Tag Archives: physicalism

Curse You Peter Higgs

“Mass was so simple before you. Mass was just a property. Actually it was just a property of having another property: inertia. Inertia was so simple, though. It was just the property of resisting changes in motion.

Of course, we all know what ‘resisting’ means. And, we all know what motion is: d/t. If anyone must ask what distance and time are…well, there is little hope for someone so dim. At least, there is little hope for such a dimwit in physics. Hah! It looks like someone needs a metaphysician!”

The line of thought is a big hit with dualists. Actually, it is the best thing about mind/body dualism, and is why it’s good to have mind/body dualists around. Without them, physicalism grows too complacent.

The physicalist can be forgiven. It seems so obvious what we mean when we say that something is physical. But what does that mean? Is it simply anything that’s the proper business of physics? Is physics itself the proper business of physics?

The question of what makes something physical is actually difficult, even within physics. Take the Higgs field. It is not a ‘thing’; it is not even a ‘property’ of a ‘thing’. It is a property of space. It is a phenomenon which physics considers, but it is really weird, from the perspective of the old extended/unextended divide which Descartes proposed.

Yet we are prepared to accept the Higgs field as something physical, along with apples and atoms. That’s because we have been prepared to accept the physicality of the Higgs field by accepting  the physicality of things like d and t in the Newtonian scheme, as physical. Time and distance are not any less weird – they are strangely malleable, for instance – but they are more easily recognizable as our own phenomena. We experience time and distance, and we are comfortable with the idea that physics is a phenomenology of time and distance.

If we have drilled down to the notion of physics as phenomenology, and understand phenomena as our experience, then the remaining question is: What is our experience? I am not sure there is an all-encompassing answer to that question. Yet I think we can say a few things around the question which are instructive as to the notion of physicality.

At base, our experience is identity, and identity is interdependence. If I am watching an egg roll off the counter and hit the floor, I am the one watching that egg. The rolling egg, among other things, is making me, me. The memories of eggs, dependent upon the shape, color, texture and historical context of my current experience, shape my thoughts and expectations regarding the egg, just as the color, shape and texture of the egg depend upon the impression that the kitchen light delivers to my eyes after it bounces off the rolling egg. That is what the notion of supervenience is getting at: identity is fixed by spatial and temporal history.

And such a thing cannot be ‘transcendent’. It comes with the here and now; (physical) existence has a tense. ‘Tenseless’ existence is a product of reflection and not what we directly experience. Transcendence, in other words, occurs in the storybook, not in the story (else we would never read a story twice).

The trouble with this whole picture is that it looks like a truism. If physicality consists of an interdependent identity which avoids transcendence, then what is left? Ghosts are live possibilities; so are Higgs fields. Of course, that is the point of physicalism. When we look at our experience in total, physicality seems to exhaust all the explanatory possibilities, or at least the ones we could hope to know.

 

 

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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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The Harder Problem

I have a purple shirt, or maybe it is royal blue. I was never in doubt about the color until my wife called it blue one day. Up until that point, I never even contemplated calling the shirt blue, or that there might be a difference between my perception of the shirt’s color and her’s.

Maybe there still is not a difference. Maybe our perceptions are the same and the words we use differ unnecessarily. If I look hard, though, I can see how she would call the shirt blue.

Her and my perceptions are almost certainly not the same, nor are anyone’s. The alternative – that people disagree about colors, and so much more, because our language is massively mistaken – seems too incredible. Shouldn’t we have ferreted out even the most minor issues by now? After all, we do so well at finding agreeable words for so many things, even in the realm of aesthetics.

Plus, there is a good explanation for the source of disagreement between me and my wife on my shirt’s color. If one tracks back how each of us learned to classify blue and purple experiences, there are substantial differences. And, those differences do not only effect our use of words; those differences also condition our purple and blue perceptions .

Yet there is another problem lurking. Even if I could magically take a snapshot of my brain at the moment in which I saw the shirt as purple, and show it to my wife, not as a map or photo, but as exactly the same state of affairs imposed upon her neurons, she could still differentiate it upon reflection. The brain state in question would always be her experience of my experience, rather than simply her experience. My experience of the shirt’s color cannot be captured, as mine, by means of physical reproduction.

One might ask, who cares? The upshot of our limitations is tolerable. Big truths may be a little counterfeit by implication, but we are accustomed to working with flawed notions already, and do fine by it. For example, Newtonian mechanics serves us beautifully, even if it is not ‘really true’.

Yet, we do not tolerate our flawed notions. An optimist would say that we are not satisfied with lesser things, and are constantly trying to improve our understanding. Our behavior suggests otherwise, however. We want big truths in principle, and the certainty, the reality, that comes along with them. In physics, we don’t just want quantum mechanics and relativity, we want a theory of everything. In ethics, we want good and evil, and duties to serve.

