Tag Archives: consciousness

Coffee Enema? No, I Said Causal Enema.

I hate  baseball. I hate the bleachers, the standing around, the hide-bound rules, the pastoral sublimation of aggressive behavior which breaks down in fights from time to time. Most of all though, I hate the crack of the ball off the bat. It is a false promise of wind in the doldrums, and a bitter return to cud-chewing calm always follows.

I always feel a little guilty about my baseball hating ways, because the crack of the ball off the bat seems so innocent. After all, it is simply the elastic properties of wood, leather and air interacting. Of course, those properties of the materials are in turn determined by the molecular structure of the materials. There can be little doubt about it; flip the bits around in the bat’s cellulose and you have a starch, and subsequently, no crack. And of course, the properties of the atoms in the molecules cause the molecular structure to hold together and behave as it does. Oh, and I can’t forget the quantum properties of the atoms’ particles, which, arranged as they are, cause the atoms to behave as they do, and therefore cause the molecules to behave as they do, and thus the materials’ behavior, etc.

The whole situation looks to be a rabbit hole, with no bottom to the causal drop. But the appearance of interminable reduction is illusory. When we speak of the kind of analytic reduction which says that what is really happening when the bat flexes is that the molecular bonds in the cellulose are flexing, and what is really happening when the molecular bonds are flexing is a shifting probability gradient in a quantum field, etc., we are describing the applicability of a method.

The bat, the ball, and their interaction can be represented by reduction. There is a web of dependencies which can be mapped out within the bat and ball phenomena. The map tells us that if we see a flexing bat, we can look in the chemical vicinity and find cellulose, or the particle physics vicinity and find electrons, or in the quantum mechanical vicinity and find orbitals. Reductive representation gives us a means of identification rather than a mechanism of cause. It is not the case that the quantum probabilities change, which induces bonds to flex, which causes the ball to spring off the bat. All these occurrences are coincident in space and time.

We should be dismayed to find a bottomless pit of causes. Even in the awful dolbrums of the baseball diamond, we see things happening, rather than standing eternally on hold while the micro-physical structure tries to get it together. So, the representational reduction of baseball is about as compelling as the game itself.

My hatred of baseball seems a little different, at least at first glance. It resists representational reduction. There is no baseball-hating mechanism. No set of laws seems to predict my hatred of baseball in the way that the laws of physics predict the flexing of the bat and the ball. After all, some apparently reasonable, emotionally balanced people, of similar background to my own, profess a love of baseball.

Nor can I quantify my hatred of baseball. It does not contain a certain number of carbon and oxygen atoms. It has no temperature. And yet, my hatred of baseball also seems to depend on those little atoms, as much as the specific bats and balls do – actually, insofar as the bats and balls do. For I would not know about baseball if it were not for all those cracking bats and balls which built my awareness of the game and engendered my hatred. Because, my hatred was not some metaphysical lurker, waiting like an emotional lamprey to latch onto baseball.

Though it is private, and so cannot be quantified, I know just where my hatred of baseball resides. It lives right in the snug space between my dislike of basketball and my despite of opera. It stems from my propensity to do rather than observe. It relates to my aversion to uniforms and my natural incomprehension of any activity built around catching a projectile. In other words, my hatred of baseball is reducible, even though there is no chemistry of it as there is of bats and balls.

And actually, bats and balls are reducible in the same way. A particular bat is swinging at a particular ball at a moment in a particular stifling, unbearable inning, because we can say that its particular particles stand as they do on the global stage. And, here is the point of metaphysical interest. The identity of the bat and the ball, my hatred of baseball, and even my own identity,  depend strictly  upon their susceptibility to this latter sort of reduction. It is what makes them physical. The susceptibility of my experience to reductive explanation causes me to say that I am at a baseball game, that I hate baseball, and that, at any moment in an inning, I am hating this stifling, unbearable, cracking false promise as an instantion and a progression of my baseball hate.


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The edge


One hundred degrees feels hotter in the desert than it does in town. The relentlessness of the sun is part of the difference. Running in the Sonoran desert, in Summer, is unwise, but I don’t claim to be wise. It is just a few miles, after all, on good trails.

The sun is rising high by the time I get going. The first three or four miles remain comfortable, but I can feel the heat building in the air and in my blood. I have to slow down. Still, it gets hotter.

Half way around the pile of granite blocks which passes for a mountain in these parts, I feel a little adrenergic twinge. Those who have pushed themselves will understand what I mean. It is the thing that comes after a second wind in the form of a slightly panicky, angry feeling accompanied by a tightening of the skin and a little nausea.

The feeling marks a reserve opening up, but at a price. Blood goes to the muscles and away from the viscera, but also away from the skin, where it is needed to exchange heat with the air. I slow down some more, but the heat keeps building.

I am getting close now. I can see the power lines which cross the trail just a half mile from the trailhead, with its shade-shelter and water. I think I know just how much I can allow myself to speed up, and I do.

