Monthly Archives: September 2012


In the climbing culture , there is an ongoing dispute about who is a “real climber”, who is a poser, and how the two may be differentiated. The distinction between real climbers and posers is stark in some cases. Most of the folks on reality TV shows about Everest expeditions are posers. Most of the suburbanites dangling from top-ropes at the climbing gym are posers. Yet, even these most benighted dabblers are at constant risk of becoming real climbers.  The only thing separating them from real climbers is commitment, and even in the gym or on the snow slope, given time, a moment of commitment will come. Then, provided they don’t simply turn away, the basest poser may get real.

The addiction to commitment is what distinguishes all real climbers. Addiction is normal for humans. By the broadest definition, we are addicted to all sorts of pleasant things, from food to companionship. We are not normally addicted to unpleasant things, like commitment. We tend to see people’s repeated forays into piercing or swimming in frozen lakes as borderline pathological. Nevertheless, some folks are addicted to these things too, and the climber’s addiction to commitment belongs in the same category.

Now, religious types and other defenders of the social order may object to the characterization of commitment as unpleasantness. They are wrong, of course. Commitment presumes change and uncertainty. The psychology literature is clear on the effect of change and uncertainty on a person’s stress level, and the effect is not salutary. What makes commitment in climbing addictive is the same thing that makes other unpleasant things addictive: commitment moves us toward reconciliation of our core contradiction.

The sense that we are conscious undergirds everything we think and do. Many definitions of this essential quality exist, with some of those definitions occupying volumes of text. A simple, adequate definition is possible though. Consciousness is the perception of identity. We say we are conscious when we perceive ourselves as distinct from other perceptual objects. But we can never directly experience our identity, we can only perceive it as we perceive other things inside and outside of us. As we gain experience, we see our identity change, not spontaneously, but by means of interaction with other perceptual objects. We begin to suspect that our identity is contingent on history and relations with other objects, while our consciousness still tells us that our identity is necessarily independent. We have a central contradiction growing in us from the moment we first see ourselves.

Seeking out unpleasant experiences is rebellion against our core contradiction. When we hurt ourselves a little bit, we deny the preciousness of identity, and so relieve a little bit of the tension between what we actually experience and what our consciousness is telling us we experience. The more so when we make a commitment, especially in climbing. To commit to a difficult move or a difficult climb, we have to write off our future and make a dispassionate assessment of our past and the capabilities which our history reflects. We are committing to the climb, and also committing to the notion that our identity is not independent, precious or permanent. The resolution of our essential tension has nothing to do with wholesome exercise or achievement, but it lurks just behind those inviting, pleasant aspects of climbing, waiting to snare the unwary poser and make them a real climber.

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Can Demon Possession Make You a Better Ice Climber?

I’ve been wanting to sell my soul for a while now, but I just can’t find the right buyer. I’ll admit I didn’t think it through before I started looking, but who does? This sort of transaction has such a history, it’s hard not to slip into the ruts, and I did. The first buyer I considered was the Devil.

It turns out that he has already had a pretty extensive background check, and is not considered a good risk. Even though a seller knows that the Devil is the embodiment of dishonesty, it is almost impossible to devise an effective means to circumvent that fact. A whole lot of very smart people have evaluated deals with the Devil, and the consensus is that even if you get what you want, you won’t get it in the way you want, which, unfortunately, is crucial.

Having rejected what the Devil had to offer, I next considered God. Dealing with an all-powerful, benevolent entity takes care of the reliability problems which confound deals with the Devil, but I had to reject a deal with God as well. As an all-powerful being, he can be very picky about what he offers, and as a benevolent being, he’s only going to offer what’s best for you. Trouble is, what’s best for you isn’t necessarily what’s good for you. He offers one package built around guarantees of immortality and eternal pats from the hand that holds it all, including ultimate reassurance. Your satisfaction is guaranteed, and there is the problem. If you make the sale on those terms you will be satisfied with what you get, and stop wanting whatever it was that prompted you sell in the first place. In that case, the crusaders had it right. Once you settle, it’s best to find some helpful fellow to kill you quick so you can get to the goods and avoid running afoul of  contractual conditions.

