Burning Daylight

The future, Mr. Clean

The future, Mr. Clean

The speakers hammered out The Chieftains’ O’Sullivan’s March.
“What the hell is this?” he demanded.
I shrugged. “I can’t help it. If there is reincarnation, then I once wielded a Claymore. But there is no reincarnation, so let’s go.”
I switched off the engine. He didn’t know what I meant by that comment. He thought he did, but not really. He would someday though; I was sure of it. He was a smart lad.
It was already hot. The air smelled of baking pitch. My legs felt rubbery under the sun’s pressure, but the feeling didn’t last. By that time of year, the body had become acclimated. Marching up the paved trail, weaving through the lumbering tourists, my circulation rallied and my stride steadied. I passed pedestrians, some on the trail, some on the rocks beside the trail. It wasn’t that we were short of time; it was just nervous energy that made me walk fast.
I slowed down when we turned off the asphalt and started up the narrow climbers’ trail. When we hit the relative cool of the Tower’s shadow, I began to stroll. Where the trail butted against the rock’s base, I stopped. We dropped our packs and broke out harnesses and helmets while the sweat dried from our necks. He was ready quickly. He stood there looking at me, wearing a well-measured expression of annoyance.
I wouldn’t do this with someone else’s child. We had a bond, from the beginning, that made it alright. When the neonatologist told us that he had been put on a ventilator, his mother started to cry. I held her hand and told her not to worry. She had been part of the pregnancy, and reasonably expected that she had been delivered from its troubles. I had watched it the whole time from the outside, without any expectation of relief. We both knew what could happen. We had seen fetuses get tangled in their development and come out confused. We had seen maternal physiology give up on the process and, against the mother’s wishes, abandon it all in various ways. She knew these things could happen to her. I knew what I would have to watch. It was my proper place. I was a climber and I knew how to be helpless without suffering from helplessness.
That was why I didn’t cry, not when he was intubated, and not when I sat by the plastic crib and watched him lay too still. He wore a blinder for the first few days, to protect his eyes from the ultraviolet lamp which did his liver’s job for him and cleared the toxic pigments from his blood. They took the little mask off the day after the last of his tubes came out. He looked up, then he looked straight at me. He stared for a long time. The nurses made a big fuss about him recognizing his father, but I knew it for what it was. He had a little patch of nerves on the side of his brain which were devoted to facial recognition. Those nerves made a baby stare at faces, and they were working for him.
He stood looking bored and a little impatient as I fiddled with my helmet’s chin strap.
“This is hard, you know. I can fall off of this one,” I warned, “You’re sure you are OK with that? We can always go over to Assembly Line
“No,” he said flatly, “Burning Daylight
I was serious about Burning Daylight. It was a place that a friend of mine took those who would lay their hands on Mateo Tipi – the Bears’ Lodge – with impunity.
“I ought to be able to knit a sweater while climbing .10b,” the last one had said to him.
When he demanded his sweater as she scrabbled over the last roof, wild-eyed and bloodied, she didn’t reply.
Second pitch of Tulgey Wood

