Is your wisdom consumed in confidence?

How do we know what we know? It’s a question I used to think was obvious: if we cannot investigate the answer ourselves, we turn to others –somebody will know. Even the polymaths of old relied on other people for the groundwork on which they built. Nobody can know everything -knowledge is a jigsaw puzzle, the integral pieces of which make little sense on their own. We have to know what fits, and where.

But how do we know who to trust? How do we know who knows? If the foundation on which we construct is badly planned -or worse, wrong– the building will not last. Think of Ptolemy and his epicycles that became hopelessly complicated in a vain attempt to explain celestial movements and maintain earth as the center of the universe.

And it’s not as if Scientists are always reliable anyway. Consider the disappointment of Fleischmann-Pons’ claims that they had produced ‘cold fusion’ -a nuclear reaction occurring at room temperature? More ominous by far, however, was Andrew Wakefield’s fraudulent 1998 paper in the prestigious British medical journal The Lancet that claimed that the MMR vaccine (measles, mumps, rubella) caused autism. The paper was retracted by the journal in 2004, but by then, the damage had been done.

My point is that if we are not careful about the source -the reputation- of our information we may be led astray. It’s an almost trite observation, perhaps, but in this era of ‘Fake News’, one best kept in mind. I was again reminded of the importance of this in an essay by Gloria Origgi, an Italian philosopher, and a tenured senior researcher at CNRS (the French National Centre for Scientific Research) in Paris. She was writing in Aeon: https://aeon.co/ideas/say-goodbye-to-the-information-age-its-all-about-reputation-now

As she observes, ‘[T]he greater the amount of information that circulates, the more we rely on so-called reputational devices to evaluate it. What makes this paradoxical is that the vastly increased access to information and knowledge we have today does not empower us or make us more cognitively autonomous. Rather, it renders us more dependent on other people’s judgments and evaluations of the information with which we are faced … we are moving towards the ‘reputation age’, in which information will have value only if it is already filtered, evaluated and commented upon by others … reputation has become a central pillar of collective intelligence today. It is the gatekeeper to knowledge, and the keys to the gate are held by others. The way in which the authority of knowledge is now constructed makes us reliant on what are the inevitably biased judgments of other people, most of whom we do not know … In the best-case scenario, you trust the reputation of scientific research and believe that peer-review is a reasonable way of sifting out ‘truths’ from false hypotheses and complete ‘bullshit’ about nature. In the average-case scenario, you trust newspapers, magazines or TV channels that endorse a political view which supports scientific research to summarise its findings for you. In this latter case, you are twice-removed from the sources: you trust other people’s trust in reputable science.’

So how do we ever know whether we are building on sand or rock? Let’s face it, few of us are competent to judge the raw data of a scientific study, let alone repeat the experiment to verify the results. And how many of us would be inclined to repeat it even if we could? No, some things we simply have to take on trust.

Even so, Origgi offers us another option: ‘What a mature citizen of the digital age should be competent at is not spotting and confirming the veracity of the news. Rather, she should be competent at reconstructing the reputational path of the piece of information in question, evaluating the intentions of those who circulated it, and figuring out the agendas of those authorities that leant it credibility.’ As the Nobel laureate Friedrich Hayek, an Austrian economist and political philosopher wrote, ‘civilisation rests on the fact that we all benefit from knowledge which we do not possess.’

I’m trying to learn from Origgi, though. I’m trying to pick my filters carefully. Figure out their agendas. Sometimes you can even do that by listening.

I was sitting in my favourite dark corner of Starbucks the other day when two women sat down at the table next to me. I’m not sure they even noticed my ears in the shadows because they seemed to be in the middle of a conversation about technology as they each held their phones in front of them like crucifixes warding off the devil.

“I got a new running app, Fran,” said a tall thin woman with short curly dark hair and attired in expensive looking running gear.

“Which app you using, Dor?” her friend responded, equally attired and reaching for Dor’s phone.

