Tag Archives: physicalism

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.

Advertisements
Tagged , , , , ,

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.

Tagged , , , , , , ,

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.

Tagged , , , , , , , , ,

Bloody Mary, Bloody Mary…

This post is in response to Kevin Moore’s posts about physicalism, evolution and consciousness at “The Placebic View”. I want to start by saying that I admire Kevin’s interest in philosophical positions to which he does not subscribe. Earnest examination of positions other than one’s own helps a person improve their own ideas and appreciate other people a little more. Here is some more grist for the mill.
This is my take on physicalism. I think it is not controversial to say that physicalist philosophy is a work in progress. There are a number of competing branches and sub-theories. For good or ill, I’ll only speak for myself and my non-professional understanding of the issues at hand.

1) It seems as if some things are up to me. For example, when I am deliberating over whether to, say, raise my hand or not, it seems as if I am in control over whether I actually endeavor to raise my hand. It does not seem to me as if such endeavorings are determined. Admittedly, such seemings do not entail the falsity of determinism, like seemings of pain entail the occurrence of pain. And, this means that if one were to infer the falsity of determinism solely on the basis of such seemings they would be going beyond their evidence and could very well be wrong. But, that doesn’t matter, here. All that matters for the success of this argument are the presence of such seemings; their veracity can be presently be ignored.

I’m not sure exactly what Kevin is getting at here. He is either talking about intentionality or the subjective quality of movement. I think it is the latter, and that is what I’ll address below.
Intentionality poses little difficulty for physicalism. What ever else intention is, it requires subjects and objects which are, or can be reduced to, entities having relative location and causal relations. Intention does not exist without such subjects and objects. Even when we think about love or a five-dimensional cube, we derive our ideas of these things from experience writ large, including the way in which we are predisposed at birth to feel about our parents and, with the proper exposure, perceive depth. No, intentionality is not the hard part, subjectivity is, and I think that is what Kevin is after here.

2) The naturalist worldview rests on the foundation of two seemingly indispensable pillars: Darwinian evolution (or something near enough) and physicalism. In brief, the theory of Darwinian evolution is suppose to be able to tell us why biological life is the way that it is and the physicalist theory is suppose to be able to tell us why everything is the way that it is. Without the support of both of these pillars, the naturalist worldview is hardly a worldview at all.

If physicalist theory is supposed to tell us why everything is the way it is and Darwinian evolution is supposed to be able to tell us why biological life is the way it is, then physicalist theory does not depend on Darwinian evolution and if physicalism undergirds a naturalist worldview, then neither does a naturalist worldview. Moving on.

3) Now, according to physicalism, everything must be explainable from the bottom-up. In other words, theoretically, once you’ve explained all of the physics for some event, there will be no remainder. Therefore, since our seemings are not identical to any physical states, whatever our seemings are, they must result from some underlying physical states and be epiphenomenal or causally inert. So, according to physicalism, there is no top-down causation where agents really choose anything. And, any seemings to the contrary isn’t to be trusted.