Second pitch of Tulgey Wood

We pushed through the bushes and clambered over a fallen log propped against the foot of the Tower. Where the scramble got steep, we roped up. The rope was mostly for my peace of mind. He could handle this terrain with little risk, even if it made him nervous. I didn’t have him put me on belay. If I fell , I would stop before my weight came onto him. The rope was for his mind more than his body too. It would speed him up and let him build some confidence along the way.I waltzed over the blocks and bushes, past the gnarled juniper tree and the briars to the ledge. This was the most dangerous part of the day; the routine, soft-focus section where a lapse could occur. I anchored into the base of the Burning Daylight crack and reeled in rope.
He followed quickly, buoyed by the nylon cord.
I hitched him into the anchor and began to sort gear. I would need everything, from aluminum wedges smaller than the end of my little finger, to cams as big as my fist. Part of the difficulty of the route was its variety. It never permitted a comfortable rhythm.
I had him put me on belay and we went through our final check. He understood the seriousness of the process. He was a smart lad. But he didn’t understand all the reasons, not really.I started up.
I placed a medium-sized chock in the first 10 feet. This was for him. If I fell, my weight would not come onto him directly. I would still break my leg if I fell, but he would be in good shape to get back down the approach. I moved out slightly onto the face to climb a series of edges, leading up to a stance below a bulging corner. If I fell from there, the gear failed and I hit the belay ledge, I would be killed. He would be on his own to get down, but I had confidence in his ability to do so. He had a natural faculty for seeing the mechanics of a situation clearly. It would work for him in case.
I pulled through the bulge, feeling solid. Now standing under the crux roof, I dawdled with setting up the protection. I tried to remember how I had done it the last time, but I couldn’t. I trusted that the feel of it would come back to me as I began. That was the useful part anyway. Exposition of the moves just soothed the mind.
I reached up and locked my fingers in the crack. My feet set on the last good holds, I stretched high with my other hand and set its digits in the fissure above the roof. They rested loosely. I tensioned my body against the handholds and moved my feet, the left one onto a small irregularity below the roof, the right to a vertical seam on the wall of the corner. My right knee turned in to hold tension, I shuffled my hands higher in the crack above the roof. The forces shifted back across my shoulders as I raised my left foot over the roof and set it on the smooth, sloping ledge. Without pressure on it, the sole slipped slightly. I recovered and reset it. Gently, I transferred weight onto the sticky rubber until it could withstand some force. One more step and I was over the roof.
The next roof was easier, as it led to a hand crack. I wouldn’t fall out of a hand crack, not unless I had a seizure or was struck by lightning. It ended too soon. I placed a couple of cams near the top of the crack and began stemming up the final, overhanging corner. It was technical friction, not too hard, but with tired feet, it always felt desperate.
I clipped the anchor bolts and yelled, “Off belay!”
I took my shoes off and secured the rope for him. He took a long time putting on his shoes. I couldn’t see him easily past the overhangs, but I was suspicious about the delay.
I called down, “Did you clean the anchor?”
“We were going to use that to clip back in to when we rap.”
“I won’t need it,” he assured me.
There was another reason for leaving the bottom anchor: he would need it if he quit and had to be lowered.
“On belay,” I replied.
I began to take up rope as he advanced. It accumulated slowly on the ledge beside me. After 15 feet, I could hear him breathing. The respirations were even yet. Then the rope stopped. He must have come to the little bulge. A couple more feet of rope came up, then the line went taut.
“Damn it!” he spat.
I bit down on words of encouragement. I wasn’t going to take this away from him just yet. Once more, the rope went slack, then taut, but there was no more swearing. He hung on the harness for a long time. When he moved again, the rope kept coming.
“Take,” he called.
No swearing at all this time. He stopped for a minute or two to puzzle out the crux.
“OK, climbing.”
I leaned out from the anchors. I could see him now. He had the rattley finger lock over the roof. His right foot slipped, but he didn’t tense up or let go. He put his left knee against the edge of the roof and re-established the right foothold. He shuffled his hands up, and it went.
He slouched in his harness and shook blood back into his forearms. Taking a deep breath, he stepped back onto the rock. At the second roof he paused and asked for a tip.
“Feet high on the right wall until you can reach above the overhang,” I suggested, “then palm out left and get your left foot on a big edge over the lip.”
He started the moves and got stymied.
“What the f-. Oh, hand crack,” he declared, finally wriggling high enough to reach over the edge, “Never mind.”
He cruised the rest of the crack to the friction climbing and the exit moves. The corner was steep again, and he was tired. For a minute, he tried to establish a position in the final, little chimney which would allow him to reach the exit holds. Exhausted, he weighted the rope again. At that point, I was close enough to reach down and give him a hand up if I just extended my connection to the anchor a little bit. The thought crossed my mind, but then he looked up at me. His expression reflected his fatigue and some exasperation, but no panic or defeat. He was comfortable on the rope, and he knew he could finish the climb. He wanted to finish. I sat back.
“Take your time,” I told him.
“Yeah. I’m back on,” he replied.
With a little more fumbling and swearing, he managed to drape his hand over the solution-hold below the belay ledge and pull over the top.
“Nice job,” I told him.
“How hard is that compared to the hardest climb at the Tower?” he asked.
I shook my head, “Not that hard.”
“No, I mean how much harder is the hardest one?” he insisted.
“Three number grades.”
He nodded. I began setting up the rappel while he transferred gear to a sling on my shoulder.
“Do you want to go first?” I asked.
“No,” he said, “you go.”
I checked his set-up and descended. At the base, I thought about resetting the anchor, but decided against it. He lingered for quite a while after I called “off rope”. I didn’t worry. I just sat and looked out at the perfect weather and the perfect flood-plain of the Belle Fourche river, not thinking about anything but the passage of time. And that, I told myself, was nothing at all.

