Category Archives: Uncategorized

Guess What?

If you believe that your thoughts, feelings, and motives have – or are – explanatory causes, then you are a determinist.

You are also a physicalist.

If you think that God is a person with thoughts, feelings and motives similar to your own, nothing changes. You remain a determinist and a physicalist. God just joins the club.

Welcome.

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Thanks Paul Ryan

I received a gift from the congressman today.  He sent me a survey, or his toadies did. I don’t recall how I got on the NRCC mailing list, but it’s no wonder. After all, I am a white guy with a decent income who has lived most of his life in red, rural America. Who can blame them for assuming that I am one of them?

But I am not one of them, In fact, I am a sworn enemy, and this survey is a perfect example of the reason why I despise those Trump-lovin’ tapeworms.

Really, the survey isn’t a survey at all; it is a push poll. It asks a set of questions designed  to elicit and solidify emotional responses to key terms.

Of course, there is donation request at the end of the thing, and I am pretty sure that enclosed checks are the only pieces of paper which survive “data extraction” to feel the sticky caress of the NRCC toadies.

Anyway, this intellectual hairball must be seen to be believed, so here goes:

Question #2: (I’ll edit out the dry bits) Amnesty is not the correct path for immigration policy.

The possible answers are along a scale from “Strongly agree” (the Right answer) to “Strongly disagree” (the naughty, un-American answer). But what the hell are they talking about? Has anyone proposed amnesty as the path for immigration policy? And what is amnesty anyway – a path to citizenship, a new class of work visas, anything short of a human catapult at the border wall (God bless its steely heart)?

Question #3: The Constitution is not a “living and breathing document.” Its authors had a clear vision that judges must follow.

Huh? Doesn’t every jurist think that they are trying to be faithful to the vision? I guess they mean the Right vision.

Question #6: The IRS needs more oversight from Congress for its extreme targeting of conservative groups.

Speaks for itself. They dropped the pretense at this point.

Question #7: Congress should abolish the death tax that forces our children to pay taxes on their rightful inheritance.

Don Jr. and Eric may pay that tax. My kids will never pay it, nor will the children of anyone I know.

Question #8: The capital gains tax should be reduced to encourage entrepreneurship.

When did you stop beating your wife? Well?

Question #9: Radical Islamic Terrorism (my two cents: They should go ALL CAPS next time. It’s what they want anyway) is the biggest threat we face in the Middle East.

In the Middle East? Nope.

Question #13: Congress should cut Obama-era regulations that have created unnecessary obstacles for people to open and maintain businesses.

Ok, just a couple more, really ripe ones.

Question #17: Welfare recipients should undergo drug testing

To maintain a consistent standard of efficacy, Our Party should also push for funding of weekly prostate biopsies for all its members of congress.

Question #21:  Republicans must reverse Obama’s war on coal that has damaged Ohio.

Ohio? I suspect that Ohio has bigger problems. Don’t they have a Superfund site or two?

Now, politicians have always lied and manipulated to advance their fortunes. But tactics like the mailing above go well beyond manipulation. They are conditioning.

“Bark, drool, and puke up some cash for our sustenance on cue,” they say, “and you get a yummy bit of certainty, a morsel of reassurance, and a warm pat of belonging.”

Thanks, motherfuckers.

 

 

 

 

 

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Here’s the Deal…

…a guy, a-friend-of-a-friend, calls you out of the blue with an offer. He has a formula, deciphered from an ancient Daoist text, which yields an elixir granting immortality. It does so by transforming the imbiber from a creature bound by vulnerable flesh, to one which is pure, unencumbered mind.

The trouble is, he needs someone to try it out. Not because he thinks it might fail or be harmful, he says, but because when it goes to market, he needs to tell his consumers what to expect of the process. His liability carrier demands it.

“Hah,” you think, “What a dope. He hasn’t considered that he will quickly become the only remaining mortal, if this catches on. He’ll be standing there with his buckets of cash and nothing worth buying. Well, the hell if I’m going to be standing there beside him, or risk being trampled in the preceding stampede. I’m getting in on the ground floor!”

So, you take the elixir.

You quickly begin to feel lighter. Your body becomes transparent and then invisible, as you fade to immaterial. You drift with the wind initially, but as your body loses mass, you become immobile. You lose all proprioception – the sense of where you are in space, up and down, heavy and light, tired and energetic.

But, so what? Those phenomena are of no use anymore. If you like, you can remember them. The elixir has granted that as a side effect, if it were not inherently possible. Likewise, your sight – or something like it – has been preserved.