“It’s a new one,” Dor said, holding it out of Fran’s reach. “Supposed to be the best at approximating calorie expenditure. Takes account of your weight, leg length, and then adds in changes in altitude on the run, as well as the time taken.” She looked at it again. “Even asks for a picture so you can post.”

Fran smiled benevolently. “Your IP address and Email, too?”

“Huh?”

“Privacy, Dor. Privacy.”

Dor stared at her quizzically for a moment. “I just figured they were being thorough, eh? More accurate… Anyway, they know all that other stuff nowadays.”

Fran stared back, and then sighed. “I suppose they do, but I refuse to make it easy for them… Sometimes you’re so naïve, my friend.”

“But…”

Fran shook her head. “I’ve just got a simple running app. And they didn’t ask for my picture.”

Dor blinked -rather provocatively I thought. “The more info, the more accurate the assessment, don’t you think?”

Fran rolled her eyes. “Well, we’ve just run together this morning -let’s see if the calorie count is the same.” She glanced at her screen. “I’ve got 725 cals. And 5K. for distance. How about you?”

“1100… and 4.85 K” Dor smiled. “I like mine better.”

Fran leaned across the table and peeked at the other screen. “Your app looks pretty well the same as mine… Yours play music?” Dor nodded. “And give verbal encouragement?”

“Uhmm, well I don’t turn on all the audio stuff… But I had to pay to download this one so it probably does.” She started tapping and then turned the screen so Fran could see it. “See? It won some sort of award for excellence.”

Fran sat back in her seat, her expression unreadable. “You paid? Mine’s free…” She began a similar tapping frenzy. “Mine won an award, too… Who makes yours?”

Dor started scrolling down her screen and then turned it towards Fran again. “Can’t pronounce it, but here…”

Fran showed her own screen. “It’s the same company, Dor!”

They were both silent for a moment. Then Dor smiled contentedly. “You get what you pay for, I guess, eh?”

I smiled to myself, still hidden in the shadows, and wondered what Origgi would make of the effort of these two mature citizens of the digital age. At least they were trying -and after all, they had pretty well figured out the intentions and agendas of their source…

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Oh coward Conscience, how dost thou afflict me!

Every once in a while, buried in all the fake news and confirmation biases, I find something that rings true. Something that transcends the routine moral admonishments that usually find me wanting. It’s not that I don’t aspire to morality, or whatever, it’s just that I’m sometimes not very good at it: I forget things from time to time, and yell at other people, or the dog.

And anyway, being good only exists in contrast to something else so it’s important to keep other stuff around so you know where you sit. I do not know any moral saints, you understand -they must run with a different crowd- but then again, I’m not sure we’d get along as friends. The American philosopher, Susan Wolf, defines these ‘saints’ as people whose every action is as morally good and worthy as possible, and she writes in her eponymous essay Moral Saints: ‘I don’t know whether there are any moral saints. But if there are, I am glad that neither I nor those about whom I care most are among them.’

It turns out that her essay is the subject for another essay, this time by Daniel Callcut in Aeon, rather than The Journal of Philosophy so I felt less of a stranger in a strange land in reading it:  https://aeon.co/essays/why-it-is-better-not-to-aim-at-being-morally-perfect

Wolf seems to be suggesting that the moral saint would likely never give you a break if you weren’t constantly altruistic, so I enjoyed Callcut’s paraphrase: ‘The problem with extreme altruism, as Oscar Wilde is reported to have said about socialism, is that it takes up too many evenings.’

‘If you don’t have enough time for friendship or fun, or works of art or wildlife, then you are missing out on what Wolf calls the non-moral part of life. Wolf does not mean to suggest that non-moral equals immoral: just because something doesn’t have anything to do with morality (playing tennis, for instance) it does not follow that it is therefore morally bad. The point is that morality is, intuitively, focused on issues such as treating others equally, and on trying to relieve suffering. And good things these are: but so is holidaying with a friend, or exploring the Alaskan rain forest, or enjoying a curry. Moral goodness is just one aspect of the good things in life and, if you live as if the moral aspect is the only aspect that matters, then you are likely to be very impoverished in terms of the non-moral goods in your life.’

