Tag Archives: biology

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 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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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Cult of the Range-Fed Turtles

When my best childhood friend grew up, he decided to become an archaeologist. During his graduate training, he was in charge of  a dig in the Mississippi river valley which unearthed an odd structure. In the midst of the native people’s dwellings, was found a circular enclosure made of closely spaced wooden posts and containing a large pile of turtle shells. The undergraduates were eager to speculate about the purpose of the structure, but my friend cautioned them against it.

“We can’t be sure of its use,” he said”, and we can’t just guess based on what we might use an enclosure like that for today. We can’t just assume they were running a turtle ranch here. Why would they do that with a river full of turtles just a quarter-mile away? We have to put it in context of the surrounding village and the environment of the time, look for other examples and see if there are any modern structural analogs. Then we can make a guess, but it will still just be a guess.”

The next day the professor in charge of the dig came around on a rare site visit to see how things were proceeding. The students were eager to show him the mysterious ring of posts with its pile of shells.

Upon seeing their find, the professor remarked without hesitation, “Huh, must have been a turtle pen,” and promptly resumed his walking tour of the dig.

I don’t know if archaeology has an excuse for this kind of thinking, but medicine does:

Life is short. The art is long. Experience is difficult.

– Hippocrates

We can be forgiven for resorting to teleological assumptions now and again in medicine. With limited time and incomplete information, we must sometimes act on hypotheses which attribute function to structure and purpose to processes. Lucky for us, there’s plenty of slop in the system, so even if we’re wrong at the start, we usually get a second chance. We are trying to get away from teleology, though. “Evidence based medicine” and “scientific medicine” are the names that we have given that effort.

We are trying to get away from teleology because we have been burned by it. We thought that the body made pus to fight off bacterial infections, so for years, when we saw people with respiratory illness cough up phlegm with pus in it, we gave them antibacterial medications. We were wrong, not just about the purpose of pus, but in attributing a purpose to pus. Again, it was an understandable mistake, given the long history of debate regarding the merits of pus. Was it a good sign, or a bad one? Should we encourage or discourage its formation? It turns out we shouldn’t have been focusing on the pus at all, but on    the outcome of our purposeful intervention in the underlying process that produces the pus.

Purposeful results and final causes apply prospectively to human endeavors alone, and even there it’s often difficult to tell whether, when our actions are associated with the desired result, the outcome is due to our actions or simply due to fortuitous circumstances. Applied retrospectively or to processes and structures beyond our control, teleology is a sure mistake.

When we assign an endpoint to a process, we presume causation and correlation must be proven. Humans are notoriously bad at that. In systems which we can’t duplicate or control, we can always tell a causal story (I’m looking at you evolutionary psychology, intelligent design, cosmological fine tuning). But those stories are just interesting rationalizations, sharing the merits of a fairy tale in that they reveal more about us than the subject matter. Our fairy tales are harmless when they are about the universe, the origin of life, turtle ranches or anything else beyond our control. When we tell teleological stories about processes we do seek to influence (and can) we court tragedy.

The practice of bleeding was based on one such tale: the story of homeostasis. We still tell it today, but we tell it as metaphor instead of fact. The story is based on the simple observation that, when a person becomes ill, they go through a series of changes in their physical state which ultimately ends in either the restoration of their previous state, or death. Having observed other systems, the Greeks thought that the process of illness looked like a disequilibrium. Having observed associated changes in fluids which emanated from the body, they attributed the disequilibrium to an imbalance in those fluids. We can hardly blame them for the limits of their observations. We can’t fault their hypothesis. However, we can fault their method.

They didn’t just postulate an imbalance in the humors as a cause of illness, they presumed a balance of the humors as a state the body sought. The difference in these two points of view is subtle, but crucial. If  the balance of fluids is seen as descriptive  then restoring health by balancing the fluids remains a working hypothesis. It admits that other factors may determine the observed equilibrium. It leaves open the possibility that the observed flux of humors is a secondary phenomenon. Most important, it leaves physiologic equilibrium as a simple description, instead of presuming that it is a purpose with causal powers.

