Tag Archives: experience

The Sad Side of the Road

Being awake is swimming around in a lake of the undead.

And the undead are like a bunch of friends who demand constant attention.

Demanding constant attention, will only  lead to attention,

And once they have that attention, they’ll use it to ask for attention…

They Might Be Giants

The white truck was about a foot from our bumper. I looked in the mirror at the pick-up trucker. He wore mirrored aviators and had his head cocked in an expression of bored annoyance which only the rich white folks can pull off. I gave it right back, followed by the finger.

Over in the driver’s seat, my son was oblivious to the exchange. He was too gripped. He was driving the freeway for maybe the third time ever, and had shifted into survival mode on the entrance ramp. The truck pulled out and blew past us. At least he passed on the left. As the truck cleared our flank, I glanced around its tailgate at the Eastbound lanes.

On a Tuesday morning at 0630, the Eastbound side was the sad side of the road. Thousands of people parked in the lanes, distracting themselves with cell phones, the condescending humor and invective of AM radio, or their own expressions of hatred towards the filthy slacker stalling traffic in front of them. I wondered, as I had countless mornings before: Where were they all going?

Most were off to willingly trade their lives for money. Some were probably going to try to game the system, like us. Maybe they played ball in a league, or played a musical instrument, or read books and then thought about what they read. I was pretty sure that the gamers were a tiny minority. If there were lots of those people, then the sad side of the road would not exist in the first place.

I had thought about the sad side of the road on many mornings, as I drove to work. I rarely got to see things from the passenger’s seat though, and that Tuesday morning, from the passenger’s seat, I began to consider my own side of the road, too.  I wondered where the jackass in the truck was going. He was in a hurry, so he was going to cash in somewhere.

Maybe he was going to buy a ride on one of the hot air balloons which hovered above the dirty thermocline in the near Northern suburbs. I could see a couple from the freeway at 0630 on a Tuesday morning. The trucker seemed like the sort who would enjoy a balloon ride. He seemed ambitious, and looking down on the anthill from just above its pollution was good for the ambitious, especially if it was just a peek, and a costly enough peek to exclude the losers.

I knew where we were going. We were headed for Sedona, to climb a sandstone pinnacle. It was a traditional climb, which means I had to carry and place removable anchor pieces on my way up. I preferred traditional climbing to sport climbing, where the routes were protected by in situ anchor bolts.

I preferred traditional climbing because it got right to the point. Helmuth von Moltke the Elder was right: No plan survives contact with the enemy. In climbing, we sought to verify the corollary to that bit of Prussian wisdom: If you wanted to live, you couldn’t defer or hold back. You could not buy your way through. No faking allowed. When you placed your own gear, the corollary was on you right away. If you clipped bolts, it didn’t hit until you maxed out.

When I glanced back over at my son, he looked a little more relaxed. He had picked up driving quickly. I had tried to work on strategy with him. I hoped that he would continue to drive defensively and remain focused once the operational routines of driving became automatic. I hoped that he would not end up like the trucker. Even just being a gamer was better than that.DSC00084

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Breaking Trail

For the umpteenth time, my snowshoe breaks through the crust and dives into hopeless depth hoar. The continental snowpack nibbles away at one’s soul with a false promise in every step. The crust feels solid when one’s foot first rests upon it. It even holds as weight shifts from back foot to front foot. But, it can sense when the full weight of body and pack has shifted, and then it collapses.

The slog would be bad enough were it a grueling monotony of breakthrough after breakthrough, but it is worse that that. Because sometimes, the crust gives you a few steps on top, and just when you relax, then it lets you fall through into the great vat of cornstarch beneath. What’s still worse about my current situation is that I am following a trail. Minus the snow, it would be easy walking.

If I persist, I will soon get a little psychological boost, as my course turns off the cut trail and into untracked forest. Though it really isn’t any harder or easier than wallowing above the Summer trail, breaking off the established path onto the section that only I know, feels like progress and is an antidote to the demoralizing snow conditions.

