Tag Archives: philosophy

The myth of the free range human

… Is a myth that I, as much as anyone, wish were true. My dream is to have a little place in the middle of nowhere, off the grid, with a couple of greenhouses, a composting toilet, a 12gauge loaded with rifled slugs, and a pair of vicious dogs. The truth is though, the only way to realize my dream involves relying on things made on the grid. Even after I am established, I’m going to need things from town – in other words, from other people – to maintain my little homestead.

One might argue that my situation is artificially contrived. Nobody asked me to begin in the middle of a civilization, I was just born here. I had no part in constructing it, and I am quite justified in feeling that the whole thing could’ve turned out a lot better than it did. But that would be wrong too. We are all stuck with something like what we’ve got. It’s inscribed in our genome. When my children were born, I did not have to give them any special instruction in speech and language. I simply talked to them, and soon enough, they began to speak. That’s because they have special structures in their brains which are receptive to language learning. We are social animals, and there’s no getting around that.

We are stuck with a duality. We are fully individual, but we can only realize our individuality by way of our social nature. There are no arts, sports, or academics without other people. And as social creatures, we direct our communal effort towards the full expression of individuality. From the isolated point of view of the collective, arts, sports, and academics are a waste of resources, yet we pursue such things as a group because of their benefits to the individual participants.

The dialectic of the social individual permeates all of our institutions, even medicine. Medical professionals treat patients one by one, but on the basis of the statistical effectiveness of each treatment. In fact, our most effective treatments – interventions involving nutrition, sanitation, and immunization – purely play collective odds to benefit an individual patient’s health.

By the same token, our best treatments are not things done to the patient by the physician. Our best interventions require the participation of the individual, and the exercise of individual virtues like patience, generosity, and courage. The current pandemic is a perfect example. Public health institutions aim to immunize the population, in the hopes of preventing individual tragedies.

Libertarians object to such collective efforts, in defense of individual integrity. But this is where the dialectic flips. To exercise individual virtues, and so maintain individual integrity, each person should participate in the treatment. The failure to do so does not demonstrate rugged individualism, but mean spirited cowardice.

In defense of individual integrity, our society allows meanness and cowardice. Nobody is going to hold someone else down and give them a shot. But neither is anyone obliged to give credence to all the excuses and objections expressed when measures are taken to mitigate the collective effect of failed individual character.

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Revelations

In terms of what we know and how we know it, we are really no better off than scorpions, who are guided by shadows, cthonic vibrations and the fading scents of long gone passersby. For example, if I have a headache, I take some ibuprofen. I believe it will help me because I know how it works. I learned about the mechanism of action in my chemistry classes, and in subsequent review of the medical literature. But I have never seen the chemical do what those sources say it does. Nobody has seen ibuprofen at work, because the molecules are too small, and the reactions are too fast. However, there are ways to magnify the actions of the chemicals in question, so that those actions may be observed indirectly.

I have not even done that. I have read papers and listened to people who explained how they carried out those observations. Having compared their methods to the methods which I learned in chemistry classes and validated in the lab, I believed their report.

Therefore, I take the pills from the bottle labeled ibuprofen when I have a headache, and expect relief. As I choke down the maroon tablets, I act on a belief even more flimsy than the notion that ibuprofen will help my headache in the first place. I have no idea how the pills were made, and no way to know whether they contain ibuprofen at all. Within an hour, my headache is better.

I keep taking ibuprofen from those types of bottles, because it keeps making my headache go away. Maybe someday, I will unknowingly take a cyanide tablet instead. The risk is negligible though. The same biochemists, pharmacists, and physicians who taught my classes, and subsequently formed my beliefs about ibuprofen’s effect on pain, have declared their commitment to assuring the integrity of those maroon tablets in the bottle labeled ibuprofen on the drugstore shelf. The company that makes those pills has also committed to the recommendations of the biochemists, pharmacists, and physicians regarding the purity of the pills, and the company charges a price which reflects its commitment to giving me ibuprofen, the listed dose of ibuprofen, and nothing but ibuprofen in the bottle.

Philosophers have contended that knowledge is justified, true belief. It turns out though, that truth is probably too small for that purpose. Yet even without truth as a necessary condition, we know something. We go to sleep without fear of never waking again. We take one step after the other confidently, apparently certain of the ground’s persistent solidity. We move about justified by an interlocking network of constant correlations. Any single one of those correlations may be dubious, but taken as a consistent whole they support actionable beliefs – knowledge.

