Category Archives: biology

Breaking Trail

For the umpteenth time, my snowshoe breaks through the crust and dives into hopeless depth hoar. The continental snowpack nibbles away at one’s soul with a false promise in every step. The crust feels solid when one’s foot first rests upon it. It even holds as weight shifts from back foot to front foot. But, it can sense when the full weight of body and pack has shifted, and then it collapses.

The slog would be bad enough were it a grueling monotony of breakthrough after breakthrough, but it is worse that that. Because sometimes, the crust gives you a few steps on top, and just when you relax, then it lets you fall through into the great vat of cornstarch beneath. What’s still worse about my current situation is that I am following a trail. Minus the snow, it would be easy walking.

If I persist, I will soon get a little psychological boost, as my course turns off the cut trail and into untracked forest. Though it really isn’t any harder or easier than wallowing above the Summer trail, breaking off the established path onto the section that only I know, feels like progress and is an antidote to the demoralizing snow conditions.

I used to do the walk to high camp with a map and compass. I no longer need those. The rocks, trees, sequences of slopes and their conformations chart a more accurate course in my memory. These days, I can get to my destination despite the snow cover because the trail isn’t really on the ground; it is in my mind. Or, so it would seem,

One might say that the trail presupposes or lies in the potential of, my mind and memory. For a trail to be, the possibility of a trail must have been. But the trail is not made of possibilities. It is made of my memories of trees, slopes, rocks, and all the other landmarks on the way. It is made of my senses of time, space and distance, which are properties of the phenomena which constitute thought and memory. My memory, and its possibilities, are dependent upon its contents. And so it is with memory in general; it is defined by having extant referents.

In other words, my memory is nothing without memories, and all the possibilities of memory lie in its contents, including its metaphysical possibilities, which lie in its having contents. When I recall looking down the trail in this moment, I trace a path through the space and time of my memory, just as I did when I stood in the snow on the day I recall. And I do so on background – all the historical infrastructure which orients my current experience and dictates its aspectual shape.

My recollection at the keyboard can’t get going without the background, yet the background can’t be background except in relation to current experience, which links it all together. The possibility of a trail inheres in legs, eyes, slopes and trees. Memory resides in its defining contents. The contents of my memory rely upon where and when I am now.

Some folks get frustrated with all this interdependence and would retreat to the simple certainty of a hierarchy. I can understand the appeal of a world where there is a separate mental substance, an uncaused cause, memory as an independent faculty among other independent faculties, and a trail waiting beneath the snow to accommodate our walk without the hard work of trail breaking.

But that means a world where there may be memory which doesn’t necessarily remember anything, a mind which doesn’t necessarily think about anything,  an agent which does not experience the changes it makes, and destinations which don’t belong to anybody – a world which is not possible.



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Cult of the Range-Fed Turtles

When my best childhood friend grew up, he decided to become an archaeologist. During his graduate training, he was in charge of  a dig in the Mississippi river valley which unearthed an odd structure. In the midst of the native people’s dwellings, was found a circular enclosure made of closely spaced wooden posts and containing a large pile of turtle shells. The undergraduates were eager to speculate about the purpose of the structure, but my friend cautioned them against it.

“We can’t be sure of its use,” he said”, and we can’t just guess based on what we might use an enclosure like that for today. We can’t just assume they were running a turtle ranch here. Why would they do that with a river full of turtles just a quarter-mile away? We have to put it in context of the surrounding village and the environment of the time, look for other examples and see if there are any modern structural analogs. Then we can make a guess, but it will still just be a guess.”

The next day the professor in charge of the dig came around on a rare site visit to see how things were proceeding. The students were eager to show him the mysterious ring of posts with its pile of shells.

Upon seeing their find, the professor remarked without hesitation, “Huh, must have been a turtle pen,” and promptly resumed his walking tour of the dig.

I don’t know if archaeology has an excuse for this kind of thinking, but medicine does:

Life is short. The art is long. Experience is difficult.

– Hippocrates

We can be forgiven for resorting to teleological assumptions now and again in medicine. With limited time and incomplete information, we must sometimes act on hypotheses which attribute function to structure and purpose to processes. Lucky for us, there’s plenty of slop in the system, so even if we’re wrong at the start, we usually get a second chance. We are trying to get away from teleology, though. “Evidence based medicine” and “scientific medicine” are the names that we have given that effort.

We are trying to get away from teleology because we have been burned by it. We thought that the body made pus to fight off bacterial infections, so for years, when we saw people with respiratory illness cough up phlegm with pus in it, we gave them antibacterial medications. We were wrong, not just about the purpose of pus, but in attributing a purpose to pus. Again, it was an understandable mistake, given the long history of debate regarding the merits of pus. Was it a good sign, or a bad one? Should we encourage or discourage its formation? It turns out we shouldn’t have been focusing on the pus at all, but on    the outcome of our purposeful intervention in the underlying process that produces the pus.

