Category Archives: philosophy

The myth of the free range human

… Is a myth that I, as much as anyone, wish were true. My dream is to have a little place in the middle of nowhere, off the grid, with a couple of greenhouses, a composting toilet, a 12gauge loaded with rifled slugs, and a pair of vicious dogs. The truth is though, the only way to realize my dream involves relying on things made on the grid. Even after I am established, I’m going to need things from town – in other words, from other people – to maintain my little homestead.

One might argue that my situation is artificially contrived. Nobody asked me to begin in the middle of a civilization, I was just born here. I had no part in constructing it, and I am quite justified in feeling that the whole thing could’ve turned out a lot better than it did. But that would be wrong too. We are all stuck with something like what we’ve got. It’s inscribed in our genome. When my children were born, I did not have to give them any special instruction in speech and language. I simply talked to them, and soon enough, they began to speak. That’s because they have special structures in their brains which are receptive to language learning. We are social animals, and there’s no getting around that.

We are stuck with a duality. We are fully individual, but we can only realize our individuality by way of our social nature. There are no arts, sports, or academics without other people. And as social creatures, we direct our communal effort towards the full expression of individuality. From the isolated point of view of the collective, arts, sports, and academics are a waste of resources, yet we pursue such things as a group because of their benefits to the individual participants.

The dialectic of the social individual permeates all of our institutions, even medicine. Medical professionals treat patients one by one, but on the basis of the statistical effectiveness of each treatment. In fact, our most effective treatments – interventions involving nutrition, sanitation, and immunization – purely play collective odds to benefit an individual patient’s health.

By the same token, our best treatments are not things done to the patient by the physician. Our best interventions require the participation of the individual, and the exercise of individual virtues like patience, generosity, and courage. The current pandemic is a perfect example. Public health institutions aim to immunize the population, in the hopes of preventing individual tragedies.

Libertarians object to such collective efforts, in defense of individual integrity. But this is where the dialectic flips. To exercise individual virtues, and so maintain individual integrity, each person should participate in the treatment. The failure to do so does not demonstrate rugged individualism, but mean spirited cowardice.

In defense of individual integrity, our society allows meanness and cowardice. Nobody is going to hold someone else down and give them a shot. But neither is anyone obliged to give credence to all the excuses and objections expressed when measures are taken to mitigate the collective effect of failed individual character.

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In terms of what we know and how we know it, we are really no better off than scorpions, who are guided by shadows, cthonic vibrations and the fading scents of long gone passersby. For example, if I have a headache, I take some ibuprofen. I believe it will help me because I know how it works. I learned about the mechanism of action in my chemistry classes, and in subsequent review of the medical literature. But I have never seen the chemical do what those sources say it does. Nobody has seen ibuprofen at work, because the molecules are too small, and the reactions are too fast. However, there are ways to magnify the actions of the chemicals in question, so that those actions may be observed indirectly.

I have not even done that. I have read papers and listened to people who explained how they carried out those observations. Having compared their methods to the methods which I learned in chemistry classes and validated in the lab, I believed their report.

Therefore, I take the pills from the bottle labeled ibuprofen when I have a headache, and expect relief. As I choke down the maroon tablets, I act on a belief even more flimsy than the notion that ibuprofen will help my headache in the first place. I have no idea how the pills were made, and no way to know whether they contain ibuprofen at all. Within an hour, my headache is better.

I keep taking ibuprofen from those types of bottles, because it keeps making my headache go away. Maybe someday, I will unknowingly take a cyanide tablet instead. The risk is negligible though. The same biochemists, pharmacists, and physicians who taught my classes, and subsequently formed my beliefs about ibuprofen’s effect on pain, have declared their commitment to assuring the integrity of those maroon tablets in the bottle labeled ibuprofen on the drugstore shelf. The company that makes those pills has also committed to the recommendations of the biochemists, pharmacists, and physicians regarding the purity of the pills, and the company charges a price which reflects its commitment to giving me ibuprofen, the listed dose of ibuprofen, and nothing but ibuprofen in the bottle.

Philosophers have contended that knowledge is justified, true belief. It turns out though, that truth is probably too small for that purpose. Yet even without truth as a necessary condition, we know something. We go to sleep without fear of never waking again. We take one step after the other confidently, apparently certain of the ground’s persistent solidity. We move about justified by an interlocking network of constant correlations. Any single one of those correlations may be dubious, but taken as a consistent whole they support actionable beliefs – knowledge.

Like the scorpions’, our basics seem pretty janky. Nevertheless, though we are occasionally crushed by a boot or have to sting our way out of a situation, we survive for the most part, and even manage to snag an invigorating insect or two along the way.

It is possible to doubt a functional view of knowledge however. Anything less than absolute certainty merits some doubt. I think about that stray cyanide tablet now and again. Yet, I don’t doubt the justifying power of consistency built of constancy. I know that my pills are ibuprofen even though they might, in principle, be cyanide. Doubt in the method of justification itself invites fear, and fear is contagious.

Such doubt in our body of knowledge, driven by attendant fear, has spread in the populace recently. In place of functional knowledge – beliefs justified by their ties to a massive network of constant correlations – the afflicted strive to reclaim truth as their foundation for knowledge. They cast about the culture for a suitable candidate, what they find is revealed truth. Revealed truth has always lurked about in the cultural murk. Religion harbors it, but not the superstitious type of religion which one might reflexively suspect of such activities. The God of the Old Testament felt the need to carve a tablet, burn a bush, and drop some manna now and again. Revealed truth instead finds refuge with the more philosophical types. Think divine command theory or moral intuitionism.

