Butterflies and Philosophy

I went to Butterfly World in Ft Lauderdale the other day–which includes several large enclosures where butterflies fly freely around the human visitors. The latter were all entranced; the former generally gracious. Why can deny the magic of lepidoptera? But what does it derive from? It is often remarked that the wings are gorgeous but the body is as unprepossessing as that of any insect. Does this mirror our own dual nature as both glorious and disgusting? They delight the human eye–how do other animals see them? Do other primates thrill to the sight of them? More prosaically, there is the old puzzle of identity: are the caterpillar and the butterfly numerically identical? Are they the same organism? The orthodox view in my day was that they are, because of causal continuity; but then we’d have to say that butterflies are caterpillars and caterpillars are butterflies, by Leibniz’s law. We’d also have to say that caterpillars are as beautiful as butterflies, that they can fly, and that they eat nectar: but none of these seem true. By all means admire the caterpillar, but don’t confuse her with the butterfly. And what of the chrysalis–is that identical to the butterfly? I envisage a nice popular book: The Philosophy of the Butterfly.

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