Oh, Canada

Spotted recently during a walkabout in Victoria, BC. It set me to wonder because it was over sixty years ago that Ayn Rand (aka The Russian Radical) made the non-intuitive and controversial claim in her essay that there are no conflicts of interest among men. If true, then surely there would be nothing for a Conflict of Interest Commissioner to do, a textbook example of a sinecure. Consistent with that conclusion I noted the office was closed.

Canadians, it seems to me, are inclined to being overly officious official. Although my average impression of them as a lot is that they are otherwise nice and non-threatening. In every social context during the three days we were there, never once did HW or I feel insecure or unsafe in our surroundings. Not anywhere in our daily peregrinations exploring the city, driving the roadways, aboard their ferries, or even relatively remote places beyond the city like the park we visited where we hiked to the beach. My impression isn’t based only on our recent visit there either, I’ve visited other locales in Canada before, same impression. Even the impromptu “street performer” we observed one day while out shopping – who as I passed close by him erupted in thick brogue, “Aye, you can’t have a discussion of bravery without the fuckin’ Irish!” – startled me, but he didn’t frighten me. Someone like that appearing suddenly in my personal orbit on Market Street in San Francisco might have me pulling HW tight and quickening our pace, but not in Canada. I’m not sure why.

We plan to visit Tofino on the west side of Vancouver Island sometime this summer, supposedly a kayaker’s dream, so HW especially is looking forward to this. Another place of interest for us in southern BC (mainland) is the Okanagan Valley, where some surprisingly decent wines are made. We’re also looking into road trips this summer to Montana, Idaho, and Colorado to visit good friends who live there. And possibly a touch-base trip to Wisconsin to catch up with family. It’s gonna be a busy year of travel. Overseas, we’d like to return to northern Italy, this time to experience the food and wine of the Nebbiolo region (next to Amarone, Barolos are one of my favorite red wines), and to take our time exploring Turin, the city where Frederich Nietzsche descended into madness and died. And for years we’ve talked about hiking the full extent of Hadrian’s Wall in northern England. It was constructed around 122 AD by the Romans as a defensive fortress and to mark the northern extent of the empire at the time. Some historians think one reason for building the wall was maybe to keep the “barbarians” to the north (ancestors of modern Scots) from invading the empire. Supposedly them early Scots were wicked scary.

What else is going on? Well, the hole in our home left by Chester’s passing is still here. Nothing but time can seal it, and there’s no treatment to avoid the experience of grief while we wait. We cannot “will” ourselves to get over it. Slowly, though, we’re getting out and about and feeling better about feeling good again. Endless wallowing in self-pity is not our way.

Those tunnels beneath Gaza are something aren’t they. Whoever ends up governing Gaza should turn them into a tourist attraction, use the proceeds to help rebuild the place. Some reports I’ve read estimate that upwards of 50% of the buildings in Gaza have been leveled or damaged beyond repair by Israeli bombs. Who’s gonna pay to clean up the mess and rebuild it? In Ukraine, damage to private and commercial property will shortly exceed $150 billion. And Putin, it seems, is just getting started. Syria is an utter disaster, and was the worst humanitarian crisis in recent times to strain credulity, until the starving refugee crisis in Yemen dropped our jaws. Iraq, a country we invaded and occupied for eight years on a phony casus belli – The Global Policy Forum now estimates the total cost to America for that fiasco at over $1 Trillion. That’s roughly equivalent to the cost of the Vietnam and Korean wars combined. What did it get Americans, increased security? Ha. I don’t think so. We still have Americans there getting killed by Iranian-backed insurgents. And then America retaliates, blows up some infrastructure and kills some bad guys, only to have a new group of bad guys emerge someplace else and attack us again. Ever heard of the game Whac-A-Mol? One trillion dollars wisely spent at home could have transformed every inch of this country into a Lake Woebegone experience. Plus spared a whole lot of unnecessary death and destruction. Instead, there are places in the world I’d like to visit, but now more than ever would never visit because, qua American, I’d feel like there was a target on my back (except Canada). And we (taxpayers) are stuck with the bill.

Anyway, I’m off to watch the game. Prediction: 49ers by a smidge in a late comeback rally.

Who Knew

A forecaster thought two to five inches may fall overnight. We awoke the next morning victims of this. They say it’s an inexact science, meteorology. Sure, but over 2X off? If I were feeling generous I’d acknowledge this was an outlier event; this much snow paired with below freezing temperatures supposedly is super rare here. To the contrary, my spirit was bereft of any generosity whatsoever, I was cussin’ the weatherperson with every shovelful.