Yet, it is just not the same. It is hard to learn. You thought the novelty had worn off life long ago, but your current position takes ennui to a new level. Phenomena promenade across your consciousness. Your experiences still have a quality to them, but it is a quality marked mostly by where the experiences occur in time.

You realize that you can no longer change the aspectual shape* of an experience. Well, you can a little bit, in your mind. You have always done that, by projecting your expectations onto the world.

However, if a table whizzes by you with the earth’s rotation, you can’t go see the name scratched on its leaf, or associate the scratched name with the oblongness of the particular table.

Soon enough, you stop paying attention to the tables whizzing by. That’s OK; they have become difficult to distinguish from the contents of your memory anyhow.

The potion has begun to fulfill its promise now. Without the tick of a beating heart or the suprachiasmatic metronome, phemomenal time ceases. One experience brings to mind the next in kaleidoscopic procession, like a visual illusion shifting from one interpretation to the other based on reference to the proper associations.

Who knows how long you have lingered on one experience? Who cares? You still have your identity. You remain he who saw a table with something scratched upon it, having consumed a sketchy, friend-of-a-friend’s elixir, and having lost the property of inertia (?). You have kept the good, basic, relevant (to a mind) parts of having a body.

It isn’t over, though.  Presently, you begin to lose track of the phenomenal contents of your experience.

Just as experience formed an amalgam with memory, so does the phenomenon meld with and yield to the qualitative experience which it elicits. This transformation, however, is asymmetrical.

The experience of grass brings to mind grass-green, which raises the feeling of greenness in turn. Here is where all is lost. There is no aspectual shape to greenness. It borrows that from the particular phenomenon which referred it to you. The dirty secret is, so do love and justice and all those other  ethereal concepts which you considered privileged property of the mind.

You may feel like you feel Love in the abstract, but it refers to something. ‘Something’ necessarily stands in relation to you (if only to where you are floating at the moment). Cut the abstraction away from the anchoring intention, and it disperses.

Without the prism of their referents to lend them color, the qualities of your experiences are a diffuse, white light – psychically undifferentiated and ineffectual.

The feeling of greenness calls to mind nothing as it stands alone – and neither do you. You have come to the end of consciousness, the end of embodiment, and the end of yourself.

Back in the world, a sketchy friend-of-a-friend packs up and heads home, disappointed.

“Maybe,” he mutters to himself, “next time.”

 


 

* Aspectual shape means the certain way something looks to you. For instance, how a pole looks long when you stand it on end, and round when you lay it on the ground. In terms of experience, it means that, even if you could turn into a bat for a moment, you still couldn’t know what it’s like to be a bat. Your experience would  necessarily be of what it is like for you to be a bat, not of what it is like for a bat to be a bat

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You Betcha

We’re either all going to Heaven or we ain’t. – Sonny Steele

When the end comes to this old world,

The righteous will cry and the rest will curl up,

And God won’t take the time to sort your ashes from mine,

Because we zig and zag between good and bad,

Stumble and fall on right and wrong,

Because the tumbling dice and the luck of the draw,

Just leads us on. – Dave Lowery

Pascal’ wager is an oft-dismissed argument for belief in God. On the face of it, the wager in question does look pretty silly. It also seems like a real statement on risk assessment, on the face of it. It is neither. Pascal’s wager is an argument about knowledge and its relationship to truth, and by extension, an argument about the potential relevance of belief in God. The bet is this: if we can’t know whether or not God exists, then we might as well believe that it does, because belief in God’s existence is the more consequential option. The wager admits the God-concept only as a possibility. That is, it is something we can construct from our logical conventions in a rudimentary way. Whatever else you may think of God, it is a concept served by conventions like time and location – or at least, their corollaries, and it is a convention itself in cosmology. We experience a world which permits logic and also surprises us. God provides a possible means of describing our experience. The terms of the wager then bypass the question of God’s actual existence, for reasons which will become apparent. The bet turns instead to the question of consequences. What do you stand to gain or lose when you bet on how you talk about what you know? If there is an actual infinite, timelessness or universality, we won’t notice. Nor will we bat an eye over the truth of our more conventional conventions. In physics, we use meters and seconds to tell the story of motion. You may claim that meters are bogus, but I will still see you standing one meter away from me if you stand one meter away from me. You want to say we can’t do without seconds, that they are written into the universe, fine. Time will still seem to pass for us, but not for the tunneling electron. The case remains the same, even when the conventions appear to make the whole story. In painting, brush strokes serve the role of meters and seconds in physics. The Mona Lisa is the Mona Lisa due to the genius of Leonardo’s brush-work. But if you claim that there is no true art without Leonardo’s technique, the fans of pointillism suffer no calamity. All bets on the absolute truth of our conventions are bets with play money. We may feel the effects of the adequacy of our depictions as a whole. An astronaut may be quite concerned that our meters-and-seconds story about motion makes a good prediction. An admirer of the Mona Lisa can make a pretty good case that it is better art than a child’s stick figure. But the meters, seconds and brush strokes themselves, cut from the story and laid on the table? Those are fluff. Go all in with them. Who cares? Those ideas have meaning – are true – locally, in context. We can’t parley them into larger, certain truths.