The last quarter mile feels a little desperate, but I trot into the shade in good form, with a little left. I walk back and forth for a long time, cooling down. A cop patrolling the trailhead gives me a hard look. I understand; I don’t like the idea of getting sucked into a rescue either.

I was close to the edge. How close, I don’t know. That’s the thing. You can’t know where the edge is until you are over it.

Or rather, there isn’t really an edge. Sure, there’s a last step and an end to all efforts, but that last step is in a different spot every day. You can get pretty good at knowing when you’re close to the last step, but you can never know just exactly where and when you will collapse. The uncertainty keeps things interesting. The uncertainty is motivating.

And, the uncertainty is everywhere. The same run is not the same run. Feet land in different spots, the wind shifts, the sandy dirt is soft or packed.

So it is with all defined entities and their instances. Identities hold for instances. This desert is this desert, where I run this close to the edge, but not over. That is true. This desert is also the Sonoran Desert – practically, but not really. Accepting the latter sort of identity gets me to the trailhead, but no more. It doesn’t get to the truth, any more than talk of the edge informs me where the edge really is.

But now I recall; it is not true that there is an edge, only a retrospective, last step. I’m always thinking about the edge, because it helps keep me off the last step. Knowing about the last step does nothing for me, even though it is the truth.

Or rather, it does nothing because it is the truth. It is local and transparent. I can’t pack it up in a box and take it away to inform me elsewhere and in the future. But because it is local and transparent, I must move by it. And because I must move by it, the truth is inextricable from my motivation.

I think that’s why all of us remain enamored with the truth, even though it is useless in its own right. I know that’s why I will continue to run in the desert – the uncertainty of the true, last step and the very deficiency of my edge-theory – even though it may not be the most useful thing for my health in the end, mental or otherwise.



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Dreams in the Witch House

Though it is not one of H.P. Lovecraft’s best stories, Dreams in the Witch House is one of his creepiest. The creep factor mostly emanates from the witch’s  familiar, Brown Jenkin. Jenkin is an intermediary from the netherworld, enticing the unwary to enter. A rat/human hybrid, Jenkin eventually dispatches the protagonist by emerging from the wall (which is actually a partition between alternate planes of existence as well as one between indoors and outdoors) and chewing through the man’s body while he sleeps.
Tunneling through a person in his sleep is chilling enough, but what makes Jenkin really creepy is what it represents: shadowy possibilities which gnaw away at us to our demise.

H. P. was a big believer in the old aphorism, “curiosity killed the cat”, (I’m sure he pictured the inquisitive animal sniffing too close to a questing tentacle). He was leery of natural philosophy run amok, based on what happened to the fabled cat. Science, he felt, risked exposing our dearly held beliefs as a mere façade, laid over an alien, chaotic, deeper reality. H. P. was a little odd, but he has never been alone in his fear of hidden truth – or in his attraction to it.

The fear of a hidden truth appears to drive quite a bit of discussion surrounding the philosophy of mind. The fear manifests in varieties dependent upon the school of thought involved. For some positions, the fear of hidden truth appears to be their primary impetus.

Modern-day substance dualists, for instance, fear scientific implications of an explanatory mechanism for activities which tradition ascribes to the soul. The idea that intentionality or qualitative experience may be dependent upon coarse, material goings-on horrifies them. Their revulsion is compelling enough to make arguments from incredulity seem plausible.

“How,” they ask, “can a thing be ‘about’ something?”

Yet, when one fires an arrow at a target, the arrow flies at the target. Something compels it to do so, rather than allowing it to appear suddenly on the moon. Likewise, it remains an arrow, which is a big part of why it flies at the target. The archer attending to the arrow’s flight maintains her identity and has determined her course as well. Even when she visualizes her shot before releasing the bowstring, her intention derives from the same set of considerations determining the shot, albeit in a roundabout way. Maybe she is just importing her perspective on the shot all long and it’s all happening in her (and everyone else’s) head, but that doesn’t matter. The outcome is the same, whether it is the mental substance or the physical substance which is reduced. Reduction is what the substance dualist really fears.

Monists are not so different. They have faced up to the implications of natural philosophy, yet they still fear the loss of mental causation in their schema. The feared outcome of reducing our mental activities to their base, physical mechanisms has been described most eloquently as a “Ghost in the Machine” scenario. In that case, our  consciousness is the ghost,  a mere byproduct with the mistaken impression that it is in charge of things while it is really  looking on impotently as all the little neurons in our brains respond to various stimuli.

The troublesome issue at work is ‘downward causation’. When the archer releases her arrow, do we think that her will causes the arrow to fly toward the target, or do we think that it is the action of her muscles, muscle fibers, the chemical bonds in the arms of the bow, and on down the line? Natural philosophy tells us that the little things add up to the big ones, in terms of how the arrow does what it does. The limbs of the bow springing back into shape do not cause the chemical bonds to behave as they do; it’s the other way around.