So, the hard problem does matter, because it is motivating. And, it moves us to a harder problem. We want things to be true which are not merely false, but which are incapable of being true or false. The idea of a concept not being truth-apt is slippery, so an illustration is in order.

Consider the case of Baby K. Baby K was born over two decades ago without a brain. Not only was she(?) born, she pulled off a feat which few anencephalics manage; she lived more than briefly. Or, she maintained a metabolism more than briefly, because her status as a living thing, much less a living human infant, was in question. She would never see a purple shirt, or a blue shirt, or have any experience at all. And since our personal experience is what we value above anything (what choice do we have, after all?) some people felt that a creature without experience and incapable of it was not truly alive, much less human.

Baby K’s mother disagreed. She felt that K was born of a human, exhibited some behaviors, had a heartbeat, and therefore fit into the human peg-hole, albeit imperfectly. K’s remarkable persistence owes to her mother’s insistence on aggressive medical interventions for K, based on K’s status as a human baby. For K’s mother, the rules of classification were categorical. There are Forms in the world, according to this school of thought, and the Forms suck their creatures in, even the most flawed copies.

When Baby K had trouble breathing, her mother took her to the ER and demanded that Baby K be saved, put on a ventilator, and nursed back to health in the ICU. But was health one of K’s capabilities? She needed saving, but for what, and from what? We could not ask K about any of this, ever, even in principle. As her physiology counted down to its end, what was there to distinguish this tick from the following tock, and so provide a basis for valuing more of the physiological process?

When K came in to the ER, the professionals on duty did not want to treat her. Since she was incapable of experience, she had nothing to value (there wasn’t even anyone there to value anything). Efforts to ‘help’ K were therefore empty. There was nothing to help with and no one to accept the helpful gesture.

Remarkably, some argued that further medical interventions merely prolonged K’s suffering. Perhaps they meant to say that further interventions caused the staff to suffer. More properly, futile actions degraded the integrity of the medical professions. We become what we practice, and if the medical professionals practiced service to the beating heart, then they rightfully feared that they would become servants to the beating heart.

The hospital also expressed concerns about the resources that K consumed. This argument was a utilitarian argument and failed in the usual fashion. If K did not occupy the ICU bed, the bed would not move to an under-served area, nor would the unexpended cost of K’s breathing tubes and procedures be converted into mosquito nets for children in malaria-afflicted territories. Values are not generally translatable, any more than their costs are portable.

But the missing cipher in the professionals’ calculation was K’s value to her mother. Someone did experience K’s physiology after all. To waive K’s value on that account was just as degrading as crass service to the beating heart. If the medical professions seek to serve health, and health is function, then the milieu is everything. It was a mistake to consider K’s value on the basis of K’s intrinsic capacity for experience, just as much as it was a mistake to think that the ventilator was saving K herself from or for anything. However mistaken she was about Forms and their efficacy, K’s mother valued K’s beating heart in a consistent way. Harm would come to the mother from K’s heart stopping. It would be the same sort of harm – loss of experience and the possibility of experience – to which the professionals referred in their assessment of K’s lack of value.

All along, the players in the Baby K saga evaluated her with standards that did not apply – that were not truth-apt. It was never the case that Baby K was human or not, alive or not. Her case nicely demonstrates the nature of the harder problem. Our standards – good, evil, human, matter, energy, mine, yours, blue, purple – are not stand-alone things. They are made of their circumstances (our circumstances). Without a doubt, the standards serve us well, since our circumstances are necessarily shared. If the standards refer to the specifics, and the specifics are near enough alike, it’s just good fudging to defer to the standards. It is easy to forget that the standards defer to their instances. And we are motivated to forget, because we value our experience and we value our standards, and we are prone to equate the two.

 

 

 

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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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Simplicity Itself

Arguments about nature, gods, and human beliefs are often convoluted and massive. The central issue can be boiled down to a manageable residue.
The phrases “mental substance” and “independent identity” are incoherent. They are combinations of words which indicate nothing but the byproducts of speech. At best, their proposed subjects are things which we could not claim to know. That is why all arguments in their favor must finally deduce from analogy, if they hope to avoid fideism. All else follows.

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Speaking Essentially and the Root of the Problem

Let me tell you about unicorns. Unicorns are white-coated creatures, with bodies resembling those of horses. The unicorn’s hooves are cloven, and it has a single, spiral horn protruding from its forehead. The horn has a property which allows it to purify water and cure disease on contact. The animal itself has the ability to detect human female virginity and is highly attracted to the same, so much so that it exhibits a stereotypical set of behaviors in the presence of said females.

