Category Archives: psychology

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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The One Brute Fact

Even naming a brute fact, a Brute Fact, is the beginning of a mistake, but it can’t be helped.

Before I open my eyes, I am groping toward a mood. Some say that my mood will be nonintentional – that it will not be about something.

I disagree.

My mood will not have content, but it will stand in relation to something, in this case my unawareness at first, and then my time and place, and then where I left off before sleep. This ‘standing in relation’ – orientation in it’s most basic sense – is everything.

It is the bone of intention – the ‘aboutness’ itself, rather than the analysis of an intentional relation. It comes with consciousness and is not really distinguishable from consciousness. Logic (and its mathematical adjunct) models it, by permission.

Immediately, it yields identity and explanatory reduction. Further out, it leads to categories and theories. All this is natural to us, and renders meaningless terms like ‘supernatural’ and ‘separate mental substance’.

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Rabbit Holes

I have looked at the little wall for a couple of years in a slightly creepy way. The pathology  was reflected in the looks on my sons’ faces as they stood with me at the base of the cliff, and in the way that they looked away when I finally broke long, silent stares at the thin crack in the sandstone tower. Their expressions were familiar to me from my rotations on the psychiatric wards. The nurses looked at new admissions with the same expression right before noting in the record, “Patient appears to be responding to internal stimuli”. A person with that phrase recorded in their chart inevitably received an antipsychotic medication.

But, the boundary between dream and delusion is an eggshell composed of success, and I might just be able to climb this, after months of driving back and forth, writing a script composed of all the little holds and moves, dangling on a top-rope cursing, and route-specific training. All of these things are expected. I have done all of them before, with every project that I have done, just as I have sworn off projects after all of my other projects.

I fully expect to swear off projects after this project as well, even though I have been eyeing another route at the other end of the crack-width spectrum for several years, and with the same unhealthy obsession . The rejection of projecting at the end of each project results from an incremental increase in the sanity quotient which comes from terminating the effort. To be clear, I am not saying that anyone who engages in projecting is banking up mental health; quite the opposite.

To start considering a route on the edge of one’s ability, one first must feel a little bored and unmoored. One must ask oneself, “What am I doing with all this? Where am I at? What else is there?” before the darker ambitions can take over. The desire to take on a maximally uncertain climb is a mark of deterioration. The only enduring benefit may be a touch of healthy fatalism. A person taking on a project won’t help himself because he can’t. It is part of the lifecycle, which rolls on with or without our acceptance. Amor fati, or not, the route may go…

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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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The Takeaway

One: Special K says that he understands his opponents’ viewpoint. He has been a Machiavellian political operative too. And he has been, apparently without regret.

Two: Kavi argues that he is being assaulted where he stands, while he vies for a position of prestige and power. The implication is clear. The position is his by right, and part of the ground upon which he stands.

The latter attitude is consistent with the attitude of Kavi’s sponsor, and it is the attitude which summarily defines them both as little bitches.

That’s the takeaway.


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I have to confess; I climb at a gym. I could dress it up and say that I train at a gym, but that would not quite be true. I climb the routes sometimes.

At my last gym session, I was just about to indulge in that guilty pleasure when I overheard something which totally gasted my flabber. A woman had clipped into the autobelay  on a steep section of wall and struggled up a few feet before auto-trundling*.

As she swung to the padded floor, her husband walked by with their toddler in his arms.

“Did you lose already?”, he asked.

“Lose?”, I thought, “You don’t lose at climbing.”

In the first place, climbing is never over.

In the second place, I can’t see what would constitute losing, short of just not trying at all. Everybody falls. Every steel-tendoned youngster runs up against something they can’t climb. Even the best can die in the mountains, and to think that even such an extreme endpoint defines losing at climbing is a subtle reversal.

Climbing is instrumental, and it is the finest instrument in my book. Think of it like a Stradivarius. A Strad. is worth a lot of money. Investors will bid on a Strad. and brag about owning one. But the violin still gets played, and the day that it gets locked in a vault as a chit is the first day of loss, because the violinist is the one who really possesses the instrument, while the investor is a mere parasite upon it.

There will be a gold medal for climbing soon. There are already prizes, sponsorships, grades and bragging rights for climbing. Some will take all those trappings seriously. However, we should not take those people, or their trappings seriously.

There is no loss in climbing.

  • Auto-trundling – as opposed to cleanly popping off the route and subsequently orienting oneself in mid-air, to auto-trundle is to disengage from the holds in a disjointed fashion, resulting in a tumble which closely resembles a loose rock rolling down a hill.