We readily accept that state of affairs when it comes to bows and arrows. But if brains and minds bear a similar relationship to their base constituents, then willing the arrow to fly fares no better than the bow’s springing back – it is caused by what’s going on in the neuronal circuitry rather than causing anything itself. The alternative to accepting this arrangement for brains and minds is to make a special exception for mental activities.

Yet it seems impossible to do so without undermining natural philosophy. We may wish to do so, to save mental activities as causes, but it is hard to see how we could avoid hypocrisy. We would still use our knowledge of chemical bonds to build better bows and devise more effective anti-depressants. We would still act as if the bottom-up story were true.

On the other hand, if we accept the bottom-up story for ourselves, what is the point in asking all these questions in the first place? The repercussion of our conclusion is that we are onlookers, like spectators at a sporting event whose critique of the game is utterly ineffectual. It’s hard to see how such knowledge means anything. Just as we risk hypocrisy if we veer away from natural philosophy when it comes to mind, we equally risk hypocrisy by accepting bottom-up explanations when it comes to mental phenomena – we will continue to behave as if our experiences, intentions and motivations make things happen. What to do?

Richard Feynman gave us a clue to the answer.

“If you think you understand quantum mechanics,” he said, “you don’t understand quantum mechanics.”

Quantum fields are not phenomena with which we are familiar, nor can they be. They may not even be ‘really real’. They may simply be the hooks upon which we hang our descriptions of broad regularities in the world of the very small. Furthermore, it doesn’t matter whether the entities to which quantum mechanics refers are real or not. The theory predicts the regularities of the Lilliputian realm – it works.

The thing is, do any of our theories, right down to everyday descriptions, bear a different sort of relationship to their subject matter? When Ernest Rutherford said, “All science is either physics or stamp collecting,” he meant that physics told the basic, really real story of what was going on in the world. Chemistry simplified physics and summarized the really real story of the microscopic world on a convenient level, and so on for biology, geology, meteorology, etc. But his analysis flips the relationship between the disciplines. If we say that Osmium is a metal which conducts electricity and heat at a certain efficiency, has a certain density, reacts with other elements with a certain propensity, then we need ‘bridge laws’ – extra rules – to relate those chemical properties to their associated quantum mechanical phenomena.

The upshot is, only once we have found the Osmium can we find the particular arrangement of quarks, electrons, up-spins and down-spins without which there is no Osmium.

It is easy to turn around and say, “Oh, that’s just what Osmium is.”

But without Osmium and it’s chemical properties, where is our basic-physics explanation? The phenomena explained by the higher level theory permit an explanation in the lower level theory.

And isn’t that how we know about Osmium itself? It is something which responds to our poking and prodding with fire, pushes, and shocks with an elemental predictability. Once we have an atomic explanation for Osmium, we can use a mass spectrometer to find it more reliably, but our target is still the Osmium, not its counter-factual-supporting constituents.

This world of theoretical explanation is terribly confusing. It is confusing because theoretical explanations are not what we normally consider explanations at all. Theories are useful, but they are not true as we wish them to be true – precisely and thoroughly.

We expect our explanations to be more genealogical. Confronted with a piece of Osmium, we can’t be satisfied with atomic weight and number. Those qualities do not explain this piece of Osmium. Rather, we must know how (and so why) the Osmium is in this lump, now, in this place. Break it down to the sub-parts, the quarks, if you will, but the structure of the story does not change.

Where does that leave the Ghost? Where does that leave the mental substance? The Ghost haunts neurobiology, not a reductive explanation. We think our neurons and their activities are our own. We feel comfortable with the idea that we are not exactly the same person if one of the little guys stops working or grows a new dendrite in the course of learning about the atomic number of Osmium. We are comfortable with the change because it occurs within a historical framework, and that framework lends us a persistent identity.

The mental substance seems doomed to participate in some kind of reductive explanation as well. It’s hard to see how it pertains to us, personally, if it does not. If it does participate, then we can call it a substance, but not a separate one. If there are spirits and ectoplasm, then they are located in the same historical framework as the lump of Osmium, its electrons, its quarks, etc. and make their mark, at least upon our consciousness, within that framework.

There are no hidden truths, then. There isn’t some subtext where it all breaks down, as H.P feared. Or if there is, we can never find it.






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The Harder Problem

I have a purple shirt, or maybe it is royal blue. I was never in doubt about the color until my wife called it blue one day. Up until that point, I never even contemplated calling the shirt blue, or that there might be a difference between my perception of the shirt’s color and her’s.

Maybe there still is not a difference. Maybe our perceptions are the same and the words we use differ unnecessarily. If I look hard, though, I can see how she would call the shirt blue.