I can now make some meaningful statements about unicorns. I can say, for instance, “A unicorn is a unicorn if and only if it has one horn.”

I now say, “You should be able to recognize a unicorn if you see one.” Is that true? If it is true, what about it is true? That is to say: Does my statement reference a unicorn, the inherent possibility of a unicorn, or all that stuff I just said about unicorns? If it is the latter, does that necessitate anything beyond a bare, opaque unity?

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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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Is a Virus Alive?

life, living matter and, as such, matter that shows certain attributes that include responsiveness, growth, metabolism, energy transformation, and reproduction. – Encyclopedia Brittanica

Close enough, and encompassing the generally accepted criteria: responsiveness, reproduction, metabolism and adaptation. My older son asked the question about viruses the other day. I have been looking forward to this question. It means that he is prepared to understand some things about life which are important. It is a tricky question if considered from the wrong viewpoint. A virus displays some of the characteristics which define a living organism. It can respond to stimuli, attaching to the proper cells and injecting its genetic material through the cell membrane when it makes contact. It can replicate. It can adapt to avoid a host immune response. But it does not have the capacity to metabolize. It cannot, in other words, run its own show. It is entirely dependent on its host organism in that respect. Nor is the virus alone on the gray borders of life. Certain families of bacteria lack some essential metabolic processes which would make them autonomous. They must live inside another cell, and depend on their host’s metabolism to survive. Yet, they too can reproduce, adapt, and respond to stimuli in their environment. Because they have a membrane which is active, biologists are prone to give obligate intracellular bacteria, like mycoplasma and Rickettsia, a break. Most biologists are less charitable when it comes to prions. Prions are mis-folded proteins which replicate by somehow inducing their own conformal change in normally folded proteins with which they come in contact. Prions can reproduce, but they cannot metabolize. They cannot adapt much (although they have managed to pass from cows to humans), but they can respond to their environment, albeit in a very limited way. Still, the difference between the prion and the obligate intracellular bacterium would seem to be one of magnitude rather than quality. Differences in their classification reflect a little bit of membrane chauvinism on the part of biologists. The same prejudice is evident in the gray zone at the other end of the complexity scale. By our criteria for life, is a male angler fish alive? The fish can survive for a short period of time independently, but it cannot carry on its own metabolic processes independently for the long-term. It must rely on a female angler fish. It must quickly sniff out a female and attach itself to her, permanently. The male fish spends most of its existence as a tissue of the female angler fish’s body; its brief, free swimming existence is a transitional aberration. Its ability to adapt is extremely limited. Its existence can be mapped on an algorithm only barely more complex than the one which describes a prion’s lifestyle. So what does differentiate the male angler fish from a mycoplasma bacterium, a virus, or even a prion? A few extra membranes make the only difference. Even our own status as living things is at risk if we apply our criteria strictly. We can certainly reproduce, just like the viruses, obligate intracellular bacteria, prions, and angler fish. But it is questionable whether or not we can independently metabolize. We actually rely on hereditary intracellular symbionts for our primary metabolic process. Without these symbionts, our mitochondria, we could live only minutes on the metabolic processes encoded by our own genetic material. So, we can hardly be blamed for fudging our criteria. We certainly want to call ourselves alive. Since it looks and acts alive, we want to call the male angler fish alive. For practical purposes, we also want to call Rickettsia and mycoplasma alive, as well as viruses from time to time. As for the prions, it is often more convenient to view them as sophisticated toxins rather than living things. And that’s the upshot of my son’s question. The issue of whether or not a virus is alive is only confusing if we consider “life” an actual, efficacious thing. But life is just a category. When we look out across the terrible landscape of things, we see phenomena which cluster about each other by dint of their shared heritage. Our account of our cluster is biology, and our criteria for life provide the outline for our biological stories. This is correct viewpoint on the question of life, and what is alive. But this is not the popular viewpoint. The popular viewpoint attempts to preserve life as a thing, as vital essence or emergent property. Unfortunately, the popular viewpoint is not feasible. It leads inexorably back to the original question rephrased, “where is the life in a thing to be found?” In the end, we find that the essence or the emergent property is explained by the operational mechanisms and properties of the thing in question, but it in turn, explains nothing about the thing; it just notes where that particular thing lies on the vast, terrible landscape of things. Despite its glaring inadequacy, the popular viewpoint remains popular because it seems to save us from losing an idea that we don’t feel comfortable losing. But we don’t need to worry, becoming a category doesn’t vitiate life. We have the things which the category marks clustered around us after all, even if it’s only according to our viewpoint. We can’t escape life anymore than we can climb out of our skins. So, the answer to the question? Sure, a virus is alive – as long as you can explain why.

