It’s About Time

What then is time? If no one asks me, I know what it is. If I wish to explain it to him who asks, I do not know.’ So wrote Saint Augustine, bishop of Hippo in North Africa, more than fifteen hundred years ago. And we’re still confused… Okay, I’m confused.

When considered philosophically, you’d think it would be a relatively simple concept: I exist right now: the Present; I remember what happened to me: the Past; I don’t know what will happen to me: the Future. That is Time. It is divided into separate Magisteria like scenes through the window of a moving train. And yet… and yet the divisions seem so arbitrary. So evanescent. It’s almost as if Time were merely an all-purpose synonym for Change. A generic label.

But things happen in time, our bodies being no exceptions, so it’s difficult to ignore. We have come to prioritize those happenings as constituting Time. The intervals between events have gradually become divested of significance, although whether it is the interval, or the event that is prime could be argued -much as whether the placement of a comma in a sentence contributes almost as much to the meaning to be conveyed as the words themselves. And yet, is it really all contingent…?

Are habits -those things we do almost without thought- or the endless train of happenings the commas? Is it actually in the intervals between things where we live? Do we inhabit the interstices, and merely mark their boundaries by events -rely on things that happen in order to count? Do we live between the nodes or does reality only exist for me when stuff happens, when I am aware of what I am doing? And if so, then what about when I’m not aware? What happens to Time then? Do you see why I am confused?

And, at the risk of sounding too Cartesian, is the reality my body inhabits different from the awareness my mind tells me about? Bodily existence seems to have been issued with different rules because it is far more contingent than my mind. Too needy. Too ad hoc, and less spontaneous. It seems overly pulled by evolution and ontogeny, unable to explore new things. It straddles the intervals like a bridge. It is a scaffolded entity, constantly in a state of repair.

No, Time, for a body at least, was always thought to be continuous. Contiguity of events allows restoration and medicine discovered this. It started on its quest to heal the body, even if the mind was not always in synchrony and did not understand. But it assumed that mind was only a by-product of body. It is… isn’t it…?

At any rate, something that has often puzzled me is the difference in prescription instructions for various medications. Of course some drugs are relatively short-acting, and need to be taken frequently, say, Q6H (every six hours), or perhaps they are more potent and require a smaller, but spaced out administration, say, Q8H. That seems fairly obvious, so instructions as to how much and how frequently to take them would therefore make sense.

But suppose the directions are to take them QID (four times per day) or even TID (three times per day)? By comparison, that seems almost sloppy, doesn’t it? I mean, what is the difference…? And how much variation is permissible between the timing of every eight hours, and three times per day? What impact would, for example, a two hour difference -or even more- have on the medication efficacy? This is not meant as a criticism, but merely an exploration of time in the administration of a treatment.

And yet, even a more precise prescription of the interval does not usually state a specific time for its consumption like, say, 8 PM. Given that our bodies (and hence probably our metabolism) are subject to a circadian rhythm, I’ve often wondered whether that might make a difference in a medication’s effectiveness. An article in Nature that I ran across addresses that very issue: https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-018-04600-8?utm

‘The circadian clock is a remarkable system. A central timekeeper in the hypothalamus orchestrates a network of peripheral clocks in nearly every organ and tissue of the body, turning on and off a bevy of genes including some that encode the molecular targets for drugs and the enzymes that break drugs down. These clock genes are particularly important in cancer because they govern cell cycles, cell proliferation, cell death and DNA damage repair — all processes that can go haywire in cancer.’

Until recently, technology was unable to determine the genes involved, let alone the timing of their activation, and so chronotherapy remained on the fringe. But, ‘More than four decades of studies describe how accounting for the body’s cycle of daily rhythms — its circadian clock — can influence responses to medications and procedures for everything from asthma to epileptic seizures. Research suggests that the majority of today’s best-selling drugs, including heartburn medications and treatments for erectile dysfunction, work better when taken at specific times of day.’

Steroid levels, for example, ‘naturally cycle with the circadian clock. In the late 1960s, scientists found that the synthetic corticosteroid methylprednisolone is safer for treating arthritis and asthma if taken in the morning rather than at other times of the day. This is because the feedback loop in the hypothalamus, which controls the release of cortisol, is least vulnerable to inhibition in the morning.’ Other factors such as age and gender also seem to be important in circadicity. So is the inconvenience of the times when the appropriate genes might best be manipulated. Not only that, but ‘practical biomarkers are needed to help clinicians identify optimal times for treatment.’