But the mechanics of the bet are only half the story. Because, Pascal’s Wager can be taken not just as a commentary on our grasp of truth, but as a description of what we actually do. It accuses us of being vulnerable to its appeal. We have the gall to reasonably expect the posited base of all being to consider our existences in a way which is at all comprehensible to us.

If there is a God, he is infinitely incomprehensible, since, having neither parts nor limits, he has no affinity to us. We are incapable of knowing either what he is or if he is…Reason can decide nothing here. – Pascal

Pascal recognized the absurdity of the situation. Yet, with his (very French) apprehension of the absurd, he recognized the license which absurdity grants. Staking a claim on the incomprehensible is just as insane as declaring war upon it. Our hope in God’s grace is absurd, but hope is something to have, as opposed to everything else at issue in his wager. There is something to gain after all. The real problem is: hope is merely a Pollyanna story. It’s the sunny substitute for a more troubling, and more complete, description of a quality which we really need. We can find some clue about the true nature of what hope papers over in hope’s intransigence. We admire the cancer patient’s noble ability to endure horrible treatments in the name of a brighter future which may never come. The same hope has nestled in the hearts of all those who ever proposed a war to end all wars. Somewhere on the edge of a North African desert, a mother loads her infant on her back, takes her small child by the hand, and sets off from her barren village for another country. This person is not motivated by hope. Her situation is too absurd. Her children will die in her hut, or they will die in the desert. What she exhibits is defiance. Her walk is an empty gesture, an expenditure of life with no other reason behind it. The admirers of hope only flirt with the deep truth of human psychology which she has found at the end of all options. Defiance moves us, though we are loathe to acknowledge it. We can’t gussie-up defiance like we can hope. Defiance is not smart, not sublime, and not rational. It is myopic and has teeth. We can’t blame Pascal and his fellow religious adherents for preferring hope when offered it in lieu of the whole truth. But hope is finally an inadequate convention and not something to have. It is arrogant, and brings the errors of arrogance with it. It makes the woman’s walk into the desert quaint. It readies us for the next war to end all wars. So, we must abandon Pascal’s hope. It is not a worthy prize, for it will betray us in the end. In the light of a wider window on ourselves though, there is another bet to make. Either our existence is somehow concordant with some incomprehensible entity or it is not. If it is, then we live in defiance of an eternal other, and incomprehensible, existence which is our final fate. If it is not, then we live in defiance of an incomprehensible judgment. Either way, we carry on as we were, in defiance. Our best bet is that God is irrelevant.

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Obsession (the good, stinky kind)

“This is not the best piece of gear,” he says.

This news is quite disappointing, as the next moves will take him from the relative security of the vertical, flaring cleft in the rock, into the overhanging, flaring cleft. Then the clock will start and he will have to move or quickly find a better piece of gear before his arms are used up and he falls.  He has made about 70 feet in the last hour. I could suggest that he retreat, but as a belayer it is my job to shut up and mind the rope. Besides, it would do no good anyway. He’s been talking about this route, the last in the series of hard routes in the Spires, for two weeks and I know what the weird, faint glow from his pupils indicates and where it originates. I pay out rope, then take it back up without looking, and the clock ticks.

Deep in the brain, just above the automatic stuff humming away to keep us breathing, upright and pointed in the right direction, lies the amygdala. It is an old, buried nodule of gray matter which forms the basis of our original selves. It connects directly to our noses and memory centers, and it generates our most vital, primitive emotions, like fear and aggression. We share its structure and function with almost everything that has a brain.

The amygdala drives a pretty generic set of behaviors: if something jumps you, run away, if something has you by the tail, turn around and bite, then run away. The amygdala doesn’t define a creature.  The cortical Pachinko machine set atop the amygdala characterizes the brain and thus the animal. Stimuli coming in from the outside or up from the inside, bounce around the cortical connections until the raw impulses form a story a creature can use to elaborate on the basic run/bite reflex.