Tagged , , ,

You Betcha

We’re either all going to Heaven or we ain’t. – Sonny Steele

When the end comes to this old world,

The righteous will cry and the rest will curl up,

And God won’t take the time to sort your ashes from mine,

Because we zig and zag between good and bad,

Stumble and fall on right and wrong,

Because the tumbling dice and the luck of the draw,

Just leads us on. – Dave Lowery

Pascal’ wager is an oft-dismissed argument for belief in God. On the face of it, the wager in question does look pretty silly. It also seems like a real statement on risk assessment, on the face of it. It is neither. Pascal’s wager is an argument about knowledge and its relationship to truth, and by extension, an argument about the potential relevance of belief in God. The bet is this: if we can’t know whether or not God exists, then we might as well believe that it does, because belief in God’s existence is the more consequential option. The wager admits the God-concept only as a possibility. That is, it is something we can construct from our logical conventions in a rudimentary way. Whatever else you may think of God, it is a concept served by conventions like time and location – or at least, their corollaries, and it is a convention itself in cosmology. We experience a world which permits logic and also surprises us. God provides a possible means of describing our experience. The terms of the wager then bypass the question of God’s actual existence, for reasons which will become apparent. The bet turns instead to the question of consequences. What do you stand to gain or lose when you bet on how you talk about what you know? If there is an actual infinite, timelessness or universality, we won’t notice. Nor will we bat an eye over the truth of our more conventional conventions. In physics, we use meters and seconds to tell the story of motion. You may claim that meters are bogus, but I will still see you standing one meter away from me if you stand one meter away from me. You want to say we can’t do without seconds, that they are written into the universe, fine. Time will still seem to pass for us, but not for the tunneling electron. The case remains the same, even when the conventions appear to make the whole story. In painting, brush strokes serve the role of meters and seconds in physics. The Mona Lisa is the Mona Lisa due to the genius of Leonardo’s brush-work. But if you claim that there is no true art without Leonardo’s technique, the fans of pointillism suffer no calamity. All bets on the absolute truth of our conventions are bets with play money. We may feel the effects of the adequacy of our depictions as a whole. An astronaut may be quite concerned that our meters-and-seconds story about motion makes a good prediction. An admirer of the Mona Lisa can make a pretty good case that it is better art than a child’s stick figure. But the meters, seconds and brush strokes themselves, cut from the story and laid on the table? Those are fluff. Go all in with them. Who cares? Those ideas have meaning – are true – locally, in context. We can’t parley them into larger, certain truths.

But the mechanics of the bet are only half the story. Because, Pascal’s Wager can be taken not just as a commentary on our grasp of truth, but as a description of what we actually do. It accuses us of being vulnerable to its appeal. We have the gall to reasonably expect the posited base of all being to consider our existences in a way which is at all comprehensible to us.

If there is a God, he is infinitely incomprehensible, since, having neither parts nor limits, he has no affinity to us. We are incapable of knowing either what he is or if he is…Reason can decide nothing here. – Pascal

Pascal recognized the absurdity of the situation. Yet, with his (very French) apprehension of the absurd, he recognized the license which absurdity grants. Staking a claim on the incomprehensible is just as insane as declaring war upon it. Our hope in God’s grace is absurd, but hope is something to have, as opposed to everything else at issue in his wager. There is something to gain after all. The real problem is: hope is merely a Pollyanna story. It’s the sunny substitute for a more troubling, and more complete, description of a quality which we really need. We can find some clue about the true nature of what hope papers over in hope’s intransigence. We admire the cancer patient’s noble ability to endure horrible treatments in the name of a brighter future which may never come. The same hope has nestled in the hearts of all those who ever proposed a war to end all wars. Somewhere on the edge of a North African desert, a mother loads her infant on her back, takes her small child by the hand, and sets off from her barren village for another country. This person is not motivated by hope. Her situation is too absurd. Her children will die in her hut, or they will die in the desert. What she exhibits is defiance. Her walk is an empty gesture, an expenditure of life with no other reason behind it. The admirers of hope only flirt with the deep truth of human psychology which she has found at the end of all options. Defiance moves us, though we are loathe to acknowledge it. We can’t gussie-up defiance like we can hope. Defiance is not smart, not sublime, and not rational. It is myopic and has teeth. We can’t blame Pascal and his fellow religious adherents for preferring hope when offered it in lieu of the whole truth. But hope is finally an inadequate convention and not something to have. It is arrogant, and brings the errors of arrogance with it. It makes the woman’s walk into the desert quaint. It readies us for the next war to end all wars. So, we must abandon Pascal’s hope. It is not a worthy prize, for it will betray us in the end. In the light of a wider window on ourselves though, there is another bet to make. Either our existence is somehow concordant with some incomprehensible entity or it is not. If it is, then we live in defiance of an eternal other, and incomprehensible, existence which is our final fate. If it is not, then we live in defiance of an incomprehensible judgment. Either way, we carry on as we were, in defiance. Our best bet is that God is irrelevant.

