What about Now?

Now can be a tricky thing to police, I think; it keeps changing its clothes, and each time I think I finally recognize it, I realize I’ve mistaken it for somebody else. Someone from a different time, perhaps; someone who looks a lot like a friend in another place, but who is a stranger here with a similar face…

We should all try to live in the now I’ve read, but where, exactly, is that? And if I ever did run across it as I wander along the streets of my life, how would I recognize it? Or, perhaps more to the point, how could I pause there long enough to know I was in the right place -long enough to use it before it vanished as if it never really was?

There’s a lot of mystery to a now, you have to admit. Quite apart from it being infinitely evanescent, I imagine each one of them is different, if only by shades. A now on, say, Thursday, is no doubt different than a now on any other day, although I’ve never stopped long enough to analyze the contents, let alone committed any one instance to memory well enough for an accurate comparison.

Still, even if each now is in fact unique, why should any one example be privileged over any other? With an ocean to choose from, what advantage can be accorded to a single drop? And anyway, if the drop merely attests to the value found all around it, and is merely a representative of the whole, then is it sort of like the trailer-teaser of a movie, or the sample of a product that is intended to interest you in buying more? In which case, it is the whole that is being advertised, not the part. The part is incomplete: one page of the story, only.

And is any previous now equivalent to any new one? If not, are there any characteristics that should mark it for special consumption? Or should we just draw lots, throw dice, to choose? Even if I could stop long enough to find a now and valourize it, I am concerned I’d end up being saddled with the wrong one. A plain one; a defective one…

Metaphysics is certainly confusing; I see why it, and the most famous of its three children -ontology- has become the province of the Philosophers. Fortunately I stumbled upon an essay on the now in an essay by John Martin Fischer, a professor of philosophy at the University of California, Riverside; I have to confess it took me innumerable nows to read it, however. There’s nothing surprising in that, I suppose -still, it made me wonder if I could ever stay put in a now. https://aeon.co/essays/the-metaphysical-claims-behind-the-injunction-to-be-in-the-now

Fischer outlines the belief of various adherents -religious and otherwise- that ‘although it might seem to us that other times – past and future – are appropriate targets of attention, we can come to understand (intellectually and affectively) that in a fundamental sense… there is only the now, and thus our attention should be focused on it.’ The singularity of the now.

He is not convinced of the uniqueness of any particular now, however; he suggests that although we are, in reality, only present in the now, it is actually a trivial observation. Indeed, ‘now is an indexical term. That is, it’s employed flexibly to point to the particular time when it’s used, not the same time every time it’s used.  Similarly, the term here is an indexical term, employed flexibly to refer to the place where it’s uttered, not the same place wherever it’s uttered. Now is a temporal indexical, and here is a spatial indexical.’ I like that.

‘It’s thus not true that it’s always now, in the sense that it’s always the same time… Interpreted so that it’s correct, the intuitive idea that it’s always now doesn’t support the crucial inference that we should focus on the present because of its singularity.’ To paraphrase that apocryphal woman who, when challenged to answer what supported the turtle she believed held the world in place, it’s nows all the way down -an infinite number, in fact. Each may well be a singularity… but so what? What makes any one of them so special? There will no doubt be others each claiming to be exceptional, but only because they are indeed different from the rest.

As Fischer says, ‘it’s that there’s no necessity or inevitability to focusing only on the present moment, based on the fact (if it is a fact) that it’s the only moment that exists or is real.’ And, since it is obviously true that we can neither act in the past, nor in the future and only in the present -the now– then shouldn’t we try to stay in it…? Uhmm, I’m not convinced there’s an option, frankly. And anyway, there are inevitable consequences of acting in any given now that spread into the future and so are not a part of that special ‘singularity’. So, let me repeat, why is it so special -and why would I ever want to privilege it as if it actually contained something more than temporal instantaneity? After all, as Fischer points out, ‘every way of inhabiting the now (including ‘being here now’) is also a way of taking up the past and orienting ourselves to the future.’

No, I’m afraid I’m not really convinced there are any special values to the nows that flash past us like individual frames on a celluloid movie reel. It’s the movie as a whole that is ultimately what each now contributes to: the story. That’s where we all live, after all.

I suppose that if we find the story unpleasant in passages, we might benefit by pausing for a now or two -perhaps in meditation, or conversation with a friend- but in the end, we have to join the succession of picture frames and get on with our lives. It’s how it works.

As Fischer concludes, ‘We have a choice about what we focus on, a choice not dictated by the unique present, if there is one. We are free to choose how we wish to be. We should indeed be here now, but not because the now is all we have.’ We think in Time, we love in Time, we live in Time. Perhaps we should enjoy what we have left of it. All of it…!

Human Embryology -Ontologically Awkward Thoughts

Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny: foetal development goes through the same stages as evolution would have -Haeckel’s theorem. It’s a phrase -one of the few- I remember from my embryology classes in medical school. It’s a bit simplistic, of course, and long since discredited but nonetheless illustrative of some evolutionary phylogenetic similarities. It demonstrates the potential for variation in the developmental effects of various controller genes. It also demonstrates just how far embryology has come since the days when lecturers were forced to bore their classes with soporifically-presented unpronounceable and mysterious Latin names.