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That Moment


Every climber starts out believing in their own invulnerability. Death and injury happen to other people, because they are fools, suckers, or just don’t have the luck, like you do. Believing oneself impervious comes in very handy, especially during the formative years. In that era, every risk and critical action is still new.


The other ‘O.S’ route, North Ridge of the Grand Teton

You will take big run-outs whether you plan on it or not. You will make potentially fatal mistakes along the way. If you think nothing bad will happen to you, then you will march on past those moments of critical danger and learn the game. Of course, other outcomes are possible. Some people get the chop during the formative era. Some get bored with their apparently inevitable success and abandon the sport.

For everyone who sticks with it, there comes a moment when the belief in one’s invulnerability gets wiped away. For me, it was watching people die, and nearly being killed by the falling bodies. After that, there was no wishing my way back to the last age, where it couldn’t happen to me, no matter how convenient such a wishful belief may have been.

We can’t pick and choose what we believe in the end. No matter what, those moments come to spoil the utility of our delusions. Yet after the disappointment fades, you begin to understand: what you do after those moments is what really matters.



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The Age of the Toilet Ant

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I  shifted on the cot, but I could not find a dry spot. It was soaked through with sweat, and the time was only 2 PM. The temperature would remain above 100 degrees F until well after 5 in the evening. Maybe the next time I took a vacation from the desert, I would not just go to another desert.


I got up to go to the outhouse. The pit in this campground was exceptional. Surrounded by a wooden screen and open to the sky, it still cloaked itself in an invisible cloud of stench despite maximum ventilation, and it had ants. They swarmed over it, through it and across anyone with a need to approach their shrine.

I’d spent the last few evenings before the trip watching “Dirtbag: The Legend of Fred Beckey”. Ants had crawled over Fred, I’m sure, as he slept in the dirt by his car. The fact provided some sense of justification.

Brushing a few stragglers from my leg, I stumbled back to the tent. Immobilized on my back, I stared at the mosquito mesh overhead and waited for dark. Events of the morning bubbled through the broth of afternoon sensations. There was something about a disappointing performance on a climb below my level (supposedly). An awkward high-step on a fist-jam figured prominently. I recalled the extraordinary feeling that I did not have enough #4 Camalots. My knee and elbow hurt.

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Jeeps trundled through my fever-dream every few minutes, on their daily migration back to Moab. The campground lay very close to the road, and the grinding of their tires and engines echoed off the red sandstone cliff which stood 20 paces behind our tent. An inevitable bump-bump of music accompanied the Jeep sounds, to placate the humans who clung to the great beasts. They passed with a slight weave and steady speed, suggesting instinctive movement.

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The sun finally set, the air cooled, and my brain began to solidify again. Thoughts picked up where they left off: on the subject of “Dirtbag”. Fred did not consider himself a dirtbag, and he offered one piece of evidence for his position: he always had a car.

And why do you worry about clothes? See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these.

Those verses set Western expectations of the wandering, mendicant seeker. It was a romantic vision, and a wrong one. Beneath every seeker lurks an offering plate, an alms bowl, a trust fund, or a pink Thunderbird. Even the originator of the myth waffled on its purity, since he qualified the key verse with assurances of heavenly treasures and even a Creflo Dollar wink and nod toward earthly rewards.

I got up to walk around the campground. The little brown bats were out flipping and twisting after invisible bugs. All lower mammals hew to a lived aesthetic.


The next morning we chose a shady canyon as our climbing venue. We had done the approach walk the day before, after the hot wind had chased us away from the other crag. It looked good, but I had failed to accurately assess the aspect of the climbs. The sun shone full on our perfect hand crack. After an adequate fit of denial, we turned around and marched back down the lovely canyon to flop on sweaty cots through the heat of the day.

I woke to the sound of a light slap against the tent wall. A quiet curse from my son followed. It was dark , and the propane lantern was burning. He crouched over a large beetle lying on its back by the tent door. Ants swarmed over the bug. They bit its legs, locked their mandibles and then the ants attached to the legs were bitten by other ants in the swarm, forming a rude shackle.

My son flipped the beetle upright and it flew off. But it circled back, then hit the tent, and landed right back where it had been. After a few more rescue attempts to the same end, my son stood up and shook his head in disgust. In the morning, the toilet ants had gone back to their regular haunts and the beetle lay where they had abandoned it. The ants had left the body completely intact.


