Category Archives: philosophy

A Bucket of Wings and a Pitcher of PBR with the Baby Jesus

The first time that the Baby Jesus talked to me was at YMCA Summer camp. I heard him on assignment, lying on my bunk in a group cabin while the cicadas droned outside. Us campers had been sent back to our quarters after an evening devotional to listen for a message from God. Around the campfire, our counselors had had admonished us to listen with humility. We had to silence all our selfish desires if we hoped to perceive a divine whisper. We even had to relinquish our hope to hear a whisper from the Lord, if we hoped to hear a whisper from the Lord.

As I lay with my eyes open in the darkness, I was having more trouble tuning out the insects than the cacophony of my selfish desires. The cicadas’ ballad seemed to come from the darkness itself. I had long practice ignoring the undulating buzz, having grown up in the South with no central air and therefore reliant upon open windows for enough cool to allow Summer sleep. With no clamor in my head, the bug song rose from the suppressed depths of my consciousness to make a noise again. I tried to block it out while not trying to block it out, or trying to try to block it out, and so on, until my attention became exhausted and let go of the sound.

Just then, something happened. A voice, or maybe just a feeling, told me not to worry. The speaker was there. Everything was going perfectly according to plan. I felt great. Maybe I even let go a few tears of joy that night. In any case, I soon fell asleep and when I woke the next morning, the world seemed to have a fresh scent, like it had been sprinkled with the lavender water of permeating divinity. The divine freshness lingered for a couple years, but from the moment of spritzing, it was doomed to fade. It could not be reconciled with events on the road to camp.

Our family had set out with a very aggressive vacationing agenda that year. We had left home two weeks prior on a mission to visit my grandmother and Disney World, both a day’s drive away. We would then loop back up to drop me at Summer camp, while my brother would go on to baseball camp, leaving my parents with a week of real vacation for themselves. The schedule was tight, and my father was not pleased when we pulled up behind a row of parked cars on a two lane road in the flatlands of North Florida. When we stepped out of the car, we could see an object blocking both lanes in the distance. Other people were getting out of their cars too, and it was quiet. We walked forward with all the rest.

On the opposite side of the road, about 30 yards up, a distraught elderly couple sat on the ground by their car. The car had a dent in the hood and its windshield was caved in. A few yards beyond lay a mangled bicycle. It was nice, or it had been. I had wanted a BMX bike like that for a couple of years, and I would have done with it what I imagined its rider was doing when the old folks hit him: jumping the banks on either side of the elevated roadway. The boy lay a dozen yards beyond his wrecked bike, diagonally across the lane lines. He was on his side with no apparent injury, from a distance, but with a puddle of blood around his upper body.

Standing over the boy, one could see that the blood was coming from his ears. His gaze fixed on something impossibly distant and his breaths came halting and deep. We circled around him as he died. Someone remarked that an ambulance was on its way, A nurse in the crowd screamed at the rest not to just stand there, but to run and get a blanket. She was upset to a degree beyond what the collective paralysis of the bystanders merited. She may have been wondering how Baby Jesus could allow such a thing. As a child, I knew that adults had their reasons and that those reasons were sometimes unfathomable. I just assumed that the same was true of the Baby Jesus.

I saw no injustice, but I saw his stare. Surely, the distant thing upon which the boy’s gaze fixed was his own death. Yet he would never get to that far place. If he just snuffed out, then he just snuffed out, like when the dentist gave me anesthesia to remove my wisdom teeth and asked me to count to ten as the drug took effect. I didn’t even fail to count to eight. I counted to seven and that was it; there was no experience of looking back on an unsuccessful effort to count to eight, only a memory of seven, then nothing. Likewise, if he saw a light at the end of a tunnel or rose into the ether to look down on his inert body, then he experienced a metamorphosis. He got yanked away from those final moments of physiologic cessation just like the anesthetic yanked me away from counting to eight.

If I had asked any of my fellow onlookers gathered around the body that day, I’m sure they would have spoken of death as a thing which might bear a scythe and a cowl. They would have named it an independent reality. But after that day on the road, I slowly came to see that they were wrong. I fantasized about what would happen if the boy could tell us about leaving his body. Jesus’ disciples were said to have had that very experience, when Jesus returned from the dead to speak to his inner circle. Yet they were only twelve meeting The One. I imagined a world where meetings with the dead were common. I imagined ghosts at first, but engaging in spectrology proved an unnecessary complication. The situation was the same if what happened to Jesus happened to everybody. Your bodily functions stopped. You went up into the clouds. You got a bit of a rebuild. You came back down.

If universal resurrection came to pass, the first generation affected might continue to speak of the Grim Reaper. But as the reportage of the pierced, crushed and disintegrated became commonplace, no one would refer to Death as a thing in itself. There would be misadventures and resurrections, and all would be properly seen as aspects of our total experience. Eventually, no one would even talk about Life anymore.

Though I did not appreciate it at the time, the considerations which began on that roadway in the Southern plains generated a frictional heat, which would finally evaporate the lavender water of permeating divinity. Over years, it dawned on me that Eau Divine had already transcended itself if we could put a name to it, even if we just spoke metaphorically. Like life and death, the scent arose from a great continuity of experience, which we could never look back upon from a discontinuous beyond. It was a slow drying out, and I did not even miss the scent until the next time Jesus spoke to me. That final time, I was sitting in a bar at lunch, far from Christian Summer camp, when the voice of the Lord came to me from a bucket of wings.

