Tag Archives: essentialism

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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What Dies on the Sharp End

As children, many of us were cautioned not to judge another person until we had walked a mile in their shoes. This simple aphorism is meant, and taken, in two ways. For those with a literal bent, it means that we should withhold judgment until we have the all the relevant information. For those with a more philosophical inclination, it means we should understand that our judgments about others are always bound to be a little off. The latter interpretation is more accurate, because we cannot walk in another’s shoes. Beside them or in their tracks we can experience their walk, but not in their shoes or their skin. To do so would demand abandoning our own identity. In light of the latter interpretation, the implication of Mom’s trite admonition becomes apparent. We aren’t limited by our subjectivity – the statement is nonsense – our subjectivity makes us. Like so many things which children must learn to get straight, it marks a snag in our understanding which trips the most carefully considered philosophies.
Let’s see how philosophical problems regarding mind fare under the heat of our kindergarten lesson. With no subjective experience of subjectivity, philosophical zombies – hypothetical creatures which exhibit behavior without experience – take a shot to the brain, not because we cannot conceive of behavior which does not entail qualitative experience, but because we cannot conceive of qualitative experience divorced from activity (after all shouldn’t something which is a property of experience rather than a product of it show some sign of life for itself?). Rigid designators – necessary identities – hold for representative entities in logic, but not for the objects from which the logical entities derive (would that it were otherwise; think of the savings on auto repairs and trade-ins alone, not to mention the safety benefits of “the red car turning left in front of me” being true in fact as well as in theory). Determinism becomes an analytical curiosity. There is no quantity of happiness, suffering, or human thriving calculable. There is nothing that it’s like to be a bat – or a human.
Philosophies stumble because most of them have not been field-tested. This state of affairs is understandable; field testing is a grim business. The best contrivances fail in unexpected ways, leaving us deflated and puzzled. Trying to break a precious invention in the course of it’s intended use admits to some basic pessimism, but it is vital. Yet how do we test an idea of how the mind works in the world? What we need is something other than the sort of post-game analysis which always concludes that the contest turned out as it did because one team managed to “execute” and one didn’t, that one managed to fit the criteria of our post-hoc definitions and one did not. We need to know what happens, what falls away, what persists and the shape of the relationship between the whole lot.
Fortunately, we don’t have to go to the trouble of designing a test for philosophies of mind. The sort of test in question happens naturally on the sharp end of a rope. Every rope in use has a sharp end, attached to the lead climber, and a loose end, secured by the belayer. As soon as the leader finishes his knot, things begin to fall away. The belayer is a person who pays attention or not, who arrests a fall or not. He may be a Saint, or he may have walked out of prison that morning; it doesn’t matter. Likewise, the leader is a person who falls or not, who puts the belayer at risk or not. The relationship is quite specific and pertains to the subjects and the salient features, the valuable points, of the situation, as do all the relations and values which fall away. But the test extends beyond the mind-to-mind relationship. In the leader’s experience our ideas about the nature of mind itself get tested, because the leader is the one who grasps the holds. Looking at a hold creates a shaped perception of it. The hold has size, conformation, anticipatory feel, relevance to body position, distance and even strategic utility. But that hold is not the hold which the finger touches, and the leader knows the hold in hand by a different means.
Here is where another important set of ideas breaks down. Contact with the hold demolishes the mental theater. The hand and mind know the hold by assimilation. They know the edge as a hold by becoming the hand and mind which grasp it. The meaning of the feature’s heat, slipperiness, sharpness and adequacy are immediately apparent, because all those remake the first person in the moment of contact. The hand and mind know the feature as a hold because that is how they are capable of knowing it and the situation could not be otherwise in the revised individual. The subject doesn’t transcend the moment by discovering some permanent and essential nature realized in the experience, but by diving in, taking in and being taken into the meaning of the hold.
So what dies on the sharp end is transcendence, permanence, and commitment in the abstract. But these are no losses at all, because we can see that, all along, those defunct ideas were merely mistaken shaped perceptions of engagement, persistence, and understanding of change. With the death of its bearers, on more thing must fall and break in our field-test: meaning as a graven image – of God’s will, nature, humanity or whatever other imagined necessity. Meaning is revealed as, like us, the property of the present moment. The edge on the face of the stone is many things, we think, possibly, but with fingers on it, it is a hold – and that fact accounts for all valuation, all confusion over minds and bats, and the limits of footwear exchanges. This is not mysticism; it is much, much smaller. It is just what we know.

