Tag Archives: determinism

Bloody Mary, Bloody Mary…

This post is in response to Kevin Moore’s posts about physicalism, evolution and consciousness at “The Placebic View”. I want to start by saying that I admire Kevin’s interest in philosophical positions to which he does not subscribe. Earnest examination of positions other than one’s own helps a person improve their own ideas and appreciate other people a little more. Here is some more grist for the mill.
This is my take on physicalism. I think it is not controversial to say that physicalist philosophy is a work in progress. There are a number of competing branches and sub-theories. For good or ill, I’ll only speak for myself and my non-professional understanding of the issues at hand.

1) It seems as if some things are up to me. For example, when I am deliberating over whether to, say, raise my hand or not, it seems as if I am in control over whether I actually endeavor to raise my hand. It does not seem to me as if such endeavorings are determined. Admittedly, such seemings do not entail the falsity of determinism, like seemings of pain entail the occurrence of pain. And, this means that if one were to infer the falsity of determinism solely on the basis of such seemings they would be going beyond their evidence and could very well be wrong. But, that doesn’t matter, here. All that matters for the success of this argument are the presence of such seemings; their veracity can be presently be ignored.

I’m not sure exactly what Kevin is getting at here. He is either talking about intentionality or the subjective quality of movement. I think it is the latter, and that is what I’ll address below.
Intentionality poses little difficulty for physicalism. What ever else intention is, it requires subjects and objects which are, or can be reduced to, entities having relative location and causal relations. Intention does not exist without such subjects and objects. Even when we think about love or a five-dimensional cube, we derive our ideas of these things from experience writ large, including the way in which we are predisposed at birth to feel about our parents and, with the proper exposure, perceive depth. No, intentionality is not the hard part, subjectivity is, and I think that is what Kevin is after here.

2) The naturalist worldview rests on the foundation of two seemingly indispensable pillars: Darwinian evolution (or something near enough) and physicalism. In brief, the theory of Darwinian evolution is suppose to be able to tell us why biological life is the way that it is and the physicalist theory is suppose to be able to tell us why everything is the way that it is. Without the support of both of these pillars, the naturalist worldview is hardly a worldview at all.

If physicalist theory is supposed to tell us why everything is the way it is and Darwinian evolution is supposed to be able to tell us why biological life is the way it is, then physicalist theory does not depend on Darwinian evolution and if physicalism undergirds a naturalist worldview, then neither does a naturalist worldview. Moving on.

3) Now, according to physicalism, everything must be explainable from the bottom-up. In other words, theoretically, once you’ve explained all of the physics for some event, there will be no remainder. Therefore, since our seemings are not identical to any physical states, whatever our seemings are, they must result from some underlying physical states and be epiphenomenal or causally inert. So, according to physicalism, there is no top-down causation where agents really choose anything. And, any seemings to the contrary isn’t to be trusted.

Now we get to the good parts. First, let us be clear on what constitutes an epiphenomenon. An epiphenomenon is one which occurs secondary to a primary phenomenon, a phenomenon which is caused, but causes not.
But this definition is unsatisfying. It simply instructs us in spotting epiphenomena and says nothing about their hows and whys. So how do epiphenomena arise and what are the relations which they have to regular, causal phenomena? Here are a couple of examples which demonstrate what I think those mechanisms and relations are.
First, consider that quintessential epiphenomenon: fever. Before medical science knew the details of the inflammatory response, fever was thought to cause illness. It was thought to be part of the pathological process. It turns out that fever is no such thing. Fever is a byproduct, the elevation of body temperature secondary to a particular biochemical process. So, fever is causally inert. Or is it? On an analytic basis, it is causally inert. Any ‘rules of fever’, for example ‘fever follows from infection’, are inaccurate and properly devolve to the rules of the primary process, which is the biochemistry of inflammation. But sometimes, the elevation of body temperature associated with inflammation inhibits bacterial and viral replication. Fever does something. What is going on here?
These are not the same fever. The fever which inhibits bacterial and viral replication does not give rise to rules nor does it itself participate in law-like relationships; the biochemistry of inflammation takes care of those things. But the biochemistry of inflammation does not, by its rules and law-like relationships, specify the causal relationship between elevation of body temperature and inhibition of bacterial and viral replication. If we started from the primary, biochemical phenomena we might never know about that causal relationship in particular. That’s fever’s job.
To clarify further, consider Hepatitis C. I don’t want to imply that the Hepatitis C virus is an epiphenomenon, ’cause it’s a virus. But the relationship that it might have held relative to the disease Hepatitis C by a certain theory of the disease, is an instructive analogy for the relationship which epipenomena have to their primary phenomena. Once upon a time, many scientists suspected that the Hepatitis C virus did not actually damage the cells in which it replicated. This turns out not quite to be the case, but it was a serious possibility, and let’s pretend for a moment that the theory was accurate. On an analytic basis, the Hep. C virus would be a non-entity. We could substitute “X provocative factor for inflammation” with no theoretical consequences. But Hep. C virus is precisely that provocative factor for those individuals infected with it, and in those cases the replicative habits and specific structure of the virus determine, in part, the natural history of the disease though the virus does not cause any of the pathology.
So, do fever and the non-cytopathic version of the Hep. C virus have causal efficacy? Are fever and Hepatitis C real things? Yes and no. Yes in the individual cases and no as generalities. Or rather, they pick out some real category of historical relations even though the theoretical causal analysis associated with fever and non-cytopathic Hep. C virus may ignore them. Inverting our perspective, cytokines, helper T-cells, etc. may tell us why John may have an elevation of his temperature – such explanations account for fever and even eliminate the need for the term in analysis – but the biochemical explanation of temperature elevation due to inflammation in response to viral infections cannot tell us all about why John has this temperature elevation due to inflammation. “John has a fever.” fills in the gap between the theory and the case, as the statement stands for the specific history of the virus, John’s genetics, his previous illnesses, his nutritional status; in short, all the messy data without which an account of John’s fever on November 10, 1999 at 10 AM via the theory of the primary phenomenon is impossible.
With this understanding of epiphenomena in hand, is physicalism committed to epiphenomenal consciousness? Yes and no, I think. Your patience please, for one more example.
There is a well known thought experiment proposed by the philosopher Frank Jackson called “Mary the Color Scientist”. In the thought experiment, Mary has been confined to a room without any color at all for her entire life. During her time in the colorless room, she has become obsessed with the neurophysiology of color perception and has managed to learn everything there is to know about the perception of the color red. One day, she is released from the room and thus confronted with all the colors of the outside world, including her first actual red perception. Does she say, “Wow!” or does she say, “Meh”? Does she gain any new knowledge via that perception?
Before we get to the final question, there is another question within the scenario. It has as a premise that physicalism requires, in principle, that Mary could know everything about red perception. For her knowledge to be complete, however, she must know much more than the neurophysical rules of red color perception. She must know all there is to know about the history leading up to her particular red perception. If physicalism’s view of events is assumed to be the case, all this knowing must happen in time and there is simply not enough, in principle.
“Sophistry!”, one may object, “She doesn’t have to know all that, just what makes for red perception right now, as she is first seeing red.”
Remember that little issue that Kevin mentioned in passing at the start: determinism? On physical determinism, all that is what constitutes red perception right now. An analytic theory of red, ‘averaged over’ red, however detailed, will not do. We want to know if there is a difference between knowing the reductive explanation of red and the perceptual experience of the same thing. To meet that requirement Mary must know the theory and the associated history which gives the theory its application. In such a case, Mary’s impression of red, as a thing in itself, stands for this otherwise inaccessible detail and so is a real thing just like fever – as a necessary part of the explanation of each case, and so as historical category as well. If the understanding of epiphenomena regarding fever and Hepatitis C extends to subjective experience, then even an epiphenomenal status for our seemings may be explicable in a physicalist framework, and avoid concerns of irrelevancy in the same ways.
However, I don’t think that our consciousness and its subjectivity are epiphenomenal because I don’t think our impressions are primary phenomena. Since we are playing pretend, let’s ignore physical determination and its implications, however improper that may be, and say Mary just does have the reductive explanation of exactly that red experience which is her first. I think she still says, “Wow!”. I think she gains the efficacious knowledge of red + Mary’s recourse to red references, or if we were to ask her, how red works. Red becomes an object of direct reference, where it was previously an object of reflection only. In fact, I think this is the basis of intention and awareness. Red’s ‘seeming’ on Mary’s first perception of it is Mary’s pre-red identity plus the actual, red sense-data compared to Mary’s pre-red identity including, most importantly, pre-red Mary’s expectation of post-red identity. Before her red perception, when Mary perceived an apple, she would first have to see the apple shape, depth to the shape, a stem, all of which brings “apple” to mind, and then reflect that the apple is also red. Her complete knowledge could not change that operational arrangement for her. After her red perception, red becomes available for Mary’s apple anticipations, and so her apple identifications directly, and subsequent apple viewings will give her an idea of ‘red like that apple’, and so on for the rest of her conscious life. I think this is a good description of what her basic conscious life is, if we want to distinguish it from unconscious processes like pupillary reactions to light. Without the momentary, non-reflective, anticipation-based integration of these alterations of identity, we have the zombies which are feared to plague physicalist explanations of mind – creatures with unmediated, locally contingent stimulus-response as their sole operational process. What the evolutionary consequences of such a distinction may be, I won’t guess, but the possibility of consequences addresses the concerns regarding potential invisibility to selection (misplaced though they are).

