Tag Archives: experience

The Door in the Very Back

Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose

Janis Joplin

Attachment is the root of suffering


We live in Scottsdale, an outpost latched to the Sonoran Desert like a tick on the back of a bony mongrel. It calls itself a city, but it is not. Cities are permanent settlements which arise spontaneously from commercial roots. A city has some external basis for its existence, like a navigable river, a mineral deposit, or rich surrounding farmland. Being based on a natural utility, a city bears the confidence of legitimacy coupled with the discipline of responsibility. Take a port city for example, which grows a superstructure founded upon its waterfront. Though they may grumble about their tax bill, no citizen of the port need wonder why the city government spends money on building docks and dredging the harbor.

Scottsdale has no such foundation. Instead, it is an amenity for its amenities. The city provides an airport so that wealthy snowbirds can migrate to the desert when the first frosts make their hometowns uncomfortable. There are golf courses soaked in stolen water from the Colorado where executives do business in information technology and professional players entertain resident retirees. Many districts are zoned to allow restaurants and shops mixed with apartments and office buildings. The resulting environments have adopted the label “live/work” for themselves. Metaphysically, it is radioactive and I blame exposure to its rays for my wife’s parasomnia.

She does not sleepwalk, nor does she exhibit signs or symptoms of any other ordinary sleep disorder. Her affliction may even be unique, since I have found no record of similar cases in the literature.

This is how it manifests: as I am falling completely asleep, she grabs my shoulder and shakes me.
“How long did you say it would be until humans go extinct?”, she asks.
“About 100,000 years,” I answer.
“Really?” she exclaims” Then what is the point of all this if humans are just over someday and nobody will remember any of us or anything we did?”
“Well,” I say “that question is just bad. Asking an existential what’s-the-point-question is like asking why isn’t round, green. Separate things entirely.”

“Well,” she persists, “I don’t see why we try so hard to accomplish all these things that will be completely forgotten in the end.”
“It is just who we are,” I offer.
“I still don’t see why we try to do anything at all,” she says.
” Try not doing anything at all, and remember, sitting home eating ice cream is doing something,” I say.
There is silence now from her side of the bed.
“Say,” I ask, “do you want to go to Walmart tomorrow?”
“Yeah,” she replies, “that will be fun.”
She settles back and goes to sleep then, but I know she’s unconvinced. We will have this same conversation again, on another night in the near future, in the few minutes before sleep overtakes us.

The trip to Walmart will buy us a couple of peaceful nights. She loves Walmart, like most of us do. The store has a broad-based appeal, as evidenced by its presence in the middle of upscale Scottsdale. Our local Walmart typically has as many BMWs as it has Chevys in the parking lot. It took me a long time to figure out why we find Walmart so attractive. It isn’t the items for sale. Everything in Walmart is available someplace else. Buying the same goods over the Internet is generally more convenient and may be even cheaper than going to the store. The physical environment isn’t the draw either. The aesthetics of Walmart’s interior design leave much to be desired, and practically, it is a maze crammed with items that are sometimes poorly marked.

The ingenious curation of items is the key to Walmart’s appeal. Everything on the shelves serves its purpose up to the highest level manageable by a layman. When a shopper walks through the front door with a certain need, intent on a particular item which they have calculated most likely to fulfill that need, they may or may not find the object of their intent. But, they are almost guaranteed a solution amongst the goods in stock.

Say a shopper comes in looking for a dovetail saw, because they want to cut thin plywood and figure that they need a saw with a straight, self-supported blade. What they find on the shelves at Walmart is a variable speed, electric reciprocating saw. As they consider the electric saw, they realize that they really don’t know anything about the dovetail saw, other than the fact that it has a straight blade which is self-supported. Maybe, they think, they were about to get in over their head by buying a dovetail saw. The electric saw looks like it will do the job, and is guaranteed to be manageable for an amateur like them. All the items in Walmart are instructive in this way.

When I first grasped the secret of Walmart’s draw, it seemed like magic. But it turns out to be something less. In fact, I think the Magi in the back room of corporate headquarters sorted out their strategy by watching beavers. At first glance, beavers seem to be brilliant little creatures. Their dams and dens look like masterful feats of engineering. But in truth, all the beavers do is put sticks where they hear flowing water. The dam is just a manifestation of accrued impulse.

The Magi understand that humans are just the same as the beavers. Everything man-made is a manifestation of accrued impulse. Instead of reacting to the sound of water flowing, we respond to an urge to preserve. Our impulse to save the status is expansive, and pertains not just to personal existence, but to the entire infrastructure of personal identity. Wherever we hear a trickling leak of currency dripping into memory or memory into oblivion, our species hustles over to plug things up again. To get the job done, we will use anything that we can get our hands on: monuments, literature, culture, or personal possessions.