I don’t know why I ordered the wings. I was at a crossroads career-wise, so maybe I felt a little unstable and subject to whimsy. As I stared into the jumble of battered and fried appendages however, I recalled why I had become a de facto vegetarian. I felt sick as I imagined all the capabilities which those little wings had possessed in life, reduced to the mess before me on the plastic table cloth. But it was too late by then. I understood my place in the supply chain (having ordered) and besides, I could not leave food uneaten in my financial circumstances. Luckily, there was cheap beer on tap. I asked the bartender to bring me a pitcher.

I took a solid gulp of the rice-brew swill before having a second look at the wings. That’s when the voice, or maybe it was more like a feeling, came to me out of the bucket. It told me not to worry. Life had been given for life. It was all going according to plan. I could eat those chicken wings with a clear conscience, because that’s how it was meant to be. The essence of life got passed on, said the voice, and carried on from the poor little chickens to me. I stared at the crusty wings, and was not reassured. Those bits of bone and muscle that had been, could be taken for almost anything now. But they could not be taken out of circumstance or consequence, anymore than that boy on the road, Life and Death, plans both mortal and divine, or the voice of the Baby Jesus, coming, as it did, from the bucket, or the ether, or any other relatively distinguishable source.

I downed the remainder of the swill and pushed back from the table. Somebody else got the wings, and that was the last I heard from the Baby Jesus.

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Good Snake, Bad Snake

One bright Spring morning, Karen opens her front door and steps onto the porch to take the morning rays. She lives on a cul-de-sac, and in the middle of the traffic circle just beyond her front yard, she sees a large rattlesnake. No one else is around, but she knows that the neighbor kids will soon be out to play in the street. She must do something. Karen likes snakes (she considers them beautiful, graceful creatures) so she shoos the animal into the underbrush well off the travelled way, posts a homemade, “Danger Snake” sign on the path to the underbrush, and knocks on her neighbors’ door to warn them of the danger to their kids.

The following morning, Karen sleeps in, but her other neighbor, Kate, is up early and out to her porch. Once again, the rattlesnake sits in the traffic circle. Kate does not like snakes, so she promptly chops its head off and disposes of the body in the underbrush. Not long after, Karen appears, having heard some commotion. They stand together, regarding a small bloodstain on the pavement.

Unbeknownst to Kate and Karen, Marsha, the nosey insomniac who lives 2 doors down, has been observing the events of the last two mornings. Marsha feels moved to acknowledge the noble actions of her neighbors, so she promptly goes out to present each of them with a card of appreciation which reads, “Thank you for your good work in your good works.”

It is pretty clear what Marsha means by the first “good”. She thinks that each of her neighbors, given their purposes, acted in a manner to most effectively realize the ends of those purposes. The first “good” is instrumental; it describes the effectiveness of a means to an end. It may be tempting to say that the second good is just the same. For instance, one could propose an argument from evolutionary psychology: We seek to bring about good circumstances and avoid bad ones because such efforts improve our odds of survival. Assuming the viability of an evolutionary account. we are still left with an elephant in the room. We have no explanation of our valuation of life. It is easy to claim it as a logical tautology: Living things live because that’s what makes them living things. But living is an activity. To live is to strive to survive, so to speak. The motivation to carry on this activity is intrinsic to the activity and if living is self explanatory, then so is the life-motive.

Closely examined, all motive looks this way.* When I reach for a beer, for instance, certain neurons have responded to environmental cues. The activity of those neurons causes in me the notion that I want to have a beer, which turns on other circuits in the prefrontal cortex, spinal cord, neuromuscular junction, etc. At the end of it all, I have a beer and an exhaustive explanation. The story of my obtaining beer is a story, still. It is representational. The story exists as the result of a desire to tell stories, and the desire to tell stories has its own, exhaustive reduction. But all the branching stories of motives are fixed by an active orientation, which I also indicate when I say that I want a beer.

And as Hume, among others, observed, when we talk about moral goodness, we don’t just tell a story containing an end and its means, we do also refer to a motive directly. Good, if it is something, is something which we ought to do. Even when we speak of evil acts, we don’t simply mean acts which are ignorant or negligent, we mean acts which somehow fail in their motivations. Marsha’s two ‘goods’ do mean two different things. The first meaning is instrumental. The second is something – else.

To get at what else a moral value may be, it may be instructive to examine how Karen evaluates the snake. For her, the snake elicits a sense of beauty which weights her moral calculus. She has a moral obligation to the neighbor kids, and aesthetic obligation(?) to the snake. Nor do those values seem bound to the snake; they seem to be bound to the beholder. Kate certainly does not attribute the same value to the snake. We must look to the motivation of the evaluator to account for the snake’s aesthetic value.

We can attempt a functional account of the discrepancy in snake esteem. The snake has symmetry, color contrast, impressive venom, etc. which the human brain finds attractive, and which Karen has the proper sort of history regarding snakes (a history which Kate lacks) to allow an appreciation of snakes on the above grounds. The reduction can give us an instrumental evaluation of the snake’s aesthetic value. For instance, we will have a pretty good idea of where Karen’s line is when it comes to snake rescue – will she risk her life to save one, or just suffer a little inconvenience. We will not have a good account of why the line is where it is.