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Determinism and the Demon Experience -or- If You Say Free Will One More Time, I Won’t Be Held Responsible for What Happens Next

Well, after long deliberation, I finally did it. I sold my soul. It turned out to be more difficult than I anticipated, the thing put up – a struggle? I can’t call it a fight; it was more like an argument. It claimed it was a special substance and the only example of that substance which I’d ever hope to possess. When I told it that the fact just strengthened my position with the buyer, it began to claim it was an indispensable consequence of my existence and would carry on representing my self for all eternity if only I didn’t cut it loose. I’m not sure how that was supposed to motivate me in one direction or another, but it reminded me that my soul was putting up an argument because it couldn’t put up a fight. It couldn’t do anything, unless you call standing around acting as a rationalization for teleology doing something. It had me for a while, but it was just stalling. In the end, it needed me much more than I needed it. I could have kept it around for old times’ sake, but I guess I’m not that sentimental. Besides, even though what I could get for my soul couldn’t do anything more than the soul could, it turns out the demon whose consultation I purchased helps me keep me in perspective much better than the soul could. In retrospect, my soul was all about me, a bit of a selfish bastard, and I’m kind of glad to be rid of it, period.
Anyone who knows me, knows the demon to whom I refer: Laplace’s Demon. He is the perfect calculator, brought to life by an Ontological argument just like God:

P1) Numbers necessarily represent identity; the law-based relationships between numbers represent causation.
P2) It is possible for the relationships between numbers to be calculated (causation exists).
1) A complete representation and calculation of all causes over all time is conceivable.
2) There is some possible world in which a complete calculation has occurred.
3) If a complete calculation has occurred in one possible world, it encompassed conditions in all possible worlds.
4) A complete calculation has occurred for this world.
5) A calculation demands a calculator.
6) A universal calculator exists.