Given a description and a working hypothesis, physicians would look at their efforts to balance a patient’s humors with a critical eye. As a teleological assumption, with equilibrium as a “final cause” under Aristotle’s system, the idea creates an entirely different viewpoint. With  humoral balance rooted in the body’s design, variances in expected observations must be due to inadequate methods or incomplete knowledge of the humors. For this version of the “balancing the humors” hypothesis, failure is not an option.

Now, the ancient Greeks may have weathered this kind of assumption better than their heirs. They loved to fight with each other. In the face of inconsistent outcomes from humor-balancing interventions, they were likely to call Aristotle and Hippocrates idiots or just ignore the under-girding theory of causes altogether in favor of their own pet theory. Definitive statements naturally took a healthy beating in the Greeks’ intellectual environment. The Romans, and the Europeans who came after them, were much more pious.

As a result, no one questioned the teleological assumption, out of reverence for its sources, and the vital fluids persisted in medical thought owing largely to the idea of homeostasis by design. No matter how apparent the flaws in our understanding of the blood, bile and phlegm, they were somehow attached to the homeostatic goal of the body. As long as physicians saw that equilibrium as the body’s goal, they could reconcile any discrepant observations with the over-arching story and persist in practices such as bleeding. It fell to investigators outside of the medical profession to discover the secondary nature of the humors. Only then did the practices aimed at balancing the fluids truly begin to fade.

But long after bleeding and the balance of fluids fell by the wayside, the tale of homeostatic purpose continued to plague medical science. Physicians continued to view physiology as directed toward an end. For example  the heart was seen not to pump blood, but to be a pump. Therefore, medical students were instructed to never administer medications called beta-blockers to patients with heart failure.

Beta-blockers stick to proteins in the membranes of  heart cells called beta receptors, which normally bind adrenaline. Via the beta receptor proteins, adrenaline stimulates the heart to pump faster and with more force. In heart failure, the heart can’t contract forcefully or fast enough to keep up with the volume of blood returning to it from the veins. If the heart is a purpose-built pump, beta blockers should be anathema in the setting of heart failure. But in reality, when given to stabilized heart failure patients, beta blockers reduce long-term mortality by about one-third.

We don’t yet know exactly how these medicines achieve such a feat. We do know why they are not inevitably detrimental in heart failure. It is because the heart pumps, but it is not a purpose-built pump. The heart is instead a group of cells which inhabits a specialized niche in a system of many cells all with complimentary and competing characteristics, existing in a state of equilibrium which, in deference to tradition, we call homeostasis.

Our physiology doesn’t try to maintain homeostasis any more than erosion tries to form a natural arch. The arch forms (rather than crumbling like the sides of a stream-bed) because it is geometrically stable given the geology. The arch persists because it is geometrically stable, and so we frequently see natural arches where the climate and geology allow. Nobody marvels at this, speculating about a conspiracy between sandstone and weather patterns. Then again, few people have an emotional stake in natural arches. The same is true of our physiology, minus the low stakes. There is no overall homeostasis sensor or hormone in the body. There is no homeostasis conspiracy.

So, we have abandoned the notion of purpose in physiology, and that simple maneuver has allowed us to discover things like the survival benefit which beta blockers produce in heart failure. This move is the principle behind the randomized, controlled clinical trial. All along, it wasn’t ignorance holding us back, but the project of rationalizing our knowledge to traditionally understood, teleological models.

Of course, the questions driving evidence based medicine don’t start from nowhere. Scientific medicine asks questions based on the results of previous investigations and hypotheses derived from basic science discoveries regarding the components of physiology and their relationships. Some of these hypotheses are even most easily stated in terms of purpose. But those statements are now understood as metaphor, rather than bare fact.

