Tag Archives: epiphenomena

The Problem with Pain

My gaze swung between the man on the exam table and the radiograph displayed on the lightbox. He must have sensed a problem.

“What?” he asked.

What indeed. The film basically showed his shoulder blade broken in two.

“When did this happen?” I inquired. He had already told me once; I just needed to be sure that I’d heard it correctly.

“Yesterday afternoon,” he said, ” right after lunch.”

“And why did you wait until this afternoon to come in?’

“Well, I’m here mostly to get my wife off my back. If it was up to me, I wouldn’t have come in, but she thought it might be serious or something, because I tossed and turned last night.”

“Well,” I told him, “It is not a surgical problem, but it is a bad injury. You got lucky.”

After a moment’s reflection I added, “Didn’t that hurt?”

“Kind of,” he laughed, “But it eased up pretty quick.”

“Do you need any pain medication?” I asked.

“Oh, no,” he demurred, “Tylenol is doing fine for it.”

After a few more pleasantries, the man got up, walked out of my office, got in his car and drove back to work. Watching him wince slightly as he turned out of the parking lot, I couldn’t help but think of the patient before him – a fellow with no history of serious injury, a normal MRI of the lumbar spine, and disabling back pain.

The man with the back pain had wanted pain medication. I’d had to talk him out of it, which was a difficult task in that era. Because it was the era before the opioid crisis, when we were in the midst of a pain crisis, according to the medical authorities. Clinicians were directed to take everyone’s pain level the same way that we took their temperature, and to treat the abnormalities discovered by our measurements.

For those with eyes to see, the notion behind pathologizing pain was misguided, at least. The whole scheme rested on the idea that pain was simply activity in the neuronal substrate. Change the activity pattern, by activating opiate receptors, for example, and you get rid of the pain.

I am not being very charitable in my description, but I am being as charitable as I need to be. There are more nuanced depictions, which leaven the mix with talk of psychological context and so on, but the same suppressed premise lurks beneath them all. It is this: a chain of causal events ‘add up’ to pain, and that is just what pain is. X+Y+Z = Pain. But the necessity of such arithmetic has been in doubt even before Hume laid its troubles out so nicely for us Westerners.

Breaking down a phenomenon gives you its pieces, but does not grant commutativity. Activating opiate receptors does not reshape their owner’s pain experience according to a fixed script. Receptor activity is part of the description of a painful experience, along with psychological context, and personal history. Yet there is no prior necessity – necessity by law, rather than necessity in fact. We did not make the distinction.

Secure in our estimation of the relationship between the neuronal substrate and the pain experience, we went after opiate receptors like we go after splinters. Our efforts did not force anyone’s pain experience into a box, but we gave everyone who we treated a new pain experience. Sometimes it suited them better; sometimes it suited them worse. Many, many times it settled in the center of their psyches and they fell into orbit around it.

Our engagement with the epidemic of untreated pain predictably ended in chaos. Now we need to extricate ourselves, and what do we turn to but the tool already in hand.

Instead of the reduction to type, we have rebuilt our story of pain, revising our reduction on the basis of the same mistake. Receptors pertain to behaviors – in the neuronal substrate, and so in the psychology, and so in the organism – but pain is a byproduct of the behavioral mechanism. It is an epiphenomenon. Chronic experiencers need counselling, to convince them that the pain is ineffectual, and therefore not real, at least not in any serious way.

Unfortunately, I get to participate in this second shot at commutative reduction, too. It will go just as well as the first.

 

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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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Here’s the Deal…

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

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

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

So, you take the elixir.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 


 

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

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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.
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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.
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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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Atomic Minds