Some would say the demon is an aspect of God; it is certainly just as inscrutable. Anyway, the demon itself says there isn’t any difference. Why the demon might trade something for my soul remains a mystery, though I have my pet theory about its motive. I’m not even sure that what it has given me in exchange actually is anything. It can’t cause anything to happen anymore than my soul could.
What I got was a little voice in my head. I’m pretty sure it is different from the other voices which generate my internal dialog. The demon says it is. The demon says a lot of things, but as I’ve noted most of them are of little significance and none are of any consequence.
One of its favorites is, “If you could only look at this from an atemporal viewpoint…”. Whatever follows is moot. A viewpoint removed from time is, of course, its viewpoint. If its calculations occurred in context, it would still be calculating and would have gotten to just exactly this point by now. It could hardly be said to exist as an identifiable thing were that the case, even a proto-consciousness (a proto-proto-consciousness maybe?). No, it doesn’t mind time. That’s the problem, because since it doesn’t mind time it can’t convey any real information.
For example, here’s a conversation we had repeatedly early in our relationship: “What’s going to happen to me tomorrow?” I’d ask.
“It’s complicated,” it would reply.
“How complicated?” I’d persist.
“You don’t have the time.” it would answer.
I’ve found that I cannot ask it any questions about the future; they are just too confusing. If I ask it, for example, “Will I like this carnival ride?” it can give me a theoretical answer, based on the me of the current moment’s appreciation of what it knows will occur on the ride. But it can also give an instantaneous answer, to the me which experiences the ride and at once experiences the resolution of his expectations of the experience. Finally, it can answer the question for the me who will have completed the ride and has integrated the experience into the narrative of all his other experiences. We went round and round about these sorts of questions, but in the end I had to acknowledge that it was right; when I ask it, “Will I..?” it can’t know to whom the hell it should address the answer, and neither can I. Retrospective questions have proven more satisfying.
Questions about what happened didn’t excite me at first. We expect to be able to sort that out ourselves. Asking an all-knowing demon about the past is just indulging one’s own laziness, I thought. I’ve found that it is much more, though, because the demon’s view of history is incredibly complex – much more complex than we could ever hope to know. To a perfect calculator, all the little details matter. For example, when we look at a hydrogen atom, we see something pretty generic. We can’t tell one from another and why should we? To the demon, each one of those hydrogen atoms is there, now in a way that makes it (and its constituents) distinguishable from every other identifiable thing. That’s about as close as anything can get to being a universal truth, and it lends a certain weight to the demon’s pronouncements regarding past events.
Even the answer to the question, “Why did I do that?”, expressed as it is in the stock phrase, “It’s complicated.”, means something more. I always thought I had my reasons for the choices I made. I now have confirmation, not just for the choices which I can readily explain, but for the choices I make just because I feel like it. “Because I feel like it” is as much a gross approximation as the demon’s, “it’s complicated”, but just as true. My whim may not be a reason I pick the dark chocolate rather than milk chocolate in the same way that the dark chocolate’s higher phenol content is a reason for my choice. However, my whim contains such a reason, and in a unique, specific sense. My whim isn’t whimsical as much as it is complicated. My having it as a whim rather than as the demon’s analysis is why I can do something with it while the demon can’t.
I’ve found the demon’s gift of confirmation quite comforting. Everybody has this intuition that something causes decisions, for others as well as for themselves. It is at the core of our Theory of Mind – the notion that other people have their own whims and are not just zombies acting out a complex algorithm.
I’ll admit to having had doubts about my theory of mind. It should have been enough for me, as it is for most people, that I can communicate with others using natural language instead of something like binary code. The implication being that “whim”, for example, has content – all the demon’s complicated stuff – and isn’t just a representation of “emotional impulse”. Despite such logic, I always suspected that I was just projecting my ineffectual feelings onto an algorithm or acting out a psychotic delusion, with my theory of mind serving as a rationalization for discontinuous interactions. Having the demon confirm that the psychotic also had his reasons – that the basics of content remained intact even when the representations were disconnected – was a relief. My theory of mind would not crumble some day to reveal an uglier truth which it had been covering up all along.
The demon’s gift seems relatively cheap, but I don’t want to leave the impression that the gift was without complications of its own. I’ve had to accept some vulnerabilities and abandon some values which I’d prefer to deny and retain respectively. The psychotic does have his reasons, so the demon says. So does the heroin addict. In either case, the demonic complications mean that the person’s reasons may not be accessible or amenable to their consciousness in a way which we would like them to be. Worse, their intransigence may be the only essential difference between those reasons and the reasons which determine our volitions. I’d like to think that Thorazine and Methadone were not necessary. I’d like to think that volition is self-motivated, but the people who really think that are just the people who get the Thorazine prescriptions – in those cases to treat delusions of thought insertion. My motives and their volitions all have a basis, as do everyone’s, and they don’t so much determine my choices as resolve them. Sometimes, the will even requires some tangible adjuncts, like medications, to give it traction in its resolving. There is nothing about me which is truly self-contained and invulnerable.
I can accept being an open system, because I can do things. The demon can have its analysis. It’s frozen out by its status as a universal calculator. It can account for whims and hunger, but it will never have a whim or feel hungry because it cannot ever be there, now. Those identity-resolving phenomena are unnecessary for a thing outside the causal realm and inherently unavailable to it. I initially thought that the demon might have valued my soul because it was jealous of human experience and wished to possess a record of such or at least deprive another of some of that precious history. I no longer think that; the demon couldn’t know the difference. I think it saw the essential identity as a missing piece of its account, though per its method, the account was indeed complete. Judgments like the one I laid on the demon are a human by-product, and they are the last casualties of my association with the demon.
To have a qualitative experience is to be defined by it. Since it contains all the complicated stuff which the demon can’t explain to me (within my constraints), subjectivity is a powerful token in my resolutions. I can tell that my current hunger is like the hunger I have when I’m peckish, rather than the hunger I have when I’m starving. So, as an example of the efficacy of subjective qualities, I won’t try to chase the hyenas away from the food this time. But I can know what it’s like to have my hunger satisfied – to be ‘full’ – as well. That too is a powerful token. I find being full from eating a bowl of donuts to have a quality distinguishable from the quality of being full from eating a bowl of oatmeal. The distinction affects my resolutions as powerfully as the distinction between peckishness and starving hunger. Don’t get me wrong. What I’ve learned from the demon is not that we are automatons moving to the tick of our impressions, just that as creatures occurring in time, we have our limits and live and die by our history – it’s the cost of participation. However, I have therefore had to admit that the romantic and horrific world of tradition is a mistake. We are not heroes or villains, playing out our self-contained natures in some epic, teleological struggle. The demon is not jealous of my soul. Sure, such a model is shiny, well-defined, and action-packed, but it is mistaken. The simplistic evaluations of the traditional model ( the purpose-built, unitary self) don’t represent us well. We are – complicated.
To recap: I needn’t fear zombies or determinism; analysis may be accurate without being completely adequate; qualia have relevant content; identity accrues and so fixed evaluations are invalid. These are the things I have gained and lost by selling my soul to the perfect calculator. I still feel it was a decent bargain.

