The Joy of the Circle

I didn’t like to fly. I kept waiting for the bumps to stop. Regardless, the supple machine continued to bob and thrash like a trout in the rapids. A few rows forward, a child began to cry. Between the two of us, adults read their magazines and played video games on their phones. No doubt, they recalled that flying was safe. The statistics were incontrovertible. And in theory, the engineers knew exactly how the air would flow and how the engines would perform. Why should a passenger worry?

Yet no one had predicted the rolls and soft spots in the atmosphere over which we presently skipped. No one really knew what fury of heat and pressure swirled in the engine at that moment. Flying was inherently dangerous. The little boy up front knew it because he didn’t believe in theories yet. He knew what happened when a glass fell off the counter. He knew what happened when a stick, flexing like the wings were, bent too far. I knew it because I habitually did dangerous things and tried to make them safe. I had faith in statistics, but I also knew that sometimes, only one little thing had to go wrong. In the chaos of fluids which sustained our flight, if the one little thing did go wrong, we were all lost without hope of recovery.

The boy’s naiveté could be forgiven, as could the adults’ ignorant confidence, but what about my fatalism? I had better have a reason for getting on this flight, hadn’t I? My children had no one else to care for them. Countless, unimagined opportunities awaited back on the ground at home. What did I have to say for myself and my self-conscious gamble with extinction?

All I could come up with was et tu quoque. I had seen a Wyoming toad once. It was at night, at a rest stop, in the middle of Summer. Its species was endangered, yet this toad made no excuse of the fact. It followed a line of ants down the middle of the sidewalk beneath the streetlights, lapping up the insects one after the next. My six year old son crouched over the little amphibian, delighted. It would never have a better friend and ally, but it couldn’t have known. All it could have known was that the shape looming over it had not struck yet, and that the ants were right there. The toad was gambling with extinction, and a critic might have called it selfish.

But the toad could have responded. If it believed in theories, it could have claimed that it was simply a disciple of Yamamoto Tsunetomo, obeying his dictum:

Even if one’s head were to be suddenly cut off, he should be able to do one more action with certainty.

Or it could have called upon Nietzsche in its defense, claiming that it didn’t pursue ants, but rather:

…a becoming that knows no satiety, no disgust, no weariness: this, my Dionysian world of the eternally self-creating, the eternally self-destroying, this mystery world of the twofold voluptuous delight, my “beyond good and evil”, without goal, unless the joy of the circle is itself a goal…

The toad’s response was better though, because it didn’t believe in theories. Its defense was: a warm night and an Eldorado of ants. Mine would be the same. How else would I defend even my love for my children? No set of laws bound us to each other, only a chance (in theory) arrangement in space and time. Yet it was a chance that went straight to the bone, no question. I had no better answer for the feeling that had gotten me strapped in this chair, bouncing through the sky to an uncertain fate. It was a feeling for a stranger, I’d have to admit if pressed. But it wasn’t composed of what I knew about her, anymore than my love for my children was composed of what I knew about them. It was a chance arrangement in space and time. It was nothing I chose, but it went straight to the bone, no question. Like the toad, I’d risk every calamity with open eyes. I took a breath, shook my head, and stopped waiting for the bumps to stop.

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Here We Go

It may not have been a Polar Vortex, but the lack of marketing didn’t make it any warmer. It was perfect. The climb opposite the Ten Sleep fish hatchery formed in such circumstances.
What better way to begin the year than with a test of nerve and commitment rather than strength and skill?
The temperature was in the teens, but in the sun, we could climb in a single layer.
It was a race on tiptoes. The screws were melting out (I cleaned most of them by a simple pull on the way down). The ice was thin and poorly bonded. If I climbed it enough times over the seasons, the day would come when it cracked and slid under my pick.
But that day did not come.
It was a beautiful day.

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Political affiliation? Oh, I’m a Pessimist.

In the Billings zoo, there is a small, Plexiglas enclosure housing a family of pygmy marmosets. When you approach the glass, they dash back to cower against the trunk of their artificial tree. But if you stand there long enough, the lead marmoset will venture back out on a branch at head height. Once he is eye to eye with you, he will yawn and blink, flashing his teeth and upper lids in threat. Primates held captive by other primates, the marmosets persist in behaviors towards us which appear a little silly in their current situation with its artificial constraints and artificial accommodations. However, it is the best that they can do, as their alternatives are battering themselves to death against the glass or succumbing to madness. I consider my own situation to be no different, and I don’t consider myself special.

If we are really being honest, we must admit that the move to agriculture has been a disaster. Since our domestication, we’ve tried to make the best of it. Most of our efforts to spiff up domestic existence have gone into building transparent boxes for ourselves – titles, cubicles, buildings, polities – and equipping them with life-like accommodations. The remainder of our efforts have gone into building boxes for others, (our little cousins in the zoo for example), to make us feel more comfortable with our own enclosures.

Political organizations have been no small part of our attempt to settle in to domestication. They have been a great tool, as they incorporate lots of toothy yawns and exaggerated blinks in their proceedings, and those gestures are as natural and comforting for us as they are for the marmosets. However, political organizations sometimes take themselves too seriously. Most seriously, they sometimes propose that they can offer a final reconciliation and teach us to love the box. Europe and Asia have endured the stewardship of such true believers and, perhaps excepting the Russians, have learned to revile it.