With the conventional choices eliminated, I decided to go with eccentric, so instead of scrolling through the Saints or Old Testament demons, I investigated Laplace’s Demon as a possible buyer. Laplace’s Demon is part of a thought experiment about determinism. The Demon is a perfect calculator who, knowing the initial conditions of the universe, can figure all future conditions. A critical few cast aspersions on my inquiry, saying that the Demon was a purely imaginary creature. However, during my background check of God I had encountered the Ontological Argument, which said that if I could imagine a perfect being, the only way it could really be perfect was if it was real as well as imaginary, so a perfect imaginary being must also be a real being. I had received a reassuring number of reassurances from the keepers of the Lord’s earthly franchise that this metaphysical maneuver actually detected a real  quality of the universe via an indirect examination of the nature of our minds and didn’t just ignore the dependency of imaginary objects. It seemed I was on the right track. Sadly, the complete examination of Laplace’s Demon ended in disappointment as well.

I have to back up for a moment here to clarify my motivation for marketing my soul in the first place. It is a modest ambition, really: I thought I might be able to trade my soul for something that would make me a better ice climber. You see, I am very dissatisfied with the method and means of improvement available to me currently. The method is learning through practice and progressive challenge. The means is critical appraisal of what it is ‘like’ to properly swing and weight an ice tool. The means part is the real problem; I could live with the method if I didn’t have to deal with the vagaries of the means.

Swinging an ice tool isn’t like juggling or jumping rope. Once you know the technique, you don’t just get better by repetition, up to your physical limits. You have to know what a good swing feels like so you can know whether the pick has set well in the ice, and if it hasn’t, just how badly it has set. Everything else – the energy you expend for each foot of upward progress, the security of the protection you place, the speed of your ascent – follows from what each swing is like. By the same token, the quality of a swing depends on a huge bundle of factors beyond the alignment of the elbow and timing of the wrist-flip. The quality of my swing follows from the appearance and feel of the ice, my level of mental focus, my level of physical responsiveness, the accuracy of my estimation of my physical responsiveness, etc..

It’s an impossible set of variables to track, but all together, they feel a certain way when they fall together right. To get better,  I can match every swing against the memory of that right swing until they begin to cluster closer and closer to that theme. There’s a hidden bonus in this means of progression, too. I can use the information I get from what a swing is like in combination with the same kinds of themes regarding body position, balance, and ice structure to sort out an entire climb, both before I start and as the climb unfolds. Though it’s a slippery and imprecise means, my mind, anybody’s mind,  can use it to manipulate otherwise intractable sets of details, albeit by proxy, which brings me back to why the Demon can’t help me.

To have the reductive knowledge that he does, the demon must rely on one simple trick: he ignores time. Since events are multiply contingent upon other events in an ultimate reduction (or even in an incomplete one) the resulting structure, with all events completed and with all the chaotic processes gamed out, is a web of converging and diverging causal chains. From the Demon’s viewpoint, it makes no sense in sequence, any more than it makes sense to say an unmarked map has a beginning or end rather than boundaries. Given his quirk, the Demon can help me in one of three ways. First, he can jump in and yell, “Stop!” when I approach a point where a bad swing exists. That may only make things worse. Second, he can take over and guide my arm, but to realize each step to a good swing in sequence is likely to take ages in lining up, or proceed in fits and starts as he makes adjustments to jump from path to path, neither of which I can afford. Third, he can show me where I am in the interlocking mass of causal connections relative to a good swing, but then the information is only approximate until I actually swing (or close enough) and that’s just the kind of situation I’m trying to escape.  Laplace’s Demon is no more helpful than the Devil himself. I can’t use either of them to cheat the world out of another degree of freedom. I’m stuck feeling my way through with qualities and beliefs about qualities.