I am taken with Callcut’s take on Aristotelian ethics: ‘Aristotle most notably, held views of ethics that encouraged neither selfishness nor selflessness: the best kind of life would be concerned with others, and involve pleasurable engagement with others’ lives, but it would not require impartial dedication to the needs of strangers. Ethics is more concerned with the question of how to be a good friend than it is the question of how to save the world. And, as with good friendships, ethics is both good for you and good for other people. At the heart of Aristotle’s ethics is the ultimate win-win. The best ethical life simply is the most desirable life, and the fulfilment of our social nature consists in living in mutual happiness with others.’

However, some of Callcut’s arguments -and especially Wolf’s- go deeper than what most of us non-philosophers would likely accept, let alone understand. What I took from the essay was that ‘a line has to be drawn between what is morally required of you and that which is morally praiseworthy but not morally required… Morality doesn’t require you to have no other interests besides morality.’ And ‘The fact that you are not morally perfect doesn’t make you a bad person.’ Most of us walk the middle ground.

I remember one cold day a few years ago when I was in town -fairly close to Christmas, I think. The street was full of shoppers, charity Santa Clauses, and on every block, Salvation Army volunteers with their little pots slowly filling with money. Unfortunately, the contrast with the street people among them was jarring -especially the old man and his dog sitting on a busy corner. Everybody passed the two of them without a glance. He had no cup, and he looked too cold to leave his hat down on the sidewalk for donations. Perhaps in his sixties, or seventies, he was unshaven and dressed in a torn, mud-stained grey-brown overcoat and was huddled close to his dog, his hands trying to find some warmth in his coat, while his feet sought refuge under the dog. A rumpled blue toque, obviously too small for him, was pulled over his head, but it wasn’t large enough to cover his ears, and he was visibly shivering.

I had just bought a few presents and could feel some change jangling in one pocket, and my conscience in another, so I decided to empty both of them in the Salvation Army pot nearby.

I glanced at the man and his dog as I walked over to the pot.

The volunteer saw me looking at the man. “I’ve tried to convince him to come to the shelter,” he explained, before I had a chance to empty my pocket. “But he won’t…”

“Can he bring his dog with him?” I asked. The dog was obviously important to him.

The volunteer nodded. “But, only to our shelter on the other side of the city, unfortunately -too far away from where he lives in the park.” He smiled at the old man. “He says he’s waiting for some friends, although I haven’t seen them in a couple of days…” We both stared at the old man. “He just got out of hospital -actually, I think he probably discharged himself. He was worried about the dog.”

“But look at him,” I said. “He’s cold now; he’s going to freeze tonight!”

The volunteer sighed. “He refuses to go back to the hospital, so I offered to drive him and the dog to the shelter in my van, but…” He shrugged.

“Let me talk to him,” I said and walked over to where he sat. I started to extend my hand to greet him, but the dog growled protectively.

“Is there anything I can help you with, sir?” I asked, being careful not to approach any closer.

A pair of sad, rheumy eyes slowly emerged from under the curtain of his lids and stared vacantly at me. His thin, chapped lips twitched and I wondered if he was talking softly to me. His skin was sallow and bruised; he didn’t look at all well. “Dog,” he seemed to be saying, although I couldn’t be sure. But even the effort of whispering seemed too much for him.

“Dog…?” I said, to help him out.

His head slowly nodded. “Dog,” formed on his trembling lips, and then his eyes receded again into his skull, and his head fell forward onto his chest.

I hurried back to the Salvation Army man. “He’s really sick,” I said, and dialled 911 for the ambulance. But before they arrived, the dog began to whine and lick the man’s face.

When the paramedics arrived, it was too late -the old man had died, but the dog wouldn’t let them take him away, so they had to call the SPCA to restrain him.