Over the centuries, we have built up dams made of dams to preserve us. In a room in the very back of corporate headquarters at Walmart, the Magi have a model of the whole thing. They can see what sort of patch will fit a particular defect in the barrier. The dam of dams model shows them exactly what kind of jersey to put in the men’s athletic wear section: A tank top which recalls the shirts of famous players long retired, without naming names, yet a garment current enough in its design to acknowledge present stars. This sort of insight is just too perfect to attribute to anything less than informed and premeditated action. It requires a model of the dam.

On occasion, right after I am shaken awake to answer existential questions, I fantasize about taking my wife to corporate headquarters, where we will find the the door in the very back of the complex. I could then show her the full extent of the dam. I wouldn’t say a word. I would let the monstrous complexity of the model speak for itself.

But when I awaken the next morning, I never get up to pack the car for a road trip. Rested and little more sober in the light of day, I suspect that a peek at the whole structure will not cure her sleep disorder, anymore than my reasonable words. I think that she will need to see what the dam contains, and not the dam itself. That stuff is transparent and liquid to the touch, though. It will be dangerously easy for her to dismiss the stuff of identity, even if she were able to dip her toe in it. I doubt that the Magi have gone so far in the name of realism as to fill the reservoir behind their model. They don’t really need that part of the simulation anyway.

It doesn’t really matter. I can survive a little lost sleep. My answers to her questions remain adequate, even if she does not find them conclusive. Besides, in a few decades, the desert will shrivel and the Colorado River will be sucked dry. The city of Scottsdale will flop over with its legs curled in the air. The rest of everything humanity has built will follow shortly, in geologic time. No one will recall her metaphysical sleep disorder. I think I will not keep thinking about a cure. It is a unique experience after all. And there is always the solace of a shopping trip the next day.

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Postcards from Rivendell

Picture of a black horse

This is a picture of a black horse. It symbolizes nothing. It is a record of an aspect. In other words, it does not identify black horses, much less a particular black horse, because it does not refer to the structure of aspects which constitutes black horses or Daisy the black horse.

Black-horse picture

This is a black-horse picture. It symbolizes black horses, and therefore refers to the entire structure of aspects identifying black horses. Though this one does not, such pictures may refer to a particular structure of characteristics identifying Daisy the black horse.

Mount Rainier

This is a topographic map of Mount Rainier. It is a record of an aspect (relative prominence). Therefore it is necessarily a picture of Mount Rainier. It also refers to the entire structure, from the chemistry of volcanic rock to the origins of the volcano’s name. Therefore, it is necessarily a mountain picture, a volcano picture and a Mount Rainier picture.

Any map which is a map has these features: it presents a viewpoint in reference to the global structure of viewpoints on its subject. The name superimposed on the map’s collection of contour lines directs the user to a European nobleman in whose honor a Pacific Northwest volcano was named. Knowing now that the map in hand is a map of a Pacific Northwest volcano, one can guess, based on geologic and physical chemistry aspects of those peaks, what the climbing might be like on the steep, North face of Mount Rainier.

In addition and necessarily, if I travel to a certain longitude and latitude on the map, I will know what sort of ground I will be standing on: rock or ice, steep or flat. Because, I have a picture of that ground on the map.

Maps constitute our reality, if we wish to speak of anything as real. It is an interdependent reality, not an independent reality, and especially not a mind independent reality. The idealists can postulate archetypical forms for everything under the sun. Dualists can insist on a mental substance. Yet, the world maps the same without these outside props. Bishop Berkeley could be right; God could be making it all up as he goes along. But, when we stub our toes on a rock, our consciousness conjures a map featuring the stone’s painful hardness, without reference to any divine-creative aspect. At best, the activities of the deity are notations on the border of a chart which is already complete.

We employ cartography across the board, charting all things, from Northwest volcanoes to attitudes. Sometimes, we even use fictional maps in our depictions of sentimental features of our experience. A map of Middle Earth, for instance, does not record any aspect of anyone’s experience. It does provide a background of relationships upon which various categories of experience are charted. The landscape’s precipices, snowfields and swift waters sketch out fear, endurance, and fidelity.

Features on the map of middle Earth fictionalize geologic structures as building blocks for a depiction of interpersonal relationships and personal attitudes. To be successful, the fictional features need to reference our maps of geology just enough to bring along the emotional content. The Misty Mountains must seem cold and treacherous. Rivendell must feel like an old growth forest. Done well enough, an arrangement of fictional elements can make us wonder what truly separates the constructed world from the world of primary experience.

