Category Archives: philosophy

The Door in the Very Back

Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose

Janis Joplin

Attachment is the root of suffering


We live in Scottsdale, an outpost latched to the Sonoran Desert like a tick on the back of a bony mongrel. It calls itself a city, but it is not. Cities are permanent settlements which arise spontaneously from commercial roots. A city has some external basis for its existence, like a navigable river, a mineral deposit, or rich surrounding farmland. Being based on a natural utility, a city bears the confidence of legitimacy coupled with the discipline of responsibility. Take a port city for example, which grows a superstructure founded upon its waterfront. Though they may grumble about their tax bill, no citizen of the port need wonder why the city government spends money on building docks and dredging the harbor.

Scottsdale has no such foundation. Instead, it is an amenity for its amenities. The city provides an airport so that wealthy snowbirds can migrate to the desert when the first frosts make their hometowns uncomfortable. There are golf courses soaked in stolen water from the Colorado where executives do business in information technology and professional players entertain resident retirees. Many districts are zoned to allow restaurants and shops mixed with apartments and office buildings. The resulting environments have adopted the label “live/work” for themselves. Metaphysically, it is radioactive and I blame exposure to its rays for my wife’s parasomnia.

She does not sleepwalk, nor does she exhibit signs or symptoms of any other ordinary sleep disorder. Her affliction may even be unique, since I have found no record of similar cases in the literature.

This is how it manifests: as I am falling completely asleep, she grabs my shoulder and shakes me.
“How long did you say it would be until humans go extinct?”, she asks.
“About 100,000 years,” I answer.
“Really?” she exclaims” Then what is the point of all this if humans are just over someday and nobody will remember any of us or anything we did?”
“Well,” I say “that question is just bad. Asking an existential what’s-the-point-question is like asking why isn’t round, green. Separate things entirely.”

“Well,” she persists, “I don’t see why we try so hard to accomplish all these things that will be completely forgotten in the end.”
“It is just who we are,” I offer.
“I still don’t see why we try to do anything at all,” she says.
” Try not doing anything at all, and remember, sitting home eating ice cream is doing something,” I say.
There is silence now from her side of the bed.
“Say,” I ask, “do you want to go to Walmart tomorrow?”
“Yeah,” she replies, “that will be fun.”
She settles back and goes to sleep then, but I know she’s unconvinced. We will have this same conversation again, on another night in the near future, in the few minutes before sleep overtakes us.

The trip to Walmart will buy us a couple of peaceful nights. She loves Walmart, like most of us do. The store has a broad-based appeal, as evidenced by its presence in the middle of upscale Scottsdale. Our local Walmart typically has as many BMWs as it has Chevys in the parking lot. It took me a long time to figure out why we find Walmart so attractive. It isn’t the items for sale. Everything in Walmart is available someplace else. Buying the same goods over the Internet is generally more convenient and may be even cheaper than going to the store. The physical environment isn’t the draw either. The aesthetics of Walmart’s interior design leave much to be desired, and practically, it is a maze crammed with items that are sometimes poorly marked.

The ingenious curation of items is the key to Walmart’s appeal. Everything on the shelves serves its purpose up to the highest level manageable by a layman. When a shopper walks through the front door with a certain need, intent on a particular item which they have calculated most likely to fulfill that need, they may or may not find the object of their intent. But, they are almost guaranteed a solution amongst the goods in stock.

Say a shopper comes in looking for a dovetail saw, because they want to cut thin plywood and figure that they need a saw with a straight, self-supported blade. What they find on the shelves at Walmart is a variable speed, electric reciprocating saw. As they consider the electric saw, they realize that they really don’t know anything about the dovetail saw, other than the fact that it has a straight blade which is self-supported. Maybe, they think, they were about to get in over their head by buying a dovetail saw. The electric saw looks like it will do the job, and is guaranteed to be manageable for an amateur like them. All the items in Walmart are instructive in this way.

When I first grasped the secret of Walmart’s draw, it seemed like magic. But it turns out to be something less. In fact, I think the Magi in the back room of corporate headquarters sorted out their strategy by watching beavers. At first glance, beavers seem to be brilliant little creatures. Their dams and dens look like masterful feats of engineering. But in truth, all the beavers do is put sticks where they hear flowing water. The dam is just a manifestation of accrued impulse.