Her and my perceptions are almost certainly not the same, nor are anyone’s. The alternative – that people disagree about colors, and so much more, because our language is massively mistaken – seems too incredible. Shouldn’t we have ferreted out even the most minor issues by now? After all, we do so well at finding agreeable words for so many things, even in the realm of aesthetics.

Plus, there is a good explanation for the source of disagreement between me and my wife on my shirt’s color. If one tracks back how each of us learned to classify blue and purple experiences, there are substantial differences. And, those differences do not only effect our use of words; those differences also condition our purple and blue perceptions .

Yet there is another problem lurking. Even if I could magically take a snapshot of my brain at the moment in which I saw the shirt as purple, and show it to my wife, not as a map or photo, but as exactly the same state of affairs imposed upon her neurons, she could still differentiate it upon reflection. The brain state in question would always be her experience of my experience, rather than simply her experience. My experience of the shirt’s color cannot be captured, as mine, by means of physical reproduction.

One might ask, who cares? The upshot of our limitations is tolerable. Big truths may be a little counterfeit by implication, but we are accustomed to working with flawed notions already, and do fine by it. For example, Newtonian mechanics serves us beautifully, even if it is not ‘really true’.

Yet, we do not tolerate our flawed notions. An optimist would say that we are not satisfied with lesser things, and are constantly trying to improve our understanding. Our behavior suggests otherwise, however. We want big truths in principle, and the certainty, the reality, that comes along with them. In physics, we don’t just want quantum mechanics and relativity, we want a theory of everything. In ethics, we want good and evil, and duties to serve.

So, the hard problem does matter, because it is motivating. And, it moves us to a harder problem. We want things to be true which are not merely false, but which are incapable of being true or false. The idea of a concept not being truth-apt is slippery, so an illustration is in order.

Consider the case of Baby K. Baby K was born over two decades ago without a brain. Not only was she(?) born, she pulled off a feat which few anencephalics manage; she lived more than briefly. Or, she maintained a metabolism more than briefly, because her status as a living thing, much less a living human infant, was in question. She would never see a purple shirt, or a blue shirt, or have any experience at all. And since our personal experience is what we value above anything (what choice do we have, after all?) some people felt that a creature without experience and incapable of it was not truly alive, much less human.

Baby K’s mother disagreed. She felt that K was born of a human, exhibited some behaviors, had a heartbeat, and therefore fit into the human peg-hole, albeit imperfectly. K’s remarkable persistence owes to her mother’s insistence on aggressive medical interventions for K, based on K’s status as a human baby. For K’s mother, the rules of classification were categorical. There are Forms in the world, according to this school of thought, and the Forms suck their creatures in, even the most flawed copies.

When Baby K had trouble breathing, her mother took her to the ER and demanded that Baby K be saved, put on a ventilator, and nursed back to health in the ICU. But was health one of K’s capabilities? She needed saving, but for what, and from what? We could not ask K about any of this, ever, even in principle. As her physiology counted down to its end, what was there to distinguish this tick from the following tock, and so provide a basis for valuing more of the physiological process?

When K came in to the ER, the professionals on duty did not want to treat her. Since she was incapable of experience, she had nothing to value (there wasn’t even anyone there to value anything). Efforts to ‘help’ K were therefore empty. There was nothing to help with and no one to accept the helpful gesture.

Remarkably, some argued that further medical interventions merely prolonged K’s suffering. Perhaps they meant to say that further interventions caused the staff to suffer. More properly, futile actions degraded the integrity of the medical professions. We become what we practice, and if the medical professionals practiced service to the beating heart, then they rightfully feared that they would become servants to the beating heart.

The hospital also expressed concerns about the resources that K consumed. This argument was a utilitarian argument and failed in the usual fashion. If K did not occupy the ICU bed, the bed would not move to an under-served area, nor would the unexpended cost of K’s breathing tubes and procedures be converted into mosquito nets for children in malaria-afflicted territories. Values are not generally translatable, any more than their costs are portable.

But the missing cipher in the professionals’ calculation was K’s value to her mother. Someone did experience K’s physiology after all. To waive K’s value on that account was just as degrading as crass service to the beating heart. If the medical professions seek to serve health, and health is function, then the milieu is everything. It was a mistake to consider K’s value on the basis of K’s intrinsic capacity for experience, just as much as it was a mistake to think that the ventilator was saving K herself from or for anything. However mistaken she was about Forms and their efficacy, K’s mother valued K’s beating heart in a consistent way. Harm would come to the mother from K’s heart stopping. It would be the same sort of harm – loss of experience and the possibility of experience – to which the professionals referred in their assessment of K’s lack of value.

All along, the players in the Baby K saga evaluated her with standards that did not apply – that were not truth-apt. It was never the case that Baby K was human or not, alive or not. Her case nicely demonstrates the nature of the harder problem. Our standards – good, evil, human, matter, energy, mine, yours, blue, purple – are not stand-alone things. They are made of their circumstances (our circumstances). Without a doubt, the standards serve us well, since our circumstances are necessarily shared. If the standards refer to the specifics, and the specifics are near enough alike, it’s just good fudging to defer to the standards. It is easy to forget that the standards defer to their instances. And we are motivated to forget, because we value our experience and we value our standards, and we are prone to equate the two.