There are many variables to account for, but clearly there is a growing appreciation of Time in understanding the body’s underlying physiology. There is a need to adjust not only the treatment, but also its provision in harmony with individually derived schedules that are often by no means intuitive or convenient. As if, by finding each body’s unique variations on the theme of circadian rhythm, we discover the hidden melody playing deep within.

Maybe Rabindranath Tagore, the Bengali polymath who won the Nobel prize in Literature in 1913, was not so far afield after all: Let your life lightly dance on the edges of Time like dew on the tip of a leaf.

I’d like to think we all dance in Time…

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Some Have Greatness Thrust Upon Them

I’m puzzled –it seems to be happening a lot nowadays despite my age. But maybe that’s what retirement is for –to sort through things previously deemed obvious but which, on closer scrutiny, are not. Or, at least, not anymore… Same thing, I suppose.

The latest effort of digging roots seems to have arisen after telling a friend that I hadn’t visited a recent exhibition of a famous painter because I’d thought the admission price was a bit steep for something which I could admire in as much detail online. My friend, of course, was shocked and subjected me to an unwarranted rebuke for thinking the two modalities were in any way comparable.

I have to admit to a certain agnosticism in the matter of Art, but, as art is wont to do, it started me wondering. What qualities, if any, does the original of anything, have that is so special that it has to be experienced in person? But I’m not advocating virtual reality, or proxy visitations, so much as an explanation of what makes the thing-in-itself seem so valuable.

I’m reminded of a podcast discussion I once heard about an exhibition of a Viking long boat. To see the real boat, the host of the program said -even if it was displayed behind a rope fence- was like experiencing the boat pulled up on a beach in Lindisfarne in 793 A.D. when they first raided Britain.

“But some of the boat had to be restored,” the expert explained. “In the original style and using the same type of wood, of course…” he quickly added, lest the magic seem to slip away. “But you’re right, it’s a Viking boat that they used for raids.”

Then someone –another expert, perhaps, spoke up. “So… Just to add a note of caution here… Let me ask how much of it was restored?”

“Pardon me?” The first expert seemed aghast that it would even matter.

“How much…? I mean, if you restored, say six boards on the deck, but the rest was original, could you still call it the original boat…?”

“Of course,” the first man blustered.

“Suppose you replaced the entire deck as well as a few boards of the gunwale? Still the same original boat…?”

“Yes…” he replied, but hesitantly. He could see where these questions were leading.

“Tell me,” the skeptic said quietly. “At what point –at what board, if you will- does it cease to be the original boat?”

I don’t remember the answer now, so many years later, but it was an interesting point. What is it about the ‘real’ thing that fosters the awe? If someone had simply built another boat, even using the same techniques and period tools, it would be admired, I’m sure –but not in the same way. Something would be missing… But what? For all intents and purposes, it would be the ‘same’ thing as the original.

Upon deeper reflection, I am reminded of another concept that intrigued me as a much younger student: Plato’s idea of Forms –a simple example being that of, say, triangleness; all triangles are examples –manifestations- of this, but not the thing-in-itself which is unknowable. Or, perhaps more illustrative: boatness. How is it that we can recognize a thing as a boat, even though boats have many designs, sizes, and shapes? What is it about boatness that permits its attribution to something, even if we have never seen anything like it before?

I think it’s easy to get lost in this, especially for an amateur like me, but I suspect that what I am wondering is whether ‘original’ might capture some of this idealized yet still intangible feeling of Form.

I tried the idea out on a couple of friends one evening at a pub. It was probably not a great place to discuss anything as nuanced as Plato, or Viking boats, but I get excited about things.

“Why is it better to see the actual painting in an exhibition rather than a picture of it?” I had to yell, because there was a lot going on around us that night.

“We were talking about Facebook news… How did art exhibitions get into this?” John, who was a recently retired lawyer, usually wanted to talk about politics, so I’m not surprised he was the first to notice my not so subtle segue.

In fact, I wasn’t sure what triggered the painting thing –maybe it was John’s insistence on going to the original news source and not relying on third hand copies. He had a point I thought, but I wondered if it also applied to paintings. And if so, why?

