Tag Archives: realism

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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The Sustaining God

Once upon a time, at the height of the Mughal empire, a man of great intelligence and refinement sat on the throne. With his nation at peace, he used his wealth to gather around him every sort of beautiful thing and interesting person. He ruled wisely, and the populace venerated him. He pursued whatever inspired him, to his complete satisfaction.
At last, the Mughal Emperor looked around himself and saw that all his wishes and ambitions had been fulfilled. Now, he only had one fear: that he must one day leave his perfect life.

He became obsessed with the thought that he must die and leave it all behind. So, he sent emissaries to seek out the secrets of immortality. They sought up the rivers and across the mountains, for many years, in vain.

Until one day, one of the Emperor’s agents came upon a village at the foot of a mountain. The villagers told him that a Daoist priest lived in a cave below the peak and that the hermit had found a way to defeat death.
The emissary climbed up and found the priest, a shoeless man dressed in a tattered robe. On behalf of the Emperor, the agent begged the priest to come to the Mughal capital and teach the Emperor how to defeat death. The agent offered power and riches to persuade the priest, but the priest refused all enticements outright. He agreed to make the journey and to teach the Emperor without cause or condition.
The priest and the emissary traveled back across the mountains and down the rivers until they arrived at the palace.
The Emperor summoned the priest to him immediately.
Once ensconced in the his chambers with his guest, the sovereign asked the question which had overcome his thoughts entirely.
“How do I defeat death?”
The priest made no answer, so the Emperor tried again.
“I’ve been told that you’ve discovered the secret to immortality. Tell me, how do I live forever? What chants, rituals, potions or salves must I employ?”
The priest sighed, “I am sorry, but you cannot live forever. There is no chant, ritual, potion or salve which will sustain you. You cannot defeat death in that way. But there is another way. If you allow me, I will teach you to lighten up. And if you follow my teachings to their conclusion, you may become so light and insubstantial that death cannot grasp you.”

Here, the record ends.

What happened with the Emperor and the priest? After the priest delivered his news, did the Emperor nod and move on untroubled, or did he have the priest killed? Maybe the Emperor split the difference.

Maybe he nodded without moving on. He might have feigned acknowledgment while nurturing the desire for life in secret. Perhaps he devoted himself entirely to the Master’s lifestyle, becoming more and more consumed with meditation and asceticism until he starved to death rather than have death ambush him.

We may imagine something even worse too. When the priest explained how the world was just one story (as he would have done, since “Dao” indicates “just one story”, nothing more and nothing less), maybe the Emperor grasped at the metaphor. Rather than seeing past the priest’s analogy, the Emperor quickly laid upon it a driving plot, necessary characters, and a storyteller who he symbolized with the image of a book.
Soon, a shrine housing a statue of a Golden book stood in every house in the land. The Emperor wore an amulet in the shape of a book around his neck. At the end, he clutched the symbol tight in his fist while beseeching the storyteller to keep writing his lines.

But since we do not really know the end of this story, why not be more hopeful? Why not make the story more interesting too? Because our stories usually are much more interesting than the story of instantaneous enlightenment at the end of a short lesson, or summary execution.
Let us imagine that the Emperor parted with the priest in a state of doubtful curiosity.

He went back to his duties and avocations watchfully. As he had his moments of fear, triumph, and satisfaction, he tried to see those moments as elements of just one, complete story, rather than belonging to his personal narrative. He got better and better at adopting the single-story viewpoint. In doing so, he dropped the possessive perspective – a collector’s perspective – which had previously obscured his experiences with the demands of ambition, pride, and disappointment.

He had been treating his life like a gilded scrapbook. He came to understand the impossibility of having an experience; one could only experience an experience. He finally managed to set the scrapbook aside.

From that moment on, all the little details were illuminated as never before. He could feel himself lightening up. And at the end, when all the experiences were over, he felt himself possessed of no substance, with none of the associated, substantial troubles.

Maybe that was what happened. But he probably killed the priest instead.