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Experiencing Embodiment – with Extreme Prejudice

Rowan on McCarthy West Face, Hong Variation

Rowan on McCarthy West Face, Hong Variation

The edge was huge – at least half a finger-pad wide. But how to get there? The fingers of my right hand were crimped on the vertical edge of a slight irregularity at shoulder height. My thumb lay across the top of the same feature. My feet teetered on the corner of the column which bordered the little roof. My left hand gripped the corner of the neighboring column, thumb down, elbow up, in a maneuver called a ‘Gaston’.
My right hand needed to get to that good edge. That edge meant security, success, salvation from the tension of my current situation. I stretched for the hold, pushing down with the Gaston and straightening my knees. It was too much for the foot holds on the corner. They needed pressure to work.
I was off.
I prepared to drop into the corner below the roof. I had two small chocks above the feature. They looked set when I placed them, but the crack flared slightly, and small stuff had a tendency to shift. In the time dilation of the fall, I got another glimpse of blood and hair on the rock below, left by a fellow traveler the week before.
He had been climbing the standard variation on this route. His belayer had been standing on a comfortable patch of dirt about 50 feet below. He fell from about the same level as I had. With rope-stretch and slack in the system, he hit the ledge below the roof. He injured his leg in the initial impact, then flipped upside down and hit his head. He suffered a nasty scalp laceration, but fortunately no damage to the contents of his skull. We wore our helmets, and took the trouble to set the belay on the ledge below the roof. Never disregard a free lesson.
The little chocks held. I jerked to a stop just a few feet below the roof.
I looked down at my son. He looked bored. I couldn’t tell if the expression of ennui was a 15 year old boy’s affectation or actual lack of concern. I hoped it was the former.
“Lower me a little,” I asked him.
He complied, and I got back into the corner, a sporting distance below the difficulties. I moved back up to the overhang and inspected the chocks. They looked no worse for the wear. I grabbed the right hand crimp and set my feet on the corner. My left hand caught the Gaston.
This time, I ignored the edge. Keeping pressure on my feet, I reached up and pinched the corner with my right hand. I leaned back. Like so many things in climbing and outside it, the move felt precarious and it was committing – I would not be able to reverse it – but it was also the answer. My feet locked onto the small holds and I was able to step up. The right hand pinch turned into a good side-pull and my left hand swung up to a nice shelf. It was over. I plugged in a good cam and moved up to stand on the little ledge.
But, it wasn’t over. The corner above wasn’t as steep, but it was still thin and tricky. I got a short break. There was a section of crack climbing, with pretty good footholds. Then the crack closed up again. A bulge confronted me, with no obvious way past. I got a couple of small chocks in the corner formed by the intersecting columns, and took the most feasible path that I could see.
Once upon a time, my mother-in-law had an out-of-body experience. She was in labor with her second daughter, and things were not going well. As they prepared her for an emergency C-section, she floated above her body and looked down on the scene in the surgical suite. My dearest love relates this story in terms of wonder, as an example of the mysteries of the world beyond our limited comprehension. Her appreciation for such mysteries is one of the things I love most about her. But for me, astral transformation is not so mysterious, though it remains wonderful. It is a familiar experience, and I pursue it doggedly.
It happens on the hardest moves of a climb sometimes. I can break down the moves before and after, but during the movement, the analytic distance disappears and another distance replaces it. The real me is absorbed in action and no longer has time for silly self-awareness. But, the reflective consciousness is selfish. If it can’t do, it will watch. The phenomenon is weird – like a movie observed, but not experienced. Yet it is also wonderful, because for a moment, thought is banished and everything is aligned in its proper place.
That’s what happened at the little bulge. With the moves mapped out in my head, I took a deep breath and began. The fugue hit me. Afterwards I could recall images of small adjustments. I saw my right foot move up to a tenuous hold that I could not have seen at the time. I saw my left foot stick to a sloping hold in the face of counter-pressure from my right hand, which rested flat against the wall of the dihedral.
At the time, I snapped back to a brighter day above the bulge, not entirely sure of how I got there, but feeling wonderful, with the whole thing still catching up to me. Or maybe, it was vice versa.
No matter, I soon stood at the anchor belaying my son as he followed the route (with only one fall and one hanging rest). My motivation had never been higher. I was itching for another lap on the climb – or maybe, something harder.

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Simplicity Itself

Arguments about nature, gods, and human beliefs are often convoluted and massive. The central issue can be boiled down to a manageable residue.
The phrases “mental substance” and “independent identity” are incoherent. They are combinations of words which indicate nothing but the byproducts of speech. At best, their proposed subjects are things which we could not claim to know. That is why all arguments in their favor must finally deduce from analogy, if they hope to avoid fideism. All else follows.