“But that’s a good example of why you go to the source, eh?” he added, smiling broadly at my perspicacity.

“With news, yes,” I yelled, as someone shrieked with laughter close by. “But why is it the same with a painting? Why isn’t it just as good looking at a high-quality photograph of it? They’re identical, aren’t they?”

Jason, a retired accountant put his empty glass on the table and tried to signal a waitress. “Are they?” he asked, turning to me when the waitress ignored him.

I shrugged. “I don’t know… that’s why I’m asking. Why are they different, Jason?”

He leaned over the table so we could both hear each other in the melee. “A photograph is just a copy.”

“Is what the painting contains –the image, the colour, the composition, and so on- not exactly the same in the photo?”

He thought about it for a moment, but started shaking his head. “I don’t know… somehow, there’s something missing in the photo, don’t you think?”

“What?” I was hoping he could narrow it down for me.

He took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “Maybe it’s that the painter –the creator– actually touched it…”

I smiled and had a sip of my wine. “Do you remember Plato from university?”

“I remember the allegory of the Cave… Loved that one…” John piped up, but quietly and Jason and I had difficulty hearing him.

I was thinking more of his Forms. Remember?” The blank looks on both their faces told me they didn’t. “Triangleness?” I offered as a hint.

“Oh yeah,” John said, obviously pleased at himself. “The ideal -of which something like any triangle you could draw would only be an example…”

“Didn’t Kant…” Jason was deep in memories. “… Something about noumena… Oh yeah, and the ‘thing-in-itself’ or whatever…”

“Uhmm, what I remember about his Critique of Pure Reason, I could write on a grain of salt,” John yelled to nobody in particular.

Jason mounted a condescending smile and launched his eyes on another search for the waitress.

“But I did love the Cave thing,” John continued, this time turning to me. “I always got it mixed up with the Forms, because I figured they were actually saying the same thing.” He leaned over the table so he wouldn’t have to talk as loud –I think he found the topic an embarrassing one for a pub. “I mean, think about it. All those prisoners in the cave chained so they can’t see the fire behind them, or the people holding up puppets that cast shadows on the only wall the prisoners can see. Naturally the prisoners think the shadows are the authentic world. And then one of the prisoners slips his chains and escapes to the sunlight outside and sees the real thing –not copies of it…”

Jason had given up by now and stared at John. “So, where do the Forms come into it…?”

It was John’s turn to look haughty as he rolled his eyes. “He sees reality, Jason. In a sense, he sees the Forms… the prisoners only saw the facsimiles –the copies, if you like!”

Jason just blinked at him. If I didn’t know him better, I would have thought he didn’t understand. “You know, this all started with G’s question about why it was better to see a painting in an exhibition than a copy of it somewhere else… How did we get to Plato’s Cave?”

“I think we just answered his question,” John said quietly, as we all leaned over the table to hear him in the noisy room. “It’s like experiencing reality, rather than the shadows it casts.”

“But…” I could see Jason was struggling with the idea. “…But couldn’t the prisoner just go back into the Cave and tell the others what he saw? That they were just looking at copies…?”

John smiled his best lawyerly smile. “Would they believe him if they hadn’t experienced what he had?”

I sat back in my seat with a big smile on my face and finished my wine. Sometimes it’s good to have a drink with people. Sometimes you just have to leave the Cave…

 

 

 

The Kingdom of the Blind

 

Sometimes, after waking up from a troubled sleep, it occurs to me that I live in a world to which I have become so accustomed that I wander down its streets like a horse with blinders. I see those things at which I am pointed and accept what I am told about the rest –even about the other horses… And they, like me, process their separate realities as if they were representative. Common grounds. All, no doubt convinced of the uniqueness -the appropriateness- of their own interpretations. Certain that what they see is what we all see –should see- otherwise we are mistaken and groping. Remember, in the kingdom of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.

But we miss a lot unless we stand back and consider what passes for reality. And why. The other day I was listening to an archival podcast from BBC 4 entitled Body Count Rising –a thought-provoking and insightful documentary about how we have come to watch- and accept- crime programs that seem to glorify violence against women. Rape, murder, abuse –all common themes that, had they no fascinated audience, no prurience, would never have gained the popularity they seem to enjoy: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b07wtggz

To me, only an occasional crime show adherent, the trend was largely invisible. And yet, as a man, maybe even a steady diet of such programs would have slipped past without a comment. Without a conscious recognition that perhaps the overly realistic depictions of female abuse, the preponderance of rape as an important component of the plot, and the salacious depiction of the female corpse was actually a not-so-covert titillation. A not-so-disguised form of necrophilia.

