The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in Natural Science

Why is mathematics so apt for describing the physical world? Why do our local descriptions turn out to be pretty generalizable (like the law of gravity, first developed for objects around here, then applied to planets, then expanded by Einstein). I have always thought that this problem had an easy solution but this morning I started to reconsider.

I remember back in 2014 Max Tegmark gave a talk at the Graduate Center (and again at NYU) where he argued that the universe itself is a mathematical structure and part of his argument was based on the unreasonable effectiveness argument. At the time I raised an objection along the following lines: there are an infinite number of mathematical structures so one of those will turn out to be a pretty good description of reality. It is not magic, it is just that the number of mathematical structures out there covers all the possibilities so it is no mystery why one (or several) map onto the world. At the time he responded that there were only a finite number of Platonic solids not an infinite number (or at least this is how I remember his response) and of course that is true of our kind of word with three spatial dimensions (at least three macroscopic ones 😉 but there are higher-dimensional Platonic solids and if we lived in an 8 dimensional world we would have those mapping onto physical reality rather than the 5 we know and love. At the time I felt like that settled the issue, and a couple of people remarked afterwards that they had basically agreed with my point.

But now I think that perhaps this kind of response misses Tegmark’s point. Perhaps the question isn’t ‘why does this equation (rather than that one) so accurately describe physical reality?’ but rather ‘why does any equation at all (whatever it is) so accurately describe physical reality?’…the kind of answer I gave before seems like a good answer to the former question but it is not a good answer to the latter question. I think I can conceive of a world, much like ours, but which no mathematical description sufficiently describes. If that is conceivable then, if it is also possible that there be such a world, then it is a genuine question whether our world has any non-mathematically describable properties. And it would also be a genuine further question why mathematics does accurately describe the part it does (since it could have failed to do so) not to mention the question of why mathematical speculation can lead to fruitful empirical discoveries.

On the other hand, is it really conceivable that there be world like ours that no mathematics could describe?

I am not a Number, (Nor am) I a Free Man: 1987-1990

I am continuing to write a semi-regular series of memoir-notes posts. Some of these are harder to write than others but this one was especially difficult. Not only are the memories so distant (and thus sparse and hazy), but I myself feel very distant from who I was at this stage in my life. Don’t get me wrong, I can still ‘see myself in him’ so to speak, and I definitely want to take ownership and responsibility for what I have done, but at this point in my life I had not even yet caught a glimpse of the light at the end of the tunnel. I can definitely say that this was one of the absolute low points of my life.

It’s also funny because now that I am going over everything with a fine-toothed comb it looks like it was just the last two years of high school that I was “in the system”. In my mind it seemed longer. Another instance of the funny ways that memory betrays us. Before I started all of this I thought I had a pretty good grasp on the details and chronology of events of my life but I am finding out that I was wrong. I mean, I teach the neuroscience and psychology of memory all the time and so knew theoretically that memories are easily distorted, especially when one recalls them and learns new information (that will often get filed away as part of the original memory), but it was still a surprise to see that even I was susceptible (Oh, the hubris!).

I previously talked about what I think is the first group home I was sent to, which is the one in Santa Barbara. After that I am pretty sure I went to Boonville or Mendocino California. This place was way out in the boonies, up north of San Francisco in California. It had a camp-like feel to it, with different bunks, a communal eating area, and an on-site school. My transcripts say I was there in January 1988 and I do not know how long I was there. I also don’t remember when I had turned myself in after running away from the group home in Santa Barbara. I am pretty sure it must have been late 1987 but I don’t know.

One of the things I liked best about this place was breakfast. In the morning they would set out rows and rows of boxes of Honey Nut Cheerios and milk. All down the communal dining area, where there were rows of panic table-like tables and chairs. This was wonderful because, first of all as a vegetarian I could eat it (and as much as I wanted). and second of all I didn’t have to worry about any meat (which I found disgusting) being around me. I have a vivid memory of being in juvy and having rib night and being in the dining hall where everyone was eating ribs. I could hear the cacophony of smacking lips, rending flesh, and clacking silverware and as I looked around the room I saw what appeared to me to be a mob of flesh-crazed zombies. Everywhere I looked I saw someone gnawing on a bone, or pulling some flesh from a bone, with sauce everywhere. This was really traumatic for me. I had as usual given my ribs away and was eating side dishes (the best a veggie can get at a rib joint!)…anyway the point is Honey Nut Cheerios was a double win!

