Tag Archives: mental causation

Coffee Enema? No, I Said Causal Enema.

I hate  baseball. I hate the bleachers, the standing around, the hide-bound rules, the pastoral sublimation of aggressive behavior which breaks down in fights from time to time. Most of all though, I hate the crack of the ball off the bat. It is a false promise of wind in the doldrums, and a bitter return to cud-chewing calm always follows.

I always feel a little guilty about my baseball hating ways, because the crack of the ball off the bat seems so innocent. After all, it is simply the elastic properties of wood, leather and air interacting. Of course, those properties of the materials are in turn determined by the molecular structure of the materials. There can be little doubt about it; flip the bits around in the bat’s cellulose and you have a starch, and subsequently, no crack. And of course, the properties of the atoms in the molecules cause the molecular structure to hold together and behave as it does. Oh, and I can’t forget the quantum properties of the atoms’ particles, which, arranged as they are, cause the atoms to behave as they do, and therefore cause the molecules to behave as they do, and thus the materials’ behavior, etc.

The whole situation looks to be a rabbit hole, with no bottom to the causal drop. But the appearance of interminable reduction is illusory. When we speak of the kind of analytic reduction which says that what is really happening when the bat flexes is that the molecular bonds in the cellulose are flexing, and what is really happening when the molecular bonds are flexing is a shifting probability gradient in a quantum field, etc., we are describing the applicability of a method.

The bat, the ball, and their interaction can be represented by reduction. There is a web of dependencies which can be mapped out within the bat and ball phenomena. The map tells us that if we see a flexing bat, we can look in the chemical vicinity and find cellulose, or the particle physics vicinity and find electrons, or in the quantum mechanical vicinity and find orbitals. Reductive representation gives us a means of identification rather than a mechanism of cause. It is not the case that the quantum probabilities change, which induces bonds to flex, which causes the ball to spring off the bat. All these occurrences are coincident in space and time.

We should be dismayed to find a bottomless pit of causes. Even in the awful dolbrums of the baseball diamond, we see things happening, rather than standing eternally on hold while the micro-physical structure tries to get it together. So, the representational reduction of baseball is about as compelling as the game itself.

My hatred of baseball seems a little different, at least at first glance. It resists representational reduction. There is no baseball-hating mechanism. No set of laws seems to predict my hatred of baseball in the way that the laws of physics predict the flexing of the bat and the ball. After all, some apparently reasonable, emotionally balanced people, of similar background to my own, profess a love of baseball.

Nor can I quantify my hatred of baseball. It does not contain a certain number of carbon and oxygen atoms. It has no temperature. And yet, my hatred of baseball also seems to depend on those little atoms, as much as the specific bats and balls do – actually, insofar as the bats and balls do. For I would not know about baseball if it were not for all those cracking bats and balls which built my awareness of the game and engendered my hatred. Because, my hatred was not some metaphysical lurker, waiting like an emotional lamprey to latch onto baseball.

Though it is private, and so cannot be quantified, I know just where my hatred of baseball resides. It lives right in the snug space between my dislike of basketball and my despite of opera. It stems from my propensity to do rather than observe. It relates to my aversion to uniforms and my natural incomprehension of any activity built around catching a projectile. In other words, my hatred of baseball is reducible, even though there is no chemistry of it as there is of bats and balls.

And actually, bats and balls are reducible in the same way. A particular bat is swinging at a particular ball at a moment in a particular stifling, unbearable inning, because we can say that its particular particles stand as they do on the global stage. And, here is the point of metaphysical interest. The identity of the bat and the ball, my hatred of baseball, and even my own identity,  depend strictly  upon their susceptibility to this latter sort of reduction. It is what makes them physical. The susceptibility of my experience to reductive explanation causes me to say that I am at a baseball game, that I hate baseball, and that, at any moment in an inning, I am hating this stifling, unbearable, cracking false promise as an instantion and a progression of my baseball hate.