That was last week. Today it’s near 50º and most of the snow has melted. It feels like a forecaster’s apology.

Friends drove up yesterday to watch the Packer game with us. I smoked pork spareribs on the Traeger. HW made a green salad to go with it. If not for that ill-fated pass by Love late in the game, they might’ve won or at least tied the score. A missed field goal and near pick six earlier in the game didn’t help. But overall, a pretty impressive showing by a surprisingly talented team of newbies who played otherwise mostly mistake-free football to damn near beat the #1 seed (on their home turf) to advance to the conference title game. Not to mention the Packer’s astounding blowout of a veteran Cowboys team a week earlier in Dallas. Nobody, including me, saw that coming. The ribs were good, too.

Later this month we’re meeting up with friends in Portland, friends from Alaska who recently moved to Boise. They scored the tickets for the sporting event and I took care of the Airbnb. Out of necessity we bought a new car recently, so we’re both looking forward to the drive. See our driveway in the photo? It’s pretty steep. Around late September last year one of our cars was “parked” at the top, but not in park when it was turned off. Eventually, the gravitational attraction between it and a 75′ cedar tree in the neighbor’s front yard across the street proved too much to resist. Down the driveway the object rolled, gaining speed all the way until it slammed into its gravitational partner. I had to saw off the bent and twisted catalytic converter just to render the vehicle drive-able again. Even so, there was an impressive amount of damage. So much that State Farm eventually ruled it a total loss and sent us an eye-popping check for the remaining value. When they say Like a Good Neighbor, you can believe ’em.

Instead Of The Nibblet

Remember the inspirational posters employers were fond of hanging in the coffee bar, or other areas around the office where employees would congregate to commiserate over dissatisfaction with their jobs? Commonly the poster would feature a photo of some steadfast force of nature paired with a caption like: Determination!, or Creativity!, or Teamwork!, Believe and Succeed!

I confess that throughout much of my professional life in the twenty years or so I worked for a big company that I was cynical around the motivations of management, specifically with regard to their cheap tricks intended to get more and better work out of the rank and file employees. Like those posters, for example.


I snapped this photo recently while out on a beach walk with HW and thought it would make a perfect counter-inspirational poster.

But what about the caption? Tenacity! or Resilience! might work. But in order to be rebellious, consistent with my cynical attitude toward group-think at the time, I thought maybe The Power of One! would capture that spirit. But that’s a little tame, innit? As a writing professor once guided me (dimly recalled), “Your satire works best when the writing is over the top. Don’t fear offending the reader, give your metaphors all the oomph they deserve, say what you really mean.” OK. So how about this for a caption: Fuck Off! Tell me you don’t see that cliff face like the back of a hand, with the lone tree stubbornly rooted like a middle finger raised to the sky. Talk about your force of nature.

HW & I drove over the border (“the line” as the Canucks call it) yesterday to walk the promenade and stroll along Canada’s longest pier. At the end of which we spotted several people fishing for crabs. We peered over the railing and saw swarms of silverfish just below the surface of the water, wary of the hungry sea lions lurking nearby. One of many statues erected along the promenade celebrating the heritage of the place

Another lone wolf deserving of a caption. Use your imagination.

For all you wondering when the 2023 Nibblet will arrive in your mailbox, I regret to inform you I didn’t pen one this year. This is the first year in fifteen consecutive years (!) this has happened. My only excuse – a sudden, stupendous, and sustained bout of agraphia after the loss of Chester. I’m sorry, my voice and sense of levity were no where to be found this year. We are again getting out of town today. South instead of north this time. We’re going to visit a nursery and then overnight at an Inn near the sea.

We wish you all an uneventful and happy 2024. Wait, it’s an election year. Scratch that. Strap in, hold on, and be your best.

What Number Abides Comfort

The international standards for what is permissible under armed conflict are not what most people think they are. The standards themselves are complicated and permit a much higher degree of violence and collateral damage and civilian death than most people understand or are comfortable with.

I heard this comment today from Frederick Kagan, a guest on The Remnant podcast hosted by Jonah Goldberg.