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The Word from the Land of Absolute Relativism

“Look at all this shit!”
He waved the stack of envelopes at me.
“Look at this one.”
He held up the letter on top. It was from another hospital and marked, ‘Important: Do Not Discard’.
“These are the ones you have to be careful to discard.”
He threw it in the wastebasket, and followed it with the rest of the unexamined mail. I was far enough into my training not to be shocked by this sort of thing. I’d weathered surgeon’s tirades and soaked up jaded, callous humor in the emergency room. Still, my experience with this psychiatrist had me believing for years afterwards that, in his specialty, like sought like.
“This kind of clutter is the enemy,” he continued, opening the top drawer in his desk.
He scooped out a handful of keys.
“Look at these! I don’t know what this is for,” he said, holding up a sturdy door key. Into the bin it went.
He tossed a few more, then dumped the remainder back in the drawer with an expression of disgust.
“We’ve wasted enough time,” he declared, “better show me the case.”
I handed him the chart, with my history on top. He lingered on the assessment at the bottom of the page. Residents sometimes began to sweat when attending physicians paused too long in their documentation review. I did not in this case, because the assessment was not mine in the first place; the patient brought her diagnosis with her from the last admission. He grunted and moved on to the ancillary notes, containing the comments from psychiatric nurses who had evaluated the patient.
“Jesus Christ! Did you read this?”
Now I began to sweat. I hadn’t read the nurse’s notes. He handed me the chart with a shake of his head. I’d gotten lucky; the question was rhetorical. Curiosity displaced my anxiety and I began to read with interest. Immediately, I realized what he was on about.
At the bottom of the page, several of the nurses (a cabal?) postulated that dark forces were at work in the patient’s life. The assessment dwelt upon the young lady’s practice of witchcraft, not as an expression of alienation in a personality dangerously adrift, but as an activity with sinister efficacy. I looked up at him as I finished reading.
“How can we hope to do anything for the patients when we’re up against this kind of stupidity from the staff? Borderline,” he stated, returning to my assessment, “Do you really believe that?”
I shrugged. She had the black nail-polish sign, which every trainee knew was pathognomonic for borderline personality disorder.
“There are some people that fit the bill, but mostly the term is an epithet applied to people who we don’t like because they are frustrating. It’s the DSM used as a cudgel, and it justifies our bringing these people into the institution when their community becomes too frustrated with their behaviors. They come in for a few days or a few weeks until they’ve cooled off, then they go back out with the same problems, to the same problems. So this kind of inpatient treatment is like firing into the tree line: it’s good for keeping the enemy’s head down, but it’s not good for hitting anything.”
His words were familiar in structure and reference. At home that evening, I poured through my memory and my boxes of books, and I eventually placed them. They recalled an image from Heart of Darkness.

Once, I remember, we came upon a man-of-war anchored off the coast. There wasn’t even a shed there, and she was shelling the bush. It appears the French had one of their wars going on thereabouts. Her ensign dropped limp like a rag; the muzzles of the long six-inch guns stuck out all over the low hull; the greasy, slimy swell swung her up lazily and let her down, swaying her thin masts. In the empty immensity of earth, sky and water, there she was, incomprehensible, firing into a continent. Pop, would go one of the six-inch guns; a small flame would dart and vanish, a little white smoke would disappear, a tiny projectile would give a feeble screech – and nothing happened. Nothing could happen. There was a touch of insanity in the proceeding, a sense of lugubrious drollery in the sight; and it was not dissipated by somebody on board assuring me earnestly there was a camp of natives – he called them enemies! – hidden out of sight somewhere.

The image stuck and grew stronger over the years until I ceased to see my preceptor as chief among madmen and came to see him as Marlow on the boat. He was the lone relativist in a wilderness of absolutists who considered borderline personality more than a label on a charge sheet (it is that at least, for the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual which codified the term is a tool intended to itemize mental illness for billing). For his fellow wardens of the institution, there existed a borderline personality fact about certain people, caused by borderline personality pathologies and amenable, potentially, to borderline personality treatments. He saw them firing into a continent. He did not, of course, live in the land of absolute relativism, where everything is an onion made of layer upon layer of motives and relations with no pertinent core. He believed in borderline personality as a country over yonder. It recognized certain commonalities, but those commonalities arose in the villages. They accrued; they did not come down from on high.
He cared about how seriously the nurses, psychologists and patients took diagnoses, not because relativism was true. He cared because absolutes did not obtain. Worse, absolutes destroyed. On occasion, bullets fired into the tree line did hit something, and that something was an enemy by definition. Over his career, he’d seen victory declared over schizophrenia and the state institutions emptied onto the street. He’d seen the profession take a pass on intractable diagnoses, like personality disorders. He’d heard from his predecessors about neurosurgical solutions considered quite successful in their time. It wasn’t that relativism was true, it was just that truth didn’t work that way. It wasn’t diagnosis-friendly, and the truth about psychology all the less so.