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Supervenience and Rambo (2)

Cardiopulmonary arrest is not a legitimate cause of death. This often comes as a surprise to the lay public since it is highly counter-intuitive. Nevertheless, if a doctor writes that on a death certificate, the vital statistics office will return the paper with a nasty-gram demanding clarification. The problem is not that cardiopulmonary arrest is not the cause of death, in a certain sense. The problem is that cardiopulmonary arrest is always the cause of death, in a certain sense.

Of course, the main reason for excluding it from the death certificate is justification for the epidemiologists’ jobs. They can’t very well have a single column of data year after year titled “Cardiopulmonary arrest” and hope to keep their line in the public health budget. Plus, they would be forced to repeatedly present to the public and government officials a mere dismal reminder that everybody dies and there really isn’t anything anybody can do about it. Beyond those practical motivations, though, they actually have got  it right in principle.

Cardiopulmonary arrest is an epiphenomenon. It is a summary  description of  a crucial juncture in a process, but it is not really part of that process. It is an epiphenomenal, or apparent, cause of death, but not the actual cause of death. At this point, some CPR survivors may be jumping up to disagree. Good for them, but those survivors represent the population of people with treatable heart rhythm problems and choking victims, not the population of cardiopulmonary arrest victims (though they will someday join that group, by whatever means). The state of pulselessness and apnea supervenes on an underlying pathological chain of events in every case. The precise sequence of events is unique to each individual, so it may seem incoherent, or at least superfluous, to even talk about cardiopulmonary arrest at all. That is a mistake as well.

The underlying process in each death, if traced back through the microscopic processes  determining the outcome, is so byzantine that it appears random. Though those processes are the really real truth of the pathologic mechanism in each case, such an explanation is not really available to us and so it fails just at the point where a person collapses in the shopping mall. Then the idea of cardiopulmonary arrest shines, for in a few, indiscernible cases, immediately replacing the function of the heart and lungs specifically by employing the techniques of CPR, will allow correction of the underlying process which set the person on their fatal trajectory.

So cardiopulmonary arrest turns out to be an epiphenomenal cause and useful as such, but not as a truth. To prevent premature onset of cardiopulmonary arrest we need a more precise, truthful representation. Thus the epidemiologists demand a description of the fatal process more proximal in time and specific in detail. They need something closer to the bare truth, even though they must still deal in epiphenomena. Except perhaps in cases of  vaporization, the acceptable causes of death are still summary descriptions reducible to more basic causes, but they are all we need at the level of public health. The acceptable causes are real enough. This interplay of epiphenomena is how our understanding of the world works in general anyway. Just look at how we come to appreciate cloud elephants and Jesus toast.

When someone sees an elephant in a passing cloud or the figure of Jesus on a piece of toast, the image supervenes on their knowledge of elephants or Jesus in conjunction with some prosaic neurological mechanisms. The image is unique in each case and without prompting, an observer may not immediately identify a line-up of cloud elephants as belonging together. The grouping of shapes may seem irrational. Once cued to the basal relationship however, most will nod and can even start picking out details of trunks, ears, legs and tails. The images cause nothing other than amusement, and even then as epiphenomenal causes (the amusement comes from recognizing the image – the process of seeing it – subsequent viewings are less and less entertaining).

Now, some may claim that Jesus is on the toast on purpose. Nobody claims that the cloud is shaped like an elephant on purpose, and nobody claims that the shape on the toast gives them their primary idea of Jesus or that the shape of the cloud gives them their primary idea of elephants. Still, it is rational to see elephants in clouds and Jesus on breakfast foods. Though the various arrangements of contrasting shades that evoke the image are different (the figure of Jesus or an elephant is multiply realizable) they are related in their causes, they share a base, and so are not incoherent. The mental objects are the rationalizing story themselves.

These relationships between causes and their explanations, between reduced phenomena and what we experience, finally beg the question of the truth of our ideas about causation. We have good reason to doubt those ideas. We cannot understand very small things or very large things, though we can model them with mathematics. Therefore, somewhat predictable relations exist at these extreme scales; they may just defy our notions of causation. Too bad, we are stuck with the limits of our perception. Despite the potential limitations of the picture we derive from analysis, the story of the mental supervening on the physical is the best we’ve done so far and its consistency suggests that we’re headed in the right direction. Think of what lies in the other direction, where the physical begins to supervene on the  mental. Things quickly start to resemble the situation in the movie Rambo 2.

Actually, movies in general provide a case where the physical supervenes on the mental. The story that the director wishes to tell determines the objects and events on-screen. Rambo 2, particularly during the helicopter sequences at the end of the film, is just one of the best examples of what comes of this supervenience relation.

As the denouement begins, the bad guys prepare to drop a bomb on Rambo. The bomb has to be big and scary, so we fear for Rambo’s survival and so we understand what a superhuman feat his survival would represent. There must not be objects attached to the helicopter, like rocket-pods, that would detract from the visual impact of the bomb slung beneath the fuselage.  Once Rambo has dodged the explosion (and we are prepared to accept further superhuman acts from him, such as leaping from the water to commandeer the helicopter) he needs to kick ass. He can’t do that properly in a helicopter without rocket- pods, so rocket-pods appear just before he takes possession of the aircraft. He needs to wreak righteous vengeance on the POW camp where his comrades have been held and tormented, but if he wipes out the thirty or so guards that mustered out in an earlier scene, he might look like a bully and the quantity of  righteous vengeance delivered would be unsatisfying besides. He therefore kills three or four times that number, taking a massive amount of ground-fire all the while. The pattern continues as guns on the helicopter switch sides when needed, a rocket launcher acquires an emphatic handle and trigger, and a hole in the chopper’s windshield appears and disappears  as necessary.

These inconsistencies are called continuity errors. Sometimes that name fits, but often it does not. Often, the inconsistencies are there because the story demands it or the director thinks he can sneak them by the audience in scenes where consistency would be costly or inconvenient. This is the kind of thing we should expect with physical supervenience on the mental. These continuity errors reflect the “queerness of the mental” – the consequences of things like bias toward pattern recognition and inborn attentional preferences, the very things that allow directors to slip continuity errors by us. In real life we don’t see rocket-pods flickering in and out of existence or any other continuity errors of the sort we should expect with a “bare truth” variety of mental causation. Rather we see mental objects as causes like cardiopulmonary arrest is a cause of death or the scorch-marks on a piece of bread are a cause of an image of Jesus – just true enough for us to handle.