It was up in Boonville that I heard Metallica’s Garage Days revisited. I had left all of my stuff at home and they did not allow us to listen to that kind of music in the group homes. But up in Boonville I learned a really nice trick. It turns out that if you put in some paper into a slot at the top of a commercial cassette you can record over whatever it was before. One of the guys there took a Kenny Loggins tape and recorded a bunch of stuff on it for me. I forget what was on there exactly but I remember it had some Voivod (I don’t remember what was on there but this is still awesome), Sodom (I am pretty sure Nuclear Winter was on there. I really liked these guys and later I found out old Slayer had this kind of thrash sound), Bathory (I am pretty sure from Under the Sign of the Black Mark), and Cryptic Slaughter (this I remember was from Convicted, which I really liked) and then there was Septic Death which I found out later was fronted by Pushead (this was definitely Need so Much Attention). A nice eclectic mix! There was some other stuff on there as well but I have lost all of that. I had that cassette for a long time after that. Once I learned this trick I used it a lot.

I really don’t know how long I was up there but I remember liking it and for the most part getting along with everyone (it was a large place with a lot of guys, not coed). I forget the details but as I remember it I fell in with some trouble makers and somehow ended up being kicked out. I vaguely remember somehow cutting my wrist really badly, somehow a door had closed on it while we were sneaking out or something like that, on accident and someone telling me to pour salt on the wound to ‘seal’ it. So I did. I never got stitches and still have that scar.

I really don’t remember how I was kicked out of that group home. I have some memories of it but I don’t trust them. But I am pretty sure I was back in San Luis Juvenile Hall by February or March of 1988. I do know that once I went back in I was very unhappy. I was getting into more fights and one time when they sent me to my room for my mandatory 3 hour confinement I had an epiphany. I realized that they couldn’t really do very much to me and so far all they had really done was “send me to my room” which was in essence a glorified time out. I thought that if I just stayed in my room they would have no power over me and so when they came to let me out I said I would rather stay. They had no problem with that. At first. I don’t know how long I stayed in confinement (remember I had books, a toilet, and a window so it wasn’t really solitary confinement). Every day they would come and ask if I was coming out and I would smugly say I wasn’t finished with my book, or something, and they would leave me in there. A counselor came and talked to me, and I explained that I was just very engrossed in my book and I would be sure to come out when I was done. But then I started another one). I really don’t know how long this went on but by then end they were begging me to come out. I was being offered special privileges, I could watch movies, they were talking about seeing if they could get Zork for me to play, or even possibly I could attend classes at the local high school on a furlough. They were trying. I wasn’t. I came out only to shower or to go to court. I can’t remember exactly what I was reading but at this time I was into Piers Anthony. I had liked the Xanth series when I was younger but at this time I was into the Incarnations of Immortality series (and the Apprentice Adept series…at that time I liked to read through an author’s work before moving to the next author). And then I got sent to another group home.

This one was in San Luis Obispo, which was nice. I am pretty sure I was there from March until sometime in July of 1988. This was way more of a ‘behavioral therapy’ kind of place. It was mostly staffed by counselors and psychologists and they worked regular shifts so it felt a little like still being in Juvy. There was a lot of one on one counseling, complete with Rorschach ink blots and everything. Because of my stint in “solitary” I was ‘forced’ to have special privileges the other kids were didn’t get. I had to attend San Luis High School, not the court school. I was also allowed to have some after school free time for social engagements. I told them that I joined the debate team and then skipped it and went to a drainage canal by our house. I swept it out over a period of time (I don’t remember how long it took, at least several days) and then would skate in it. I don’t even know where I got this skateboard. I don’t think it was the one I had before I was arrested. I know I ended up with a Philips but I am not sure what I had at this point. But I spent a lot of time in that drainage canal trying to carve and grind. Practicing dropping in, etc. I really wanted to skate a ramp but of course I had no access to that, and to be honest though I tried very hard I was not all that good at skating. I could do it and it was often my main source of transportation and some tricks I could nail but honestly, my oiling was weak. I was never really able to get my back leg up high enough and so would often catch my back truck on things.