“What will happen to the dog?” I asked as the official bundled it into his van.

The SPCA man shrugged. “Usually put them down, eh?”

“But…” I struggled for words. “Can’t it be kept for adoption?”

“Too many of ‘em,” he explained, his eyes sad. “And this one’s a bit old…”

I stared at him with disbelief. “But… But the last thing he said to me was… well, he wanted to make sure the dog was taken care of, I think.”

The driver was obviously a kind man. “You can donate some money for a kennel…” he said, and produced a card with the phone number. “Who knows, maybe someone will want an older dog… It’s Christmas, eh?”

I nodded and took the card. The man smiled like he was relieved. “I hate it when we have to put ’em down,” he said, closing the door to the van. “Thank you, sir,” he said, getting into his seat behind the wheel. “I’ll tell them you’re going to phone.”

The Salvation Army man walked over to me as the ambulance drove away and the crowd that had gathered, thinned. “You know,” he said, smiling at me and shaking my hand, “That was the most meaningful donation I’ve seen this Christmas…”

And I think it was the most meaningful gift I’ve ever given…

 

 

 

 

 

 

Love, which alters when it alteration finds

I’m not certain I understand why, but I am being led to believe that Love can be described mathematically using Bayesian Probability Theory… Okay, as a start, I have no idea what subscribing to Bayesian probability theory might entail, except maybe a club membership, and a considerably manipulated personal profile to attract some interest. But, ever alert to new (or any) social possibilities, I decided to read the essay by Suki Finn, a postdoctoral research fellow in philosophy at the University of Southampton in the UK writing in Aeon: https://aeon.co/ideas/beyond-reason-the-mathematical-equation-for-unconditional-love

It starts with the not unreasonable premise that there are two basic types of love: conditional, and unconditional. Then, she dips her toes into some background to convince me that Thomas Bayes’ probability theorem is flexible enough to improve my social life.

‘Degrees of belief are called credences. These credences can be given numerical values between 0 and 1 (where 1 is being completely certain), to demonstrate how strong that degree of belief is. Importantly, these values are not forever fixed, and can change when given reason to do so… But how do you rationally alter your credence, and figure out how strong it should be, given the information that you have? Cue Bayesian probability theory to calculate conditional credences. A credence is conditional upon information when it is evaluated with regard to that information, such that the strength of the belief is sensitive to that information and is updated on the basis of it… But what if my credence is completely irresponsive to such evidence? … This is what it is like to have credence 1, in other words, a belief of certainty, which could not be any stronger and cannot be updated. It cannot be updated in either direction – it cannot get stronger because it is already at maximum strength, and it cannot get weaker on the basis of evidence because it was not built on the basis of evidence in the first place.’ Uhmm… easy, right? And these are the rational changes to credence. ‘When your strength of feeling is sensitive to information about how things are, a philosopher would call it rational, as it develops in accordance with that information. Such is loving for a reason: with more reason comes more love, and when the reason goes, the love goes. This type of conditional love is an analogy to rational credences between 0 and 1 (not including the extremes), which change on the basis of evidence.’

Still with me…? I mean with Suki, because I’m not in any way with her…  Okay then, ‘Alternatively, unconditional love is love that will not change according to any information, as it was not built on the basis of information in the first place. This is love without reason… This type of love has an untouchable and irrational mind of its own. As with credence 1, it can change only irrationally – it does not abide by any Bayesian law and so cannot be updated… You fall in and out of unconditional love at the mercy of love itself… This is loving in spite of everything, rather than loving because of something, and so appears unaltered by reason… But this does not make the love stable. It is simply out of your control, and can literally go away for no reason!’

It seems to me that the author is saying that conditional love is probably more predictable, or maybe controllable than unconditional love, because it is not subject to random (uncaused) fluctuations. It’s not as liable to be indiscriminately, or inadvertently snatched away. Nice. But have I learned any non-obfuscatory take-home lessons? Is it readily transferrable to any situations other than amongst rhetoricians? Could I use it in the car on the way home, in other words?