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Inverse Apologetics

My best friend from Medical School firmly believes that I’m going to hell. He is a brilliant and thoroughly decent person, and though I have only maintained a tenuous contact with him over the years, if he needed a kidney from me, I wouldn’t hesitate. It doesn’t trouble me that he thinks I’m going to hell. It doesn’t bother me that he believes there is a race of invisible creatures living alongside and sometimes interacting with us (the djinn). I do not think less of him for believing these things. I understand how and why he believes as he does, because I was raised a Southern Baptist, and I held many similar beliefs. I began to abandon those beliefs when I was 14 years old. It started with hell, and led on, via a process of inverse apologetics,  to where I am now – accepting of those beliefs in others, though I no longer subscribe to them myself.

I don’t know what got me started thinking critically about the concept of hell. Maybe it was too much Hesse, too early.  My first concerns did arise at about the same time I was reading Steppenwolf. Anyway, I one day realized that I could not personally condemn another creature to eternal suffering. Kill, torture for a bit maybe, if the transgressor had done something odious enough, but not watch another suffer interminably. If petty, finite me couldn’t do this, I didn’t see how a wiser, smarter, personality could.

Nor could I see how god, if he had the power to prevent it, could allow another to suffer eternally based on a mistake. Perhaps he didn’t have the power. If so, he was simply a grander creature beholden to a natural law beyond our ken; different from us in magnitude, but not in principle. If he chose to allow eternal suffering, it must be in pursuit of  justice for crimes against the eternal which our finite minds were not equipped to appreciate. I could not see how this last explanation was possible assuming his motive was justice through retribution. As finite creatures, we would never be able to appreciate eternal punishment either. If we did not go mad, we would always have some uncertain expectations of the future, some hope, even if it was only the hope to endure the next moment. Of course he could change us upon death to make us understand, but then he wouldn’t be punishing the same people. God as a personality was an inconsistent bully.

If the whole scheme were to hold up, I had to conclude that god was ineffable. All his thoughts and actions were beyond human understanding. Then, however, all scripture was erroneous, assuming it was given from god. He could not use words, symbolizing human experience, to convey an understanding of his intent. Knowledge of god was not truly possible. The whole scheme, with god as our template personality and hell and sin in the bargain, couldn’t hold up. If there was a god he was impersonal and we couldn’t be sure what he was about. From the human perspective, he was either a force like the weather and other natural phenomena, or a warm refuge after the grave. The warm refuge theory seemed attractive. It let god’s actions occur in the past and so covered up with changing circumstance the interaction problems with substance dualism. It also allowed him to be benevolence personified, so he could still be a guy, kind of, even if we only saw a slice of him, the way we might see a four-dimensional sphere.

Thomas Aquinas disabused me of the warm refuge or “guy in the sky with a pie where you fly when you die” option. This substance dualist view was already on shaky ground for me. No one could say how it was that god acted in the world, at whatever point, without being part of it, without time or space or quantum fields or some other, as yet unknown material property inhering in god. A god-matter system seemed necessary and god was thus relegated to the role of super-weather. The only alternative which preserved god as a truly separate substance and allowed him to thus retain his guy-with-pie-ness was an extreme form of idealism. The substance dualist view held up if it technically relinquished its dualism.  Then, we were all really brains in god’s vat and all our perceptions of material reality were an illusion. Of course, were that the situation,  we could never know about the vat or what was outside the vat. Even if god chose to tell us directly about the vat, there would be no way for us to distinguish that information from the information of our programmed illusion, and the information would be of questionable  relevance besides. Aquinas preserved some relevance and role for god by making him a sort of universal substrate.

Tom may have been onto something, because some other guys had come up with the same idea independently. The idea of a universal substrate, a kind of meta-property, is the basis of Taoist philosophy. The Taoists thought about this kind of property dualism a bit harder than Saint Tom, though. The Taoists realized that a truly universal substrate cannot have a hierarchical relationship with its constituents, since the one-way dependency put the system at risk of an infinite regression. If the sub-units rest on the substrate’s carapace, then the carapace must extend in some way. Otherwise one must say that events at once do (in the determined sub-units and in the causal determination of the sub-units) and do not (in the immutable substrate) occur in the context of the whole. Another contextual carapace is implied and bingo, it’s turtles all the way down. In the Taoist version  of the idea, the property and the objects which exemplify it mutually determine each other (the whole can be viewed as an event), and mutual determination is the closest one can ever get to describing such a property.

This is weird and seems to escape the regression problem on a technicality, which led many of the Taoist’s contemporaries to question the utility of this explanation of the world. It seemed to imply a lack of meaning in its rejection of conventional causal relationships. The Taoist response was that their description of the world questioned the validity of overall meaning or the lack thereof. They considered talk of purpose an error. “What is the meaning of life?”, is simply a wrong question, and moral discourse, a circular futility. This is the more likely destination for a property dualist description of the world. It shares common qualities with the endpoints of other approaches. The more consistent the picture, the less momentous the implications and the weirder the image. Tom turned off before he got to the end.

To be fair, the same road was never open to Aquinas in the first place. The Taoists were engaged in purely philosophical inquiry. They wanted to puzzle out a consistent description of the world to the extent that such a thing was verifiable. Aquinas was engaged in philosophical inquiry and apologetics at the same time, the latter being the rationalization of a given description. Being an apologist for the Middle-Eastern monotheistic religions ultimately demands rationalization of  guy in the sky, substance dualism.This given endpoint for all reasoning leads to a creeping realism when it comes to concepts.

An innocuous example of a concept is in order before observing the creep. Consider “blueness”, the belief about certain objects: that they are blue. A host of constituent factors determine how we experience blueness, from the make-up of the spectrum, to our genetic heritage, to the color’s cultural and personal associations. These things that make up our experience of blue may be the whole story. In that case blue is just a good description of that whole bundle of stuff; there is nothing inevitable about blueness. Or blue could be made of the things it’s made of because some properties inherent in the constituents of blueness cause them to fall together that way. Here, blue may not be inevitable, but it is an arrangement the universe likes, so it may make sense to speak of it as a proper thing, even though it doesn’t really do anything. Finally, blueness could be a property inherent in the underlying condition of everything, which causes the constituents, in conjunction with their own properties or not, to fall into line. In that case, blueness is inevitable.