Now we get to the good parts. First, let us be clear on what constitutes an epiphenomenon. An epiphenomenon is one which occurs secondary to a primary phenomenon, a phenomenon which is caused, but causes not.
But this definition is unsatisfying. It simply instructs us in spotting epiphenomena and says nothing about their hows and whys. So how do epiphenomena arise and what are the relations which they have to regular, causal phenomena? Here are a couple of examples which demonstrate what I think those mechanisms and relations are.
First, consider that quintessential epiphenomenon: fever. Before medical science knew the details of the inflammatory response, fever was thought to cause illness. It was thought to be part of the pathological process. It turns out that fever is no such thing. Fever is a byproduct, the elevation of body temperature secondary to a particular biochemical process. So, fever is causally inert. Or is it? On an analytic basis, it is causally inert. Any ‘rules of fever’, for example ‘fever follows from infection’, are inaccurate and properly devolve to the rules of the primary process, which is the biochemistry of inflammation. But sometimes, the elevation of body temperature associated with inflammation inhibits bacterial and viral replication. Fever does something. What is going on here?
These are not the same fever. The fever which inhibits bacterial and viral replication does not give rise to rules nor does it itself participate in law-like relationships; the biochemistry of inflammation takes care of those things. But the biochemistry of inflammation does not, by its rules and law-like relationships, specify the causal relationship between elevation of body temperature and inhibition of bacterial and viral replication. If we started from the primary, biochemical phenomena we might never know about that causal relationship in particular. That’s fever’s job.
To clarify further, consider Hepatitis C. I don’t want to imply that the Hepatitis C virus is an epiphenomenon, ’cause it’s a virus. But the relationship that it might have held relative to the disease Hepatitis C by a certain theory of the disease, is an instructive analogy for the relationship which epipenomena have to their primary phenomena. Once upon a time, many scientists suspected that the Hepatitis C virus did not actually damage the cells in which it replicated. This turns out not quite to be the case, but it was a serious possibility, and let’s pretend for a moment that the theory was accurate. On an analytic basis, the Hep. C virus would be a non-entity. We could substitute “X provocative factor for inflammation” with no theoretical consequences. But Hep. C virus is precisely that provocative factor for those individuals infected with it, and in those cases the replicative habits and specific structure of the virus determine, in part, the natural history of the disease though the virus does not cause any of the pathology.
So, do fever and the non-cytopathic version of the Hep. C virus have causal efficacy? Are fever and Hepatitis C real things? Yes and no. Yes in the individual cases and no as generalities. Or rather, they pick out some real category of historical relations even though the theoretical causal analysis associated with fever and non-cytopathic Hep. C virus may ignore them. Inverting our perspective, cytokines, helper T-cells, etc. may tell us why John may have an elevation of his temperature – such explanations account for fever and even eliminate the need for the term in analysis – but the biochemical explanation of temperature elevation due to inflammation in response to viral infections cannot tell us all about why John has this temperature elevation due to inflammation. “John has a fever.” fills in the gap between the theory and the case, as the statement stands for the specific history of the virus, John’s genetics, his previous illnesses, his nutritional status; in short, all the messy data without which an account of John’s fever on November 10, 1999 at 10 AM via the theory of the primary phenomenon is impossible.
With this understanding of epiphenomena in hand, is physicalism committed to epiphenomenal consciousness? Yes and no, I think. Your patience please, for one more example.
There is a well known thought experiment proposed by the philosopher Frank Jackson called “Mary the Color Scientist”. In the thought experiment, Mary has been confined to a room without any color at all for her entire life. During her time in the colorless room, she has become obsessed with the neurophysiology of color perception and has managed to learn everything there is to know about the perception of the color red. One day, she is released from the room and thus confronted with all the colors of the outside world, including her first actual red perception. Does she say, “Wow!” or does she say, “Meh”? Does she gain any new knowledge via that perception?
Before we get to the final question, there is another question within the scenario. It has as a premise that physicalism requires, in principle, that Mary could know everything about red perception. For her knowledge to be complete, however, she must know much more than the neurophysical rules of red color perception. She must know all there is to know about the history leading up to her particular red perception. If physicalism’s view of events is assumed to be the case, all this knowing must happen in time and there is simply not enough, in principle.
“Sophistry!”, one may object, “She doesn’t have to know all that, just what makes for red perception right now, as she is first seeing red.”
Remember that little issue that Kevin mentioned in passing at the start: determinism? On physical determinism, all that is what constitutes red perception right now. An analytic theory of red, ‘averaged over’ red, however detailed, will not do. We want to know if there is a difference between knowing the reductive explanation of red and the perceptual experience of the same thing. To meet that requirement Mary must know the theory and the associated history which gives the theory its application. In such a case, Mary’s impression of red, as a thing in itself, stands for this otherwise inaccessible detail and so is a real thing just like fever – as a necessary part of the explanation of each case, and so as historical category as well. If the understanding of epiphenomena regarding fever and Hepatitis C extends to subjective experience, then even an epiphenomenal status for our seemings may be explicable in a physicalist framework, and avoid concerns of irrelevancy in the same ways.
However, I don’t think that our consciousness and its subjectivity are epiphenomenal because I don’t think our impressions are primary phenomena. Since we are playing pretend, let’s ignore physical determination and its implications, however improper that may be, and say Mary just does have the reductive explanation of exactly that red experience which is her first. I think she still says, “Wow!”. I think she gains the efficacious knowledge of red + Mary’s recourse to red references, or if we were to ask her, how red works. Red becomes an object of direct reference, where it was previously an object of reflection only. In fact, I think this is the basis of intention and awareness. Red’s ‘seeming’ on Mary’s first perception of it is Mary’s pre-red identity plus the actual, red sense-data compared to Mary’s pre-red identity including, most importantly, pre-red Mary’s expectation of post-red identity. Before her red perception, when Mary perceived an apple, she would first have to see the apple shape, depth to the shape, a stem, all of which brings “apple” to mind, and then reflect that the apple is also red. Her complete knowledge could not change that operational arrangement for her. After her red perception, red becomes available for Mary’s apple anticipations, and so her apple identifications directly, and subsequent apple viewings will give her an idea of ‘red like that apple’, and so on for the rest of her conscious life. I think this is a good description of what her basic conscious life is, if we want to distinguish it from unconscious processes like pupillary reactions to light. Without the momentary, non-reflective, anticipation-based integration of these alterations of identity, we have the zombies which are feared to plague physicalist explanations of mind – creatures with unmediated, locally contingent stimulus-response as their sole operational process. What the evolutionary consequences of such a distinction may be, I won’t guess, but the possibility of consequences addresses the concerns regarding potential invisibility to selection (misplaced though they are).

Tagged , , , ,
Advertisements