George Moore refers to the analogous moral problem with his open question. He noted that we can identify an act as good, but we cannot find an attribute inherent in the act itself which makes it good. When we say something is morally good, we don’t seem to be able to go on and say that it is constitutive of good, so that any morally good thing contributes to our knowledge of good. We speak as though we already know it, even when we have changed our minds about what is or is not good! It is the same with the line demarcating the limits of snake-appreciation for Karen; we start behind it and cannot pick apart a final source of its position in the facts we have about the line. The value attribution seems to come from within the person making it, and their motive.

Moore postulated a moral intuition to explain the whole moral mess. We have a faculty which responds to events by arousing Good and Bad sentiments in us. With a moral sense, it all occurs in the heart, which is only stimulated by events past and current.

Aesthetic sentiments also occur ‘in the heart’. A urinal in the bus station moves very few, while the same urinal in a gallery moves many – and beyond its representation. In fact, part of what the gallery urinal represents is the significance of aesthetic disagreement. The difference, the urinal reminds us, occurs in the heart and its appreciation of white porcelain curves, beyond any differential understanding of context and symbol – the instrumental aspects of art.

So it is with morality, as well. Aesthetic evaluations and moral evaluations prove difficult to distinguish, because they share a structure. But aesthetics are appreciated, not by the stimulation of a mysterious, aesthetic faculty, but by an operational method. When we consider the urinal in the gallery, we take in its given structure and attempt to align the proper elements of that structure in terms of our given motive. The sense of appreciation that we enjoy after the act of appreciation may be mistaken for the appreciation itself, but the sense is merely a tale of reminiscence.

The appreciation of the child/snake situation occurs in the moment, too. When we look back on it, we can analyze the process, but the analysis is not the process. It leaves facts in its wake, but the facts are not the act, and the act is what we wish to indicate when we speak in moral terms. We feel comfortable with this sort of arrangement in similar cases of activity, like painting or juggling. We understand that instruction in painting or juggling does not effectively capture the act, and we do not expect that a manual detailing the performance of the activity, even if the manual were complete in every detail, would enable us to paint or juggle the first time, every time or even any time.

The intuitionists got it right regarding our moral situation. Moralizing occurs within the speaker, and the speaker’s report inevitably misses a key element of morality when the report attributes moral properties or refers to moral facts. But what seems to be going on is not the inscrutable machination of a non-natural moral sense. Instead, it looks like the enactment of a method.

______________________________________________________________________________* I think that is because all motive devolves to a single motive – der Wille zur Macht.

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Causes, Facts, and Heroin

The lecturer moved his laser-pointer quickly over the loop of neural circuitry. He explained the role of Mu receptors in activating the circuit, which sent a signal round and round and came out as the behavior pattern we call addiction. It was all very neat.

It was so neat the he could have simplified his diagram by replacing the pretty brain graphic with a switch. Off would be synonymous with no addictive behavior. On would equal addictive behavior. If you took the theory, “Addiction = Brain Circuitry” at face value, anything that flips the switch would cause addiction. Yet we know that that situation does not obtain. Heroin flips the switch, but not everyone who takes heroin manifests addictive behavior.

For the advocate of “Addiction = Brain Circuitry”, there are two ways out of this dilemma. First, he can posit a multiplicity of switches. In other words, he can claim that there is an intervening network of necessary, but not sufficient, switches on either side of the Big Switch, mediating the input and output of the addiction circuit. But then in principle, all those switches could also be replaced with a single switch, and you are right back where you started. No limited set of if/then statements will be completely determinative.

The second way out of the non-correspondence dilemma is to simply abandon a complete and transparent explanation, in favor of reliable facts. Neurons are necessary to behaviors, and we know that because, if we zap certain neurons, we can reliably alter corresponding behaviors. That doesn’t exactly explain the behavior, but it lets us move on to knowledge of neural circuits and the experiences which correspond with changing the configurations of those circuits.

One might denigrate the second solution as an abandonment of truth-seeking. Perhaps, but that is not so bad, on a proper notion of truth. In solution #2, you get a theory, which is a set of reliable facts. To get to the truth what you need is an explanatory reduction. In other words, all the switches and their positions for a specific moment of behavior, across the cosmic board. Such an array is purely didactic. It refers to no knowledge, for it cannot reliably correspond with anything. You may think you know something about it, but you don’t – not until you begin to formulate a theory regarding it.

Johnnie shoots a dose of heroin because he has inherited a susceptible set of receptors, because he contains the dendritic representations of certain permissive life-lessons, because he lacks certain inhibitory representations, because he lives in a society which has heroin, because he anticipates certain effects from heroin injections. And on, and on, and on…

At the end of such an exposition (if there even is an end) what we have is just a snap-shot which we have pre-labeled, “Johnnie’s Addiction”. To make any sense of it – to know anything at all about it – we must delve in to the insufficient necessities, and be satisfied with their mere reliability. When we give Johnnie a medicine for his Addiction, we should expect that it will, to some extent, extinguish the behavior. We should expect that if we take away his heroin, his behavior will, to some extent, change. And in fact, our theory does correspond with the facts which it predicts, and upon which rests.

Like the addiction lecturer, we all frequently feel dissatisfied with reliability. We would like some non-provisional knowledge. Give us some truth, please. Aspiring to truth gets us nowhere, though. Truth is too hefty. To riff on Gettier’s classic thought experiment, Smith has the truth when he observes that a person with 10 coins in his pocket will get the job, once Smith sees that a person with 10 coins in his pocket gets the job. Yet he has no knowledge thereby. He cannot be (provisionally) right or wrong in such a statement, any more than a snapshot can be right or wrong (though our subsequent interpretations – theories – of the snapshot may be).