Sometimes the grandest ideas fall short of the mark in actual combat… sorry, relationships. How, in practice, and when you’re just getting to know somebody, can you possibly profess conditional love? And why would you? It sounds like a sort of one-time stand thing. It is of course, but normal rules of courtship require hyperbole. Metaphors -as in: ‘My love is as constant as the northern star, of whose true-fixed and resting quality there is no fellow in the firmament. The skies are painted with unnumbered sparks. They are all fire and every one doth shine, but there’s but one in all doth hold her place.’ As long as she doesn’t know you’ve cribbed the lot from Shakespeare’s Caesar, and you don’t mess up the words, everybody wins.

People are attracted to metaphors -they conjure up sincerity without linking it to unconditionality. Without requiring the intrusion of credences into an otherwise emotionally friable situation. It seems to me there’s nothing but trouble in store for anyone who decides to numerically assign emotional attachment parameters on the way home from a lovely dinner in an expensive restaurant.

Anyway, Thomas Bayes was a Presbyterian minister, and heaven only knows what that entails in terms of the slideabilty of relationships. I mean, their Regulative principle of worship (according to Wikipedia, at least) ‘specifies that (in worship), what is not commanded is forbidden.’ I’m therefore not entirely convinced that he would approve of the commandeering of his theorems in the somewhat tottery realm of Love, whether or not it is entwined with the idea of worship.

Of course, on the other hand, I suspect he would no doubt denounce any effort to charm with untruths, or at least equivocatory declarations. I certainly admire Suki Finn’s attempt to clarify intrinsically opaque emotions, but I’m afraid it will not do. And to revert back to Philosophy -her specialty- for a moment, there are just too many perils for any practical attempt at a Kantian Categorical Imperative application here, either.

It seems to me that I blundered into a more satisfactory solution to the declaration of Love: metaphor. It does not require any numerical assignations that might confuse or even spoil the moment; it does not even require positioning the feeling along a Bell curve for comparison with other loves you might have had. Nope, at the party -after you muster up the courage to ask her to dance- you merely say: ‘When you do dance, I wish you a wave o’ th’ sea, that you might ever do nothing but that’, or in the car on the way home, you just have to come up with something like, ‘O, how this spring of love resembleth the uncertain glory of an April day which now shows all the beauty of the sun…’ and let it go at that.

 

 

 

All That Glitters

“My uncle wants to come,” Jasmin announced as she sat in the hard wooden chair by my desk, looking worried. She was almost due, and as her obstetrician, I was seeing her for what she hoped might be her final prenatal visit. She wanted to know how many people could be present in the delivery room at the hospital for the birth.

I nodded encouragingly -so far, only her husband and mother were expected to be present.

“Uncle Jonathan used to be one of my favourites when I was younger.” She smiled at the memory. “He was so smart!” She sighed and looked down at her lap. “He was –is,” she corrected herself, “a professor of Philosophy at the university.” She stared at something behind me for a moment. “I was so impressed that he had even published a book… I remember trying to read it,” she added, rolling her eyes for effect, “but it was too abstruse for me in those days.”

I smiled at the idea of anything being too difficult for her -she was a PhD candidate herself, although not in Philosophy like her uncle. “You seem a bit concerned that he wants to be present for the birth, Jasmin.”

She shrugged and glanced nervously at her lap again. “I haven’t seen him for a while,” she admitted. “We… we kind of fell out a few years ago.”

I sat quietly and waited to see if she wanted to explain.

“He… I mean, I don’t like the way he treats his wife –treated…” she qualified her tenses again. Then she sent her eyes over to explore my face to see if she should explain further. “Even Mom was upset with her brother…”

I tried to keep my expression neutral, but I suppose she could see my curiosity.