I really wanted to be good at skating. In fact, I pretty much really wanted to be good at anything I ever heard of! Back when I was younger, I wanted to be a ninja and I used to ‘train’ for it all the time (I read you had to run a mile with a sheet of paper held to your chest by the wind to qualify for training and I gave myself an asthma attack trying to do this). I am not sure why this is, but when I see someone else do something that makes it look effortless, seamless, graceful, fluid, etc, I want to do it myself. It just looks like so much fun! But really what happened is I tried a lot and hurt myself. A lot.

Anyway, eventually they found out that I was not going to the debate team meetings after school and this led to a confrontation (at least this is what I think happened). I was kicked out and sent back to juvy. This must have been early-to-mid summer 1988. After sometime inside again I found out that I was being sent to Fresno for a ‘last chance’ group home. I was going to be driven out there by my case worker (or something) in a car, which was a new one.

I must have went out there in late summer because I am pretty certain I started at Central High School in Fresno for my senior year, or at least I think I came in pretty near to the beginning of the school year in 1988 (my senior year since I graduated in 1989). I thought I spent my 17th birthday in juvy but now that I am thinking about it, it may actually have been at the group home in Fresno (though I have a feeling I may have been back to juvy one last time…I wish I had more records from this time period!). So far I am counting five different High Schools from 1985-1989 (counting juvy as a school, I did earn credits in there!). Oh well, I was used to this. I had gone to two different Junior Highs (having been expelled from one for blowing up my teacher’s desk with a brick of firecrackers), and several elementary schools (at least three I think).

This group home was very large and had several houses all over Fresno. There were six boys to a house and two ‘house parents’. These were people (not psychologists) who lived at the house and managed the boys. I think there must have been 6 or 7 houses overall (though I really don’t know and it may have been more because the group meetings seemed to have a lot of kids) and we all met regularly for group counseling. I am pretty sure I came in and was at one house but soon got moved to the “problem” house.

In this house there was me, my roommate Big E (remember I am not using any real names except for public figures), who we usually just called E. E was a very large black guy from Oakland. He had been in a gang there, which I found out later, was pretty fearsome and well known to locals in Oakland. I, of course, did not know that at the time! There was also a black guy named Kieth who was a muscle head, very buffed out. A Latino guy named Juan who I had known briefly from one of my times in juvy, and then there was Jerry.  He was a sleazy kind of kid and no one really liked him. There was one other kid who was in our house as well but I really cannot remember who it was. I think they may have only been there for a short time.

E was very funny and we got along very well. I remember one time, shortly after I arrived in the house, we were wrestling in our room. I had been on the wrestling team my freshman year in high school and I enjoyed it. We were doing a mix of greco-roman and WWF (I went through a brief period of interest, liking the Ultimate Warrior). E pinned me down to the ground and held me there demanding that I tap out. I wouldn’t. This guy was very fat and I was very thin and his entire belly was shoved in my face. I struggled but eventually passed out. I woke up and Keith and Juan were peering down at me, I looked over at E and he was grinning. He said “casper got heart” (or something to that effect) and after that we became really good friends.

We also got into a lot of trouble. We had a central heating vent in our room and we could lift the cover and use it to stash stuff in. We also noticed that we had a phone outlet in our room so I stole a phone from K-Mart and we would charge people to make phone calls. This was before cell phones and we were only allowed one phone call per week in that place. Funnily enough this is how I acquired Slayer’s new album South of Heaven. At the time I had mixed feelings about it. Some of the songs were ok but it was no Reign in Blood! Eventually it kind of grew on me but it really wasn’t the same.

Besides I had progressed to more extreme music. I still had my old mix tape with Sodom and Bathory, etc. But I had somehow also discovered Napalm Death and I was really into them. Their album Scum was at that time my favorite. I recently re-listened to it and I think it holds up! I also had Carcass’ Reek of Purification which I really loved. I especially liked how they named their solos and that they were allegedly med students. I was also into a band called Nuclear Assault and of course Exodus, who had just released Fabulous Disaster and D.R.I. and a bunch of others. I had heard the Dead Keneddys but their music just seemed like rock-a-billy to me. I like it now but it wasn’t angry enough for me back then. I had to secretly acquire these albums, then record them over a ‘dummy’ tape. It was an arduous process. But the result was that I could listen to my music and when they inspected my stuff all they saw was Madonna, Kenny Loggins, and other acceptable music.