There are hundreds, if not thousands, of images depicting Rivendell. But of course, there are no pictures of Rivendell. There are not even Rivendell pictures, as there is no structure of aspects to reference regarding Rivendell’s locality. What the artist does when they depict Rivendell is a reconciliation. Images of Rivendell constitute an attempt to match up the artist’s motive with the elements of the artist’s experience. Tolkien simply acts as a guide. He lays out the emotional manifestations which the topography must encompass.

The reason for fictions like the diverse images of Rivendell, should be obvious. When we examine our motive, we confront a brute fact. Our methods, which aim to explain, suddenly fail, and we are forced to construct a proper narrative instead. Such is the case with artistic fictions, and such is the case with moral fictions as well.

We move from one psychological state to another without understanding how we arrived at the start or why we left it. So, our reflections prove reactive, and our notions of introspection are fallacies at heart. To reconcile motive and experience, we must fall back on our depictions of Rivendell, and our moral narratives.

The method of our psychological cartography yields a much different product than we get from our geographical cartography. Our map of Mount Rainier provides a record of an aspect in reference to a global structure of aspects. Our depictions of Rivendell suggest emotions which record our psychological motion through the landscape. Our psychological cartography necessarily gives us something secondary: the structure of experience resulting from motive expressing itself, as it flows freely or is thwarted by the cliffs, streams and woodlands on the page.

Because we can explain the sensations, whether the depiction of Rivendell makes us feel warm or cold, sad or inspired, we find it easier to speak of those sensations as primary. We say that the depiction moves us to the attitude in question. That is not accurate. We move and our sensations constitute the wake of that motion. The generative element of our experience is not responsive. Even our wistful feelings upon viewing the ancient trees of Rivendell are not responses, but results.

All talk of morality is a Rivendell picture.

It looks like a place, in other words, a suitable cartographic subject. But, as Hume and Moore pointed out, our moral depictions lack the associated structure of aspects required. Moral depictions are secondary representations, just like Rivendell, which is a secondary representation of interpersonal relationships and personal attitudes. Instead of precipices, snowfields, and rushing streams, moral pictures sketch out a desirable motivational ecosystem. And because of the opacity of motive, moral pictures always remain flawed in their representation, though they represent their secondary subject as well as any art might.

It is no great error to talk about a moral sense, or human thriving, or the tally of global well-being. These things represent the aspiration of our expressive impulse. We can use such terms consistently, as long as we do not begin to mistake those depictions as proper cartographic subjects.

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All It’s About Is What It’s All About

Every morning, Joseph walks out of his apartment building and breathes in the aroma of fresh bread from the bakery next door. It is a complex odor, which Joe thoroughly enjoys. He likes it so much that he is motivated to investigate what makes it so wonderful. Through reading chemistry texts and papers about the neurology of smell, he discovers so much more going on in the smell than his quaint scent experience, or at least that is how it appears.

He learns that the aroma of freshly baked bread consists of a mixture of 6 to 8 volatile chemicals which interact with his olfactory receptors, sending a distinctive set of signals to his brain. Understanding the structure of the aroma makes it even more wonderful for Joe. Most days, he simply smells the smell and never thinks about the 6 to 8 volatile chemicals or the neurons, but the background conditions his experience nonetheless.

One day, Joe opens his door, and as the fumes from the bakery wash over him, he has a powerful sense of déjà vu. It turns out, on that particular morning, the concentrations of the 6 to 8 chemicals, the state of his neurology, and the humidity in his nasal cavity are precisely the same as they were on the previous Tuesday.
He thinks to himself, “This is exactly the same smell as I have smelled before.”
But then he stops to think again and realizes that if the experience were identical, he would never know it. Only an aspect is identical, and only an aspect could ever be identical. The whole smell is much more, as much more as can be, a totality.

Sadly, Joe has only a few more mornings with the smell of baking bread. He contracts leprosy and moves to an institution where he can receive care for the disease. He is not completely bereft however. In the garden of the leprosarium, he finds a beautiful statue of a horse. He goes into the garden to appreciate it each morning. The horse becomes his fresh-baked bread. Even when his eyesight is affected by his disease, as it is early in the course, he finds that he can still appreciate the features of the statue by touch.

The nerves in his fingers are affected as well however. His touch discriminates less and less of the statue’s detail as time passes. It is just as well, as it turns out that the statue is made of a soft stone which wears away under Joe’s habitual palpation, leaving only the vague shape of the horse after a couple of years. Happily for Joe, the erosion makes no difference. His sense of touch keeps pace in its own deterioration, and as he moves his arms about the vague shape which stands where the detail of the horse’s features once stood, the interaction still brings to mind the beauty of the original statue, as much as his fingertips used to do.