In “Dirtbag”, someone asks Fred, “Is there one thing that you have come to value above all else?”

Fred answers, “[To] Stay alive.”

Wowbagger The Infinitely Prolonged was – indeed, is- one of the Universe’s very small number of immortal beings.
Most of those who are born immortal instinctively know how to cope with it, but Wowbagger was not one of them. Indeed, he had come to hate them, the load of serene bastards. He had his immortality inadvertantly thrust upon him by an unfortunate accident with an irrational particle accelerator, a liquid lunch, and a pair of rubber bands. The precise details are not important because no one has ever managed to duplicate the exact circumstances under which it happened, and many people have ended up looking very silly, or dead, or both, trying.
To begin with it was fun, he had a ball, living dangerously, taking risks, cleaning up on high-yield long-term investments, and just generally outliving the hell out of everybody.
In the end, it was Sunday afternoons he couldn’t cope with, and that terrible listlessness that starts to set in at about 2:55 when you know you’ve taken all the baths you can usefully take that day, that however hard you stare at any given paragraph in the newspaper you will never actually read it, or use the revolutionary new pruning technique it describes, and that as you stare at the clock the hands will move relentlessly on to four o’clock, and you will enter the Long Dark Teatime of the Soul.

-Douglas Adams

Fred didn’t act like he simply wanted to stay alive. The toilet ants were about staying alive, and its byproducts. His behavior was more like the beetle’s, or even the bats’, though he could never quite achieve the lived aesthetic. But that’s beyond us all.


Leaving the beetle incident behind us, we returned to the shady crag. The early morning was dead quiet, so the clack of falling rock startled us. We paused in the middle of the approach slope to look for the source of the rolling rocks. It seemed like the noise came from across the dirt road on the bottom of the canyon, but the echoes made localization difficult. The clatter came again, accompanied by a flash of movement on the opposite slope. A running herd of desert bighorns popped out of the rocks, then halted and vanished just as suddenly.

We watched them pull that trick a few more times over the course of the morning. A jeep or SUV would pass on the road and the sheep would dash up the slope for a few seconds, then stop and disappear. A few of the SUV drivers hit their brakes and jumped out with binoculars and cameras, only to be disappointed. They scanned for the invisible sheep briefly before grudgingly climbing back into their cars. None of the jeeps stopped.

I don’t think that they could hear the sheep running over their tires and soundtracks. And also, I don’t think they were about sightseeing in the first place. Rental jeeping seemed to be about crushing a strip of already well-crushed earth beneath one’s knobby tires, rather than viewing the natural wonders.


Right on schedule, like we had opened to oven to check on a batch of cookies, the 11 AM breeze hit us. I was vacillating at the base of a nice finger crack at the time, and the puff of heat swept a way my angst. We were done.


Fred Becky was dead. The bats could stay. We had to go back to the tailgating world  where people ate to eat and drove too fast to nowhere. As we packed up, I took one more look at the dead beetle. I though about kicking some dirt over the body, but it didn’t seem right. I left it as it lay, and without an ant in sight.

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A Quick Defense of Fideism

First, consider the alternative: natural theology. It is a failure on two levels. On a technical basis, all the arguments which constitute natural theology rest upon a claim that God can be known in the same way that we know any subject of our experience. No matter how clever the argument, the basic  premise saddles a natural deity with some very limiting baggage – like an appointment book of times and places where the deity must be, with the associated activities and relationships. And, if the deity is the sort of fellow who can have an appointment book, then It is not the sort of fellow who can have all the limitless characteristics(?) which make a deity interesting.

Which leads to the level two problem: the arguments of natural theology lead to a deity who is completely uninteresting. Let’s say that someone came up with a cosmological argument which made sense, for instance. God is left with some familiar questions. It can’t tell anything about the source of Its motive by examining It’s creative act. It can’t say why It woke on our day #1 with the thought of creation in Its mind, any more than I can say why I looked at the ceiling fan when I opened my eyes this morning*. We are left with a God who is a guy. It’s a very powerful guy, but one who is in the same metaphysical boat as we are.

Two arguments are typically advanced to remedy the above situation. Let’s call them the Springboard argument and the Aspect argument. In the Springboard, we creep to the edge of an explanatory plank (think Aquinas’ contingency argument) and then launch to a conclusion by inference. For instance, the conclusion that, because we can’t abide an infinite regress of contingent causes, there must be a non-contingent cause at the source of causation.