I want to make a deeply cynical point here and mock the notion that there is some magic number of (presumably innocent) civilian deaths that leaves me undisturbed in the comfort of my Barcalounger sipping espresso from a demitasse – “Oh, would you look at this recent report dear, it says the current estimate of the number of innocents killed in [insert latest war du jour here] is more like eleven hundred, not eleven thousand. Phew, I don’t know about you honey, but I feel like that’s a number I can comfortably live with.” The other thing worth mocking here is the implication that any ordinary citizen’s discomfort with civilian deaths greater than the “comfortable” number, matters one wit to either the practitioners of the latest war du jour, or the committee for international standards that sets the amount of murder permissible in war. I mean really, did the apparent discomfort of a majority of Americans over the rising civilian deaths in southeast Asia matter one wit to the congress, the state department, or the POTUS, to limit civilian death to a number the American People would be comfortable with? No. To the contrary. Nixon flipped his finger at the Peaceniks and doubled down with the order to carpet bomb Cambodia, without first checking in with the standards committee on what number of civilian deaths was permissible at the time. Do you think Putin and his sycophants care one wit about the discomfort of Russian citizens over civilian deaths in Ukraine, or that the number far exceeds what the standards committee has authorized is permissible? Did the standards committee permit 300,000 civilian deaths in the fire bombing of Tokyo? I doubt it. And it seems to me there is a growing discomfort with the number of civilians killed in Gaza?

Try not to let it ruin your Christmas.

Chester, aka Black Dog

Hello darkness, my old friend
I’ve come to talk with you again
Because a vision softly creeping
Left its seeds while I was sleeping
And the vision that was planted in my brain
Still remains
Within the sound of silence

        – Sound of Silence
          Simon & Garfunkel

The silence around here is the hardest thing. Morning noon and night for the past eight years he was with us. Then poof, he’s gone. We lie and say we’ll never put ourselves through this again, though of course we will, because we have in the past. We’re predictable that way. We don’t want to learn to live without the companionship of a dog, especially one as sweet as Chester, who maybe more than any of our other pups pegged the sweetness meter.

October 2015. One trip to the shelter in Palmer, AK is all it took. He was a year old then, surrendered to the shelter by his prior companions who left a note with the reasons why, “Chester is overly rambunctious with small children and he charges guests at the front door.” Oh my! 😮 OK, so we don’t have children, and so far as charging the front door goes, well, caveat house guests I guess!
HW & I performed a few basic temperament tests in the off leash area outside the shelter, agreed he was a fine beast, completed the adoption paperwork and in that moment he became a member of the Nibbe tribe. He seemed grateful to be leaving the shelter and headed home with us to Anchorage. We learned a few months later when we had cause to have Chester X-rayed that he’d been shot! A small BB-sized object was evident on the image. The vet told us it’s not uncommon to have pieces of buckshot, or whatever the hell it was, meander around inside an animal its entire life. Most of the time, she said, it’s not a cause for concern.

It became a badge of honor for Chester. Often times he’d try to extract sympathy from our friends, “Did you know I’ve been shot?!” Structurally, he was a long dog, a hybrid mix of Labrador, Husky and, our vet suspected, maybe a little Basset Hound too, given his front feet, especially the right one, turned outward. He had a gorgeous coat and a lot of it. I used to joke while clutching a handful of fur at his nape that you could fit two dogs inside here! I feel horrible now that I ever called him “mutant,” which I did. Not once in eight years did we give him a bath, his coat performed that well. He didn’t stink. Which never ceased to amaze me. HW recalls one time when he got a coat “blowout” the groomer gave him a bath, but that was it. The adoption clause specified a certain amount of time to return an animal to avoid buyer’s remorse. His first night with us I was in the kitchen to fetch something, and when I returned to the living room I saw him up on the couch with HW, his head resting comfortably on her lap. As if he knew he was in a probationary period, he looked at me with those plaintive eyes, “Am I a keeper?”

From that point on he was family. Hardly a day passed in the ensuing eight years without either myself or HW, usually both of us, getting outside for a long walk or hike with Chester. In all the ways a good dog can enrich our lives, getting us out of the house and moving has to be at the top of the list. He wasn’t a particularly high energy dog, though like all our dogs he was always eager to go, no matter where it was. In the low mountains around Anchorage he could soar up and down mountainsides chasing ground squirrels with the best of ’em. Which is another thing that amazed me about him. He didn’t have the body form or the apparent strength and agility well suited for high-performance running up and down big hills. But I guess Chester didn’t get the memo

For the next five years while we still had our beach cottage in Seward, he traveled to and from there with us every time. I mean my recall isn’t perfect, but I can’t think of a reason we would have ever traveled there without him. If for some reason he wasn’t fit to go, then we wouldn’t either. We go as a family or not at all. Even when we snow-birded in Sedona a few years ago, he came with us, including 3200 miles of driving to and from. A better canine traveler I’ve never before experienced. At the hotels where we stayed along the way, HW & I would get settled, then clean up to go out for a bite to eat, and ‘ol Chester, having been well fed and taken out for his postprandial pee & pooh – always his contentment came first – would hop up on the bed, settle in with a deep sigh, and patiently await our return. Copy/paste the next day. Never a complaint or an embarrassing episode with that one. He was just the perfect companion in every way.