For someone bent on establishing substance dualism, this last bit is irresistible. Logic, reduction and a little bit of acceptable evidence from experience can get a person there. With one more little step –  moving all properties out of the constituents – the path can lead back to substance dualism. However, the situation is now no different from strict idealism once again, where we are brains in god’s vat, living out his virtual reality experiment. Analysis, in this scenario, yields no information. Parts of concepts may seem to cause things to happen to other parts, but the truth is that the parts must behave as the law of the concept dictates, all else is mere appearance. “Things are as they are” is all we can rightly say.

The various forms of the question “Why is there Something rather than Nothing?” help illustrate this sort of thinking. Nothing, taken as a real thing, is an error of language, an equivocation of the customary meaning with a concept that is inexplicable and has no explanatory power. Nothing customarily means zero or the null set. With that meaning in place, the correct phrasing would be, “Why are things the way they are and not some other way?”, or more succinctly, “Is all this in any way necessary?”.  The question in this form is probably not answerable, but worth considering, since it offers two potential viewpoints without compelling reasons to prefer one over the other and with slightly different implications depending on the choice. In other words, the question demands some humility, which helps us avoid errors that stunt us.

The questioners set on blazing a trail to substance dualism mean to persist in the error. They wish to discuss a real nothing. Not zero as defined by the absence of any number, or the null set, bounded by all other sets, but an absence of all including potentiality. Unfortunately for them, that would include the potential of absence. To get around the error, they claim that if some concepts may be a bit more than just descriptive, then we may allow that we think about things that we can’t fully explain, and so why can’t we just as reasonably talk about something we have no explanation for at all. Of course, this maneuver is why they wish to persist in the error in the first place. In a grand equivocation, they make room for all sorts of claims, from a working understanding of the nature of singularities (to paraphrase a couple of renowned physicists – saying that you understand singularities is the best indication that you do not understand singularities) to the guy with the pie.

The larger error in insisting on speaking of  a real nothing is that all the other things – qualities, beliefs, properties – which lead to the proper version of the question, “Why is there something rather than nothing?”, at least have some explanatory power, if only as effective labels. All sorts of concepts are possible without that minimum requirement, but taken as real, they amount to the assertion, “Things are as they are”, stated in a more sophisticated way. Maybe that is true; it certainly looks like an endpoint description. If it is, then there is no room for further statements – not descriptive and certainly not prescriptive.

My friend chooses to stick with the simple statement, “Things are as they are”, in regards to cosmology and takes the consistent approach to it. He eschews apologetics. Things like god and god’s reasons for sending me to hell are not comprehensible to my friend or anyone, and that’s the end of my friend’s business with those given facts. He feels that the assertion is true and knows he must live with the fact that it can never be verified, especially if it really is true.

For the available knowledge, he answers the question “Is all this in any way necessary?” with an affirmation. I’m prone to say, “probably not”, based merely on parsimony. Though the source differs, we share an underlying appreciation of our limited understanding and live by Edward Whymper’s admonition to climbers, “Do nothing in haste, look to each step, and from the beginning think of what may be the end.”. Hopefully, we thereby keep from falling into error and suffering its limitations. This is what philosophy, as opposed to apologetics, is good for, no matter your conclusions.

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Commitment

In the climbing culture , there is an ongoing dispute about who is a “real climber”, who is a poser, and how the two may be differentiated. The distinction between real climbers and posers is stark in some cases. Most of the folks on reality TV shows about Everest expeditions are posers. Most of the suburbanites dangling from top-ropes at the climbing gym are posers. Yet, even these most benighted dabblers are at constant risk of becoming real climbers.  The only thing separating them from real climbers is commitment, and even in the gym or on the snow slope, given time, a moment of commitment will come. Then, provided they don’t simply turn away, the basest poser may get real.

The addiction to commitment is what distinguishes all real climbers. Addiction is normal for humans. By the broadest definition, we are addicted to all sorts of pleasant things, from food to companionship. We are not normally addicted to unpleasant things, like commitment. We tend to see people’s repeated forays into piercing or swimming in frozen lakes as borderline pathological. Nevertheless, some folks are addicted to these things too, and the climber’s addiction to commitment belongs in the same category.

Now, religious types and other defenders of the social order may object to the characterization of commitment as unpleasantness. They are wrong, of course. Commitment presumes change and uncertainty. The psychology literature is clear on the effect of change and uncertainty on a person’s stress level, and the effect is not salutary. What makes commitment in climbing addictive is the same thing that makes other unpleasant things addictive: commitment moves us toward reconciliation of our core contradiction.

The sense that we are conscious undergirds everything we think and do. Many definitions of this essential quality exist, with some of those definitions occupying volumes of text. A simple, adequate definition is possible though. Consciousness is the perception of identity. We say we are conscious when we perceive ourselves as distinct from other perceptual objects. But we can never directly experience our identity, we can only perceive it as we perceive other things inside and outside of us. As we gain experience, we see our identity change, not spontaneously, but by means of interaction with other perceptual objects. We begin to suspect that our identity is contingent on history and relations with other objects, while our consciousness still tells us that our identity is necessarily independent. We have a central contradiction growing in us from the moment we first see ourselves.

Seeking out unpleasant experiences is rebellion against our core contradiction. When we hurt ourselves a little bit, we deny the preciousness of identity, and so relieve a little bit of the tension between what we actually experience and what our consciousness is telling us we experience. The more so when we make a commitment, especially in climbing. To commit to a difficult move or a difficult climb, we have to write off our future and make a dispassionate assessment of our past and the capabilities which our history reflects. We are committing to the climb, and also committing to the notion that our identity is not independent, precious or permanent. The resolution of our essential tension has nothing to do with wholesome exercise or achievement, but it lurks just behind those inviting, pleasant aspects of climbing, waiting to snare the unwary poser and make them a real climber.

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Can Demon Possession Make You a Better Ice Climber?

I’ve been wanting to sell my soul for a while now, but I just can’t find the right buyer. I’ll admit I didn’t think it through before I started looking, but who does? This sort of transaction has such a history, it’s hard not to slip into the ruts, and I did. The first buyer I considered was the Devil.