If Smith says, at his next interview, that the person with 10 coins in his pocket will get the job, and he takes care to put 10 coins in his own pocket in hopes of getting the job, then he may know something. He is making a knowledge claim regarding his experience with coins and interviews, and his claim may or may not correspond with his theory’s fact-conditions. Reliability is what he will get, and he will be happy with it, or not, as will we all.

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No Clarence, You Do Not Have Clearance

Justice Thomas recently wrote a 20 page concurrence to a decision about an abortion law. Someday, this exposition will be renowned as the most extensive, inside-out examination of the genetic fallacy in history. Every textbook will cite it, eventually. To hasten its ascendance, I will make these observations on the Justice’s writing.

First some background. The law at issue is one which restricts abortion in a number of ways, only one of which really got the Judge going.

“This statute makes it illegal for an abortion provider to perform an abortion in Indiana when the provider knows that the mother is seeking the abortion solely because of the child’s race, sex, diagnosis of Down syndrome, disability, or related characteristics. §§16–34–4–1 to 16–34–4–8; see §16–34– 4–1(b) (excluding “lethal fetal anomal[ies]” from the definition of disability).”

We’ll get back to the “child” verbiage. What’s the upshot of this provision, the one which provoked such logorrhea from Thomas?

“Put differently, this law and other laws like it promote a State’s compelling interest in preventing abortion from becoming a tool of modern-day eugenics.2”

Wow, that is a big claim, and it is going to need a lot of support. But what he brings is: “Eugenicists are bad. Things Eugenicists like are bad. This is the sort of thing Eugenicists like, so it is bad.”

On the surface, his argument is just bad, mundane, and not even original. But he is a supreme court justice, so he digs deeper, and we get to see all the sub-strata of the genetic fallacy, and so why it, like all informal fallacies, merits its label.

The first purpose of the genetic fallacy is to shut down one’s opponents. By nature, it contains an accusation of guilt by association, not only for the position which it seeks to defame but for any advocates of that position as well.

Quite a bit of Thomas’ concurrence enumerates the deplorable sayings of Galton, Sanger, Stoddard, etc.. These are people to be reviled and feared. Galton originated the notion of social Darwinism – the survival of the fittest. Thomas provides this example of Stoddard’s toxicity:

Stoddard feared that without “artificial barriers,” the races “will increasingly mingle, and the inevitable result will be the supplanting or absorption of the higher by the lower types.”

But, wait a minute. If the higher types and lower types can’t keep it straight, then how are they ‘types’ at all? This kind of contradiction permeates eugenics, especially when it comes to the use of birth control to advance the cause. If a woman chooses to use birth control to give her children a better economic heritage, or to spare her child a brief and impoverished existence, she would seem to have met the superior-type criteria. Which brings us to the real problem with eugenics: It inevitably classifies on phenotype, with an assumption that the genotype follows. Furthermore, even their assessment of phenotype is hopelessly crude, because it includes social status as big part of the phenotype’s constitution. The blond hair and blue eyes come with a 3-piece suit.

It turns out that the eugenicists are just a bunch of crackpots who don’t really understand genetics, not the scary, evil geniuses referenced in Thomas’ argument. And that’s one problem with the genetic fallacy in general. To taint a position, the associated villains must have some potency to their poison – they must be right to some extent, or at least attractive – yet they must also be wrong, to discredit the position, and repugnant. In the end, you can’t have it both ways.

But the Justice does not stop in the upper layers of the genetic fallacy; he is digging for gold. Underlying every good deployment of this fallacy, there is a slippery slope argument as well. Usually the slippery slope remains implied. It risks being overlooked, in that case. Justice Thomas is not about to let that happen.

If “the masses” were given “practical education in Birth Control”—for which there was “almost universal demand”—then the “Eugenic educator” could use “Birth Control propaganda” to “direct a thorough education in Eugenics” and influence the reproductive decisions of the unfit. Propaganda 5. In this way, “the campaign for Birth Control [was] not merely of eugenic value, but [was] practically identical in ideal with the final aims of Eugenics.”

If you thought Sanger was bad, just wait. She was merely the vanguard. who aimed to soften us all up for the real assault.

And with today’s prenatal screening tests and other technologies, abortion can easily be used to eliminate children with unwanted characteristics. Indeed, the individualized nature of abortion gives it even more eugenic potential than birth control, which simply reduces the chance of conceiving any child. As petitioners and several amicus curiae briefs point out, moreover, abortion has proved to be a disturbingly effective tool for implementing the discriminatory preferences that undergird eugenics.

We are looking down a black diamond run. The last bit, however, brings us to the deeper reasons for rejecting genetic fallacies. In the course of his exposition, Justice Thomas reveals a profound misunderstanding of fetal anomalies, prenatal testing, and worst of all, Freakonomics (he must not have listened very carefully to the episode referenced on page 17). The genetic fallacy generally serves to smooth over such rough spots for its user. For Justice Thomas, it is a smoke bomb which he hopes will cover him while he slips past the implications of words like “child” tossed in to refer to – what? Does he mean zygote, blastocyst, embryo, fetus? What are the physiologic correlates of childhood? Or is it possession of a soul, and if so, just what the hell is a soul, and by what means do we know of it? He concludes:

Although the Court declines to wade into these issues today, we cannot avoid them forever. Having created the constitutional right to an abortion, this Court is dutybound to address its scope.