“He expected her to have a meal ready for him when he came home…” Her eyes never left my face, but had perched on my cheeks as if they were resting. Waiting. “She had to do all the work around the house, you know. He always said he was exhausted from lecturing and writing at work.”

I nodded again, but she could sense I was trying not to judge.

“Mom said it was abusive…” she said in answer to my unasked question. “I… I refused to believe her at first. I always knew he was arrogant, but if anybody deserved to be arrogant, it was him. He was such a brilliant thinker… is, I mean…”

Jasmin seemed genuinely conflicted. I could see it was difficult for her to accept what she saw as imperfections in a childhood hero.

And yet, any hero-worshipping can be fraught, can’t it? I discussed some of the ramifications of this in a previous essay entitled Life’s Fitful Fever https://musingsonwomenshealth.com/?p=10396 , but I continue to be intrigued by the subject…

We all have subsurface faults that could weaken our glossy reputations if exposed. After all, each of us is a book of stories, only some of which we prefer to read -even those exemplary figures we choose to pedestalize.

None of this is a surprise, of course, but it is sometimes important that it be reconsidered in times like this when we are busy tearing down statues of people whose past is not as monolithic as we once assumed -or, at least, not as we wanted to remember it. An essay by the British philosopher Julian Baggini in Aeon provided an interesting counterbalance to our resurgent iconoclasm: https://aeon.co/ideas/why-sexist-and-racist-philosophers-might-still-be-admirable

‘Praise Immanuel Kant, and you might be reminded that he believed that ‘Humanity is at its greatest perfection in the race of the whites,’ and ‘the yellow Indians do have a meagre talent’. Laud Aristotle, and you’ll have to explain how a genuine sage could have thought that ‘the male is by nature superior and the female inferior, the male ruler and the female subject’.

‘We seem to be caught in a dilemma. We can’t just dismiss the unacceptable prejudices of the past as unimportant. But if we think that holding morally objectionable views disqualifies anyone from being considered a great thinker or a political leader, then there’s hardly anyone from history left… However, the idea that racist, sexist or otherwise bigoted views automatically disqualify a historical figure from admiration is misguided. Anyone who cannot bring themselves to admire such a historical figure betrays a profound lack of understanding about just how socially conditioned all our minds are.’

Historical revisionism is an interesting phenomenon: the belief -no, the assumption– that our present day ethos is, by default, the gold standard against which to compare all other eras, and all other societies. But, ‘why do so many find it impossible to believe that any so-called genius could fail to see that their prejudices were irrational and immoral? One reason is that our culture has its own deep-seated and mistaken assumption: that the individual is an autonomous human intellect independent from the social environment… The enlightenment ideal that we can and should all think for ourselves should not be confused with the hyper-enlightenment fantasy that we can think all by ourselves. Our thinking is shaped by our environment in profound ways that we often aren’t even aware of.’

‘Accepting this does not mean glossing over the prejudices of the past. Becoming aware that even the likes of Kant and Hume were products of their times is a humbling reminder that the greatest minds can still be blind to mistakes and evils, if they are widespread enough. It should also prompt us to question whether the prejudices that rudely erupt to the surface in their most infamous remarks might also be lurking in the background elsewhere in their thinking.’ And yet, ‘Many blindspots are remarkably local, leaving the general field of vision perfectly clear. The classicist Edith Hall’s defence of Aristotle’s misogyny is a paradigm of how to save a philosopher from his worst self. Rather than judge him by today’s standards, she argues that a better test is to ask whether the fundamentals of his way of thinking would lead him to be prejudiced today… But there is a very important difference between the living and the dead. The living can come to see how their actions were wrong, acknowledge that, and show remorse. When their acts were crimes, they can also face justice.’

But, as Baggini summarizes in his essay, ‘The dead do not have such an opportunity, and so to waste anger chastising them is pointless. We are right to lament the iniquities of the past, but to blame individuals for things they did in less enlightened times using the standards of today is too harsh.’

Memories of that visit with Jasmin re-surfaced after I read the article.