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Realism in the Time of Covid

I walked down the broad, sandy track, distracted. The path was built for motorized traffic, so it required no attention to route finding, and my mind could wander elsewhere, in places far from plagues and Gumby revolutions. But I did not stray for long. Behind me, I heard barking. The noise was the sort of high-pitched yap which a dog makes when something frightening, yet fun, is in progress.

I had assumed that a dog made the sound, but I began to doubt as the yammering grew closer at an unnatural rate and became accompanied by a growl that fluctuated in uneven gasps. I stepped off the track, waiting nervously. But of course, no extraordinary monster appeared around the last bend. What did roll into sight was a standard, biomechanical amalgamation. The dog, a German Shepherd mongrel, sat lashed to the vehicle frame up front, shaking and yelping. Behind the mutt, a lumpy man in a down coat steered the buggy from the comfort of its silver roll cage. He gunned the engine over little rises, and coasted around the curves. He gave a little smile and a wave as he passed me. A small American flag fluttered from the apex of his sun-shade.
The commotion rapidly faded, and I turned my attention back to the walk, and the granite towers at the walk’s end. I could see the formations now. Poking up from the slopes of the Little Valley, they were squat spires, the color of the sand beneath my feet. Most were not monoliths, but stacks of huge blocks, each brick 40 feet or more on a side.
At the apex of a small rise in the trail, a single, rhomboidal flagstone, and a small prickly pear with three leaves marked the turnoff to my objective. They looked as if they had been placed there, but they were no more intended for my purpose than the track of hoof prints which led away from the landmark towards the climb. A dotted line, stamped in the sand by deer and elk, and punctuated with mounds of pellets along the way, wove through the Manzanita until it intersected with a line of Cairns leading to a gigantic stack of boulders.
I dropped my pack at the base. I could not tell if the staging area had been manufactured or not, but it was a perfect little patch of dirt, sheltered by cypress and laurel. I fished the rope out from the bottom of the pack and donned harness and helmet. I carried no more gear, because my goal for the day was not to climb the 4 inch wide crack above me from the bottom up. My goal was to find out if I was still a climber, and if so, to begin to claw my way back to a respectable condition. To those ends, I would crawl through gaps between the blocks above, anchor the rope to a pair of unseen bolts, descend the rope, and climb back up to the bolts as many times as I could.
With the rope tied to my back, I made my way around the side of the formation until I could tunnel through the cracks. The way led down and across to a small alcove. A scraggly alder tree grew there, apparently supported by a very shallow bowl of sand alone. In retrospect, it had made a mistake. Though the spot was secure, the soil was too shallow, and the tree’s highest leaves could only catch sunlight for a couple of hours every day. It could never thrive, but it was a pleasant decoration for the time being. From the alcove, a short, awkward squeeze led to a hidden ledge, and the anchor. I secured my rope to the two bolts.

After descending back to the base, I loaded my self-belay device and began to climb. I moved methodically, not at all like I would climb with a partner belaying from the base. I used a single device for fall protection. This was on purpose. The set up relied on hands and feet as my first line of protection, with the rope and device as backup only. Having a second chance put an edge on the whole project which was lacking in the case of third chances and single chances alone. With a third chance in play, the focus shifted to the equipment and allowed for some slop in the climbing. Committing to one chance only demanded fatalism, and fatalism shifted the focus to the mental equipment needed to accept one’s fate, at the expense of free movement.
I climbed through the route, slowly convincing myself that I could still move smoothly. The effort meant ignoring the grind my left shoulder when I loaded it in extension, and the stiffness in my leg on the right when I tried to step high.
I made it through an acceptable number of laps and pulled the rope. The sun was now as high as it would get in midwinter, and it illuminated a small tuft of leaves poking from the alcove between the boulders above.
I turned my back on the formation and wandered down past the Cairns, the elk pellets, the rhomboidal rock, and the three-leaf pear. With the full warmth of the sun on the Little Valley, the trail was now bustling. A grade school child teetered over a bump on his motorbike. A parent followed, riding a matching cycle nearly on the kid’s back tire. Groups of people, some wearing facemasks, some not, nodded to me politely as I stepped off the trail to let them by.
As usual, I could gauge my distance from the trailhead by the age and attire of passing hikers. I first passed those kitted out with boots and daypacks, then the sneakers lot with their coats tied around their hips, then the shorts and flip-flops crowd. By the time that the expensive homes which flanked the start of the trail were visible, the vast majority of passing travelers wore boat shoes and elastic waistbands and would plainly go only a few more steps beyond the gate. What they sought by this activity, I could not imagine.