The Magi understand that humans are just the same as the beavers. Everything man-made is a manifestation of accrued impulse. Instead of reacting to the sound of water flowing, we respond to an urge to preserve. Our impulse to save the status is expansive, and pertains not just to personal existence, but to the entire infrastructure of personal identity. Wherever we hear a trickling leak of currency dripping into memory or memory into oblivion, our species hustles over to plug things up again. To get the job done, we will use anything that we can get our hands on: monuments, literature, culture, or personal possessions.

Over the centuries, we have built up dams made of dams to preserve us. In a room in the very back of corporate headquarters at Walmart, the Magi have a model of the whole thing. They can see what sort of patch will fit a particular defect in the barrier. The dam of dams model shows them exactly what kind of jersey to put in the men’s athletic wear section: A tank top which recalls the shirts of famous players long retired, without naming names, yet a garment current enough in its design to acknowledge present stars. This sort of insight is just too perfect to attribute to anything less than informed and premeditated action. It requires a model of the dam.

On occasion, right after I am shaken awake to answer existential questions, I fantasize about taking my wife to corporate headquarters, where we will find the the door in the very back of the complex. I could then show her the full extent of the dam. I wouldn’t say a word. I would let the monstrous complexity of the model speak for itself.

But when I awaken the next morning, I never get up to pack the car for a road trip. Rested and little more sober in the light of day, I suspect that a peek at the whole structure will not cure her sleep disorder, anymore than my reasonable words. I think that she will need to see what the dam contains, and not the dam itself. That stuff is transparent and liquid to the touch, though. It will be dangerously easy for her to dismiss the stuff of identity, even if she were able to dip her toe in it. I doubt that the Magi have gone so far in the name of realism as to fill the reservoir behind their model. They don’t really need that part of the simulation anyway.

It doesn’t really matter. I can survive a little lost sleep. My answers to her questions remain adequate, even if she does not find them conclusive. Besides, in a few decades, the desert will shrivel and the Colorado River will be sucked dry. The city of Scottsdale will flop over with its legs curled in the air. The rest of everything humanity has built will follow shortly, in geologic time. No one will recall her metaphysical sleep disorder. I think I will not keep thinking about a cure. It is a unique experience after all. And there is always the solace of a shopping trip the next day.

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Postcards from Rivendell

Picture of a black horse

This is a picture of a black horse. It symbolizes nothing. It is a record of an aspect. In other words, it does not identify black horses, much less a particular black horse, because it does not refer to the structure of aspects which constitutes black horses or Daisy the black horse.

Black-horse picture

This is a black-horse picture. It symbolizes black horses, and therefore refers to the entire structure of aspects identifying black horses. Though this one does not, such pictures may refer to a particular structure of characteristics identifying Daisy the black horse.

Mount Rainier

This is a topographic map of Mount Rainier. It is a record of an aspect (relative prominence). Therefore it is necessarily a picture of Mount Rainier. It also refers to the entire structure, from the chemistry of volcanic rock to the origins of the volcano’s name. Therefore, it is necessarily a mountain picture, a volcano picture and a Mount Rainier picture.

Any map which is a map has these features: it presents a viewpoint in reference to the global structure of viewpoints on its subject. The name superimposed on the map’s collection of contour lines directs the user to a European nobleman in whose honor a Pacific Northwest volcano was named. Knowing now that the map in hand is a map of a Pacific Northwest volcano, one can guess, based on geologic and physical chemistry aspects of those peaks, what the climbing might be like on the steep, North face of Mount Rainier.

In addition and necessarily, if I travel to a certain longitude and latitude on the map, I will know what sort of ground I will be standing on: rock or ice, steep or flat. Because, I have a picture of that ground on the map.

Maps constitute our reality, if we wish to speak of anything as real. It is an interdependent reality, not an independent reality, and especially not a mind independent reality. The idealists can postulate archetypical forms for everything under the sun. Dualists can insist on a mental substance. Yet, the world maps the same without these outside props. Bishop Berkeley could be right; God could be making it all up as he goes along. But, when we stub our toes on a rock, our consciousness conjures a map featuring the stone’s painful hardness, without reference to any divine-creative aspect. At best, the activities of the deity are notations on the border of a chart which is already complete.