Revealed truth acts something like Platonic form. Taken as a form, a circle is not a good model, it is the underlying reality which the flawed material of our world imperfectly represents. The circle itself is not the stuff of experience. Revealed truths differ from forms on that point, though. Revealed truths can be apprehended, and so blur the line between analytic and synthetic truths. The statement, “all unmarried men are bachelors”, is an analytic truth. The statement, “Bob is a bachelor”, is a synthetic truth. The statement, “Bob is an inherently unlovable person” is a revealed truth. On the same basis, what the Bible says is true because God wrote the Bible, which we know because it says so in the Bible. It is a truth by definition, but only in reference to a given assertion, in this case that an infallible God is the Bible’s author.

With revealed truth in hand, a person can know something with absolute certainty again. The result is appealing. We needn’t waste our time on the uncomfortable task of finding a date for Bob. We know what he is now.The problem with revealed truths should be obvious at this point. Such givens undercut justification. Consistency with the constancies does not matter anymore, only consistency with the given. If Bob actually gets married, we already know that the marriage is a sham. What remains is to discover the structure of the sham.

The justifying structures are easily built, and unassailable, since they have a given between themselves and any assault. The givens themselves are not beliefs, but natural conditions or kinds revealed by an authority, whether it be an intuition or the speech of a erstwhile prophet. Pick your definitive source; there are no limits.

This spoiled conception of knowledge has spread, generating Q anons, Antifas, and vaccine microchips. Similar epidemics have washed over us in the past. They never last, because eventually, the pragmatic view of knowledge outlasts them. Knowing the spells tucked in their jackets will protect them from bullets, a few of the participants in the Boxer Rebellion manage to avoid being shot. Most die. The scorpion who knows that he can wander around in the daytime because he feels the protective hand of God upon him will survive, for a while. The patient on the ventilator may know that Covid is a hoax because evil people lie, and evil people told him about Covid. He will still drown.

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The Other Senses

We humans have a visual bias. Experiments have demonstrated our preference for sight, but there is no need for experiments. “The proof of the pudding is in the eating,” not the tasting, but “Seeing is believing,” they say. Whenever we want to illustrate something, well, we illustrate it. Our language and culture reify vision. Even our metaphysical discussions are rife with visual references: consider Mary the color scientist, spectrum inversions, and Gettier problems.

Our belief in seeing privileges our sense of sight relative to our other senses, and we are likely to take its instruction more seriously. We wave off any perceptual conundrums arising from our other senses as foibles of inferior organs. But we should take our nonvisual phenomena more seriously, for they have lessons for us if we do.

Those lessons start at the bottom, with our sense of smell. Though it is our crudest sense, and arguably the one sensory modality that we could most do without, the structure of smell has weighty implications. Olfactory neurons each bear a single kind of receptor. The odors we experience are mediated by activation of a set of receptors entirely. The number and distribution of that activation determines everything about a smell: its intensity, favorability, and motivational power. An odor is something which can be described, but not named. There is no equivalent to “red” in our odor palette. However, there are good and bad smells, and as with moral qualities (supposedly), smells are intrinsically motivating on the basis of their goodness and badness.

That motivational power lies in the smell itself. A chemical in a test tube which smells like a steaming pile, produces the same revulsion as the smell of a steaming pile itself. It is tempting to say that the odor of the chemical in the test tube is just an olfactory misrepresentation of crap. The common scent is supposed to smell just as it does, though. The smell is a conjunction linking an aversive mood, and things to be avoided. The smell and the mood are about a broad landscape, stretching over memory, history coded in our genetics and cultural instruction, all mediated by a particular pattern of receptor activation.

A similar sort of two-directional representation occurs in our auditory experience. The organ which generates auditory nerve signals, the cochlea, is tuned to the range of the human voice. The structures at the auditory end of the line are primed to respond directly to voices and music, and indirectly, to stimulate an emotional response to voices and music. As with smell, when hearing evokes a mood, it builds a memory of itself and its circumstances on a broad and sturdy base. A good framework improves the recollection’s relevance, and therefore its odds of survival. Here is another temptation. Fans of evolutionary psychology and divine teleology may see the beginnings of a good story in this structure. But those sorts of stories are unnecessary, and far beyond the point, which is: our hearing shapes the map of our experience in terms of words and music, as much as it recognizes musical and linguistic experiences.

The other senses break down the uni-directionality of representation, but even further, they blur the internal/external division itself. Taste receptors give us the sensations of sweet, salt, sour, bitter, and umami. Our conscious experience of taste locates those sensations on the tongue. But there are taste receptors for bitter and sweet in the pharynx, and sweet taste receptors throughout the intestinal tract. Those sweet receptors attach to neurons which do not reside in the central nervous system, but instead, lie in the intestinal tract itself, and the pancreas. Though these sense organs have no direct connections to the central nervous system, they still contribute to conscious experience. They simply do so via the adjacent somatosensory system.

Our somatic senses are a bit of a jumble. As a whole, they are the thing that represents our status. Though there are a few specialized sense organs in the system, it mostly relies on bare nerve endings and chemical signals built in to the tissues surrounding the nerve endings. This sense tells us where our limbs are, and what each appendage is doing. The somatosensory system lets us know when our gallbladder is on the fritz, and, indirectly, when we are hungry or full..

Though they are rarely the center of our conscious attention, our somatosensory experiences are always present in our conscious states. If I interrupt Dr. Penrose’s visualization of a 5 dimensional object, he will immediately be able to tell me whether he is standing or sitting, feeling hungry, feeling warm or cold, fit or tired. Somatosensory experience serves as the shade tree, grass, and sky in the painting of our phenomenal picnic.

Of all the senses, our somatic sense most effectively dissolves the boundary between what is internal and what is external. Because, our hunger is apparently our hunger. Our cold is our cold. These are things that seem to incorrigibly belong to us, just like our thoughts or our moods.