Consciousness is consciousness of something. The orientation of anything else is derivative of that orientation in consciousness. This condition is pervasive, and so any realist claims are also conditional, and the question is: Is a conditional realism still realism?

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The Other Senses

We humans have a visual bias. Experiments have demonstrated our preference for sight, but there is no need for experiments. “The proof of the pudding is in the eating,” not the tasting, but “Seeing is believing,” they say. Whenever we want to illustrate something, well, we illustrate it. Our language and culture reify vision. Even our metaphysical discussions are rife with visual references: consider Mary the color scientist, spectrum inversions, and Gettier problems.

Our belief in seeing privileges our sense of sight relative to our other senses, and we are likely to take its instruction more seriously. We wave off any perceptual conundrums arising from our other senses as foibles of inferior organs. But we should take our nonvisual phenomena more seriously, for they have lessons for us if we do.

Those lessons start at the bottom, with our sense of smell. Though it is our crudest sense, and arguably the one sensory modality that we could most do without, the structure of smell has weighty implications. Olfactory neurons each bear a single kind of receptor. The odors we experience are mediated by activation of a set of receptors entirely. The number and distribution of that activation determines everything about a smell: its intensity, favorability, and motivational power. An odor is something which can be described, but not named. There is no equivalent to “red” in our odor palette. However, there are good and bad smells, and as with moral qualities (supposedly), smells are intrinsically motivating on the basis of their goodness and badness.

That motivational power lies in the smell itself. A chemical in a test tube which smells like a steaming pile, produces the same revulsion as the smell of a steaming pile itself. It is tempting to say that the odor of the chemical in the test tube is just an olfactory misrepresentation of crap. The common scent is supposed to smell just as it does, though. The smell is a conjunction linking an aversive mood, and things to be avoided. The smell and the mood are about a broad landscape, stretching over memory, history coded in our genetics and cultural instruction, all mediated by a particular pattern of receptor activation.

A similar sort of two-directional representation occurs in our auditory experience. The organ which generates auditory nerve signals, the cochlea, is tuned to the range of the human voice. The structures at the auditory end of the line are primed to respond directly to voices and music, and indirectly, to stimulate an emotional response to voices and music. As with smell, when hearing evokes a mood, it builds a memory of itself and its circumstances on a broad and sturdy base. A good framework improves the recollection’s relevance, and therefore its odds of survival. Here is another temptation. Fans of evolutionary psychology and divine teleology may see the beginnings of a good story in this structure. But those sorts of stories are unnecessary, and far beyond the point, which is: our hearing shapes the map of our experience in terms of words and music, as much as it recognizes musical and linguistic experiences.

The other senses break down the uni-directionality of representation, but even further, they blur the internal/external division itself. Taste receptors give us the sensations of sweet, salt, sour, bitter, and umami. Our conscious experience of taste locates those sensations on the tongue. But there are taste receptors for bitter and sweet in the pharynx, and sweet taste receptors throughout the intestinal tract. Those sweet receptors attach to neurons which do not reside in the central nervous system, but instead, lie in the intestinal tract itself, and the pancreas. Though these sense organs have no direct connections to the central nervous system, they still contribute to conscious experience. They simply do so via the adjacent somatosensory system.

Our somatic senses are a bit of a jumble. As a whole, they are the thing that represents our status. Though there are a few specialized sense organs in the system, it mostly relies on bare nerve endings and chemical signals built in to the tissues surrounding the nerve endings. This sense tells us where our limbs are, and what each appendage is doing. The somatosensory system lets us know when our gallbladder is on the fritz, and, indirectly, when we are hungry or full..

Though they are rarely the center of our conscious attention, our somatosensory experiences are always present in our conscious states. If I interrupt Dr. Penrose’s visualization of a 5 dimensional object, he will immediately be able to tell me whether he is standing or sitting, feeling hungry, feeling warm or cold, fit or tired. Somatosensory experience serves as the shade tree, grass, and sky in the painting of our phenomenal picnic.

Of all the senses, our somatic sense most effectively dissolves the boundary between what is internal and what is external. Because, our hunger is apparently our hunger. Our cold is our cold. These are things that seem to incorrigibly belong to us, just like our thoughts or our moods.

