Tag Archives: time

Looking Down on Elitism

“Look at those assholes. Ordinary fucking people. I hate ’em.”

– Bud, Repo Man


img_1201I dodge between the two ant-lines of hikers, one ascending and one descending the gravel path. About one in five says hello. I don’t respond. I am not here to socialize. I am not part of their program. There are few solo travelers, like me. Most hikers walk in groups of two or three, chatting about their jobs or mortgages. The majority of the loners are not really alone, either. They are on their Bluetooth devices, conversing with insubstantial partners on the trail.

The only socially isolated walkers come by it naturally. They are the elderly. Bent over their trekking poles with grim determination, getting their exercise as prescribed.

I pass them all and turn off on a steep trail to the peak. Without breaking stride, I scramble up a little chimney and across an exposed traverse to a ledge. There, I set up the rope for my training climb.

Crouched like a gargoyle, I take a moment to glower upon the crawling lines of walkers, now far below. The feeling of the moment is familiar. I had it just a week before in Ouray.


There were no walkers in the ice park, with one exception: an elderly lady walking her Papillion. The lady smiled and waved to my son and myself as we trudged up the snow packed road. She was wearing shearling slippers and mismatched halves of a pair of tracksuits. She did not look out of place.

The narrow gorge teemed with climbers on top rope.  Belayers chatted amongst themselves about technique and equipment. Downstream, a group waiting in line to climb, fired up a hibachi. Charbroil smoke wafted up the streambed.


I really don’t begrudge the outdoor recreationalist his or her fun. He or she belongs to other things: careers, classes, religions, cultures. I understand. Belonging puts climbing and everything associated with climbing in perspective. It justifies the ice park atmosphere and bidirectional queues in the desert.

I understand because, as I crouch on the little ledge, a strong sense of belonging comes over me. I look down over the ant lines, the obscene Scottsdale compounds, and the roads leading off toward the ice park. I lean back on the rough desert granite, one hand on the rope, and it all comes into perspective.


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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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Determinism and the Demon Experience -or- If You Say Free Will One More Time, I Won’t Be Held Responsible for What Happens Next

Well, after long deliberation, I finally did it. I sold my soul. It turned out to be more difficult than I anticipated, the thing put up – a struggle? I can’t call it a fight; it was more like an argument. It claimed it was a special substance and the only example of that substance which I’d ever hope to possess. When I told it that the fact just strengthened my position with the buyer, it began to claim it was an indispensable consequence of my existence and would carry on representing my self for all eternity if only I didn’t cut it loose. I’m not sure how that was supposed to motivate me in one direction or another, but it reminded me that my soul was putting up an argument because it couldn’t put up a fight. It couldn’t do anything, unless you call standing around acting as a rationalization for teleology doing something. It had me for a while, but it was just stalling. In the end, it needed me much more than I needed it. I could have kept it around for old times’ sake, but I guess I’m not that sentimental. Besides, even though what I could get for my soul couldn’t do anything more than the soul could, it turns out the demon whose consultation I purchased helps me keep me in perspective much better than the soul could. In retrospect, my soul was all about me, a bit of a selfish bastard, and I’m kind of glad to be rid of it, period.
Anyone who knows me, knows the demon to whom I refer: Laplace’s Demon. He is the perfect calculator, brought to life by an Ontological argument just like God:

P1) Numbers necessarily represent identity; the law-based relationships between numbers represent causation.
P2) It is possible for the relationships between numbers to be calculated (causation exists).
1) A complete representation and calculation of all causes over all time is conceivable.
2) There is some possible world in which a complete calculation has occurred.
3) If a complete calculation has occurred in one possible world, it encompassed conditions in all possible worlds.
4) A complete calculation has occurred for this world.
5) A calculation demands a calculator.
6) A universal calculator exists.