The thought that any of these things belong to us is a bit off anyway. Words and music, hunger, thought, and mood are constituents, but there is no separable “us” to which they may belong. We come by this error regarding identity via our most favored sense. Because we rely so heavily on vision, we confer an unmerited degree of independence to our visual experiences. We conceive of sight as purely received information, which given the limitations of the medium, naïvely represents an unconditioned reality. The plain truth gets transmitted through our optic nerves, into the dark room behind our eyes for the viewing pleasure of a little man in front of his little screen – the real us. Visual realism leads to other mistakes in its turn, regarding what is real and what is not. We begin to believe that numbers may be real because our eyes see objects as very discrete. Geometric shapes may seem real because we are able to depict them visually. A separate observer made up a separate stuff must sit behind our eyes to validate the reality of our visions. Our other senses beg to differ. They give as good as they get. Their contributions to our experience only make sense in reference to our global experience itself and do not rest on some outer, hard surface. Our world may be a ship sustained by the tension of its own spars, but it works for us – better than a brittle realism would.

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Taking Pictures

Wyoming is a Banana Republic. That is, very few of its residents craft any products, or add value to pre-existing items. Instead, they survive by selling off the state bit by bit. The major industries are mineral extraction and tourism. Reliance on those commodities creates a vicious cycle, because the state’s fortunes rise and fall with mineral prices and popular whimsy. To live through the fluctuations, politicians skimp on the state budget so that they can put enough money in the bank to survive the next economic lull. A few lonely prophets call for investing those funds in economic diversification, in the interest of breaking free from the cycle of feast and famine. The politicians repeatedly acknowledge that diversification is a good idea, but can never bring themselves to actually commit to it. It is just too risky.

So, the state carries on in its bumpy ruts, booming and busting. Decades on this road have had socioeconomic consequences. The path has led to a land of Manors and mobile homes, housing those who own the mines and the lovely land and their servants respectively.

No place in the state epitomizes this case study in Marxist historical analysis better than the town of Jackson. A ring of expensive houses surrounds a ring of expensive condominiums which surrounds a cluster of expensive restaurants, galleries, and boutiques. And that is Jackson. Though Jackson is fancy enough in any season, its exclusivity shines brightest in winter. In summer, the dirtier class of tourist drives through town on its way to Yellowstone. In winter, the only reason to be in Jackson is to patronize one of the ski resorts or to serve the patrons.

Although, there is one other, statistically insignificant reason to be in Jackson in the winter. For several years, that reason compelled me. I wanted to climb the grand Teton in full conditions. There is no reasonable explanation for that compulsion. I just feel a perverse attraction to isolated, windswept places. For instance, when I topped out on California Ice in the Bighorns, I sat on a rock and looked across from Hell Roaring plateau to Froze to Death plateau and was filled with a rare sensation, a feeling of fearsome loneliness, and profound contentment along with it. I can’t offer any better excuse.

When the idea first came to me, I sought out a friend who had done a lot of climbing in the Teton range. Sure enough, he had attempted a winter ascent. He got close, but after a day of skiing through waist deep powder, he and his partner had to bivouac short of their goal. They were well prepared, but the night was so brutally cold, that they were beaten by the next morning and decided to ski down. They fell into chest deep powder on each turn. My friend’s partner lost his mind. He took his skis off and tossed them, javelin style, down the snowfield. He then swam after them over the loaded slope, cursing and spluttering, until he could get his hands on the traitorous bastards and chuck them again. Though he came back to his senses eventually, the trip marked an end to their partnership..

Despite that tale, and others warning of frostbite and avalanche, I still thought I could pull it off, and I still wanted to pull it off, maybe even more than before. It wasn’t a solo adventure though, and to my surprise and frustration, I had difficulty convincing anyone else to come along.

Finally, I persuaded my friend Jim that it would be a good adventure. I’m not sure if he ever really believed that we would climb, but he believed in the adventure part and that was good enough for him. We set up base camp at the Motel 6 down the road from the main town.

Over the next week, we made a few forays up past the tree line, but the avalanche forecasts were always bad, and the peak was socked in with clouds and blowing snow besides. Nobody said anything; we just gave up one day. We got up late, and Jim suggested that we might go up to Teton Pass and do some tele skiing.

Now it was my turn to cash in on the adventure itself rather than the intrinsic joys of the activity. I knew how skis worked, theoretically. But until that day, I had only used skis to get somewhere with a pack on. My technique was purely pragmatic, and rudimentary. To go downhill, I left the climbing skins on the skis. I then skied across the slope, stopped and turned to face the other direction. I repeated that process to the bottom of the hill.

When we got to the top of the pass, the skins came off the skis. Jim gave me some tips on turning without stopping, and then we were off. Again and again I nosedived into the unconsolidated powder. Jim was soon out of sight. I began to suspect retribution. I felt like I owed him at that point though, so I sucked it up and ate a little more snow while he carved track after track in the slope. When we had had enough, we went into town and wandered around.

Winter tourists milled around the square. Most were dressed to ski, with lift tickets still clipped to their coat zippers. A few were dressed as cowboys in Stetsons and shearling coats. The famous antler arch was busy with group after group documenting the fact of their visit to Jackson Hole with a picture under the strange sculpture of bone.

There was not much for us around the square. We stood outside a couple of the bars and debated going in for a drink. They seemed too crowded though, and we decided against. We stopped by the mountaineering shop, which at this point in its evolution had basically become a Patagonia outlet, to chat with an old friend of Jim’s. We didn’t go in to any of the other establishments, but we did stop for a while in front of a photo display. Though neither of us was in the market for an expensive print, Jim had a professional interest in the product.

Jim was a photographer, but not the kind of photographer who had a gallery in downtown Jackson Wyoming. Jim was an artist who scraped by on grants and museum patronage. He took pains to draw a distinction between what he did, and what a commercial photographer did. Yet he radiated a little glow of resentment as we stood in front of the spotless plate glass. The gallery inside was all polished wood. If there was an attendant, he or she was politely hidden in the back.