The thought that any of these things belong to us is a bit off anyway. Words and music, hunger, thought, and mood are constituents, but there is no separable “us” to which they may belong. We come by this error regarding identity via our most favored sense. Because we rely so heavily on vision, we confer an unmerited degree of independence to our visual experiences. We conceive of sight as purely received information, which given the limitations of the medium, naïvely represents an unconditioned reality. The plain truth gets transmitted through our optic nerves, into the dark room behind our eyes for the viewing pleasure of a little man in front of his little screen – the real us. Visual realism leads to other mistakes in its turn, regarding what is real and what is not. We begin to believe that numbers may be real because our eyes see objects as very discrete. Geometric shapes may seem real because we are able to depict them visually. A separate observer made up a separate stuff must sit behind our eyes to validate the reality of our visions. Our other senses beg to differ. They give as good as they get. Their contributions to our experience only make sense in reference to our global experience itself and do not rest on some outer, hard surface. Our world may be a ship sustained by the tension of its own spars, but it works for us – better than a brittle realism would.

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Taking Pictures

Wyoming is a Banana Republic. That is, very few of its residents craft any products, or add value to pre-existing items. Instead, they survive by selling off the state bit by bit. The major industries are mineral extraction and tourism. Reliance on those commodities creates a vicious cycle, because the state’s fortunes rise and fall with mineral prices and popular whimsy. To live through the fluctuations, politicians skimp on the state budget so that they can put enough money in the bank to survive the next economic lull. A few lonely prophets call for investing those funds in economic diversification, in the interest of breaking free from the cycle of feast and famine. The politicians repeatedly acknowledge that diversification is a good idea, but can never bring themselves to actually commit to it. It is just too risky.

So, the state carries on in its bumpy ruts, booming and busting. Decades on this road have had socioeconomic consequences. The path has led to a land of Manors and mobile homes, housing those who own the mines and the lovely land and their servants respectively.

No place in the state epitomizes this case study in Marxist historical analysis better than the town of Jackson. A ring of expensive houses surrounds a ring of expensive condominiums which surrounds a cluster of expensive restaurants, galleries, and boutiques. And that is Jackson. Though Jackson is fancy enough in any season, its exclusivity shines brightest in winter. In summer, the dirtier class of tourist drives through town on its way to Yellowstone. In winter, the only reason to be in Jackson is to patronize one of the ski resorts or to serve the patrons.

Although, there is one other, statistically insignificant reason to be in Jackson in the winter. For several years, that reason compelled me. I wanted to climb the grand Teton in full conditions. There is no reasonable explanation for that compulsion. I just feel a perverse attraction to isolated, windswept places. For instance, when I topped out on California Ice in the Bighorns, I sat on a rock and looked across from Hell Roaring plateau to Froze to Death plateau and was filled with a rare sensation, a feeling of fearsome loneliness, and profound contentment along with it. I can’t offer any better excuse.

When the idea first came to me, I sought out a friend who had done a lot of climbing in the Teton range. Sure enough, he had attempted a winter ascent. He got close, but after a day of skiing through waist deep powder, he and his partner had to bivouac short of their goal. They were well prepared, but the night was so brutally cold, that they were beaten by the next morning and decided to ski down. They fell into chest deep powder on each turn. My friend’s partner lost his mind. He took his skis off and tossed them, javelin style, down the snowfield. He then swam after them over the loaded slope, cursing and spluttering, until he could get his hands on the traitorous bastards and chuck them again. Though he came back to his senses eventually, the trip marked an end to their partnership..

Despite that tale, and others warning of frostbite and avalanche, I still thought I could pull it off, and I still wanted to pull it off, maybe even more than before. It wasn’t a solo adventure though, and to my surprise and frustration, I had difficulty convincing anyone else to come along.

Finally, I persuaded my friend Jim that it would be a good adventure. I’m not sure if he ever really believed that we would climb, but he believed in the adventure part and that was good enough for him. We set up base camp at the Motel 6 down the road from the main town.

Over the next week, we made a few forays up past the tree line, but the avalanche forecasts were always bad, and the peak was socked in with clouds and blowing snow besides. Nobody said anything; we just gave up one day. We got up late, and Jim suggested that we might go up to Teton Pass and do some tele skiing.

Now it was my turn to cash in on the adventure itself rather than the intrinsic joys of the activity. I knew how skis worked, theoretically. But until that day, I had only used skis to get somewhere with a pack on. My technique was purely pragmatic, and rudimentary. To go downhill, I left the climbing skins on the skis. I then skied across the slope, stopped and turned to face the other direction. I repeated that process to the bottom of the hill.

When we got to the top of the pass, the skins came off the skis. Jim gave me some tips on turning without stopping, and then we were off. Again and again I nosedived into the unconsolidated powder. Jim was soon out of sight. I began to suspect retribution. I felt like I owed him at that point though, so I sucked it up and ate a little more snow while he carved track after track in the slope. When we had had enough, we went into town and wandered around.

Winter tourists milled around the square. Most were dressed to ski, with lift tickets still clipped to their coat zippers. A few were dressed as cowboys in Stetsons and shearling coats. The famous antler arch was busy with group after group documenting the fact of their visit to Jackson Hole with a picture under the strange sculpture of bone.