Purposeful results and final causes apply prospectively to human endeavors alone, and even there it’s often difficult to tell whether, when our actions are associated with the desired result, the outcome is due to our actions or simply due to fortuitous circumstances. Applied retrospectively or to processes and structures beyond our control, teleology is a sure mistake.

When we assign an endpoint to a process, we presume causation and correlation must be proven. Humans are notoriously bad at that. In systems which we can’t duplicate or control, we can always tell a causal story (I’m looking at you evolutionary psychology, intelligent design, cosmological fine tuning). But those stories are just interesting rationalizations, sharing the merits of a fairy tale in that they reveal more about us than the subject matter. Our fairy tales are harmless when they are about the universe, the origin of life, turtle ranches or anything else beyond our control. When we tell teleological stories about processes we do seek to influence (and can) we court tragedy.

The practice of bleeding was based on one such tale: the story of homeostasis. We still tell it today, but we tell it as metaphor instead of fact. The story is based on the simple observation that, when a person becomes ill, they go through a series of changes in their physical state which ultimately ends in either the restoration of their previous state, or death. Having observed other systems, the Greeks thought that the process of illness looked like a disequilibrium. Having observed associated changes in fluids which emanated from the body, they attributed the disequilibrium to an imbalance in those fluids. We can hardly blame them for the limits of their observations. We can’t fault their hypothesis. However, we can fault their method.

They didn’t just postulate an imbalance in the humors as a cause of illness, they presumed a balance of the humors as a state the body sought. The difference in these two points of view is subtle, but crucial. If  the balance of fluids is seen as descriptive  then restoring health by balancing the fluids remains a working hypothesis. It admits that other factors may determine the observed equilibrium. It leaves open the possibility that the observed flux of humors is a secondary phenomenon. Most important, it leaves physiologic equilibrium as a simple description, instead of presuming that it is a purpose with causal powers.

Given a description and a working hypothesis, physicians would look at their efforts to balance a patient’s humors with a critical eye. As a teleological assumption, with equilibrium as a “final cause” under Aristotle’s system, the idea creates an entirely different viewpoint. With  humoral balance rooted in the body’s design, variances in expected observations must be due to inadequate methods or incomplete knowledge of the humors. For this version of the “balancing the humors” hypothesis, failure is not an option.

Now, the ancient Greeks may have weathered this kind of assumption better than their heirs. They loved to fight with each other. In the face of inconsistent outcomes from humor-balancing interventions, they were likely to call Aristotle and Hippocrates idiots or just ignore the under-girding theory of causes altogether in favor of their own pet theory. Definitive statements naturally took a healthy beating in the Greeks’ intellectual environment. The Romans, and the Europeans who came after them, were much more pious.

As a result, no one questioned the teleological assumption, out of reverence for its sources, and the vital fluids persisted in medical thought owing largely to the idea of homeostasis by design. No matter how apparent the flaws in our understanding of the blood, bile and phlegm, they were somehow attached to the homeostatic goal of the body. As long as physicians saw that equilibrium as the body’s goal, they could reconcile any discrepant observations with the over-arching story and persist in practices such as bleeding. It fell to investigators outside of the medical profession to discover the secondary nature of the humors. Only then did the practices aimed at balancing the fluids truly begin to fade.

But long after bleeding and the balance of fluids fell by the wayside, the tale of homeostatic purpose continued to plague medical science. Physicians continued to view physiology as directed toward an end. For example  the heart was seen not to pump blood, but to be a pump. Therefore, medical students were instructed to never administer medications called beta-blockers to patients with heart failure.

Beta-blockers stick to proteins in the membranes of  heart cells called beta receptors, which normally bind adrenaline. Via the beta receptor proteins, adrenaline stimulates the heart to pump faster and with more force. In heart failure, the heart can’t contract forcefully or fast enough to keep up with the volume of blood returning to it from the veins. If the heart is a purpose-built pump, beta blockers should be anathema in the setting of heart failure. But in reality, when given to stabilized heart failure patients, beta blockers reduce long-term mortality by about one-third.

We don’t yet know exactly how these medicines achieve such a feat. We do know why they are not inevitably detrimental in heart failure. It is because the heart pumps, but it is not a purpose-built pump. The heart is instead a group of cells which inhabits a specialized niche in a system of many cells all with complimentary and competing characteristics, existing in a state of equilibrium which, in deference to tradition, we call homeostasis.

Our physiology doesn’t try to maintain homeostasis any more than erosion tries to form a natural arch. The arch forms (rather than crumbling like the sides of a stream-bed) because it is geometrically stable given the geology. The arch persists because it is geometrically stable, and so we frequently see natural arches where the climate and geology allow. Nobody marvels at this, speculating about a conspiracy between sandstone and weather patterns. Then again, few people have an emotional stake in natural arches. The same is true of our physiology, minus the low stakes. There is no overall homeostasis sensor or hormone in the body. There is no homeostasis conspiracy.