The well lit pictures were all of wildlife. Most depicted charismatic megafauna. The photographer seemed particularly fond of bears. Jim glanced over most of these offerings in a second, and then paused for a bit in front of a family of polar bears. He wore a discomforted expression.
“What do you think?”, I asked.
I expected to catch him off guard, and I was halfway teasing with the question, but he shot back right away.
“It’s too didactic”
I was caught off guard.
“What do you mean by that?”, I asked.
“It looks like a photograph,” he said.

I didn’t exactly know what he meant. However, I could see that there was something different about the pictures of wildlife in that gallery, and his pictures. There was one photo of his in particular, taken at Lac Du Flambeau, which stood out to me. The subjects were two members of the tribe, a man and a woman. He was looking into the distance with an expression of anger or determination, it was hard to say which. She stood behind him, maybe in contact with him, wearing that same, mysterious expression, but she was looking at him. She was standing still. He appeared prepared to stride off towards whatever it was the distance. He was silent. She was speaking.

Clearly, his photo was something other than the picture of the polar bear family. I understood the gist of it then, but it would be years before I could put that distinction into words. It is the difference between pictures of polar bears, and polar bear pictures. Pictures of polar bears could be pictures of the whole bear, but also could be photos of a patch of fur, a black nose, or a white dot in the distance. Polar bear pictures could depict whole bears too, but include stick figures, polar bear paintings, pictures of men in polar bear suits, or black eyes, a black nose and a red mouth on white canvases.

Pictures of polar bears document. Polar bear pictures represent. By representing, polar bear pictures evoke all the relative connections which comprise our categories, and therefore the sense of our experience.

The picture in the gallery was a picture of polar bears. It was as documentary as the tourists’ snapshots under the antler arch. The photograph of the man and woman at Lac Du Flambeau was representational. There was something about human relationship, emotion, and the interpretation of expressions in the photo. But the really brilliant thing was: the photo primarily represented something not present in the image itself.

The predominant impression was the churn of excitement and uncertainty which occurred in the beholder. It was a class of sensation which bound subsequent viewers to the original viewer in its momentary intensity.

Jim has been gone for some years now. I can’t even find that picture in the supposed eternity of the Internet. I don’t need to, because I can remember it in every detail by the feeling it represents. The feeling is the same as my excuse for wanting to climb the Grand in winter, and I think it also explains why Jim would throw in on my crazy project.

There is no gallery for such things.

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The E-Word

Last night, the wife and I brewed up some nice Medicare mimosas (that’s orange Metamucil with a pinch of MiraLAX for those who don’t know, yet) and sat down to watch a documentary on the desktop. It was my night to choose, so we didn’t watch the National Geographic folks anthropomorphizing the animal of the week. Instead, we watched something interesting on PBS. It’s an old series imaginatively entitled “The Brain”. It’s really very good, except for one thing. Within the first few minutes, the narrator says the E word (emergence), and he just keeps saying it.

I’m prone to let this sort of thing go. Saying a property emerges in the subject of a micro structural description is often a means of stepping over a steaming pile of metaphysics in the path between discussion of the properties of an object’s components, and the properties of the object itself. I can forgive the use of shorthand..

The narrator initially uses this shorthand meaning of emergence. But as things go along, it becomes clear that he also endorses weak emergence. Then he offhandedly states that colors exist in the mind and not in reality, which indicates that he really does have things the wrong way around.

In defense of the narrator, he still isn’t advocating for strong emergence. Strong emergence is the idea that once some threshold condition is met among components of an object, the group of components comprising the object acquires a new property which then takes over the behavior of the object as a whole, and by extension, that object’s components.

This magical event effectively erases, at least temporarily, the properties of the object’s components. While they remain pieces of the whole, they participate in events according to the dictates of the new property. It is only when they fall off the bus, either accidentally, or via our purposeful examination, that they reacquire their individual properties once again.

For instance, neurons generate electrical impulses, regulate their membrane potentials, and secrete paracrine signals until they are gathered in a certain number and arranged in a certain pattern, at which point they exceed the threshold for becoming a mind and begin to do things like experience, think, and remember. As long as we look at the collection of neurons gathered in the threshold number and arrangement, we will see them exemplifying mental properties. If we pull one of the neurons out of the brain or touch a subthreshold group of them with an electrode probe, we see them revert to exemplifying neuronal properties.

Weak emergence differs from the claims above in that it takes those claims to be metaphorical. When we get to the threshold state for the components of an object, we don’t get an actual, new, causal force out of that last brick added to the structure. Instead, it just becomes more convenient to speak of the object as if it had developed such a new property.

In the case of the mind, that would mean that the threshold number and arrangement of neurons simply becomes too difficult to manage descriptively. It makes sense to begin to use mental terminology to describe their collective behavior rather than trying to persist in using neurologic terminology.

In the case of both strong and weak emergence, we generate additional mysteries to solve, and those mysteries appear to be unsolvable. We have no account of how or why threshold conditions are established or met. We have no idea how properties flip on and off in the components and in the designated objects composed by those subunits. The difference between the two positions is that, in weak emergence we have the above difficulties in explaining a metaphor rather than a mechanism.

The root problem however, is not flipping properties. The root problem is the non-relational account inherent in the treatment of objects and their components. We get another glimpse of this inverted view when the narrator of “The Brain” describes colors as constructs of the brain which are absent in reality. If we take the implied structure seriously, then there’s nothing to save neurons from a similar fate. The only difference might be that we have examples of people who live without colors, but no examples of people who live without neurons. However, we do have examples of people who seem happy to live without minds, from solipsists to eliminatrivists.

To clarify, minds are explained by brains which are explained by neurons which are explained by genes. Colors are explained by retinal pigment, neurons, cone cells, and wavelengths of light. The explanations begin with the object in question, and proceed down to the microstructure.

