Monthly Archives: December 2015


Why is the place surrounded by myth?
Crumbly rock?
Bad gear?

Well, at least there aren’t any vortexes.

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The Harder Problem

I have a purple shirt, or maybe it is royal blue. I was never in doubt about the color until my wife called it blue one day. Up until that point, I never even contemplated calling the shirt blue, or that there might be a difference between my perception of the shirt’s color and her’s.

Maybe there still is not a difference. Maybe our perceptions are the same and the words we use differ unnecessarily. If I look hard, though, I can see how she would call the shirt blue.

Her and my perceptions are almost certainly not the same, nor are anyone’s. The alternative – that people disagree about colors, and so much more, because our language is massively mistaken – seems too incredible. Shouldn’t we have ferreted out even the most minor issues by now? After all, we do so well at finding agreeable words for so many things, even in the realm of aesthetics.

Plus, there is a good explanation for the source of disagreement between me and my wife on my shirt’s color. If one tracks back how each of us learned to classify blue and purple experiences, there are substantial differences. And, those differences do not only effect our use of words; those differences also condition our purple and blue perceptions .

Yet there is another problem lurking. Even if I could magically take a snapshot of my brain at the moment in which I saw the shirt as purple, and show it to my wife, not as a map or photo, but as exactly the same state of affairs imposed upon her neurons, she could still differentiate it upon reflection. The brain state in question would always be her experience of my experience, rather than simply her experience. My experience of the shirt’s color cannot be captured, as mine, by means of physical reproduction.

One might ask, who cares? The upshot of our limitations is tolerable. Big truths may be a little counterfeit by implication, but we are accustomed to working with flawed notions already, and do fine by it. For example, Newtonian mechanics serves us beautifully, even if it is not ‘really true’.

Yet, we do not tolerate our flawed notions. An optimist would say that we are not satisfied with lesser things, and are constantly trying to improve our understanding. Our behavior suggests otherwise, however. We want big truths in principle, and the certainty, the reality, that comes along with them. In physics, we don’t just want quantum mechanics and relativity, we want a theory of everything. In ethics, we want good and evil, and duties to serve.

So, the hard problem does matter, because it is motivating. And, it moves us to a harder problem. We want things to be true which are not merely false, but which are incapable of being true or false. The idea of a concept not being truth-apt is slippery, so an illustration is in order.

Consider the case of Baby K. Baby K was born over two decades ago without a brain. Not only was she(?) born, she pulled off a feat which few anencephalics manage; she lived more than briefly. Or, she maintained a metabolism more than briefly, because her status as a living thing, much less a living human infant, was in question. She would never see a purple shirt, or a blue shirt, or have any experience at all. And since our personal experience is what we value above anything (what choice do we have, after all?) some people felt that a creature without experience and incapable of it was not truly alive, much less human.

Baby K’s mother disagreed. She felt that K was born of a human, exhibited some behaviors, had a heartbeat, and therefore fit into the human peg-hole, albeit imperfectly. K’s remarkable persistence owes to her mother’s insistence on aggressive medical interventions for K, based on K’s status as a human baby. For K’s mother, the rules of classification were categorical. There are Forms in the world, according to this school of thought, and the Forms suck their creatures in, even the most flawed copies.

When Baby K had trouble breathing, her mother took her to the ER and demanded that Baby K be saved, put on a ventilator, and nursed back to health in the ICU. But was health one of K’s capabilities? She needed saving, but for what, and from what? We could not ask K about any of this, ever, even in principle. As her physiology counted down to its end, what was there to distinguish this tick from the following tock, and so provide a basis for valuing more of the physiological process?

When K came in to the ER, the professionals on duty did not want to treat her. Since she was incapable of experience, she had nothing to value (there wasn’t even anyone there to value anything). Efforts to ‘help’ K were therefore empty. There was nothing to help with and no one to accept the helpful gesture.

Remarkably, some argued that further medical interventions merely prolonged K’s suffering. Perhaps they meant to say that further interventions caused the staff to suffer. More properly, futile actions degraded the integrity of the medical professions. We become what we practice, and if the medical professionals practiced service to the beating heart, then they rightfully feared that they would become servants to the beating heart.

The hospital also expressed concerns about the resources that K consumed. This argument was a utilitarian argument and failed in the usual fashion. If K did not occupy the ICU bed, the bed would not move to an under-served area, nor would the unexpended cost of K’s breathing tubes and procedures be converted into mosquito nets for children in malaria-afflicted territories. Values are not generally translatable, any more than their costs are portable.

But the missing cipher in the professionals’ calculation was K’s value to her mother. Someone did experience K’s physiology after all. To waive K’s value on that account was just as degrading as crass service to the beating heart. If the medical professions seek to serve health, and health is function, then the milieu is everything. It was a mistake to consider K’s value on the basis of K’s intrinsic capacity for experience, just as much as it was a mistake to think that the ventilator was saving K herself from or for anything. However mistaken she was about Forms and their efficacy, K’s mother valued K’s beating heart in a consistent way. Harm would come to the mother from K’s heart stopping. It would be the same sort of harm – loss of experience and the possibility of experience – to which the professionals referred in their assessment of K’s lack of value.