Some would say the demon is an aspect of God; it is certainly just as inscrutable. Anyway, the demon itself says there isn’t any difference. Why the demon might trade something for my soul remains a mystery, though I have my pet theory about its motive. I’m not even sure that what it has given me in exchange actually is anything. It can’t cause anything to happen anymore than my soul could.
What I got was a little voice in my head. I’m pretty sure it is different from the other voices which generate my internal dialog. The demon says it is. The demon says a lot of things, but as I’ve noted most of them are of little significance and none are of any consequence.
One of its favorites is, “If you could only look at this from an atemporal viewpoint…”. Whatever follows is moot. A viewpoint removed from time is, of course, its viewpoint. If its calculations occurred in context, it would still be calculating and would have gotten to just exactly this point by now. It could hardly be said to exist as an identifiable thing were that the case, even a proto-consciousness (a proto-proto-consciousness maybe?). No, it doesn’t mind time. That’s the problem, because since it doesn’t mind time it can’t convey any real information.
For example, here’s a conversation we had repeatedly early in our relationship: “What’s going to happen to me tomorrow?” I’d ask.
“It’s complicated,” it would reply.
“How complicated?” I’d persist.
“You don’t have the time.” it would answer.
I’ve found that I cannot ask it any questions about the future; they are just too confusing. If I ask it, for example, “Will I like this carnival ride?” it can give me a theoretical answer, based on the me of the current moment’s appreciation of what it knows will occur on the ride. But it can also give an instantaneous answer, to the me which experiences the ride and at once experiences the resolution of his expectations of the experience. Finally, it can answer the question for the me who will have completed the ride and has integrated the experience into the narrative of all his other experiences. We went round and round about these sorts of questions, but in the end I had to acknowledge that it was right; when I ask it, “Will I..?” it can’t know to whom the hell it should address the answer, and neither can I. Retrospective questions have proven more satisfying.
Questions about what happened didn’t excite me at first. We expect to be able to sort that out ourselves. Asking an all-knowing demon about the past is just indulging one’s own laziness, I thought. I’ve found that it is much more, though, because the demon’s view of history is incredibly complex – much more complex than we could ever hope to know. To a perfect calculator, all the little details matter. For example, when we look at a hydrogen atom, we see something pretty generic. We can’t tell one from another and why should we? To the demon, each one of those hydrogen atoms is there, now in a way that makes it (and its constituents) distinguishable from every other identifiable thing. That’s about as close as anything can get to being a universal truth, and it lends a certain weight to the demon’s pronouncements regarding past events.
Even the answer to the question, “Why did I do that?”, expressed as it is in the stock phrase, “It’s complicated.”, means something more. I always thought I had my reasons for the choices I made. I now have confirmation, not just for the choices which I can readily explain, but for the choices I make just because I feel like it. “Because I feel like it” is as much a gross approximation as the demon’s, “it’s complicated”, but just as true. My whim may not be a reason I pick the dark chocolate rather than milk chocolate in the same way that the dark chocolate’s higher phenol content is a reason for my choice. However, my whim contains such a reason, and in a unique, specific sense. My whim isn’t whimsical as much as it is complicated. My having it as a whim rather than as the demon’s analysis is why I can do something with it while the demon can’t.
I’ve found the demon’s gift of confirmation quite comforting. Everybody has this intuition that something causes decisions, for others as well as for themselves. It is at the core of our Theory of Mind – the notion that other people have their own whims and are not just zombies acting out a complex algorithm.
I’ll admit to having had doubts about my theory of mind. It should have been enough for me, as it is for most people, that I can communicate with others using natural language instead of something like binary code. The implication being that “whim”, for example, has content – all the demon’s complicated stuff – and isn’t just a representation of “emotional impulse”. Despite such logic, I always suspected that I was just projecting my ineffectual feelings onto an algorithm or acting out a psychotic delusion, with my theory of mind serving as a rationalization for discontinuous interactions. Having the demon confirm that the psychotic also had his reasons – that the basics of content remained intact even when the representations were disconnected – was a relief. My theory of mind would not crumble some day to reveal an uglier truth which it had been covering up all along.
The demon’s gift seems relatively cheap, but I don’t want to leave the impression that the gift was without complications of its own. I’ve had to accept some vulnerabilities and abandon some values which I’d prefer to deny and retain respectively. The psychotic does have his reasons, so the demon says. So does the heroin addict. In either case, the demonic complications mean that the person’s reasons may not be accessible or amenable to their consciousness in a way which we would like them to be. Worse, their intransigence may be the only essential difference between those reasons and the reasons which determine our volitions. I’d like to think that Thorazine and Methadone were not necessary. I’d like to think that volition is self-motivated, but the people who really think that are just the people who get the Thorazine prescriptions – in those cases to treat delusions of thought insertion. My motives and their volitions all have a basis, as do everyone’s, and they don’t so much determine my choices as resolve them. Sometimes, the will even requires some tangible adjuncts, like medications, to give it traction in its resolving. There is nothing about me which is truly self-contained and invulnerable.
I can accept being an open system, because I can do things. The demon can have its analysis. It’s frozen out by its status as a universal calculator. It can account for whims and hunger, but it will never have a whim or feel hungry because it cannot ever be there, now. Those identity-resolving phenomena are unnecessary for a thing outside the causal realm and inherently unavailable to it. I initially thought that the demon might have valued my soul because it was jealous of human experience and wished to possess a record of such or at least deprive another of some of that precious history. I no longer think that; the demon couldn’t know the difference. I think it saw the essential identity as a missing piece of its account, though per its method, the account was indeed complete. Judgments like the one I laid on the demon are a human by-product, and they are the last casualties of my association with the demon.
To have a qualitative experience is to be defined by it. Since it contains all the complicated stuff which the demon can’t explain to me (within my constraints), subjectivity is a powerful token in my resolutions. I can tell that my current hunger is like the hunger I have when I’m peckish, rather than the hunger I have when I’m starving. So, as an example of the efficacy of subjective qualities, I won’t try to chase the hyenas away from the food this time. But I can know what it’s like to have my hunger satisfied – to be ‘full’ – as well. That too is a powerful token. I find being full from eating a bowl of donuts to have a quality distinguishable from the quality of being full from eating a bowl of oatmeal. The distinction affects my resolutions as powerfully as the distinction between peckishness and starving hunger. Don’t get me wrong. What I’ve learned from the demon is not that we are automatons moving to the tick of our impressions, just that as creatures occurring in time, we have our limits and live and die by our history – it’s the cost of participation. However, I have therefore had to admit that the romantic and horrific world of tradition is a mistake. We are not heroes or villains, playing out our self-contained natures in some epic, teleological struggle. The demon is not jealous of my soul. Sure, such a model is shiny, well-defined, and action-packed, but it is mistaken. The simplistic evaluations of the traditional model ( the purpose-built, unitary self) don’t represent us well. We are – complicated.
To recap: I needn’t fear zombies or determinism; analysis may be accurate without being completely adequate; qualia have relevant content; identity accrues and so fixed evaluations are invalid. These are the things I have gained and lost by selling my soul to the perfect calculator. I still feel it was a decent bargain.

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