Tagged , , , , ,


“What did you do today?” I asked.
“Got my ass kicked,” he replied with a smile.
I just laughed. Only from climbers do you get such an honest answer to that question, with no attached complaint.
I was glad to get my ass kicked too. We all expect it at Vedauwoo.
It isn’t the offwidths or even the rough, yet slick rock. It’s the thorough tradiness of the area. It’s a place where anchors have been consolidated and ratings have been downgraded. It’s a place where your two pitches of straight-forward climbing are complicated by thunderstorms and brutal wind.
It’s a spectacular place. It kicks your ass like a neat glass of Laphroaig. From the Rat Brain (go see it – pros, mes, and telencephalon made of stone), to the parking lot wildlife, to the battling guitars of the Kolorado Kampground Kids, it’s charm is unique, and it will own you.

Tagged , ,

They Solved It! They Solved It!

Geriatricians have solved the hard problem of consciousness! From the July 1st issue of American Family Physician: “Some validated scales, such as Pain Assessment in Advanced Dementia…use objective measures to assess pain intensity and response to intervention.” The objective measures: abnormal breathing pattern, increased vocalizations, observed tension in the face and body, and capacity to be calmed by caregiver voice and touch. In short, agitation is synonymous with pain. And how do we know this? Because the researchers have observed that opiates attenuated agitation in their subjects with advanced dementia. That’s how the scale and its underlying assumptions were validated at once.
Many have questioned the utility of philosophy. Well, here it is. The PAINAD scale is valid, no doubt. This is something that can be determined by definition. If two different people observe the same demented patient, it is quite likely, predictably likely, that the observers will come up with the same score on the scale. But that begs the question. The real problem is not coherence. Coherence does not make truth. The real problem is the truth of the claim that agitation represents pain in a person with advanced dementia. Such information is not available to us, at least not in the defined, quantifiable way which we would prefer.
We can’t know anybody’s pain, really. That’s because it is everybody’s pain that gives us the concept of pain in the first place. The sensation I experience when I grab an electric fence, for instance supervenes on the action of the fence charger, the conductivity of my body and the ground, activation of peripheral nocioceptors, mediation by inter-neurons in my spinal cord, and finally my thalamus and cortex where it is contextualized as my very own experience of shock. My experience of the shock from the fence, indeed all my pain experience, is unique. In the case of a shock from the electric fence, my experience is trivially unique – to the extent that I can predict my friend’s response if I tell him why he shouldn’t touch the fence. But the pain-concept supervenes on all those unique experiences in the same way that my own experience supervenes on the collection of events surrounding my hand’s contact with the wire. A thing called pain doesn’t appear out of the process. If that were so, I should have ready access to it and the PAINAD scale would be unnecessary. I would just slap some electrodes on the patient’s skull and watch for the pain signature in his cortical electrical activity. But I can’t, nor will I in the future, though I might have such a tool. Cortical electrical patterns might be the narrow point in the pain experience, the place where the difference in my experience and the patient’s is most trivial. But I must still correlate the activity with some report from the individual or a set of individuals in a similar condition. Some kind of PAINAD-type analogy will always be the best that I can do.
So what does this application of philosophy to pain treatment tell me? What use is philosophy? First, it tells me that I should not expect to fix everyone’s, or anyone’s, pain by stimulating their opiate receptors. The experience becomes pain-type only when it is put in context. We can easily imagine pain experiences where the opiate receptors play a very different role. Take the poet’s description of the pain of a broken heart. Do we write off his report entirely as a quaint analogy as opposed to our serious ones? If so, how is his report effective in communicating a sense of the experience to us? What do we say when we find out that he used laudanum and found some partial relief? Addressing the mechanisms of pain can only go so far, because mechanisms only go so far in explaining the painfulness of an experience.
The application of philosophy to pain can save me from a different pragmatist’s mistake in treating pain as well. I’ll pick on my surgical colleagues for a moment. On multiple occasions, I’ve had a surgeon tell me, “Nobody ever died from pain.” Inevitably, this little bubble of wisdom surfaces in reference to a patient whose pain management has passed from the surgeon to myself. My knee-jerk response is to point out that nobody ever died from hip arthritis either, but surgeons are still quite happy to replace hip joints. Yet I understand the pragmatic meaning of the statement: people have died from opiate overdoses, so we can’t just capitulate to a person’s demands for ever-increasing doses of opiates to treat their pain. As noted above, the notion that simply stimulating opiate receptors necessarily fixes pain is misguided. But there is a subtext. Death is measurable. Respiratory suppression due to opiates does something, and therefore it is real in way in which pain is not. When you get right down to it, pain can be ignored. But it isn’t that easy. The human condition won’t be ignored anymore than it will be medicated. The hard problem remains hard. It isn’t hard because our subjectivity is some spooky ectoplasm or narcissistic property. It isn’t hard because our experiences will never move a dial or tip a scale. It is hard because things which explain and are explained have a reality to them as much as things which do something, yet we’re stuck working with the functional things, like the observed behaviors in the PAINAD scale. So we have a tightrope to walk. We can only ever come close to helping others with problems like pain, and only then if we act comprehensively. We can never completely succeed. But that doesn’t mean we must fail. We can just never get too sure of ourselves when we do something like suppress a demented patient’s agitation with an opiate – and think we can call it good.