Indeed, you can’t hide forever.

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The Dilemma of Divine Purpose

It is often said that God is the source of human (and indeed, animal) purpose, and that without God, there is no purpose.

But what is God’s purpose, and who can say?

Let’s dispense with the common confabulation offered in response: God’s purpose is to do  just what he does and to be just like he is. Of course, this response defines the difference between an explanation and an assertion, and when it is stated as an explanation, it makes a very tight circle.

When God acts, he manifests divine will.

God created the world, so the world is meant to be a manifestation of divine will. In other words, it is meant to be just what it is.

Any questions?

But there is no real answer within the common confabulation. Maybe the question can be reframed to elicit a precise response.

Can God say why he created the world?

This is not to say that he need explain himself to us. Is he able to explain it for himself ?

If creation was instrumental to some purpose for God – perhaps a cure for loneliness – then creation is actually dependent upon some set of determinants of divine will, i.e. circumstances to which the divine will responds.

If so, whence those cicumstances? Even if God can say, we all (us via God) are beholden to those circumstances. For all of us, the circumstances simply exist, and therefore, all of us simply exist.

But what if creation was not instrumental? Let’s say God simply willed it. In that case, there is no divine insight in principle – not even a Muse to blame – and again, all of us simply exist.

So,  we all simply exist, God too.

 

 

 

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Knock Out Mouse Revolution

mighty-mouse-cartoon-clipart-16

Standing in the New Orleans convention center felt a little eerie. The interior was clean and neat. It looked like an airport. Still, I could not help but recall images of Katrina, when the huge edifice had become a beacon of false hope, luring the populace through its doors with the promise of aid, only to leave those who entered trapped like rats.

We had come to a conference to learn about endocrinology, which I had not considered too creepy before. I was wrong.

The proceedings began innocently. Hundreds of physician scientists, and I, filed quietly into a giant auditorium. I want to make clear my lack of qualifications relative to the rest of the group. I am no scientist, and barely a physician. I would much rather read philosophy books and climb around on crumbly sandstone towers than pipette solutions into a gel matrix.

But my job is mostly about helping people protect themselves from diabetes. Plus my wife had a poster to present. So, there I was, attending as an imposter.

The keynote speaker got a prolonged introduction. He deserved it. He was an important person with important research credentials. It was the kind of introduction where a name is never mentioned, for dramatic effect, and because everybody already knows exactly who the subject is. It is a an effective strategy for generating anticipation in the majority who are already quite familiar with the speaker, as well as in those who have never heard of him. It works for everyone, except my wife. She is honest to a fault, and that means that she is a real subject-object-verb kind of person. When presented with a dramatic, obscure speech, her attention lapses. As the speaker walked onstage to the sound of his name, she asked me who this Francis Collins person was.

After a long moment’s reflection, I told her that Francis Collins was a bad philosopher. She seemed to accept my summary, because she promptly settled back in her theater chair to nap through the rest of the lecture. I could not sleep, though I was feeling a little jet lag as well. The lecture was fascinating. Dr. Collins had been right in the middle of genetic research since the beginning of the human genome project, and he took the audience on a trip through the whole endeavor, right up to the current moment: the Big Data revolution.

The Big Data revolution referred to the use of advanced mathematical and computing techniques to sort through scads of data for druggable targets in endocrine diseases. The special techniques had become necessary because the database had exploded. Dr. Collins and his compatriots had deciphered the genomic book of life, but when they sat down to read it, they discovered that they needed a lamp, reading glasses, bookmarks, and indeed, the semantics of the language. The genes turned out to be active in the context of all sorts of transcription factors, promotors, coactivators, corepressors, etc. There was layer upon layer of conditionals which gave meaning to the genetics.

The source of the Big Data revelation was the knockout mouse. The knockout mouse and its cousins, the knockin mouse and the humanized mouse, were what happened when researchers turned to their traditional test subjects with gene manipulation techniques learned in dissecting the genome. By studying mice with selectively induced genetic defects, the researchers had produced the dense pile of data on gene regulation which advanced computing methods might sort out for us.

By the end of the keynote address, I had mouse fever. I wanted to hear all about the things which these creatures could do, and it turned out that I had come to the right place. Over the next few days, I would hear about mutant mice who could run on a treadmill off the couch like they had trained for months. Mice who developed diabetes. Mice who could turn on their brown fat to alter their metabolism. And many of these mice could serve as their own experimental controls. They had mechanisms inserted in their genomes which could turn their genetic defects on and off in response to substances in their mouse chow.

I’ll admit, when I heard about designer mice and their custom mouse chow, I got a little side-tracked. I had been eager to get out of medicine for a while. It all seemed so futile, and even a bit of a sham. Knockout mice might have been the ticket.

Two incidents elevated that thought to conscious consideration. The first was sighting a booth devoted to mouse chow in the exhibit hall.

To understand the significance of the chow booth, one must understand what the exhibit hall is all about. There is an exhibit hall at every conference. They are huge and opulent sometimes, sometimes modest, but always staffed by beautiful, shiny people and stocked with treats, from lattes to foam-model pancreases. Brands like Coach or Louis V. would feel at home amongst the booths.

Giant pharmaceutical companies ruled the hall, and the mouse kibble guys were right there in the mix. If mouse chow could buy an exhibit booth, the mice themselves must be golden.

The second incident was a conversation overheard in the poster hall.