Like the scorpions’, our basics seem pretty janky. Nevertheless, though we are occasionally crushed by a boot or have to sting our way out of a situation, we survive for the most part, and even manage to snag an invigorating insect or two along the way.

It is possible to doubt a functional view of knowledge however. Anything less than absolute certainty merits some doubt. I think about that stray cyanide tablet now and again. Yet, I don’t doubt the justifying power of consistency built of constancy. I know that my pills are ibuprofen even though they might, in principle, be cyanide. Doubt in the method of justification itself invites fear, and fear is contagious.

Such doubt in our body of knowledge, driven by attendant fear, has spread in the populace recently. In place of functional knowledge – beliefs justified by their ties to a massive network of constant correlations – the afflicted strive to reclaim truth as their foundation for knowledge. They cast about the culture for a suitable candidate, what they find is revealed truth. Revealed truth has always lurked about in the cultural murk. Religion harbors it, but not the superstitious type of religion which one might reflexively suspect of such activities. The God of the Old Testament felt the need to carve a tablet, burn a bush, and drop some manna now and again. Revealed truth instead finds refuge with the more philosophical types. Think divine command theory or moral intuitionism.

Revealed truth acts something like Platonic form. Taken as a form, a circle is not a good model, it is the underlying reality which the flawed material of our world imperfectly represents. The circle itself is not the stuff of experience. Revealed truths differ from forms on that point, though. Revealed truths can be apprehended, and so blur the line between analytic and synthetic truths. The statement, “all unmarried men are bachelors”, is an analytic truth. The statement, “Bob is a bachelor”, is a synthetic truth. The statement, “Bob is an inherently unlovable person” is a revealed truth. On the same basis, what the Bible says is true because God wrote the Bible, which we know because it says so in the Bible. It is a truth by definition, but only in reference to a given assertion, in this case that an infallible God is the Bible’s author.

With revealed truth in hand, a person can know something with absolute certainty again. The result is appealing. We needn’t waste our time on the uncomfortable task of finding a date for Bob. We know what he is now.The problem with revealed truths should be obvious at this point. Such givens undercut justification. Consistency with the constancies does not matter anymore, only consistency with the given. If Bob actually gets married, we already know that the marriage is a sham. What remains is to discover the structure of the sham.

The justifying structures are easily built, and unassailable, since they have a given between themselves and any assault. The givens themselves are not beliefs, but natural conditions or kinds revealed by an authority, whether it be an intuition or the speech of a erstwhile prophet. Pick your definitive source; there are no limits.

This spoiled conception of knowledge has spread, generating Q anons, Antifas, and vaccine microchips. Similar epidemics have washed over us in the past. They never last, because eventually, the pragmatic view of knowledge outlasts them. Knowing the spells tucked in their jackets will protect them from bullets, a few of the participants in the Boxer Rebellion manage to avoid being shot. Most die. The scorpion who knows that he can wander around in the daytime because he feels the protective hand of God upon him will survive, for a while. The patient on the ventilator may know that Covid is a hoax because evil people lie, and evil people told him about Covid. He will still drown.

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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 Dilemma of Divine Purpose

It is often said that God is the source of human (and indeed, animal) purpose, and that without God, there is no purpose.

But what is God’s purpose, and who can say?

Let’s dispense with the common confabulation offered in response: God’s purpose is to do  just what he does and to be just like he is. Of course, this response defines the difference between an explanation and an assertion, and when it is stated as an explanation, it makes a very tight circle.

When God acts, he manifests divine will.

God created the world, so the world is meant to be a manifestation of divine will. In other words, it is meant to be just what it is.

Any questions?

But there is no real answer within the common confabulation. Maybe the question can be reframed to elicit a precise response.

Can God say why he created the world?

This is not to say that he need explain himself to us. Is he able to explain it for himself ?

If creation was instrumental to some purpose for God – perhaps a cure for loneliness – then creation is actually dependent upon some set of determinants of divine will, i.e. circumstances to which the divine will responds.

If so, whence those cicumstances? Even if God can say, we all (us via God) are beholden to those circumstances. For all of us, the circumstances simply exist, and therefore, all of us simply exist.

But what if creation was not instrumental? Let’s say God simply willed it. In that case, there is no divine insight in principle – not even a Muse to blame – and again, all of us simply exist.

So,  we all simply exist, God too.

 

 

 

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Knock Out Mouse Revolution

mighty-mouse-cartoon-clipart-16

Standing in the New Orleans convention center felt a little eerie. The interior was clean and neat. It looked like an airport. Still, I could not help but recall images of Katrina, when the huge edifice had become a beacon of false hope, luring the populace through its doors with the promise of aid, only to leave those who entered trapped like rats.

