Tag Archives: essentialism

Socrates Is Not a Number

The heavyweight teetered on his shoulder for a moment, and then the plane of his back tipped slightly beyond perpendicular to the mat. Everyone groaned. They knew that it was over. In those days, before high school students had really gotten into the steroids, heavyweights were heavy. If one got turned onto his back, the victim was doomed to stay there until the refree slapped the mat and the portly victor rolled off.

The poor kid who now faced being pinned to the mat in the district semi-final was typical of the heavyweight breed. He was a kid who was interested in athletics, despite being pretty un-athletic. He was too heavy. But he was large. He was tall and broad, and it made his weight wieldy enough to let him play on the line in football, and wrestle in the heavyweight division. Some of his species were hyper-aggressive, likely in response to the hazing they received from elementary school on up. He was well-adjusted however, which worked against him on the mat.

He had an unfortunate name, ‘Jonah’. In the bible belt, that immediately earned him the nick name, ‘Jonah the Whale’. We had hung out on the sidelines waiting for our turns to wrestle and I liked him, as far as I knew him.

I hadn’t qualified for the district tournament, so I was watching Jonah from the stands with my father and the choir director from our church. We were rooting for Jonah, because he was up against a wrestler from a rival school. If Jonah won, our team locked in the tournament win. It was not to be. Under the combined weight of his opponent and his own bulk, Jonah sank flat. His legs flailed briefly in a futile attempt to bridge his shoulders off the mat. The referee slapped his hand and blew his whistle. Jonah’s legs went limp.

The choir director turned to my father and said, “Now, isn’t that just like a nigger.”

My father usually would not reply to stupid crap like that. He saw no point in useless conflict. But this time, he looked like he didn’t even know what he might say. He was flabbergasted, and so was I.

It was not the words; it was the tone.

The choir director didn’t sound angry, bitter or vindicated. He had a note of sadness and resignation in his voice. He expected Jonah to give up and lose, because it was in Jonah’s blood to give up and lose. Jonah had inherited an identity which played in certain narratives and not others. To our choir director, black folks were lazy, unreliable and weak-minded. Jonah was black, therefore Jonah was lazy, unreliable and weak-minded.

For the longest time, I thought that our choir director was wrong about Jonah just  because he was wrong about black folks. But I finally came to realize that our choir director was wrong about Jonah, because he was wrong about everything. Jonah could be represented by blackness, or fatness, or type B personality, but none of those things were Jonah. Nor was it true to say that Jonah represented any of the things that you could say about him.

Put enough of those things together, and you might be able to pick Jonah out of a crowd, or even predict what he might do in a particular situation. However there was no Form of Blackness, Property of Personableness, or Elan Vital , which determined his ethnicity, his being good mat-side company, or his being the proper subject of Biology.

Yet that was the world according to our pious musician. It was a world of causative kinds, where things like Good, Black and Life were not points on our map of the world, but the lands themselves, which we had discovered or, as he would maintain, were granted us by God. It seemed that he saw things that way, at least.

For a time, I considered the possibility that I was being too hard on him by speculating that he was the type who might claim that opium caused sleepiness by means of a dormative property. Maybe he was the type that saw a grander conspiracy, instead. Not the Conspiracy of Forms, but the Conspiracy of Form. Perhaps he saw the fact that our experience permitted mapping and the application of logic as evidence of some existential purpose. It could not be otherwise, otherwise we could not know that it could not be otherwise. Of course, that was the problem with the Grand Conspiracy – there could be no otherwise to propose. It was undecidable in principle and so the Grand Conspiracy could only be held as a humble hypothesis, on faith.

And that was why I came to believe that he was the first sort of conspiracy theorist after all. Like most in the church hierarchy, he was not really interested in anything humble. The factors of an authoritarian regime never are. They want the appearance of humility which comes with deference to order. A humble demeanor sets people off their guard, which makes it easier to bludgeon them into line (inevitably behind the club wielder). Such individuals will also pay lip-service to the Grand Conspiracy in order to cultivate a humble self-image, since a humble self-image makes the beatdown easier to countenance (I am merely an instrument; it is for their own good). However, what they act upon is the Conspiracy of Forms, because order serves its servants.

