation in engineering: The building is no less beautiful, and can continue standing, even if the piece at the top and the center is missing. Judaism, of course, is founded on that center stone having taken us out of Egypt with miracles and wonders.

If you answer yes to both of the above questions, you are what is considered “traditionally religious.” You say that G-d’s Truth and His centrality to the human endeavor are one; G-d is both real, and I exist for Him. I am not sure you have yet discovered Judaism, however. The Rambam (never mind his kabbalistic critics like the Maharal) would tell you that calling G-d “true” is a gross intellectual error, and that all scriptural or rabbinic sources calling Him just that must be understood in the utmost negative abstraction, their names made possible only by revealed prophecy. A human mind landing on some notion called “truth” and then ascribing it to G-d? Preposterous. The Yiddish word for G-d is der Aibishter. The One Who Is Above, eternally above, above the thing we are conceiving Him of right now.

By the same token, to call G-d central to human perfection is so gross a contextualization as to be factually false. G-d in His Infinitude is far beyond being any basis of perfection humans may strive for, even moral perfection. Is this not the very essence of the chok, the suprarational decree no human being could possibly devise had the Torah not decreed it? We do not keep kosher for health or to have a nice ritual to make our community cohere; none of these can possibly explain the precise workings of the halacha, and bizarre cynical contrivances involving Rabbis making things up based on the norms of repudiated surrounding pagans (or the like) must come into play. This cynicism is important if you are traditionally religious; the Jew doesn’t need it, because he doesn’t have to answer yet to both questions.

Now, the Jew doesn’t deny that G-d being true and being central to human perfection are trivially (if not technically) correct. In this sense, traditional religion can serve as a vessel for Judaism, a sort of ideological shorthand for what it does not capture. Judaism as it speaks to these questions, if it is forced to speak to these questions, is like traditional religion. The problems start when that vessel coarsens and darkens, losing its role as a mere interface through which Judaism speaks to certain narrow definitions and becomes the definition itself. And when that happens, the other answers to the questions become incredibly useful.

If someone is getting too comfortable both intellectually and morally, that is, with the conflation of G-d with truth and of G-d with self-perfection, atheism is a good way to kick over their blocks. “Look at all these arguments that say the truth and the human being are both just fine without G-d.” Thus, the Chassidic Master who said that a Jew ought to be an atheist when their fellow man asks for charity or help. We ought not to say, “G-d will provide for them.” Atheism exists to break through the opacity and coarseness of our representations of G-d.

If their issue is primarily making of G-d a source of blessing and benefit to the human endeavor, idolatry is the temptation: “He exists, I grant, but it doesn’t matter! His benefits are achievable without Him. Why pray when you can work, protest, exercise, or study?” The difficult question for the believer that they ought to ask themselves every night: Is there more to me than there was to Abraham’s father? Would I have seen what my forefather saw?

Finally, if they are not concerned with fitting G-d in their heart but rather hold Him as an intellectual ideal, humanism retorts, “You can be spiritually ordered and complete as G-d would want without G-d needing to actually be there; G-d was the center of your heart all along.” Why do you sit at the Pesach Seder, or light the Chanukah menorah? Are these functionally any different than attending a museum? What makes the Jewish Film Festival Jewish? These, too, can be uncomfortable questions for comfortable Jews.

Traditional religion, in turn, reminds each of these errors that they, too, are errors. It fights atheism’s range of arguments when they wish to end the matter, rebukes idolatrous gnosticism, and rages against humanist myopia.

Meanwhile, the Jew. The Jew belongs to something else, and many sense it. As a perceptive fellow once said, “There is a certain people scattered and separate among the peoples throughout all the provinces of your kingdom, and their laws differ from [those of] every people, and they do not keep the king’s laws; it is [therefore] of no use for the king to let them be.”

The king is no mere drunk historical Persian lecher. The king is The Ruler of All. The problem is, this is a worldly concept, a translation of the truth. When the Torah calls G-d King, it means He is both more a king (in the defined sense of the term) and that He is not a king at all (in that sense). The space of the ark exists to express that there is no space. The center of Judaism is the center because it is not on the map. As ideologies fight and refine themselves upon each other, we remember that they exist for G-d, and not vice versa. So should we exist.