We had come to a conference to learn about endocrinology, which I had not considered too creepy before. I was wrong.

The proceedings began innocently. Hundreds of physician scientists, and I, filed quietly into a giant auditorium. I want to make clear my lack of qualifications relative to the rest of the group. I am no scientist, and barely a physician. I would much rather read philosophy books and climb around on crumbly sandstone towers than pipette solutions into a gel matrix.

But my job is mostly about helping people protect themselves from diabetes. Plus my wife had a poster to present. So, there I was, attending as an imposter.

The keynote speaker got a prolonged introduction. He deserved it. He was an important person with important research credentials. It was the kind of introduction where a name is never mentioned, for dramatic effect, and because everybody already knows exactly who the subject is. It is a an effective strategy for generating anticipation in the majority who are already quite familiar with the speaker, as well as in those who have never heard of him. It works for everyone, except my wife. She is honest to a fault, and that means that she is a real subject-object-verb kind of person. When presented with a dramatic, obscure speech, her attention lapses. As the speaker walked onstage to the sound of his name, she asked me who this Francis Collins person was.

After a long moment’s reflection, I told her that Francis Collins was a bad philosopher. She seemed to accept my summary, because she promptly settled back in her theater chair to nap through the rest of the lecture. I could not sleep, though I was feeling a little jet lag as well. The lecture was fascinating. Dr. Collins had been right in the middle of genetic research since the beginning of the human genome project, and he took the audience on a trip through the whole endeavor, right up to the current moment: the Big Data revolution.

The Big Data revolution referred to the use of advanced mathematical and computing techniques to sort through scads of data for druggable targets in endocrine diseases. The special techniques had become necessary because the database had exploded. Dr. Collins and his compatriots had deciphered the genomic book of life, but when they sat down to read it, they discovered that they needed a lamp, reading glasses, bookmarks, and indeed, the semantics of the language. The genes turned out to be active in the context of all sorts of transcription factors, promotors, coactivators, corepressors, etc. There was layer upon layer of conditionals which gave meaning to the genetics.

The source of the Big Data revelation was the knockout mouse. The knockout mouse and its cousins, the knockin mouse and the humanized mouse, were what happened when researchers turned to their traditional test subjects with gene manipulation techniques learned in dissecting the genome. By studying mice with selectively induced genetic defects, the researchers had produced the dense pile of data on gene regulation which advanced computing methods might sort out for us.

By the end of the keynote address, I had mouse fever. I wanted to hear all about the things which these creatures could do, and it turned out that I had come to the right place. Over the next few days, I would hear about mutant mice who could run on a treadmill off the couch like they had trained for months. Mice who developed diabetes. Mice who could turn on their brown fat to alter their metabolism. And many of these mice could serve as their own experimental controls. They had mechanisms inserted in their genomes which could turn their genetic defects on and off in response to substances in their mouse chow.

I’ll admit, when I heard about designer mice and their custom mouse chow, I got a little side-tracked. I had been eager to get out of medicine for a while. It all seemed so futile, and even a bit of a sham. Knockout mice might have been the ticket.

Two incidents elevated that thought to conscious consideration. The first was sighting a booth devoted to mouse chow in the exhibit hall.

To understand the significance of the chow booth, one must understand what the exhibit hall is all about. There is an exhibit hall at every conference. They are huge and opulent sometimes, sometimes modest, but always staffed by beautiful, shiny people and stocked with treats, from lattes to foam-model pancreases. Brands like Coach or Louis V. would feel at home amongst the booths.

Giant pharmaceutical companies ruled the hall, and the mouse kibble guys were right there in the mix. If mouse chow could buy an exhibit booth, the mice themselves must be golden.

The second incident was a conversation overheard in the poster hall.

The poster hall is a huge open space with row upon row of cork boards. Researchers pin up posters with summaries of their investigations on the boards, and attendees walk up and down the rows soaking in the knowledge. Usually there is a clearing in the middle with a nest of round banquet tables where everyone can go to take a break, chat and have a cup of pharma coffee. That’s where I sat while my wife presented her poster. I did not sit randomly.

As I walked up on the tables, I spotted a fat man in a plaid shirt and a yarmulke leaning in to say something to a thin, swarthy, bearded companion wearing a dark olive sport coat and a gold medallion. I needed in on that conversation, so I settled in the chair next to them, and swirled my coffee thoughtfully. Imagine my surprise as I picked up on the subject of their conspiracy.