 

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Here’s the Deal…

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

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

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

So, you take the elixir.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 


 

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

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Dreams in the Witch House

Though it is not one of H.P. Lovecraft’s best stories, Dreams in the Witch House is one of his creepiest. The creep factor mostly emanates from the witch’s  familiar, Brown Jenkin. Jenkin is an intermediary from the netherworld, enticing the unwary to enter. A rat/human hybrid, Jenkin eventually dispatches the protagonist by emerging from the wall (which is actually a partition between alternate planes of existence as well as one between indoors and outdoors) and chewing through the man’s body while he sleeps.
Tunneling through a person in his sleep is chilling enough, but what makes Jenkin really creepy is what it represents: shadowy possibilities which gnaw away at us to our demise.

H. P. was a big believer in the old aphorism, “curiosity killed the cat”, (I’m sure he pictured the inquisitive animal sniffing too close to a questing tentacle). He was leery of natural philosophy run amok, based on what happened to the fabled cat. Science, he felt, risked exposing our dearly held beliefs as a mere façade, laid over an alien, chaotic, deeper reality. H. P. was a little odd, but he has never been alone in his fear of hidden truth – or in his attraction to it.

The fear of a hidden truth appears to drive quite a bit of discussion surrounding the philosophy of mind. The fear manifests in varieties dependent upon the school of thought involved. For some positions, the fear of hidden truth appears to be their primary impetus.

Modern-day substance dualists, for instance, fear scientific implications of an explanatory mechanism for activities which tradition ascribes to the soul. The idea that intentionality or qualitative experience may be dependent upon coarse, material goings-on horrifies them. Their revulsion is compelling enough to make arguments from incredulity seem plausible.

“How,” they ask, “can a thing be ‘about’ something?”

Yet, when one fires an arrow at a target, the arrow flies at the target. Something compels it to do so, rather than allowing it to appear suddenly on the moon. Likewise, it remains an arrow, which is a big part of why it flies at the target. The archer attending to the arrow’s flight maintains her identity and has determined her course as well. Even when she visualizes her shot before releasing the bowstring, her intention derives from the same set of considerations determining the shot, albeit in a roundabout way. Maybe she is just importing her perspective on the shot all long and it’s all happening in her (and everyone else’s) head, but that doesn’t matter. The outcome is the same, whether it is the mental substance or the physical substance which is reduced. Reduction is what the substance dualist really fears.

Monists are not so different. They have faced up to the implications of natural philosophy, yet they still fear the loss of mental causation in their schema. The feared outcome of reducing our mental activities to their base, physical mechanisms has been described most eloquently as a “Ghost in the Machine” scenario. In that case, our  consciousness is the ghost,  a mere byproduct with the mistaken impression that it is in charge of things while it is really  looking on impotently as all the little neurons in our brains respond to various stimuli.

The troublesome issue at work is ‘downward causation’. When the archer releases her arrow, do we think that her will causes the arrow to fly toward the target, or do we think that it is the action of her muscles, muscle fibers, the chemical bonds in the arms of the bow, and on down the line? Natural philosophy tells us that the little things add up to the big ones, in terms of how the arrow does what it does. The limbs of the bow springing back into shape do not cause the chemical bonds to behave as they do; it’s the other way around.

We readily accept that state of affairs when it comes to bows and arrows. But if brains and minds bear a similar relationship to their base constituents, then willing the arrow to fly fares no better than the bow’s springing back – it is caused by what’s going on in the neuronal circuitry rather than causing anything itself. The alternative to accepting this arrangement for brains and minds is to make a special exception for mental activities.

Yet it seems impossible to do so without undermining natural philosophy. We may wish to do so, to save mental activities as causes, but it is hard to see how we could avoid hypocrisy. We would still use our knowledge of chemical bonds to build better bows and devise more effective anti-depressants. We would still act as if the bottom-up story were true.

On the other hand, if we accept the bottom-up story for ourselves, what is the point in asking all these questions in the first place? The repercussion of our conclusion is that we are onlookers, like spectators at a sporting event whose critique of the game is utterly ineffectual. It’s hard to see how such knowledge means anything. Just as we risk hypocrisy if we veer away from natural philosophy when it comes to mind, we equally risk hypocrisy by accepting bottom-up explanations when it comes to mental phenomena – we will continue to behave as if our experiences, intentions and motivations make things happen. What to do?

Richard Feynman gave us a clue to the answer.