Beyond the fecundity of this change in method, the move away from teleology finally brings some redemption for poor Hippocrates. Rather than using it as an excuse, we can understand his aphorism, “Life is short. The art is long. Experience is difficult “, properly again – as an admonition about method. Be skeptical. Remember that your viewpoint is limited. Watch out for overarching narratives. Good advice, and not just for medicine, but for all those turtle-ranch theorists out there (I’m looking at you intelligent design, cosmological fine tuning, evolutionary psychology…).

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Shrimp Eyes

An answer to the post “What Is Knowledge?” at Self-Aware Patterns. If you don’t want to keep reading this, go read that…

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Imagine…the mantis shrimp sees zorp. Zorp is a color beyond deep violet, and it is a color which humans cannot see, because humans only have 4 of the 16 color receptors which the mantis shrimp eye possesses.

Once upon a time, long before anyone looked inside a mantis shrimp’s eye, a group of marine biologists set out to test the shrimp’s sense of smell. In those days, nobody had looked in a shrimp’s nose either, to map out the nerves and chemical receptors. So, the only way that the biologists could learn about shrimp olfaction was to wave something smelly under a live animal’s nose and see what happened.

The experiment went like this: The shrimp entered a bare tank from an isolation chamber at one end. Prior to the shrimp entering, the biologists had secretly painted a random corner with an invisible, smelly substance. Upon release, if it swam to the marked corner, the shrimp got a treat.

After a bit of trial and error, the shrimp picked up the trick; it swam to the marked corner every time. Mantis shrimp had an acute sense of smell. But the truth is: mantis shrimp could not smell a damned thing. Unbeknownst to the investigators, the invisible, smelly substance which they used to mark the corner glowed zorp.

As it turned out, by sad, chemical coincidence everything smelly,  glowed zorp. Without understanding the micro-structure of mantis shrimp senses, the situation was hopeless. Only the shrimp would ever know the truth. Yet the biologists did know something. They got a predictive model of shrimp behavior out of their experiment. If they wanted to make shrimp bait, keep shrimp away from swimming areas, or start a shrimp circus, they had a reliable, practical theory to help them – they knew how to do it.

Furthermore, they did have some truth, even if it was not the shrimp’s truth. Because, the biologists stated the outcome of their experiment carefully.

Mantis shrimp were observed to preferentially swim to a corner marked with Fragrance 5 after receiving a standard shrimp kibble in association with alighting upon a Fragrance 5 mark in 3 previous instances.”

Obviously, the truth itself does not get you a shrimp circus or anything else. The truth, being blatant, does no work.

Yet we think that we seek the truth when we seek knowledge. We have been told that knowledge is justified, true belief. Indeed, the justification-belief relationship seems unbreakable. If justification is a well constructed story, then all our beliefs have it, as we have somehow arrived at those beliefs. And, we certainly distinguish between things we know and things we merely believe, on a functional basis, which is really just the strength of the justificatory tale.

Truth has little to do with justifications. Knowledge stands apart from mere belief when it does something – when it proves itself reliable. Reliability, like an onion, has no core, and so, knowledge doesn’t have a core either. Peel back a layer and you can aim a cannon. Under the next layer, you have a laser. Under the next, you find the mechanisms needed to build a global positioning system. The same structure undergirds our psychological theory of mind, introspective faculties, and our aesthetics. All those tales which bear re-telling constitute our knowledge.

Truth is just what we’re stuck with.