The parking area had filled up since my departure, and in the usual fashion. When I had arrived in the morning cold, the only other cars parked in the lot were a dated Subaru and a Toyota truck. The Subaru had a Sierra Club sticker on the back window. The truck was covered in dust. Between morning and afternoon, cleaner vehicles had filled in the rest of the parking spaces. A few of these had American flag decals, and one of the flags was blue with a prominent blue line through the middle of the stripes. One rear window bore a red white and blue “Q”.
I wondered who belonged to those stickers. Nobody on the trail looked crazy. Certainly, nobody looked like a revolutionary, and if my fellow travelers that day really were the sons and daughters of the Revolution, then the revolution would be over as soon as the propane and Slim Jim’s ran out.
I had them entirely wrong, though. What a person trusts depends on what a person wants. What a person wants depends on the depth and breadth of their perception. The revolution was against the untrustable unseen. They revolted against rumors of an invisible pathogen. They revolted against the idea of murky social, political, and personal depths. Most of all, they revolted against a start in the cold and dark which they had somehow been convinced that they were entitled to avoid.

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It Is Always Wrong to Eat a Baby

(unless the Lord commands it)

This is the house that Jack built.

This is the malt that lay in the house that Jack built.

This is the rat that ate the malt

That lay in the house that Jack built.

This is the cat

That killed the rat that ate the malt

That lay in the house that Jack built.

This is the dog that worried the cat

That killed the rat that ate the malt

That lay in the house that Jack built.

This is the cow with the crumpled horn

That tossed the dog that worried the cat

That killed the rat that ate the malt

That lay in the house that Jack built.

This is the maiden all forlorn

That milked the cow with the crumpled horn

That tossed the dog that worried the cat

That killed the rat that ate the malt

That lay in the house that Jack built.

This is the man all tattered and torn

That kissed the maiden all forlorn

That milked the cow with the crumpled horn

That tossed the dog that worried the cat

That killed the rat that ate the malt

That lay in the house that Jack built

.This is the judge all shaven and shorn

That married the man all tattered and torn

That kissed the maiden all forlorn

That milked the cow with the crumpled horn

That tossed the dog that worried the cat

That killed the rat that ate the malt

That lay in the house that Jack built.

This is the rooster that crowed in the morn

That woke the judge all shaven and shorn

That married the man all tattered and torn

That kissed the maiden all forlorn

That milked the cow with the crumpled horn

That tossed the dog that worried the cat

That killed the rat that ate the malt

That lay in the house that Jack built.

This is the farmer sowing his corn

That kept the rooster that crowed in the morn

That woke the judge all shaven and shorn

That married the man all tattered and torn

That kissed the maiden all forlorn

That milked the cow with the crumpled horn

That tossed the dog that worried the cat

That killed the rat that ate the malt

That lay in the house that Jack built.

This is the horse and the hound and the horn

That belonged to the farmer sowing his corn

That kept the rooster that crowed in the morn

That woke the judge all shaven and shorn

That married the man all tattered and torn

That kissed the maiden all forlorn

That milked the cow with the crumpled horn

That tossed the dog that worried the cat

That killed the rat that ate the malt

That lay in the house that Jack built.

Okay, maybe that’s a little much. How about: “Martin Luther founded Protestantism on October 31, 1517, when he nailed his 95 theses to the church door in Wittenberg.”