The poster hall is a huge open space with row upon row of cork boards. Researchers pin up posters with summaries of their investigations on the boards, and attendees walk up and down the rows soaking in the knowledge. Usually there is a clearing in the middle with a nest of round banquet tables where everyone can go to take a break, chat and have a cup of pharma coffee. That’s where I sat while my wife presented her poster. I did not sit randomly.

As I walked up on the tables, I spotted a fat man in a plaid shirt and a yarmulke leaning in to say something to a thin, swarthy, bearded companion wearing a dark olive sport coat and a gold medallion. I needed in on that conversation, so I settled in the chair next to them, and swirled my coffee thoughtfully. Imagine my surprise as I picked up on the subject of their conspiracy.

“Yes,” said the fat man, ” I have been trying to find some of those mice. I need them to finish my work, but you can’t find them anywhere.”

“Yes,” echoed his friend, “those mice are nowhere to be found.”

“The closest I came,” the fat man continued, “was this Korean lady in San Fransisco. She said she had some, even said she would send me a few. But she never came through, and now I can’t get a hold of her anymore.”

The mice must be golden.

But my dreams of becoming a mouse Baron were short-lived. Upon further investigation, I found that genetically altered mice did not thrive. It was hard enough to get them past the embryonic stage. Once they could breathe on their own, they often required special conditions and diets just to survive. Worst of all, most of the really good mice had been patented. You bought the limited rights to a strain of mice when you bought the animals themselves. The patent system was the impetus for the black market discussion in the poster hall. You could trade for mice underground and avoid some costs, at the risk of incurring the wrath of the mouse factory lawyers after publication.

Despite the disappointment on economic grounds, I left the conference optimistic. I still had the image of all those colored bars from Dr. Collins’ slide in my head. Each one was a gene which a mouse model could exemplify, and therefore each one was potentially a druggable target. We had this. It was just a matter of time, and mice.

On my way to work, I have some time to think, though not too deeply. I leave early to beat the traffic, but I never do. Most commutes demand constant attention to collision avoidance. The situation is unfortunate, because the commute is the only time to think. Once work starts, I am behind. Someone constantly needs something from me to satisfy someone else who needs something from them, etc.. My workplace is carefully structured to facilitate this cycle. If I need to communicate with someone, odds are that I can lean over to one side and speak to them directly. Otherwise, my computer contains a messaging system which will pop in on whoever I need to inform or interrogate. Patient rooms cluster around my workstation, so I never need to walk more than 6 steps. However, patient contact occupies only a minor portion of my time. Most of the day is passed on the computer and the phone, addressing questions, requests and lab results. At the end of the day the freeway awaits again. By the time I get home, I am burned out and may or may not have it in me to do some physical training and watch television before retiring to get up and do it all again the next morning.

As luck would have it, traffic was light on the first day back from New Orleans. As I drove, I dreamed of druggable targets; Dr. Collins’ slides with the colored bars swam before me. Most of my patients were already on carefully targeted medications, but reaching down into the genome would ramp up medication effectiveness by orders of magnitude. Yet, not all my thoughts were so happy. Other images kept popping into my head, unbidden. I saw other colored slides, from another lecture by another renowned researcher. They were Dr. Brawley’s slides on the geographic and socioeconomic correlates of life expectancy and the epidemiology of conditions like obesity, cancer and diabetes. I could not banish those intrusive images, and by the time I was walking across the clinic parking lot, my mood had deteriorated.

I made it through the day, and finally got to resume my train of thought as I walked back to the car to drive home. I thought about gene targets and Dr. Brawley’s maps again. Then thoughts of one of the day’s patients joined the fray. She was very overweight, and had the metabolic problems that went with excess adipose tissue. She was on targeted therapy for her diabetes in the form of a monoclonal antibody directed at a counter-regulatory hormone receptor. It was the best science had to offer, but she often missed her doses. She had 2 jobs and no car, so she was up early and home late, and she simply forgot her meds sometimes. She set an alarm, but often could not attend to it, or forgot to reset it. We did not even discuss diet and exercise. She lived on a busy street with non-contiguous sidewalks, had no money for a gym, and no time to travel to a safe park. She could not cook, because she had grown up on packaged foods. In any case, she had grown too heavy by now. Her knees had given out under the weight. She could only mobilize fat stores in the face of severe calorie restriction. To reclaim  her life, assuming that was our aim, she would need two joint replacements and a gastric bypass.

I began to re-experience the rising panic which I had felt at the end of her appointment. Dr. Collins & Co. had let me down; I was not armed for this struggle, nor would I be. I stopped to take a breath and get my bearings. The parking lot was nearly empty. A bad smell rose from a nearby drainage grate, and a noise like water flowing.

I imagined that the noise might be something else. Maybe, instead of waste water, it was all those knockout mice, rising through the  sewers from the depths of the New Orleans convention center where the disappointments of Katrina had flowed down to bring the little fellows back, like a time-delayed Ghost Dance. The mice were coming with their little spectral incisors primed to clip down the cages, the labs, the chow booth, the convention center, and all the rest in a massive, surgical revision. I became convinced that the sound was the mice coming. It had to be. It was the only way that the knockout mice could save us.

mouse

 

 

 

 

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What Does It Mean to Be a Disembodied Mind?

Really, we should go to the source for a self-report.

We immediately confront a problem, then. Where do we look?

That is to say, if we are to establish communication with the disembodied mind, then we must somehow individuate it. It must be a candidate for intentional inexistence if we even hope to take heed of it.