So, we have abandoned the notion of purpose in physiology, and that simple maneuver has allowed us to discover things like the survival benefit which beta blockers produce in heart failure. This move is the principle behind the randomized, controlled clinical trial. All along, it wasn’t ignorance holding us back, but the project of rationalizing our knowledge to traditionally understood, teleological models.

Of course, the questions driving evidence based medicine don’t start from nowhere. Scientific medicine asks questions based on the results of previous investigations and hypotheses derived from basic science discoveries regarding the components of physiology and their relationships. Some of these hypotheses are even most easily stated in terms of purpose. But those statements are now understood as metaphor, rather than bare fact.

Beyond the fecundity of this change in method, the move away from teleology finally brings some redemption for poor Hippocrates. Rather than using it as an excuse, we can understand his aphorism, “Life is short. The art is long. Experience is difficult “, properly again – as an admonition about method. Be skeptical. Remember that your viewpoint is limited. Watch out for overarching narratives. Good advice, and not just for medicine, but for all those turtle-ranch theorists out there (I’m looking at you intelligent design, cosmological fine tuning, evolutionary psychology…).

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Shrimp Eyes

An answer to the post “What Is Knowledge?” at Self-Aware Patterns. If you don’t want to keep reading this, go read that…


Imagine…the mantis shrimp sees zorp. Zorp is a color beyond deep violet, and it is a color which humans cannot see, because humans only have 4 of the 16 color receptors which the mantis shrimp eye possesses.

Once upon a time, long before anyone looked inside a mantis shrimp’s eye, a group of marine biologists set out to test the shrimp’s sense of smell. In those days, nobody had looked in a shrimp’s nose either, to map out the nerves and chemical receptors. So, the only way that the biologists could learn about shrimp olfaction was to wave something smelly under a live animal’s nose and see what happened.

The experiment went like this: The shrimp entered a bare tank from an isolation chamber at one end. Prior to the shrimp entering, the biologists had secretly painted a random corner with an invisible, smelly substance. Upon release, if it swam to the marked corner, the shrimp got a treat.

After a bit of trial and error, the shrimp picked up the trick; it swam to the marked corner every time. Mantis shrimp had an acute sense of smell. But the truth is: mantis shrimp could not smell a damned thing. Unbeknownst to the investigators, the invisible, smelly substance which they used to mark the corner glowed zorp.

As it turned out, by sad, chemical coincidence everything smelly,  glowed zorp. Without understanding the micro-structure of mantis shrimp senses, the situation was hopeless. Only the shrimp would ever know the truth. Yet the biologists did know something. They got a predictive model of shrimp behavior out of their experiment. If they wanted to make shrimp bait, keep shrimp away from swimming areas, or start a shrimp circus, they had a reliable, practical theory to help them – they knew how to do it.

Furthermore, they did have some truth, even if it was not the shrimp’s truth. Because, the biologists stated the outcome of their experiment carefully.

Mantis shrimp were observed to preferentially swim to a corner marked with Fragrance 5 after receiving a standard shrimp kibble in association with alighting upon a Fragrance 5 mark in 3 previous instances.”

Obviously, the truth itself does not get you a shrimp circus or anything else. The truth, being blatant, does no work.

Yet we think that we seek the truth when we seek knowledge. We have been told that knowledge is justified, true belief. Indeed, the justification-belief relationship seems unbreakable. If justification is a well constructed story, then all our beliefs have it, as we have somehow arrived at those beliefs. And, we certainly distinguish between things we know and things we merely believe, on a functional basis, which is really just the strength of the justificatory tale.

Truth has little to do with justifications. Knowledge stands apart from mere belief when it does something – when it proves itself reliable. Reliability, like an onion, has no core, and so, knowledge doesn’t have a core either. Peel back a layer and you can aim a cannon. Under the next layer, you have a laser. Under the next, you find the mechanisms needed to build a global positioning system. The same structure undergirds our psychological theory of mind, introspective faculties, and our aesthetics. All those tales which bear re-telling constitute our knowledge.

Truth is just what we’re stuck with.

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Why Have Children?


Everyone who has had children has asked themselves the question. The answers leave one feeling a bit squeamish, because the answers are all tautologies. The simplest is some version of: Because people have children. The more complicated responses – to make little caretakers for ourselves, for example – beg the question off to another, underlying tautology (We want to live because we live, in this case). There is no immediately obvious rationale.