This story about Martin Luther is not entirely satisfying though. Even if we build it out like the story of Jack’s house, it would not help us pick Martin Luther out of a lineup. We need a different sort of detail for that task: Empiric details.

There seem to be two basic categories: empiric and historic. The former pertains to the contents of our sensorium – our “facts”. The latter pertains to our activities – a sort of behavioral narrative.

On one sort of historic account, Martin Luther is a particular arrangement of quantum probability fields. However, it is important to keep in mind that one name, be it “Martin Luther” or “specific arrangement of quantum probability fields X”, for the one overall phenomenon is the same as the other. Both have the same contents. It is easy to favor the basic physics account as the “real” account of the phenomenon, because “Martin Luther” is reducible to “a particular arrangement of quantum probability fields”. The reduction in question though, is dependent upon bridge laws, which are definitions upon the two terms. Martin Luther is a biological organism, and a biological organism is describable by the rules of biochemistry which is describable by the rules of organic chemistry, which is describable by the rules of classical physics, which is describable by the rules of quantum physics. In this reduction, the the terms of one description of the same phenomenon are rendered to the terms of a broader, finer grained description. Because subsequent descriptions are finer grained and broader, it is easy to attribute priority to them, but scale is not equivalent to priority, and the bridging definitions, as all definitions, are dependent on both terms in the equation.

But there’s another kind of reduction possible – an empiric reduction. If we look at the carbon atom at the farthest left edge of Martin Luther’s right thumbnail, we find the carbon atom at the farthest left edge of Martin Luther’s right thumbnail and nothing else, because the reductions of the terms in that description, even if taken through the first sort of reduction for each, finally depend on everything else. This second sort of reduction, a mapping sort of reduction, is all that explains the particular carbon atom.

The sort of reduction available for the historical Martin Luther is a flavor of theoretical/historical reduction. He is the man who nailed his theses to the door of the Wittenberg church because he was offended by the sale of indulgences by the church and had come through his studies to see the sale of indulgences as symptomatic of a deeper stagnation and corruption of the institution. The reduction in question is not the same as the explanatory reduction possible with the carbon atom. It does not “map”.

If we were able to magically create a map which captured perfect detail at any scale, and centered the map on the carbon atom, when we turn the dial to its maximum gain, we would expect to see the map merge with our empirical reality so that they were indistinguishable. If we tried to apply the same mapping technology to the historical Martin Luther, we would simply get a thicker and thicker biography of Martin Luther, like the tale of Jack’s house. The historical account of Martin Luther is self referential in a way that the empiric, explanatory account of Martin Luther is not. In unravelling the historical Martin Luther, we get an ever-expanding shell of reports, like an unending set of nesting dolls composed of Martin Luther scandal sheets.

Since Heraclitus, we have known that explanatory reductions are instantaneous. What we have not acknowledged with any frequency, is that historical explanations are timeless. Historical identities are fixed fictions, so that actions can be represented in a useful way. The distortion that fixed identity imparts on historical accounts often proves inconsequential. If I say, from a historical standpoint, that Martin Luther’s hammer hand was driven by offense against indulgences, my analysis is right enough to ground an understanding of Protestantism.

Yet we know that when Martin Luther woke that morning and gathered his hammer, nails, and paper, he probably did not have Protestantism in mind. In fact, he probably went through several psychological transformations on the way to the church which are only vaguely represented and summarized in our historical account.

For the record, Martin Luther nailing his theses to the Wittenberg church door represents the beginning of Protestantism. Reference to fixed identities in that statement (Martin Luther, nails, script on paper) is necessary. It is the price of constructing a narrative. In the case of Protestantism, we encounter little difficulty in maintaining the useful fiction that nails, papers, and Martin Luther are the beginning of Protestantism. We understand that the named phenomena play a role in our narrative.

Though we may place then under glass in reverence, we do not expect to find nascent Protestantism in the nails, papers, or even in Martin Luther. Protestantism is constructed from activities associated with the named phenomena; in fact it is a record of activities associated with those phenomena.