The worst part is, I suspect I am taking advantage of the means I have about as well as I can, as is the rest of the species. Our brains are quality having, belief generating, story telling organs. The stories our brains make are good enough that we can’t say for sure where the stories end, and where their causes begin. I don’t think beliefs or qualities cause anything, but maybe they do capture something about the way the world works that reduction misses. They seem like way points on the Demon’s map of causal relations, marking time. Even so, I can’t say for sure that qualities and beliefs aren’t real things, determining the actions of their constituents. That would require an external perspective, like the kind a perfectly knowledgeable Demon could give me. Hmmm – What does the Ontological Argument say about contacting a perfect being, and whether or not I can get an hourly rate?

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It’s No Good

Zhuang zi is my favorite moral anti-realist. A millennium or so later, and nobody has been able to say it better.

The invention of weights and measures makes robbery easier. Signing contracts, setting seals, makes robbery more sure. Teaching love and duty provides a fitting language with which to prove that robbery is really for the general good. A poor man must swing for a belt buckle, but if a rich man steals a whole state he is acclaimed as statesman of the year.

Hence if you want to hear the very best speeches on love, duty, justice, etc., listen to statesmen. But when the creek dries up, nothing grows in the valley. When the mound is leveled, the hollow next to it is filled. And when the statesmen and lawyers and preachers of duty disappear, there are no more robberies either and the world is at peace.

Moral: the more you pile up ethical principles and duties and obligations to bring everyone in line, the more you gather loot for a thief…By ethical argument and moral principle the greatest crimes are eventually shown to have been necessary and, in fact, a signal benefit to mankind.”

The translator, Father Merton, does not exaggerate the sarcasm in his interpretation. The use of the word ‘crimes’ , for example, is intentional, not a slip into moral terminology – moral realism leads to the definition of an act as a crime, as it leads to the facile redefinition of the same act as good when situations change.

Good isn’t an intention. It isn’t about any specific thing, at least independent of circumstance or for very long. Good isn’t a quality. To speak of it, we need to make it dependent on a subject. If we reverse that arrangement, we end up with Kantian contradictions – we must tell the axe-murderer where his quarry is hiding because telling the truth is objectively good.

Good is, as any moral notation, a place-holding modifier. These words allow us to avoid the confusion of re-explaining to ourselves what we’re about before we do anything. They are very useful, so we shouldn’t get rid of them, but we must not make the error of treating them as real things. Otherwise, the crimes pile upon crimes, until we smother.

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A Few Photos

Days are getting short. The Weird Season is about to begin. It’s time to cram as much Tower climbing as possible into early Autumn’s ideal weather window.

The sloping horror, Tulgey Wood.

Deli Express, much tastier than the hermetically sealed, gas station sandwiches.

September light on the NW shoulder.


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Obsession (the good, stinky kind)

“This is not the best piece of gear,” he says.

This news is quite disappointing, as the next moves will take him from the relative security of the vertical, flaring cleft in the rock, into the overhanging, flaring cleft. Then the clock will start and he will have to move or quickly find a better piece of gear before his arms are used up and he falls.  He has made about 70 feet in the last hour. I could suggest that he retreat, but as a belayer it is my job to shut up and mind the rope. Besides, it would do no good anyway. He’s been talking about this route, the last in the series of hard routes in the Spires, for two weeks and I know what the weird, faint glow from his pupils indicates and where it originates. I pay out rope, then take it back up without looking, and the clock ticks.

Deep in the brain, just above the automatic stuff humming away to keep us breathing, upright and pointed in the right direction, lies the amygdala. It is an old, buried nodule of gray matter which forms the basis of our original selves. It connects directly to our noses and memory centers, and it generates our most vital, primitive emotions, like fear and aggression. We share its structure and function with almost everything that has a brain.

The amygdala drives a pretty generic set of behaviors: if something jumps you, run away, if something has you by the tail, turn around and bite, then run away. The amygdala doesn’t define a creature.  The cortical Pachinko machine set atop the amygdala characterizes the brain and thus the animal. Stimuli coming in from the outside or up from the inside, bounce around the cortical connections until the raw impulses form a story a creature can use to elaborate on the basic run/bite reflex.