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Who Are We to Believe, the Lion, the Scorpion or Circe?

People have been preoccupied with the nature of mind and personality at least since anyone realized that everyone’s first question is the same question – “Huh?”.

A slave named Androcles once escaped from his master and fled to the forest. As he was wandering about there he came upon a lion lying down moaning and groaning. At first he turned to flee, but finding that the lion did not pursue him, he turned back and went up to him. As he came near, the lion put out his paw, which was all swollen and bleeding, and Androcles found that a huge thorn had got into it, and was causing all the pain. He pulled out the thorn and bound up the paw of the lion, who was soon able to rise and lick the hand of Androcles like a dog. Then the lion took Androcles to his cave, and every day used to bring him meat from which to live.
But shortly afterwards both Androcles and the lion were captured, and the slave was sentenced to be thrown to the lion, after the latter had been kept without food for several days.

The emperor and all his court came to see the spectacle, and Androcles was led out into the middle of the arena. Soon the lion was let loose from his den, and rushed bounding and roaring towards his victim. But as soon as he came near to Androcles he recognized his friend, and fawned upon him, and licked his hands like a friendly dog.

The emperor, surprised at this, summoned Androcles to him, who told him the whole story. Whereupon the slave was pardoned and freed, and the lion let loose to his native forest.

•Source: The Fables of Æsop, selected, told anew, and their history traced by Joseph Jacobs (London: Macmillan and Company, 1902), no. 23, pp. 60-61. First published 1894.

In Androcles and the Lion, the lion represents a certain view of mind. When Androcles meets him, the lion is preoccupied with the thorn in his paw. Nothing else matters; the lion is an animal in pain, above all. After Androcles removes the thorn, the lion is an animal relieved of pain, above all. Henceforth, in Androcles’ presence, all that matters for the lion is the presence of Androcles. The mindfulness appears to be contagious too. The emperor is caught up in the fellowship and, cries for blood, bread and circuses be damned, he releases the slave and the lion. In this view of mind, what happens is what’s at work. The lion is still a lion. Androcles is right to fear the cat on sight. But the lion-ness is something of an accident of birth. The creature is mostly damp clay. It may start as a lion-shaped lump, but it is a natural born empiricist. It responds to stimuli as any set of enzymes and neurotransmitters would. Androcles’ mercy is the lion’s mercy is the emperor’s mercy because Androcles’ pain is the lion’s pain is the emperor’s pain. The story is lovely. No one really thinks the lion would have let Androcles approach, though. Nor does anyone reasonably expect a politician, even a despot, to disappoint his constituents for the sake of a slave and a predatory animal. So much for the sovereignty of current events. What else, then?

A scorpion and a frog meet on the bank of a stream and the scorpion asks the frog to carry him across on its back. The frog asks, “How do I know you won’t sting me?” The scorpion says, “Because if I do, I will die too.” The frog is satisfied, and they set out, but in midstream, the scorpion stings the frog. The frog feels the onset of paralysis and starts to sink, knowing they both will drown, but has just enough time to gasp “Why?” Replies the scorpion: “Its my nature…”

The scorpion cannot escape his nature. Neither can the frog, and his is the nature which cannot tell the difference between helping someone across the river and helping a deadly scorpion across the river. In either case, the creature’s transcendent essence trumps the matter at hand. Just as the lion is ruled by the insistent facts of the moment, the frog and the scorpion move to the tug of their respective natures, with the facts of the moment as props and extras on the stage, setting the scene but not truly affecting the action. The frog feels mortified as the truth is uncovered. But the scorpion goes down happily, for he has apparently learned to love his fate.
However, his fate is to sting, not to cross rivers, though he speaks of it all as one piece. By nature, the scorpion has much in common with the frog, except the scorpion’s nature is one which cannot tell the difference between loving its fate and hurtling headlong to its doom. Stinging isn’t the issue for the scorpion, wanting a ride across the river on a stingable boat is. Circumstances are not just window dressing, and the closer we examine essences, the more they look like they’re ruled by circumstances, and might even be made of circumstances themselves.
If there is no absolute power in mechanism and no absolute power in identity, then what do we make of ourselves?