“If you think you understand quantum mechanics,” he said, “you don’t understand quantum mechanics.”

Quantum fields are not phenomena with which we are familiar, nor can they be. They may not even be ‘really real’. They may simply be the hooks upon which we hang our descriptions of broad regularities in the world of the very small. Furthermore, it doesn’t matter whether the entities to which quantum mechanics refers are real or not. The theory predicts the regularities of the Lilliputian realm – it works.

The thing is, do any of our theories, right down to everyday descriptions, bear a different sort of relationship to their subject matter? When Ernest Rutherford said, “All science is either physics or stamp collecting,” he meant that physics told the basic, really real story of what was going on in the world. Chemistry simplified physics and summarized the really real story of the microscopic world on a convenient level, and so on for biology, geology, meteorology, etc. But his analysis flips the relationship between the disciplines. If we say that Osmium is a metal which conducts electricity and heat at a certain efficiency, has a certain density, reacts with other elements with a certain propensity, then we need ‘bridge laws’ – extra rules – to relate those chemical properties to their associated quantum mechanical phenomena.

The upshot is, only once we have found the Osmium can we find the particular arrangement of quarks, electrons, up-spins and down-spins without which there is no Osmium.

It is easy to turn around and say, “Oh, that’s just what Osmium is.”

But without Osmium and it’s chemical properties, where is our basic-physics explanation? The phenomena explained by the higher level theory permit an explanation in the lower level theory.

And isn’t that how we know about Osmium itself? It is something which responds to our poking and prodding with fire, pushes, and shocks with an elemental predictability. Once we have an atomic explanation for Osmium, we can use a mass spectrometer to find it more reliably, but our target is still the Osmium, not its counter-factual-supporting constituents.

This world of theoretical explanation is terribly confusing. It is confusing because theoretical explanations are not what we normally consider explanations at all. Theories are useful, but they are not true as we wish them to be true – precisely and thoroughly.

We expect our explanations to be more genealogical. Confronted with a piece of Osmium, we can’t be satisfied with atomic weight and number. Those qualities do not explain this piece of Osmium. Rather, we must know how (and so why) the Osmium is in this lump, now, in this place. Break it down to the sub-parts, the quarks, if you will, but the structure of the story does not change.

Where does that leave the Ghost? Where does that leave the mental substance? The Ghost haunts neurobiology, not a reductive explanation. We think our neurons and their activities are our own. We feel comfortable with the idea that we are not exactly the same person if one of the little guys stops working or grows a new dendrite in the course of learning about the atomic number of Osmium. We are comfortable with the change because it occurs within a historical framework, and that framework lends us a persistent identity.

The mental substance seems doomed to participate in some kind of reductive explanation as well. It’s hard to see how it pertains to us, personally, if it does not. If it does participate, then we can call it a substance, but not a separate one. If there are spirits and ectoplasm, then they are located in the same historical framework as the lump of Osmium, its electrons, its quarks, etc. and make their mark, at least upon our consciousness, within that framework.

There are no hidden truths, then. There isn’t some subtext where it all breaks down, as H.P feared. Or if there is, we can never find it.

 

 

 

 

 

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Experiencing Embodiment – with Extreme Prejudice