Tagged , , , , , , , , ,

The Hammerhead Mentality

Hammerhead (ham-er-hed) n. 1. the part of a carpentry tool used to drive nails 2. any tool’s feature designed to impact an object 3. metaphysically, an implement used to achieve the wielder’s intent through main force 4. (slang, common parlance) any person with a modus operandi analogous to that of the tool, usually expressing the speaker’s contempt 5. (slang, among climbers) any person with a modus operandi analogous to that of the tool, usually expressing the speaker’s admiration and horror.
A hammer has a sort of minimalist beauty. It is clean. It has a singular answer to all challenges. It cannot – it will not – be mistaken for something which it is not. The beauty of the hammerhead mentality is the same. It forges a pure, guileless path in the world. It wakes each morning without ulterior motive; it pounds through each day without ulterior motive.
The psychological dynamic at issue has always been part of the human repertoire. The most famous, historical hammerhead was Alexander the Great. I’ve heard people question why anyone would ever follow such a jackass, as the blustering fool marched his army across Asia Minor to no good end. He wasn’t a blustering fool though, he was a hammerhead and I’m sure his men caught a serious case of Special-Sense-of-Purpose from him. Sure, he didn’t need to conquer India. He was simply out conquering, and India was next. Likewise, cutting the Gordian knot wasn’t a clever, if arrogant, statement or “out of the box” thinking; it was a natural hammerhead move. At the end, nobody was worried about that damned ox-cart anymore, and they could all get on with the conquest.
In fable, Aesop’s grasshopper, from The Ant and the Grasshopper, is a hammerhead. But only in a certain version of the fable – the one where the grasshopper is not a dissolute slob, the one where he’s just really, really into dancing and singing. It’s the version of the grasshopper with which we can sympathize. It’s the version which exposes the potential meanness of the ant’s viewpoint.
Their noble clarity is why we climb with hammerheads, why we train with them, and why we stick around to pick up the pieces. Because the unaided exponent of the hammerhead mentality is doomed from the start. Nature is bigger than us, and that’s a fact. Some routes will not go. There is a limit to strength, reach, and flexibility. A person can only go without sleep, food and water for so long. You can’t always just push through.
It’s a flaw as well as a merit of the hammerhead mentality that its hold is unwavering by nature, on the outside and on the inside. Once the hammerhead is engaged, it’s too late. The focus takes over and won’t let go, even in the face of impending doom. Nevertheless, we need the hammerhead mentality. At the very least, we have some unique lessons to learn from observing it in action.
The hammerheads have two things to teach the world. The first thing is: they show us how lucky we all really are. We are much more in command of most situations than we imagine, and we shouldn’t always act so surprised about it. If we just set aside our doubts and fears, we could often do more than we imagine. The odds are naturally in our favor.
As climbers, for instance, our eyes are drawn first to the peaks rather than the smooth rock faces. Our digits are shaped to hook over edges and close around corners. The knobby bits at the bottoms of our brains are really good at keeping us in balance. Our fingertips have little ridges on them. The game is rigged in our favor. We just need to know how far we can push our luck, and of course, that’s the problem for hammerheads.
They need to direct themselves at manageable projects. They can’t be allowed to build up too much momentum. In short, they need help, by means of another behavioral model to back them up and good counsel. They need ants. Not the nasty little ants in the bad version of Aesop’s fable, just waiting to say, “told you so,” and slam the door in the grasshopper’s face. They need the clever ants, the ones with some tricks up their sleeves, who can appreciate the merits of the hammerhead mentality and are prepared to compensate for its flaws. This isn’t pure charity on the ants’ part either.
Focus is a necessary virtue, despite the requisite sacrifices. A person fixated on the summit, the anchor chains or the next hold has abandoned their self-control in order to push through. On occasion though, nothing else suffices. We all can – indeed we must – slip into the hammerhead mentality from time to time for good and ill, even if it’s not our policy. That’s the hammerheads’ second lesson. Even a good ant may need an ant in their own head now and again, if not a doppelganger at the other end of the rope. Being the ant at the other end of the rope is just good practice.