Months turned into years. The fur around his nose and chin began to gray slowly. Our boy had become a man. He’d throw us into a panic now and then when he’d run off into the woods, too far to be seen or heard (we were always sure to fasten a bell to his collar). Our strategy for finding him was to have HW go one way and I another, using our phones like walkies-talkies we’d communicate sightings or evidence of where he’d been. Eventually, he’d give up on whatever had given him chase, and not uncommonly reappear somewhere very distant from our search area. Other times he’d pop out right behind us. He could make us feel foolish that way. Another time, while out on a beach walk in Seward, he darted away suddenly into a small RV park, found a Minnie Winnie with its door open and ran inside. As I sprinted after him I shouted apologies to a couple I spied at a nearby picnic table, who I feared might be the (unamused) owners. As I closed in on Winnie I saw Chester shoot out of it with a half-eaten bag of family-sized Lays over his head. How he avoided a face-plant descending the steps at that speed with those mutant feet of his, I will never know. Turns out the couple I spotted were the owners of the RV. Out of breath I skid to a stop next to them, beseeching their forgiveness with every excuse and apology I could muster. But instead of anger the wife was buckled over, laughing her ass off. Chester, still blinded because his head was stuck in the bag, was stumbling about like a little drunk. Two shakes of his head and the bag sails away, potato chips scatter everywhere. I had to admit it was funny. I felt permission to laugh a little myself. Meanwhile, Chester is frantic, trying to get as much booty into his mouth as he can because he knows I’m coming for him.

Life with dogs is precious. As I write we’re hunkered down. There’s an atmospheric river overhead. Layers of thick gray clouds make the shortened days feel shorter still. It all feels punitive to me in a way. Similar to how I felt a year ago in Anchorage during the Snowpocalypse of ’22, when Chester suffered a spinal injury in the deep snow. In my mind’s eye I can still see that helpless look on his face. I wanted to scream. HW & I feared he would not recover. It was really bad, he couldn’t walk on his own. Fuck it all. Then, slowly, he could again. The steroids reduced the inflammation in his spine. The neurotransmitters were flowing again. He could feel his feet, move them on his own. Slowly, the winter days grew longer. It seemed magical to me. Months later we sold the homestead and moved away. Created a new one here. Chester was stable, with limited mobility, yes, but his spirit was undiminished. And if not for his continued presence and the restoration of us qua family, this would not have felt like a home, not really. Doting on him this past year, caring for him, exploring with him, our company’s enjoyment of him, just the simple joy of his presence day to day cannot be overstated. And neither can the sudden and devastating absence. The magic had expired. Almost to a year his injury reactivated. Steroids proved useless this time. Our anguish over the final act of caring is unspeakable. Our only consolation: Chester 1, Pain 0.

The hole in our hearts and home feels like an emotional dungeon.

We miss you, our dear friend. You shall not be forgotten 🙏🏼

Grief

We lost Chester yesterday. Recall it was about 12 months ago he’d injured himself during the Anchorage Snowpocalypse of 2022. Eventually he recovered well enough to enjoy the quality of life he deserved, limited yes but overall he’d been doing pretty well since then. All of a sudden this past Monday while out on an ordinary walk in the woods I noticed his rear gait appeared awkward, he was struggling to support his weight and walk straight. HW and I were concerned, so we looked for a shortcut back to the car. We got him gingerly up the ramp into the back seat and drove home. We gave him a prednisone but by evening he was no better, his right rear leg was useless to carry his weight. Thankfully, though, he wasn’t in any demonstrable pain. Tuesday morning we took him to the vet where HW and I had to carry him in on his bed. The vet confirmed his rear spine was inflamed and likely impinging on the nerve that supports control of his hindquarter, similar diagnosis as last year when this happened. He recommended a treatment course of prednisone, but cautioned us that this may be a more severe problem related to a bulging disk, something prednisone treatment wouldn’t correct. So we started him on the treatment Tuesday night and hoped. His condition worsened. Wednesday night was very hard and by Thursday morning he’d very obviously lost support of both rear legs. He couldn’t walk. HW had to rig two scarves into a sling which she used just to get him outside and back into the house. You could see the confusion on his face, not knowing what happened to him. Surgery was not an option. By Thursday afternoon it was clear we had to let him go.

No science will ever convince me that the anguish of loss is an illusion. We’ve been here before. It sucks. It hurts. It’s real. We couldn’t bring ourselves to go home without him so we threw some stuff in a suitcase and headed out of town to a place where we can grieve.

