Category Archives: philosophy

The All in One

‘Cause some things bear repeating…there is no Guy in the Sky, or if there is, he is just a guy:

Discussing the existence of a deity is fraught. Everyone on either side of the issue has profound emotional commitments to their position – profound enough, for some people, to merit a violent defense. Setting aside fanaticism, even the reasonable disputant’s motivation to understand the basic issues is weak. But I don’t think that shaky motivation is the primary source of acrimony. Some basic conceptual differences drive the dispute, and the emotional consequences of everyone’s intellectual positions make the dispute nasty. The classical arguments for the existence, or at least the possibility, of a god in the traditional, Western conception illustrate the schisms best. These arguments – the Cosmological, Contingency, and Ontological Arguments – share a basic set of notions, though I think that the Contingency Argument is by far the most important and interesting. Here is a mash-up of the three, courtesy of Jon Duns (and subsequent admirers) :

(1′) Whatever is possible is contingent or necessary.

(2′) A first cause is possible.

(3′) Therefore, a first cause is contingent or necessary

(4′) Any contingent substance is possibly actualized by another substance.

(5′) A first cause is not possibly actualized by another substance.

(6′) Therefore a first cause is not contingent.

(7′) Therefore a first cause is necessary.

I like this. It at once demonstrates the interesting part of the three arguments, especially the Contingency Argument, and the difficulties with their claims and with opposing claims. Stated in this form, the combo-argument gets right to the chewy bits.

Whatever is possible is either contingent or necessary.  This statement says so much. What does it mean to speak of a possible contingent thing? It means one of two things. First, it may be a thing to be considered in logical statements. This means it is a defined entity, a term of art. Our range of defined entities is extremely broad. It ranges from the non-controversial (the color black) to the fantastic (ghosts).  However, logic doesn’t mind. As long as there are rules to tell us where an object of our intention stands among its fellows, logic will apply, and our definitions provide us with those rules in each specific case. Give us the definition and we may say what is logically possible. Second, a contingent thing may be something which we may describe as well as define, in other words, rather than just sketching the rules of its identity we may  speak of it in terms of its composition and its relationship to other things.

When considered in light of the latter, contingent things form a set of entities defined by their dependence. They are dependent on and inseparable from, the conditions which preceded them. They are describable in a positive sense.  They have a composition. But do they also have a nature? Consider that most contingent of objects: the dog. The concept of  “dog” would seem to be a solid citizen of our conceptual society. But if called upon to produce the archetypical dog, can we? Mustn’t we instead depend on a pedigree, physically and metaphysically?

The dog-concept is instead entirely dependent on all the dogs, extant and historical, and in a very particular way. It is, in fact, an epiphenomenon, something which stands in for causally related entities, their appearance rather than their structure. The dog-concept is still real as much as the appearance of someone’s face is real. The dog-concept just doesn’t do anything in and of itself, any more than the appearance of someone’s face itself  “does” anything other than act as an intermediary between the mind of its possessor and the minds of those who perceive it.

At least that is one way to look at things. Another would be to say that there is some magnetic kernel of efficacy at the heart of the dog-concept – that dogness is a foregone conclusion, not just an implication of the circumstances of the universe, and if dogness wasn’t realized by wolf and man, it would have been realized by fox and man, or Tasmanian tiger and man.

These two ways of looking at things hold on a deeper level too, in regards to contingency itself. On the first view, the fact that the things we see derived from other things through time are interdependent must be taken as basic. The adherent to this perspective must say, “I cannot see into that interdependency itself to say whether it is itself the ‘really real’, efficacious thing about the world, whether it is a useful, “close enough” representation of what is ‘really real’ or whether it is an appearance with nothing more certain about its reality than self-consistency. I’m stuck with it. I can’t look at it without referring to it. I believe I’ll live with the uncertainty and move on.”

On the second viewpoint, the appearance of interdependency is due to something – a foregone conclusion which is not possibly an end-product dependent on our seeing it for its identity. This kernel of kernels remains a property; it is inert without associated objects to manifest it. However, the objects do manifest it rather than participating in its active creation. From this perspective, for example, each Chihuahua could be said to manifest “dogness” (sad though their efforts may be) rather than adding to the concept of  “dogness”. Here, by further analogy, the genetics are set and are the real cause of the dog, with metabolic processes and environmental inputs acting as accessories only.