I was allowed to go to regular high school whereas most of the other kids in the home went to a private in-house school. Our house was pretty close to the campus and I would ride my skateboard to school. Being a ‘group home kid’ at a public high school is not exactly fun and I was definitely an outsider but I hung out with a cool group of girls (and their friends).

One kind of funny story is that I remember being in the library at school and finding Interview with the Vampire by Anne Rice. This book had the cover torn off of it and happened to be in the non-fiction section. I read it with a sense of disbelief. Was this a real interview with someone claiming to be a vampire? Of course I wanted to be a vampire, like everyone else, but I didn’t want to drink blood. Could there be a vegetarian vampire? Probably not. But I remember going up to the librarian and asking if this was a true story. I remember she laughed out loud at me and I was really embarrassed and just basically bolted for the door.

I don’t remember exactly when this was but I got a Thrasher magazine or TransWorld Skating magazine and I saw that someone had their nose pierced and I wanted to do that. So I got a safety pin and pierced my nose and re-pierced my ear (I had originally just pierced the left ear (as was the custom back then!) back in the 8th grade but my mom had forced me to remove it). I recall that at first I did not have the guts to stick the safety pin all the way through the back side of my nostril. It just hurt too much. I remember standing in front of the mirror in the bathroom and trying to will myself to push the point through the skin and every time I did I just couldn’t really push it. I didn’t want to take it out because I had already spent a lot of time on it.

So I wore the safety pin half-way through and went to school. That day once I got home I did get the safety pin all the way through.  One day I wore a fork in my nose to school. Yes, that’s right, I took a fork from the silverware tray, bent it and put one of the tines through the hole and wore it as a nose ring. We were not allowed to have our ears (or any other body parts) pierced and so any jewelry I had would have been confiscated. Of course there was an old trick that I learned about in juvy whereby you could take a tine of a comb or brush, break it off and use it to keep your earring hole open. I had had my safety pin confiscated and so had to use a fork to keep the hole open. I forget when I officially stopped wearing my nose ring but at some point I remember I wore a chain that ran from my nose to my ear. Man, I wish I had a picture of that!

I had also by this time started hurting myself pretty often. Some of it was to show off for the other kids. For instance we used to play “bloody knuckles” a lot. This is a game where you take a comb or a brush (or you can use your fist if you don’t have any of the above). One person rests the comb on their fist while the other tries to grab it and smack their fist before they can pull it away. If you were hit the person got to go again. If you pulled your hand away fast enough it was your turn. I liked this game and was pretty good at it. We would also play a version of chicken where we would take a cigarette (they were easy to get, but I didn’t smoke at that point) and then two guys would put their forearms together, skin to skin, and someone would drop the lit cigarette at the place where the two skins met. The first person to pull their arm away “lost”. I never lost. We would also take Bic lighters and heat them up and then brand ourselves. The resulting burn resembled a smiley face. In addition to that I would also cut myself with a knife. At first I did it as part of my Satanic Rituals. These were mostly aimed at getting a certain girl to notice me or getting revenge on some asshole who had done something to me. Strictly low-level stuff that I read about in books. But it did involved cutting and eventually I just did it for the cutting. I was semi-open to the idea of the super natural and if the “magic” had ever worked I might have adjusted my beliefs in various things but these little excursions into magic never paid off.

This was also the first time I tried to tattoo myself. A lot of people at school and inside the group homes had tattoos on their hands, usually signifying some kind of gang affiliation. I wanted to signify my non-affiliation with any gang and so I wanted to tattoo “Skate” on my hand around the spot where gang signs were. I had heard that you could do so by taking a safety pin and wrapping a thread around the tip. Then, one could take toothpaste (for color), and ash, mix them together with water and make a kind of tattoo ink. I tried this and tried to “hand poke” a tattoo on my left hand but it never really came out very well. I would eventually get this done by my roommate once I got out of the group home and moved back to the Central Coast but I will get to that later. Really, at this time, this was just an excuse to cut myself in a different way.