If It Happens Again

A Waxing Crescent moon over the homestead, 10/29, early morn as Black Dog and I walked to the lagoon for his postprandial constitutional. The moon is a mere 239,000 miles away, a relatively short drive were there a highway. The leading theory for the moon’s creation: A large planetary body (roughly the size of Mars) slammed into proto-earth ejecting a huge mass of stuff into space. Eventually this mess accreted into the moon and remained in orbit around proto-earth. Seems reasonable. Long after that collision, another one with a meteor kicked up enough dust to block sunlight for years, which eventually caused the death of the dinosaurs. Unfortunately, I cannot add coverage on our homeowners policy to protect us from loss when the next extraterrestrial impact occurs. The deductible I was told would be out of this world.

Experience Machines – Part 2

It’s the mycologist’s wet dream here this time of year! The mind-blowing, full resolution version of each is a mere click (touch) away



OK, so where were we 🤔 Ah, the problem of Free Will. Find below a diagram of a (very) simplified model of brain activity. Doesn’t have to be a human brain. I trust you will find nothing heretical with it. Except – recall from my last post I hypothesized the existence of a sixth sense, the Seemings sense, which I’ve diagrammed as lurking inside the brain. If it’s real and has a material basis, I don’t understand it. I don’t think anybody does. But positing its existence is hardly heretical. I mention this only because if it does exist it may represent the sense of agency most everyone experiences, including me. Namely, the profound sense, feeling, intuition – whatever you want to call it – that I direct my brain’s thoughts and actions. And you yours.

Nevertheless, it remains the case there is no material puppeteer in the brain. The brain is not a marionette. The material brain is grey matter, meat, connected up through the CNS to the bodily accessories (organs and limbs), which implement the brain’s thoughts through action. The aggregate Experience of those thoughts and actions is represented as a change to the Outside World (in an endless variety of complicated ways, to be sure). These changes in the Outside World trigger a new round of sensory input to the brain causing another round of processing, and on and on. That’s it, that’s the model. Is there a material basis for Experience? Not that I am aware of. If I had to guess, its material basis may the same as that for memory, for which there is experimental evidence. Also here. If so, the next logical question would be why some experiences are saved in long term in memory where most are not.

A simple example for consideration. Round one: A mosquito lands on my arm (sensory input). The nervous system alerts my brain which raises the opposite arm and lowers the attached hand fast to slap the mosquito dead (expressed thought and action). Round two: The Outside World has changed slightly (the visual sense signals to the brain there’s a bloody dead mosquito on the arm). The brain directs the opposite hand to grasp the nearby napkin and raise it to wipe away the mess (expressed thought and action). Outside World is changed yet again -> Round three. And so on. I propose every single thought and action works this way, from the micro to the macro. Now imagine the complexity of experience in a world where 8 billion human brains work this way every microsecond. And then add in the changes to the Outside World from the thoughts and actions of all other life forms, and on top of that changes to the Outside World from non sentient forces (e.g. earth, wind, fire). On this view then, “I” don’t operate my brain, I experience its operation. In the same way I (my brain) experiences the heart beating, the lungs respiring, the kidneys filtering, and so on.1 “I” am an Experience Machine.

In terms of the material brain, its relevant physical chemistry, what we understand so far is that there are chemical receptors (proteins) in the sensory tissues connected to the brain that each of the inputs binds to. We have taste receptors and photon receptors and audio receptors, etc. How these receptors work, at the molecular level, to trigger processing in the brain is understood in mind-boggling detail, trust me. Not all of it, surely. But all the evidence so far indicates the brain and all its workings can be entirely understood through chemistry and physics. So I’m saying we could model the human brain in a sufficiently large network of computers? No. That’s not what I’m saying. What I am saying is there is no need for a ghost in the gaps. Activation of receptors by sensory inputs triggers a long chain of cause and effect, real physical chemistry, that produces our thoughts and actions and renders Experience. Again, complicated and fascinating in its behavior, yes. Mystical in nature, no.

