Should We Bell the Cat?

What should you do at a dinner party if the hostess, say, declares that she believes something that you know to be inaccurate -or worse, that you consider repellent? Abhorrent? Should you wait to see how others respond, or take it upon yourself to attempt to correct her belief? If it is merely a divergence of opinion, it might be considered a doctrinaire exercise -a Catholics vs Protestant type of skirmish- and likely unwinnable.

But, suppose it is something about which you are recognized to have particular credentials so your response would not be considered to be merely an opinion, but rather a statement of fact? Should that alter your decision as to whether or not to take issue with her pronouncement? Would your silence imply agreement -acquiescence to a view that you know to be not only wrong, but offensive? And would your failure to contradict her, signal something about her opinion to the others at the table? If it is an ethical issue, should you attempt to teach?

It is a difficult situation to be sure, and one that is no doubt difficult to isolate from context and the responsibilities incumbent upon a guest. Still, what should you do if, uncorrected, she persists in promulgating her belief? Should you leave the table, try to change the topic, or merely smile and wait to see if she is able to sway those around you to her views?

I can’t say that the situation has arisen all that often for me, to tell the truth -we tend to choose our friends, and they theirs, on the basis of shared values- but what risks might inhere in whatever course of action I might choose? I happened upon an insightful and intriguing article that touched on that very subject in Aeon, an online magazine:  https://aeon.co/ideas/should-you-shield-yourself-from-others-abhorrent-beliefs It was written by John Schwenkler, an associate professor in philosophy at Florida State University.

He starts, by pointing out that ‘Many of our choices have the potential to change how we think about the world. Often the choices taken are for some kind of betterment: to teach us something, to increase understanding or to improve ways of thinking. What happens, though, when a choice promises to alter our cognitive perspective in ways that we regard as a loss rather than a gain?’

And further, ‘When we consider how a certain choice would alter our knowledge, understanding or ways of thinking, we do this according to the cognitive perspective that we have right now. This means that it’s according to our current cognitive perspective that we determine whether a choice will result in an improvement or impairment of that very perspective. And this way of proceeding seems to privilege our present perspective in ways that are dogmatic or closed-minded: we might miss the chance to improve our cognitive situation simply because, by our current lights, that improvement appears as a loss. Yet it seems irresponsible to do away entirely with this sort of cognitive caution… And is it right to trust your current cognitive perspective as you work out an answer to those questions? (If not, what other perspective are you going to trust instead?)’

You can see the dilemma: is the choice or opinion you hold based on knowledge, or simply belief? And here he employs a sort of thought experiment: ‘This dilemma is escapable, but only by abandoning an appealing assumption about the sort of grasp we have on the reasons for which we act. Imagine someone who believes that her local grocery store is open for business today, so she goes to buy some milk. But the store isn’t open after all… It makes sense for this person to go to the store, but she doesn’t have as good a reason to go there as she would if she didn’t just think, but rather knew, that the store were open. If that were case she’d be able to go to the store because it is open, and not merely because she thinks it is.’

But suppose that by allowing an argument -an opinion, say- to be aired frequently or uncontested, you fear you might eventually be convinced by it? It’s how propaganda endeavours to convince, after all. What then? Do you withdraw, or smile and smile and see a villain (to paraphrase Hamlet)? ‘If this is on the right track, then the crucial difference between the dogmatic or closed-minded person and the person who exercises appropriate cognitive caution might be that the second sort of person knows, while the first merely believes, that the choice she decides against is one that would be harmful to her cognitive perspective. The person who knows that a choice will harm her perspective can decide against it simply because it will do so, while the person who merely believes this can make this choice only because that is what she thinks.’

This is philosophical equivocation, and Schwenkler even admits as much: ‘What’s still troubling is that the person who acts non-knowingly and from a mere belief might still believe that she knows the thing in question… In that case, she’ll believe that her choices are grounded in the facts themselves, and not just in her beliefs about them. She will act for a worse sort of reason than the sort of reason she takes herself to have.’

As much as I enjoy the verbiage and logical progression of his argument, I have to admit to being a little disappointed in the concluding paragraph in the article, that seems to admit that he has painted himself into a corner: ‘What’s still troubling is that the person who acts non-knowingly and from a mere belief might still believe that she knows the thing in question: that climate change is a hoax, say, or that the Earth is less than 10,000 years old. In that case, she’ll believe that her choices are grounded in the facts themselves, and not just in her beliefs about them. She will act for a worse sort of reason than the sort of reason she takes herself to have. And what could assure us, when we exercise cognitive caution in order to avoid what we take to be a potential impairment of our understanding or a loss of our grip on the facts, that we aren’t in that situation as well?’