We employ cartography across the board, charting all things, from Northwest volcanoes to attitudes. Sometimes, we even use fictional maps in our depictions of sentimental features of our experience. A map of Middle Earth, for instance, does not record any aspect of anyone’s experience. It does provide a background of relationships upon which various categories of experience are charted. The landscape’s precipices, snowfields and swift waters sketch out fear, endurance, and fidelity.

Features on the map of middle Earth fictionalize geologic structures as building blocks for a depiction of interpersonal relationships and personal attitudes. To be successful, the fictional features need to reference our maps of geology just enough to bring along the emotional content. The Misty Mountains must seem cold and treacherous. Rivendell must feel like an old growth forest. Done well enough, an arrangement of fictional elements can make us wonder what truly separates the constructed world from the world of primary experience.

There are hundreds, if not thousands, of images depicting Rivendell. But of course, there are no pictures of Rivendell. There are not even Rivendell pictures, as there is no structure of aspects to reference regarding Rivendell’s locality. What the artist does when they depict Rivendell is a reconciliation. Images of Rivendell constitute an attempt to match up the artist’s motive with the elements of the artist’s experience. Tolkien simply acts as a guide. He lays out the emotional manifestations which the topography must encompass.

The reason for fictions like the diverse images of Rivendell, should be obvious. When we examine our motive, we confront a brute fact. Our methods, which aim to explain, suddenly fail, and we are forced to construct a proper narrative instead. Such is the case with artistic fictions, and such is the case with moral fictions as well.

We move from one psychological state to another without understanding how we arrived at the start or why we left it. So, our reflections prove reactive, and our notions of introspection are fallacies at heart. To reconcile motive and experience, we must fall back on our depictions of Rivendell, and our moral narratives.

The method of our psychological cartography yields a much different product than we get from our geographical cartography. Our map of Mount Rainier provides a record of an aspect in reference to a global structure of aspects. Our depictions of Rivendell suggest emotions which record our psychological motion through the landscape. Our psychological cartography necessarily gives us something secondary: the structure of experience resulting from motive expressing itself, as it flows freely or is thwarted by the cliffs, streams and woodlands on the page.

Because we can explain the sensations, whether the depiction of Rivendell makes us feel warm or cold, sad or inspired, we find it easier to speak of those sensations as primary. We say that the depiction moves us to the attitude in question. That is not accurate. We move and our sensations constitute the wake of that motion. The generative element of our experience is not responsive. Even our wistful feelings upon viewing the ancient trees of Rivendell are not responses, but results.

All talk of morality is a Rivendell picture.

It looks like a place, in other words, a suitable cartographic subject. But, as Hume and Moore pointed out, our moral depictions lack the associated structure of aspects required. Moral depictions are secondary representations, just like Rivendell, which is a secondary representation of interpersonal relationships and personal attitudes. Instead of precipices, snowfields, and rushing streams, moral pictures sketch out a desirable motivational ecosystem. And because of the opacity of motive, moral pictures always remain flawed in their representation, though they represent their secondary subject as well as any art might.

It is no great error to talk about a moral sense, or human thriving, or the tally of global well-being. These things represent the aspiration of our expressive impulse. We can use such terms consistently, as long as we do not begin to mistake those depictions as proper cartographic subjects.

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What about my rights

A society has two basic means to regulate its members’ behavior. It can either entrust them with rights, or restrict them with rules. Each approach has its downside, and most societies use a mix of the two. In China, there are all sorts of rules regarding what you can say and where you can go, but citizens have the right to engage in quite a few economic activities as they see fit. In the United States, you can do what the hell you want, and the law comes knocking after the fact, for the most part.. The problems with rules seem quite obvious, at least to those of us who grew up in liberal Western democracies. Rules are stifling. and the utilization of rules assumes the worst of humans.

Implicit in law, policy, and custom is the notion that people respond best to fear or avarice, and therefore need punishments and rewards. Left to their own devices, they will be unruly. There is a grain of validity in the rule-makers attitude, but it is also the case that people live up to expectations.