“It is sometimes objected that physical and mental states could not interact since there is no causal nexus between them. However, one lesson from Hume and from modern science is that the same goes for any fundamental causal interactions, including those found in physics. Newtonian science reveals no causal nexus by which gravitation works, for example; rather, the relevant laws are simply fundamental. The same goes for basic laws of physical theories, and the same presumably applies to fundamental psychophysical laws. There is no need for a causal nexus distinct from the physical and mental properties themselves.”
– David Chalmers, The Character of Consciousness
An interesting statement, and one which is rather untroubled for a person who wishes to subsequently make an argument for property dualism. However, I think most advocates for substance dualism would be troubled by the implied requirement in the above statement, which is conformity to the explanatory requirements of causation. The desire for most folks with a stake in substance dualism is for a substance which is truly separate – from the requirements of location and dependent identity associated with being physical – and not merely irreducible. I think there are profound problems with the irreducibility of the mental and ‘downward causation’. However, it seems like there’s a problem with the atomic characterization of a distinct “mental substance” in and of itself.
To get an idea of the role which a substance fulfills, it is helpful to examine a relatively well defined and uncontroversial representative of physical substance: the electron, for example. The electron is describable entirely on the basis of its properties. It has a negative charge, mass, spin, etc. In a sense, it is just a receptacle for its properties. But the properties of the electron do not entirely suffice to explain the electron and why we need it. We could account for all of our experience of those properties without a particle for their residence. We could use a bundle theory, like Hume proposed for the mind.
We can simply speak in terms of functional conditions, in other words, the bare circumstances under which the properties are manifest. For charge, we can say the same thing that we say about magnets – a repulsive or attractive force occurs when a certain orientation of physical objects occurs. Micro structural explanations be damned, that just is magnetism. Likewise, we can say that elements accrue certain, conventional, mass units as they accrue charge units. We don’t need to refer to a particle to make this functional explanation.
Instead, the particle serves a historical role. We experience mass and charge properties necessarily at a certain place and time, not just under certain conditions. We know where to look to find a certain mass and charge, even if we do not perceive them at the moment. The particle has an inert state in which we know of it merely by historical reputation – it is there because previous circumstances demand it.
Is a mind like that? Does a mind have an inert or ground state where it is, just because previous circumstances demand it? I don’t see how. Minds are elicited. Mental occurrences are toward, of, or about something. Our subjectivity and motive pertain to their immediate circumstances. Even if previous circumstances condition it (I think critically), previous circumstances don’t demand that red looks like it does to me. There’s no need for an atomic mind to explain mental “properties”. In fact, those properties defy attribution. That’s the upshot of the knowledge argument. The argument militates against a mental type, and a third person ontology of the mental, generally.
Advocates of a mental substance can equivocate about the possibilities of the stuff. Maybe it isn’t bound by the requirements of normal causal relations, which demand relative location and defining interactions at least. But then, what is it? I think the substance dualist is faced with providing an account of pure mentality – the inert mind, mind without content, mind without active reference. I can provide such an account for inert electrons. I can simply refer to locality and the demands of previous circumstances; in other words, the notion of causality concomitant with our experience. Without recourse to those explanations, a condition which true separation of substances seems to dictate, I don’t see how such an account is possible for mental substance.

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Is a Virus Alive?

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

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

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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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Finding True North

[Note: this post builds on 3 previous posts, Jesus Christ: Error Theorist, Men, Mores and Mimbos: The Strange Case of Moral Fact, and Chaos Theory]

People talk a lot about meaning and purpose. Most consider those two things quite important. But for concepts held so dear, most people have an ill-formed notion of meaning and purpose. That most hold the two ideas to be roughly equivalent is testament to the squishiness of the concepts. Meaning and purpose are quite different things overall, but they do have one thing in common, and their one commonality may account for much of the confusion between the two and otherwise.
The feature which they share is that each idea can be held as a tautology. Actually, that’s about it for purpose, because purpose is the action of an intent. Talk of purpose assumes intent. So, reasonable talk of purpose is local. It can’t fly far from the source of intention without losing its power. For example, if I give you a morphine tablet for your pain from a broken leg, the purpose of the morphine tablet leaves my hand with the pill. As the pill drops into your palm, your intention is imported and so is your purpose. It is entirely possible that you will save the tablet to get high when you’re feeling better. This importation of purpose is the source of much of our sense of agency. It is also a thready link to meaning.
Meaning can be taken as what can be represented – a tautology. That’s a little cheap. Meaning is locality. There, that’s better; it no longer begs the question. ‘The red book’ means paper, ink spots shaped by interlocking sets of purpose (the writer’s, the publisher’s, the printer’s), the space it occupies among colored books, books I know about, other red things, etc. on and on.
Here’s the meaning-purpose link. Meaning shapes our intention. Our location gives us the things to be about. Our location is what we are all about and is all about us.
So, the meanings are relative, but not free-floating. They are not unmoored from space, time or history. We can map them – represent them – like the North pole. In fact, true North is a perfect example of the relations in question.
True North is kind of a convention. We don’t need it, we have satellites and radio receivers. There’s no logical necessity to true North. True North has a meaning behind it though. It is located, and not just on the earth. Because it has location, it also has a vicinity – surroundings which create its boundary conditions. Considered in terms of the point where the axis of the earth’s rotation meets the planet’s surface, declination means something, as does Polaris – and vice versa. The specificity of meaning constrains the intention it shapes and the scope of action available to that intention. It’s subsequently tempting to see the representation of that meaning as independent and efficacious Form. But true North is finally a relative location, not a mark on a map. It is made of stuff as far down as we can dig, and in every direction. So are all our representations, down to our self-representation.
There is a final question which people like to ask of this state of affairs: Is the lattice-work self-supporting, or is there some truer North? Is all this in some way necessary? That’s something buried too deep for the tools with which we are equipped. The only answers we can give are a priori assumptions (not presuppositions) whose relevance is questionable to us dwellers in the world of representations. But believers in a truer North don’t want or need an answer, I think. The assumption serves well enough, and I have to agree with Dostoyevsky about what would happen should someone show up one day with an answer to put an end to all projection. The question for the believer is: do you think this is an indictment of your faith, or a good reason to hold it?