The question in question is just the sort of question which religion purports to answer. But answers from divine purpose fare no better than circumstantial answers. The simplest answer from religion is: Because God commands it, which does not differ functionally from the first statement above, ‘Because people have children’. More nuanced responses again beg off to deeper tautologies, like the famed divine mission statement from the Christians: Man’s chief end is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever. The statement is lovely, but it is devoid of functional content. After thorough contemplation, we are still left standing around, awaiting the Lord’s instructions before we can get on with the glorifying and enjoying.

These tautologies lurk at the bottom of all teleology. No attempts to divine purpose from conditions avoid the fate of Leibniz’s theodicy. When applied, teleological excursions all discover the type of gem unearthed by Dr. Pangloss.  Study of a language’s syntax alone, will never reveal the language’s semantics. What is cannot tell us why it is, any more than it can tell us what ought to be. Attempts to divine purpose from structure, while operating strictly within the structure, are futile.

So, why have children? Why not? Or more precisely, why ask why? It is not a fit question.

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Buddy the Blastocyst’s Ensoulment Adventure

It’s the wildest yarn of them all. Be warned: you may not like the ending, but the thrill is worth it.

Let’s set the scene.

In the lead role, we have Buddy. He consists of a few hundred cells arranged in a hollow sphere. There is nothing too special about Buddy. He is not that far removed from the fused gametes which preceded him in that he is full of promise, yet without much substance or even a distinguishing feature. To be honest, he is a pretty passive character in his own tale.

As such, he is a perfect foil for the soul. The soul is no simpleton, and unlike Buddy, the soul is very difficult  to describe. Here we can turn to words from the wise philosophers and theologians who have previously contemplated the mystery of the soul. The wise have described the soul as the “I”-ness of experience or the proper subject of mental properties. The key point to take from such descriptions is: Don’t ask the wise for directions to the nearest coffee shop. Those directions are likely to lack substance.

Substance is exactly what we need in the case of the soul, to characterize it. Lucky for us, we need no more than substance, or at least the agreement that the soul is a substance distinct from the sphere of cells which is Buddy. Not everybody will agree. Some may contend that Buddy is simply the dawning realization of something which has always been, kind of like a Chrysler LeBaron. Let me try to clarify.

In a certain sense, one could contend that the specific turbulence pattern in the early universe, doomed us to the Chrysler LeBaron, because one could ostensibly track a chain of distinct events back from the structure of the LeBaron to the details of the turbulence pattern of the early universe. And by the same token, one could track the turbulence pattern back to a purported state of affairs before the early universe started doing anything. A claim of pre-existing potential opens up, of which the early turbulence pattern and the Lebaron are mere manifestations.

There are loads of problems with this account of history, but only a couple concern Buddy and his soul. First, we cannot do anything with this account. An auto designer in 1896 could not foresee the Lebaron in all it’s hideous detail. We can see the inevitable  manifestation of LeBaron essence in retrospect only. Think vitalism (and its discontents).

Second, the pre-existing potentials do not do anything for themselves. They are manifested, without occupying space or expending energy or participating in the manifestation process, other than as an additional explanation. Like solipsism, the tale of essences suffers from terminal irrelevance.

Therefore, Buddy shall receive soul-stuff rather than a post-hoc rationalization.

Now, what is the nature of Buddy’s relationship to his soul, and how does the soul adhere to that little, hollow sphere of cells? Maybe the second question is too ambitious. Yet at least there has to be a singular moment in which some sort of threshold for ensoulment is surpassed and the membranes which a moment ago contained only chemical elements now serve as vesicles for spirit.

Some spirit-permeable membrane channel opens or an angel-beacon gene gets transcribed, and the soul binds to Buddy irrevocably. This must be the case. We want an active soul for Buddy, so he cannot merely slip into it. In that case – where Buddy is the realization of some soul formula written into the cosmos – we are right back to the maximally inefficient essences.

Once he has his soul, Buddy begins to exist in two worlds at once. He takes in nutrients, builds membranes, and generally engages with events in the world. At the same time, he is moved by the spirit to do Good or Evil, and his soul bears the weight of his activities in the world.

At the end of it all for Buddy, he can stand in the court of the Lord and the Lord can say to his angel, “Bring me Buddy and I shall judge him, for he lusted after a Unicorn Frappe and was moved by the wickedness in his soul to purchase a Unicorn Frappe, and his soul was soiled by the act. ”

“Wait, who is this you bring before me? No, no, that’s Benny, who turned aside from his evil impulses and purchased a tall coffee. Now let Benny go and bring me Buddy, who smells of shame and sugar, not wholesome ground roast.”

How else does the Lord know who is Benny and who is Buddy?

And so we have arrived at the shocking dénouement: the story of Buddy’s spiritual existence and his physical existence are one and the same. His soul, however convoluted the mechanism, moves electrons, as much as a magnet moves electrons. His soul, as much as any magnet, is moved by electrons. In being so engaged, Buddy’s soul becomes part of the reductive explanations which constitute physicality.