“Yes,” said the fat man, ” I have been trying to find some of those mice. I need them to finish my work, but you can’t find them anywhere.”

“Yes,” echoed his friend, “those mice are nowhere to be found.”

“The closest I came,” the fat man continued, “was this Korean lady in San Fransisco. She said she had some, even said she would send me a few. But she never came through, and now I can’t get a hold of her anymore.”

The mice must be golden.

But my dreams of becoming a mouse Baron were short-lived. Upon further investigation, I found that genetically altered mice did not thrive. It was hard enough to get them past the embryonic stage. Once they could breathe on their own, they often required special conditions and diets just to survive. Worst of all, most of the really good mice had been patented. You bought the limited rights to a strain of mice when you bought the animals themselves. The patent system was the impetus for the black market discussion in the poster hall. You could trade for mice underground and avoid some costs, at the risk of incurring the wrath of the mouse factory lawyers after publication.

Despite the disappointment on economic grounds, I left the conference optimistic. I still had the image of all those colored bars from Dr. Collins’ slide in my head. Each one was a gene which a mouse model could exemplify, and therefore each one was potentially a druggable target. We had this. It was just a matter of time, and mice.

On my way to work, I have some time to think, though not too deeply. I leave early to beat the traffic, but I never do. Most commutes demand constant attention to collision avoidance. The situation is unfortunate, because the commute is the only time to think. Once work starts, I am behind. Someone constantly needs something from me to satisfy someone else who needs something from them, etc.. My workplace is carefully structured to facilitate this cycle. If I need to communicate with someone, odds are that I can lean over to one side and speak to them directly. Otherwise, my computer contains a messaging system which will pop in on whoever I need to inform or interrogate. Patient rooms cluster around my workstation, so I never need to walk more than 6 steps. However, patient contact occupies only a minor portion of my time. Most of the day is passed on the computer and the phone, addressing questions, requests and lab results. At the end of the day the freeway awaits again. By the time I get home, I am burned out and may or may not have it in me to do some physical training and watch television before retiring to get up and do it all again the next morning.

As luck would have it, traffic was light on the first day back from New Orleans. As I drove, I dreamed of druggable targets; Dr. Collins’ slides with the colored bars swam before me. Most of my patients were already on carefully targeted medications, but reaching down into the genome would ramp up medication effectiveness by orders of magnitude. Yet, not all my thoughts were so happy. Other images kept popping into my head, unbidden. I saw other colored slides, from another lecture by another renowned researcher. They were Dr. Brawley’s slides on the geographic and socioeconomic correlates of life expectancy and the epidemiology of conditions like obesity, cancer and diabetes. I could not banish those intrusive images, and by the time I was walking across the clinic parking lot, my mood had deteriorated.

I made it through the day, and finally got to resume my train of thought as I walked back to the car to drive home. I thought about gene targets and Dr. Brawley’s maps again. Then thoughts of one of the day’s patients joined the fray. She was very overweight, and had the metabolic problems that went with excess adipose tissue. She was on targeted therapy for her diabetes in the form of a monoclonal antibody directed at a counter-regulatory hormone receptor. It was the best science had to offer, but she often missed her doses. She had 2 jobs and no car, so she was up early and home late, and she simply forgot her meds sometimes. She set an alarm, but often could not attend to it, or forgot to reset it. We did not even discuss diet and exercise. She lived on a busy street with non-contiguous sidewalks, had no money for a gym, and no time to travel to a safe park. She could not cook, because she had grown up on packaged foods. In any case, she had grown too heavy by now. Her knees had given out under the weight. She could only mobilize fat stores in the face of severe calorie restriction. To reclaim  her life, assuming that was our aim, she would need two joint replacements and a gastric bypass.

I began to re-experience the rising panic which I had felt at the end of her appointment. Dr. Collins & Co. had let me down; I was not armed for this struggle, nor would I be. I stopped to take a breath and get my bearings. The parking lot was nearly empty. A bad smell rose from a nearby drainage grate, and a noise like water flowing.

I imagined that the noise might be something else. Maybe, instead of waste water, it was all those knockout mice, rising through the  sewers from the depths of the New Orleans convention center where the disappointments of Katrina had flowed down to bring the little fellows back, like a time-delayed Ghost Dance. The mice were coming with their little spectral incisors primed to clip down the cages, the labs, the chow booth, the convention center, and all the rest in a massive, surgical revision. I became convinced that the sound was the mice coming. It had to be. It was the only way that the knockout mice could save us.

mouse

 

 

 

 

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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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Imagine

…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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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