All along, the players in the Baby K saga evaluated her with standards that did not apply – that were not truth-apt. It was never the case that Baby K was human or not, alive or not. Her case nicely demonstrates the nature of the harder problem. Our standards – good, evil, human, matter, energy, mine, yours, blue, purple – are not stand-alone things. They are made of their circumstances (our circumstances). Without a doubt, the standards serve us well, since our circumstances are necessarily shared. If the standards refer to the specifics, and the specifics are near enough alike, it’s just good fudging to defer to the standards. It is easy to forget that the standards defer to their instances. And we are motivated to forget, because we value our experience and we value our standards, and we are prone to equate the two.




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Realism in the Time of the Troonians

My son pointed at the massive dwelling crouched on the mountainside below us.
“Just one mortar round…,” he said, “Wouldn’t you like to see it?”
He was having some trouble adjusting to our move from rural Wyoming to the swanky part of the Southwest desert. He took little comfort in my assurances that all the car washes and golf courses would soon (in geologic terms) suck the metropolis dry and leave its snotty, effete denizens to perish on the parched dust like beached fish gasping for water. Even the fact that we were hastening the demise of this false oasis by our presence, did not satisfy him.
I, on the other hand, felt a certain degree of fulfillment from participating in the great blooming and dying-back.
But, I had to admit, I would like to see the house explode.
It was offensive to me, for a number of reasons.
The house was part of a cluster of housing developments and country clubs which had sprouted below a small range of granite crags north of Scottsdale. All were emblems of wretched excess, with the concomitant nomenclature: “The Estates at Xanadu”, “Regent Manors”, and the like. I had taken to lumping the lot under the oddest of their labels – “Troon”.
It wasn’t just a funny name; it designated a private golf course and a gated community, so it represented the entire syndrome nicely. The homes all cost millions, and they sprawled. The square footage stood for the worst aesthetic arrangement which our society had to offer, which was the joy of possession over the joy of experience.
Worse, though, was the history of the Troons relative to the surrounding crags. They had posed a serious risk to climbing access.
Most of the problems had been resolved with the creation of Pinnacle Peak Park. However, it was the idea behind the threat to climbing access that was offensive. The threat implied an equivalence, at least, between the Troonians’ appreciation for the crags, and my own.
Clearly, that was not the case. For them, the rock constituted part of a lifestyle badge. It was kind of nice to look at, and living beneath it gave the Troonian status. He could feel a little removed, and above it all, like the proud peak in his backyard. He didn’t want climbers ruining the image of the rock, much less disturbing his sense of splendid isolation otherwise by yelling ‘off belay’ during his afternoon tea.
I understood the beauty of distant peaks, too. But I also knew the beauty of the rock close up, under finger and foot. It was something more, and forever unavailable to the Troonian. He had no right to impinge on my more complete and superior aesthetic.
But how could one convince a Philistine that he was a Philistine? The problem was intractable. He would always have some rejoinder about a set of related values which justified his being a rotten little twerp. In this case, it would be property, the rights of exchange which came with hard- earned (hah!) wealth, and liberty. Forget the fact that he could not own the rock in any meaningful way. He had to either bring it down or squat below it. Forget the fact that his array of goods for purchase was already limited by the aesthetics of his society, which found it distasteful, for instance, for him to buy humans for any purpose. Forget the fact that he had already sacrificed the greater portion of his liberty in the process of becoming a Troonian (the chances of one of those poor, business-softened bastards even scrambling up the Pinnacle Peak approach trail, were practically nil).
The Troonian’s frame of reference could not encompass my own. He would never be able to appreciate the inferiority of his aesthetic relative to mine, and so he would continue to hold his own values precious by mistake. If ethics boiled down to the reconciliation of intentionality and motivation with truth, there could be no ethical resolution between myself and the Troonian. There was no commonly held truth between us.
Traditionally, that class of differences has been settled with mortar shells. The Trooninan’s annihilation would be a consensual truth. But it would be a superimposed truth, and an impolite way of changing the subject. It missed the intention, since it was no longer about me and the Troonian and our aesthetic differences, but about the prejudicial elimination of those differences. And it was discordant with my motive, which was to appreciate the climbing experience.
The relevant truth was that the Trooinian and I valued something about the peaks, and generally valued our valuations in a similar way. That last bit was the truth that our difference was about, and it was not the truth to which my impulse to see his house explode and to hack him to death with a machete as he stumbled, flaming, from the wreckage, appealed. It did not feel as good, acting on this second-order stuff – the valuation of values – as would a good hacking which made its own truth. I could see how one would come to think that feeling anything about a moral decision was a red herring. And from there, I could see how one would come to think that moral decisions had a real and objective life of their own.
I looked back at my son.
“Hmmm,” I answered, “I’d rather climb the Y-crack.”
And I would. I would rather climb, keep my voice down, leave the crag before dark and choose to see the little McMansion at our feet as a quaint feature of the landscape. Hell, who knew? Maybe the squishy critter in the cage below us was really an old dirt bag who’d hit it big in the lottery and looked up at us with a sense of appreciation and nostalgia.
Maybe, but I doubted it.

Besides, there is always something better in Sedona

Besides, there is always something better in Sedona

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