But, I think what this teaches me is the value of critical analysis, not only of statements, but also of context. First of all, obviously, to be aware of the validity of whatever argument is being aired, but then deciding whether or not an attempted refutation would contribute anything to the situation, or merely further entrench the individual in their beliefs, if only to save face. And as well, it’s important to step back for a moment, and assess the real reason I am choosing to disagree. Is it self-aggrandizement, dominance, or an incontestable conviction -incontestable based on knowledge or unprovable belief…?

I realize this is pretty confusing stuff -and, although profound, not overly enlightening- but sometimes we need to re-examine who it is we have come to be. In the words of the poet Kahlil Gibran, The soul walks not upon a line, neither does it grow like a reed. The soul unfolds itself like a lotus of countless petals.

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Understanding as…

There is so much stuff out there that I don’t know -things that I hadn’t even thought of as knowledge. Things that I just accepted as ‘givens’.  You know, take the ability to understand something like, say, an arrangement of numbers as a series rather than a bunch of numbers, or the ability to extract meaning from some sounds -for example words spoken in English- and yet not others in a different language.

And, perhaps equally mysterious is the moment when that epiphany strikes. What suddenly changes those numbers into a series? Is it similar to what makes figure-ground alterations flip back and forth in my head: aspect perception? Is it analogous to the assignation of meaning to things -or, indeed, picking them out of the chaos of background and recognizing them as somehow special in the first place? Is it what Plato meant when he referred to the Forms –‘chairness’ or ‘tableness’ for example- abstractions that allow us to identify either, no matter how varied the shapes or sizes -the true essence of what things really are?

I suppose I’m becoming rather opaque -or is it obtuse?- but the whole idea of aspect perception, of ‘seeing as’, is an exciting, yet labyrinthine terra incognita, don’t you think? I’m afraid that what started it all was an essay in the online Aeon publication: https://aeon.co/ideas/do-you-see-a-duck-or-a-rabbit-just-what-is-aspect-perception

It was the edited version of an essay written by Stephen Law, the editor of the Royal Institute of Philosophy journal THINK. He begins by discussing some of the figure-ground changes found in, say Necker cubes whose sides keep flipping back and forth (a type of aspect perception) and then suggests that ‘A[nother] reason why changes in aspect perception might be thought philosophically significant is that they draw our attention to the fact that we see aspects all the time, though we don’t usually notice we’re doing so… For example, when I see a pair of scissors, I don’t see them as a mere physical thing – I immediately grasp that this is a tool with which I can do various things.’

Another example might be ‘…our ability to suddenly ‘get’ a tune or a rule, so we are then able to carry on ourselves.’ Or, how about religion? ‘The idea of ‘seeing as’ also crops up in religious thinking. Some religious folk suggest that belief in God doesn’t consist in signing up to a certain hypothesis, but rather in a way of seeing things.’ But then the caveat: ‘Seeing something as a so-and-so doesn’t guarantee that it is a so-and-so. I might see a pile of clothes in the shadows at the end of my bed as a monster. But of course, if I believe it’s a monster, then I’m very much mistaken.’

I have always loved wandering around bookstores. Maybe it’s an asylum -a refuge from the noisy street, or a spiritual sanctuary in a chaotic mall -but it’s more likely that the range and choice of books allows me to exercise an epiphanic region of my brain, and to practice ‘seeing as’ to my heart’s content. I’d never thought of bookstores as exercise before, of course, but I suppose the seed of ‘understanding as’ was sown by that article… or maybe it was the little girl.

Shortly after reading the essay, I found myself wandering blissfully through the quiet aisles of a rather large bookstore that seemed otologically removed from the noisy mall in which it hid. Coloured titles greeted me like silent hawkers in a park, the ones that sat dislodged from their otherwise tidy rows, sometimes reaching out to me with greater promise: curiosity, as to why someone might have dislodged them, perhaps. But nonetheless, I also found myself amused at their choices: book shops are catholic in the selection they proffer and I relish the opportunity to switch my perspectives… and expand my Weltanschauung, as the Philosophy section into which I had meandered might have put it when the thought occurred.

Of course, unexpected concepts like that are one of the delights of a bookstore -turn a corner into a different aisle and the world changes. It’s where I met the little girl talking to her mother about something in a book she was holding.