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The Joy of the Circle

I didn’t like to fly. I kept waiting for the bumps to stop. Regardless, the supple machine continued to bob and thrash like a trout in the rapids. A few rows forward, a child began to cry. Between the two of us, adults read their magazines and played video games on their phones. No doubt, they recalled that flying was safe. The statistics were incontrovertible. And in theory, the engineers knew exactly how the air would flow and how the engines would perform. Why should a passenger worry?

Yet no one had predicted the rolls and soft spots in the atmosphere over which we presently skipped. No one really knew what fury of heat and pressure swirled in the engine at that moment. Flying was inherently dangerous. The little boy up front knew it because he didn’t believe in theories yet. He knew what happened when a glass fell off the counter. He knew what happened when a stick, flexing like the wings were, bent too far. I knew it because I habitually did dangerous things and tried to make them safe. I had faith in statistics, but I also knew that sometimes, only one little thing had to go wrong. In the chaos of fluids which sustained our flight, if the one little thing did go wrong, we were all lost without hope of recovery.

The boy’s naiveté could be forgiven, as could the adults’ ignorant confidence, but what about my fatalism? I had better have a reason for getting on this flight, hadn’t I? My children had no one else to care for them. Countless, unimagined opportunities awaited back on the ground at home. What did I have to say for myself and my self-conscious gamble with extinction?

All I could come up with was et tu quoque. I had seen a Wyoming toad once. It was at night, at a rest stop, in the middle of Summer. Its species was endangered, yet this toad made no excuse of the fact. It followed a line of ants down the middle of the sidewalk beneath the streetlights, lapping up the insects one after the next. My six year old son crouched over the little amphibian, delighted. It would never have a better friend and ally, but it couldn’t have known. All it could have known was that the shape looming over it had not struck yet, and that the ants were right there. The toad was gambling with extinction, and a critic might have called it selfish.

But the toad could have responded. If it believed in theories, it could have claimed that it was simply a disciple of Yamamoto Tsunetomo, obeying his dictum:

Even if one’s head were to be suddenly cut off, he should be able to do one more action with certainty.

Or it could have called upon Nietzsche in its defense, claiming that it didn’t pursue ants, but rather:

…a becoming that knows no satiety, no disgust, no weariness: this, my Dionysian world of the eternally self-creating, the eternally self-destroying, this mystery world of the twofold voluptuous delight, my “beyond good and evil”, without goal, unless the joy of the circle is itself a goal…

The toad’s response was better though, because it didn’t believe in theories. Its defense was: a warm night and an Eldorado of ants. Mine would be the same. How else would I defend even my love for my children? No set of laws bound us to each other, only a chance (in theory) arrangement in space and time. Yet it was a chance that went straight to the bone, no question. I had no better answer for the feeling that had gotten me strapped in this chair, bouncing through the sky to an uncertain fate. It was a feeling for a stranger, I’d have to admit if pressed. But it wasn’t composed of what I knew about her, anymore than my love for my children was composed of what I knew about them. It was a chance arrangement in space and time. It was nothing I chose, but it went straight to the bone, no question. Like the toad, I’d risk every calamity with open eyes. I took a breath, shook my head, and stopped waiting for the bumps to stop.

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They Solved It! They Solved It!