What got me thinking about all this again? A new and controversial book by Dr. Richard Saplosky, a neuro-biologist at Stanford. Being the book was recently published I haven’t read it yet, but I’m well aware of his views on Free Will. This new book comes as no surprise. Overviews here and here. Sorry if the latter is pay-walled. (Pro tip: Try using the ‘reader view’ feature in anonymous (private) browser mode. Usually works for me so that at least I can read the text of article). I have read other books by Saplosky, such as Behave, which was really good for its comprehension on the topic of the science of human behavior (and baboons, which he’s spent 30 years studying in the wild). As if speculating about the existence (or not) of Free Will weren’t mind-boggling enough, even more so is the thought experiment of what life would be like if everyone came to believe that Free Will is bunk. If none of us really directs our own actions, then logically self responsibility is out the window, moral judgement (good or bad) of people’s action is out the window. Why? Well, if biology is just physics all the way down to the atom, if our brains are part of of the universe not separate from it, and cause and effect holds, then everything in the universe is predetermined. Including behavior. One doesn’t blame or get mad at their heart if it malfunctions, so why the brain? As Dr. Saplosky says in one of those interviews, we (humans) are merely complicated machines (Experience Machines – sound familiar?!) and it’s a little silly to hold a machine morally responsible for its outputs, good or bad. Think of what life on this planet would be like if we all came to believe that no human Can Do Otherwise. Ever. That’s what hard determinism would mean.

And no, I haven’t eaten any of those mushrooms 🤨

1. There are two separate parts of the nervous system, autonomic and somatic. The former controls the smooth muscle of the internal organs and the action is automatic, no conscious thought required (e.g. the contraction of the bowel). The latter controls the muscles of the limbs and skin, so-called voluntary actions in the body (e.g lifting a cup of coffee or a wink of the eye). However, while control of both systems clearly runs through the same brain it’s tempting to read voluntary and think dualism, the view consistent with the belief that there is a self (conductor) in the brain, the very belief arguers for no Free Will claim is bunk.

Experience Machines

Where We Experience – HW and Black Dog alone on a gravel bar

A correction to my last post. The part of the human brain that directly receives sensory input is the thalamus, not the pre-frontal cortext (PFC). It would have been more correct for me to have said that the thalamus is like the Grand Central station of the brain, not the PFC, in the sense that it functions as a relay to other brain regions for the sensory inputs coming in (sight, sound, etc.). One of those other brain regions is the PFC. However, even though the PFC is not the first stop for input signals, it is still true it’s a busy part of the brain, it does regulate emotion, and modulating the PFC’s activity through meditation is an important goal of the therapy. How that works at the molecular level is poorly understood. But millions of practitioners of meditation can’t be wrong in that it does in fact work.

OK, now on to another matter, one I’ve struggled with for quite a long time.

Have you thought about or discussed with someone the long-standing problem of Free Will (FW)? I don’t mean the simplistic conception of Free Will known as Libertarian Free Will (LFW), which is where a willed action is defined as “free” if it is taken absent any force or coercion by one or more external agents. LFW doesn’t interest me because I don’t disagree with it

LFW synopsis: The act of paying tax to the government (writing a check) is done in the context of coercion – failure to comply will likely lead to bad consequences for the taxpayer. Hence, while writing the check is a willful act, it is not an act of free will in the libertarian sense. Choosing which flavor of soft serve you want in your waffle cone, however, is an act taken free of any force or coercion, and so this action is an example of LFW. Note there’s an important difference here between force or coercion, and a fixed constraint. It’s completely consistent with LFW that one is free to step off a high building to get to the sidewalk below, assuming no other person tries to stop you or talk you off the ledge. Sure. But obviously gravity is a constraint on the will, one is not free to step anywhere they want without consequence. In this way constraints are just like coercion and force, they curb the unfettered exercise of free will, but different in the sense that constraints obtain via the laws of physics, not via volitional actors, who use force or coercion to inhibit Free Will. No one’s action – any action – is free from the laws of physics. Hold that thought.

As I said I have no problem with the concept of LFW. It makes complete sense to me, so far as I understand it. Unpacking what I do struggle with begins with understanding what is intuitively assumed by most people to be both obvious and true. To wit: “Because I have free will I can think and act on my own, I’m responsible for me – duh!” But here’s the crux of my struggle – even absent all those exceptions to LFW I noted above, the average person, I submit to you, believes he directs his own thoughts. He makes his own choices. He chooses strawberry over vanilla or chocolate at the ice cream store. His actions, absent force or fixed constraints, every single one of them – from the simple scratch of his nose up to and including if and who he marries – arise directly from his exercise of his free will. Everyone is free to make, and is responsible for, his or her own actions! Again, I submit to you this is the conception of Free Will that seems both obvious and true to most everyone on earth. Hell, it seems1 this way to me, too. Many many years ago I sat alone in a bedroom mulling over the options facing me, apply to college and get an education or… well, I didn’t know what else at the time. But surely, once I made that seminal decision to go to school, that was all me, right? I mean the choice was a product of my own mind, an exercise of my free will, wasn’t it? Or was the immediate cause of those thoughts something else?