In light of the above, is it always wrong to eat a baby? The statement, “it is always wrong to eat a baby”, is at least consistent. It is a record of psychological activities on the subject. It isn’t the kind of thing that “maps” like the carbon atom in Martin Luther’s fingernail. It is a historic, theoretical statement.

Like all such statements, our moral theories are reducible, via bridge laws, to other theories regarding (in the case of baby eating) genetics, cultural heritage, and the criteria for life itself. And like all such statements, the expansions and contractions from broader, finer grained characterizations to narrower, coarser ones are infinite. So we shouldn’t be surprised if we never “get to the bottom of” moral statements. There simply is no bottom. The best that we can do is recognize them for what they are, a record of activities, and not the activities themselves. We will then feel a little more comfortable with what we already do: prefer different theoretical magnifications in different situations.

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Socrates Is Not a Number

The heavyweight teetered on his shoulder for a moment, and then the plane of his back tipped slightly beyond perpendicular to the mat. Everyone groaned. They knew that it was over. In those days, before high school students had really gotten into the steroids, heavyweights were heavy. If one got turned onto his back, the victim was doomed to stay there until the refree slapped the mat and the portly victor rolled off.

The poor kid who now faced being pinned to the mat in the district semi-final was typical of the heavyweight breed. He was a kid who was interested in athletics, despite being pretty un-athletic. He was too heavy. But he was large. He was tall and broad, and it made his weight wieldy enough to let him play on the line in football, and wrestle in the heavyweight division. Some of his species were hyper-aggressive, likely in response to the hazing they received from elementary school on up. He was well-adjusted however, which worked against him on the mat.

He had an unfortunate name, ‘Jonah’. In the bible belt, that immediately earned him the nick name, ‘Jonah the Whale’. We had hung out on the sidelines waiting for our turns to wrestle and I liked him, as far as I knew him.

I hadn’t qualified for the district tournament, so I was watching Jonah from the stands with my father and the choir director from our church. We were rooting for Jonah, because he was up against a wrestler from a rival school. If Jonah won, our team locked in the tournament win. It was not to be. Under the combined weight of his opponent and his own bulk, Jonah sank flat. His legs flailed briefly in a futile attempt to bridge his shoulders off the mat. The referee slapped his hand and blew his whistle. Jonah’s legs went limp.

The choir director turned to my father and said, “Now, isn’t that just like a nigger.”

My father usually would not reply to stupid crap like that. He saw no point in useless conflict. But this time, he looked like he didn’t even know what he might say. He was flabbergasted, and so was I.

It was not the words; it was the tone.

The choir director didn’t sound angry, bitter or vindicated. He had a note of sadness and resignation in his voice. He expected Jonah to give up and lose, because it was in Jonah’s blood to give up and lose. Jonah had inherited an identity which played in certain narratives and not others. To our choir director, black folks were lazy, unreliable and weak-minded. Jonah was black, therefore Jonah was lazy, unreliable and weak-minded.

For the longest time, I thought that our choir director was wrong about Jonah just  because he was wrong about black folks. But I finally came to realize that our choir director was wrong about Jonah, because he was wrong about everything. Jonah could be represented by blackness, or fatness, or type B personality, but none of those things were Jonah. Nor was it true to say that Jonah represented any of the things that you could say about him.

Put enough of those things together, and you might be able to pick Jonah out of a crowd, or even predict what he might do in a particular situation. However there was no Form of Blackness, Property of Personableness, or Elan Vital , which determined his ethnicity, his being good mat-side company, or his being the proper subject of Biology.

Yet that was the world according to our pious musician. It was a world of causative kinds, where things like Good, Black and Life were not points on our map of the world, but the lands themselves, which we had discovered or, as he would maintain, were granted us by God. It seemed that he saw things that way, at least.

