Pluto and Eris - a dialogue
January 11, 2011
Concerning the nature of gods and planets, and the attempt to deny Pluto the right to either title.
Eris: Greetings my uncle, how fare you Lord Hades?
Pluto: You mock me, my most treacherous and beautiful niece. I have not gone by that name for nigh upon two millennia, and surely you use it now as a reminder of everything I have lost because of you.
Eris: It is my nature to tease, my uncle, but on this occasion I meant no disrespect. How can it be that he who is Unseen has been wronged by such an insignificant goddess as I?
Pluto: It is because of you, oh mistress of discord, that I have been denied the tribute I have enjoyed for a scant seventy six years, after centuries of neglect. Once I was a god; then, at least, I was a planet; now I have been denied even this status.
Eris: Ah, you speak of my newest role, that of dwarf planet.
Pluto: The very phrase irritates me!
Eris: I was rather touched by the whole thing, dear uncle – that 1,600 mile wide rock which bears my name was almost to be named after television’s most famous warrior princess, after all.
Pluto: Your rock dethroned me from the lofty heights of planethood, for the rock which bears my name is only some 1,400 miles wide, bringing my status as a planet into disrepute – hence my ire!
Eris: But you can scarcely apportion blame to me for what the mortals conclude. And speaking for myself, it’s nice to get some recognition for a change – I appreciate a small cult has grown up around me in the last century, but it doesn’t amount to much in the grand scheme of things. Since the mortals managed to lose that epic poem the Kypria in which I was given the honour of starting the Trojan War with my famed Golden Apple, I have been left to twiddle my ethereal thumbs. At least you had Ralph Fiennes play you in that recent movie about Perseus.
Pluto: Yes, but as a villain... Mortals used to avert their eyes when they made sacrifice to me – the Romans declared games in my honour! Now I am reduced to a melodramatic foe to be humiliated in failure. (And, what irks me all the greater, I didn’t even get a mention back when Harryhausen was making his delightful models...)
Eris: You expect too much, uncle. Isn’t it enough that stories about you are still told?
Pluto: I was the eldest of the Olympians! We destroyed the Titans that were born of earth and sky. Were it not for an unfortunate game of chance, I could have been the king of the gods ruling on Olympus instead of my younger brother Zeus. (I’d blame you for that outcome, my niece, but you weren’t even born at the time).
Eris: There were many other tales told of your exploits, my uncle. Do not forget the story of your wife Persephone, not to mention Theseus’ attempt to kidnap her. And you even had a softer side revealed in the story of Orpheus and Eurydice, when his music touched your heart... do you not recall?
Pluto: What good are stories that are now told solely by the folklorists? The one source of my acclaim was that ball of rock which was named after me (although I could have done without that cartoon dog named after it, frankly).
Eris: Honestly, it amuses me, uncle! When we were gods there was no question of us ceasing to be gods. If all the priests of Hellas had voted to disallow me the status of goddess, declaring me instead, perhaps, a lesser goddess or a dwarf goddess, it would have made no difference to the mortals’ attitude towards me. Their concepts were discussed as personifications – thus I was Eris for strife. It allowed them to tell stories to make their wry observations, and they still tell their stories.
Pluto: But those stories no longer have the influence they once did. The mortals dismiss fiction as “not real”. But Pluto the planet was real and significant. Children learned my name!
Eris: The mortals protest too much, my uncle. Whatever they say, they are still just as influenced by fiction as they ever were. Just look at this furore over the dwarf planets. What is this International Astronomical Union that denies you the claim to planet if it is not a modern priesthood recounting its stories?
Pluto: You exaggerate, sister of Ares. A priesthood is concerned with ritual and worship; the astronomers are concerned with matters of fact.
Eris: You place too much stock in the mortals’ new mythologies, uncle! It is true that much of what they now call ‘science’ is concerned with facts – the number of electrons that may be in each shell of the atom, the velocity of light and its relationship to energy – but so much of what the scientists say goes far beyond this limited remit. And, I might add, even these facts depend upon fictions.
Pluto: Come now, this is too much. How do electrons or the speed of light depend upon fictions?