There was not much for us around the square. We stood outside a couple of the bars and debated going in for a drink. They seemed too crowded though, and we decided against. We stopped by the mountaineering shop, which at this point in its evolution had basically become a Patagonia outlet, to chat with an old friend of Jim’s. We didn’t go in to any of the other establishments, but we did stop for a while in front of a photo display. Though neither of us was in the market for an expensive print, Jim had a professional interest in the product.

Jim was a photographer, but not the kind of photographer who had a gallery in downtown Jackson Wyoming. Jim was an artist who scraped by on grants and museum patronage. He took pains to draw a distinction between what he did, and what a commercial photographer did. Yet he radiated a little glow of resentment as we stood in front of the spotless plate glass. The gallery inside was all polished wood. If there was an attendant, he or she was politely hidden in the back.

The well lit pictures were all of wildlife. Most depicted charismatic megafauna. The photographer seemed particularly fond of bears. Jim glanced over most of these offerings in a second, and then paused for a bit in front of a family of polar bears. He wore a discomforted expression.
“What do you think?”, I asked.
I expected to catch him off guard, and I was halfway teasing with the question, but he shot back right away.
“It’s too didactic”
I was caught off guard.
“What do you mean by that?”, I asked.
“It looks like a photograph,” he said.

I didn’t exactly know what he meant. However, I could see that there was something different about the pictures of wildlife in that gallery, and his pictures. There was one photo of his in particular, taken at Lac Du Flambeau, which stood out to me. The subjects were two members of the tribe, a man and a woman. He was looking into the distance with an expression of anger or determination, it was hard to say which. She stood behind him, maybe in contact with him, wearing that same, mysterious expression, but she was looking at him. She was standing still. He appeared prepared to stride off towards whatever it was the distance. He was silent. She was speaking.

Clearly, his photo was something other than the picture of the polar bear family. I understood the gist of it then, but it would be years before I could put that distinction into words. It is the difference between pictures of polar bears, and polar bear pictures. Pictures of polar bears could be pictures of the whole bear, but also could be photos of a patch of fur, a black nose, or a white dot in the distance. Polar bear pictures could depict whole bears too, but include stick figures, polar bear paintings, pictures of men in polar bear suits, or black eyes, a black nose and a red mouth on white canvases.

Pictures of polar bears document. Polar bear pictures represent. By representing, polar bear pictures evoke all the relative connections which comprise our categories, and therefore the sense of our experience.

The picture in the gallery was a picture of polar bears. It was as documentary as the tourists’ snapshots under the antler arch. The photograph of the man and woman at Lac Du Flambeau was representational. There was something about human relationship, emotion, and the interpretation of expressions in the photo. But the really brilliant thing was: the photo primarily represented something not present in the image itself.

The predominant impression was the churn of excitement and uncertainty which occurred in the beholder. It was a class of sensation which bound subsequent viewers to the original viewer in its momentary intensity.

Jim has been gone for some years now. I can’t even find that picture in the supposed eternity of the Internet. I don’t need to, because I can remember it in every detail by the feeling it represents. The feeling is the same as my excuse for wanting to climb the Grand in winter, and I think it also explains why Jim would throw in on my crazy project.

There is no gallery for such things.

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The Overhanging 5.9 Hand Crack

The fates have determined that, from time to time, I will dine with royalty. And I have determined that, on those rare occasions, I will not pass up the opportunity to say something stupid.
While waiting for the food at a wilderness medicine conference banquet with my friend Andy, our table-mate, Dr. Hornbein, politely inquired as to our post-meeting plans.

I casually replied, “Oh, we’re headed off to climb the Grand.”
It was February.
To his credit, he blinked once and said, “Well, good luck.”

After sharing grilled chicken and carrots with Jack Tackle, Andy and I asked him what he thought about 2 possible routes for the next day.
He said that he liked the first route well enough. It was clean, with consistent climbing, and little loose rock.
The 2nd climb had some bad rock and mediocre climbing down low, but had an overhanging, 5.9 hand crack for most of a pitch in the middle.
“So,” I asked, “do you think that 2nd route is better?”
He stared at me blankly for a couple of seconds and replied, “It has an overhanging, 5.9 hand crack.”

In the light of subsequent experience, I get it. But at the time, I thought that I wanted to climb 5.12, so the 5.9 rating tarnished anything to which it was affixed. I worked pretty hard towards the goal of climbing 12’s, and I climbed a few 5.9 hand cracks along the way. I got there, barely.
The effort wasn’t worth it though. Working the routes endlessly, with creaking tendons and crushed toes, just did not justify the final victory. It was like winning World War I: a victory, sure, but an atrocity nonetheless.