The Contingency Argument could be seen as an explanation of the second viewpoint, but it goes beyond what is necessary for that viewpoint as the argument is used in apologetics. The plain, white rice version argues for a knowable thing. The identity of the non-contingent base relies, at least in part, on its relationship with the contingent things which exemplify it, just as genes are genes only in a biological context. But when the argument is used in support of theism, a hierarchy of dependency is claimed, with the non-contingent thing having the real causal efficacy, and so existential necessity,  in the end. The contingent things don’t dance to a tune or express genetic information, they move to the pull of their strings.  Interdependency is no longer possibly the epistemic basement, a thing-in-itself lurks below. This is a bold claim; bolder, I think, than stopping with a shrug at the top basement. It is even bolder than something like asserting the causal efficacy of dogness. It is bold because a thing with existential necessity must be opaque.

How, in principle might we come to know a necessary thing? How could we induce changes in it to divine its nature? How could it have discernible “parts”?  How could we hope to describe it? Any knowledge of it, even knowledge of its existence, must be as complete and undetermined as it is – given knowledge. This is not to say that such an assertion is necessarily irrational. Given the claim, we can use it in logical statements. In fact, given the claim, we can establish the definition of contingency as the sort of dependency relationship which the second viewpoint above requires, since the first cause, as a thing-in-itself, may not be a billiard ball, or cipher or any other causal entity as we know causal entities. All things we may know as such can be analyzed in some way.

So, if the necessary thing must remain something we propose based on our intuition, are we to believe that whatever is possible is either contingent or necessary? If the necessary thing in question is a logical necessity of a sort after all, rather than an existential necessity alone, would that allow it to be more than a postulate?  On the view of contingency which takes the interdependency of things as basic, logic is descriptive and so doesn’t have anything in particular to say about existential necessity. The situation in which logical necessity and existential necessity are equivalent is the situation in which the description of how we perceive cause and effect relationships is also a precise representation of those relationships. Only in that case can we be reassured that none of the definitions guiding our logical expositions are squirrelly. This leaves us with a particular kind of contingency –   a condition of dependence rather than interdependence, an open system rather than a closed one. But even granting such a viewpoint does not save us from the implications of the thing-in-itself.

Our perception of cause and effect is one of discrete objects interacting at objectively definable points in time. If our perception is the whole truth and nothing but the truth, then we are left with the caricature of determinism laid on naturalist philosophy. History is a network of falling dominoes, each with a discrete, fixed identity and falling across a fixed temporal landscape. “Where did it all start?”, becomes a vital question and the path to a first cause and a thing-in-itself opens up. But by the Cosmological path or the Contingent path the seeker ends up back at the monolith. Examination of the dominoes or the course of their falling can tell us nothing about what started their toppling cascade, whether it was an earthquake, a child’s finger, a gust of wind or a wayward beetle. By empirical inquiry and logical examination, the necessary entity must remain an enigma.

We are left with a mandatory agnosticism regarding the thing-in itself. However, the uncertainty leaves room for one more bold assertion, one about mind. The assertion involved should not be mistaken for the concept of mind in pan-psychism. Mind in the pan-psychist formulation is seen as a basic property, a sort of receptivity which explains the interdependency among objects which we observe, but it remains a property. Mind and consciousness are still “about” something, rather than standing alone as things-in-themselves.

A mind which has an independent identity is something else entirely. It is the object of its own intention independent of any comparators – a condition representing intention itself, which is a condition which can be defined, but cannot be described, except in terms of other indescribable (maximal qualities, self-causation, unmoved movement, etc.) Such a mind isn’t necessarily about anything, which, despite our occasional suspicions about some of our fellow travellers, is not a quality we observe in any mind around us, even our own. One could maintain that we suffer from known limitations on our perspective. Fair enough, but it still leaves us standing back at the monolith, facing an object which defies meaningful examination, though we arrive with an additional postulate.