Geriatricians have solved the hard problem of consciousness! From the July 1st issue of American Family Physician: “Some validated scales, such as Pain Assessment in Advanced Dementia…use objective measures to assess pain intensity and response to intervention.” The objective measures: abnormal breathing pattern, increased vocalizations, observed tension in the face and body, and capacity to be calmed by caregiver voice and touch. In short, agitation is synonymous with pain. And how do we know this? Because the researchers have observed that opiates attenuated agitation in their subjects with advanced dementia. That’s how the scale and its underlying assumptions were validated at once.
Many have questioned the utility of philosophy. Well, here it is. The PAINAD scale is valid, no doubt. This is something that can be determined by definition. If two different people observe the same demented patient, it is quite likely, predictably likely, that the observers will come up with the same score on the scale. But that begs the question. The real problem is not coherence. Coherence does not make truth. The real problem is the truth of the claim that agitation represents pain in a person with advanced dementia. Such information is not available to us, at least not in the defined, quantifiable way which we would prefer.
We can’t know anybody’s pain, really. That’s because it is everybody’s pain that gives us the concept of pain in the first place. The sensation I experience when I grab an electric fence, for instance supervenes on the action of the fence charger, the conductivity of my body and the ground, activation of peripheral nocioceptors, mediation by inter-neurons in my spinal cord, and finally my thalamus and cortex where it is contextualized as my very own experience of shock. My experience of the shock from the fence, indeed all my pain experience, is unique. In the case of a shock from the electric fence, my experience is trivially unique – to the extent that I can predict my friend’s response if I tell him why he shouldn’t touch the fence. But the pain-concept supervenes on all those unique experiences in the same way that my own experience supervenes on the collection of events surrounding my hand’s contact with the wire. A thing called pain doesn’t appear out of the process. If that were so, I should have ready access to it and the PAINAD scale would be unnecessary. I would just slap some electrodes on the patient’s skull and watch for the pain signature in his cortical electrical activity. But I can’t, nor will I in the future, though I might have such a tool. Cortical electrical patterns might be the narrow point in the pain experience, the place where the difference in my experience and the patient’s is most trivial. But I must still correlate the activity with some report from the individual or a set of individuals in a similar condition. Some kind of PAINAD-type analogy will always be the best that I can do.
So what does this application of philosophy to pain treatment tell me? What use is philosophy? First, it tells me that I should not expect to fix everyone’s, or anyone’s, pain by stimulating their opiate receptors. The experience becomes pain-type only when it is put in context. We can easily imagine pain experiences where the opiate receptors play a very different role. Take the poet’s description of the pain of a broken heart. Do we write off his report entirely as a quaint analogy as opposed to our serious ones? If so, how is his report effective in communicating a sense of the experience to us? What do we say when we find out that he used laudanum and found some partial relief? Addressing the mechanisms of pain can only go so far, because mechanisms only go so far in explaining the painfulness of an experience.
The application of philosophy to pain can save me from a different pragmatist’s mistake in treating pain as well. I’ll pick on my surgical colleagues for a moment. On multiple occasions, I’ve had a surgeon tell me, “Nobody ever died from pain.” Inevitably, this little bubble of wisdom surfaces in reference to a patient whose pain management has passed from the surgeon to myself. My knee-jerk response is to point out that nobody ever died from hip arthritis either, but surgeons are still quite happy to replace hip joints. Yet I understand the pragmatic meaning of the statement: people have died from opiate overdoses, so we can’t just capitulate to a person’s demands for ever-increasing doses of opiates to treat their pain. As noted above, the notion that simply stimulating opiate receptors necessarily fixes pain is misguided. But there is a subtext. Death is measurable. Respiratory suppression due to opiates does something, and therefore it is real in way in which pain is not. When you get right down to it, pain can be ignored. But it isn’t that easy. The human condition won’t be ignored anymore than it will be medicated. The hard problem remains hard. It isn’t hard because our subjectivity is some spooky ectoplasm or narcissistic property. It isn’t hard because our experiences will never move a dial or tip a scale. It is hard because things which explain and are explained have a reality to them as much as things which do something, yet we’re stuck working with the functional things, like the observed behaviors in the PAINAD scale. So we have a tightrope to walk. We can only ever come close to helping others with problems like pain, and only then if we act comprehensively. We can never completely succeed. But that doesn’t mean we must fail. We can just never get too sure of ourselves when we do something like suppress a demented patient’s agitation with an opiate – and think we can call it good.

