Tag Archives: supervenience

A Few, Very Specific Things

People are always asking me, “What do you believe?”

Nah, nobody actually asks me that, but I tell them anyway, just like this:

When it comes to consciousness, it comes with identity, and therefore locality.

When it comes to cause, it causes identity.

And, of course, that’s about it for classical theism.

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AI, Determinism and Supervenience

Recently, NPR interviewed the man who “de-aged” Robert De Niro for the film, “The Irishman”. The conversation drifted into the metaphysics of computer-generated imaging:

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And what you’re describing is a technology that’s only going to get better and better, which I think brings up some ethical issues because as the technology gets more seamless and commonplace and those likenesses that you’ve just described get more subtle, could we end up doing away with the actual actor altogether? I mean, could it come to a point where a studio owns the digital image of an actor and just uses that instead of the real thing?

HELMAN: I don’t think so ’cause the performance has to come from somewhere, and that has to be the actor. And so just think about what it’ll take for a computer to do what Robert De Niro does. You need to train the computer – right? – to do those kinds of things. And basically, if you think about the behavior or likeness of somebody, how do you become yourself? You become yourself by living, you know, by having a bunch of experiences. And then you also have all the connections that are made in your face, the way you smile, all the cultural things that you live.

So if you want a computer to act like Robert De Niro, you need to train the computer like Robert De Niro. And then you spend a lifetime, you know, basically training the computer. And for that, you might as well just use Robert De Niro, you know?

Quite right, and more generally correct than I suspect Mr. Helman intended. Explanations pertain to the past, where things could not have been otherwise. The future will always be the realm of probability, else, to echo Mr. Helman, it will already have been.

The supervenient identity specifies its base. Otherwise, there is no explanation of the identity by the base. The point is: there are no loose ends – no theoretical De Niro’s.

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A Bucket of Wings and a Pitcher of PBR with the Baby Jesus

The first time that the Baby Jesus talked to me was at YMCA Summer camp. I heard him on assignment, lying on my bunk in a group cabin while the cicadas droned outside. Us campers had been sent back to our quarters after an evening devotional to listen for a message from God. Around the campfire, our counselors had had admonished us to listen with humility. We had to silence all our selfish desires if we hoped to perceive a divine whisper. We even had to relinquish our hope to hear a whisper from the Lord, if we hoped to hear a whisper from the Lord.

As I lay with my eyes open in the darkness, I was having more trouble tuning out the insects than the cacophony of my selfish desires. The cicadas’ ballad seemed to come from the darkness itself. I had long practice ignoring the undulating buzz, having grown up in the South with no central air and therefore reliant upon open windows for enough cool to allow Summer sleep. With no clamor in my head, the bug song rose from the suppressed depths of my consciousness to make a noise again. I tried to block it out while not trying to block it out, or trying to try to block it out, and so on, until my attention became exhausted and let go of the sound.

Just then, something happened. A voice, or maybe just a feeling, told me not to worry. The speaker was there. Everything was going perfectly according to plan. I felt great. Maybe I even let go a few tears of joy that night. In any case, I soon fell asleep and when I woke the next morning, the world seemed to have a fresh scent, like it had been sprinkled with the lavender water of permeating divinity. The divine freshness lingered for a couple years, but from the moment of spritzing, it was doomed to fade. It could not be reconciled with events on the road to camp.

Our family had set out with a very aggressive vacationing agenda that year. We had left home two weeks prior on a mission to visit my grandmother and Disney World, both a day’s drive away. We would then loop back up to drop me at Summer camp, while my brother would go on to baseball camp, leaving my parents with a week of real vacation for themselves. The schedule was tight, and my father was not pleased when we pulled up behind a row of parked cars on a two lane road in the flatlands of North Florida. When we stepped out of the car, we could see an object blocking both lanes in the distance. Other people were getting out of their cars too, and it was quiet. We walked forward with all the rest.

On the opposite side of the road, about 30 yards up, a distraught elderly couple sat on the ground by their car. The car had a dent in the hood and its windshield was caved in. A few yards beyond lay a mangled bicycle. It was nice, or it had been. I had wanted a BMX bike like that for a couple of years, and I would have done with it what I imagined its rider was doing when the old folks hit him: jumping the banks on either side of the elevated roadway. The boy lay a dozen yards beyond his wrecked bike, diagonally across the lane lines. He was on his side with no apparent injury, from a distance, but with a puddle of blood around his upper body.

Standing over the boy, one could see that the blood was coming from his ears. His gaze fixed on something impossibly distant and his breaths came halting and deep. We circled around him as he died. Someone remarked that an ambulance was on its way, A nurse in the crowd screamed at the rest not to just stand there, but to run and get a blanket. She was upset to a degree beyond what the collective paralysis of the bystanders merited. She may have been wondering how Baby Jesus could allow such a thing. As a child, I knew that adults had their reasons and that those reasons were sometimes unfathomable. I just assumed that the same was true of the Baby Jesus.

I saw no injustice, but I saw his stare. Surely, the distant thing upon which the boy’s gaze fixed was his own death. Yet he would never get to that far place. If he just snuffed out, then he just snuffed out, like when the dentist gave me anesthesia to remove my wisdom teeth and asked me to count to ten as the drug took effect. I didn’t even fail to count to eight. I counted to seven and that was it; there was no experience of looking back on an unsuccessful effort to count to eight, only a memory of seven, then nothing. Likewise, if he saw a light at the end of a tunnel or rose into the ether to look down on his inert body, then he experienced a metamorphosis. He got yanked away from those final moments of physiologic cessation just like the anesthetic yanked me away from counting to eight.