The microstructure doesn’t represent the object like the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle or a pile of little homunculi. Instead, the components provide a history of relationships and record of events situating the object of examination in the causal web of space and time.
A couple of examples, in the interest of de-spookifying the statement above. First, take the illustration that the documentary offers for neuronal activity generating consciousness. Our narrator gives the example of the unconscious brain during sleep. In deep sleep, the electrical activity generates a rudimentary waveform on EEG. In REM sleep, when the brain is ostensibly conscious, as well as during wakefulness, the EEG tracing shows a complex waveform. He compares this circumstance to a group of drummers, each initially drumming to their own rhythm. As they listen to each other and begin to coordinate their beats, music emerges.

If the implicit claim really held, John Coltrane wasn’t doing much of anything that any of the rest of us couldn’t do as long as we knew how to work the reed on a saxophone. The drummers can improvise a musical outcome because they understand the object (music) and the components’ (speed and timing of stick strikes on the drum head) relationship to the object composed. That relationship is a series of events involving hearing, drum making skills, proprioceptive experiences and the response of previous brains to frequencies of stick strikes on drum heads. This explains why we can’t play jazz like John Coltrane. We speak of him improvising, but he improvised off of an explanation that situated him in a most musical zone.

More to the point, we can look at the example of neurons and minds itself. Fully developed neurons can’t be placed in a bag, (to borrow from a more gruesome tale offered up by a substance dualist – they are disgusting people), and shaken up to make a brain, much less a mind. The neurons have to go through the developmental process to provide an adequate explanation for the supervening mind. By developmental process, I mean to say the whole history of neuronal development from primordial cells emitting chemical signals in response to changes in membrane polarization to cell migration during gestation, to sensory integration during early childhood. The neurons bear the history of events identified with mental events. The state of affairs is the same as the status of drumsticks and drum heads and drummers regarding music. Those components explain the music because they offer a narrative of events which situates music in the course of events overall. And those specific components pertain to the tune of the day because those components have specific, music related events explaining the components in their turn.

So that’s why I don’t like the E word. When it comes to minds, brains, and neurons, it perpetuates a mystery where there should be none. Worse, it dumbs things down generally, because it substitutes new properties for deep histories.
Problems remain. Dualisms will survive. The hard problem will still wake people in a cold sweat at night (go back to sleep, it’s epiphenomenal). People will still use their minds to insist that we don’t need minds.
Getting rid of the E word solve much.
But it’s a step in the right direction.

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The Main Event

Dwight saw his chance. His opponents last jab was halfhearted, and the other boxers hand dropped a little as he pulled the punch back. Dwight followed his opponents retreating hand in with a hard right, just as the other man was stepping forward. Dwight’s fist connected, and the man went down.

For spectators, the knockout punch is the main event of the main event. It isn’t the only event though. There are events upon events coincident with the main event of the main event.
We think we have something very clear in mind when we speak of events. Perhaps the best formulation of that clear vision is the “property exemplification” form. According to the “property exemplification” characterization of events, an event is best understood as the manifestation of a property, by an object, at a time.

Nice. Now we just have 3 more entities to define: properties, objects, and times. However, the job may not be much harder due to our proliferating terms.

We can go back to Dwight’s knockout punch to try to clarify things.

If you think about it, many, many events occur in the moment of the punch. There are Newtonian events (Dwight’s fist exerts a force and transfers kinetic energy to his opponents jaw). There are neuromuscular events (Dwight follows through and refrains from tensing his arm at the last moment). There are atomic events (covalent bonds flex within the structure that we classify “Dwight’s fist”).

All of the aforementioned constitute legitimate events. They also refer to a single event, which supervenes upon all the little happenings designated by the punch.. Resolution of the resulting paradox may simplify our job immensely. Because, the one and many account reveals properties as categories, objects as summaries of events, and times as contents of objects.

Dwight’s fist exemplifies the property of striking his opponents jaw at 59 seconds into the 3rd round. Dwight’s fist is the hand, which developed from a limb bud when Dwight was an embryo, whose knuckles were hardened against the heavy bag, whose fingers were closed in a certain configuration, and which struck his opponents jaw at 59 seconds into the 3rd round. Like the ship of Theseus, Dwight’s fist (like any object) is never truly static, though we mistakenly speak of it as such for convenience’s sake.

So, analysis of Dwight’s fist reveals a particular collection of property exemplification’s.

Dwight’s fist strikes. “Striking” is constituted by rates of energy transfer within certain parameters. As such it is, as are properties generally, a category of relationships. Striking is not pushing, because pushing happens more slowly. Slapping is striking because it does happen quickly, with the qualification that it occurs with a particular hand conformation, and depending upon the speaker, perhaps with the implication of lower levels of force. There is an interlocking pedigree between the tropes and other instances of similar properties nearby.

59 seconds into the 3rd round means a specific number of position changes, between the fighters, the people in the crowd, the air molecules and particles of light within the room, and the vibrating atoms in the timing elements of the ringside clock. A differential accrual of happenings defines 3 rounds and 59 seconds.

There are problems with this scheme, but events are a confusing topic. More to follow.

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The 6 Stages of Grief

My neurologist tells me that I have a chronic progressive neurodegenerative disease. I assume that all the repetition is for emphasis. The double-down does help the rest of his news, “but it is treatable”. He says the last bit enthusiastically. I suppose you don’t get to say that very much in neurology, and I don’t blame him for taking advantage of the opportunity.
But I know what treatable entails too. In medicine generally, but especially in neurology, it means things will go downhill in a way that we control. I understand how that might count as a win, because I’m going through the 5 stages of grief as I begin a long goodbye to climbing. Passing through the stages of grief, like controlled deterioration, may seem like a process to which winning and losing should not apply. However, I have access to a secret. I know about a transformational 6th stage to the process.