Is this the end for Buddy’s soul?

For his soul as a supernatural substance, maybe it is. But the point of the story is: those supernatural substances can’t get going in the first place.

They just don’t hold together at all.

For Buddy’s soul as a strange appendage, who knows?

The world is a weird place.



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The Simple Life

Life? Don’t talk to me about Life.

– Marvin the Robot


Life, living matter and, as such, matter that shows certain attributes that include responsiveness, growth, metabolism, energy transformation, and reproduction.

– Encyclopedia Brittanica

The javelina was dead, no doubt about it. By the looks (and odor) of the ruin which lay in the ditch, it had been several days since the animal had lived, as such.

Most likely, it had been hit on the nearby road and dragged itself to the protection of the ditch before collapsing. ‘Collapsing’ means: it ceased to respond as a javelina. Certain nerve cells lost their flow of metabolic substrate, could no longer transform energy in covalent bonds into electrical potential across cell membranes, and so could no longer respond as nerve cells.

The javelina behaved as a javelina if and only if those nerve cells behaved as nerve cells: no more nerve behaviors, no more javelina behaviors. Yet the remainder of the organism ticked along for quite a while after its defining brain functions ceased. Less sensitive tissues took minutes, or even hours to stop responding, growing, reproducing, etc.

Even after the last of the body’s eukaryotic cells ceased to do all those life-defining things, the prokaryotic components of the javelina carried on. Many of the bacteria which had worked with its other cells to keep the animal alive and healthy before it came to lie still in the ditch, continued to grow, metabolize, reproduce, etc.

At the other end of the javelina’s timeline, we see a similar situation. Before its mother could conceive, the environmental circumstances had to be right for piglets. Furthermore, its mother and father had to be right for the circumstances. They had to have a set of characteristics which led to survival and relative prosperity in their particular living conditions.

Within those proper circumstances, gamete membranes met and fused, DNA recombined, placental syncytium formed, organogenesis took place, the piglet began to exhibit its own physiology, and the little  javelina emerged from the amnion to take its first breath.  From some fairly basic biochemical reactions to the defining processes of biology itself, the animal faded into life, much as it faded into death.

Many people find this picture disconcerting. They yearn for the simple life, where our definitions are definitive and what’s real is real in and of itself. But that’s not what we have. The simple life, and its decadent certainty, are not available to us.



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Socrates Is Not a Number

The heavyweight teetered on his shoulder for a moment, and then the plane of his back tipped slightly beyond perpendicular to the mat. Everyone groaned. They knew that it was over. In those days, before high school students had really gotten into the steroids, heavyweights were heavy. If one got turned onto his back, the victim was doomed to stay there until the refree slapped the mat and the portly victor rolled off.

The poor kid who now faced being pinned to the mat in the district semi-final was typical of the heavyweight breed. He was a kid who was interested in athletics, despite being pretty un-athletic. He was too heavy. But he was large. He was tall and broad, and it made his weight wieldy enough to let him play on the line in football, and wrestle in the heavyweight division. Some of his species were hyper-aggressive, likely in response to the hazing they received from elementary school on up. He was well-adjusted however, which worked against him on the mat.

He had an unfortunate name, ‘Jonah’. In the bible belt, that immediately earned him the nick name, ‘Jonah the Whale’. We had hung out on the sidelines waiting for our turns to wrestle and I liked him, as far as I knew him.

I hadn’t qualified for the district tournament, so I was watching Jonah from the stands with my father and the choir director from our church. We were rooting for Jonah, because he was up against a wrestler from a rival school. If Jonah won, our team locked in the tournament win. It was not to be. Under the combined weight of his opponent and his own bulk, Jonah sank flat. His legs flailed briefly in a futile attempt to bridge his shoulders off the mat. The referee slapped his hand and blew his whistle. Jonah’s legs went limp.

The choir director turned to my father and said, “Now, isn’t that just like a nigger.”

My father usually would not reply to stupid crap like that. He saw no point in useless conflict. But this time, he looked like he didn’t even know what he might say. He was flabbergasted, and so was I.

It was not the words; it was the tone.

The choir director didn’t sound angry, bitter or vindicated. He had a note of sadness and resignation in his voice. He expected Jonah to give up and lose, because it was in Jonah’s blood to give up and lose. Jonah had inherited an identity which played in certain narratives and not others. To our choir director, black folks were lazy, unreliable and weak-minded. Jonah was black, therefore Jonah was lazy, unreliable and weak-minded.

For the longest time, I thought that our choir director was wrong about Jonah just  because he was wrong about black folks. But I finally came to realize that our choir director was wrong about Jonah, because he was wrong about everything. Jonah could be represented by blackness, or fatness, or type B personality, but none of those things were Jonah. Nor was it true to say that Jonah represented any of the things that you could say about him.