So, the only reasonable claim to be made about the thing-in-itself is, “I feel it must be thus.” This is the proper jumping-off point for atheism, for an assertion has no more inherent validity than its opposite. A claim to intuitive knowledge is not unreasonable (we can make a logical argument based upon it), but it is an audacious claim. Sound explanations can be made without it, if one is prepared to accept a degree of necessary ignorance. The latter would seem the more cautious view, though it might have the appearance of denial to those convinced of the theist claim.

Either way, the advocate is left with an uncertainty beneath them, which is not a tolerable situation for most. So, people work at feeling  justified in their beliefs. The easiest way of achieving a feeling of justification is by expounding on the obvious lunacy of opposing positions. But that tactic is merely a distraction, and one that isn’t good for anyone’s better understanding; it is just good for relieving psychological discomfort. I’m not saying there isn’t anything worth fighting about in the realm of basic religious and philosophical inquiry, just that the things worth fighting about – dogmatism, self-indulgence, tribalism, coercion – are the things most people end up fighting for when they think or talk about basic beliefs.

I Know What You Mean

There are two divine categories: the philosopher’s God and the popular God. The former is an organizing or rationalizing principle. The latter is a Guy in the Sky. There is a defensible position within the set of concepts which make up the philosopher’s God. It is a pretty narrow strip of intellectual territory to hold, and I don’t see that it matters much to claim it, but it is there.

As for the Guy in the Sky, the point of believing in the Guy is not even believing in the Guy. The point is social cohesion, and thus proselytization. It is very hard to ask others to rally around a set of vague principles, but it is easy to ask others to rally around a flag, or a God.

To the same end, various pundits try to reconcile the philosopher’s God with the popular God. Lectures and debates ad nauseum from learned believers like Zacharias, Lennox, Craig, etc. attempt the trick.  As a strategy (both offensive and defensive), the maneuver is completely consistent and coherent.

The actual arguments constituting the maneuver, however, are neither. Because, the Guy in the Sky is above all, a Guy, and the rationalizing principle is a rationalizing principle with a whole raft of properties which are inconsistent with our concept of a person. So, what comes out of these arguments, once all the threads are swept into a pile and sorted out, is just a jumble.

To the preachers and apologists out there: I know what you mean when you toss these arguments out into the ether. I know that you feel obligated to push your flag forward. But please understand why it is never going to work like you want it to (there are lots of flags, at the very least), and please understand why I might occasionally ask you to give it a rest and shut the fuck up.

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Cutting Up an Ox


Ben Sasse fears for our youth.

He is a U.S. Senator, and therefore he is a very busy man with little time to spare for side projects. Yet, so great is his concern for our kids’ predicament, that he has taken the time to write a book about it. It is not a bad book, even if you do not agree with what it says. You will have to trust me (or not) on the exact contents, because, “You may not make this e-book public in any way”, is all I will quote directly from it.

His thesis is laid out in the book’s title, The Vanishing American Adult, and he has summarized the gist of his prescription in the subtitle, Our Coming-of-Age Crisis – and How to Rebuild a Culture of Self-Reliance.

In the text, he depicts a generation afflicted by aimlessness. They have been stunted by coming up in the shade of social media and cultural relativism. Deprived of the harsh choices and bright lessons of social responsibilities and traditional rites of passage, kids have grown passive. They lack the ‘grit’ to sustain our society.

I won’t quibble with his depiction. Social media is a blight. The current generation operates on the assumption that ‘someone will take care of it’. Giving up is always an option for them.

I do disagree with his diagnosis and prescription, however. He seems to think that helplessness and hollowness result from a deficiency of citizenship. The correction would then involve a big shot of citizenship. He is completely mistaken. In fact, emptiness is the natural outcome of citizenship, and helplessness is just a reactive symptom.

On the most basic level, citizenship is a position in which one gets told that one’s life is fungible. One’s time, attention, motivation, and psyche can be chopped up and traded for goods to satisfy certain needs. Of course, Sasse recognizes this situation. He mentions “development of the individual” on a couple of occasions as a worthy pursuit, but only if it is pursued to certain ends (becoming responsible, self-sacrificing, ‘gritty’ – in other words, all those things that make a solid citizen). As far as I can tell, only the ends distinguish healthy developmental activities from selfishness, in Sasse’s estimation. And in a shocking coincidence, healthy ends are those for which the goods of citizenship come in handy.