Tagged , , , , , , , , ,

Can You Keep It Real?

On a cold morning, a little girl named Suzy is waiting for the School Bus at the bottom of a steep hill. It was raining the night before, and water has been flowing next to the curb. The water froze in the early hours of the morning, forming a sheet of black ice. The ice sheet extends all the way down to Suzy, and unfortunately for her, passes under the tires of a Cadillac Coupe DeVille parked in the middle of the hill. As the sun hits the hill, the ice loses its grip on the tires and the car slides silently and rapidly down the hill, striking Suzy and killing her instantly.
Now suppose the same chain of events ensues, except this time, the car breaks loose just as the cars owner, Andy, sits down in the driver’s seat and closes the door. The inside door handle is broken, so he can’t just jump back out again. The power windows are up and the horn doesn’t work, so he has no way to warn Suzy of her impending doom. He desperately turns the wheel, but it’s too slick for the tires to grab. Suzy dies just as in scenario #1.
Again, suppose the circumstances are the same, but this time, the owner of the car is different. Let’s call him Brian. When Brian realizes that he is sliding out of control, he thinks, “You know, I’ve always hated that little bitch anyway,” and he turns the wheel to direct the car toward little Suzy. Again, the tires have no purchase on the ice and the chain of events is unaltered.
Is there a moral distinction in the incident between the unoccupied car and the occupied car? Between the incident with Andy and the incident with Brian? If so, where is the independent and objective moral fact in each case?
To take things a little further, suppose Suzy doesn’t die. After the car launches her through the air, she manages to stick a perfect landing in the grassy median, apparently uninjured. But Suzy’s parents soon notice that something is amiss. When they ask her, “Did you enjoy your dinner dear?” she replies, “The meal was such that it would produce an enjoyable sensation in a person so disposed.”
When they ask her, “Are you comfortable dear?” she answers, “My condition is such that a person capable of it would feel cold.” Suzy appears completely impassive throughout. She eats, sleeps, and goes to school just like she did before the accident. A full medical workup turns up nothing. Gradually, Suzy’s parents stop feeding her anything fancy. She does not complain. They dress her in a burlap shift every day. She’s apparently fine with it. They turn off the heat in her room and only crank the thermostat back up if she begins shivering. They say they still love Suzy; the extras just don’t matter anymore.
Are Suzy’s parents behaving immorally? What is Suzy’s moral status and why?
Let’s go one step further. Suppose Suzy lands in a heap, but survives. She is apparently comatose. Her doctors think that they can help though. They begin an infusion of medication that will awaken her. As the medication flows into her vein, she bolts upright with a look of horror.
“What have you done?” she demands, “Put me back. I’ve been grown for years, I have children of my own and they need me.”
What should Suzy’s parents do? Does Suzy’s inner world have any value? If so, why? If not, why?