I used to do the walk to high camp with a map and compass. I no longer need those. The rocks, trees, sequences of slopes and their conformations chart a more accurate course in my memory. These days, I can get to my destination despite the snow cover because the trail isn’t really on the ground; it is in my mind. Or, so it would seem,

One might say that the trail presupposes or lies in the potential of, my mind and memory. For a trail to be, the possibility of a trail must have been. But the trail is not made of possibilities. It is made of my memories of trees, slopes, rocks, and all the other landmarks on the way. It is made of my senses of time, space and distance, which are properties of the phenomena which constitute thought and memory. My memory, and its possibilities, are dependent upon its contents. And so it is with memory in general; it is defined by having extant referents.

In other words, my memory is nothing without memories, and all the possibilities of memory lie in its contents, including its metaphysical possibilities, which lie in its having contents. When I recall looking down the trail in this moment, I trace a path through the space and time of my memory, just as I did when I stood in the snow on the day I recall. And I do so on background – all the historical infrastructure which orients my current experience and dictates its aspectual shape.

My recollection at the keyboard can’t get going without the background, yet the background can’t be background except in relation to current experience, which links it all together. The possibility of a trail inheres in legs, eyes, slopes and trees. Memory resides in its defining contents. The contents of my memory rely upon where and when I am now.

Some folks get frustrated with all this interdependence and would retreat to the simple certainty of a hierarchy. I can understand the appeal of a world where there is a separate mental substance, an uncaused cause, memory as an independent faculty among other independent faculties, and a trail waiting beneath the snow to accommodate our walk without the hard work of trail breaking.

But that means a world where there may be memory which doesn’t necessarily remember anything, a mind which doesn’t necessarily think about anything,  an agent which does not experience the changes it makes, and destinations which don’t belong to anybody – a world which is not possible.

 

 

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Is Sugar Sweet?

Yes – let’s get that out of the way from the start. When presented with two piles of white granules a person can tell the salt pile from the sugar pile because the sugar pile is sweet. So much for the easy questions; on to the tougher ones.

What is sweet? Sweet is certainly not sugar, or stevia, or aspartame. It isn’t even a particular configuration of atoms and bonds in sweet molecules. Sweet is a personal experience upon which specific molecules, receptors, neurons, white granules, blueberries, and so on, can be mapped. Likewise, sweet is not sweet in and of itself, despite the fact that it is an entirely private matter. It maps onto other people’s experience, because those other people supervene upon certain, specific molecules, receptors and neurons in the vicinity of one’s own, and therefore in the vicinity of one’s own sweet experiences.

The great mass of interlocking phenomena realizes sweet, as much as anything gets realized.

Not everything in our linguistic pantheon is so lucky.

For instance, instances and their incidentals do not seem to realize moral properties.

We could sweep all the sweet experiences, with their related bits, into a neat pile and happily proclaim, “There is sweet.”

We could not do the same with moral good. There is stuff that won’t go into the dustpan, because moral terms are not simply rooted in our experience, like sweetness. Moral terms have a peculiar, sticky normativity to them which ‘sweetness’, and even terms quite similar to moral terms, such as ‘beautiful’, lack. Really, moralizing resembles sweeping together a pile of definitions for properties much less than it resembles curling.

Curling is a game played with a heavy stone equipped with a handle, a couple of brooms and a large sheet of ice. Teams of several players compete against one another. For each team, one player gives the stone a push across the ice sheet, while two other players frantically sweep the ice to speed or slow the stone’s progress. To win the game, a team’s stone must stop closest to a target painted on the ice.

The above is a description of curling, but it is not curling. Nor is the contents of the International Curling Hall Of Fame*, curling, Nor is the official curling rulebook. What the three intrepid curlers are doing out there on the ice – that is curling. When we say “curling” in reference to the structure of the rules, the stories of all the previous curling games, or a peculiar Canadian tradition, we speak in error.

Likewise with morality, which is not a set of stuff, a structure, or even a category of behavior. It is our most popular game, though according to Hemmingway it might really be a sport, since we play it to the death with alarming frequency. The rules are simple: align intention (as in the ‘aboutness’ of your attention ), truth (the bare contents of your intentional object) and motive (and of course there is but one motive).

When we think, “helping others is good”, the objects of our consideration are not specific actions, consequences, or even values. We can fool ourselves into thinking otherwise, but then we are browsing the Hall of Fame and telling ourselves that it contains the activity. In the Hall, we have the glass case of desired outcomes (good things). There is a spot on the shelf for reciprocal attitudes (the basis of helping). Yet the cases of items are merely tokens of success and failure.