It turns out that he has already had a pretty extensive background check, and is not considered a good risk. Even though a seller knows that the Devil is the embodiment of dishonesty, it is almost impossible to devise an effective means to circumvent that fact. A whole lot of very smart people have evaluated deals with the Devil, and the consensus is that even if you get what you want, you won’t get it in the way you want, which, unfortunately, is crucial.

Having rejected what the Devil had to offer, I next considered God. Dealing with an all-powerful, benevolent entity takes care of the reliability problems which confound deals with the Devil, but I had to reject a deal with God as well. As an all-powerful being, he can be very picky about what he offers, and as a benevolent being, he’s only going to offer what’s best for you. Trouble is, what’s best for you isn’t necessarily what’s good for you. He offers one package built around guarantees of immortality and eternal pats from the hand that holds it all, including ultimate reassurance. Your satisfaction is guaranteed, and there is the problem. If you make the sale on those terms you will be satisfied with what you get, and stop wanting whatever it was that prompted you sell in the first place. In that case, the crusaders had it right. Once you settle, it’s best to find some helpful fellow to kill you quick so you can get to the goods and avoid running afoul of  contractual conditions.

With the conventional choices eliminated, I decided to go with eccentric, so instead of scrolling through the Saints or Old Testament demons, I investigated Laplace’s Demon as a possible buyer. Laplace’s Demon is part of a thought experiment about determinism. The Demon is a perfect calculator who, knowing the initial conditions of the universe, can figure all future conditions. A critical few cast aspersions on my inquiry, saying that the Demon was a purely imaginary creature. However, during my background check of God I had encountered the Ontological Argument, which said that if I could imagine a perfect being, the only way it could really be perfect was if it was real as well as imaginary, so a perfect imaginary being must also be a real being. I had received a reassuring number of reassurances from the keepers of the Lord’s earthly franchise that this metaphysical maneuver actually detected a real  quality of the universe via an indirect examination of the nature of our minds and didn’t just ignore the dependency of imaginary objects. It seemed I was on the right track. Sadly, the complete examination of Laplace’s Demon ended in disappointment as well.

I have to back up for a moment here to clarify my motivation for marketing my soul in the first place. It is a modest ambition, really: I thought I might be able to trade my soul for something that would make me a better ice climber. You see, I am very dissatisfied with the method and means of improvement available to me currently. The method is learning through practice and progressive challenge. The means is critical appraisal of what it is ‘like’ to properly swing and weight an ice tool. The means part is the real problem; I could live with the method if I didn’t have to deal with the vagaries of the means.

Swinging an ice tool isn’t like juggling or jumping rope. Once you know the technique, you don’t just get better by repetition, up to your physical limits. You have to know what a good swing feels like so you can know whether the pick has set well in the ice, and if it hasn’t, just how badly it has set. Everything else – the energy you expend for each foot of upward progress, the security of the protection you place, the speed of your ascent – follows from what each swing is like. By the same token, the quality of a swing depends on a huge bundle of factors beyond the alignment of the elbow and timing of the wrist-flip. The quality of my swing follows from the appearance and feel of the ice, my level of mental focus, my level of physical responsiveness, the accuracy of my estimation of my physical responsiveness, etc..

It’s an impossible set of variables to track, but all together, they feel a certain way when they fall together right. To get better,  I can match every swing against the memory of that right swing until they begin to cluster closer and closer to that theme. There’s a hidden bonus in this means of progression, too. I can use the information I get from what a swing is like in combination with the same kinds of themes regarding body position, balance, and ice structure to sort out an entire climb, both before I start and as the climb unfolds. Though it’s a slippery and imprecise means, my mind, anybody’s mind,  can use it to manipulate otherwise intractable sets of details, albeit by proxy, which brings me back to why the Demon can’t help me.

To have the reductive knowledge that he does, the demon must rely on one simple trick: he ignores time. Since events are multiply contingent upon other events in an ultimate reduction (or even in an incomplete one) the resulting structure, with all events completed and with all the chaotic processes gamed out, is a web of converging and diverging causal chains. From the Demon’s viewpoint, it makes no sense in sequence, any more than it makes sense to say an unmarked map has a beginning or end rather than boundaries. Given his quirk, the Demon can help me in one of three ways. First, he can jump in and yell, “Stop!” when I approach a point where a bad swing exists. That may only make things worse. Second, he can take over and guide my arm, but to realize each step to a good swing in sequence is likely to take ages in lining up, or proceed in fits and starts as he makes adjustments to jump from path to path, neither of which I can afford. Third, he can show me where I am in the interlocking mass of causal connections relative to a good swing, but then the information is only approximate until I actually swing (or close enough) and that’s just the kind of situation I’m trying to escape.  Laplace’s Demon is no more helpful than the Devil himself. I can’t use either of them to cheat the world out of another degree of freedom. I’m stuck feeling my way through with qualities and beliefs about qualities.

The worst part is, I suspect I am taking advantage of the means I have about as well as I can, as is the rest of the species. Our brains are quality having, belief generating, story telling organs. The stories our brains make are good enough that we can’t say for sure where the stories end, and where their causes begin. I don’t think beliefs or qualities cause anything, but maybe they do capture something about the way the world works that reduction misses. They seem like way points on the Demon’s map of causal relations, marking time. Even so, I can’t say for sure that qualities and beliefs aren’t real things, determining the actions of their constituents. That would require an external perspective, like the kind a perfectly knowledgeable Demon could give me. Hmmm – What does the Ontological Argument say about contacting a perfect being, and whether or not I can get an hourly rate?

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Beetle Battle

The Cathedral Spires after the beetles

The mountain pine beetle is a native son of the Black Hills, but nobody around here is very proud of the little guy. I like him. He’s tiny and a weak flyer. A victim of his own reproductive tactics, he’s a bit like the Lemming – doomed to population booms and busts that make him look stupid. Nevertheless, this little insect has thwarted the will of the baddest mammal on the planet.