Put enough of those things together, and you might be able to pick Jonah out of a crowd, or even predict what he might do in a particular situation. However there was no Form of Blackness, Property of Personableness, or Elan Vital , which determined his ethnicity, his being good mat-side company, or his being the proper subject of Biology.

Yet that was the world according to our pious musician. It was a world of causative kinds, where things like Good, Black and Life were not points on our map of the world, but the lands themselves, which we had discovered or, as he would maintain, were granted us by God. It seemed that he saw things that way, at least.

For a time, I considered the possibility that I was being too hard on him by speculating that he was the type who might claim that opium caused sleepiness by means of a dormative property. Maybe he was the type that saw a grander conspiracy, instead. Not the Conspiracy of Forms, but the Conspiracy of Form. Perhaps he saw the fact that our experience permitted mapping and the application of logic as evidence of some existential purpose. It could not be otherwise, otherwise we could not know that it could not be otherwise. Of course, that was the problem with the Grand Conspiracy – there could be no otherwise to propose. It was undecidable in principle and so the Grand Conspiracy could only be held as a humble hypothesis, on faith.

And that was why I came to believe that he was the first sort of conspiracy theorist after all. Like most in the church hierarchy, he was not really interested in anything humble. The factors of an authoritarian regime never are. They want the appearance of humility which comes with deference to order. A humble demeanor sets people off their guard, which makes it easier to bludgeon them into line (inevitably behind the club wielder). Such individuals will also pay lip-service to the Grand Conspiracy in order to cultivate a humble self-image, since a humble self-image makes the beatdown easier to countenance (I am merely an instrument; it is for their own good). However, what they act upon is the Conspiracy of Forms, because order serves its servants.

Later that night, Jonah wrestled in the consolation round of the tournament. What had gotten into him, I would never know, but he came out in an uncharacteristic, cartoon fury, twitching and spluttering like Daffy Duck. It took the opponent aback, but it did not make Jonah more graceful 0r skilled. It did not keep Jonah off his back.

Again the groan went up. Jonah’s coach and family screamed futile encouragement. In a grim replay of his earlier match, Jonah tried to bridge. And it worked.

The move didn’t flip the other wrestler off Jonah’s chest, or even raise Jonah’s shoulders off the mat. However, in his fury, he had worked himself into a lather, and lubricated by his own sweat, he was able to scoot himself and the large boy lying on top of him, across the mat and out of bounds.

From there, Jonah’s determination saw him through. Buoyed by his miraculous escape, he could not be held down, and after two more minutes of panting and pushing, Jonah won the match on points.

When it was all over, Jonah was still black, still alive, still personable, and still a heavyweight, just as Socrates was any number of numbers.



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The edge


One hundred degrees feels hotter in the desert than it does in town. The relentlessness of the sun is part of the difference. Running in the Sonoran desert, in Summer, is unwise, but I don’t claim to be wise. It is just a few miles, after all, on good trails.

The sun is rising high by the time I get going. The first three or four miles remain comfortable, but I can feel the heat building in the air and in my blood. I have to slow down. Still, it gets hotter.

Half way around the pile of granite blocks which passes for a mountain in these parts, I feel a little adrenergic twinge. Those who have pushed themselves will understand what I mean. It is the thing that comes after a second wind in the form of a slightly panicky, angry feeling accompanied by a tightening of the skin and a little nausea.

The feeling marks a reserve opening up, but at a price. Blood goes to the muscles and away from the viscera, but also away from the skin, where it is needed to exchange heat with the air. I slow down some more, but the heat keeps building.

I am getting close now. I can see the power lines which cross the trail just a half mile from the trailhead, with its shade-shelter and water. I think I know just how much I can allow myself to speed up, and I do.

The last quarter mile feels a little desperate, but I trot into the shade in good form, with a little left. I walk back and forth for a long time, cooling down. A cop patrolling the trailhead gives me a hard look. I understand; I don’t like the idea of getting sucked into a rescue either.

I was close to the edge. How close, I don’t know. That’s the thing. You can’t know where the edge is until you are over it.

Or rather, there isn’t really an edge. Sure, there’s a last step and an end to all efforts, but that last step is in a different spot every day. You can get pretty good at knowing when you’re close to the last step, but you can never know just exactly where and when you will collapse. The uncertainty keeps things interesting. The uncertainty is motivating.

And, the uncertainty is everywhere. The same run is not the same run. Feet land in different spots, the wind shifts, the sandy dirt is soft or packed.

So it is with all defined entities and their instances. Identities hold for instances. This desert is this desert, where I run this close to the edge, but not over. That is true. This desert is also the Sonoran Desert – practically, but not really. Accepting the latter sort of identity gets me to the trailhead, but no more. It doesn’t get to the truth, any more than talk of the edge informs me where the edge really is.