No more than four or five years old, she was wearing what I suppose was a pink Princess costume, and trying to be very… mature. Her mother, on the other hand, was dressed for the mall: black baseball cap, jeans, sneakers, and a grey sweatshirt with a yellow mustard stain on the front. Maybe they’d just come from a party, or, more likely, the Food Court, but the mother was trying to explain something in the book to her little daughter. The aisle wasn’t in the children’s section, but seemed to have a lot of titles about puzzles, and illusions, so maybe they’d wandered into it for something different: for surprises.

As I pretended to examine some books nearby, I noticed a Necker’s cube prominently displayed on the page the girl was holding open.

“Why does it do that, mommy?” Even as she spoke the perspective of the cube was flipping back and forth, with one face, then another seeming to be closer.

The mother smiled at this obvious teaching moment.

“It’s a great idea, anyway,” the daughter continued, before she got an answer.

“Idea…?” the mother said, with a patient look on her face. “What’s the idea, Angie?”

Angie scrunched her forehead and gave her mother a rather condescending look. “It’s an exercise book, remember?”

That apparently caught the mother by surprise. “It’s a book of puzzles and magic, sweetheart. I didn’t see any exercises.”

Angie rolled her eyes at her mother’s obvious obtuseness. “The nexercise cube, mommy…!”

Necker’s cube, sweetie,” she responded, trying to suppress a giggle. “It’s not an exercise cube.”

But Angie was having none of that, and stared at her like a teacher with a slow pupil. “It keeps making my mind move, mommy!” She shook her head in an obviously disappointed rebuke. “That’s exercise.”

I slipped back around the corner, unnoticed by them both I think. I felt I’d intruded on a very intimate moment and I didn’t want to trespass, but I couldn’t help wondering if Angie had come far closer to understanding Plato’s Forms than her mother or I could ever hope to.

Remembering Forgetting

We have to be careful, don’t we? Sometimes, we have to force ourselves to step back for a moment. When we want something –need something- to reassure us that we will be okay despite signs to the contrary, it’s all too easy to believe. All too easy to slip back into the warm, reassuring arms of a parent who tells us what we want so desperately to hear: that everything will turn out all right…

And I suppose that each of us has her favourite skeleton. However farfetched it may seem to others, it is a source of undue angst whenever the subject is broached, albeit innocently. With my mother, it was her curls. She lived in the sure and certain knowledge that when she got old, her hair would turn as straight as hay. It didn’t, but then again, I was never privy to whether or not her hairdresser was an accomplice.

My father, on the other hand, worried about God –but only, it has to be revealed, after I began to bring home my university textbooks on Philosophy to try their arguments out on him. At the time, I think I felt I was sharing my newfound freedom of ideas, but in retrospect I realize it was unkind.  His background religious beliefs had not prepared him for the convincing effectiveness of rhetoric in destroying what clever minds had decided were untenable arguments. He had not learned to step back; he had not learned to consider the source. Nor had I, for that matter…

It is why I have to be careful. It is one thing to cherish words and venerate ideas, and another to be convinced by those which foster only those with which I have formed an allegiance. Perhaps that’s unfair not only to me, but to the ideas, and yet there is something distinctly unsettling about pernicious change. It’s why, throwing critical thinking to one side on occasion, I revel in reassurance. I want to believe in good-news experiments that cradle me, however briefly, in their arms.

There was a brief summary in a CBC News Second Opinion section with the title ‘Remembering forgetting could be a good thing.’ Now, how could that not attract the attention of someone whose bête noir is just that? Someone who chafes at the declining powers of a once proud memory? Someone who wants to blame it on age, and yet dares not –and whose mind, scrabbling among shards of memory, is persistently reassured that it can still remember the lament of Macbeth before his battle with Macduff at Dunsinane: ‘My way of life is fall’n into the sere, the yellow leaf, and that which should accompany old age, as honor, love, obedience, troops of friends, I must not look to have, but, in their stead, curses, not loud but deep, mouth-honor, breath which the poor heart would fain deny and dare not.’ Some things burrow deeply into the unguarded psyche, however irrelevant.

But the article, reporting on a study published by Dr. Philip Gerretsen (a clinician scientist at Toronto’s Centre for Addiction and Mental Health) in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry: http://www.psychiatrist.com/JCP/article/Pages/2017/v78n08/16m11367.aspx said that ‘Using brain imaging data and other clinical information from more than 1,000 patients with early cognitive decline, his new study suggests there’s a relationship between a person’s level of awareness of memory issues, and their risk of future disease.’ I cling desperately to fragments like this. ‘”Most intriguingly it’s the patients that seem to be hyper-aware of having some cognitive problems relative to their caregivers that actually don’t go on to develop dementia,” Gerretsen said, adding that those people might be suffering memory loss for other reasons, including anxiety or depression.’