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The Hammerhead Mentality

Hammerhead (ham-er-hed) n. 1. the part of a carpentry tool used to drive nails 2. any tool’s feature designed to impact an object 3. metaphysically, an implement used to achieve the wielder’s intent through main force 4. (slang, common parlance) any person with a modus operandi analogous to that of the tool, usually expressing the speaker’s contempt 5. (slang, among climbers) any person with a modus operandi analogous to that of the tool, usually expressing the speaker’s admiration and horror.
A hammer has a sort of minimalist beauty. It is clean. It has a singular answer to all challenges. It cannot – it will not – be mistaken for something which it is not. The beauty of the hammerhead mentality is the same. It forges a pure, guileless path in the world. It wakes each morning without ulterior motive; it pounds through each day without ulterior motive.
The psychological dynamic at issue has always been part of the human repertoire. The most famous, historical hammerhead was Alexander the Great. I’ve heard people question why anyone would ever follow such a jackass, as the blustering fool marched his army across Asia Minor to no good end. He wasn’t a blustering fool though, he was a hammerhead and I’m sure his men caught a serious case of Special-Sense-of-Purpose from him. Sure, he didn’t need to conquer India. He was simply out conquering, and India was next. Likewise, cutting the Gordian knot wasn’t a clever, if arrogant, statement or “out of the box” thinking; it was a natural hammerhead move. At the end, nobody was worried about that damned ox-cart anymore, and they could all get on with the conquest.
In fable, Aesop’s grasshopper, from The Ant and the Grasshopper, is a hammerhead. But only in a certain version of the fable – the one where the grasshopper is not a dissolute slob, the one where he’s just really, really into dancing and singing. It’s the version of the grasshopper with which we can sympathize. It’s the version which exposes the potential meanness of the ant’s viewpoint.
Their noble clarity is why we climb with hammerheads, why we train with them, and why we stick around to pick up the pieces. Because the unaided exponent of the hammerhead mentality is doomed from the start. Nature is bigger than us, and that’s a fact. Some routes will not go. There is a limit to strength, reach, and flexibility. A person can only go without sleep, food and water for so long. You can’t always just push through.
It’s a flaw as well as a merit of the hammerhead mentality that its hold is unwavering by nature, on the outside and on the inside. Once the hammerhead is engaged, it’s too late. The focus takes over and won’t let go, even in the face of impending doom. Nevertheless, we need the hammerhead mentality. At the very least, we have some unique lessons to learn from observing it in action.
The hammerheads have two things to teach the world. The first thing is: they show us how lucky we all really are. We are much more in command of most situations than we imagine, and we shouldn’t always act so surprised about it. If we just set aside our doubts and fears, we could often do more than we imagine. The odds are naturally in our favor.
As climbers, for instance, our eyes are drawn first to the peaks rather than the smooth rock faces. Our digits are shaped to hook over edges and close around corners. The knobby bits at the bottoms of our brains are really good at keeping us in balance. Our fingertips have little ridges on them. The game is rigged in our favor. We just need to know how far we can push our luck, and of course, that’s the problem for hammerheads.
They need to direct themselves at manageable projects. They can’t be allowed to build up too much momentum. In short, they need help, by means of another behavioral model to back them up and good counsel. They need ants. Not the nasty little ants in the bad version of Aesop’s fable, just waiting to say, “told you so,” and slam the door in the grasshopper’s face. They need the clever ants, the ones with some tricks up their sleeves, who can appreciate the merits of the hammerhead mentality and are prepared to compensate for its flaws. This isn’t pure charity on the ants’ part either.
Focus is a necessary virtue, despite the requisite sacrifices. A person fixated on the summit, the anchor chains or the next hold has abandoned their self-control in order to push through. On occasion though, nothing else suffices. We all can – indeed we must – slip into the hammerhead mentality from time to time for good and ill, even if it’s not our policy. That’s the hammerheads’ second lesson. Even a good ant may need an ant in their own head now and again, if not a doppelganger at the other end of the rope. Being the ant at the other end of the rope is just good practice.

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Can You Keep It Real?

On a cold morning, a little girl named Suzy is waiting for the School Bus at the bottom of a steep hill. It was raining the night before, and water has been flowing next to the curb. The water froze in the early hours of the morning, forming a sheet of black ice. The ice sheet extends all the way down to Suzy, and unfortunately for her, passes under the tires of a Cadillac Coupe DeVille parked in the middle of the hill. As the sun hits the hill, the ice loses its grip on the tires and the car slides silently and rapidly down the hill, striking Suzy and killing her instantly.
Now suppose the same chain of events ensues, except this time, the car breaks loose just as the cars owner, Andy, sits down in the driver’s seat and closes the door. The inside door handle is broken, so he can’t just jump back out again. The power windows are up and the horn doesn’t work, so he has no way to warn Suzy of her impending doom. He desperately turns the wheel, but it’s too slick for the tires to grab. Suzy dies just as in scenario #1.
Again, suppose the circumstances are the same, but this time, the owner of the car is different. Let’s call him Brian. When Brian realizes that he is sliding out of control, he thinks, “You know, I’ve always hated that little bitch anyway,” and he turns the wheel to direct the car toward little Suzy. Again, the tires have no purchase on the ice and the chain of events is unaltered.
Is there a moral distinction in the incident between the unoccupied car and the occupied car? Between the incident with Andy and the incident with Brian? If so, where is the independent and objective moral fact in each case?
To take things a little further, suppose Suzy doesn’t die. After the car launches her through the air, she manages to stick a perfect landing in the grassy median, apparently uninjured. But Suzy’s parents soon notice that something is amiss. When they ask her, “Did you enjoy your dinner dear?” she replies, “The meal was such that it would produce an enjoyable sensation in a person so disposed.”
When they ask her, “Are you comfortable dear?” she answers, “My condition is such that a person capable of it would feel cold.” Suzy appears completely impassive throughout. She eats, sleeps, and goes to school just like she did before the accident. A full medical workup turns up nothing. Gradually, Suzy’s parents stop feeding her anything fancy. She does not complain. They dress her in a burlap shift every day. She’s apparently fine with it. They turn off the heat in her room and only crank the thermostat back up if she begins shivering. They say they still love Suzy; the extras just don’t matter anymore.
Are Suzy’s parents behaving immorally? What is Suzy’s moral status and why?
Let’s go one step further. Suppose Suzy lands in a heap, but survives. She is apparently comatose. Her doctors think that they can help though. They begin an infusion of medication that will awaken her. As the medication flows into her vein, she bolts upright with a look of horror.
“What have you done?” she demands, “Put me back. I’ve been grown for years, I have children of my own and they need me.”
What should Suzy’s parents do? Does Suzy’s inner world have any value? If so, why? If not, why?

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