The problems with rights are less obvious to us. There are a couple of problems though. A relatively small one is the superficial flaw noted above in regards to how laws function in the United States. A society based on rights assumes that citizens can be trusted with those rights. Those who trust, risk getting burned. The trusting soul can fall back on rules, but only as deterrence via the threat of retribution, not as direct prevention.

And there is a deeper problem with rights besides, because there is a lazy way of possessing a right. The ideal right-recipient is someone who values the right, and is therefore motivated to understand what the right demands of them, where the right stands in regards to other rights, and what consequences may follow from exercising the right. Being an ideal right holder is a hassle. It’s much easier to stow your rights in your pocket and go do as you like, pulling out the right only when the need arises to ward off relevant trouble.

Certain pathognomonic signs accompany rights laziness. The shiftless typically speak of their rights like an extra appendage. They don’t hold a right; the right is one with their flesh. Following from that characterization, lazy right holders behave as if there is no wrong way to exercise their right.

Driving provides the best example of this mentality. For the lazy, anyone in their way is infringing on their right to drive as they please. The traffic cop is a purveyor of injustice. Judges who restrict drivers licenses are the real criminals, since they violate not just someone’s property, but their very person.

The US, being a rights-based society, has showed those signs of laziness from the very beginning. Its founding documents speak of rights as inalienable, and endowed by the Creator. Eyes and teeth are that kind of thing. Gifts and treasures are not. From the beginning too, Americans have exercised their rights like teeth and eyes, which do not demand accounting, rather than like gifts or treasures, which do.

The archetypical tale of American right-laziness is the tragedy of Kyle Rittenhouse.

By all accounts, he was a 17-year-old boy with very typical issues. He seemed to be searching for an identity along with some validation. He wanted to be a cop or an EMT. In other words, he wanted to do something which came with some power and control as well as the admiration of others. He wanted to do something moral. He had taken a CPR course and put together a jump bag like paramedics carry. Plus, like many if not most 17-year-old boys, he wanted a gun. He probably wanted it for the same reason that many if not most other 17-year-old boys wanted a gun. A gun was a badge of adulthood. It offered instant validation. It compensated for any awkwardness in the bearer. Besides the psychological attractions, it made a lot of noise and smashed stuff.

Unfortunately, he was not old enough to own one himself. Apparently, he prevailed upon an older friend and another adult to purchase and keep the gun for him. The arrangement was against the rules, but might not have been a problem, had the adults not been lazy in the exercise of their right to own a gun. They seem to have treated the gun like it was one of the boys appendages. When he decided to take the weapon with him to try out his identity as an EMT/cop at the site of a real-life conflict, they let him and the rifle go.

When he arrived, he met other people with guns, exercising the right granted them by the Second Amendment to the Constitution. By all accounts, they offered him a task, but no advice, and no further guidance. After a while, he wandered off, looking for someone to help. He soon ran into situations that he could not handle. He lacked the experience. In the end, he shot and killed two people, and permanently maimed a third.

He bore his right like an appendage, but he did not understand the consequences of carrying a gun like he understood the consequences of having an arm or leg. He could not come by an understanding of his right naturally, he had to learn it. But there was no one to teach him. Apparently, the other arms-bearers that he met along the way did not feel like it fell to them to tend to their right as this kid exemplified it.

As a society, we are getting lazier with our rights by the day, and the signs and symptoms show. Nobody knows what to do with their speech. Nobody knows how to meet amicably. Nobody knows how to be armed responsibly. The anxiety that comes with uncertainties is growing, day by day, and each day we become more anxious for rules to dispel the uncertainties.

Authoritarians have begun to pop up in response. They will be happy to provide us with all the rules we want, and then some. They will even sweeten up the rulemaking medicine for us by telling us that they are actually taking rules away, “deregulating” as a means of concentrating power. A set of rules constraining our behaviors (to the advantage of the ruling family) is our fate, unless we stop merely exercising our rights and begin to tend to them.

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The Heat of a Separate Logic

Sometimes, I catch my wife watching out of the corner of her eye while I cram my feet into climbing shoes. The process entails a good deal of whining and swearing, which will continue throughout the subsequent training session. She usually keeps quiet about what she sees, but sometimes she can’t help but ask, “What is it that you like so much about climbing?”