For those who are unfamiliar with the stages of grief model, some background is in order. Unfortunately, adequate understanding requires a foray into the underbrush of academic psychology. The incursion will be brief and relatively painless.

Psychologists have a penchant for stages of this and that. They use the terminology to craft formulas explaining the psyche, much like chemistry and physics employ formulas to describe their domains. Some may have heard of Maslow’s pyramid of needs.

There’s a similar model for addiction. And then there are the stages in the cycle of abuse. With the exception of some models of learning, psychological formulas are of little practical use. They can’t tell you what to expect when you mix Clorox and ammonia (look at the chemical formulas; you shouldn’t do this). They can’t tell you what you’ll need to enter low Earth orbit.
All that psychological models can tell you is what happened before, based on what other psychologists think they saw happen before. This dubitable power is supposed to offer emotional comfort.

For example, when a bereaved friend is sitting in his room mute and motionless, a counselor can reassure all the concerned onlookers that this is expected. The bereaved is going through the phase of denial. When that friend screams in anguish and throws a lamp at the wall, the counselor can maintain calm in the living room by reassuring everyone that their loved one is simply experiencing the stage of anger. He is overheard beseeching God for mercy? Don’t worry, bargaining is the next stage in the model. He is crying now? Meet depression. At last he emerges, drying his eyes and taking a deep breath. Now he has reached the stage of acceptance, and we are through.

Certainly, certain people feel reassured by these expositions. I’ve observed that the same people would probably feel reassured by a certified professional reading Jabberwocky in a calm voice, under the same circumstances. I’ve also observed that any reassuring effect following from the formulaic explanation of a psychological phenomenon currently in process, occurs in the observers. For the one actually experiencing a stage of something, explaining to them that they are merely experiencing a stage of something tends to breed resentment instead.

Like other, similar psychological models, the stages of grief formula does not do much work., That is, unless you add the 6th stage. Because, unlike any other stage in any other psychological formula, the 6th stage in the stages of grief is inherently action-guiding.
I call it the stage of Alpine acceptance. This stage actually occurs only intermittently, mostly to those in the know, and when it does occur, it can pop in at any point in the process.

To permit a complete understanding of this unique stage in the model, we must briefly explore the source of the terms once again: in this case, the practice of alpinism.

First off, I want to be clear that people don’t actually agree on what alpinism means. I don’t mean on a metaphysical level. I mean nobody agrees on what constitutes alpinism. Some say it is climbing a route on a mountain. Of course, that statement begs the question. Some say alpinism is climbing to the summit of a mountain by any route harder than the easiest route. Many climbers would call most of the routes encompassed by that definition “mountaineering”.

This definitional mess is further complicated by the fact that almost any climbing route, can be ascended in Alpine style, which means climbing with just what you can carry with you on your back. To expand on the implications for a moment, on any big climb, one frequently wishes for more equipment than one can carry. The reason that the practice of traveling dangerously light gets called “Alpine” style rather than “big wall” style or “mountain push” style is because one always wishes for more equipment than one can carry on an Alpine route. That is because these routes often wander over steep, half frozen, crumbling rock and unconsolidated snow which would realistically require a 12 pound electric hammer drill with spare bits and batteries along with 50 pounds of expansion bolts to ascend safely, and which actually permits a 25 pound pack, inclusive of survival gear, given the strenuous nature of the climbing.

Despite the definitional vagaries, there is little dispute regarding the Alpine nature of individual routes, and even less dispute regarding who is practicing Alpine climbing.

I hope it is clear, based on the above, that the Alpine climber risks it all (and often at kind of bad odds) to experience the inexplicable and perhaps to achieve the undefinable. This doesn’t always work out well.

Sometimes, alpine enterprises end definitively, and in the worst way, with the death or serious injury of one or more persons. However, the incidence of definitive endings is astonishingly low. Because those who undertake such improbable ventures are (or quickly become) quite canny. They can smell when things are getting rotten, and when that scent hits the nose a singular psychological process begins, to a much different end.

It is a way of giving up and carrying on at once, and it defies a clear and simple explanation. I will attempt an illustration with a summary.

The following is based on actual conversations, both internal and between partners:

“The rock quality is really deteriorating I don’t know if I can climb this,” said as he climbs it.

“Yes, this is really bad. What does it look like for the next pitch?”

“No better. This anchor isn’t the best either, but we could rap from it.”

“Maybe we should bail. Let me just try this crack over here. I think I can aid through the overhang.”

The crack can’t be climbed.

“Are you sure you can’t aid it?”

” Yeah, I can’t reach the next placement. Let me take a look around the corner”

“How does it look?”

“50° slab with gravel on it – somehow.”

“Damn, maybe we should go down”

“Let me try the crack again”

The crack still can’t be climbed.

“Maybe the slab isn’t that bad?”

“Let me take another look”

The slab has not changed.

“I can’t make it go. Do you want to try it?”

“No, we have to go down. I mean, conditions looked good from camp, but obviously this is in no shape for climbing. But now we know what to look for.”

“Yeah. You want to try the crack?”

“No. What are you doing next week?”

The above conversation is typically followed by retreat to camp where the whole endeavor gets painstakingly analyzed, until all parties are satisfied that no other outcome was possible. Then everyone goes home, regroups, and begins planning on coming back, maybe just to wait in bad weather at a campground for a month. If the weather is good though, the aspirants may convince themselves again that the route looks to be in great shape from camp, which inevitably leads to another effort, ending at the same impassible terrain that scuttled the last one.
The remarkable thing is that deep down, everyone knows that the climb doesn’t go. Throughout the futile efforts there are no recriminations, tears, or tantrums.
And that is Alpine acceptance. At a certain point, regardless of all the anger, depression, bargaining, etc. – all of which simply leaves you back where you started – the only way to succeed is to be sure that you fail completely. That is always an achievable goal, and it often proves the only way forward.