Over here, in the terrarium tagged “U.S. of A.”, we have been slightly more fortunate. Our politicians have flirted with Great Societies and Shining Cities, but have been good players and hypocrites, rather than true believers. Right now, the Republicans are flirting with – something? – that they say will constitute the ideal box. I can’t quite make out the lines of their sketch. It’s either a homogenous, industrious God-and-Country, or a socioeconomic free-range game park. It doesn’t matter. When it’s time to commit to their vision, they won’t. To do so would mean the beginning of stewardship and the end of all the yawning and blinking, and the latter is what’s made them as happy as they can be in their own little box. We should be glad to be ruled by the foolish and the weak, considering the alternative. It is the best that we can do, even if it is a little sad. As a proud pessimist, I am hopeful and confident that the new Republican congress will live up to my expectations.

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Is a Virus Alive?

life, living matter and, as such, matter that shows certain attributes that include responsiveness, growth, metabolism, energy transformation, and reproduction. – Encyclopedia Brittanica

Close enough, and encompassing the generally accepted criteria: responsiveness, reproduction, metabolism and adaptation. My older son asked the question about viruses the other day. I have been looking forward to this question. It means that he is prepared to understand some things about life which are important. It is a tricky question if considered from the wrong viewpoint. A virus displays some of the characteristics which define a living organism. It can respond to stimuli, attaching to the proper cells and injecting its genetic material through the cell membrane when it makes contact. It can replicate. It can adapt to avoid a host immune response. But it does not have the capacity to metabolize. It cannot, in other words, run its own show. It is entirely dependent on its host organism in that respect. Nor is the virus alone on the gray borders of life. Certain families of bacteria lack some essential metabolic processes which would make them autonomous. They must live inside another cell, and depend on their host’s metabolism to survive. Yet, they too can reproduce, adapt, and respond to stimuli in their environment. Because they have a membrane which is active, biologists are prone to give obligate intracellular bacteria, like mycoplasma and Rickettsia, a break. Most biologists are less charitable when it comes to prions. Prions are mis-folded proteins which replicate by somehow inducing their own conformal change in normally folded proteins with which they come in contact. Prions can reproduce, but they cannot metabolize. They cannot adapt much (although they have managed to pass from cows to humans), but they can respond to their environment, albeit in a very limited way. Still, the difference between the prion and the obligate intracellular bacterium would seem to be one of magnitude rather than quality. Differences in their classification reflect a little bit of membrane chauvinism on the part of biologists. The same prejudice is evident in the gray zone at the other end of the complexity scale. By our criteria for life, is a male angler fish alive? The fish can survive for a short period of time independently, but it cannot carry on its own metabolic processes independently for the long-term. It must rely on a female angler fish. It must quickly sniff out a female and attach itself to her, permanently. The male fish spends most of its existence as a tissue of the female angler fish’s body; its brief, free swimming existence is a transitional aberration. Its ability to adapt is extremely limited. Its existence can be mapped on an algorithm only barely more complex than the one which describes a prion’s lifestyle. So what does differentiate the male angler fish from a mycoplasma bacterium, a virus, or even a prion? A few extra membranes make the only difference. Even our own status as living things is at risk if we apply our criteria strictly. We can certainly reproduce, just like the viruses, obligate intracellular bacteria, prions, and angler fish. But it is questionable whether or not we can independently metabolize. We actually rely on hereditary intracellular symbionts for our primary metabolic process. Without these symbionts, our mitochondria, we could live only minutes on the metabolic processes encoded by our own genetic material. So, we can hardly be blamed for fudging our criteria. We certainly want to call ourselves alive. Since it looks and acts alive, we want to call the male angler fish alive. For practical purposes, we also want to call Rickettsia and mycoplasma alive, as well as viruses from time to time. As for the prions, it is often more convenient to view them as sophisticated toxins rather than living things. And that’s the upshot of my son’s question. The issue of whether or not a virus is alive is only confusing if we consider “life” an actual, efficacious thing. But life is just a category. When we look out across the terrible landscape of things, we see phenomena which cluster about each other by dint of their shared heritage. Our account of our cluster is biology, and our criteria for life provide the outline for our biological stories. This is correct viewpoint on the question of life, and what is alive. But this is not the popular viewpoint. The popular viewpoint attempts to preserve life as a thing, as vital essence or emergent property. Unfortunately, the popular viewpoint is not feasible. It leads inexorably back to the original question rephrased, “where is the life in a thing to be found?” In the end, we find that the essence or the emergent property is explained by the operational mechanisms and properties of the thing in question, but it in turn, explains nothing about the thing; it just notes where that particular thing lies on the vast, terrible landscape of things. Despite its glaring inadequacy, the popular viewpoint remains popular because it seems to save us from losing an idea that we don’t feel comfortable losing. But we don’t need to worry, becoming a category doesn’t vitiate life. We have the things which the category marks clustered around us after all, even if it’s only according to our viewpoint. We can’t escape life anymore than we can climb out of our skins. So, the answer to the question? Sure, a virus is alive – as long as you can explain why.

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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.

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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.

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“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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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