“Why won’t my blood sugar go down?”

Maybe my analysis is unfair. Sasse contends that we are all a little defective, and our institutions may be a little defective, too. We should not expect a perfect synergy between man and social machine, even though the basic program is sound and actually the best that we can do.

But I hear differently all the time.

“I’m doing all those things that the diabetic educator told me to. I have changed my diet. I am walking every day. I am taking my medications like clockwork. So why is my blood sugar still high?”

This person is in my office every day, wearing a different, outfit, a different ethnicity, or a different gender. Yet they are the same person. They have a sit-down job, or two, in which they spend 40-60 hours per week dealing with an incestuous dataset – something so about itself, whether it is driving a cab or processing claims, that it demands attention to automatisms rather than any  particular skill. To ensure that their attention does not waver, an overseer tracks their activities and rates their efficiency. Their extraneous physiological and psychological functions are regulated by the employer as distractions.

The citizen in my office sleeps 6 hours per night, or less. They drink energy drinks to keep going, and eat foods which the package or the vendor says are healthy, because they haven’t the time or energy to prepare their own food. They are too exhausted to exercise properly.

As a result, they are obese, diabetic and hypertensive. As a result, they now require one of the goods for which they can sub-divide themselves: medical care.

Which brings us to where the defense of citizenship as a natural-born fertilizer for human development, breaks down. The trouble with the whole thing is not the palate of goods on offer, their costs, or the means of valuation. The trouble is the chopping, because the roots of experience (attention, motivation, responsiveness, etc.) can’t be cut up for a purpose, especially for delayed gratification of a specific need. The very notion mistakes the nature of needs and the relationship between our needs and our activities. Here, Sasse may have been better served by spending a little more time reading Nietzsche, and a little less time reading Rousseau and the Bible.

For an organism’s needs can’t really be parsed. The motivations underlying our activities are merely aspects of a single motive which Nietzsche labeled ‘will to power’. Even when we try to perform an isolated act of attention, we feel something about it, our neuro-hormonal system responds to it, and it tires us globally.

But Sasse seems to think there’s a neat way around the problem of dividing the indivisible.

Life on the Farm or 8 Pitches Up?

In the latter half of the book, Sasse talks about how he sent his daughter to work on a ranch. The idea was to teach her how to enjoy work – not any particular task, but work itself. Basically, he sought to teach her how to thrive as an instrument. It’s pretty clever, really.

He explains the strategy in a vignette:

Martin Luther met a man who had just become a Christian and wanted to know how best to serve the Lord. He asked Luther, “How can I be a good servant? What should I do?” He expected Luther to tell him that he should quit his job and become a minister, monk, or missionary.

Luther replied with a question, “What do you do now?

“I’m  cobbler. I make shoes”, the man answered.

“Then make great shoes”, Luther replied, “and sell them at a fair price – to the glory of God.”

In other words, find integrity in being a good instrument. I think the flaw in this reasoning is obvious: Why not make great shoes to the glory of Satan? It’s the devotion part that really matters, right? This notion of the human lost at heart and essentially in search of a set of rails (any rails) undergirds fascism through the ages, and it works superficially, so long as the social venue is stable.

But I took another path with my kids, because I learned more from sitting on a ledge, than I ever did from a job.

We have climbed several long routes together. We have looked up, down, and out from ledges in the middle of those routes and soaked in the lessons: however precarious the position, what falls to us is to pass the water around, check the system, and find our way through the next rope-length of terrain; trust your partners as you trust yourself; no matter how cold, hot, tired or thirsty you are, the beauty of the sky and landscape remain; achievement, i.e. ‘ticking the route’, doesn’t really matter – it is only a means to get you to the ledge.

In taking them on those climbs, my hope was to offer them a way of life which put making a living in perspective, rather than telling them that making a living would put everything in perspective for them.