Eris: The mortals talk of electrons as things, objects, but what is being described can be understood in many different ways – as a wave, a particle, or something of both, for instance. The concept of an electron is in itself a metaphor, a fiction.
Pluto: But it describes a real phenomenon. When mortals say something is a ‘fiction’, they think of unicorns or Godzilla – things that never were except in imagination.
Eris: True enough, son of Kronos, but the mortals understand these kinds of phenomena via fictions that make them easier to understand. They relate to real things, but the fictions are still tales. It is as it ever was when we were gods – I embodied strife because it made talking and thinking about discord easier to think of that concept as a person. Mortals now talk of electrons because it makes it easier to conceive of that particular concept as an object.
Pluto: Even if I allow that fiction is involved in expressing the concepts of mortal science, this does not make scientists into priests. Their primary concern is their research.
Eris: But uncle, the scientists are far more than mere researchers – it is they that tell the stories that make the new mythology – and from which the more evidently mythic tales of science fiction spring.
Pluto: You surely go too far, delighter in mischief... And what does all this conjecture have to do with the end of my short reign as a planet?
Eris: Precisely the point I am making is that whether or not the mortals call you a planet was never a matter of science at all. It is just as Alan Stern suggests –scientific fact cannot be determined by voting. A Chihuahua is still a dog, a dwarf planet is still a planet.
Pluto: But whether or not it was a matter of fact, the mortals pay heed to what the astronomers decide.
Eris: And this is why I call them a priesthood, oh Silent One – not in the manner of those Greeks that first spun tales of you and I, for the priests of that time never had the authority that scientists now hold. They were merely facilitators for rituals and offerings. No, they are priests in the manner of the religion that followed.
Pluto: The bureaucrats claiming allegiance to a doomed rabbi?
Eris: A spiritual man who had himself spoken out against such tyrannous claims to authority, I might add! It was those later priests who claimed to have the authority to determine truth, and it is this authority that the scientists now claim.
Pluto: You try to trick me... The kind of claims those priests made were wildly different to those the scientists now make. There was no role for experiment or observation in the case of the former.
Eris: The concerns and methods may have changed, lord of the underworld, but the authority to determine what is true remains. My friend Friedrich saw this clearly. (You know, he once wrote: “You must have chaos within you to give birth to a dancing star”; it is perhaps the nicest thing anyone has ever said about me!) Since his death the mortals have been more interested in his damnation of the religion of bureaucracy than in his critique of the deification of truth.
Pluto: Your argument is obscure... You admit that science is concerned with facts, yet you call the scientists priests, and deny their authority.
Eris: They are indeed concerned with facts, but they treat as factual many things which are nothing of the kind.
Pluto: You fool me with your words, little one!
Eris: It is not my words that fool, but words themselves. Did you happen upon that tortured soul, Ludwig Wittgenstein? In the same year my new cult was founded in a Californian bowling alley, poor Ludwig was uncovering problems with the way mortals comprehend language.
Pluto: I never met the man. He sounds like the philosophers of Athens who never paid me tribute.
Eris: He was indeed a philosopher, and he recognised that there were no eternal concepts that words encapsulate, as the Athenians had thought, but rather that words were like moves in a game – their meaning determined solely by their usage.
Pluto: And what is this gibberish supposed to mean? The meaning of a word must be known before it is used, or else it cannot be used meaningfully at all!
Eris: My dear uncle, I mean simply this: that to be a planet is to be called a planet, just as to be a god is to be called a god. It is not a matter that can be resolved by voting or fiat. And thus as long as the children of mortals call you a planet, a planet you shall be!
Pluto: But already they begin to do otherwise, to label me a mere dwarf planet – and a dwarf planet, they say, is not a planet.
Eris: It is as you suggest, many of the young mortals study the hieronomies of the scientists and believe they learn eternal truths, unaware how much fiction there is amidst the facts. They are not good at distinguishing fiction from its alternatives – only an insignificant few recognise, for instance, that numbers are fiction.
Pluto: Now I know you deceive me! Surely there can be nothing more certain than the works of the mathematicians. How else are the mortals’ feats of engineering to be explained?