Another component of the podcast documentary that I had not considered until then –and one that I found powerfully compelling- was not so much the increasing demand for these kinds of stories, but rather the effects on the female actors who had to play the role of the victims. I suspect that most of us become so enmeshed in the storyline, so enveloped in the plot that we forget that to be convincing, the actor has to become the character she is playing. Those kinds of victim roles must be devastating -especially when the story purports to depict what is actually happening out there in real life to real women. And yet for the rest of us, we experience it vicariously and from the safety of our living rooms.

Where does the fault lie? The documentary makes an honest attempt to dissect it –from the writers who decide what species of story is saleable, to the networks and producers who pander to audience demand, and even to the actors who, despite their reluctance to glorify the ugliness they are asked to portray, dare not risk declining or criticizing the role for fear of subsequent unemployment… Sometimes I wonder if that isn’t another form of abuse. More subtle perhaps, more deniable, and yet one more gossamer-thin thread in a web of denigration so easily ignored in our society. So readily dismissed. So invisible…

We are all to blame, aren’t we? There are blind spots in each of our lives.

I walked into in a crowded restaurant for lunch the other day, and the only table left was uncomfortably close to one where a man and a woman sat arguing. To be fair, they were initially discreet about it, never raising their voices, nor gesturing suggestively with their cutlery, but nevertheless, I felt almost as if I was a guest in their kitchen and forced to witness a family squabble.

“… Whatever!” the woman hissed sotto voce, as she glanced at me sitting so close to them. She was young –maybe in her mid-twenties- and looked as if she had just come from work. Dressed in a grey skirt and a white now-creased blouse, her auburn hair once pinned on top of her head, escaped strand by strand as she tossed her eyes back and forth from the leftovers on her plate to her partner’s face.

He was probably in his forties, and dressed in a brown suit with a red tie loosened at the neck. Staring intently at the woman, a patient smile tattooed on his face, he was leaning forward on the table when I sat down. He made several desultory attempts to touch her arm, but she withdrew each time. “Sheila asks for it, though, Janice…”

Evidently, this was not the response Janice wanted to hear and she sat up stiffly on her chair and glared at him. “Asks for it! What kind of an animal are you, Jeff?”

“Come on, Jan. Get off your high horse!” he sat back on his chair and his facial tattoo expanded sardonically. Cruelly. “She flirts with every man in the office… Including me,” he added, as if this proved his point.

“Flirts?” Janice’s voice rose unintentionally, but she glanced my way and subdued the rest of her words. “Sheila is just friendly; that’s how she interacts with people.” She shook her head sadly, and several more strands of hair tumbled to her shoulder and danced as she spoke. “You’re so shallow!”

“Friendly is one thing –you’re friendly, but you don’t stand as close as she does when you talk. And you don’t start fondling people to make a point. Sheila bores into your face with her eyes, like she wants to peer inside, or something…”

“You mean she actually listens when you talk…?”

Jeff frowned at the remark and shook his head. “No… it’s more than just listening, Jan. It’s… seductive.”

The skin on Jan’s face tightened, and her eyes tore a strip off his face. “So that’s why Jason gropes her every chance he gets? Because she’s asking for it?”

“Gropes her?” His voice rose unpleasantly loud and people at the nearby tables turned to see who was yelling. He dropped his eyes to his plate again, and lowered his voice. “Janice you’re so bloody naïve! He’s just responding to her. Stimulus-response –it’s not groping! You make it sound so… so damned lewd.”

Janice’s eyes grew to the size of the plate in front of her and her face reddened as the veins on her neck grew fat and swollen. She took a deep breath and let it out slowly before answering. “Suppose Sheila kept grabbing his ass –what would you call that? Or his crotch…? I saw him trying to finger her in the corner, Jeffrey!!”

Jeff rolled his eyes and guffawed. “He’s just playing the game, Jan… And anyway, Jason wouldn’t do that unless she was okay with it.” He toyed with the bit of food left on his plate and then chose a large, dripping piece and put it in his mouth –but slowly and carefully. I could tell he thought he was being seductive.