A different vignette illustrates my point:

     Cook Ding was cutting up an ox for Lord Wenhui. At every touch of his hand, every heave of his shoulder, every move of his feet, every thrust of his knee — zip, zoop! He slithered the knife along with a zing, and all was in perfect rhythm, as though he were performing the Dance of the Mulberry Grove or keeping time to the Jingshou Music.
“Ah, this is marvelous!” said Lord Wenhui. “Imagine skill reaching such heights!”
Cook Ding laid down his knife and replied, “What I care about is the Way [“Dao”], which goes beyond skill. When I first began cutting up oxen, all I could see was the ox itself. After three years I no longer saw the whole ox. And now, now I go at it by spirit and don’t look with my eyes. Perception and understanding have come to a stop and spirit moves where it wants. I go along with the natural makeup, strike in the big hollows, guide the knife through the big openings, and follow things as they are. So I never touch the smallest ligament or tendon, much less a main joint.”
“A good cook changes his knife once a year — because he cuts. A mediocre cook changes his knife once a month — because he hacks. I’ve had this knife of mine for nineteen years and I’ve cut up thousands of oxen with it, and yet the blade is as good as though it had just come from the grindstone. There are spaces between the joints, and the blade of the knife has really no thickness. If you insert what has no thickness into such spaces, then there’s plenty of room — more than enough for the blade to play about it. That’s why after nineteen years the blade of my knife is still as good as when it first came from the grindstone.”
“However, whenever I come to a complicated place, I size up the difficulties, tell myself to watch out and be careful, keep my eyes on what I’m doing, work very slowly, and move the knife with the greatest subtlety, until — flop! the whole thing comes apart like a clod of earth crumbling to the ground. I stand there holding the knife and look all around me, completely satisfied and reluctant to move on, and then I wipe off the knife and put it away.”
“Excellent!” said Lord Wenhui. “I have heard the words of Cook Ding and learned how to nurture life!”
— Zhuangzi, chapter 3 (Watson translation)

I do not see the current generation as sissified hedonists, any more than previous generations. The hypersensitivity, the passivity, the absorption (self and otherwise) all look like symptoms of a bunker mentality. They see what’s in store for them and they don’t like it, but they don’t seem to know how to resist.

A Sasse-type message has gotten through. The citizenry coming of age does think that it must learn to embrace a social role (little worker, little voter, little contributor) wholeheartedly in order to fully mature, and it just can’t bring itself to do so. The instinct is right. Kids growing up in this era are being asked to pursue a sort of faux-maturity which involves merely “giving up childish things”, and the achievement of that state will leave them empty and utterly dependent on a structure which deals with them on the basis of a flawed methodology.

They need a little less Ben Sasse, and a little more Cook Ding, when it comes to advice about how to grow up. Because maturity means dealing with your situation – not just endorsing it – and dealing with it artfully. It means getting over being The Cobbler, The Christian, The Cobbler-Christian, or even The Cook.

In Sasse’s terms, I have laid out the Romantic counter-argument to his Realist argument regarding the nature of the individual’s relationship to civilization. But I reject that characterization to some extent. There isn’t an inherent conflict between the individual and the civilization. We are stuck with our civilization. It lies before us like the carcass of a great ox, and it is just as indifferent.

We get chopped up in our interaction with it, but our own hand is on the knife. And I agree with Ben Sasse here,  maturity is the solution. Not the faux maturity which the senator espouses, which is just a form of selling out, but actual maturity which sets limits and carves its own way, not towards some magical future, but like the cook’s knife, in the present where we all reside.








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Buddy the Blastocyst’s Ensoulment Adventure

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

Let’s set the scene.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is this the end for Buddy’s soul?

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

They just don’t hold together at all.

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

The world is a weird place.



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I Ought to Be Climbing

Today was a climbing day, and I woke up tired. This happens with some regularity, and I have learned not to put too much stock in feelings of early morning fatigue. Like delayed-onset muscle soreness, tiredness is part of life’s Muzak.

I have learned to just get up, move around a bit, and turn off the thought process until the first 8 oz. of coffee get into the moving parts. Then, I can take a breath and figure out what I ought to do. Sometimes, I figure I ought to go climbing, less frequently, I figure I ought not.

I did not go today. There were traffic issues, household chores, homework for the kids, and an empty fridge, all weighing on me. But I could ignore those trivialities if the day looked promising from a climbing standpoint. If I had a good day out, I would return with motivation to spare for shopping, vacuuming, and glaring at a teenager while he did everything in his power to avoid completing an English research project on time.