When we set out to help someone, we have a perception of that person in a context with a certain shape and extent. A motive fixes our attention to the perception. Then, we act to reconcile the bare contents of our motive with the bare contents of the related perception. The activity is what we mean by ‘morality’.

For example, I am at the coliseum for some good, clean fun. The lions are just about to do their thing, and I spy little Claudius down front, crying. He is too short to see over the wall. If I am a simple man, disturbed by the child’s distress, I will boost him up to make him happy. If I am a more subtle sort, I will give him some instruction on how to find a better vantage point, so that he never needs another boost. If I am truly enlightened, I will take him out of the coliseum for a snack, because encouraging him to watch lions tearing prisoners apart as entertainment would contradict my impulse to help Claudius in the first place, since such impulses spring from an empathetic instinct.

Each helper can see the efforts of the other helpers as helping. Each sort of help is morally good. But the deeds, outcomes, and judgements are all secondary. The primary thing is an underlying psychological activity. And that is not a thing at all, just like curling.


*I do not know if this place exists, but it should.

 

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Aimlessness

Purpose gives life value. Most people would agree with that (false) statement without being able to properly explain what it means.  To be fair, when its morally authoritative proponents speak of purpose in an existential  context, they may mean one of two things. The intertwining intents make for a confusing narrative, so some untangling is in order.

The first, predominant meaning, is the common usage of ‘purpose’: instrumental to an extrinsic end. A good example this sort of purpose is the purpose of a humble noun.

“Cat” has an instrumental purpose. All it does is represent a certain class of lazy, mammalian parasites (who we love anyway). We could name the same category with a different phoneme and nothing would change. The sound and spelling derive their purpose from their use toward an end outside themselves.

The second, less commonly expounded thing to which moral leaders refer when they speak of existential purpose, is something more like ‘content’. The word then gestures at the richness of a personal story. On this account, Immanuel Kant and Idi Amin led purposeful lives.

Of course, lay-speakers often intend both meanings at once and also equivocate freely between the notions ‘instrumental’ and ‘full-of-content’. And lay-speakers cannot be blamed for the muddle. It is intentional.

We are all told, explicitly and implicitly, morning to night, from birth to death, that content comes of instrumental purpose, and one justifies the other. Our religions tell us this. Our politicians tell us this. Our employers and professions tell us this. And they all tell us that this mechanism gives value to existence.

The pervasive message of human civilization is: instrumental  purpose makes purposeful content, makes value. But that is not how we work. Acting as an instrument may serve as a means of expression, but expression of motive (will to power) actually produces the value of our personal stories.

The endpoint itself makes no difference.

Nor does the report of our lives’ content capture their value. A slave may live a wild adventure from crib to deathbed and still, rightfully feel cheated. To think that the endpoint. and content generated in pursuit of that endpoint, themselves yield value, is itself a moral failure

It is all in the doing.

 

 

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One Word

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The pick bounced. I hadn’t dropped my elbow at the end of the swing. If the pitch had been steeper, the little tweak would have been unnecessary, and the stick would have been good. Because of things like the swing tweak, I never liked WI 4 as much as the steeper stuff. Sure, your forearms don’t burn, and all the gear placements are solid, but it somehow felt more insecure.

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I looked down at the teenager freezing in the drainage at the base of the climb. He was learning that hours and hours of playing Overwatch were not adequate preparation for climbing in the Valley, among other things.

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When he was 5 years old, I carried him up the last 1/3 of the gully to the Abbot Pass hut. That was the last time he had been in the real mountains, before this. He had surely forgotten the feeling of insufficiency in the face of the real mountains’ light and space, because he did not stand unsupported in it for long. A little house, lashed to the saddle between Mt. Victoria and Mt. LeFroy, had rescued him from the exposure.

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At the time, he pinged around the hut, euphoric, with tears from the gully climb still drying on his cheeks. From a kindergartener’s perspective, the whole thing was an adventure curated by his parent. His tired legs and cold hands served the story and, given the hut, were not real concerns after all.

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Subsequent experience had put mountain fairytales on the shelf. On this trip, he got the larger narrative that the child could not grasp. The cold was not a bit-player. No curator stood between you and the drop. Ambition and inspiration did not necessarily see one through.

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I looked up at the rest of the pitch. It was almost done. The angle eased above, and I could see a nice, flat spot for the belay, just below the accumulation zone where old snow undermined the solidity of the ice.

