Monthly Archives: March 2012

Three Puzzles

“Goddamnit! Hold him down,” said the Chief.

His tone, which had been ironic and jovial as he bantered with the patient moments before, was now weary and annoyed.

 As the Chief rammed the blunt plastic rod beneath the skin of the man’s chest, under his collar-bone and into the incision in the hollow of his neck, the man bucked and screamed again. Nurses and medical students grasped his limbs to keep him on the table. The surgeons had taken every necessary measure to make the procedure safe and painless. They chose to place the catheter into the patient’s jugular vein under sedation to avoid the greater risks and side-effects of general anesthesia. They had even injected local anesthetic at the incision site and along the track the catheter would take from his mid-chest to the point where it entered the vein in his neck.

Not that local anesthesia could deaden such a large area. It mostly helped tamp down soreness after the procedure. But it needed do no more, because of the type of sedative used. Besides making a patient sleepy, the chemical was an amnestic; it reduced a human’s powers of memory to those of a goldfish.

As we wheeled him back to the recovery room, I leaned over the patient and asked, “Uh, how do you think that went?”

“Beautifully,” he said.

“No pain?”, I inquired.

“Not a bit,” he chirped, “and you know, I’m surprised how lucid I was. That was the best operation I’ve ever been through.”

I stopped dead in the hallway. At that moment, I understood the feeling my friend  had a week previously when he found out his parents aspired to zombiehood. They were, he had discovered, people who wanted ‘everything done’. He had tried to explain the predicament this created for him, and though I thought I had understood the situation based on our common experience as medical students, his complete perspective eluded me at the time. I thought his parents were just wrong because they knew no better.  Of course, we two medical students were horrified, since we knew what ‘everything’ really was and where it led: dull suffering, delirium, dead eyes in a live body, chest heaving to the click and hiss of a ventilator, then death, inescapable in spite of  ‘everything’. I hadn’t seen the other side of my friend’s dilemma: what is it like for the zombie? To become a zombie – a dying person bent on continuing to die – was to abandon a previous, more natural course but perhaps it was not a wrong act. Perhaps the transformation was like telling a goldfish in a bowl that it was doomed to swim in a twelve-inch circle until it died. The goldfish would suffer withering psychic agony for the three seconds it could recall the revelation, then it would return to contentment, unharmed. The vicarious regrets of the living  just might have a similar effect on a zombie, even the regrets of their former, living self.

And as the gurney bumped against the recovery room doors, I realized that I had faced this riddle once before and failed to resolve it. The riddle had come that time in the context of a story a co-worker told me. We worked together at a landscaping business. The guy was a mechanic, so he worked in the shop, while I worked in the field. Still, I got to know him well enough through shared lunch hours and down time with broken equipment to decide he was a decent guy. He was honest and, as a practicing Catholic, always trying to be good. And he was good, sometimes to a fault as he freely lent money to people who were unlikely to ever pay it back. Then he told me a story about when he was in the service.

He was stationed at a boring, isolated post. For miles around, there was nothing but irrigated fields, sage brush, and a few abandoned missile silos. Nothing moved on the landscape but jack rabbits and a few stray domestic animals. The jackrabbits were wary and hard to catch, but the strays would come to a kind word and an offer of food, so they were the ones that got tossed down the missile silos for fun. At first, the fading echos of the animals’ cries and the sparkling static on their fur were entertaining enough. Later, gasoline on that crackling fur added novelty to the routine.

He saw nothing wrong with ‘dog toss’. These were animals, after all, not conscious beings with a soul. As such, they could not truly suffer. What happened to them, as long as it was relatively quick and served a human need, didn’t matter. He thought this because he had been raised a moral realist and a deontologist. Good was a ghost in the ether, inhabiting certain acts and objects, imbuing them with its nature. All else was morally neutral. Other things rated only via human largess backed by tenuous relationships drawn between the hosts of good and those other things that his moral educators felt uncomfortable excluding from their calculus. Other things rated as bonus points. No one was going to hell for ‘dog toss’.