Fair warning, potential heresy ahead.

Let me further unpack where I’m going with this with a return to the ice cream store. You’re at the counter, nobody forcing you or coercing you in any way. No fixed constraints (machines are in working order, supplies fully stocked, etc.). There are three flavors of soft serve on the menu. You pause briefly to consider before speaking your order to the cashier, “I’ll have a single serving of the strawberry in a waffle cone, please.” That’s an example of free will, right? The thought – I want strawberry today – was a product of your mind, translated into speech, delivered through your mouth. What’s the problem?

First of all, what do people who hold this absolute conception of Free Will claim their will is “free of,” exactly, if not force/coercion or fixed constraints? What else is there to be free of? I’ve never heard a satisfactory answer to that question (and it isn’t for a lack of trying, which I did for years in the distant past on Internet newsgroups). Second, what is meant by I, as in “I want strawberry today?” So far as I know there is not a single brain autopsy that has ever turned up evidence of an “I” in the brain. Something that hard cynics of Free Will mockingly refer to as an homunculus. Think of it this way: The brain is an organ, unique in its function, sure, but in every other way similar to the heart, kidneys, liver, etc. Have you ever heard anyone claim “I freely choose what my heart does, I will it to pump blood,” or “I will my kidneys to action, what they filter and when,” or “I choose what my liver metabolizes and how,” etc. No, you’d dispatch the Paddy Wagon for such a person. Yet when it comes to the brain organ, somehow it’s self-evidently true that each of us directs our own thoughts. And like I said above, it seems1 this way to me, too. It seems to me that there is something like an “I” in my brain calling the shots. I talk that way, I write like there is. If I claimed it wasn’t really me (I) that chose to type these words, you’d be loading me into the Paddy Wagon. But here’s the rub: there’s not a lick of physical evidence of a material “I” in the brain. Insisting there is, boils down to an argument for a ghost in the machine. But I don’t believe in ghosts, and therein lies my struggle with the common conception of Free Will.

OK, I admit I’m a thoroughgoing scientific materialist. I want to see evidence for things. On an Internet newsgroup I participated in many years ago, a wise guy once concluded: “We (humans) are nothing but meat that thinks.” It was his way of saying we’re really no different than other life forms; materially speaking we’re also just cells made of protein (meat), except, of course, for the properties of consciousness, self-awareness, and the capacity for introspection and thoughtful planning. That’s a BIG exception! But consider: none of those exceptional properties have a material basis in the brain. Just as there’s no homunculus (“I”) in the brain, you won’t find evidence of introspection or self-awareness or consciousness in there either. Nothing a pathologist could point to and say, “See class, there it is, consciousness.” Yet no one – not even Free Will cynics – would argue these properties are not real. (At least, I don’t think they would. Otherwise, maybe call that Paddy Wagon back?). That same wise guy also once proposed that the word “mind” merely refers to the aggregate outputs of the brain, i.e. what the brain is doing, its activity. That made sense to me, because obviously there is no material evidence for a “mind” either. No, the mind and the rest of those properties are meta-physical, real, observable, and measurable properties of actual material stuff, yet not physically material in and of themselves. So it set me to thinking, maybe the self-evident feeling of agency that we all report we have, the “I”, is merely another emergent property of a functioning brain. No need to believe in ghosts!

Still, as valid an explanation as that may be, alone it doesn’t rescue a belief in Free Will. It merely serves as a non-mystical referent for human agency. To the next guy who says, “I chose strawberry, dammit, of my own free will!” we may now compassionately nod and understand what he really means – what any of us really means when we say it – which is that my brain, this organ between my ears, in that moment at the ice cream counter produced the thought “strawberry.” That’s it. But in terms of what actually occurred in the brain, the irreducible chain of cause and effect of physical chemistry that gave rise to the thought “strawberry,” is anyone’s guess at this point. Because it remains true that the activity in the brain, just like all other organs, is 100% caused by external stimuli in the real world, not the “I”, not your will. Because remember, those are meta-physical referents of what the brain is doing, not a materialistic explanation of how the brain works. Is how it works complicated and complex? Surely. Highly variable across genomes? No doubt. Variable across time and space? Probably. Ultimately mystical? No.