“Is Jonathan’s wife going to come to the birth as well?” I remember asking.

She stared at her lap briefly. “No, unfortunately she passed away last year.”

I could see it really bothered her, but I sat in silence for a moment. “Were you two… close?”

She nodded and then sighed as she looked at me again. “I just don’t understand, though,” she suddenly blurted out. “The two of them seemed happy, you know… Happy. Content with each other…” She took a deep breath as she tried to expunge the thought. “I suppose he was just a man of his time –is, I mean: his attitude is fairly typical of that era, I think…” Then, after she considered it briefly, she added “But I don’t know how she could stand it: being a slave in the house, I mean.”

She kept scanning my face to see if I agreed -after all, I was probably the same age as Jonathan. Subject to the same biases, the same unrealistic expectations of a wife.

It was my turn to sigh. “You said the two of them seemed happy…”

She nodded. “They loved each other.”

I smiled. “Then perhaps she, too, was a woman of her time, Jasmin.”

She thought about that for a while and then her whole demeanour changed. “I… I hadn’t thought of it that way.” She smiled and sent her eyes to my face to thank me. “I’ll introduce you two in the delivery room. I think you’ll like him,” she said and winked at me as she stood to leave.

 

 

 

The time is out of joint

It came as a great shock, of course -Youth  does not easily admit defeat: it lives as if there is always a tomorrow, will always be a tomorrow. The sun will rise after any darkness; day will always follow night. Youth is immortal, although perhaps it is that death is further away than they can see. It is beyond the horizon of a land so vast, it barely recedes as they wander along the rainbow of their still-wet days.

At least that’s how Elissa saw it in the years I knew her. We met at university in our freshman year -some club or other, I suppose -although we also took many of the same classes, I recall. And then after three years, she transferred to another school and I lost track of her -until one day I saw a face that shouldn’t have been where I saw it.

I had just started doing my first ward rounds on a neurology rotation in my fourth year of medical school, and there, tucked in a sunny corner of a four-bed room, was a pair of eyes that suddenly twinkled with recognition. Almost everything else I’d seen that first morning on the ward was depressing: asymmetrical faces, immobile bodies, eyes that stared unseeing, and perhaps uncaring, at the ceiling tiles -a ward of scarred, and time-ravaged bodies.

But there she was: a more mature, but still beautiful version of the Elissa I knew. Her auburn hair was shorter than I remembered -but partly shaved and bandaged near the crown. And her face told me she had gone through a lot since we had last seen each other.

I glanced at her chart. The beds on the neurosurgery unit were filled, and so she had been placed on this ward after her brain biopsy a few days previously, until something became available for her on the surgical ward. The biopsy results were depressing -definitely not encouraging for a 29 year old just beginning her PhD program in Psychology.

“Is that who I think it is?” she asked as I approached her bedside.

“I guess that depends on who you’re hoping for,” I answered lightly, and with a smile.

“So…” She ran her eyes across my face and then over the short white coat that medical students wore when visiting patients in those days. “Are you a doctor now?” she asked, even though her expression told me she knew I wasn’t. “Sit down and tell me what you’ve been doing,” she added, before I could answer.

We talked about our lives for a while -well, about everything other than why we were meeting after all this time in a hospital. Elissa could sense my discomfort.

“It’s okay to talk about it, you know…” she said, after an awkward silence when I’d seemed to run out of things to say.

I smiled weakly and shuffled around in my chair.

“Nobody wants to… They crowd around the bed and tell me how well I’m looking, and if anybody dares to mention my cancer, it’s to tell me I am going to beat it.” She glanced at the chart I was holding and smiled. “But I’m not, you know.” She studied my face for a moment. “I can see the subject makes you uncomfortable, too.” She sighed gently and then reached over and took my hand. “I find myself comforting my visitors more than describing how I feel about dying; they don’t really want to know.” Her eyes landed briefly on my cheeks and then hovered over my head before they returned. “I don’t think they’d understand anyway, you know…”

She smoothed the sheets on her bed with her free hand and sighed again. “The really hard thing is that I’ve accepted my fate, but nobody else has. They won’t let me…” She stared out of the window. “You don’t know how hard that is. I almost feel guilty for letting them down.”