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Tabula Rasa

As far as we know, a man blind from birth does not dream of colors. But how could we know if he did? More important, how could he know if he did?
This Winter and Spring have been cold, and I have been skating. I don’t mean the sequins and blades kind of skating, I mean snow skating. Skis take the place of metal runners, and the action is something else. I find it hard to describe. It has a smoothness to it, a chain of movement like climbing. It has a mental feel which is different than climbing’s though, a shifting attention with underlying focus. When it’s going well, I feel like I could close my eyes and never crash. I like it, but I think some people might not. That’s because they are who they are and not me. I like the feeling of skating because of my background, the kinds of activities I’ve learned to appreciate and the position which skating occupies in that pantheon of activity. I couldn’t explain to anyone else what I feel when I’m gliding uphill. I couldn’t make them feel what it’s like for me and therefore what it’s like to like it. I couldn’t accomplish a transfer of appreciation for skating anymore than I could explain a dream of red things to a blind man. It is something personal, mine to have.
The feeling of gliding with a constant effort is unique to skating. The association is unique. I am not sure that the feeling is unique. I’m not sure that the feeling is anything. Yes, it is the feeling of skating, but I’m not sure it is independently identifiable. Without the sensation of weight shifting over the lead ski, acceleration, and pole-push recovering the trailing ski, the feeling I like about skating might be about screaming down a trail on a mountain bike, swinging an ice tool, having a shot of good Scotch or anything else I enjoy. Take away my enjoyment, and I wouldn’t know what to make of the feeling.
Maybe this line of thought seems bizarre, but I am not to blame for it. I have been influenced to pursue it by reading philosophy. I’ll admit, most of the reading was voluntary. The preoccupation with the nature of subjectivity however, comes from the philosophers and their corrupting thought experiments, in this case one called “spectrum inversion”. Spectrum inversion proposes a flip in qualitative experience of color. Imagine that, when I see green things, I have a red experience. When you see green things, you have a green experience experience. It could be happening right now, and we would be oblivious to the fact(?). As long as you and I have no gap in our spectrums, the difference in our experience cannot be detected empirically. You call the stop-light red; I call the stop-light red. I call the grass green; you call the grass green. The point is, when I see a green thing I know something about it (its red appearance) which is not explicable on the basis of function or structure – my own or that of the green (red?) thing.
There are two problems with the moral of this story. One is a problem with philosophers. If philosophers were birds, they would be gob-smacked about their wings, and would puzzle endlessly about what it meant that they could fly. Without an acceptable theory, i.e. a complete theory, they are unhappy. They chose color for this thought experiment because people have a strong intuition about the reality of colors. The intuition probably owes something to a degree of a priori knowledge of color. Color perception is ‘baked in’ to us, probably with some pre-set associations. It may not be the best research subject in an investigation of qualitative experience in general. Our credulity gets in the way, doubly so for the philosophers among us.
The other problem is deeper. It is the blind man’s problem. My inability to describe a dream of blood, or stop-signs to him is merely a symptom. He cannot consider a theory of color perception – the consistencies of colors, their place among our other experiences, their rules and regularities. He needs an explanation first. He must be able to say, for himself, what he is to make of the quale in his hand. That explanation is a prerequisite to our discussion of blood’s appearance. Otherwise, his putative color experience refers to nothing; it is there, perhaps, but it pertains to nothing but himself and remains unremarkable, a tabula rasa, a point of order in the conscious process.
The status of qualia may seem a curiosity, but I think it’s a bit more. I think so because I didn’t start out skating because I knew I’d like it. I started out skating because I was sad.

Have you never heard about Lin Hui, the man who fled from Chia? He threw away his jade disc worth a thousand measures of gold, strapped his little baby on his back, and hurried off. Someone said to him, ‘Did you think of it in terms of money? Surely a little baby isn’t worth much money! Or were you thinking of the bother? But a baby is a great deal of bother! Why then throw away a jade disc worth a thousand measures of gold and hurry off with a little baby on your back?
Lin Hui replied, ‘The jade disc and I were joined by profit, but the child and I were brought together by Heaven. Things joined by profit, when pressed by misfortune and danger, will cast each other aside; but things brought together by Heaven, when pressed by misfortune and danger, will cling to one another…
-The Complete Works of Chuang Tzu by Burton Watson