The route then followed a broad ledge rightwards. I could solo up the remaining section of WI3, bring him up, and cross unroped. But when he arrived at the belay, the day was clearly done. He had the look of retreat, so we did.

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His confidence flowed back on the rappels. He began to chatter, pinging from topic to topic like the amazed, excited, five-year-old flitting from window, to window, to window in the hut. He  was excited this time though, because he had begun to understand what we were doing, and it wasn’t some fairytale, adrenaline fix or ego trip.

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Revelation came in one long word, articulated by picks, boots, simple effort, and the perpetual movement of the Valley’s substance in water, wind and light. Once you heard it, you never completely stopped hearing it, as it went on and on without end. It got louder from time to time too, back in the real world, every time you saw somebody get angry about the contents of their coffee cup or tear up when exposed to a flag and a song.

In those moments, it reminded you that you never completely left the Valley, and it called you back as a whole. We already had our next tickets; only 3 weeks back in the real world to go.

 

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Shrimp Eyes

An answer to the post “What Is Knowledge?” at Self-Aware Patterns. If you don’t want to keep reading this, go read that…

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Imagine…the mantis shrimp sees zorp. Zorp is a color beyond deep violet, and it is a color which humans cannot see, because humans only have 4 of the 16 color receptors which the mantis shrimp eye possesses.

Once upon a time, long before anyone looked inside a mantis shrimp’s eye, a group of marine biologists set out to test the shrimp’s sense of smell. In those days, nobody had looked in a shrimp’s nose either, to map out the nerves and chemical receptors. So, the only way that the biologists could learn about shrimp olfaction was to wave something smelly under a live animal’s nose and see what happened.

The experiment went like this: The shrimp entered a bare tank from an isolation chamber at one end. Prior to the shrimp entering, the biologists had secretly painted a random corner with an invisible, smelly substance. Upon release, if it swam to the marked corner, the shrimp got a treat.

After a bit of trial and error, the shrimp picked up the trick; it swam to the marked corner every time. Mantis shrimp had an acute sense of smell. But the truth is: mantis shrimp could not smell a damned thing. Unbeknownst to the investigators, the invisible, smelly substance which they used to mark the corner glowed zorp.

As it turned out, by sad, chemical coincidence everything smelly,  glowed zorp. Without understanding the micro-structure of mantis shrimp senses, the situation was hopeless. Only the shrimp would ever know the truth. Yet the biologists did know something. They got a predictive model of shrimp behavior out of their experiment. If they wanted to make shrimp bait, keep shrimp away from swimming areas, or start a shrimp circus, they had a reliable, practical theory to help them – they knew how to do it.

Furthermore, they did have some truth, even if it was not the shrimp’s truth. Because, the biologists stated the outcome of their experiment carefully.

Mantis shrimp were observed to preferentially swim to a corner marked with Fragrance 5 after receiving a standard shrimp kibble in association with alighting upon a Fragrance 5 mark in 3 previous instances.”

Obviously, the truth itself does not get you a shrimp circus or anything else. The truth, being blatant, does no work.

Yet we think that we seek the truth when we seek knowledge. We have been told that knowledge is justified, true belief. Indeed, the justification-belief relationship seems unbreakable. If justification is a well constructed story, then all our beliefs have it, as we have somehow arrived at those beliefs. And, we certainly distinguish between things we know and things we merely believe, on a functional basis, which is really just the strength of the justificatory tale.

Truth has little to do with justifications. Knowledge stands apart from mere belief when it does something – when it proves itself reliable. Reliability, like an onion, has no core, and so, knowledge doesn’t have a core either. Peel back a layer and you can aim a cannon. Under the next layer, you have a laser. Under the next, you find the mechanisms needed to build a global positioning system. The same structure undergirds our psychological theory of mind, introspective faculties, and our aesthetics. All those tales which bear re-telling constitute our knowledge.

Truth is just what we’re stuck with.

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‘Cause You’re Doin’ it Wrong

Regarding thoughts and discussion of deity, the question must eventually arise, ” Why?”. Once one has decided not to take such notions too seriously, why engage on the matter with those who do?

Morbid curiosity is part of the answer. Or to paraphrase a famous psychologist’s response to the same question about his interest in UFO’s: I am more interested in the motives for holding the belief, than I am in the belief itself.