She squeezed my hand. “But you know, what it really makes me feel is so very alone… I can’t talk to them about that -not my friends, at any rate.”

Suddenly she stared into my eyes. “Oh, I don’t mean you!” She smiled like the old Elissa. “It’s just that I’m still entitled to an opinion, don’t you think? And I don’t want to live forever, you know…”

I nodded, and stayed quiet and let her talk. I’d never felt so… so close to her.

Then her eyes began to twinkle again. “I mean I have a few quibbles about the timing and everything, but I think I could accept even that, if they’d only stop trying to console me all the time… and just listen.”

Her face was almost radiant as she poured out her feelings onto me, and we continued talking until a nurse tapped me on the shoulder to remind me I had rounds to do on the rest of the patients.

It was then that Elissa leaned across the bed and kissed me on my cheek. “Thank you, G,” she whispered, using my nickname like it was a caress. “Thank you for just listening…

Elissa died only a few weeks later -there wasn’t much to treat brain tumours with in those days, and she slipped into a coma only days after we’d talked. But our discussion has coloured my thinking ever since.

And one topic we discussed -the unfairness of our allotted lifespan- still surfaces from time to time, even all these years later. Most recently, I suppose, in an essay by Paul Sagar, a lecturer in political theory in the department of political economy, King’s College London. He was writing in Aeon, an online publication, outlining the fears that surround both death and its converse, immortality: https://aeon.co/essays/theres-a-big-problem-with-immortality-it-goes-on-and-on

I suddenly remembered Elissa’s feeling about immortality. I don’t want to live forever -just long enough… Until I’m ready, I guess. So I was pleased to learn that the attitude she taught me was neither anomalous nor unusual.

‘[T]he English moral philosopher Bernard Williams suggested that living forever would be awful, akin to being trapped in a never-ending cocktail party. This was because after a certain amount of living, human life would become unspeakably boring. We need new experiences in order to have reasons to keep on going. But after enough time has passed, we will have experienced everything that we, as individuals, find stimulating. We would lack what Williams called ‘categorical’ desires: ie, desires that give us reasons to keep on living, and instead possess only ‘contingent’ desires: ie, things that we might as well want to do if we’re alive, but aren’t enough on their own to motivate us to stay alive.’

I’m reminded, of course, of Bill Murray in that famous movie Groundhog Day where he lives the same day over and over again. As moral philosopher Samuel Scheffler at New York University points out, ‘because death is a fixed fact, everything that human beings value makes sense only in light of our time being finite, our choices being limited, and our each getting only so many goes before it’s all over. Scheffler’s case is thus not simply that immortality would make us miserable (although it probably would). It’s that, if we had it, we would cease to be distinctively human in the way that we currently are. But then, if we were somehow to attain immortality, it wouldn’t get us what we want from it: namely, for it to be some version of our human selves that lives forever. A desire for immortality is thus a paradox.’

And yet, is that it? There must be something else about, well, death -apart from fearing it- that makes us long to avoid it. Sagar mentions the Basque philosopher Miguel de Unamuno feeling ‘outrage and anger that something is being taken away from him (‘they are stealing my I!’). Unamuno is imagining the situation that most of us do when we are contemplating our own deaths: not a distant point of decrepitude, aged 107, trapped in a hospital bed, in an underfunded care home – but rather death as claiming us before we are ready.’

As Sagar concludes, ‘ We are not simply afraid of death, we also resent it, because it is experienced as an assault on our personal agency. We can fully control our own deaths in only one direction – and that, of course, is usually no comfort at all.’

I wonder what he might have thought had he met Elissa that day in the hospital so many, many years ago… Those who are dying may also have an opinion.