And not only do I derive some satisfaction from his findings, I’ve also learned a new word that I hope to sprinkle surreptitiously into a conversation if I can actually remember it long enough: anosognosia — a neurological term for not knowing that you’re sick. Not realizing, in other words, that you’re forgetting things. ‘Gerretsen says there’s a suggestion that Alzheimer’s disease might be affecting the brain regions involved in illness awareness.’ I’ve decided that’s what I now think, too. It’s another straw to grasp, I suppose.

And yet, true to its etymology, the concept of anosognosia is not very well known. I was in a hospital elevator one afternoon on my way to the subterranean parking lot after visiting a friend. Normally crowded, there were only two older, but tired-looking nurses huddled in the corner of the little chamber leaning heavily on the walls, and one was shaking her head slowly. “I get so annoyed with myself, Fran,” she continued, hardly noticing the novelty of my presence.

Fran, a stout woman with short, messy hair, managed to raise her eyes enough to rest them on her friend’s face. “Why’s that, Judy?” She didn’t really sound that engaged in the conversation –just polite.

Judy, equally stout, but perhaps because of her bright red dress, looking the more refreshed of the two, sighed. “I always forget where I parked the car.”

The thought seemed to perk Fran up a little. “Happens to me all the time… I guess we park here so often, one space seems just like any other.”

“Yeah, but I really tried this morning… I did something or saw something I was sure would help me remember…”

Fran chuckled, more fully awake at the thought. “And now you can’t remember?”

Judy shook her head, smiling. “Worrisome, eh?”

They were both silent for a moment, and then Judy rescued her body from the wall in preparation for leaving, and glanced at her friend. “Do you think remembering that I’m forgetting things is a good sign…?”

Fran thought about it for a moment. “I would think that forgetting that you’re forgetting things would be worse…” she said as the elevator door opened and the two of them got out, giggling like schoolgirls.

Maybe some things are intuitive. Maybe hope is one of those things.

Life’s Like That

Why is Life so hard to define? When I was in school, it was easy –as mentioned in a BBC article on the topic: http://www.bbc.com/earth/story/20170101-there-are-over-100-definitions-for-life-and-all-are-wrong -Life was MRS GREN (Metabolism, Reproduction, Sensitivity, Growth, Respiration, Excretion, and Nutrition). That’s all you needed for the exam –although I’m glad they never asked for an explanation of Sensitivity. But times change, and as do definitions, so by the time I was in university, I was confused. Every faculty had its own perspective –chemists defined in terms of chemicals, biologist preferred DNA, and physicists were partial to the dynamics of molecular properties that bypassed structural components in favour of information transfer.

Me? I wandered around a fair amount in my undergraduate years before I ended up in Medicine so, already rainbow-hued, I opted for a just-right-baby-bear definition -not too much of anything. By then, I understood that Life was an amalgam –but the product and not the recipe. The final taste, and not the way the ingredients are cooked. Telos, I suppose, rather than methodos– words sufficiently nebulous as to dissolve in most of the more erudite proposals. To me, Life is a story – scilicet, a spirit-  and one whose progress is tied to the outcome. We humans are requisite classifiers and groupers –itself a story- and we thereby miss the uniqueness of entity, the magic of identity; for us, something is either alive or not. Black or white. It’s an important distinction to be sure, but as I said, it misses the pungency of the flavour. The excitement of the effect. The Proustian Phenomenon of the madeleine biscuit soaked in tea… My route explains nothing, I’ll concede, and yet somehow, it’s what makes it Life, and not something else.

But I was always hopeless at philosophy, and despite my zeal for it, perhaps wisely accepted parental advice and wandered off into Medicine and eventually a career as an obstetrician/gynaecologist. I suspect they were concerned that otherwise I might end up living with them at home.

From time to time, however, I am still tempted to wax lyrical on Life with the occasional patient who seems to require some additional prodding with regard to their own. I can’t say I’ve achieved any truly publishable results, but the process is nonetheless enjoyable for me on those otherwise interminably complaint-ridden days that crop up from time to time.

It usually requires a stimulus –an opportunity when my input would not be construed as an imposition on their time with me.

Janet, for example. She was a forty-one year old woman who had pursued her own career as a lawyer at the apparent expense of a stable relationship. Intelligent, and attractive, she had finally ‘decided to accede to an intimacy request’ from an acquaintance –that’s how she put it- and when she had first made the appointment had wanted some advice as to how to avoid pregnancy. Her would-be partner was an older man who had not felt comfortable using condoms however. So he hadn’t. And she was. Not only that, but she was confused about it.