If I had asked any of my fellow onlookers gathered around the body that day, I’m sure they would have spoken of death as a thing which might bear a scythe and a cowl. They would have named it an independent reality. But after that day on the road, I slowly came to see that they were wrong. I fantasized about what would happen if the boy could tell us about leaving his body. Jesus’ disciples were said to have had that very experience, when Jesus returned from the dead to speak to his inner circle. Yet they were only twelve meeting The One. I imagined a world where meetings with the dead were common. I imagined ghosts at first, but engaging in spectrology proved an unnecessary complication. The situation was the same if what happened to Jesus happened to everybody. Your bodily functions stopped. You went up into the clouds. You got a bit of a rebuild. You came back down.

If universal resurrection came to pass, the first generation affected might continue to speak of the Grim Reaper. But as the reportage of the pierced, crushed and disintegrated became commonplace, no one would refer to Death as a thing in itself. There would be misadventures and resurrections, and all would be properly seen as aspects of our total experience. Eventually, no one would even talk about Life anymore.

Though I did not appreciate it at the time, the considerations which began on that roadway in the Southern plains generated a frictional heat, which would finally evaporate the lavender water of permeating divinity. Over years, it dawned on me that Eau Divine had already transcended itself if we could put a name to it, even if we just spoke metaphorically. Like life and death, the scent arose from a great continuity of experience, which we could never look back upon from a discontinuous beyond. It was a slow drying out, and I did not even miss the scent until the next time Jesus spoke to me. That final time, I was sitting in a bar at lunch, far from Christian Summer camp, when the voice of the Lord came to me from a bucket of wings.

I don’t know why I ordered the wings. I was at a crossroads career-wise, so maybe I felt a little unstable and subject to whimsy. As I stared into the jumble of battered and fried appendages however, I recalled why I had become a de facto vegetarian. I felt sick as I imagined all the capabilities which those little wings had possessed in life, reduced to the mess before me on the plastic table cloth. But it was too late by then. I understood my place in the supply chain (having ordered) and besides, I could not leave food uneaten in my financial circumstances. Luckily, there was cheap beer on tap. I asked the bartender to bring me a pitcher.

I took a solid gulp of the rice-brew swill before having a second look at the wings. That’s when the voice, or maybe it was more like a feeling, came to me out of the bucket. It told me not to worry. Life had been given for life. It was all going according to plan. I could eat those chicken wings with a clear conscience, because that’s how it was meant to be. The essence of life got passed on, said the voice, and carried on from the poor little chickens to me. I stared at the crusty wings, and was not reassured. Those bits of bone and muscle that had been, could be taken for almost anything now. But they could not be taken out of circumstance or consequence, anymore than that boy on the road, Life and Death, plans both mortal and divine, or the voice of the Baby Jesus, coming, as it did, from the bucket, or the ether, or any other relatively distinguishable source.

I downed the remainder of the swill and pushed back from the table. Somebody else got the wings, and that was the last I heard from the Baby Jesus.

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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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Breaking Trail

For the umpteenth time, my snowshoe breaks through the crust and dives into hopeless depth hoar. The continental snowpack nibbles away at one’s soul with a false promise in every step. The crust feels solid when one’s foot first rests upon it. It even holds as weight shifts from back foot to front foot. But, it can sense when the full weight of body and pack has shifted, and then it collapses.

The slog would be bad enough were it a grueling monotony of breakthrough after breakthrough, but it is worse that that. Because sometimes, the crust gives you a few steps on top, and just when you relax, then it lets you fall through into the great vat of cornstarch beneath. What’s still worse about my current situation is that I am following a trail. Minus the snow, it would be easy walking.

If I persist, I will soon get a little psychological boost, as my course turns off the cut trail and into untracked forest. Though it really isn’t any harder or easier than wallowing above the Summer trail, breaking off the established path onto the section that only I know, feels like progress and is an antidote to the demoralizing snow conditions.

I used to do the walk to high camp with a map and compass. I no longer need those. The rocks, trees, sequences of slopes and their conformations chart a more accurate course in my memory. These days, I can get to my destination despite the snow cover because the trail isn’t really on the ground; it is in my mind. Or, so it would seem,

One might say that the trail presupposes or lies in the potential of, my mind and memory. For a trail to be, the possibility of a trail must have been. But the trail is not made of possibilities. It is made of my memories of trees, slopes, rocks, and all the other landmarks on the way. It is made of my senses of time, space and distance, which are properties of the phenomena which constitute thought and memory. My memory, and its possibilities, are dependent upon its contents. And so it is with memory in general; it is defined by having extant referents.

In other words, my memory is nothing without memories, and all the possibilities of memory lie in its contents, including its metaphysical possibilities, which lie in its having contents. When I recall looking down the trail in this moment, I trace a path through the space and time of my memory, just as I did when I stood in the snow on the day I recall. And I do so on background – all the historical infrastructure which orients my current experience and dictates its aspectual shape.

My recollection at the keyboard can’t get going without the background, yet the background can’t be background except in relation to current experience, which links it all together. The possibility of a trail inheres in legs, eyes, slopes and trees. Memory resides in its defining contents. The contents of my memory rely upon where and when I am now.

Some folks get frustrated with all this interdependence and would retreat to the simple certainty of a hierarchy. I can understand the appeal of a world where there is a separate mental substance, an uncaused cause, memory as an independent faculty among other independent faculties, and a trail waiting beneath the snow to accommodate our walk without the hard work of trail breaking.

But that means a world where there may be memory which doesn’t necessarily remember anything, a mind which doesn’t necessarily think about anything,  an agent which does not experience the changes it makes, and destinations which don’t belong to anybody – a world which is not possible.

 

 

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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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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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