“You know how it is with you and your brother, out of sight out of mind,” my sister-in-law says.
For her, attachments subsist on their assigned meaning. They have a third-person ontology. Without constant refreshment and revision of their rules and regularities, attachments lose their meaning as circumstances pass them by. People must constantly find new reasons for their loves and loyalties, lest the sentiments be forgotten.
She made that comment because she was annoyed with a lack of active communication within the family and based on her observation of our response to our parents’ deaths. When my mother died, my father took her ashes to an unnamed place and scattered them. When he died, his sons did the same for him, and have spoken of it, and of their father, rarely since. From the outside, the silence may look like disinterest or even amnesia. But it is not. The attachment in question just can’t be corralled by words, memorials, or funeral rites. A jade disc cannot represent it, because no theory of value explains it. The attachment is part of our personalities, and though it changes with us, it persists. Attempts to push it into orbit around our persons would lead to misunderstanding at best, bitterness at worst. Master Sang-hu continues:

The friendship of a gentleman, they say, is as insipid as water; that of a petty man, sweet as rich wine. But the insipidity of the gentleman leads to affection, while the sweetness of the petty man leads to revulsion. Those with no particular reason for joining together will for no particular reason part.

‘Particular’, in Master Sang-hu’s statement, should not be mistaken for ‘specific and isolated’. He means personal, particular to the individuals. The attachments formed by petty men are outside of themselves and adhere by the stickiness of their emotional quid pro quo. The alternative is to give up on the boundaries of one’s identity. So the petty man may be forgiven; he’s got something to lose. Most people are not petty, or at least not entirely so. For instance, at some point, many will ask, “But why do you love me?”. However, even those who pose the question early in their lives don’t persist in the practice, and learn to beware the question themselves.
I don’t think my sister-in-law is being petty in her dissatisfaction with my and my brother’s behavior. There is another use for her third person ontology of attachment, besides its potential as sticky treacle. It is filler. It buys time for adjustment and reorientation in the face of change. It insulates against anxiety, pain and sadness, which are the true corrosives, time and change being guilty merely by association. With that understanding in place, she’s miffed about us not playing along properly, rather than disparaging us for simply lacking true attachments. Her way of using a theory of attachment is the way most of us use such things – as a buffer for our weaknesses. They remain grossly utilitarian, but are second order rather than primary.
Right after my wife died, I got some similar encouragement to play along. I couldn’t bring myself to participate in memorials or ceremonies. There is a core of dishonesty in those events. They claim to honor the deceased, but they really serve to push the person into orbit around the survivors, where the dead can’t hurt us. Worse yet, memorials and funerals are opportunities for certain parasites of death to pedal whatever bizarre spiritual beliefs they feel the world can’t do without. Functionally, death rituals are filler for the living. I could skate, that was filler enough and a more honest variety.
For the same reason, I turned down grief counselling, which is a more modern ritual to the same end. I actually have some data to back me up on that decision. A meta-analysis presented at The 2008 ADEC (Association for Death Education and Counselling – a cheery lot, no doubt) conference showed no benefit in universal counselling for those who had experienced loss. For those who had the most traumatic losses, such as the violent death of a child, counselling provided a brief benefit with no improvement in long term outcomes.
The only people who consistently benefitted were people who were referred, by others or by themselves, for trouble adjusting, especially those who experienced signs and symptoms of depression.
I think the last finding is most telling, for depression reflects a falling out of context. Depression is more than being sad, even very, very sad. In depression, the sufferer ceases to feel this way or that about experiences, and begins to experience the world in the light of sadness. Depression is the philosopher’s take on subjectivity taken seriously. Sadness, for the depressed person, is not made of anything; it is something identifiable and effective.
But sadness as a thing cannot make sense. It only works if something makes a person sad, and the person must contain the necessary elements to be made sad. The depressed person is constantly at work constructing those elements. A person in the grips of depression exists in a self-perpetuating cycle of justification which cannot succeed in finding an acceptable answer for the person’s sadness.
Because, just plain sad is an undifferentiated stake in the field of consciousness, and we are charitable to name it. It cannot be grasped anymore than love, or redness or the feeling of skating, and the mind groping after it must fail. That’s the danger of taking qualitative aspects of our world seriously; they cannot deserve it. If we do take them seriously, we may, in effect, mistakenly strap jade discs to our backs instead of our children, holding the byproducts of our attachments dear, though nothing adheres to redness, love or sadness – not even treacle.
Out of sight, even out of thought, but not out of mind, lost and distant relations remain. They cause love and sadness, but love and sadness do not explain them. Eventually, they leave love and sadness behind. When Winter returns, I will start skating again, and not because I am sad. I’ll do it because I like to skate. It’s my fate, in a sense, like it was my fate to love my wife, my parents, my children and my friends. No taint of sadness will cling to the snow, the skis or my limbs. No sadness will drive me over the snow. Turns out, it never did.

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