However, today did not look promising. When I thought about the plan, I could not get my motivation to gel around the climbing which lay in store. Of course, a sort of meta-motivation was there, driving the self-assessment process.

Meta-motivation is part of the Muzak too, and is the explanation for why I actually get up when the alarm goes off, instead of following my tiredness back to sleep.

I can climb on the meta-motivation. I have climbed on the meta-motivation. It depletes itself, though. It relies on ambitions and creates them – getting to the next level of difficulty, getting payback on the route that thwarted me, keeping up or catching up with partners. Leaning on the meta-motives fails to reconcile the day’s motives with their sources in one’s emotional state, severity of muscle fatigue, metabolic state, etc. It works for a while, but the sources will not be ignored forever, and come back around to bite in the form of injuries and burn-out, neither of which can be overcome by ambition.

The day’s motive is the real thing, not the desire to realize plans and ambitions. Too bad it is so slippery. It can be reconciled with its sources in principle, but understanding the depth and relevance of the various sources is tricky.

The climbing-day ritual, in which motives get explored and reconciled with current affairs, is a moral endeavor, of sorts. Through it, I learn what I ought to do, and in a way which cannot be attributed to a calculation of debits and credits, or simple puzzle-solving, in which I just match up pieces of motive and facts at hand.

I think maybe that’s the way it is with all moral endeavors. They aren’t problem-solving with moral facts. All moral evaluations seem to suffer from the troubles of theodicy, if they are factual. The explanation for the existence of evil in a world ruled absolutely by a good God eventually defaults to the relevance of evil in light of God’s (infinite) magnitude. But all things go to zero along that asymptote. So it is with the determination of moral facts. One moral fact may always supersede the next, looking forward, and the qualifications proliferate endlessly in retrospect.

If that’s the case with the pursuit of moral fact, then pursuing moral fact is much like climbing on meta-motivation. The chase will lead to diminishing returns and, finally, to contradictions.




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Curse You Peter Higgs

“Mass was so simple before you. Mass was just a property. Actually it was just a property of having another property: inertia. Inertia was so simple, though. It was just the property of resisting changes in motion.

Of course, we all know what ‘resisting’ means. And, we all know what motion is: d/t. If anyone must ask what distance and time are…well, there is little hope for someone so dim. At least, there is little hope for such a dimwit in physics. Hah! It looks like someone needs a metaphysician!”

The line of thought is a big hit with dualists. Actually, it is the best thing about mind/body dualism, and is why it’s good to have mind/body dualists around. Without them, physicalism grows too complacent.

The physicalist can be forgiven. It seems so obvious what we mean when we say that something is physical. But what does that mean? Is it simply anything that’s the proper business of physics? Is physics itself the proper business of physics?

The question of what makes something physical is actually difficult, even within physics. Take the Higgs field. It is not a ‘thing’; it is not even a ‘property’ of a ‘thing’. It is a property of space. It is a phenomenon which physics considers, but it is really weird, from the perspective of the old extended/unextended divide which Descartes proposed.

Yet we are prepared to accept the Higgs field as something physical, along with apples and atoms. That’s because we have been prepared to accept the physicality of the Higgs field by accepting  the physicality of things like d and t in the Newtonian scheme, as physical. Time and distance are not any less weird – they are strangely malleable, for instance – but they are more easily recognizable as our own phenomena. We experience time and distance, and we are comfortable with the idea that physics is a phenomenology of time and distance.

If we have drilled down to the notion of physics as phenomenology, and understand phenomena as our experience, then the remaining question is: What is our experience? I am not sure there is an all-encompassing answer to that question. Yet I think we can say a few things around the question which are instructive as to the notion of physicality.

At base, our experience is identity, and identity is interdependence. If I am watching an egg roll off the counter and hit the floor, I am the one watching that egg. The rolling egg, among other things, is making me, me. The memories of eggs, dependent upon the shape, color, texture and historical context of my current experience, shape my thoughts and expectations regarding the egg, just as the color, shape and texture of the egg depend upon the impression that the kitchen light delivers to my eyes after it bounces off the rolling egg. That is what the notion of supervenience is getting at: identity is fixed by spatial and temporal history.