But beyond morbid curiosity, there is an ethical impetus. For within the mish-mash of desperate apology and cognitive dissonance, lies a kernel of consistency. It begins with the question, “Why is there something rather than nothing?”

It is a ridiculous question, but the reason why it is ridiculous is interesting. We are in the world and can never step outside to see whether the world must be as it is, what other way it might be, or whether it must be at all. In light of our blindness on the matter, an assertion of existential necessity appears to need no further justification. And that’s good, because nothing explains (existential necessity) God, though (existential necessity) God explains everything  – if you believe it. And that’s as far as it goes, for those few who are ethically sound.

For the rest, they go on to endow existential necessity with intentionality, motive and any number of other, inconsistent properties, all as a way of swinging their dicks around  (to allay their own anxieties, most often). That is doing it wrong, and I just hate to see folks doing it wrong.

 

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Multiple Use

The cheers seemed so close; they could have been for us. But, they really couldn’t have been for us. Because, the noise came from a family playing a game down in the resort, and they were a competing user group.

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We were climbing in Boynton Canyon, and at this particular spot, the boundary between designated wilderness and the spa was the width of a strand of barbed wire. Behind the wire lay tourists, grass, asphalt and chlorinated water. Outside the wire stood rock, desiccated soil, prickly pear, juniper, and us.

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From our vantage point on the canyon wall, I could look down into the resort and the heart of their ridiculousness. They romped and lounged without a care, having been reassured that they could pick and choose when to fret, what to attend, how they smelled, whether they bled. They were willfully oblivious to our presence and activity.

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They saw their presence on the canyon floor as a logical progression. Their God loved a winner, and they had clearly won, as evidenced by the grass, asphalt and chlorinated water granted them by the resort and denied to the rest by a strand of barbed wire. We had a different take.

On our way to the climb, we had run across a pair of strays who had wandered outside the wire. They were women in their 30’s or 40’s who looked kept. There were signs of cosmetic surgery. They wore expensive jewelry and athletic fashion.

They stood at the outlet of an access trail which led 15 steps from the fence to the main trail. They asked us where the main trail went and how difficult it was to follow. We told them that it was a beaten path to the end of the canyon, a couple of miles from where they stood. After consulting with each other for a moment, they thanked us for the information, but said that they had decided to return to their enclosure, as the risk of getting lost was too great.

Looking up from the resort, I could see an overhanging cliff beneath which the Sinagua people had built one of their stone shelters. The dwelling itself was hidden. They had come and gone long ago. Even their descendants bore only foggy memories of the Sinagua.

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The Sinagua did not know that the canyon was designated wilderness, of which they were one user-group. I don’t think they could have comprehended the possibility. They understood impermanence, however, better than the current user groups. They perceived the impossibility of carving out a zone where they could excuse themselves from the land, weather and climate. When the time came, they moved on from their dwellings, and made no history. Continuity of experience was enough for them.

 

 

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Guess What?

If you believe that your thoughts, feelings, and motives have – or are – explanatory causes, then you are a determinist.

You are also a physicalist.

If you think that God is a person with thoughts, feelings and motives similar to your own, nothing changes. You remain a determinist and a physicalist. God just joins the club.

Welcome.

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Objective Hazards

There are two broad categories of climbing risk: subjective hazards and objective hazards. Subjective hazards are risks intrinsic to the first person. These are things like failing to properly tie a knot, pack a jacket or place the right protective equipment.

Objective hazards are everything else. They include things like loose rock, weather, avalanches and equipment malfunction.

Objective hazards may be avoided. One may choose to stay home if the weather looks bad.

Objective hazards may be engaged. One may choose to go out despite the 110 degree temperature, but choose to go to a shady crag at high altitude.

Objective hazards may be accepted. One may stick with the plan despite the blazing heat and just be prepared to climb poorly and suffer.

What one may not do with an objective hazard is control it. It should be obvious that weather, snow, loose rock, misguided guidebooks, and other people are all objective hazards.

However, although we readily accept natural forces and conditions of participation as objective hazards, we generally do not regard other people as objective hazards.

We count on others to behave in certain ways and blame them when they do not. We don’t make our best estimate of another’s capacity, plan accordingly, and then accept what we get. We expect performance according to role, which is characteristic of subjective hazards, at least when they do not prove hazardous.

This is insanity.

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