Rowan on McCarthy West Face, Hong Variation

Rowan on McCarthy West Face, Hong Variation

The edge was huge – at least half a finger-pad wide. But how to get there? The fingers of my right hand were crimped on the vertical edge of a slight irregularity at shoulder height. My thumb lay across the top of the same feature. My feet teetered on the corner of the column which bordered the little roof. My left hand gripped the corner of the neighboring column, thumb down, elbow up, in a maneuver called a ‘Gaston’.
My right hand needed to get to that good edge. That edge meant security, success, salvation from the tension of my current situation. I stretched for the hold, pushing down with the Gaston and straightening my knees. It was too much for the foot holds on the corner. They needed pressure to work.
I was off.
I prepared to drop into the corner below the roof. I had two small chocks above the feature. They looked set when I placed them, but the crack flared slightly, and small stuff had a tendency to shift. In the time dilation of the fall, I got another glimpse of blood and hair on the rock below, left by a fellow traveler the week before.
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He had been climbing the standard variation on this route. His belayer had been standing on a comfortable patch of dirt about 50 feet below. He fell from about the same level as I had. With rope-stretch and slack in the system, he hit the ledge below the roof. He injured his leg in the initial impact, then flipped upside down and hit his head. He suffered a nasty scalp laceration, but fortunately no damage to the contents of his skull. We wore our helmets, and took the trouble to set the belay on the ledge below the roof. Never disregard a free lesson.
The little chocks held. I jerked to a stop just a few feet below the roof.
I looked down at my son. He looked bored. I couldn’t tell if the expression of ennui was a 15 year old boy’s affectation or actual lack of concern. I hoped it was the former.
“Lower me a little,” I asked him.
He complied, and I got back into the corner, a sporting distance below the difficulties. I moved back up to the overhang and inspected the chocks. They looked no worse for the wear. I grabbed the right hand crimp and set my feet on the corner. My left hand caught the Gaston.
This time, I ignored the edge. Keeping pressure on my feet, I reached up and pinched the corner with my right hand. I leaned back. Like so many things in climbing and outside it, the move felt precarious and it was committing – I would not be able to reverse it – but it was also the answer. My feet locked onto the small holds and I was able to step up. The right hand pinch turned into a good side-pull and my left hand swung up to a nice shelf. It was over. I plugged in a good cam and moved up to stand on the little ledge.
But, it wasn’t over. The corner above wasn’t as steep, but it was still thin and tricky. I got a short break. There was a section of crack climbing, with pretty good footholds. Then the crack closed up again. A bulge confronted me, with no obvious way past. I got a couple of small chocks in the corner formed by the intersecting columns, and took the most feasible path that I could see.
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Once upon a time, my mother-in-law had an out-of-body experience. She was in labor with her second daughter, and things were not going well. As they prepared her for an emergency C-section, she floated above her body and looked down on the scene in the surgical suite. My dearest love relates this story in terms of wonder, as an example of the mysteries of the world beyond our limited comprehension. Her appreciation for such mysteries is one of the things I love most about her. But for me, astral transformation is not so mysterious, though it remains wonderful. It is a familiar experience, and I pursue it doggedly.
It happens on the hardest moves of a climb sometimes. I can break down the moves before and after, but during the movement, the analytic distance disappears and another distance replaces it. The real me is absorbed in action and no longer has time for silly self-awareness. But, the reflective consciousness is selfish. If it can’t do, it will watch. The phenomenon is weird – like a movie observed, but not experienced. Yet it is also wonderful, because for a moment, thought is banished and everything is aligned in its proper place.
That’s what happened at the little bulge. With the moves mapped out in my head, I took a deep breath and began. The fugue hit me. Afterwards I could recall images of small adjustments. I saw my right foot move up to a tenuous hold that I could not have seen at the time. I saw my left foot stick to a sloping hold in the face of counter-pressure from my right hand, which rested flat against the wall of the dihedral.
At the time, I snapped back to a brighter day above the bulge, not entirely sure of how I got there, but feeling wonderful, with the whole thing still catching up to me. Or maybe, it was vice versa.
No matter, I soon stood at the anchor belaying my son as he followed the route (with only one fall and one hanging rest). My motivation had never been higher. I was itching for another lap on the climb – or maybe, something harder.

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Atomic Minds

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

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The Joy of the Circle

I didn’t like to fly. I kept waiting for the bumps to stop. Regardless, the supple machine continued to bob and thrash like a trout in the rapids. A few rows forward, a child began to cry. Between the two of us, adults read their magazines and played video games on their phones. No doubt, they recalled that flying was safe. The statistics were incontrovertible. And in theory, the engineers knew exactly how the air would flow and how the engines would perform. Why should a passenger worry?

Yet no one had predicted the rolls and soft spots in the atmosphere over which we presently skipped. No one really knew what fury of heat and pressure swirled in the engine at that moment. Flying was inherently dangerous. The little boy up front knew it because he didn’t believe in theories yet. He knew what happened when a glass fell off the counter. He knew what happened when a stick, flexing like the wings were, bent too far. I knew it because I habitually did dangerous things and tried to make them safe. I had faith in statistics, but I also knew that sometimes, only one little thing had to go wrong. In the chaos of fluids which sustained our flight, if the one little thing did go wrong, we were all lost without hope of recovery.