Let’s review. We have an organ, the brain, that expresses meta-physical properties, one of which makes us feel like we have agency. The feeling that there’s an independent “I” inside the brain directing its activity. Being a meta-physical property doesn’t mean it’s phony, any more than other meta-physical properties of the brain, widely accepted as real (if not also unexplained), are phony (consciousness, introspection, etc.). Although I admit this concept of the brain being aware of itself does tickle my spook detector. But prima facie it doesn’t strike me as absurd. Where does this leave Free Will? Illusory, that’s where. I get how strong the feeling of self-determination is that pretty much every human being has. I really do. I feel it strongly too. But neuroscience has come a long way since the dark ages. There’s a ton of stuff to work out in detail, no doubt, but there’s no evidence of a material “I” in the brain. All the evidence points to external stimuli causing brain activity, acting through physical chemistry and intercellular interactions to produce thought and action. All of it. In that sense, none us directs his thoughts and actions, we are merely Experience Machines, as are all other living organisms. File all this as Confessions of a Strict Materialist. I admit believing in ghosts would be so much easier.

What are the implications to human life and the nature of being if Free Will is really an illusion? To be continued

1. I once heard it suggested humans have a sixth sense. Something called our seemings sense, which simply describes how features and phenomena in the real world seem to us after aggregate processing through our five common senses. Our seemings sense creates a first order approximation to understanding the real world. When that approximation turns out to be wrong on closer inspection, we are victims of illusion.

Meditation As Therapy

I named him Buddy, Buddy the Buddha. HW purchased him for me at the market and placed him on a stone, high on the hill in the front yard and visible from the street so that each time I pass by after a walk with the dog or to fetch the mail I hear in my head: “Have you meditated today?” I continue to find routinely practiced meditation effective for mental health improvement, especially what I call “quieting” the prefrontal cortex (PFC). The PFC is the first stop in the brain for all sensory inputs coming in from the outside world. Sort of the Grand Central Station of the human mind, always busy and buzzing with activity. The PFC has many functions, one of which is emotional regulation. If the PFC is untreated, this pathway can become dis-regulated, which has a number of negative consequences, a common one being the tendency to quickly react to people and events around us. After treatments with meditation, though, I find something important changes in me. I slow down, and not just mentally, I move more slowly, more deliberately, snap reactions are replaced by considered responses. What highly-practiced mediators refer to as behaving more mindfully. Just like overdosing on drugs, I suppose one could overdose on meditation treatment as well. Although I’ve never heard a practitioner of meditation, even a lifelong practitioner, say that.

My usual dose is twenty minutes of meditation, once a day. What would an overdose look like? I dunno, maybe an hour or more twice a day. High-practiced mediators easily achieve that. So far as I know, Swami Vivekananda holds the record at three days continuous. I can’t imagine what the negative effects of a meditation overdose would be. My reading around meditation indicates more is better, although you’ll hear that as little as five to twenty minutes a day provides measurable benefits to mental health. Meditation is also like a drug in the sense that if you suspend or stop it, the positive effects slowly wear off. So as a pharmacologist I imagine a standard dose-response curve could be ascertained through suitable experimentation. Why, would you look at that, someone beat me to it.

I’ve read reports by people who’ve attended week-long meditation retreats. After days of frequent dosing some say they experienced hallucinations, similar to those had on psychedelic mushrooms or LSD. Both of which are now being used in legitimate mental health treatments. Patients are being cured of drug and alcohol addiction, PTSD, and other serious mental health ailments through treatment with psychedelics. Pretty amazing stuff. Long term chronic “use” of meditation, I’ve also heard, can produce a durable feeling of altered reality. If you read around on this you’ll find a lot of overlap among peoples’ experience. Specifically, reports of users feeling the loss of the “essence of stuff” in the external world, and the “dissolution of the self”, i.e the ego. I read that a lot. Feeling the loss of self can be accompanied by profound feelings of joy and love – like mystically profound and long-lasting – from people who’ve dosed on Ayahuasca (eye-ah-WAH-ska), the psychoactive brew that Aaron Rodgers sampled not long ago while in South America. Single doses of Ayahuasca in some people have durable effects, too. Like long-lasting changes in their life, similar in kind to those some people report having after a near-death experience, or maybe even religious conversion (or de-conversion?). All this leads me to think that certain biochemical pathways in the brain may be permanently altered through certain psychedelics or long-term meditation practice. Which I find interesting, since for every traditional drug I’m aware of its effect eventually wears off after administration ends. When it comes to long-term meditation practice, there is the state of “enlightenment” that a few expert, long-time practitioners of meditation (e.g. Buddhist Monks) claim to have achieved. For these and certain other practitioners, it seems like a set point or transformation in the brain becomes permanent after the long-time, chronic practice of meditation as therapy. Time will tell if chemical brain treatments and meditation act on the same neuro-biochemical pathways to achieve similar effects.

And now I hear Buddy whispering, “It’s meditation time.”

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