I tell her that I like it because it’s war, except that, as opposed to war, if everything goes right, nobody dies. My answer is a bit hyperbolic. For one thing, I have never even been near a war, much less participated in one. What I mean is: the attractive thing about climbing is the same as what those who have fought wars say is the attractive thing about war.

Though it is difficult to put a finger on the source of our attraction, we humans are undoubtedly enamored of war. Our literature enshrines it. It has a permanent place in our culture, in the form of holidays and memorials, but also in practices like the martial arts. The studios can always sell us another war movie.

It isn’t just a fascination born of fear either. We associate warfare with all kinds of positive moral qualities, like courage, loyalty, and determination. Even the Prussian general, Carl von Clausewitz, implicated valor as a reason for the individual to become voluntarily involved in warfare. This from the man who said that war has its own grammar, but not its own logic.

Von Clausewitz clarified that position on the nature of war in what is now a famous aphorism: war is politics by other means. Practicalities drive us to war. That can’t be the whole story though. If it were, all armies would be conscripted, and no war would last as long as every war has lasted. We fight well beyond pragmatic exhaustion.

That’s because Von Clausewitz was wrong. War does have its own logic. If we listen to war’s participants, we hear about the struggle to survive their circumstances, and to put an end to the struggle itself by overcoming their opponents. We hear about the moral obligation to protect one’s comrades. The politicians may have pursued their policies into war, but once the war gets going, the fighters fight for other reasons entirely.

If we take logic to mean a description of consistencies between meanings, then we have to conclude that war does have a logic of its own. It is a logic which supersedes all the extrinsic reasons for going to war. Maybe that’s why war persists. Because it is easy to think about getting in to a war on the basis of von Clausewitz’s pragmatism, but once the fight is on, the other logic takes over, and not only gives us a reason to see the war through to some conclusion divorced in principle from political practicalities, but also gives us stories about all those positive moral qualities which the participants find in their quest to come through the catastrophe.

The other logic is always dangling out there. It is the same logic that drives me to climb, and others to fly wing suits, race motorcycles, and ski out of bounds. Any useless activity involving uncertainty and inherent danger will have the same enticing, overpowering consistencies between meanings. There is no practical reason to jump out of a functional airplane. There is no material gain in clawing your way up some obscure cliff face. Even the motorcycle racers and sponsored skiers don’t do it for the pay.

This sort of pursuit challenges us to engage, because once we engage, the other logic, which is the logic of survival, determination, and commitment, takes over and cooks off all the other, weaker, practical logics. For the duration, everything is clearly in its place.

Clarity is not a requirement. In our age, nobody really considers going to war on such a vision quest (we gave that up with the end of dueling). You don’t hear the participants in a battle wax nostalgic about the smell, the cacophony, or the sight of dismembered bodies. At best, the practical details of war just serve as props for the exhibition of the other logic. So often the story goes: I didn’t want to be in a war, but since I was, I tried to take something good away from it, and this is what it was – loyalty, determination, commitment.

Those stories are good ones, maybe even necessary ones. Still, they are an attractive nuisance. They don’t get us into war, but they contribute to a kind of permissive state in our collective psyche. Political practicalities appear more convincing. Our own participation in conflict feels easier to justify, sometimes to such a degree that those who should know better (historian Stephen Ambrose) express regret for never having their courage tested in combat.

That’s what it is about climbing. It’s a way in to the crystal sphere of the other logic. It’s also an admission that I want to live as much as possible in the sphere, though it is impractical. I think that that admission is key. It is the bit of insight which separates an attraction to useless, uncertain and inherently dangerous sports from an attraction to war. So maybe there is one generally useful thing to be had from dangerous sports. If we can cultivate in the larger society, an insight into our own motives for pursuing impractical, uncertain and difficult peril, we might be less susceptible to war’s appeal.

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All It’s About Is What It’s All About

Every morning, Joseph walks out of his apartment building and breathes in the aroma of fresh bread from the bakery next door. It is a complex odor, which Joe thoroughly enjoys. He likes it so much that he is motivated to investigate what makes it so wonderful. Through reading chemistry texts and papers about the neurology of smell, he discovers so much more going on in the smell than his quaint scent experience, or at least that is how it appears.