I think I understand why other people are enamored of more difficult climbs – and yes, I recognize that 5.12 is the basement of “difficult” rockclimbing. For one of my ‘hard’ routes in particular, getting the clean ascent was like making a friend. I became so familiar with every little edge and crystal, that I’m sure I could regurgitate the beta for the route to this day, decades after I touched the rock last.

Working harder routes on rock can be painful and tedious. I don’t think it is the suffering and frustration that turn me off, though. I liked the more difficult mixed climbing that I did, and I was highly motivated to climb grade 6 or harder ice. I obsessively studied and salivated over those ice routes in the same way that some sport climbers I’ve known would microscopically analyze their projects. I trained for hard ice until I thought my forearms would pop.

I think the difference may be in the proprioceptive aesthetic of the climbs. The way a climb feels to the touch and the body position it demands get less attention than the way it looks and the puzzle it poses. The proprioceptive aesthetic is the last to be appreciated.

But the proprioceptive aesthetic leaves the most profound mark on me. It’s always front and center in ice climbing. The appreciation of touch flows from the essential circus trick at the heart of ice climbing: extending one’s consciousness from fingers, toes, wrists, and ankles into the pointy bits of metal attached to those natural appendages.
Maybe that appreciation of touch naturally gets tamped down the harder you crimp and lock off.

Or maybe, this is all just sour grapes. I don’t think so though. Given the choice of magical elixir which would allow me to climb as hard as the best climbers on rock, or a map to a thousand foot, clean, sandstone, overhanging hand crack, I’m certain that I would pick the map without a 2nd thought.

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What Does It Mean to Be a Disembodied Mind?

Really, we should go to the source for a self-report.

We immediately confront a problem, then. Where do we look?

That is to say, if we are to establish communication with the disembodied mind, then we must somehow individuate it. It must be a candidate for intentional inexistence if we even hope to take heed of it.

Yet individuation is precisely the psychological consequence of embodiment.

Look at it from the other side. What if the disembodied mind wants to talk to us poor saps wallowing in bodies?

Mustn’t it make it make the subject-object distinction first? And if it does, hasn’t it wiped out any hope of qualitative distinction from the rest of the body-wallowers?

It is merely a prettier critter, after all.


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…for a moment that you have been selected to participate in a groundbreaking experiment.

Neurobiologists have discovered a single neuron in the reticular activating system (RAS) which appears to be responsible for consciousness. In a rat model, when they hit this little cell with a pulse from an electrode, the rat stops and stares blankly. It will carry out reflexive acts, and even complex learned responses to stimulus. But when the electrode is hot, the questing nose and shifting eyes are still.

You will be the first human subject to undergo stimulation of the single consciousness neuron in the RAS. Well, at least one of the first human subjects, because I will undergo the procedure with you.

In the lab, we each have a tiny hole drilled in our skulls and a micro-wire inserted into the target neuron in our brains. Then, under video-EEG monitoring, I flip the switch that turns on your electrode.

Your EEG changes, but nothing seems to happen to you. You continue to chat with me and when I inquire as to the your status, you assure me that you are quite conscious.

But then I switch the current off.

You look surprised, and ask me, “How long was I out?”

I don’t know what to make of your behavior. Were you out? Was someone else in? Does the magic neuron just make you forget yourself for a bit?

There is only one way to find out. I tell you to flip the switch on my electrode.

I come to in the middle of a conversation, and report to you that I must have been unconscious while my electrode was hot. Your report of my behavior mirrors my report of yours: no change until the power goes off, and then the surprised “wake up”.

I still have no answer regarding anyone’s consciousness during the time when the RAS neuron is activated, nor will I get one. I may be able to make some guesses, if I gather loads of video-EEG data, or see what happens when I try to teach you something while the neuron is being stimulated. That behavioral information, in the brainwaves and in speech, may typically correlate with the presence or absence of a conscious state (in our experience).

The correlates can tell me nothing of the actual presence or absence of conscious experience, however. Consciousness occurs within a subject and won’t be found in the intersubjective. That state of affairs does not make consciousness particularly hard or mysterious – we all know all about it every day. It does require a subject to have it though, and it is always consciousness ‘of’. It is just ours and ours alone.

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Balance Impaired


DSC00176Close-up, the little gully evoked a strong sense of deja vu. The angle suggested that one might almost be able to stand up and walk it. The rock looked like a crocodile’s skin – all knobs and chunks with few cracks or pockets – and the few voids in the surface had formed from the erosion of yellow clay inclusions. I had been in this situation before, in the Canadian Rockies, the Tetons, the Cascades. It meant sparse and dubious protection for insecure climbing, with an ugly fall looming throughout.