But now I recall; it is not true that there is an edge, only a retrospective, last step. I’m always thinking about the edge, because it helps keep me off the last step. Knowing about the last step does nothing for me, even though it is the truth.

Or rather, it does nothing because it is the truth. It is local and transparent. I can’t pack it up in a box and take it away to inform me elsewhere and in the future. But because it is local and transparent, I must move by it. And because I must move by it, the truth is inextricable from my motivation.

I think that’s why all of us remain enamored with the truth, even though it is useless in its own right. I know that’s why I will continue to run in the desert – the uncertainty of the true, last step and the very deficiency of my edge-theory – even though it may not be the most useful thing for my health in the end, mental or otherwise.



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The Time Has Come


The oldest child will begin to lead. I’ll admit, I’m a little nervous. Leading is for real, or at least a little more for real than following on a toprope. Still, the transition to leading is as much a shift in psychological reality as it is in physical reality.

You lose control of the short fall, but gain some control over the big one. Tying in to a rope through someone else’s anchor never feels quite the same after you start leading. It is better and worse at once, since you know how many ways their set-up could be defective, and you commit to trust it nonetheless.

I don’t want him to fall. I sure don’t want him to get hurt. I suppose I could turn around and tell him to hoard his life. He wouldn’t abide the dysfunction that goes along with hoarding, though. Ambition turned toward more and more security for its own sake. Money to buy security. Prayers to beg security. Saturdays at work and Sundays listening to some chump explaining how nice it would be to live forever, and how penis-mechanics somehow preoccupy the Almighty. He knows better than all that; he’s watched the swifts.


Trying to be attractive? Pretty sure they know shit about attractive.

White-bellied swifts fly around our crags. I have seen them fly through a crack narrower than their wingspan and reverse course almost within their own body-length. They happen to feed on bugs loitering around the cliffs. What they do, however, is fly. The bugs are incidental.

Once you see that arrangement of motivations and necessities, you can’t see it back the other way. So, I don’t think I could stop him from leading, even if I really wanted to.


It’s OK. I can live with the nervousness. It is an incidental. It will get its due and no more.



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Dreams in the Witch House

Though it is not one of H.P. Lovecraft’s best stories, Dreams in the Witch House is one of his creepiest. The creep factor mostly emanates from the witch’s  familiar, Brown Jenkin. Jenkin is an intermediary from the netherworld, enticing the unwary to enter. A rat/human hybrid, Jenkin eventually dispatches the protagonist by emerging from the wall (which is actually a partition between alternate planes of existence as well as one between indoors and outdoors) and chewing through the man’s body while he sleeps.
Tunneling through a person in his sleep is chilling enough, but what makes Jenkin really creepy is what it represents: shadowy possibilities which gnaw away at us to our demise.

H. P. was a big believer in the old aphorism, “curiosity killed the cat”, (I’m sure he pictured the inquisitive animal sniffing too close to a questing tentacle). He was leery of natural philosophy run amok, based on what happened to the fabled cat. Science, he felt, risked exposing our dearly held beliefs as a mere façade, laid over an alien, chaotic, deeper reality. H. P. was a little odd, but he has never been alone in his fear of hidden truth – or in his attraction to it.

The fear of a hidden truth appears to drive quite a bit of discussion surrounding the philosophy of mind. The fear manifests in varieties dependent upon the school of thought involved. For some positions, the fear of hidden truth appears to be their primary impetus.

Modern-day substance dualists, for instance, fear scientific implications of an explanatory mechanism for activities which tradition ascribes to the soul. The idea that intentionality or qualitative experience may be dependent upon coarse, material goings-on horrifies them. Their revulsion is compelling enough to make arguments from incredulity seem plausible.

“How,” they ask, “can a thing be ‘about’ something?”

Yet, when one fires an arrow at a target, the arrow flies at the target. Something compels it to do so, rather than allowing it to appear suddenly on the moon. Likewise, it remains an arrow, which is a big part of why it flies at the target. The archer attending to the arrow’s flight maintains her identity and has determined her course as well. Even when she visualizes her shot before releasing the bowstring, her intention derives from the same set of considerations determining the shot, albeit in a roundabout way. Maybe she is just importing her perspective on the shot all long and it’s all happening in her (and everyone else’s) head, but that doesn’t matter. The outcome is the same, whether it is the mental substance or the physical substance which is reduced. Reduction is what the substance dualist really fears.

Monists are not so different. They have faced up to the implications of natural philosophy, yet they still fear the loss of mental causation in their schema. The feared outcome of reducing our mental activities to their base, physical mechanisms has been described most eloquently as a “Ghost in the Machine” scenario. In that case, our  consciousness is the ghost,  a mere byproduct with the mistaken impression that it is in charge of things while it is really  looking on impotently as all the little neurons in our brains respond to various stimuli.