He learns that the aroma of freshly baked bread consists of a mixture of 6 to 8 volatile chemicals which interact with his olfactory receptors, sending a distinctive set of signals to his brain. Understanding the structure of the aroma makes it even more wonderful for Joe. Most days, he simply smells the smell and never thinks about the 6 to 8 volatile chemicals or the neurons, but the background conditions his experience nonetheless.

One day, Joe opens his door, and as the fumes from the bakery wash over him, he has a powerful sense of déjà vu. It turns out, on that particular morning, the concentrations of the 6 to 8 chemicals, the state of his neurology, and the humidity in his nasal cavity are precisely the same as they were on the previous Tuesday.
He thinks to himself, “This is exactly the same smell as I have smelled before.”
But then he stops to think again and realizes that if the experience were identical, he would never know it. Only an aspect is identical, and only an aspect could ever be identical. The whole smell is much more, as much more as can be, a totality.

Sadly, Joe has only a few more mornings with the smell of baking bread. He contracts leprosy and moves to an institution where he can receive care for the disease. He is not completely bereft however. In the garden of the leprosarium, he finds a beautiful statue of a horse. He goes into the garden to appreciate it each morning. The horse becomes his fresh-baked bread. Even when his eyesight is affected by his disease, as it is early in the course, he finds that he can still appreciate the features of the statue by touch.

The nerves in his fingers are affected as well however. His touch discriminates less and less of the statue’s detail as time passes. It is just as well, as it turns out that the statue is made of a soft stone which wears away under Joe’s habitual palpation, leaving only the vague shape of the horse after a couple of years. Happily for Joe, the erosion makes no difference. His sense of touch keeps pace in its own deterioration, and as he moves his arms about the vague shape which stands where the detail of the horse’s features once stood, the interaction still brings to mind the beauty of the original statue, as much as his fingertips used to do.

Consciousness is consciousness of something. The orientation of anything else is derivative of that orientation in consciousness. This condition is pervasive, and so any realist claims are also conditional, and the question is: Is a conditional realism still realism?

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The Auto Belay Auto Da Fe

“Even if it is certain that you will lose, retaliate. Neither wisdom nor technique has any place in this. A person of character does not think of victory or defeat, but instead rushes recklessly towards an irrational death. Do this and you will awaken from your dreams.”

-Yamamoto Tsunetomo

“If you die climbing, you negate everything else you’ve ever done in the mountains”

Don Whilans

“The nature of fencing is defeating an enemy in a fight, nothing more”

Miyamoto Musashi

Once upon a time on the Iberian Peninsula, the three Abrahamic religions tried to live together. Of course, they were no better at peaceful coexistence in antiquity than they are now, so the whole thing fell apart and then got nasty.

And as usual, when it came time to persecute the Other, Christians took the lead. The whole anti-comity campaign which ensued is known as the Inquisition. The name is genius. It captures every aspect of the project, while offering an implicit defense of its acts.. The Church was simply asking questions, of the society and of the individuals who professed a different faith.

The inquisitors wanted to know what the society was willing to do in the name of Christian purity. Of the individuals, the officers of the church finally wanted the answer to a single question multifariously – what are you willing to do to keep us from torturing you to death?

The answer to both of the church’s questions was the auto-da-fé. The words themselves mean “act of faith”, by which the perpetrators wished to indicate a demonstration of repentant zeal on the part of the evangelized. In practice, the act of faith meant participation in an elaborate show trial, in which the accused were broken of their prideful resistance, and then paraded to the grounds of judgment dressed in humiliating costumes representative of their particular crimes. Upon arrival, officers of the church meted out sentences and administered punishments. Some of the penitents were burned in effigy. Some were burned alive. Some were simply tortured a little bit. And some were pardoned, just to keep everyone guessing. The whole thing was a great object lesson regarding the power of the Church, and a big hit as public entertainment.