Yet individuation is precisely the psychological consequence of embodiment.

Look at it from the other side. What if the disembodied mind wants to talk to us poor saps wallowing in bodies?

Mustn’t it make it make the subject-object distinction first? And if it does, hasn’t it wiped out any hope of qualitative distinction from the rest of the body-wallowers?

It is merely a prettier critter, after all.

 

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Imagine

…for a moment that you have been selected to participate in a groundbreaking experiment.

Neurobiologists have discovered a single neuron in the reticular activating system (RAS) which appears to be responsible for consciousness. In a rat model, when they hit this little cell with a pulse from an electrode, the rat stops and stares blankly. It will carry out reflexive acts, and even complex learned responses to stimulus. But when the electrode is hot, the questing nose and shifting eyes are still.

You will be the first human subject to undergo stimulation of the single consciousness neuron in the RAS. Well, at least one of the first human subjects, because I will undergo the procedure with you.

In the lab, we each have a tiny hole drilled in our skulls and a micro-wire inserted into the target neuron in our brains. Then, under video-EEG monitoring, I flip the switch that turns on your electrode.

Your EEG changes, but nothing seems to happen to you. You continue to chat with me and when I inquire as to the your status, you assure me that you are quite conscious.

But then I switch the current off.

You look surprised, and ask me, “How long was I out?”

I don’t know what to make of your behavior. Were you out? Was someone else in? Does the magic neuron just make you forget yourself for a bit?

There is only one way to find out. I tell you to flip the switch on my electrode.

I come to in the middle of a conversation, and report to you that I must have been unconscious while my electrode was hot. Your report of my behavior mirrors my report of yours: no change until the power goes off, and then the surprised “wake up”.

I still have no answer regarding anyone’s consciousness during the time when the RAS neuron is activated, nor will I get one. I may be able to make some guesses, if I gather loads of video-EEG data, or see what happens when I try to teach you something while the neuron is being stimulated. That behavioral information, in the brainwaves and in speech, may typically correlate with the presence or absence of a conscious state (in our experience).

The correlates can tell me nothing of the actual presence or absence of conscious experience, however. Consciousness occurs within a subject and won’t be found in the intersubjective. That state of affairs does not make consciousness particularly hard or mysterious – we all know all about it every day. It does require a subject to have it though, and it is always consciousness ‘of’. It is just ours and ours alone.

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Balance Impaired

 

DSC00176Close-up, the little gully evoked a strong sense of deja vu. The angle suggested that one might almost be able to stand up and walk it. The rock looked like a crocodile’s skin – all knobs and chunks with few cracks or pockets – and the few voids in the surface had formed from the erosion of yellow clay inclusions. I had been in this situation before, in the Canadian Rockies, the Tetons, the Cascades. It meant sparse and dubious protection for insecure climbing, with an ugly fall looming throughout.

The fresh memory of yesterday’s Eureka foray reinforced my unease. Just going into the mining country in Colorado’s San Juan mountains is sobering.  The road winds through acres of avalanche terrain peppered with jumbles of gray boards and rusty iron marking the eternal resting places of generations of abandoned avarice. Eureka itself stands for self-consciousness of our bitter relationship with the range. Once a small,  hopeful mining community the town is now a single building. The lone, windowless watchtower bears a prominent sign with the name of the town, placed there, no doubt, by the same sort of joker who might strap a party hat on a skeleton.

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Yesterday was our second consecutive day at the ice climbs in the valley above the ghost town. The day before, we had been denied access to the longest climb in the area by an SAR exercise. Yesterday, we encountered a line of four parties on the same route, and we decided to trudge a bit further past the routes at the valley’s entrance. Around the bend and not far above, we found a lovely pillar of ice baking in the sun. The air temperature was cold however, and the ice looked to be in good shape from the ground, so we went for it.

My partner took the lead and ran the two pitches together. It went well until the very top. There he found the last few feet melted out and he could not get to the fixed anchor. Worse, in a fit of hubris, neither of us had thought to have him take the kit for building ice anchors. He put in two ice screws at his high point and I lowered him back to an intermediate ledge. He set up a belay and I set off to retrieve the ice screws and build an anchor in the ice to get us back down to the base.

Looking up at the situation, I knew that I should not risk falling. He had placed the two screws at the anchor properly. They had already held his weight on the lower. But the stainless steel tubes were basking. Many times, I had raced the process now at work on the anchor, placing another screw on a sunny climb before the last one heated up enough to melt loose. I arrived at the anchor and placed a back-up screw. Out of curiosity, I jiggled the anchor screws. They rattled in their holes, and by the time finished the rappel anchor, I could lift the screws free with two fingers.

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By the time we got back down, the crowds had migrated our way. We had another objective in mind for the afternoon, but our hopes were squashed on the road, for we found a fellow standing at the head of the approach trail just staring across the valley as if he were reconsidering something. He informed us that he had ridden a slab avalanche for a few meters down the slope below our goal.  My partner had his wife and young son waiting back in Ouray anyhow.

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There had been angst around bringing the child, who was their first. He was a nidus of concern in some familiar ways. He was 18 months old and did not want to eat or sleep regularly. He clearly understood everything said to him, but his only bit of expressive language was the word “No”. Each morning, he spent a non-stop hour on Rube-Goldberg action. Cups went into other cups, packets of jelly were transferred from person to person and then into the cups, and then back to their original owner. All of this chaos worried his parents. It seemed so overwhelming that one could hardly imagine any organized behavior arising from it.