The fresh memory of yesterday’s Eureka foray reinforced my unease. Just going into the mining country in Colorado’s San Juan mountains is sobering.  The road winds through acres of avalanche terrain peppered with jumbles of gray boards and rusty iron marking the eternal resting places of generations of abandoned avarice. Eureka itself stands for self-consciousness of our bitter relationship with the range. Once a small,  hopeful mining community the town is now a single building. The lone, windowless watchtower bears a prominent sign with the name of the town, placed there, no doubt, by the same sort of joker who might strap a party hat on a skeleton.


Yesterday was our second consecutive day at the ice climbs in the valley above the ghost town. The day before, we had been denied access to the longest climb in the area by an SAR exercise. Yesterday, we encountered a line of four parties on the same route, and we decided to trudge a bit further past the routes at the valley’s entrance. Around the bend and not far above, we found a lovely pillar of ice baking in the sun. The air temperature was cold however, and the ice looked to be in good shape from the ground, so we went for it.

My partner took the lead and ran the two pitches together. It went well until the very top. There he found the last few feet melted out and he could not get to the fixed anchor. Worse, in a fit of hubris, neither of us had thought to have him take the kit for building ice anchors. He put in two ice screws at his high point and I lowered him back to an intermediate ledge. He set up a belay and I set off to retrieve the ice screws and build an anchor in the ice to get us back down to the base.

Looking up at the situation, I knew that I should not risk falling. He had placed the two screws at the anchor properly. They had already held his weight on the lower. But the stainless steel tubes were basking. Many times, I had raced the process now at work on the anchor, placing another screw on a sunny climb before the last one heated up enough to melt loose. I arrived at the anchor and placed a back-up screw. Out of curiosity, I jiggled the anchor screws. They rattled in their holes, and by the time finished the rappel anchor, I could lift the screws free with two fingers.


By the time we got back down, the crowds had migrated our way. We had another objective in mind for the afternoon, but our hopes were squashed on the road, for we found a fellow standing at the head of the approach trail just staring across the valley as if he were reconsidering something. He informed us that he had ridden a slab avalanche for a few meters down the slope below our goal.  My partner had his wife and young son waiting back in Ouray anyhow.


There had been angst around bringing the child, who was their first. He was a nidus of concern in some familiar ways. He was 18 months old and did not want to eat or sleep regularly. He clearly understood everything said to him, but his only bit of expressive language was the word “No”. Each morning, he spent a non-stop hour on Rube-Goldberg action. Cups went into other cups, packets of jelly were transferred from person to person and then into the cups, and then back to their original owner. All of this chaos worried his parents. It seemed so overwhelming that one could hardly imagine any organized behavior arising from it.

Unless you had seen it before. I had. I distinctly recalled worrying about how I could possibly teach my first child to speak. I had no training, and no idea where to begin. Nevertheless, the kid started to talk. He had inherited the talent for it. From an adult perspective, it looked like a miracle, because adults liked to think that they had, each and every one, invented the world – or at worst discovered it. That way, the adult felt more competent, and the world seemed more solid.

From the child’s standpoint, he was building a constellation from the inside out. He had his experiences – what he might come to call ‘sense impressions’ should he grow into a particularly deluded adult – and he had the dots and lines to mark and tie together those experiences, inherited in his nucleic acids, language, and culture. The dots and lines were powerful tools. They would allow him to develop at heady pace, mapping out massive territories, like language, on the fly.

His ancestral mechanisms  assembled his star chart in a blur, and if he was at all self-conscious in his adulthood, he would spend a lot of time figuring out how he got there, and what kind of picture he had made with all those dots and lines overlying the bright spots of his experience. It would be daunting and he might be tempted to throw his hands up and just call the dots and lines the truth, to give the mathematical, linguistic and philosophical accretions on experience an undeserved solidity, while relegating the experience itself to a dirtier, incomplete status.

My partner’s son would have an antidote in that case. He would learn to climb, and that would at least open the blinds on the relationship between the picture of the stars and the stars themselves. He would still have to look, but most people didn’t even get that chance.


Perched in the little gully, I saw the true landscape.

I was not motivated. I felt the burden of all those extraneous considerations which populated the slope with angels and demons instead of little edges and blotches of ice. I climbed back down and handed the sharp end over to my partner. He was motivated, and managed to lead the pitch despite some misgivings about the security of the climbing. I followed without slips or fumbles. It was sketchy, no question. We looked at the next pitch, but decided against it. It would be there when the stars aligned favorably, or even better, when no one was thinking about the pattern of stars at their back.

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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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