No one was going to hell for what happened under sedation with an amnestic agent either. The healthy body (even just a relatively healthy body) was a host for good, and that end didn’t just justify the means, it made them irrelevant. Proof  lay smiling on the gurney in recovery, ready for the next step in his embodiment of good, where his catheter would carry toxins to his blood to kill his tumors, his appetite, his hair follicles, his sense of smell, the lining of his mouth and colon, all to clear a space for good between his diagnosis of metastatic cancer and his death from it.

The doors swung shut and the surgical team turned away toward the suite of operating rooms where the next case waited. I did not follow. These three were related riddles, but they were not quite the same. Though I could now see it whole, the third puzzle still remained, and it was still the hardest. My friend’s parents were motivated by moral realism to have everything done. But whether their end came by age, chronic illness or catastrophe, the change from living to dying would come to them and sweep away any thought of ghosts and duty to ghosts just as surely as an amnestic sedative swept away all memory of pain and indifference to pain. Then it would be up to us – family, friends, doctors, hospitals – to tend to the ghost, or not. That was the hard part. Because we could deal with the creature before us, be it living or not, on its own terms, instead of trying to realize an apparition. And that meant denying metaphysical duty.

I stood for another moment while the surgical team gained some distance on me.

“I ought to walk out that door and just keep going,” I thought.

Instead, I put my head down and set off after the surgeons. I knew that I wasn’t doing the dutiful thing, but I was pretty sure that didn’t matter. Maybe all I could do was deal with what was in front of me, zombies and all. But even if I wasn’t up to the task of replacing them, I couldn’t keep serving  ghosts, theirs or mine.

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Dutch Whatever

“I’ve noticed that in the alpine, everyone’s hesitant to rate anything harder than M6 – and then everything’s M6. Why do you think that is?” Mike wondered.

M6 is a grade given mixed rock and ice climbing. For most folks, it’s the grade that consistently feels hard, the place where you start to feel like you could fall off. I thought back to the previous day in the Clarks Fork. When you’re trolling for blind pick placements under a sheet of snow, yarding on apparently frozen blocks with the secondary points of your crampon wedged in a crack coated with ice and running with water, it really is all M6 until you’ve climbed it.

Looking down the 6th pitch of Broken Hearts

It had rolled for us, though. We had felt good after sneaking in six pitches of Broken Hearts as the climb melted around us. It was a good omen, and we had word that the climb in the Clarks Fork had looked feasible as of two weeks ago.

Beta doesn’t obviate omens when it comes to going into the Clarks Fork, though. The climb was probably there. The approach was surely there, and in the usual condition: a brutal wallow through the continental snowpack, followed by a dicey stumble down frozen dirt beside a stream bed.

It was quite a reward at the bottom, almost enough to make you forget you had to walk back up what you just came down. The morning sun shone into the gorge, tanning the 800 ft. granite walls, while the river grumbled under ice, welling in pools where the channel widened.

Call of Cthulhu first pitch

And there was the climb I’d fallen off two years ago. The weasel-like part of me that scampers around the base of my skull was disappointed I wouldn’t get a rematch with the mixed version of the first pitch. The more clear-thinking part was glad to see the first pitch touching down.

The climbing wasn’t too hard, it just took a light touch on the sun-baked, arching pillar. Mike accepted the ramble up the second pitch with equanimity.

Mike nearing the end of pitch #2

The third pitch was alpine climbing, the beautiful sort of stuff made of rock and ice at once which defies any sort of rating, with a little bit of M4 (after the fact) to finish.

Pitch 3/4 belay

Mike got his karmic justice for enduring the mediocrity of the second pitch. Steep sunny ice on the fourth pitch lead to a spacious belay cave at the end of the route.

Beginning pitch #4

By any name, it was a stellar climb. So good, I barely noticed the quadriceps hematoma from rockfall on the way down. Hell, I’d even forgotten the walk out by the time we left the parking lot. Ok, maybe that’s a lie, but it was pretty damn good.