And such a thing cannot be ‘transcendent’. It comes with the here and now; (physical) existence has a tense. ‘Tenseless’ existence is a product of reflection and not what we directly experience. Transcendence, in other words, occurs in the storybook, not in the story (else we would never read a story twice).

The trouble with this whole picture is that it looks like a truism. If physicality consists of an interdependent identity which avoids transcendence, then what is left? Ghosts are live possibilities; so are Higgs fields. Of course, that is the point of physicalism. When we look at our experience in total, physicality seems to exhaust all the explanatory possibilities, or at least the ones we could hope to know.



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OK Trump Voters, Grab Them Bootstraps…

…and get ready to start yankin’…Wait, what are they doin’ back there?

Oh, that’s gotta hurt. No lube or nothin’.


From the start of the current fiasco, two possibilities have existed. Either Trump meant that he subscribed to an authoritarian/fascist ideal (women in their proper roles, it’s fine for the state to torture individuals,  the National Identity is fixed and enforceable) or he calculated that enough people wanted to hear the language associated with fascism to get him what he wanted.

If you voted for this guy, you were either moved by that language, or you were willing to accept that language to get what you wanted (fags in their proper roles, enforcement of your religious preferences, suppression of alternative religious preferences, etc. whatever).

I want to be clear: I am not using fascism merely as an epithet. I am referring to its contents. Because fascism is the idea that the individual is feckless and decadent without a guiding star, and that the nation/state is meant to be that star. It is an idea which appeals to fear and weakness, especially fear and weakness caused by weariness. It doesn’t just get enforced from above. It needs the complicity of a large portion of the population.

That’s what the rest of us are pissed at: not Trump in himself, but your complicity.

And now, it is looking like that may be what’s left to be pissed about. Trump is showing some signs that he was delivering a calculated rather than a sincere appeal to fascist sentiments. Realpolitik, as advocated by Gingrich, may have been the program all along.

The Wall, mass deportation, and repeal and replace have been replaced by caveats, preparing the way for …whatever.

The current whatever looks to be folks like Ryan and Pence. These are the dingleberries  on the bung-hole of democracy. Objectivists at heart, their major concern is seeing Social Darwinism work out as they expect. For them, the nation/state is a farce, and an unnatural impediment to the natural forces (for Pence, natural forces ordained by the Lord) which sort the wheat from the chaff.

So get ready, because guess who these guys think are the chaff? It isn’t just black folks, who are obviously responsible for their own sad economic state because they haven’t been capable of working hard enough to transcend a few paltry centuries of enslavement, or illegal immigrants who obviously came here to sack this country by doing all our highly desirable agricultural work and then scurrying back to Mexico to live like kings on their ill-gotten profits.

Listen closely Trump voters, because Pence & Co. are about to tell you that it’s time to bend over, grab your bootstraps, and start yankin’. When you do, something else is going to happen – the same thing that has been happening.

When it happens again, I want you to think back to that Stones’ song that Trump’s campaign kept playing at his rallies: You Can’t Always Get What You Want. Sometimes, though, you don’t even get what you need. Sometimes, you get what you deserve.


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On Hating to Hate Hating on The Hateful Eight

The Hateful Eight is a Western movie by Quentin Tarantino. The title is a reference, if not an homage, to the famous Western, The Magnificent Seven, which is an American take on Kurosawa’s film, Seven Samurai.

Though this post will examine the plot and characters in The Hateful Eight, there is no need for a spoiler alert. Representations of art cannot spoil the experience of art. That is because true art is not didactic. It is about what it depicts  rather than being a diagram, so experiencing the art is everything, and knowing things about how a work of art is put together can never substitute for the experience.

Whether you think The Hateful Eight is good art or bad, it meets the criterion above. The film does not document the Western landscape, rugged individualism, or violence; it is about the Western landscape, rugged individualism and violence. I happen to think it is pretty good art, but I hate it anyway. Let me explain.

In the first part of the movie, we learn about the characters, who are all forthright, tough individualists. They have come West after the Civil War. They have come to be free to be themselves. They have come to be free of their pasts. They have come to get away from the hell of other people.