For some animals – whitetail deer, conservative politicians and religious fundamentalists for example – the story serves the fear. Neurosis, phobia and avoidance result. For other animals, the story reworks the fear into an aggressive fascination. As a result, monkeys will follow a cobra, a badger will pursue and attack a coyote, and a climber will feel drawn to the climbs that make him wake in a cold sweat . This is obsession, and it is happening at the other end of the rope.

As he climbs well past the bad protection to a good stance, I can hear other climbers in the valley drinking beer and laughing just a few feet away. My stomach hurts and my palms are damp on the rope. I surreptitiously untie from the anchor. I’m sitting on a ledge, and I can decrease the length of the leader’s fall if I jump off, though the forces on the protection may be higher if I get it wrong. The risk has become worthwhile.

He tries to step out onto the last traverse to a bolt. He comes back to the stance. The process repeats itself five times. Another hour passes; I can’t imagine what his toes must feel like now, crammed in climbing shoes and perched on dime-sized crystals for all this time. Finally, he finds the right sequence of holds and steps out. He clips the bolt. It’s still a fight to make the anchors, but the stakes have gone down and he is able to move more quickly.

The route takes about twenty-five minutes to follow on top-rope.

As I reach the anchor I tell him, “Nice lead.”

He isn’t happy, he’s just done. His amygdala is switched off and he is through with the obsession. It is not a bad feeling, but it is different from relieved or satisfied or happy. Language just hasn’t bothered to find a word for it, because it isn’t normal.

Packing up at the base, I begin to think about the run-out on Nantucket Sleighride. It is such a good route.

Buddy the Blastocyst Gets a Soul (or does he?)

Nobody likes abortion – not the people who go through the procedure, not the people who perform the procedure, not the people who make the rules – and for good reason. For the patient, it is emotionally and physically traumatic. For the physician, it is one of those sad duties on the ethical borders of the profession. For the society,  it is desensitizing and it ‘whites out’ a gray ethical situation. From proponents, abortion rights call for a sober advocacy, the kind of favor given a less bad thing. Only one thing makes the whole mess worthy of a fight, and that is the contention of abortion opponents that abortion is murder. To qualify as murder, Buddy the Blastocyst’s destruction must be the destruction of a human. To qualify as a human, Buddy the Blastocyst must have a soul. What makes the accusation of murder objectionable is the murder which justifies the accusation. That murder is the murder of the soul, or at least one concept of it.

Most religious people are dualists; they believe in a soul which is a substance separate from the body. In this model of the soul, the nature of the substance is a sort of nascent self- consciousness or quality of humanness – a realized version of what it’s like to be human. The soul then forms a nidus for the mind, as well as a motive force, and through its one-way, motivating influence on the mind, causes the body to act. Though the body’s actions may  indirectly represent the soul’s intent, the soul is only affected by its own decisions independent of the body and the parts of the mind that gather and manipulate information from the physical world. In this model, we are soul puppets. Though it is subtle and convoluted, this arrangement is necessary to have the soul be one substance with the deity. The deity then encounters no philosophical problems in being the direct creator and ultimate owner of the soul.

Obviously, skeptics and other monists do not subscribe to the soul puppet model. However, most still believe that there is something it is like to be human, and so believe in a version of the soul. But this version is a dependent soul. It derives from the gradual realization of the potential to be what a human is like, over an individual’s lifetime. The soul is thus an accretion on the body and mind, with the potential quality of humanness as its nidus. This is the idea of soul which the soul puppet people are bound to destroy. To properly understand this imperative, it helps to examine the implications of being a soul puppet for Buddy the Blastocyst.