In the Aspect argument, we are told that we may discover aspects of the deity by analysis of our experience, but that we should not expect to see Its whole structure due to our own limitations, though that structure is implied in the aspects.

The trouble is, neither of these arguments offer any explanation of what is in their remainders – the unexplained parts. In the Springboard, the remainders are things like an explanation of non-contingent causality. In the Aspect, the remainders are relations between things like intentionality and aseity or omnipresence. In other words, there is no account, in either the Springboard or the Aspect arguments, of the things lost in the guy-God conclusions of natural theology.

Implications are fine, but in the end, we need to be able to say what is implied, or we have gotten nowhere. Both the Springboard and the Aspect fail to give such an account, and we can see in their shared mode of failure, that they are actually the same argument. To understand an aspect of something which is unlimited and fully extant, is to understand nothing about “it”. To leap into an inexplicable conclusion, is to leap into the void.

But we are faced with voids no matter which way we turn. There are situations where we can’t climb out of our own skins (to borrow a phrase from Dr. Blackburn) to look into our own motives or the intelligibility of our experience. In those cases, no beliefs are possible, but assertions are as good as a shrug and a shake of the head.

So, if you feel that there must be something rather than nothing, nothing is stopping you. There.

*I can give a reductive explanation for what motivated me to look at the ceiling fan, but then I must explain my motive for reducing and explaining, and so on and so on…the motives seem to come first.

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The Sad Side of the Road

Being awake is swimming around in a lake of the undead.

And the undead are like a bunch of friends who demand constant attention.

Demanding constant attention, will only  lead to attention,

And once they have that attention, they’ll use it to ask for attention…

They Might Be Giants

The white truck was about a foot from our bumper. I looked in the mirror at the pick-up trucker. He wore mirrored aviators and had his head cocked in an expression of bored annoyance which only the rich white folks can pull off. I gave it right back, followed by the finger.

Over in the driver’s seat, my son was oblivious to the exchange. He was too gripped. He was driving the freeway for maybe the third time ever, and had shifted into survival mode on the entrance ramp. The truck pulled out and blew past us. At least he passed on the left. As the truck cleared our flank, I glanced around its tailgate at the Eastbound lanes.

On a Tuesday morning at 0630, the Eastbound side was the sad side of the road. Thousands of people parked in the lanes, distracting themselves with cell phones, the condescending humor and invective of AM radio, or their own expressions of hatred towards the filthy slacker stalling traffic in front of them. I wondered, as I had countless mornings before: Where were they all going?

Most were off to willingly trade their lives for money. Some were probably going to try to game the system, like us. Maybe they played ball in a league, or played a musical instrument, or read books and then thought about what they read. I was pretty sure that the gamers were a tiny minority. If there were lots of those people, then the sad side of the road would not exist in the first place.

I had thought about the sad side of the road on many mornings, as I drove to work. I rarely got to see things from the passenger’s seat though, and that Tuesday morning, from the passenger’s seat, I began to consider my own side of the road, too.  I wondered where the jackass in the truck was going. He was in a hurry, so he was going to cash in somewhere.

Maybe he was going to buy a ride on one of the hot air balloons which hovered above the dirty thermocline in the near Northern suburbs. I could see a couple from the freeway at 0630 on a Tuesday morning. The trucker seemed like the sort who would enjoy a balloon ride. He seemed ambitious, and looking down on the anthill from just above its pollution was good for the ambitious, especially if it was just a peek, and a costly enough peek to exclude the losers.

I knew where we were going. We were headed for Sedona, to climb a sandstone pinnacle. It was a traditional climb, which means I had to carry and place removable anchor pieces on my way up. I preferred traditional climbing to sport climbing, where the routes were protected by in situ anchor bolts.

I preferred traditional climbing because it got right to the point. Helmuth von Moltke the Elder was right: No plan survives contact with the enemy. In climbing, we sought to verify the corollary to that bit of Prussian wisdom: If you wanted to live, you couldn’t defer or hold back. You could not buy your way through. No faking allowed. When you placed your own gear, the corollary was on you right away. If you clipped bolts, it didn’t hit until you maxed out.

When I glanced back over at my son, he looked a little more relaxed. He had picked up driving quickly. I had tried to work on strategy with him. I hoped that he would continue to drive defensively and remain focused once the operational routines of driving became automatic. I hoped that he would not end up like the trucker. Even just being a gamer was better than that.DSC00084

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