Unless you had seen it before. I had. I distinctly recalled worrying about how I could possibly teach my first child to speak. I had no training, and no idea where to begin. Nevertheless, the kid started to talk. He had inherited the talent for it. From an adult perspective, it looked like a miracle, because adults liked to think that they had, each and every one, invented the world – or at worst discovered it. That way, the adult felt more competent, and the world seemed more solid.

From the child’s standpoint, he was building a constellation from the inside out. He had his experiences – what he might come to call ‘sense impressions’ should he grow into a particularly deluded adult – and he had the dots and lines to mark and tie together those experiences, inherited in his nucleic acids, language, and culture. The dots and lines were powerful tools. They would allow him to develop at heady pace, mapping out massive territories, like language, on the fly.

His ancestral mechanisms  assembled his star chart in a blur, and if he was at all self-conscious in his adulthood, he would spend a lot of time figuring out how he got there, and what kind of picture he had made with all those dots and lines overlying the bright spots of his experience. It would be daunting and he might be tempted to throw his hands up and just call the dots and lines the truth, to give the mathematical, linguistic and philosophical accretions on experience an undeserved solidity, while relegating the experience itself to a dirtier, incomplete status.

My partner’s son would have an antidote in that case. He would learn to climb, and that would at least open the blinds on the relationship between the picture of the stars and the stars themselves. He would still have to look, but most people didn’t even get that chance.

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Perched in the little gully, I saw the true landscape.

I was not motivated. I felt the burden of all those extraneous considerations which populated the slope with angels and demons instead of little edges and blotches of ice. I climbed back down and handed the sharp end over to my partner. He was motivated, and managed to lead the pitch despite some misgivings about the security of the climbing. I followed without slips or fumbles. It was sketchy, no question. We looked at the next pitch, but decided against it. It would be there when the stars aligned favorably, or even better, when no one was thinking about the pattern of stars at their back.

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The Problem with Pain

My gaze swung between the man on the exam table and the radiograph displayed on the lightbox. He must have sensed a problem.

“What?” he asked.

What indeed. The film basically showed his shoulder blade broken in two.

“When did this happen?” I inquired. He had already told me once; I just needed to be sure that I’d heard it correctly.

“Yesterday afternoon,” he said, ” right after lunch.”

“And why did you wait until this afternoon to come in?’

“Well, I’m here mostly to get my wife off my back. If it was up to me, I wouldn’t have come in, but she thought it might be serious or something, because I tossed and turned last night.”

“Well,” I told him, “It is not a surgical problem, but it is a bad injury. You got lucky.”

After a moment’s reflection I added, “Didn’t that hurt?”

“Kind of,” he laughed, “But it eased up pretty quick.”

“Do you need any pain medication?” I asked.

“Oh, no,” he demurred, “Tylenol is doing fine for it.”

After a few more pleasantries, the man got up, walked out of my office, got in his car and drove back to work. Watching him wince slightly as he turned out of the parking lot, I couldn’t help but think of the patient before him – a fellow with no history of serious injury, a normal MRI of the lumbar spine, and disabling back pain.

The man with the back pain had wanted pain medication. I’d had to talk him out of it, which was a difficult task in that era. Because it was the era before the opioid crisis, when we were in the midst of a pain crisis, according to the medical authorities. Clinicians were directed to take everyone’s pain level the same way that we took their temperature, and to treat the abnormalities discovered by our measurements.

For those with eyes to see, the notion behind pathologizing pain was misguided, at least. The whole scheme rested on the idea that pain was simply activity in the neuronal substrate. Change the activity pattern, by activating opiate receptors, for example, and you get rid of the pain.

I am not being very charitable in my description, but I am being as charitable as I need to be. There are more nuanced depictions, which leaven the mix with talk of psychological context and so on, but the same suppressed premise lurks beneath them all. It is this: a chain of causal events ‘add up’ to pain, and that is just what pain is. X+Y+Z = Pain. But the necessity of such arithmetic has been in doubt even before Hume laid its troubles out so nicely for us Westerners.

Breaking down a phenomenon gives you its pieces, but does not grant commutativity. Activating opiate receptors does not reshape their owner’s pain experience according to a fixed script. Receptor activity is part of the description of a painful experience, along with psychological context, and personal history. Yet there is no prior necessity – necessity by law, rather than necessity in fact. We did not make the distinction.

Secure in our estimation of the relationship between the neuronal substrate and the pain experience, we went after opiate receptors like we go after splinters. Our efforts did not force anyone’s pain experience into a box, but we gave everyone who we treated a new pain experience. Sometimes it suited them better; sometimes it suited them worse. Many, many times it settled in the center of their psyches and they fell into orbit around it.

Our engagement with the epidemic of untreated pain predictably ended in chaos. Now we need to extricate ourselves, and what do we turn to but the tool already in hand.

Instead of the reduction to type, we have rebuilt our story of pain, revising our reduction on the basis of the same mistake. Receptors pertain to behaviors – in the neuronal substrate, and so in the psychology, and so in the organism – but pain is a byproduct of the behavioral mechanism. It is an epiphenomenon. Chronic experiencers need counselling, to convince them that the pain is ineffectual, and therefore not real, at least not in any serious way.

Unfortunately, I get to participate in this second shot at commutative reduction, too. It will go just as well as the first.

 

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