“Doctor, I’m almost forty-two years old, and despite the occasional ‘dalliance’ I’ve never been able to become pregnant…” She stared at me like I was somehow to blame for the vagaries and vicissitudes that had befallen her.

I could almost see the quote marks around her word ‘dalliance’. “You said ‘able to become pregnant’, Janet. Were you trying?”

She shook her head almost before my question reached her, but I could tell by her expression that she wasn’t sure. “Life is such a precious thing… I’d want to be sure about everything…”

“Like…?”

“Like whether I could care for it. Whether I would regret whatever decision I made about a pregnancy I hadn’t planned.” She didn’t even mention what effect the father might have on the process. “So…” she thought about it for a second. “…So I suppose I’m happy I didn’t have to make that decision before…”

“And now…?”

She shrugged and sent her eyes, like beggars, to ask my face for something –wisdom, maybe; suggestions, at least. “I mean, what are my chances, doctor?”

“Chances?”

“You know, that I won’t miscarry anyway. Remember, I’m forty-one now… And there’s also a risk of genetic malfeasance, isn’t there?”

Even though I have many lawyers as patients, I’d never heard the risks of pregnancy in an older mother put quite like that… I’m definitely in the pro-choice camp, as she well knew, so I realized she wouldn’t think I was trying to sway her ultimate decision no matter what I said. But still… “We can do the usual prenatal testing to identify any genetic problems beforehand, Janet. And yes, miscarriages are more common with pregnancies in older mothers…”

Her eyes grasped at the hems of mine like supplicants. “And if I were your daughter…?” I knew I had to be careful then -she was asking for an opinion, albeit framed as a personal one.

I sighed and sat back in my  chair. “A new life is a new story, Janet –a bit of yours, a bit of the father’s- but at this stage, most of it is still an idea somewhere. It doesn’t have to get written to qualify –we all have ideas inside when we stop and think about them. We write down some of them, I suppose but sometimes even then, we just can’t get the wording right. Or the idea, once on paper, doesn’t seem what we thought. Remember, a story is no less a story for not being completed, and no less a creation for not being read… But sometimes, you just have to take the chance that you’re on to something.”

Her eyes flew away and settled on her lap for a moment. “You’d make a great lawyer, doctor,” she said, with a mischievous smile, her eyes back on mine once more. “Obfuscation is something they just can’t teach…”

I’m not sure she followed my argument so I risked a little smile. “Isn’t it what you do when there really is no case to be made beyond a reasonable doubt?”

She rolled her eyes and chuckled. “I don’t take cases like that anymore.”

I suspected she hadn’t this time, either.

 

 

 

Earthing Unearthed

Sometimes I feel disconnected. It’s almost as if I have been traveling on a highway all my life, largely unaware of the myriad roads that emanate from it. Unaware of the different coloured horizons that have been hiding out there all along. Or is skulking sometimes a better descriptor? Every so often I come across a concept so… bizarre, that I wonder how it even survived long enough to acquire a name. ‘Earthing’ caught my attention immediately.

I feel I have to explain that I don’t go looking for these things, but in the spirit of full disclosure I will confess to being a one-time member of the Skeptics Society –one time, I suppose, because the time constraints of a busy medical practice required that I relinquish at least some of my addenda. Now, retired and awash in compensatory time, I dabble once again.

‘Earthing’, for those of you as naïve as myself, is the act of walking barefoot –not just on the beach or over the soft grass of a lawn, however. It is to soak up earth’s energy fields previously denied to you –blocked, in effect- by your shoes. These energy fields apparently supply free electrons replete with many health benefits. Shoes, as disruptors, ‘[…] allegedly cause inflammation and autoimmune diseases, circadian rhythm disruptions, hormonal disorders, cortisol disorders, heart rate variability problems, arthritis, herpes, hepatitis, insomnia, chronic pain, exhaustion, stress, anxiety, premature aging […].’ http://www.skeptic.com/reading_room/bogus-claims-grounding-bare-feet-to-earth/ Uhmm…

How could I have journeyed so far along the trail of years and not heard this coming up behind me? Call me old fashioned, if you will –or just ‘old’, perhaps- but I would still feel more comfortable if there were credible, corroborative and objective evidence to substantiate assertions before I even decide to consider them -let alone examine them seriously… Anybody can claim things, but as Carl Sagan once declared: ‘extraordinary claims, require extraordinary evidence’.