The boy’s naiveté could be forgiven, as could the adults’ ignorant confidence, but what about my fatalism? I had better have a reason for getting on this flight, hadn’t I? My children had no one else to care for them. Countless, unimagined opportunities awaited back on the ground at home. What did I have to say for myself and my self-conscious gamble with extinction?

All I could come up with was et tu quoque. I had seen a Wyoming toad once. It was at night, at a rest stop, in the middle of Summer. Its species was endangered, yet this toad made no excuse of the fact. It followed a line of ants down the middle of the sidewalk beneath the streetlights, lapping up the insects one after the next. My six year old son crouched over the little amphibian, delighted. It would never have a better friend and ally, but it couldn’t have known. All it could have known was that the shape looming over it had not struck yet, and that the ants were right there. The toad was gambling with extinction, and a critic might have called it selfish.

But the toad could have responded. If it believed in theories, it could have claimed that it was simply a disciple of Yamamoto Tsunetomo, obeying his dictum:

Even if one’s head were to be suddenly cut off, he should be able to do one more action with certainty.

Or it could have called upon Nietzsche in its defense, claiming that it didn’t pursue ants, but rather:

…a becoming that knows no satiety, no disgust, no weariness: this, my Dionysian world of the eternally self-creating, the eternally self-destroying, this mystery world of the twofold voluptuous delight, my “beyond good and evil”, without goal, unless the joy of the circle is itself a goal…

The toad’s response was better though, because it didn’t believe in theories. Its defense was: a warm night and an Eldorado of ants. Mine would be the same. How else would I defend even my love for my children? No set of laws bound us to each other, only a chance (in theory) arrangement in space and time. Yet it was a chance that went straight to the bone, no question. I had no better answer for the feeling that had gotten me strapped in this chair, bouncing through the sky to an uncertain fate. It was a feeling for a stranger, I’d have to admit if pressed. But it wasn’t composed of what I knew about her, anymore than my love for my children was composed of what I knew about them. It was a chance arrangement in space and time. It was nothing I chose, but it went straight to the bone, no question. Like the toad, I’d risk every calamity with open eyes. I took a breath, shook my head, and stopped waiting for the bumps to stop.