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They Solved It! They Solved It!

Geriatricians have solved the hard problem of consciousness! From the July 1st issue of American Family Physician: “Some validated scales, such as Pain Assessment in Advanced Dementia…use objective measures to assess pain intensity and response to intervention.” The objective measures: abnormal breathing pattern, increased vocalizations, observed tension in the face and body, and capacity to be calmed by caregiver voice and touch. In short, agitation is synonymous with pain. And how do we know this? Because the researchers have observed that opiates attenuated agitation in their subjects with advanced dementia. That’s how the scale and its underlying assumptions were validated at once.
Many have questioned the utility of philosophy. Well, here it is. The PAINAD scale is valid, no doubt. This is something that can be determined by definition. If two different people observe the same demented patient, it is quite likely, predictably likely, that the observers will come up with the same score on the scale. But that begs the question. The real problem is not coherence. Coherence does not make truth. The real problem is the truth of the claim that agitation represents pain in a person with advanced dementia. Such information is not available to us, at least not in the defined, quantifiable way which we would prefer.
We can’t know anybody’s pain, really. That’s because it is everybody’s pain that gives us the concept of pain in the first place. The sensation I experience when I grab an electric fence, for instance supervenes on the action of the fence charger, the conductivity of my body and the ground, activation of peripheral nocioceptors, mediation by inter-neurons in my spinal cord, and finally my thalamus and cortex where it is contextualized as my very own experience of shock. My experience of the shock from the fence, indeed all my pain experience, is unique. In the case of a shock from the electric fence, my experience is trivially unique – to the extent that I can predict my friend’s response if I tell him why he shouldn’t touch the fence. But the pain-concept supervenes on all those unique experiences in the same way that my own experience supervenes on the collection of events surrounding my hand’s contact with the wire. A thing called pain doesn’t appear out of the process. If that were so, I should have ready access to it and the PAINAD scale would be unnecessary. I would just slap some electrodes on the patient’s skull and watch for the pain signature in his cortical electrical activity. But I can’t, nor will I in the future, though I might have such a tool. Cortical electrical patterns might be the narrow point in the pain experience, the place where the difference in my experience and the patient’s is most trivial. But I must still correlate the activity with some report from the individual or a set of individuals in a similar condition. Some kind of PAINAD-type analogy will always be the best that I can do.
So what does this application of philosophy to pain treatment tell me? What use is philosophy? First, it tells me that I should not expect to fix everyone’s, or anyone’s, pain by stimulating their opiate receptors. The experience becomes pain-type only when it is put in context. We can easily imagine pain experiences where the opiate receptors play a very different role. Take the poet’s description of the pain of a broken heart. Do we write off his report entirely as a quaint analogy as opposed to our serious ones? If so, how is his report effective in communicating a sense of the experience to us? What do we say when we find out that he used laudanum and found some partial relief? Addressing the mechanisms of pain can only go so far, because mechanisms only go so far in explaining the painfulness of an experience.
The application of philosophy to pain can save me from a different pragmatist’s mistake in treating pain as well. I’ll pick on my surgical colleagues for a moment. On multiple occasions, I’ve had a surgeon tell me, “Nobody ever died from pain.” Inevitably, this little bubble of wisdom surfaces in reference to a patient whose pain management has passed from the surgeon to myself. My knee-jerk response is to point out that nobody ever died from hip arthritis either, but surgeons are still quite happy to replace hip joints. Yet I understand the pragmatic meaning of the statement: people have died from opiate overdoses, so we can’t just capitulate to a person’s demands for ever-increasing doses of opiates to treat their pain. As noted above, the notion that simply stimulating opiate receptors necessarily fixes pain is misguided. But there is a subtext. Death is measurable. Respiratory suppression due to opiates does something, and therefore it is real in way in which pain is not. When you get right down to it, pain can be ignored. But it isn’t that easy. The human condition won’t be ignored anymore than it will be medicated. The hard problem remains hard. It isn’t hard because our subjectivity is some spooky ectoplasm or narcissistic property. It isn’t hard because our experiences will never move a dial or tip a scale. It is hard because things which explain and are explained have a reality to them as much as things which do something, yet we’re stuck working with the functional things, like the observed behaviors in the PAINAD scale. So we have a tightrope to walk. We can only ever come close to helping others with problems like pain, and only then if we act comprehensively. We can never completely succeed. But that doesn’t mean we must fail. We can just never get too sure of ourselves when we do something like suppress a demented patient’s agitation with an opiate – and think we can call it good.

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