Now I have to say that just because something seems counterintuitive, I don’t think it should be simply dismissed out of hand. Paradigms do shift, after all. But they still require critical analysis; it is not enough to suggest that, as in the case of homeopathy, for example, any attempt to verify it destroys the field in which it exists. Nor are statements like, ‘It may be that our connection with the earth carries information, helping align us with the greater network of intelligence of our planet.’ either provable, or refutable –the famous philosopher of Science, Karl Popper’s belief that what distinguishes science from pseudoscience is its potential for refutation. For example, to say that all swans are white, only holds until a black one is found. The assertion –if properly attested by observations- is scientific in that the demonstration of even one black swan is able to refute it.

But, academic considerations aside, there is something troubling about ‘Earthing’ and its ilk. That something like this arose at all is, I suppose, a function of the random accretion of isolated and misunderstood bits and pieces of our complex modern world that are only describable in metaphor –as in, say, electrons are the carriers of electricity. True, as far as it goes, I guess, but misleading if taken as literal. Maybe some shoes –all shoes?- may block electrons… But so what?

Just try and understand the electric fields on the earth and in the atmosphere. As an example, a description from (shudder) Wikiversity: ‘The Earth is negatively charged, carrying 500,000 Coulombs (C) of electric charge (500 kC), and is at 300,000 volts (V), 300 kV, relative to the positively charged ionosphere. There is a constant flow of electricity, at around 1350 amperes (A) [approximately 1100 A], and resistance of the Earth’s atmosphere is around 220 Ohms. This gives a power output of around 400 megawatts (MW), which is ultimately regenerated by the power of the Sun that affects the ionosphere, as well as the troposphere, causing thunderstorms. The electrical energy stored in the Earth’s atmosphere is around 150 gigajoules (GJ). The Earth-ionosphere system acts as a giant capacitor, of capacity 1.8 Farads. The Earth’s surface carries around -1 nC of electric charge per square meter’. Do you see why most of us non-experts are dependant on metaphor? And why explanations such as this about ‘constant flow of electricity’ unaccompanied by suitable annotations may lead to some unfortunate and perhaps misguided applications?

On the other hand, I think that trying to dissuade gullible adherents requires some tact. Attempts to ridicule them by referring to the authors of a book on the subject: Earthing. The most important health discovery ever? and saying ‘None of the book’s authors is a physicist— it shows.’ is just ad hominem. Or suggesting that scientific credentials are not available: ‘The studies were not published in mainstream journals. They involved small numbers of subjects and usually failed to use any controls.’ While true -and to those of us with any acquaintance with how science works, compellingly obvious- it likely fails to convince those who mistrust the scientific paradigm and its lack of certainty to start with. And it may antagonize them to the point of utter rejection of any meaningful dialogue. It becomes another us-and-them standoff.

So, what to do? Tolerate or proselytize? Divide and conquer? Provoke and legislate…?

Perhaps it’s my age, but I’ve seen many fads arise and then dissipate like waves on a beach, with any one of them having about as much individual significance. Think of alien abduction, recovered memory therapy, pet rocks… Each seems to have a brief super nova-like appearance, and is intriguing for a while, and then, when a new star is born, interest flags. Social media may extend the lifespan, perhaps, but novelty is usually trump for those attracted to the fringe belief realms. I’ve learned not to obsess on what I consider the irrational; I will attempt to educate, but not to the point of taking arms against a sea of trouble and by opposing, ending them –as Hamlet would have us decide. If they are not harmful, then they will, as certain as the tide, recede.

In the turmoil of this uncertain world I think we all try to find secure and novel refuge, and when the storm has passed, set out again. It’s what we do –Shakespeare again: ‘Wise men ne’er sit and wail their loss, but cheerily seek how to redress their harms.

Earthing, with benign neglect, may itself be unearthed…

 

What is it like to be a…?

I should have known not to answer her question like that. I should have seen the book she was reading; I should have seen how heavy her briefcase was… But I’m getting ahead of myself.

I’m a doctor now -an obstetrician/gynaecologist- but in the beginning I wanted to head in an an entirely different direction: philosophy. And it has remained in the background, nagging at me from time to time -always superficially, of course. My adventures were often confined to a simplistic skimming of the surface of the words, with their all too frequent academic double entendres escaping me completely. But nothing ventured, nothing gained, eh? And I did learn a lot of new phrases that I found I could sometimes slip into my consultations…

Usually I would get away with the occasional philosophical nuance, but I could also be careless at times. One has to be cautious with new patients; there are signs that should be read. For example, it is common sense never to wax philosophical with anyone carrying a heavy book and wearing unstylish, heavy glasses until you know them better. To ignore this maxim is to court embarrassment –or worse, acknowledgment that a boundary has been crossed.