Tagged , , , , ,

You Can’t Escape Your Faith

This will be a quick point. The point is negative, but the motive behind the point is not. So I will go on about the motive for a bit before getting to the point. Please bear with me.
Believers are often flabbergasted by non-believers’ obsession with theology. If I may indulge in a little hyperbole, this is like marveling at the Israelis’ obsession with the Third Reich. It’s kind of the elephant in the room, and a very insistent elephant at that. See ‘evangelism’. The non-believer’s ignoring it all will not be ignored.
Some see the constant poking as an invitation to a fight. I don’t. People are more complicated than that, if given the opportunity. Maximizing opportunity explains my political motive and my personal motive in making the critical point that I’m going to make about apologetics. I want believers to be the best believers that they can be. I want them to heed the exhortations in their scriptures to be humble, to have faith, to take their empathetic impulses seriously. I want them to be good believers because I think it will temper their impulse to distrust and marginalize us non-believers. But that’s the lesser part of it. Mostly, I want them to be good believers because I am a social animal, and that makes them my people. I don’t know why I am a social animal, and as I understand my circumstances, I can’t know why. But that is irrelevant. The truth is: we need each other, and when we cut off members of the species, we are contradicting ourselves.
Faith is necessary to be a good believer. If you are to believe in a transcendent context and a grand necessity it must be something posited, a starting assumption by which all is explicable. It cannot be something which is explained, even by all things. It can’t need an apology. I’m sorry, but that’s what transcendence really means, if it really means anything.
Now I can make my quick point. Cosmological arguments are prime examples of the corrosiveness of apology. These are arguments by analogy. They state that, for a primary or non-contingent cause to participate in subsequent causal relations or contingencies, it must be like those subsequent causes or contingencies, though it is not a subsequent cause or contingent object itself. From this likeness, the arguments then deduce other qualities as necessary precursors unique to the primary cause or non-contingent base. Such deductions are not valid. The qualities in question are, by definition, essentially unlike and independent of subsequent causes and contingencies.
The problem with all theological apologies, as in the Cosmological ones, lies in the habit of deducing from analogies. The practice implies that there is not just an explanation from God, but that there is a science of God. It implies that there are things which we can deduce about God’s workings. We can then begin to repeat the mistakes of the Scholastics, and not just the initial, innocent ones about angels and pinheads, but the final ones about crusades and confessions too. It’s a tempting way to be. It seems so decisive and satisfyingly self-righteous. But it’s ultimately limiting, fearful and inconsistent. It’s OK. You don’t need it. Stop apologizing and just have faith.

Tagged , , ,

The Chthonic

It had a periodicity to it, but not like anything man-made. Instead, it was like a geyser. As it rose to the surface it swirled chaotically around hidden shelves and side-channels, so its interval was uneven. The uncertainty contributed to our tension, the nephew’s most of all.
“Yeeeeeeeeeee!” she screeched, then closed her mouth and relaxed again.
Between screams, she looked as peaceful as a Buddha. Perhaps, her caretakers speculated, the discomfort of prolonged immobility or some occult infirmity drove the screaming. We had given her increasing doses of pain medication, to no avail. Perhaps she somehow had enough consciousness remaining to experience the dislocation of facing the present without access to the immediate past, not knowing moment to moment how she got in the bed, why she felt like she did, whose arm lay at her side, whose mouth was screaming. We had given her anxiolytics and she just kept screaming. Perhaps she was bedeviled by visions. We gave her our best potions against inner demons and her timing did not falter.
“This is Hell,” said the nephew, “She is in Hell. I want this to stop.”
She had chosen well, or someone had. Sometimes, the decision about who would oversee the death defaulted to hereditary proximity, geographic factors, and availability. This nephew had some connection to her beyond practicality. Of course, he spoke for himself. No one knew what her vocalizations signified. We had taken our best guesses and come up short. What he wanted now was not a treatment. He wanted a cure for it all. To be clear, it was not euthanasia he was requesting. He wanted us to ablate whatever remained of her consciousness. He wanted oblivion, or at least its appearance.
It wasn’t killing, but it was taking something away from someone who appeared to have so little. We were always wary of treating extrinsic things, of giving medications to fix a person’s bad relationships or discomfort with herself. It was different for the dying though.
Everything was becoming extrinsic for her. She couldn’t be crying out for something. That time had passed. At best, her screams expressed something which we could not know, but something which was less specific, less relevant to anything inside, as she came closer to death.
He was right. The screams meant what he said: this is Hell; I want this to stop. I had an obligation to her and no choice in the matter. Of course he spoke for himself.
“I will do as you wish,” I said.

Tagged , , , ,

Finding True North

[Note: this post builds on 3 previous posts, Jesus Christ: Error Theorist, Men, Mores and Mimbos: The Strange Case of Moral Fact, and Chaos Theory]