Let’s say Buddy forms under the dualist model. He has a soul, created by the deity, which is a substance separate from his body and rational mind. His soul may indirectly affect his body and mind, and to remain a separate substance, may not be directly affected by the body and mind. As soon as Buddy comes to be, there is about a forty percent chance that he will  quickly cease to be. The uterus may not be ready for him or he may have a fatal genetic abnormality. For a variety of reasons, a large proportion of early pregnancies fail. On superficial examination, this fact seems to pose some problems for Buddy the soul puppet. Perhaps the deity is a cruel practical joker, who bestows Buddy with a soul only strip it away. Perhaps the deity knows Buddy will fail and so does not give Buddy a soul in the first place.

Buddy needn’t worry though. Just as the motives of his soul are not directly accessible to his mind and body, neither are the motives of the deity. In an ironic twist, the benevolence of divine caprice saves Buddy from predestination and arbitrary judgement. Just as the soul must affect itself and merely be represented in mind and body, so the greater material world must symbolize the deity’s motive, but in context of the deity’s real condition alone, which is separate and self-contained, completely encompassing and determining the material world. Otherwise, movements in the material world begin to operate on the same rules as in the divine, and so begin to have a direct meaning for the deity, bringing the deity under their influence (even if he/she must only choose to ignore them). Then he/she is no longer a separate substance, just a separate category.

So, Buddy is saved by never being able to know god’s mind through interpretation of material events. However, by the same ironic twist which allows Buddy the soul puppet to dodge potential problems with predestination and arbitrary judgement, the real consequence he suffers is condemnation to thorough-going Nihilism. He can’t know the motives of his soul in terms of material objects subject to his reason. He can rationalize the material representation of the deity’s will, though he can never know its significance. Forever pushing around symbols he can’t read in a game with rules not relevant to anything outside themselves, on all but the very deepest level, he is a zombie. But if he comes to see himself as a soul puppet, accepting the viewpoint of those who would call his destruction murder, his future can be a happy  condition of necessary ignorance.

The material world will no longer be a big problem once Buddy comes to that conclusion. It will be very convenient for him if he can rationalize its relationships, but consistency is not vital. Likewise, the moral sense that he may feel could be indigestion, but it may just as well be a one-way communique from his soul. He will be justified in believing his intuitions, though he can never really validate them. He then has a choice of two paths to follow. He can decide to do as the Shakers and others have and simply avoid confusing situations where an underlying psychological motive might masquerade as inspiration. Conversely, he can follow the majority of his fellow soul puppets, hold all his intuitions to be inspiration from the higher realm, and simply have faith that he is not deceived.

Still, it takes a tremendous amount of faith to walk about in pitch black dark. Like so many of us, Buddy may not cope well with uncertainty. He may seek solace in the scriptures which record  inspirational intuitions concordant with his own. History is cold comfort, though. He may wish to know something in his own time and space which validates his intuitions. Then, the only means available is comparison of his intuitions with those of others, and he may feel, since he is justified in believing his own intuitions true, that others’ intuitions must coincide with his own. He may demand a substantial soul for every blastocyst, and seek to silence any talk, or even implication, of an accreted soul.

The demand for consistency may seem inconsistent, but if it is driven by an intuition related to religious sentiment, the soul puppet may be justified in believing it is just as close to the truth as an action based on reason. Actually, if an intuitive conclusion cannot be related to a cause based in the material world, he may be more justified in believing such a conclusion is true. Distinguishing  discomfort from inspiration requires insight in the soul puppet’s world, and in that world insight is not more reliable than intuition. He might as well flip a coin.

This is the problem: in a material world where we are all weak from time to time, the soul puppet perspective ultimately requires universal participation. It is too uncomfortable otherwise, and in a system where the difference between discomfort and inspiration is not reliably discernible, relief becomes an imperative. So, the soul puppets are justified in crying ‘murder’, and more. They are justified in demanding that everyone else cry ‘murder’, and more. It isn’t abortion that’s a fighting matter, it’s the imperative behind the cries of  murder. Everyone may not agree on the nature of the soul, but no one wants to be a pawn in another person’s scheme to insulate himself from the implications of his own beliefs. Even a blastocyst deserves protection from that.

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