Sandra exhibited all of the danger signs as she sat engrossed in a tome sufficiently heavy to require both knees to support it. A young looking woman with short brown hair and a blue skirt and blouse, she looked as if she were deeply concerned about the meaning of something on the page and as I watched from behind the front desk, she both underlined it and then wrote something in the margin. Even at that distance, I could see she was deadly serious about it. I debated for a moment whether or not to give her additional time to finish her deliberations and see another patient first, but just at that moment she spotted me and smiled.

“Sandra,” I said, walking over to her and wondering how she was going to manage to shake my hand and keep the weighty book safe from the floor.

But she managed it with the skill I would have thought only an older and more experienced scholar could aspire to. And then with a quick, practiced sweep of her other hand, she realigned her glasses further up on her nose, without dropping either the book or her smile in the process.

After that, she, the book and her briefcase followed me to my office and all three of them found a space across from my desk. Once settled, she scanned the room with curious eyes which flitted about like a pair of barn swallows but finally came to rest on a little carved wooden effigy of an African woman holding a baby in her arms.

“What’s it like to be an obstetrician,” she said after examining the woman for a moment.

Although the question seemed simple, it caught me off guard, for some reason and I was suddenly struck with the difficulty of answering something that really had to be experienced to be conveyed, let alone understood. It was almost like trying to describe what its like balancing on a bicycle, or what it would be like to be a police officer walking in a dangerous neighbourhood. It’s a subjective thing that can not accurately be described from the outside.

I’d recently been reading the famous 1974 paper by Thomas Nagel entitled ‘What is it like to be a bat?’ in which he confronts those who would attempt to answer the question by resorting to either physicalism (the idea that everything can be explained by some sort of physical process) or reductionism (by and large that the whole is equal to the sum of its parts): http://organizations.utep.edu/portals/1475/nagel_bat.pdf

I have to admit that I succumbed to the temptation of pretending I understood more of what he wrote than I did. “What is it like to be a bat?” I said -it just slipped out before I could stop it. I suppose that somewhere inside I was thinking I was being clever and that I could then throw out a loose reference to Nagel’s paper –something like his ‘To the extent that I could look and behave like a wasp or a bat without changing my fundamental structure, my experiences would not be anything like the experiences of those animals.’ And so, their experiences being totally alien to me, I would not be able to describe them in words.

But as soon as I said it, I could see by her expression that I had inadvertently crossed a border into the country where she lived. A country where I, perforce, had become a bat. Her bat.

Her eyes immediately hummed with interest. “Fascinating you should ask that,” she said, choosing her words almost as if she were trying to keep them simple –much as we might when speaking to someone from another country. Another culture. “It’s difficult enough to describe what we do to someone in a different field, but an order of magnitude more difficult to describe what it is like to do it…” She smiled disarmingly and then continued. “As Nagel said,” and here she reached down and picked a somewhat lighter book from her briefcase and thumbed through it- ‘Our own experience provides the basic material for our imagination, whose range is therefore limited.’ He picked bats instead of wasps or flounders, he says, ‘because if one travels too far down the phylogenetic tree, people gradually shed their faith that there is experience there at all.’ I suppose he could have chosen dolphins or orcas but… whatever.”

I felt encouraged at her use of ‘whatever’. I thought maybe I could change the subject, but she immediately launched into a description of her position on his argument.

“Me,” she said as if we were sitting in a university lounge discussing the issue over a coffee, “I subscribe to a more intermediate position between reductionism and pure physicalism. I would put myself somewhere in the epiphenomenalist camp.” She looked up from the book and sent her eyes on a brief mission to study my face. The report was evidently not encouraging, so she decided to explain. “Epiphenomenalists posit that mental states are byproducts of physical processes –much as energy and its ability to do work are a product of, say, a steam engine boiling water.”

She carefully replaced the book in its briefcase-vault and stared at me again. Then she shrugged and a mischievous expression gradually conquered the previously academic one. “I think I will rephrase my original question and let you get on with your job. Do you enjoy being an obstetrician?”

“It’s sometimes Hydra-headed,” I said without thinking, and then quickly hid behind the computer screen when I saw her eyes light up once again.