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The Sustaining God

Once upon a time, at the height of the Mughal empire, a man of great intelligence and refinement sat on the throne. With his nation at peace, he used his wealth to gather around him every sort of beautiful thing and interesting person. He ruled wisely, and the populace venerated him. He pursued whatever inspired him, to his complete satisfaction.
At last, the Mughal Emperor looked around himself and saw that all his wishes and ambitions had been fulfilled. Now, he only had one fear: that he must one day leave his perfect life.

He became obsessed with the thought that he must die and leave it all behind. So, he sent emissaries to seek out the secrets of immortality. They sought up the rivers and across the mountains, for many years, in vain.

Until one day, one of the Emperor’s agents came upon a village at the foot of a mountain. The villagers told him that a Daoist priest lived in a cave below the peak and that the hermit had found a way to defeat death.
The emissary climbed up and found the priest, a shoeless man dressed in a tattered robe. On behalf of the Emperor, the agent begged the priest to come to the Mughal capital and teach the Emperor how to defeat death. The agent offered power and riches to persuade the priest, but the priest refused all enticements outright. He agreed to make the journey and to teach the Emperor without cause or condition.
The priest and the emissary traveled back across the mountains and down the rivers until they arrived at the palace.
The Emperor summoned the priest to him immediately.
Once ensconced in the his chambers with his guest, the sovereign asked the question which had overcome his thoughts entirely.
“How do I defeat death?”
The priest made no answer, so the Emperor tried again.
“I’ve been told that you’ve discovered the secret to immortality. Tell me, how do I live forever? What chants, rituals, potions or salves must I employ?”
The priest sighed, “I am sorry, but you cannot live forever. There is no chant, ritual, potion or salve which will sustain you. You cannot defeat death in that way. But there is another way. If you allow me, I will teach you to lighten up. And if you follow my teachings to their conclusion, you may become so light and insubstantial that death cannot grasp you.”

Here, the record ends.

What happened with the Emperor and the priest? After the priest delivered his news, did the Emperor nod and move on untroubled, or did he have the priest killed? Maybe the Emperor split the difference.

Maybe he nodded without moving on. He might have feigned acknowledgment while nurturing the desire for life in secret. Perhaps he devoted himself entirely to the Master’s lifestyle, becoming more and more consumed with meditation and asceticism until he starved to death rather than have death ambush him.

We may imagine something even worse too. When the priest explained how the world was just one story (as he would have done, since “Dao” indicates “just one story”, nothing more and nothing less), maybe the Emperor grasped at the metaphor. Rather than seeing past the priest’s analogy, the Emperor quickly laid upon it a driving plot, necessary characters, and a storyteller who he symbolized with the image of a book.
Soon, a shrine housing a statue of a Golden book stood in every house in the land. The Emperor wore an amulet in the shape of a book around his neck. At the end, he clutched the symbol tight in his fist while beseeching the storyteller to keep writing his lines.

But since we do not really know the end of this story, why not be more hopeful? Why not make the story more interesting too? Because our stories usually are much more interesting than the story of instantaneous enlightenment at the end of a short lesson, or summary execution.
Let us imagine that the Emperor parted with the priest in a state of doubtful curiosity.

He went back to his duties and avocations watchfully. As he had his moments of fear, triumph, and satisfaction, he tried to see those moments as elements of just one, complete story, rather than belonging to his personal narrative. He got better and better at adopting the single-story viewpoint. In doing so, he dropped the possessive perspective – a collector’s perspective – which had previously obscured his experiences with the demands of ambition, pride, and disappointment.

He had been treating his life like a gilded scrapbook. He came to understand the impossibility of having an experience; one could only experience an experience. He finally managed to set the scrapbook aside.

From that moment on, all the little details were illuminated as never before. He could feel himself lightening up. And at the end, when all the experiences were over, he felt himself possessed of no substance, with none of the associated, substantial troubles.

Maybe that was what happened. But he probably killed the priest instead.

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Body and Soul

“You can kill my body, but you cannot kill my spirit.”

 - Bo Diddley

I love that song. I play it on the way home from every big day, whether I have succeeded or failed.

Today I failed. I didn’t even make it to the crag. Something is happening to me, and I am not sure what it is. I shake. My back is in pain. My muscles lock up. All these things happen in the course of normal activity. If I can just get to the stone, and put my hands on the holds, everything gets better. I get back fluid movement.
But I can’t get to the stone. The course of normal activity is in my way.

I fear that I may end up like Fred Becky. He lived to climb, and did hundreds, if not thousands of first ascents in the Cascades, and all over the world. He continued to climb until he was in his 80s. In the final years, he made backcountry forays in mountain ranges all over the world. He often struggled to get to the base of climbs, and for the most part, he did not end up climbing. Nevertheless, he dragged his bones back to the mountains again and again. Video footage of some of these endeavors exists, and it is clear from the images that he was struggling, and suffering all the way.

I used to think that his efforts were heroic. Now, I think he exemplified an element of the human condition which our old poets referenced in the tales of Prometheus and Sisyphus.
Fred couldn’t help himself any more than those mythical figures could help themselves.
The problem, for Prometheus, Sisyphus, and Fred was, of course, that the spirit can die.

The eagle eating your liver isn’t the real issue. The real issue is that your liver keeps growing back. The rock rolling down the hill isn’t the truth. The truth is your own, inescapable compulsion to push it back up.

The spirit dies with each peck and each bound of the boulder. Unlike the body, it is easy to kill. It will die over almost nothing. The catch is: it keeps coming back. It snaps back in an instant and sends you back to the bottom of the hill and prepares you for the eagle’s next visit.

I will drive back home. I will wake up tomorrow morning without having asked for it. I will do some pull-ups and climb on plastic as if I were training for something. Some onlookers may think this is admirable, others may think it is sad. From the inside, it just is.
The religions are wrong about what we go through. There is no heaven. There is no hell. There is no samsara. Those are views from the outside.
Maybe next weekend, I will get my hands on those holds. But I will act just the same, between now and then, as long as I live.