The Inquisition is long gone, but the spirit of auto da fe survives in odd corners of society. The climbing world, for example, has preserved it by means of a device called an “auto belay”. An auto belay is a locking carabiner attached to a spring-loaded spool of nylon webbing, which is further equipped with a clutch mechanism. The whole thing hangs from the top of an artificial climbing wall and allows a climber to ascend the indoor crag without the need for another person to hold a safety line. When the climber comes off of the wall, the clutch mechanism engages and lowers them gently back to the ground.
The whole setup resembles a giant, upside down yo-yo. For many people, it is the only partner they will ever know. It allows the curious to experience climbing with almost zero skills in their toolbox. Once a gym employee has properly fit them in a harness, a tourist to the sport merely needs the capacity to open and close the gate on a carabiner, and they can get themselves 30 to 40 feet off the ground and back down in safety.

Despite an orientation which includes a demonstration of the auto belay’s effectiveness, the majority of first-time climbers cower below the top of the wall for a few minutes before mustering the courage to wager their spinal column’s integrity on the reliability of a length of yellow nylon tape, and whatever it is in the round plastic box tethered to the ceiling. Some are simply unable to carry out the act of faith, and require staff to rescue them.

An auto belay makes indoor climbing accessible to the uninitiated, but they are not the only ones who use it. Experienced devotees also clip into the device. For them, employing the auto belay is an act of faith as well, but more along the lines of the original auto da fe. In the same sense, it is a desperate act.

A committed climber who attaches themself to an auto belay may object that they are in need of conditioning rather than just desperate to climb. Climbing on auto belay is a kind of training. It is just not very good training. Equipment such as the hang board builds finger strength better. Likewise with campusing, which also improves arm strength. Climbing outdoors yields vastly superior improvements in technique. The “training excuse” for using an auto belay needs its own excuse.

There is no excuse though, only a bit of the truth. And the truth is that a committed climber using the auto belay is much like poor Tsunetomo, who never fought a battle or lived to enjoy an irrational death. To endure the misfortune of his birth into an age of peace, he contemplated the edifying nature of combat and loyalty to one’s commander. He wore the vestments of a warrior, and scrupulously practiced a warriors rituals. A climber on auto belay is no different. Their movement over a route devised by a technician is a pitiful homage to a real course charted across natural features. It is a weak gesture of devotion to the thing that it imitates.

Like the confessions extracted in the auto-da-fé, climbing on auto belay is hollow, and doing it means that you share the desperation (though likely to a lesser extent) of those poor bastards marching towards an uncertain fate along a dusty Spanish road. Yet there was another aspect to the inquisition’s ritual humiliation and forced confession. Taking the point of view of the persecuted, a real spiritual test lay beneath the cynical choreography.. The persecuted were faced with a question bigger than the church’s inquiries: can you get through this? They received the same unsettling revelation as did Musashi, who survived 60 duels. Once you make the choice to be a fighter or a survivor, all the rest – technique, appearance, profession – becomes subservient. In that way, the auto da fe was an act of faith, just not the faith which the church wanted. It was not a faith in God, but a faith in chance. For the penitent marching towards the grounds of judgment, living just a little bit longer meant that there was still a chance of coming through the whole ordeal, to better chances on the other side. Wear the costume. Accept the accusations. Endure the beating. Each deprecation is a little more time and another chance. If you have chosen to survive, you’ve committed to taking those opportunities.

Using an auto belay mirrors the inquisition’s act of faith in this too. Because, clipping into that yellow webbing requires a confession. The penitent has to look at the painted plywood crag with its harlequin plastic holds and the upside down human yo-yo hanging over them and conclude that it is all still climbing and that, as a climber, they will climb, rather than not climb.

In what must be history’s strangest convergence, both Tsunetomo and Musashi ended their days in monastic contemplation, Musashi because he could no longer justify the killing, and Tsunetomo because he was ultimately betrayed by his own devotion. His master forbade him to commit ritual suicide in honor of the Masters death, which would have been the definitive act of faith, and a very irrational death.

Though they came at their problems from opposing starts, both of the samurai seem to have come to the same conclusion as they contemplated their lives. They both stopped thinking about their accomplishments, or lack thereof. They both stopped worrying about the meaning of death. In their final state, it is easy to imagine either one of them standing in front of the auto belay, shrugging their shoulders, and clipping in.

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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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