For some animals – whitetail deer, conservative politicians and religious fundamentalists for example – the story serves the fear. Neurosis, phobia and avoidance result. For other animals, the story reworks the fear into an aggressive fascination. As a result, monkeys will follow a cobra, a badger will pursue and attack a coyote, and a climber will feel drawn to the climbs that make him wake in a cold sweat . This is obsession, and it is happening at the other end of the rope.

As he climbs well past the bad protection to a good stance, I can hear other climbers in the valley drinking beer and laughing just a few feet away. My stomach hurts and my palms are damp on the rope. I surreptitiously untie from the anchor. I’m sitting on a ledge, and I can decrease the length of the leader’s fall if I jump off, though the forces on the protection may be higher if I get it wrong. The risk has become worthwhile.

He tries to step out onto the last traverse to a bolt. He comes back to the stance. The process repeats itself five times. Another hour passes; I can’t imagine what his toes must feel like now, crammed in climbing shoes and perched on dime-sized crystals for all this time. Finally, he finds the right sequence of holds and steps out. He clips the bolt. It’s still a fight to make the anchors, but the stakes have gone down and he is able to move more quickly.

The route takes about twenty-five minutes to follow on top-rope.

As I reach the anchor I tell him, “Nice lead.”

He isn’t happy, he’s just done. His amygdala is switched off and he is through with the obsession. It is not a bad feeling, but it is different from relieved or satisfied or happy. Language just hasn’t bothered to find a word for it, because it isn’t normal.

Packing up at the base, I begin to think about the run-out on Nantucket Sleighride. It is such a good route.

Ring Around the Tower

After a week in the flatlands and another week of catch -up, it was time for a tune-up. Rich was agreeable, so we started on the West Face and chased the shade on moderate classics. Here’s the program: First pitch of El Matador, 5.8, First pitch of McCarthy West Face, 5.9+,

Climbers on the second pitch of McCarthy West, upper first pitch is the crack to the belayer’s left

First pitch of Carol’s Crack, 5.10a,

Carol’s Crack pitch #1

New Wave, 5.7 and 5.10a (we link the pitches – they’re pretty short),

New Wave

Assembly Line, 5.9.

Jedi Master Frank S. and client getting ready for the finger crack start to Assembly Line

Frank on Assembly Line

There are many others, Rangers Are People, 5.9, Mystic and the Mulchers, 5.8, Soler, 5.9, El Cracko Diablo, 5.8, First pitch of McCarthy North Face, 5.8, etc. If you plan to visit Devils Tower, consider these routes rather than insisting on a miserable experience on Durrance. You won’t get to the top, but then again, the top really isn’t that interesting.

Not to Be Missed

So many climbs in the Needles merit this description. Here are two of them.

Looking up at the Cathedral Spires from the hairpin curves on the Needles Highway, one spire stands out. With its horns on top and sheer yellow sides,  Khayyam represents the Needles. It looks like a place for the bold and the elite only, but tucked away on the Northwest corner is a moderate gem: God’s Own Drunk.

The climb is two pitches, but the second is not of the same quality as the first, and is done infrequently.

It starts with a dicey bit up an arête. A key pink tricam placement makes this section much less dangerous.

 

The climb continues up a crack in the corner to a belay out of sight on the right at the second set of  ledges. The pitch is long; the rap takes two ropes.

Starting the business on Hang a Right

Spire Four is known for its easy classic route on the West face. The real prize is on the other side. Hang a Right on Fourth Ave. starts in a corner on the South side of the spire. “It’s all there,” Rich likes to say. True, but it’s all steep and reversing the moves, at some points, would be desperate. Both pitches have everything, from thin face climbing, to lie-backs, to off-width. At .10b (if you’ve done a lot of Needles climbing), it’s not to be missed. Five and six Camalots will be necessary for safe passage.

Second pitch

The Three Most Commonly Heard Lies…

…in Wyoming: “Yes neighbor, my pick-up truck is paid-for.”, “Yes darlin’, I won my belt-buckle in the rodeo.”, “Yes sir officer, I was just trying to help that ewe back over the fence.”.

Like any terra incognita, Wyoming has accumulated quite a bit of mythology. Mythology should be debunked, but it is notoriously resistant to fact. So even though Wyoming is not just rednecks and national parks, I know that I can’t prove that with data. Gestalt is the remedy. Here is the feel of the place – the good and the bad.