In those earlier than early days, I had no inkling that I would end up as an obstetrician and be involved, however vicariously, in the process. Unfortunately, I used to fall asleep in the embryology classes -it’s where I learned to nap with my head carefully balanced upright on my shoulders. I didn’t care what I was missing; in those years, I suspect it was not very much. Nowadays, though, everybody seems to be curious, and I often get asked about baby development. Happily, I don’t have to resort to showing the parents my old, retired embryology text book with its overly complicated diagrams that puzzled me even then. Now I have a colourful chart on the wall of my examination room that illustrates -simply, and in an appropriate, real-life size- the developing foetus at various gestational weeks.

Those diagrams don’t even attempt to show any of the amazing features in evolutionary development, though, so I am constantly on the lookout for aspects of it that were not appreciated in my student days. Of course, in those heady times I well might have missed some stuff…

For example, the ear-bones of mammals (humans are mammals, remember) have an interesting history. There are three tiny little bones in the inner ear -ossicles- that serve to modulate any sound energy arriving there and to dampen the vibrations from the ear drum. Reptiles and various other creatures only have one, the stapes (‘stirrup’ in Latin). Where did our two extra bones come from? Well, those same reptiles (also including birds, dinosaurs, etc.) have a few extra bones in the joints of their jaws which we mammals have co-opted for our inner ears: the incus (‘anvil’ in Latin) and malleus (hammer). Nature doesn’t waste things -the innovation is called exaptation: the process of using structures that have already been introduced by evolution and re-purposing them. And yes, I guess that means we have to chew differently than dinosaurs, but hey…

Other things persist in us with diminished or unknown function. I’m thinking here of such structures as the appendix. Most of us only know about it if we have to have it removed. Mine had to be taken when it ruptured in first year medicine while I was in the anatomy lab -my only regret was that we hadn’t toured that far in our cadaver yet so it was still terra incognita for us. But we all figured it was once a digestive organ (I mean look where it is, eh?). There is a suggestion (C. Choi in Live Science, 2009) that even now, the appendix might contain important bacteria that can reconstitute gut flora after such things as antibiotics have changed the normal distribution and population of the micro-organisms. We know that normal bowel bacteria have many functions, including a role in the immune system, so it would be nice to think the appendix might help refurbish our defenses. Re-arm us. Unfortunately, that may mean I’m all on my own now… Naked, sort of.

And, of course, there is the caecum (Latin for ‘blind pouch’) to which our appendix is attached. In some herbivores it’s much larger and it is a hotbed of bacteria that can hydrolyse cellulose. Without them, grass is about as nutritious as cardboard and with our little dead end package, I’m assuming it’s why we no longer enjoy grazing very much.

I’m intrigued by the coccyx as well. It is the lower end of the spinal column and is what forms the tail in other animals. Believe it or not, the human foetus has a little tail between about 31-35 days into development (I had to cull this one from Wikipedia, I’m afraid, because my old embryology text was fashionably non-committal on the subject. Uncomfortable, even.). I also learned from the same source that because it is where some muscles still attach, the coccyx hasn’t yet disappeared entirely. Maybe it’ll be gone in a few millennia -if we’re still extant as a species, that is… and don’t discover that we need a tail again.

Finally, I have to confess I have a personal interest in wisdom teeth. Since I don’t have any, and never did, I have always felt cheated. Diminished, as it were, by the thought that I was given neither the wisdom to which I, as a human, was entitled, nor the teeth as a little bonus. A dentist once tried to reassure me that not everybody has them and, in an attempt to impress me that she had recently graduated with honors from dental school, that it is probably related to the functioning of a gene called PAX9. This only depressed me further, however, and immediately suggested to me that either I didn’t get the gene, or that mine was malfunctioning. She tried a different tack (attempting, no doubt, to distract me from what she was doing in my mouth). Third molars (she had to explain that she was using dental-speak for ‘wisdom teeth’ when I started to salivate excessively) were probably how our ancestors dealt with plants they were eating. They were grinders. But I was lucky, she continued, probing deeper into my gum, because we changed our diets and evolved smaller jaws. So nowadays there’s no room for the extra teeth. They are vestigial and have to be pulled out, in other words. My persisting skepticism must have been obvious, however, and I could see her mask change shape. Given the drill in her hand and the impatience in her eyes, I pretended to be convinced and dropped the subject. I still worry, though.

Embryology, like its eponymous subjects, has evolved over the years. It has become more interesting and certainly accumulated more frills. DNA and ever-advancing technology have dragged it into social media and otherwise polite conversation -our ancestry titillates us like never before. I mean I could probably even stay awake in the classes nowadays. But all the same, the skill I developed for napping unawares shouldn’t be dismissed as vestigial; it is still useful. I look upon it as an exaptation of my neck muscles and inner ear, an evolutionary strategy for surviving some of the appurtenances that continue to bedevil us in the modern age: there are still concerts I would rather not attend. And as for meetings…