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Realism in the Time of Covid

I walked down the broad, sandy track, distracted. The path was built for motorized traffic, so it required no attention to route finding, and my mind could wander elsewhere, in places far from plagues and Gumby revolutions. But I did not stray for long. Behind me, I heard barking. The noise was the sort of high-pitched yap which a dog makes when something frightening, yet fun, is in progress.

I had assumed that a dog made the sound, but I began to doubt as the yammering grew closer at an unnatural rate and became accompanied by a growl that fluctuated in uneven gasps. I stepped off the track, waiting nervously. But of course, no extraordinary monster appeared around the last bend. What did roll into sight was a standard, biomechanical amalgamation. The dog, a German Shepherd mongrel, sat lashed to the vehicle frame up front, shaking and yelping. Behind the mutt, a lumpy man in a down coat steered the buggy from the comfort of its silver roll cage. He gunned the engine over little rises, and coasted around the curves. He gave a little smile and a wave as he passed me. A small American flag fluttered from the apex of his sun-shade.
The commotion rapidly faded, and I turned my attention back to the walk, and the granite towers at the walk’s end. I could see the formations now. Poking up from the slopes of the Little Valley, they were squat spires, the color of the sand beneath my feet. Most were not monoliths, but stacks of huge blocks, each brick 40 feet or more on a side.
At the apex of a small rise in the trail, a single, rhomboidal flagstone, and a small prickly pear with three leaves marked the turnoff to my objective. They looked as if they had been placed there, but they were no more intended for my purpose than the track of hoof prints which led away from the landmark towards the climb. A dotted line, stamped in the sand by deer and elk, and punctuated with mounds of pellets along the way, wove through the Manzanita until it intersected with a line of Cairns leading to a gigantic stack of boulders.
I dropped my pack at the base. I could not tell if the staging area had been manufactured or not, but it was a perfect little patch of dirt, sheltered by cypress and laurel. I fished the rope out from the bottom of the pack and donned harness and helmet. I carried no more gear, because my goal for the day was not to climb the 4 inch wide crack above me from the bottom up. My goal was to find out if I was still a climber, and if so, to begin to claw my way back to a respectable condition. To those ends, I would crawl through gaps between the blocks above, anchor the rope to a pair of unseen bolts, descend the rope, and climb back up to the bolts as many times as I could.
With the rope tied to my back, I made my way around the side of the formation until I could tunnel through the cracks. The way led down and across to a small alcove. A scraggly alder tree grew there, apparently supported by a very shallow bowl of sand alone. In retrospect, it had made a mistake. Though the spot was secure, the soil was too shallow, and the tree’s highest leaves could only catch sunlight for a couple of hours every day. It could never thrive, but it was a pleasant decoration for the time being. From the alcove, a short, awkward squeeze led to a hidden ledge, and the anchor. I secured my rope to the two bolts.

After descending back to the base, I loaded my self-belay device and began to climb. I moved methodically, not at all like I would climb with a partner belaying from the base. I used a single device for fall protection. This was on purpose. The set up relied on hands and feet as my first line of protection, with the rope and device as backup only. Having a second chance put an edge on the whole project which was lacking in the case of third chances and single chances alone. With a third chance in play, the focus shifted to the equipment and allowed for some slop in the climbing. Committing to one chance only demanded fatalism, and fatalism shifted the focus to the mental equipment needed to accept one’s fate, at the expense of free movement.
I climbed through the route, slowly convincing myself that I could still move smoothly. The effort meant ignoring the grind my left shoulder when I loaded it in extension, and the stiffness in my leg on the right when I tried to step high.
I made it through an acceptable number of laps and pulled the rope. The sun was now as high as it would get in midwinter, and it illuminated a small tuft of leaves poking from the alcove between the boulders above.
I turned my back on the formation and wandered down past the Cairns, the elk pellets, the rhomboidal rock, and the three-leaf pear. With the full warmth of the sun on the Little Valley, the trail was now bustling. A grade school child teetered over a bump on his motorbike. A parent followed, riding a matching cycle nearly on the kid’s back tire. Groups of people, some wearing facemasks, some not, nodded to me politely as I stepped off the trail to let them by.
As usual, I could gauge my distance from the trailhead by the age and attire of passing hikers. I first passed those kitted out with boots and daypacks, then the sneakers lot with their coats tied around their hips, then the shorts and flip-flops crowd. By the time that the expensive homes which flanked the start of the trail were visible, the vast majority of passing travelers wore boat shoes and elastic waistbands and would plainly go only a few more steps beyond the gate. What they sought by this activity, I could not imagine.

The parking area had filled up since my departure, and in the usual fashion. When I had arrived in the morning cold, the only other cars parked in the lot were a dated Subaru and a Toyota truck. The Subaru had a Sierra Club sticker on the back window. The truck was covered in dust. Between morning and afternoon, cleaner vehicles had filled in the rest of the parking spaces. A few of these had American flag decals, and one of the flags was blue with a prominent blue line through the middle of the stripes. One rear window bore a red white and blue “Q”.
I wondered who belonged to those stickers. Nobody on the trail looked crazy. Certainly, nobody looked like a revolutionary, and if my fellow travelers that day really were the sons and daughters of the Revolution, then the revolution would be over as soon as the propane and Slim Jim’s ran out.
I had them entirely wrong, though. What a person trusts depends on what a person wants. What a person wants depends on the depth and breadth of their perception. The revolution was against the untrustable unseen. They revolted against rumors of an invisible pathogen. They revolted against the idea of murky social, political, and personal depths. Most of all, they revolted against a start in the cold and dark which they had somehow been convinced that they were entitled to avoid.

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