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The Hammerhead Mentality

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Hammerhead (ham-er-hed) n. 1. the part of a carpentry tool used to drive nails 2. any tool’s feature designed to impact an object 3. metaphysically, an implement used to achieve the wielder’s intent through main force 4. (slang, common parlance) any person with a modus operandi analogous to that of the tool, usually expressing the speaker’s contempt 5. (slang, among climbers) any person with a modus operandi analogous to that of the tool, usually expressing the speaker’s admiration and horror.
A hammer has a sort of minimalist beauty. It is clean. It has a singular answer to all challenges. It cannot – it will not – be mistaken for something which it is not. The beauty of the hammerhead mentality is the same. It forges a pure, guileless path in the world. It wakes each morning without ulterior motive; it pounds through each day without ulterior motive.
The psychological dynamic at issue has always been part of the human repertoire. The most famous, historical hammerhead was Alexander the Great. I’ve heard people question why anyone would ever follow such a jackass, as the blustering fool marched his army across Asia Minor to no good end. He wasn’t a blustering fool though, he was a hammerhead and I’m sure his men caught a serious case of Special-Sense-of-Purpose from him. Sure, he didn’t need to conquer India. He was simply out conquering, and India was next. Likewise, cutting the Gordian knot wasn’t a clever, if arrogant, statement or “out of the box” thinking; it was a natural hammerhead move. At the end, nobody was worried about that damned ox-cart anymore, and they could all get on with the conquest.
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In fable, Aesop’s grasshopper, from The Ant and the Grasshopper, is a hammerhead. But only in a certain version of the fable – the one where the grasshopper is not a dissolute slob, the one where he’s just really, really into dancing and singing. It’s the version of the grasshopper with which we can sympathize. It’s the version which exposes the potential meanness of the ant’s viewpoint.
Their noble clarity is why we climb with hammerheads, why we train with them, and why we stick around to pick up the pieces. Because the unaided exponent of the hammerhead mentality is doomed from the start. Nature is bigger than us, and that’s a fact. Some routes will not go. There is a limit to strength, reach, and flexibility. A person can only go without sleep, food and water for so long. You can’t always just push through.
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It’s a flaw as well as a merit of the hammerhead mentality that its hold is unwavering by nature, on the outside and on the inside. Once the hammerhead is engaged, it’s too late. The focus takes over and won’t let go, even in the face of impending doom. Nevertheless, we need the hammerhead mentality. At the very least, we have some unique lessons to learn from observing it in action.
The hammerheads have two things to teach the world. The first thing is: they show us how lucky we all really are. We are much more in command of most situations than we imagine, and we shouldn’t always act so surprised about it. If we just set aside our doubts and fears, we could often do more than we imagine. The odds are naturally in our favor.
As climbers, for instance, our eyes are drawn first to the peaks rather than the smooth rock faces. Our digits are shaped to hook over edges and close around corners. The knobby bits at the bottoms of our brains are really good at keeping us in balance. Our fingertips have little ridges on them. The game is rigged in our favor. We just need to know how far we can push our luck, and of course, that’s the problem for hammerheads.
They need to direct themselves at manageable projects. They can’t be allowed to build up too much momentum. In short, they need help, by means of another behavioral model to back them up and good counsel. They need ants. Not the nasty little ants in the bad version of Aesop’s fable, just waiting to say, “told you so,” and slam the door in the grasshopper’s face. They need the clever ants, the ones with some tricks up their sleeves, who can appreciate the merits of the hammerhead mentality and are prepared to compensate for its flaws. This isn’t pure charity on the ants’ part either.
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Focus is a necessary virtue, despite the requisite sacrifices. A person fixated on the summit, the anchor chains or the next hold has abandoned their self-control in order to push through. On occasion though, nothing else suffices. We all can – indeed we must – slip into the hammerhead mentality from time to time for good and ill, even if it’s not our policy. That’s the hammerheads’ second lesson. Even a good ant may need an ant in their own head now and again, if not a doppelganger at the other end of the rope. Being the ant at the other end of the rope is just good practice.

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Tabula Rasa

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

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

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

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

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

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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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Wu Wei and the No. 2 Pencil