People talk a lot about meaning and purpose. Most consider those two things quite important. But for concepts held so dear, most people have an ill-formed notion of meaning and purpose. That most hold the two ideas to be roughly equivalent is testament to the squishiness of the concepts. Meaning and purpose are quite different things overall, but they do have one thing in common, and their one commonality may account for much of the confusion between the two and otherwise.
The feature which they share is that each idea can be held as a tautology. Actually, that’s about it for purpose, because purpose is the action of an intent. Talk of purpose assumes intent. So, reasonable talk of purpose is local. It can’t fly far from the source of intention without losing its power. For example, if I give you a morphine tablet for your pain from a broken leg, the purpose of the morphine tablet leaves my hand with the pill. As the pill drops into your palm, your intention is imported and so is your purpose. It is entirely possible that you will save the tablet to get high when you’re feeling better. This importation of purpose is the source of much of our sense of agency. It is also a thready link to meaning.
Meaning can be taken as what can be represented – a tautology. That’s a little cheap. Meaning is locality. There, that’s better; it no longer begs the question. ‘The red book’ means paper, ink spots shaped by interlocking sets of purpose (the writer’s, the publisher’s, the printer’s), the space it occupies among colored books, books I know about, other red things, etc. on and on.
Here’s the meaning-purpose link. Meaning shapes our intention. Our location gives us the things to be about. Our location is what we are all about and is all about us.
So, the meanings are relative, but not free-floating. They are not unmoored from space, time or history. We can map them – represent them – like the North pole. In fact, true North is a perfect example of the relations in question.
True North is kind of a convention. We don’t need it, we have satellites and radio receivers. There’s no logical necessity to true North. True North has a meaning behind it though. It is located, and not just on the earth. Because it has location, it also has a vicinity – surroundings which create its boundary conditions. Considered in terms of the point where the axis of the earth’s rotation meets the planet’s surface, declination means something, as does Polaris – and vice versa. The specificity of meaning constrains the intention it shapes and the scope of action available to that intention. It’s subsequently tempting to see the representation of that meaning as independent and efficacious Form. But true North is finally a relative location, not a mark on a map. It is made of stuff as far down as we can dig, and in every direction. So are all our representations, down to our self-representation.
There is a final question which people like to ask of this state of affairs: Is the lattice-work self-supporting, or is there some truer North? Is all this in some way necessary? That’s something buried too deep for the tools with which we are equipped. The only answers we can give are a priori assumptions (not presuppositions) whose relevance is questionable to us dwellers in the world of representations. But believers in a truer North don’t want or need an answer, I think. The assumption serves well enough, and I have to agree with Dostoyevsky about what would happen should someone show up one day with an answer to put an end to all projection. The question for the believer is: do you think this is an indictment of your faith, or a good reason to hold it?

Tagged , , , , ,

New Moon

“Do you want to do the top half?”, I asked.
“Yes!”, he insisted.
He was offended that I’d doubted his motivation. For him, this was the advantage of climbing with his dad: he needn’t feign disaffection.
“OK,” I replied.

I kept my tone as flat as possible, but I had my doubts. I could dumb down the next 30 meters, but only to a point. The easiest line was still grade 4+ – vertical, more or less. He wasn’t too worried about whether or not he could get up it. He was not a child anymore, but he was not an adult yet, either. He still subscribed to the quaint notion that, whatever happened, dad would sort it out. Actually, he was right in the case at hand. I wouldn’t have suggested that he continue without a back-up plan in mind. I could manage things if he quit in the middle, but it would be a real pain in the ass.

I placed quite a few screws on the way up, in part to keep him on the easiest line, in part to keep him out of the way if I had to come back down and sort it out should he fail. But he didn’t fail. He didn’t even make any whiney noises, only one curse at a slight slip. Besides that curse, the only sound from him was the measured, heavy breathing of the highly determined.
“Kind of overkill on the ice screws, dad,” he remarked at the top, “What is this climb called?”
“Leigh Creek,” I answered.

He never asked about names or ratings last year. He’d exhibited some ambition. It was a sure sign of lycanthropy. I envied him in a way. I remembered the transformation well – the ravenous fixation on routes, the immunity to adversity, the anticipation of new phases building to the next big climb and its fearful, all-consuming fury.
I also remembered the frustrations of hiding an identity which others found strange, frightening and repulsive.
“What,” I asked family and friends, “you want to go to the beach in February? Well, that’s a very bad time for me. It’s the busy season at work and I’m likely to be so irritable as to be indisposed.”
“May? I’m scheduled to be in Canada in May,” I’d object, “and you’d hate to see what happens if I don’t make that appointment.”
“The city in August? With all those people?” I’d demur, “Could be a little, ah, dangerous at that time, I think. I tend to be in a bit of a ‘mood’ then. Best not.”
There was a downside, but for the afflicted there was no cure. I set up the ropes to descend. He stood by with a hint of a smile on his face and a hungry look in his eyes.
“Can we go to Cody next year?” he asked.
I looked him up and down. He was getting meaty. Soon he’d be heavy enough to belay me without a bottom anchor. I felt my lips creep back over my teeth.

“Sure,” I said, “We’ve got this Summer to get through, but yeah, we’ll go to Cody next season, if you’re still up for it.”

Tagged , , , , , ,

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 153 other followers