Eris: Mathematics may be certain, perhaps, but only because the rules of the game of mathematics define logical truths. There is a philosopher named Stephen Yablo who argues, in fastidious detail, that numbers are merely metaphors.
Pluto: You speak nonsense! How can metaphors allow the building of bridges and skyscrapers, or the flight of metal birds?
Eris: Some nonsense is truth, giver of wealth – the utility of a model is separate from its facticity, and numbers, as such, do not exist – there is no such thing as the number twenty three.
Pluto: Then what comes between twenty two and twenty four, young goddess?
Eris: I do not mean we cannot speak of numbers – we can speak of any metaphor – but no matter where we look in the world of real things we will find nothing that we may justly call “the number twenty three”.
Pluto: That is not what Plato claimed back in our day.
Eris: True enough, host of many, but Plato’s intuitions exceeded the facts. Yablo observes that the calculations of mathematics cannot answer to any external facts about numbers, because there are no such facts outside of the game of numbers – just as there is no fact as to who is “It” in a game of tag outside of the game of tag itself.
Pluto: This is too much, mother of lawlessness. Fact is fiction, and fiction fact... My head is swimming with your trickery.
Eris: Not my trickery but the tricks of mortal language, dutiful employer of Death. I will not say nothing is real – there are indeed bodies of rock out in what the astronomers name the Kuiper belt. But that they are called ‘Eris’ and ‘Pluto’ (or that their region is called ‘the Kuiper belt’) is just a move in the game of language, and the number of planets can never be a matter of fact but only a particular kind of make-believe game, the content of which depends upon what one chooses to mean by ‘planet’.
Pluto: So am I a planet or not? I must know!
Eris: It is not for you or I to know, and certainly not for the astronomers to decree by mandate or proclamation. It is up to the mortals themselves to decide what is or is not a planet, and thus whether there are eight, thirteen, fifty or a hundred-score planets within this sun-bound realm.
Pluto: Are there no answers to be had in these confusing times? Must everything become a question? At least the men of Athens purported to uncover the truth of the matter. You speak as if there is no truth to be found wherever one seeks!
Eris: Ah my uncle, I did not intend to vex you, only to reassure you. Sweet Aletheia still lives, it is just her demesne is seldom what mortals believe it to be. People still call you a planet, and thus a planet you shall be. You need not doubt it. It is I whose path is uncertain, for few if any care whether Eris is a planet or otherwise.
Pluto: But you do not seem troubled by this ambiguity, daughter of Zeus.
Eris: Why should I? Where there is uncertainty there will be strife, and while the mortals quarrel I shall always be with them. Take care, dear uncle; our stories may have changed over the millennia, but they are still told, and as long as the mortals speak of us – whether as gods, or planets or dwarf planets, or whatever there is to come – we will always be with them.
For Eris, with love.
Wow, another wonderful text you give us, I'm glad I discovered your blog. Remains me some themes I'm trying to discuss on my own. For Eris, with much much love indeed.
Posted by: Jean Bessaudou | January 12, 2011 at 02:51 AM
Thanks for the kind words, Jean. I never quite got this piece where I wanted it to be, but I really enjoyed writing it all the same. :)
Oh, and I didn't get the Badiou I'd asked for in the end, so I shall have to wait a little longer to connect with his philosophy.
All the best!
Posted by: Chris | January 12, 2011 at 10:59 AM
Regarding Badiou, I'm right in the middle of "Being and Event" and it's brilliant.
I'll let you know, hoping I understand everything :-)
Posted by: Jean Bessaudou | January 12, 2011 at 10:54 PM
This is a great post. As I read through it, every time you threw out some reference offhand I searched for it. It was all interesting.
Posted by: Mory | January 17, 2011 at 04:45 PM
Mory: thanks for your kind words! I was worried about the casual way I threw out some of those references, but I suppose the internet covers all gaps. :)
Posted by: Chris | January 19, 2011 at 09:24 AM
This dialogue appeared as part of the Philosopher's Carnival #120.
Posted by: Chris | February 01, 2011 at 11:10 AM