Category Archives: biology

The edge

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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

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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.

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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.

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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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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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The Joy of the Circle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Is a Virus Alive?

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

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

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The Word from the Land of Absolute Relativism

“Look at all this shit!”
He waved the stack of envelopes at me.
“Look at this one.”
He held up the letter on top. It was from another hospital and marked, ‘Important: Do Not Discard’.
“These are the ones you have to be careful to discard.”
He threw it in the wastebasket, and followed it with the rest of the unexamined mail. I was far enough into my training not to be shocked by this sort of thing. I’d weathered surgeon’s tirades and soaked up jaded, callous humor in the emergency room. Still, my experience with this psychiatrist had me believing for years afterwards that, in his specialty, like sought like.
“This kind of clutter is the enemy,” he continued, opening the top drawer in his desk.
He scooped out a handful of keys.
“Look at these! I don’t know what this is for,” he said, holding up a sturdy door key. Into the bin it went.
He tossed a few more, then dumped the remainder back in the drawer with an expression of disgust.
“We’ve wasted enough time,” he declared, “better show me the case.”
I handed him the chart, with my history on top. He lingered on the assessment at the bottom of the page. Residents sometimes began to sweat when attending physicians paused too long in their documentation review. I did not in this case, because the assessment was not mine in the first place; the patient brought her diagnosis with her from the last admission. He grunted and moved on to the ancillary notes, containing the comments from psychiatric nurses who had evaluated the patient.
“Jesus Christ! Did you read this?”
Now I began to sweat. I hadn’t read the nurse’s notes. He handed me the chart with a shake of his head. I’d gotten lucky; the question was rhetorical. Curiosity displaced my anxiety and I began to read with interest. Immediately, I realized what he was on about.
At the bottom of the page, several of the nurses (a cabal?) postulated that dark forces were at work in the patient’s life. The assessment dwelt upon the young lady’s practice of witchcraft, not as an expression of alienation in a personality dangerously adrift, but as an activity with sinister efficacy. I looked up at him as I finished reading.
“How can we hope to do anything for the patients when we’re up against this kind of stupidity from the staff? Borderline,” he stated, returning to my assessment, “Do you really believe that?”
I shrugged. She had the black nail-polish sign, which every trainee knew was pathognomonic for borderline personality disorder.
“There are some people that fit the bill, but mostly the term is an epithet applied to people who we don’t like because they are frustrating. It’s the DSM used as a cudgel, and it justifies our bringing these people into the institution when their community becomes too frustrated with their behaviors. They come in for a few days or a few weeks until they’ve cooled off, then they go back out with the same problems, to the same problems. So this kind of inpatient treatment is like firing into the tree line: it’s good for keeping the enemy’s head down, but it’s not good for hitting anything.”
His words were familiar in structure and reference. At home that evening, I poured through my memory and my boxes of books, and I eventually placed them. They recalled an image from Heart of Darkness.

Once, I remember, we came upon a man-of-war anchored off the coast. There wasn’t even a shed there, and she was shelling the bush. It appears the French had one of their wars going on thereabouts. Her ensign dropped limp like a rag; the muzzles of the long six-inch guns stuck out all over the low hull; the greasy, slimy swell swung her up lazily and let her down, swaying her thin masts. In the empty immensity of earth, sky and water, there she was, incomprehensible, firing into a continent. Pop, would go one of the six-inch guns; a small flame would dart and vanish, a little white smoke would disappear, a tiny projectile would give a feeble screech – and nothing happened. Nothing could happen. There was a touch of insanity in the proceeding, a sense of lugubrious drollery in the sight; and it was not dissipated by somebody on board assuring me earnestly there was a camp of natives – he called them enemies! – hidden out of sight somewhere.

The image stuck and grew stronger over the years until I ceased to see my preceptor as chief among madmen and came to see him as Marlow on the boat. He was the lone relativist in a wilderness of absolutists who considered borderline personality more than a label on a charge sheet (it is that at least, for the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual which codified the term is a tool intended to itemize mental illness for billing). For his fellow wardens of the institution, there existed a borderline personality fact about certain people, caused by borderline personality pathologies and amenable, potentially, to borderline personality treatments. He saw them firing into a continent. He did not, of course, live in the land of absolute relativism, where everything is an onion made of layer upon layer of motives and relations with no pertinent core. He believed in borderline personality as a country over yonder. It recognized certain commonalities, but those commonalities arose in the villages. They accrued; they did not come down from on high.
He cared about how seriously the nurses, psychologists and patients took diagnoses, not because relativism was true. He cared because absolutes did not obtain. Worse, absolutes destroyed. On occasion, bullets fired into the tree line did hit something, and that something was an enemy by definition. Over his career, he’d seen victory declared over schizophrenia and the state institutions emptied onto the street. He’d seen the profession take a pass on intractable diagnoses, like personality disorders. He’d heard from his predecessors about neurosurgical solutions considered quite successful in their time. It wasn’t that relativism was true, it was just that truth didn’t work that way. It wasn’t diagnosis-friendly, and the truth about psychology all the less so.

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Vitrification

Autumn is a season for reflection. The humors slow. We are reminded of mortality, as the life around us shuts down. The maudlin huddle under blankets and hide from the change. Happy fatalists jump in the leaves and ignore it. We shouldn’t contrive a situation where certainty is ours and we wait for the change with eyes shut tight. We ought to be thinking about life instead of death, but not in the fatalists’ way. Out in the cold, in crevices and under bark, tiny creatures illustrate a better way as they face the real crux, the exposure.
As the nights cool, substances like the stored reserves of hibernating animals accumulate in the tissues of certain insects. But rather than providing energy through a long sleep, these substances will embalm their creator. If the rate of transition allows, water in the animal’s body will become an amorphous solid, a glassy ice. Glass spares all the containing structures in the body from lacerating crystals which destroy cell membranes and organs when the other form of ice takes hold. We are familiar with this process because, with less reflection than the insects, we bring the dilemma of a frozen state to our own, furry kinsmen. Motivated at once by fatalistic optimism (in the method) and insecurity (in the act itself), people have taken advantage of vitrification to postpone the development of human and animal embryos in anticipation of more favorable conditions.
In every case, resuscitation is not guaranteed. Some of the vitrified wild animals are clearly doomed. They don’t have enough of the embalming substances in their cells, or have too much water on board. Some are victims of circumstance, as the rate and depth of temperature change affects survival, all else being equal. The insects can’t bank on their potential. For all they know, when the frost takes them, they are dead. That’s all we know too. We freeze many embryos because we can’t know what’s going to happen to any one of them, only what tends to happen to a population. Life is like that. It is fuzzy on the edges, where things like viruses, self-replicating proteins, frozen beetles, and frozen embryos lie in wait to rob us of our reassuring, formal picture.
Worse, when the frozen, the ones that do survive, come back to life, it is through a completely generic influence. Heat does it. The atoms in a particular space vibrate a little faster and the bug resumes its life. The embryo begins to grow again, and barring any further mishaps, becomes a lamb or a human infant, depending on what came before it. The potentials of the process, like those of the form, fade into the landscape. Odds don’t mean much for the frozen individuals. The relationship of the odds to the individual demonstrates that the forms and processes of life aren’t special. We can’t have precious life and its illusion of prescience to hide beneath. We want it instinctively though, because it protects us from the vista tugging at our tails. Nor does the landscape recede if we write it off to fate. If we look down from our preoccupations, we see the individuals poised on vertiginous points of space and time. The location is special, but not cozy. It’s a spot of massive focus and alien potential. The view down is disturbing, but it is more accurate, and more immense than our mythology or our philosophy, if we can take it in.

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