For a time, I considered the possibility that I was being too hard on him by speculating that he was the type who might claim that opium caused sleepiness by means of a dormative property. Maybe he was the type that saw a grander conspiracy, instead. Not the Conspiracy of Forms, but the Conspiracy of Form. Perhaps he saw the fact that our experience permitted mapping and the application of logic as evidence of some existential purpose. It could not be otherwise, otherwise we could not know that it could not be otherwise. Of course, that was the problem with the Grand Conspiracy – there could be no otherwise to propose. It was undecidable in principle and so the Grand Conspiracy could only be held as a humble hypothesis, on faith.

And that was why I came to believe that he was the first sort of conspiracy theorist after all. Like most in the church hierarchy, he was not really interested in anything humble. The factors of an authoritarian regime never are. They want the appearance of humility which comes with deference to order. A humble demeanor sets people off their guard, which makes it easier to bludgeon them into line (inevitably behind the club wielder). Such individuals will also pay lip-service to the Grand Conspiracy in order to cultivate a humble self-image, since a humble self-image makes the beatdown easier to countenance (I am merely an instrument; it is for their own good). However, what they act upon is the Conspiracy of Forms, because order serves its servants.

Later that night, Jonah wrestled in the consolation round of the tournament. What had gotten into him, I would never know, but he came out in an uncharacteristic, cartoon fury, twitching and spluttering like Daffy Duck. It took the opponent aback, but it did not make Jonah more graceful 0r skilled. It did not keep Jonah off his back.

Again the groan went up. Jonah’s coach and family screamed futile encouragement. In a grim replay of his earlier match, Jonah tried to bridge. And it worked.

The move didn’t flip the other wrestler off Jonah’s chest, or even raise Jonah’s shoulders off the mat. However, in his fury, he had worked himself into a lather, and lubricated by his own sweat, he was able to scoot himself and the large boy lying on top of him, across the mat and out of bounds.

From there, Jonah’s determination saw him through. Buoyed by his miraculous escape, he could not be held down, and after two more minutes of panting and pushing, Jonah won the match on points.

When it was all over, Jonah was still black, still alive, still personable, and still a heavyweight, just as Socrates was any number of numbers.

 

 

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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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The edge

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One hundred degrees feels hotter in the desert than it does in town. The relentlessness of the sun is part of the difference. Running in the Sonoran desert, in Summer, is unwise, but I don’t claim to be wise. It is just a few miles, after all, on good trails.

The sun is rising high by the time I get going. The first three or four miles remain comfortable, but I can feel the heat building in the air and in my blood. I have to slow down. Still, it gets hotter.

Half way around the pile of granite blocks which passes for a mountain in these parts, I feel a little adrenergic twinge. Those who have pushed themselves will understand what I mean. It is the thing that comes after a second wind in the form of a slightly panicky, angry feeling accompanied by a tightening of the skin and a little nausea.

The feeling marks a reserve opening up, but at a price. Blood goes to the muscles and away from the viscera, but also away from the skin, where it is needed to exchange heat with the air. I slow down some more, but the heat keeps building.

I am getting close now. I can see the power lines which cross the trail just a half mile from the trailhead, with its shade-shelter and water. I think I know just how much I can allow myself to speed up, and I do.

The last quarter mile feels a little desperate, but I trot into the shade in good form, with a little left. I walk back and forth for a long time, cooling down. A cop patrolling the trailhead gives me a hard look. I understand; I don’t like the idea of getting sucked into a rescue either.

I was close to the edge. How close, I don’t know. That’s the thing. You can’t know where the edge is until you are over it.

Or rather, there isn’t really an edge. Sure, there’s a last step and an end to all efforts, but that last step is in a different spot every day. You can get pretty good at knowing when you’re close to the last step, but you can never know just exactly where and when you will collapse. The uncertainty keeps things interesting. The uncertainty is motivating.

And, the uncertainty is everywhere. The same run is not the same run. Feet land in different spots, the wind shifts, the sandy dirt is soft or packed.