On  a long stagecoach ride, the rugged individualists recount all the ways in which they have stuck to their principles, no matter the cost. They have been heroes in war and agents of justice afterwards, no matter which side they championed. What matters is that they have championed something, and have served blind justice.

But then, the stagecoach stops at a lonely outpost. The conversation moves indoors. Other people become involved. And in a ugly crescendo, we are shown the consequences of unyielding principle, and an ethic which extolls championing one’s principles as a virtue in itself. The result is scorched earth, and an endless cycle of vengeance chasing death, all sustained by the moral satisfaction which comes of living a principled life.

As the cycle plays out, the Hateful Eight sacrifice others and finally even themselves, a piece at a time, in the name of family bonds, racial justice, legal justice, and cultural allegiance. If the first part of the film invites the audience to share a draught of moral satisfaction with the characters, the second part challenges us to keep on drinking as it all turns to blood.

Because, the narrative doesn’t change as events on screen descend into an orgy of violence. The action is cartoonish, but the actors do not play it tongue in cheek. They do their best to keep it real. Their efforts seem pathetic at first, then sickening, as each side in turn slakes its thirst for justice on the suffering of the other.

At some point, the film invites the viewer to turn away from the escalating grotequerie, and when the viewer does turn away, that’s when the film really becomes art. Because, veering off in disgust is a hypocritical act. The audience hasn’t earned the right to look away. We were just admiring the characters for the very traits which generate the revolting atrocities in the second part of the film.

And haven’t we engaged in the same hypocrisy in real life, whenever we’ve bought into the Western-spirit myth of self reliance, toughness and self- righteousness without acknowledging that that same spirit has just as often  manifested as selfishness, callousness and zealotry? We love Lewis and Clark; we choose to forget Wounded Knee. We admire Custer’s bravery at the Little Bighorn while we stubbornly ignore the intentions which led him to that spot. We buy into the nasty Western contradiction every time we choose to watch a Western movie.

Yet the film’s indictment is flawed. We do turn away, so we can make the distinction between, for instance, Bill Hickok and Emil Reuter. In illustrative contrast, the original film in The Hateful Eight’s family tree recognizes the schism between our moral ideals and our emotional reflexes.

The young samurai who idolizes the leader of the Seven Samurai expects glory and honor from defending innocent villager from a gang of bandits. What he gets, in the course of achieving his victory, is one bitter loss after the next. He finally turns away too, and although he achieves some peace in understanding that the choice to fight is merely one grim option among many, he must also accept that there can be no moral equation which resolves those choices. The last scene questions whether his own choice really is worth it – and if he could even know anymore, having made the choice.

Tarantino’s film points an accusing finger to the same end, but aiming the finger sustains the cycle of judgement and reduction. Sure, it brings us in and makes us feel what it’s really like inside, but it is an oversimplification. It dodges the hard questions which arise in arguments about just wars or the enforcement of human rights. It leaves open the possibility of moral equations.

So, though I hate to say it, I do hate The Hateful Eight. And I hate that that is my inevitable conclusion.



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Poorly Shod

My twin and I share two pair of identical running shoes. One pair is green, the other, gray. The shoes are otherwise indistinguishable. I wear the green shoes exclusively. I have won many races with them, and I consider them lucky.

My twin wears either pair. He cannot tell the difference between the two sets because he is color blind. He runs just as well while wearing the green shoes as he does while wearing the gray shoes.

I flounder in the gray shoes. He can beat me every time if we trade colors, because the duller pair does not recall soaring victories. The gray shoes mean nothing to me.

Though the difference between the shoes is entirely subjective, it is nonetheless real and it is true that the greenness of the shoes means something, even if no one knows it but me.

Now, you can say that I am silly for evaluating the shoes by color. You can say that I’m doing it wrong (if you have a solid alternative to present). But you can’t say that a subjective evaluation, with attendant meaning and minimal truth (and really, what else is there?) inherently fails and is not real necessarily.

Well, I guess you can persist in insisting that subjective evaluations are not real, if you want to branch off into a dispute about what makes something real…

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The Simple Life

Life? Don’t talk to me about Life.

– Marvin the Robot


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

– Encyclopedia Brittanica

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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