Later that night, Jonah wrestled in the consolation round of the tournament. What had gotten into him, I would never know, but he came out in an uncharacteristic, cartoon fury, twitching and spluttering like Daffy Duck. It took the opponent aback, but it did not make Jonah more graceful 0r skilled. It did not keep Jonah off his back.

Again the groan went up. Jonah’s coach and family screamed futile encouragement. In a grim replay of his earlier match, Jonah tried to bridge. And it worked.

The move didn’t flip the other wrestler off Jonah’s chest, or even raise Jonah’s shoulders off the mat. However, in his fury, he had worked himself into a lather, and lubricated by his own sweat, he was able to scoot himself and the large boy lying on top of him, across the mat and out of bounds.

From there, Jonah’s determination saw him through. Buoyed by his miraculous escape, he could not be held down, and after two more minutes of panting and pushing, Jonah won the match on points.

When it was all over, Jonah was still black, still alive, still personable, and still a heavyweight, just as Socrates was any number of numbers.

 

 

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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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The edge

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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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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Simplicity Itself

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

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Speaking Essentially and the Root of the Problem

Let me tell you about unicorns. Unicorns are white-coated creatures, with bodies resembling those of horses. The unicorn’s hooves are cloven, and it has a single, spiral horn protruding from its forehead. The horn has a property which allows it to purify water and cure disease on contact. The animal itself has the ability to detect human female virginity and is highly attracted to the same, so much so that it exhibits a stereotypical set of behaviors in the presence of said females.

I can now make some meaningful statements about unicorns. I can say, for instance, “A unicorn is a unicorn if and only if it has one horn.”

I now say, “You should be able to recognize a unicorn if you see one.” Is that true? If it is true, what about it is true? That is to say: Does my statement reference a unicorn, the inherent possibility of a unicorn, or all that stuff I just said about unicorns? If it is the latter, does that necessitate anything beyond a bare, opaque unity?

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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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You Can’t Escape Your Faith

This will be a quick point. The point is negative, but the motive behind the point is not. So I will go on about the motive for a bit before getting to the point. Please bear with me.
Believers are often flabbergasted by non-believers’ obsession with theology. If I may indulge in a little hyperbole, this is like marveling at the Israelis’ obsession with the Third Reich. It’s kind of the elephant in the room, and a very insistent elephant at that. See ‘evangelism’. The non-believer’s ignoring it all will not be ignored.
Some see the constant poking as an invitation to a fight. I don’t. People are more complicated than that, if given the opportunity. Maximizing opportunity explains my political motive and my personal motive in making the critical point that I’m going to make about apologetics. I want believers to be the best believers that they can be. I want them to heed the exhortations in their scriptures to be humble, to have faith, to take their empathetic impulses seriously. I want them to be good believers because I think it will temper their impulse to distrust and marginalize us non-believers. But that’s the lesser part of it. Mostly, I want them to be good believers because I am a social animal, and that makes them my people. I don’t know why I am a social animal, and as I understand my circumstances, I can’t know why. But that is irrelevant. The truth is: we need each other, and when we cut off members of the species, we are contradicting ourselves.
Faith is necessary to be a good believer. If you are to believe in a transcendent context and a grand necessity it must be something posited, a starting assumption by which all is explicable. It cannot be something which is explained, even by all things. It can’t need an apology. I’m sorry, but that’s what transcendence really means, if it really means anything.
Now I can make my quick point. Cosmological arguments are prime examples of the corrosiveness of apology. These are arguments by analogy. They state that, for a primary or non-contingent cause to participate in subsequent causal relations or contingencies, it must be like those subsequent causes or contingencies, though it is not a subsequent cause or contingent object itself. From this likeness, the arguments then deduce other qualities as necessary precursors unique to the primary cause or non-contingent base. Such deductions are not valid. The qualities in question are, by definition, essentially unlike and independent of subsequent causes and contingencies.
The problem with all theological apologies, as in the Cosmological ones, lies in the habit of deducing from analogies. The practice implies that there is not just an explanation from God, but that there is a science of God. It implies that there are things which we can deduce about God’s workings. We can then begin to repeat the mistakes of the Scholastics, and not just the initial, innocent ones about angels and pinheads, but the final ones about crusades and confessions too. It’s a tempting way to be. It seems so decisive and satisfyingly self-righteous. But it’s ultimately limiting, fearful and inconsistent. It’s OK. You don’t need it. Stop apologizing and just have faith.

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