For the most part, the life cycle of the pine beetle is typical, boring high school biology. It’s one of those egg-larvae-adult-egg affairs that fits well in a circle of arrows on the textbook’s margin. In late summer, adult beetles emerge from trees infested the year before and fly to new trees, where they burrow into the bark and lay eggs. The eggs hatch quickly into grub-like larvae which begin to eat the tender, inner layers of the bark. After a Winter’s break, the larvae finish their meal, metamorphose into adults and the cycle begins again.Within this staid tale, there are a few interesting details that, under the right conditions, conspire to make the smoldering, little endemic population of beetles into a conflagration.

First, there’s that Winter dormancy. To prepare for the cold, the larvae produce antifreeze. If cold weather strikes before they are ready, many will die. If they are ready, though, they can survive temperatures down to thirty below zero, Fahrenheit. Besides allowing more larvae to survive, adequate preparation means the larvae are further along in their development when they wake up in the Spring. Sometimes, they are far enough along to complete two generations in one year.

Second, the trees don’t just stand there and take it. They have an immune response to the beetles. As the insects dig into the inner bark, the injury prompts the tree to force resin upwards.  Sap spills out of the defect in the bark, smothering the beetles. If the beetles are few enough, and the tree is strong enough, the immune system can prevail. In turn, the beetles have adapted to overcome the trees’ defenses. They produce a pheromone which calls other beetles to a tree under attack, giving them the opportunity to exhaust the tree’s immunity with sheer numbers.

Blue stain fungus

The beetles have also developed a symbiotic relationship with a fungus that weakens the trees. The ‘blue stain’ fungus thrives in the core wood of pine trees, where it interferes with water transport to the crown. Beetles carry fungal spores on their bodies as they breach the outer layers of bark which normally bar the fungus entry.

Under usual conditions, things work out so a few trees die and a few beetles survive. However, if the weather is right and the trees are already weak, a positive feedback loop ensues and the beetle population explodes. Usually these excursions amount to little bursts, limited by the availability of suitable trees.  But presently, due to a lucky convergence of human and beetle preferences, there is no limit to the availability of suitable trees.

The forest that we have cultivated is made of trees which are just the species and size that the beetles prefer. Plus, we’ve made a dense forest, so even the mountain pine beetles’ weak flying skills carry them easily from trunk to trunk. Our relationship with the pine forest has unwittingly, coincidentally helped turn the little pops in beetle numbers into a boom. Modern human activity on the land, from fire suppression to agriculture to habitation, has attenuated a kind of herd immunity inherent in the age, size and density of the trees.

Cuttin’ & Chunkin’

Now, we are trying to stand in for that herd immunity. We want our forest back the way it was. It gave us logs, shelter and aesthetic satisfaction. So, we try to cut infected trees before the beetles can emerge. We try to trick the beetles with pheromones (the insects actually release a repellant pheromone when their host tree harbors too many beetles). We even spray neurotoxins on the trees in ‘high value’ areas, like Mt. Rushmore.

Beetle-thinned forest

Close up, our efforts look pretty smart, like a beetle attack on an individual tree looks smart, with its chemical communications, antifreeze equipped larvae, and fungal force multiplier. But just as the beetles are already doomed to population collapse by the time they start to thrive, we have already ensured that we won’t have the forest back the way we like it, simply because we liked it that way so much in the first place.

It will work out in the end. Preservation is a fool’s errand anyway. We pursue it for sentimentality’s sake, and because it makes us feel like we may be able to avoid our own eventual extinction. When the beetle epidemic is over, we will learn to like the new forest and maybe we will recognize the beetle battle as a farce. For at a proper distance, our interaction with the habitat is indistinguishable from that of the beetles. Like them, and the Lemmings, we’re condemned to a lifestyle that allows us to survive in spite of a built-in vulnerability to chaos.

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Bite Me

People have traditionally followed two divergent paths to righteousness, a hard and heavy path and a soft and squishy path. I mean old testament versus new testament, duty versus faith, Catholicism versus snake-handling. Most religions contain both these elements and maintain them by cognitive dissonance. Blessed are they who try to reconcile the paths. The task is impossible and it only ever turns out one way. Many, many examples of the inevitable outcome exist, from the Sufis, to the Chan, to the Kabbalists.

The relevant lot from the Christian tradition are the snake-handlers and they are the best lot of them all. Math, meditation and music do have the power to transform, but a handful of rattlesnakes is clarity itself. Like all sects that get involved in changing how members are as well as what they do, the snake-handling churches subscribe to conventional scriptural authority. Most are even literalists, and quite austere literalists at that. In typical fundamentalists, literalism makes for a dull theology, fearful and full of contradictions. For the snake-handlers however, the rules and regulations, just like the snakes, are guides to align a person’s trajectory. The target is a right way of being, not just a right way of doing. The Holy Spirit subsumes scriptural dictates. The soft and squishy way absorbs the hard and heavy one. This arrangement of the spiritual food chain is necessary, because the hard and heavy way is not real and it must go under. The ought isn’t.

Ask for a definition of Good. A clever theologian will say it is like a primary color – something we can know, but not describe. A less clever theologian will tell you it is what one is told to do. The guy on the bar stool next to you will say it is what he wants. Good is a stick. It can point. It can start a fire. It can crack a skull. Good is all of those things that the theologians and the drinker wish it to be, because moral good is an error of language. Good begins as what we want, then we want things of others, then we need to tell others how to give us what we want. We start using “good” in the first case and carry on through, watching the word transform itself from a mundane descriptor to an ethereal being.

The truth is, “good” remains a descriptor all along and as we boost it to higher and higher levels of discourse, it is the concomitant release of dopamine that makes it radiant. Used in a sentence and pursued through right actions, good’s charge is grounded, contradictions multiply, and the glow dissipates. What’s left for us is a handful of rattlesnakes, which is preferable.

Though an ‘ought’ reconciles the act with scripture, no ‘ought’ drives a believer to pick up a snake or drink poison. He is determined to do those things by his faith. His faith is made of his history, recorded in his genes by forgotten generations of ancestors and accumulated over the moments of his life. In devotion to his faith by acts, he becomes concordant with the truth of that history: he is not a discrete entity. Sounds awful squishy, but that’s what we are, squishy globs of history on a very squishy path. No wonder we like to think solid entities like good and evil might exist to make a channel for us. We must live with our inherent imprecision, though. As messy as it may be, it is still less messy than pursuing an error.

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