My son zones out. Eighth grade is prime time for daydreaming, but he spends little of his own time escaping into fantasy. He goes blank during tests. He won’t say just what is happening during those spells, except to insist that he is still thinking about the test. Those of us charged with his education think he is thinking about his thinking. Metacognition is the term. But metacognition encompasses too much to accurately characterize what he seems to be doing in those silent intervals. What my son does is negative in context of the testing process. Metacognition need not be negative. A little strategic consideration of the thought process is often very helpful.
For example, suppose you are taking a test which contains the question “Nitrazine paper turns blue in the presence of a base,” as a true or false proposition. You have no idea what makes Nitrazine paper change color. You set the question aside without further thought, but keep it in mind, in the background, as you continue. After a bit, you come upon a multiple choice question: “Tests for rupture of membranes include all of the following except: a) ferning b) Nitrazine test c) ultrasonography d) Ham’s test”. There’s the word ‘Nitrazine’ again, with some associated information. You know from the previous question that Nitrazine paper undergoes some sort of color change when exposed to solutions of differing pH. If you know that ‘rupture of membranes’ refers to amniotic membranes, with leakage of amniotic fluid into the birth canal, then you can ask yourself whether or not a paper which detects pH differences is a good test for amniotic fluid. In other words, does the pH of amniotic fluid differ from the normal pH in the birth canal. Amniotic fluid is, of course, baby pee (where did you think it went?). Baby pee is pretty dilute, so it is pretty close to the pH of plain water. The pH of the birth canal is the preoccupation of a small, vinegar-based industry – the douche makers. So, there probably is a difference in pH between vaginal fluid and amniotic fluid. At this point, the first question has helped you include the Nitrazine test in the group of true tests for amniotic fluid leakage in the second question. Can the information you’ve uncovered help you determine whether it is likely that Nitrazine paper turns blue in contact with a base? If you remember anything about litmus paper, that knowledge might help you out, but let’s say you don’t. Premature rupture of membranes is a bad thing. You wouldn’t want to miss it. A false positive test is more acceptable than a false negative test. Now you just need to know what color wet paper turns, and whether blue is closer to that color than the alternatives. Wet paper tends to get darker, blue is a dark color, so blue is a likely color change for a paper used to test for leakage of amniotic fluid and amniotic fluid is at least a relatively basic solution. The conclusion is no slam-dunk, but it’s better than the coin-toss which you faced moments before.
This process – reference to more general knowledge in the absence of certainty about specific answers, consideration of the available information in total, cross reference of deductions with the specific knowledge available, acceptance of a more probable answer in lieu of a flat-out guess – all might occur during a reflective pause during the test. None of this is what my son is doing. As near as I can gather, his pause involves thoughts like: I don’t know the answer to this question. Why don’t I know the answer to this question? Am I stupid? What do they mean by asking me this question? Are they trying to find out if I’m stupid, or do they want to prove to me that I’m stupid? Why am I taking a test with this sort of question? What happens if I don’t answer the question? If I miss too many questions, will they make me take another test? What is the purpose of all this standardized testing anyway?
Both the former, strategic analysis and the latter, motivational analysis come under the heading of metacognition. They are of disparate utility for the test-taker, however. At first glance, it seems that we might fix the pairing of unlike processes by getting rid of the motivational analysis. Maybe it would be better classified as a kind of neurosis. But on closer examination, we cannot entirely excise it. There is an element of motivational analysis firmly lodged in the strategic analysis. To get started on the latter, we must first conclude that test-taking is worthy of a strategy. We must conclude that test-taking is not a comprehensive, critical assessment of competence or moral character which demands certain answers or none at all. We must also decide that it is worth doing well on tests, that the people administering the test are worthy of our best effort, and that the test-makers have our ultimate educational success in mind. In short, we must conclude that a test is the sort of thing which properly motivates us to adopt a strategy.
Metacognition may have trouble encompassing the relationship in question between motive and method, but there is a term in Chinese philosophy which captures it: Wu Wei. The words have been translated in various spooky ways, such as ‘non-action’ or ‘acting without acting’. Really, the meaning is not spooky. It looks that way because, like many concepts in Chinese philosophy, it contains the basic concept and the second-order concept. In this case, Wu Wei means to characterize both our actions themselves and the relationship between intentions and actions. A better translation might be, “When preparation is done, your problem is the problem before you.” or as a prescription, “Reflect upon your actions but don’t act upon your reflections”. To de-mystify things a little more, Wu Wei means action is primarily about what is acted upon, and only secondarily about our motives. We act upon our motives primarily when we direct ourselves to a certain action. In the case of test taking, we aim to take the test as a result of reflecting on the relevance of tests to our desire to learn, earn a living, or gain the approval of others. Once the test starts, if we subscribe to Wu Wei, we are about retrieving the information to answer question number one.
The concept of Wu Wei serves the test taker better than the concept of Metacognition. But Wu Wei is not true because it is useful, it is useful because it is true. It isn’t a theory of truth, but it contains a deflationary notion and an artist’s depiction of truth; in Blackburn’s words, it maintains that “the issue is the issue”. From a certain perspective, Wu Wei commits us to a pessimistic outlook. It is bowing to the inevitable and resembles the sentiment in aphorisms like, “Call out to the Gods, but row away from the rocks.” It sounds a little jaded, a little compromised. My son certainly sees test-taking Wu Wei in a pessimistic light. He resents being made to take tests and can’t see focused action as anything but capitulation. The test is, however, about the test, the questions about the items in question, and capitulation about him and his attitude. Likewise, rowing is about the position of the boat relative to the rocks and calling out to the Gods is about the supplicant and his desire to survive. Confusing the two is best for neither. Keeping these relationships straight is what makes best in the first place. I’ve yet to convince my son to adopt Wu Wei at test time. I’m not sure that I’m capable of the lesson; considered experience may be the only teacher for Wu Wei. Perhaps if he calls out to the Gods a few more times, he’ll understand why he should pay attention to his stroke as well.

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