So it is with all defined entities and their instances. Identities hold for instances. This desert is this desert, where I run this close to the edge, but not over. That is true. This desert is also the Sonoran Desert – practically, but not really. Accepting the latter sort of identity gets me to the trailhead, but no more. It doesn’t get to the truth, any more than talk of the edge informs me where the edge really is.

But now I recall; it is not true that there is an edge, only a retrospective, last step. I’m always thinking about the edge, because it helps keep me off the last step. Knowing about the last step does nothing for me, even though it is the truth.

Or rather, it does nothing because it is the truth. It is local and transparent. I can’t pack it up in a box and take it away to inform me elsewhere and in the future. But because it is local and transparent, I must move by it. And because I must move by it, the truth is inextricable from my motivation.

I think that’s why all of us remain enamored with the truth, even though it is useless in its own right. I know that’s why I will continue to run in the desert – the uncertainty of the true, last step and the very deficiency of my edge-theory – even though it may not be the most useful thing for my health in the end, mental or otherwise.

 

 

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The Most Ridiculous Thing

What’s in a meaning? Something instrumental, and therefore fit to the circumstance of its usage, that’s what. Does that make meanings powerless, because they can be acquired and need interpretation? Not at all.

Take brand logos …

BMW_logo

In a magazine ad., the symbol above is meant to represent sporty sedans from Bavaria.

On the streets of Scottsdale, it says, “I might be a dick.”

mercedes benz 151 logo

In the showroom this symbol indicates a luxury German car.

On the streets of Scottsdale, it means, “I am a dick”.

Land-Rover-Symbol.tiff

Again, parked in the dealer’s lot, this logo stands for British all-terrain vehicles.

On the road in Scottsdale: “I have devoted my life to proving that there are worse things than being a dick.”

All of the above meanings carry plenty of weight. They are all circumstantial, too. People have no worries about that state of affairs, until they begin to talk about the meaning of our existence.

But, does talk about existence itself having meaning, make any sense? Is existence in itself, for something? For example, would it make sense to say that God’s existence, or a hydrogen atom’s, carries an independent meaning?

It is an absurdity. It simply does not apply.

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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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Let’s Do a Thought Crime

One more time, plus a  little more…

On a cold morning, a little girl named Suzy is waiting for the School Bus at the bottom of a steep hill. It was raining the night before, and water has been flowing next to the curb. The water froze in the early hours of the morning, forming a sheet of black ice. The ice sheet extends all the way down to Suzy, and unfortunately for her, passes under the tires of a Cadillac Coupe DeVille parked in the middle of the hill. As the sun hits the hill, the ice loses its grip on the tires and the car slides silently and rapidly down the hill, striking Suzy and killing her instantly.

Now suppose the same chain of events ensues, except this time, the car breaks loose just as the cars owner, Andy, sits down in the driver’s seat and closes the door. The inside door handle is broken, so he can’t just jump back out again. The power windows are up and the horn doesn’t work, so he has no way to warn Suzy of her impending doom. He desperately turns the wheel, but it’s too slick for the tires to grab. Suzy dies just as in scenario #1.
Again, suppose the circumstances are the same, but this time, the owner of the car is different. Let’s call him Brian. When Brian realizes that he is sliding out of control, he thinks, “You know, I’ve always hated that little bitch anyway,” and he turns the wheel to direct the car toward little Suzy. Again, the tires have no purchase on the ice and the chain of events is unaltered.

Is there a moral distinction in the incident between the unoccupied car and the occupied car?

Between the incident with Andy and the incident with Brian?

If so, where is the independent and objective moral fact in each case?

Imagine that none of this actually happened, but that Andy and Brian each dreamed the same dream, in which they behaved as they behaved. Each wakes with a sense of satisfaction about his own behavior in the dream, and goes on to live an impeccable life thereafter, never harming a fly. Is there still a moral distinction to be drawn between the two men?

When we speak of morality, are we describing a fact with inherent causal efficacy – like a runaway Coupe DeVille – or are we describing an attitude (or the formation of an attitude)?

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