From where I sat, I could see Jan’s fists opening and closing. She seemed momentarily speechless, although I suppose she was actually trying to calm herself down before she exploded. “Jeffrey, you’re missing the point!” The words came out between clenched teeth, her eyes locked on his. “Jason is her boss, for god’s sake! She feels she has to take it…” She tried to soften her face for a moment as she explained the obvious, but it was a losing battle. “Don’t you understand…?” she said quietly while shaking her head. I could tell she wasn’t far from tears.

But Jeff’s face stayed blank. It was as if Jan hadn’t explained anything. “Sheila could just tell him to stop, if she wanted to.” It was so obvious to him.

Jan glanced at her watch and stood up. “I’ve got to get back now, Jeffrey…” He smiled again and pointed to some food still left on his plate. “Wait till I finish this, Jan,” he said, and not kindly. It was an order, really, so she sat down again and leashed her eyes obediently.

But not before they strayed briefly to my face in apology –a silent recognition of the way things were. An invisible shrug.

 

Science and Simulacra

One of the problems with Science for many people is that it keeps changing its mind. We are in an era when to say that an idea is scientifically proven is to imply that something profound has been uncovered: a truth has been revealed that is forever irrefutable. It is a time of global angst, when religions and cultures appear to be at odds with each other; only science seems to have anything to say that can transcend boundaries: something reliable to believe in.

Now we learn that yet another theory –i.e. that mammography would reduce deaths from cancer by detecting them sooner and at an earlier stage- doesn’t seem to be valid : http://www.bmj.com/content/348/bmj.g366 or perhaps a more readable summary: http://www.jwatch.org/fw108466/2014/02/12/annual-screening-mammography-produces-overdiagnoses-no?query=pfw  Maybe this might have been better described as a scientific hope than a fully fledged theory; nonetheless it does not inspire confidence that we are on the right track…

But it is in the very nature of science to be open to refutation and revision. Paradigms shift and new theories replace older ones… So what can we believe? Is science wrong?

Philosophy offers some insights, and how we view reality lies at the heart of it. There are many ways of apprehending reality. Realism is perhaps the most pervasive nowadays: the common sense view that scientific theories say verifiable things about the world –stuff out there exists and even if we aren’t able to see it (a quark, or a lepton, say) we can measure it. But there are other ways people have viewed reality –everything from Descartes’ Cogito ergo sum (there is something out there but we only know about it through our senses, and they –as in the case of, say, hallucinations- may be deceiving us), to what has come to be called instrumentalism –Science just measures things and theorizes about them (somebody else can worry about whether or not they are real).

As I suggested earlier, since theories and paradigms change –and always have- why should we believe that the ones currently in vogue are correct? And if they’re constantly subject to revision, then how then can we believe they are telling us anything about reality? Well for one thing, the scientists say, the technology engendered by them works doesn’t it? That’s surely a testament that we’re on the right path. And yet how can we balance the discrepancies? It’s a terrible pickle we’re in if we try…

But theories don’t talk about real things, only our interpretations of theories do. Science is usually couched in mathematics, hidden in numbers, but meaning –interpretation- requires metaphor.  We are creatures of stories, myths, legends… It’s only through these that we make sense of our world. Numbers almost have a separate reality –they describe our world, but they don’t really live where we live. To an extent, they are contingent on metaphor to have any descriptive function.

So, what does all this obfuscation have to do with the value of mammography? The problem of being told one thing today, only to have it rescinded –no, revised– the next? Well, as I see it, reality is still obscure: we think we understand it, think we are wearing it –and yet, like an onion, it has many other layers, deeper layers…

I’m struck by the prescience of that allegory told by Plato so many years ago. You know it: the one about the Cave. Prisoners are chained in a cave and only able to see the shadows of objects cast on a wall from a fire behind them. These shadows, they think, are real –indeed, it’s all they’ve ever known. But a prisoner escapes the cave and sees the world outside where he can finally appreciate what is truly real… Maybe the shadows have prepared him somewhat, but only when he is outside can he understand that what he had been calling real were, at best, approximations. Some were no doubt better than others, but simulacra nonetheless.

Although perhaps closer to the entrance to the cave, we are still imprisoned, still mistaking shadows for what they represent. For reality. For now…