The troublesome issue at work is ‘downward causation’. When the archer releases her arrow, do we think that her will causes the arrow to fly toward the target, or do we think that it is the action of her muscles, muscle fibers, the chemical bonds in the arms of the bow, and on down the line? Natural philosophy tells us that the little things add up to the big ones, in terms of how the arrow does what it does. The limbs of the bow springing back into shape do not cause the chemical bonds to behave as they do; it’s the other way around.

We readily accept that state of affairs when it comes to bows and arrows. But if brains and minds bear a similar relationship to their base constituents, then willing the arrow to fly fares no better than the bow’s springing back – it is caused by what’s going on in the neuronal circuitry rather than causing anything itself. The alternative to accepting this arrangement for brains and minds is to make a special exception for mental activities.

Yet it seems impossible to do so without undermining natural philosophy. We may wish to do so, to save mental activities as causes, but it is hard to see how we could avoid hypocrisy. We would still use our knowledge of chemical bonds to build better bows and devise more effective anti-depressants. We would still act as if the bottom-up story were true.

On the other hand, if we accept the bottom-up story for ourselves, what is the point in asking all these questions in the first place? The repercussion of our conclusion is that we are onlookers, like spectators at a sporting event whose critique of the game is utterly ineffectual. It’s hard to see how such knowledge means anything. Just as we risk hypocrisy if we veer away from natural philosophy when it comes to mind, we equally risk hypocrisy by accepting bottom-up explanations when it comes to mental phenomena – we will continue to behave as if our experiences, intentions and motivations make things happen. What to do?

Richard Feynman gave us a clue to the answer.

“If you think you understand quantum mechanics,” he said, “you don’t understand quantum mechanics.”

Quantum fields are not phenomena with which we are familiar, nor can they be. They may not even be ‘really real’. They may simply be the hooks upon which we hang our descriptions of broad regularities in the world of the very small. Furthermore, it doesn’t matter whether the entities to which quantum mechanics refers are real or not. The theory predicts the regularities of the Lilliputian realm – it works.

The thing is, do any of our theories, right down to everyday descriptions, bear a different sort of relationship to their subject matter? When Ernest Rutherford said, “All science is either physics or stamp collecting,” he meant that physics told the basic, really real story of what was going on in the world. Chemistry simplified physics and summarized the really real story of the microscopic world on a convenient level, and so on for biology, geology, meteorology, etc. But his analysis flips the relationship between the disciplines. If we say that Osmium is a metal which conducts electricity and heat at a certain efficiency, has a certain density, reacts with other elements with a certain propensity, then we need ‘bridge laws’ – extra rules – to relate those chemical properties to their associated quantum mechanical phenomena.

The upshot is, only once we have found the Osmium can we find the particular arrangement of quarks, electrons, up-spins and down-spins without which there is no Osmium.

It is easy to turn around and say, “Oh, that’s just what Osmium is.”

But without Osmium and it’s chemical properties, where is our basic-physics explanation? The phenomena explained by the higher level theory permit an explanation in the lower level theory.

And isn’t that how we know about Osmium itself? It is something which responds to our poking and prodding with fire, pushes, and shocks with an elemental predictability. Once we have an atomic explanation for Osmium, we can use a mass spectrometer to find it more reliably, but our target is still the Osmium, not its counter-factual-supporting constituents.

This world of theoretical explanation is terribly confusing. It is confusing because theoretical explanations are not what we normally consider explanations at all. Theories are useful, but they are not true as we wish them to be true – precisely and thoroughly.

We expect our explanations to be more genealogical. Confronted with a piece of Osmium, we can’t be satisfied with atomic weight and number. Those qualities do not explain this piece of Osmium. Rather, we must know how (and so why) the Osmium is in this lump, now, in this place. Break it down to the sub-parts, the quarks, if you will, but the structure of the story does not change.

Where does that leave the Ghost? Where does that leave the mental substance? The Ghost haunts neurobiology, not a reductive explanation. We think our neurons and their activities are our own. We feel comfortable with the idea that we are not exactly the same person if one of the little guys stops working or grows a new dendrite in the course of learning about the atomic number of Osmium. We are comfortable with the change because it occurs within a historical framework, and that framework lends us a persistent identity.

The mental substance seems doomed to participate in some kind of reductive explanation as well. It’s hard to see how it pertains to us, personally, if it does not. If it does participate, then we can call it a substance, but not a separate one. If there are spirits and ectoplasm, then they are located in the same historical framework as the lump of Osmium, its electrons, its quarks, etc. and make their mark, at least upon our consciousness, within that framework.

There are no hidden truths, then. There isn’t some subtext where it all breaks down, as H.P feared. Or if there is, we can never find it.






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