Pitch #4

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I try not to rope up with people who are too certain. They tend to do things like walk under seracs because seracs don’t fall when the weather is cold, forego protection because they can just climb it, and cross loaded slopes because they went this way before and it didn’t slide. Some of them are certain because they are fatalists, some because they are true believers, most because they can’t deal with the fear and uncertainty anymore and have decided to just switch off.

For a couple of centuries it seemed like we were poised to untie from certain people in general. A series of uncertain people came along and showed that their way was better. Their questioning lead to an understanding that the earth was really old, Democritus was right, kind of, and our thought and language were a self-referential tangle. These and other revelations of uncertainty eroded the old institutions whose source of knowledge was authority.

But change lead to anxiety, and the certain people saw an opportunity in that angst and in the methods of the uncertain themselves. To people who lived by a belief in authority, relativism equaled Nihilism and statements like “There is nothing but the text.” represented soft-headed weakness rather than caution and humility. So, the certain rejoined the discussion.

Their bid was an appeal to relativism and uncertainty as they saw it. If the field was level, their ideas should merit equal consideration in principle. And they packed their methods right along with those ideas. Debate to replace discussion. Moral force to replace reason. Because, with authority as their source of knowledge, they didn’t need to refine an incomplete understanding, they needed to win. And they did win. They managed to replace real skepticism, which implies uncertainty, with their version, which is synonymous with mere derision. Worse, they managed to draw uncertain people into debate.

Once the uncertain engaged, it was over. They kept trying to be reasonable and have a discussion. When that didn’t work, they tried to be certain. The certain people didn’t care about a discussion, they knew what they knew and just wanted the popular influence all authority craves. And when the uncertain people  expressed certainty, they became vulnerable to a claim of equivalence. They were revealed as authority-based too, so the claim went, so it was a simple matter of choice among similarly valid systems of belief.

The mistake was to allow the premises of certainty in the beginning. Before the uncertain began a defense of their ideas, they should have demanded that the certain defend and explain their own ideas first, with an eye toward divining the premises. When the certain appealed to assertion of authority, whether in the form of a moral sense, supernatural agency, or incredulity, the talk should have ended. A person may certainly assert whatever, but once they do, there’s no point talking about it unless you begin by agreeing with their assertion. And in that situation, it’s best to just un-tie.

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Uncertainty gets treated as a negative term, but it is our ground state. Learning to act in its presence is one of the most important things a person can do. Most simply choose to ignore or even deny it, resulting in random behavior. Lucky for us, homeostatic mechanisms permeate and surround us, so we tend to ping back and forth in a general direction and, with a little cognitive dissonance, we can even make a case for purposeful human behavior. How pervasive is our uncertainty, though, and how much does it matter?

Is a V-8 sitting on a desk an engine or a paper weight? How about a V-8 made of polystyrene? If you touch the engine, and take it apart, and you know something about engines, you will be able to make a good guess about whether or not it runs, and is thus an engine. If you don’t know much about engines, you might not be able to make as good a guess. All you could say is that the polystyrene engine is probably a paperweight and the metal one might not be. Imagine if you had never seen an engine of any sort before. Would analysis help you? If allowed unlimited resources and time, you could track the parts, shapes and relationships back to common origins. You could, in theory, reinvent the engine and then you could know with some certainty whether or not the example in front of you would run.  

How about a more difficult case? Most people would agree that  brain with no ‘stuff’ in it is not a mind, but is it, in that case, even a brain? How can you know? Without watching it work, the requisite process of reduction to determine whether or not the empty, static brain could work is daunting. In fact, it is reasonable only as a thought experiment and finally amounts to saying only that everything is made of the same, interconnected thing – a very, very important conclusion, but redundant.

The way out of the resulting tautology is conceptual. Concepts like mind are vague and squishy. So much so that they may be mistaken for an epiphenomenon called epiphenomena. But they delimit the reduction and account for the temporal element of our experience. We will always have to watch things in motion to make sense of them and our sense will always be fuzzy and incomplete, though we can endlessly refine it through analysis. We’re just lucky that way, too.