The Good

  • The Weather: Much of the state is arid or semi-arid and above four thousand feet. The sun shines a lot. In the Summer, even if the day is hot, the night will be cool. Because the humidity is very low, sweating works. By the same token, low Winter temperatures often prove much more tolerable than the thermometer alone might imply, due to the sun’s warmth and the dry air.
  • sandstone

     

  • Geology: Uplift, sedimentation, erosion, volcanism – Wyoming has it all. Many states have mountains, but none have the sheer profusion of geological features and types of rock found in Wyoming.

 

 

 

 

  • Self-sufficiency: A state economy based on mineral extraction and agriculture, sparse population and dearth of urban amenities have bred a powerful streak of self-sufficiency into the inhabitants of Wyoming. This quality leads to a breadth of experience in the populace, with an attendant measure of curiosity. Self-sufficiency also makes for humility and an appreciation for the knowledge of others. Nothing shows a person their limits and cultivates a taste for learned advice more than mandatory DIY. Being far from help makes one value help and be willing to lend it too. It’s rare to see a single car with its hazards on by the roadside in Wyoming.

 

 

 

  • Critters: Deer, Bighorn Sheep, Moose, Elk, Wolves, Mountain Lions, Bison, Antelope – you get to see them all, up close and personal.

 

The Bad

 

 

 

 

  • The Weather: Sometimes the place catches fire. Wind is considered a natural resource. Remember the line from the song Oh Suzanna, “…the sun’s so hot I froze to death…” ? Wyoming is  the place that makes sense of that line. The snow forms ten foot drifts as hard as concrete and the snowpack is often a thin crust over bottomless depth hoar. There are frequent ‘ground blizzards’, with blue sky above but impenetrable white in every other direction.

 

 

 

 

 

  • Geology: Unfortunately, geology translates to geography. Monumental forces make for monumental obstacles – expansive basins and high, jagged mountain ranges. A short drive is anything less than 400 miles. A short walk is anything less than 6 miles.

 

 

 

 

  • Self-sufficiency: The habits of self-sufficiency lead to a surfeit of caution and a preference for ‘good enough’. Enterprises are frequently one-of affairs. The atmosphere is friendly for extractive industries and Republican politicians, as it is in third world countries everywhere. Witness the number of ghost towns in the state.
  • Critters: Deer, Bighorn Sheep, Moose, Elk, Wolves, Mountain Lions, Bison, Antelope – you get to see them all, up close and personal. Don’t feed the dog outside. Keep the collision insurance on your car. Buy an orange hat and a can of bear spray.

There it is.

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Salvage

After seriously Scottish weather for most of the week, the hills shrugged it off for a few hours and let us get up to the Cathedral spires for a couple of routes before the afternoon storms pushed in again.

Superstition on Station 13. I had to stop a couple of times on lead to let the wind die down.

Cat’s Meow, the oldest school 5.9.

It doesn’t look that overhanging standing at the base!

Uncertainty

Uncertainty gets treated as a negative term, but it is our ground state. Learning to act in its presence is one of the most important things a person can do. Most simply choose to ignore or even deny it, resulting in random behavior. Lucky for us, homeostatic mechanisms permeate and surround us, so we tend to ping back and forth in a general direction and, with a little cognitive dissonance, we can even make a case for purposeful human behavior. How pervasive is our uncertainty, though, and how much does it matter?

Is a V-8 sitting on a desk an engine or a paper weight? How about a V-8 made of polystyrene? If you touch the engine, and take it apart, and you know something about engines, you will be able to make a good guess about whether or not it runs, and is thus an engine. If you don’t know much about engines, you might not be able to make as good a guess. All you could say is that the polystyrene engine is probably a paperweight and the metal one might not be. Imagine if you had never seen an engine of any sort before. Would analysis help you? If allowed unlimited resources and time, you could track the parts, shapes and relationships back to common origins. You could, in theory, reinvent the engine and then you could know with some certainty whether or not the example in front of you would run.  

How about a more difficult case? Most people would agree that  brain with no ‘stuff’ in it is not a mind, but is it, in that case, even a brain? How can you know? Without watching it work, the requisite process of reduction to determine whether or not the empty, static brain could work is daunting. In fact, it is reasonable only as a thought experiment and finally amounts to saying only that everything is made of the same, interconnected thing – a very, very important conclusion, but redundant.

The way out of the resulting tautology is conceptual. Concepts like mind are vague and squishy. So much so that they may be mistaken for an epiphenomenon called epiphenomena. But they delimit the reduction and account for the temporal element of our experience. We will always have to watch things in motion to make sense of them and our sense will always be fuzzy and incomplete, though we can endlessly refine it through analysis. We’re just lucky that way, too.