Listen with care to this now, and a god will arm your mind. Square in your ship’s path are Seirenes (Sirens), crying beauty to bewitch men coasting by; woe to the innocent who hears that sound! He will not see his lady nor his children in joy, crowding about him, home from sea; the Seirenes will sing his mind away on their sweet meadow lolling. There are bones of dead men rotting in a pile beside them and flayed skins shrivel around the spot. Steer wide; keep well to seaward; plug your oarsmen’s ears with beeswax kneaded soft; none of the rest should hear that song. But if you wish to listen, let the men tie you in the lugger, hand and foot, back to the mast, lashed to the mast, so you may hear those harpies’ thrilling voices; shout as you will, begging to be untied, your crew must only twist more line around you and keep their stroke up, till the singers fade.
– Translated by Robert Fitzgerald

The Seirenes will sing his mind away with a song based in a natural, essential property of man: to be motivated, and so ruled, by his desires. Circe advocates Amor Fati. Listen to the song; the desire it carries is an essential fact in you. No theory of desire will save you. But it is not a transcendent fact. It is a fact with an explanation. It is a fact made of things in history, the same as the joy of homecoming from the sea. Rooted as it is in history, it is a fact no more powerful than a column of cedar, beeswax and cords. Circe saw clearest when it came to mind and personality. Like, Odysseus, we’d be well advised to listen to her.

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Autumn is a season for reflection. The humors slow. We are reminded of mortality, as the life around us shuts down. The maudlin huddle under blankets and hide from the change. Happy fatalists jump in the leaves and ignore it. We shouldn’t contrive a situation where certainty is ours and we wait for the change with eyes shut tight. We ought to be thinking about life instead of death, but not in the fatalists’ way. Out in the cold, in crevices and under bark, tiny creatures illustrate a better way as they face the real crux, the exposure.
As the nights cool, substances like the stored reserves of hibernating animals accumulate in the tissues of certain insects. But rather than providing energy through a long sleep, these substances will embalm their creator. If the rate of transition allows, water in the animal’s body will become an amorphous solid, a glassy ice. Glass spares all the containing structures in the body from lacerating crystals which destroy cell membranes and organs when the other form of ice takes hold. We are familiar with this process because, with less reflection than the insects, we bring the dilemma of a frozen state to our own, furry kinsmen. Motivated at once by fatalistic optimism (in the method) and insecurity (in the act itself), people have taken advantage of vitrification to postpone the development of human and animal embryos in anticipation of more favorable conditions.
In every case, resuscitation is not guaranteed. Some of the vitrified wild animals are clearly doomed. They don’t have enough of the embalming substances in their cells, or have too much water on board. Some are victims of circumstance, as the rate and depth of temperature change affects survival, all else being equal. The insects can’t bank on their potential. For all they know, when the frost takes them, they are dead. That’s all we know too. We freeze many embryos because we can’t know what’s going to happen to any one of them, only what tends to happen to a population. Life is like that. It is fuzzy on the edges, where things like viruses, self-replicating proteins, frozen beetles, and frozen embryos lie in wait to rob us of our reassuring, formal picture.
Worse, when the frozen, the ones that do survive, come back to life, it is through a completely generic influence. Heat does it. The atoms in a particular space vibrate a little faster and the bug resumes its life. The embryo begins to grow again, and barring any further mishaps, becomes a lamb or a human infant, depending on what came before it. The potentials of the process, like those of the form, fade into the landscape. Odds don’t mean much for the frozen individuals. The relationship of the odds to the individual demonstrates that the forms and processes of life aren’t special. We can’t have precious life and its illusion of prescience to hide beneath. We want it instinctively though, because it protects us from the vista tugging at our tails. Nor does the landscape recede if we write it off to fate. If we look down from our preoccupations, we see the individuals poised on vertiginous points of space and time. The location is special, but not cozy. It’s a spot of massive focus and alien potential. The view down is disturbing, but it is more accurate, and more immense than our mythology or our philosophy, if we can take it in.

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