A Gift of Age

Is philosophy a reward of age, or is age itself a gift that metaphysics merely opens: Weltanschauung? Is it just that there is a time when thoughts flow along different and unaccustomed neurons? Or are they maybe shunted to the diminishing residua of nerve cells that are still firing? I ask myself these questions sometimes when night closes in and stimuli flee. At times like this, I wonder if the weight of years are more hindrance than benefit. Less a present, more a penalty.

When viewed from outside the prevailing ethos, age –especially its accumulation- is a gift. A bonus on the journey from which only the very young think they are exempt. And despite the mounting detritus of discarded cells and greying hair, it is a book whose pages, although well-thumbed and sometimes soiled with regret and torn by mistakes, are nevertheless extant, and readable. They are stories told without a plot and written, often, for the author with little hope or even desire for publication.

And yet, congratulations are sometimes lip-serviced  -the words mere decoys to disguise a different meaning: better you than me. In underestimating the years attained, the truth is seldom spoken except casually, as a joke –retractable, and yet echoing uneasily in the room long after it is uttered. Age is a gift, and yet shoddily packaged, the ribbon askew and poorly tied, the paper faded and rumpled with constant handling. Still, it is something at least… A recognition if nothing else.

But I’m making aging sound like night thoughts: a punishment rather than the achievement that it is.

We were talking about this, a patient and I, when she came in for a renewal of a hormonal therapy that helped her cope with one of the gendered ravages of her wealth of years.

“The young just don’t seem very thankful for what we’ve done for them, do they?” she said with a maudlin sigh when the subject came up.

I sat back as well as I could in my creaking chair, and smiled that gently exasperated smile that old folks are allowed. “But we look back; they look forward, don’t you think? Retrospective analysis is the domain of the experienced. Why do you think we have memories?”

“I suppose,” she said shrugging her shoulders in polite acknowledgement of a point with which she was evidently not in complete agreement. “We always seem to criticize generations other than our own when they do things differently, don’t we?”

I nodded. “But if each generation didn’t change a little, we’d probably still be chipping away with stone axes…”

A tiny smile crept onto her lips in spite of her attempt to remain pessimistic. “Speaking of the youth looking forward, I remember thinking of that when I had my first child. You probably don’t remember, but I had a rough pregnancy –high blood pressure, gestational diabetes, and then Melissa not growing as fast as she should in the womb…”

I actually did remember. “She was born prematurely – I induced labour about 34 weeks gestation or so, didn’t I? I recall being rather worried…”

Her face lit up with the shared experience, but her eyes stared far off into the past. “I remember thinking that she should be so thankful she was born. So thankful she was healthy.” I nodded again. “Anyway, a friend who came to see me while I was still in the hospital said that as well as getting presents on her own birthday, Melissa should give me a gift each time. A celebration of how lucky she was.”

I sat up straighter on my chair. “What a great idea, Melanie. And..?”

Her eyes twinkled at me. “Yup –all three of my kids. It’s a sort of family tradition now. Some of their friends are trying it as well, they tell me.”

The idea struck me as terribly innovative. Maybe others had done it, but I hadn’t heard about it. “Think it’ll catch on?”

She shrugged. “It’d be sort of like an accessory nipple in a way don’t you think?  I mean, I suppose that’s what Mother’s Day is for…”

I thought about it for a minute. “Mother’s Day is a bit generic, though. A child’s birthday is unique -an acknowledgement of its own presence in the world… and all because of its mother. It’s not a national day, it’s a personal day. And that’s what makes it so special.”

She stared at her hands she’d folded in her lap and was silent for a moment. We were both quiet. “Why do we think about these things more as we get older?” she said finally, breaking the silence almost reluctantly. “Or is it just me?”

I shook my head slowly. Absently. I was also lost in my own questions. She was right; it did seem to matter more nowadays that we poked around in the past, stirring the embers. But why? Did we really need the fire? The heat? The light? Were we awakening memories, or searching for something else? Looking, perhaps, for ourselves..? As if in the ashes of the dying fire there were patterns. Clues which, if properly mixed, could tell us where we, the lighters of the fire, had gone.

I could feel Melanie staring at me. “I can see you rummaging around in there, doctor,” her voice said, rustling through the room and bursting past the opaque curtain my eyes had drawn across it. “Come out again. I still need you…”

I had forgotten to write her the prescription for more hormones, yet somehow I only heard the words ‘I still need you’. But they were enough. I suddenly realized that the most satisfying gift of all, the most welcome treasure of age, was presence, not presents. And despite anything else that might go amiss, I was needed. Isn’t this what we all work for? When all is said and done, does anything else really matter?