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Cutting Up an Ox

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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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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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Is a Virus Alive?

life, living matter and, as such, matter that shows certain attributes that include responsiveness, growth, metabolism, energy transformation, and reproduction. – Encyclopedia Brittanica

Close enough, and encompassing the generally accepted criteria: responsiveness, reproduction, metabolism and adaptation. My older son asked the question about viruses the other day. I have been looking forward to this question. It means that he is prepared to understand some things about life which are important. It is a tricky question if considered from the wrong viewpoint. A virus displays some of the characteristics which define a living organism. It can respond to stimuli, attaching to the proper cells and injecting its genetic material through the cell membrane when it makes contact. It can replicate. It can adapt to avoid a host immune response. But it does not have the capacity to metabolize. It cannot, in other words, run its own show. It is entirely dependent on its host organism in that respect. Nor is the virus alone on the gray borders of life. Certain families of bacteria lack some essential metabolic processes which would make them autonomous. They must live inside another cell, and depend on their host’s metabolism to survive. Yet, they too can reproduce, adapt, and respond to stimuli in their environment. Because they have a membrane which is active, biologists are prone to give obligate intracellular bacteria, like mycoplasma and Rickettsia, a break. Most biologists are less charitable when it comes to prions. Prions are mis-folded proteins which replicate by somehow inducing their own conformal change in normally folded proteins with which they come in contact. Prions can reproduce, but they cannot metabolize. They cannot adapt much (although they have managed to pass from cows to humans), but they can respond to their environment, albeit in a very limited way. Still, the difference between the prion and the obligate intracellular bacterium would seem to be one of magnitude rather than quality. Differences in their classification reflect a little bit of membrane chauvinism on the part of biologists. The same prejudice is evident in the gray zone at the other end of the complexity scale. By our criteria for life, is a male angler fish alive? The fish can survive for a short period of time independently, but it cannot carry on its own metabolic processes independently for the long-term. It must rely on a female angler fish. It must quickly sniff out a female and attach itself to her, permanently. The male fish spends most of its existence as a tissue of the female angler fish’s body; its brief, free swimming existence is a transitional aberration. Its ability to adapt is extremely limited. Its existence can be mapped on an algorithm only barely more complex than the one which describes a prion’s lifestyle. So what does differentiate the male angler fish from a mycoplasma bacterium, a virus, or even a prion? A few extra membranes make the only difference. Even our own status as living things is at risk if we apply our criteria strictly. We can certainly reproduce, just like the viruses, obligate intracellular bacteria, prions, and angler fish. But it is questionable whether or not we can independently metabolize. We actually rely on hereditary intracellular symbionts for our primary metabolic process. Without these symbionts, our mitochondria, we could live only minutes on the metabolic processes encoded by our own genetic material. So, we can hardly be blamed for fudging our criteria. We certainly want to call ourselves alive. Since it looks and acts alive, we want to call the male angler fish alive. For practical purposes, we also want to call Rickettsia and mycoplasma alive, as well as viruses from time to time. As for the prions, it is often more convenient to view them as sophisticated toxins rather than living things. And that’s the upshot of my son’s question. The issue of whether or not a virus is alive is only confusing if we consider “life” an actual, efficacious thing. But life is just a category. When we look out across the terrible landscape of things, we see phenomena which cluster about each other by dint of their shared heritage. Our account of our cluster is biology, and our criteria for life provide the outline for our biological stories. This is correct viewpoint on the question of life, and what is alive. But this is not the popular viewpoint. The popular viewpoint attempts to preserve life as a thing, as vital essence or emergent property. Unfortunately, the popular viewpoint is not feasible. It leads inexorably back to the original question rephrased, “where is the life in a thing to be found?” In the end, we find that the essence or the emergent property is explained by the operational mechanisms and properties of the thing in question, but it in turn, explains nothing about the thing; it just notes where that particular thing lies on the vast, terrible landscape of things. Despite its glaring inadequacy, the popular viewpoint remains popular because it seems to save us from losing an idea that we don’t feel comfortable losing. But we don’t need to worry, becoming a category doesn’t vitiate life. We have the things which the category marks clustered around us after all, even if it’s only according to our viewpoint. We can’t escape life anymore than we can climb out of our skins. So, the answer to the question? Sure, a virus is alive – as long as you can explain why.

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