I felt totally powerless and since I had been raised by a religious person I thought that the best way to get power was via Satanism. I finally realized that I was still playing into my mom’s idealology. I was an idle child rebelling by being the opposite of what he had been taught. But real rebellion meant rejecting the whole system. Why believe in God and Satan in the first pace? So I gave up the Satanism and officially became an Atheist at some point, but I still liked that kind of music because it was shocking. I certainly was not into evil, I mean real evil. When I listened to Slayer (or whatever) I didn’t see an endorsement of evil but rather an indictment of any alleged super natural creator. It was a litany of the atrocities allowed by any such being. I was raised vegetarian and I had a pretty strong innate sense of justice and fairness (though I didn’t always live up to them!). The Satanism I was looking into (i.e. mostly the Satanic Bible by Anton LeVay) was more of a kind of embracing of one’s true self. Of course, if one is a child molester or murder then embracing one’s true self is less than ideal but as long as one is fairly normal this is a just a strange version of the ethics of authenticity. As a side note I always rejected the ‘Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law’ line from Crowley for just this kind of ‘what about child molesters?’ objection.

I got into a couple of fights at this group home. One of them was in the house and one for them was at school. The one at school happened while I was in the library. I don’t remember what I was doing but I noticed this guy at the other table staring at me. I did not know him. He pointed at me and then pointed outside. He then got up and went outside so I followed him. I walked out saying ‘what’s up dude?’ and he hit me square in the jaw. I remember hearing a sound and feeling kind of numb. I had been hit many times before so it did not knock me out or put me down but I did loose my shit. I attacked the guy smashing him in the face with both fists. I then grabbed him by the hair and slammed his face into the lockers. After that I kind of grated his face on the vents on the lockers. Smashing it in and rubbing it upwards. I did this until someone pulled me off of him. In the principle’s office he came out and said he would see me soon, so I punched him in the face yelling that he could see me now. I was suspended from school for a while over that but they eventually let me back in because it was unprovoked. I heard that this guys and his friends were out and about looking for me. Ha ha, let them come to the group home I thought. I have a vague memory of being out in the park late at night and running into some of this guys friends, and one pulling knife on us, but it is very hazy.

During this time that I was suspended I was attending the in-house group home school. One day things were a buzz. Everyone was talking about this new kid who was coming to the group home. Apparently this kid was a member a white power gang.  At this time I was the only other white guy in the group home. Everyone by this time knew that I wasn’t “in the game”. I had never belonged to a gang, and was vocally anti-racist. I used to joke around a lot by point at my arm and saying “don’t let this fool you! I’m only white on the outside,” as everyone was laughing (usually) I would add “luckily that where it count’s though!’

I certainly didn’t know about white privilege back then. In fact I had a very naive Libertarian outlook on life and was saying thing like anyone could make, just look at me! But honestly, I am not sure if a non-white kid with my same aptitude (or lack thereof) from where I was from could have made as easily as I did. I don’t want to minimize what I went through but I have to admit that I was treated differently from day one. I had a sense that people thought I was ‘smart’ or ‘bright’ and that I was treated differently for this. Looking back on it I would definitely say it was white privilege at work. Anyway, I had tried to stay in principle neutral as between gangs and used to say that I was from wherever my skateboard was currently touching ground. By this time I had the full on Tony Hawk haircut and a giant Corey O’Brian skeleton and fireball T-Shirt that I had cut up and turned into a jacket patch. Holy shit! I wish I had a picture of that! At any rate the point is that I was not into white power and that there was going to be violence on this day. Everyone in the house was upset and acting out and I think there were some fights over this but actually I can’t remember all of it clearly. I have a very vague memory of a large fight breaking out during school but honestly it is too vauge to take seriously and I can’t really believe that the staff did not anticipate something like that.

One day at school I found out that Metallica was going to be playing in Fresno as part of their Damaged Justice tour. The show was December 14, 1988 at the Selland Arena and this was my first concert. I had just turned 17 and I was determined to go to that concert. Somehow the group home found out that I intended on going and they told me that I could not go and I told them that there was no way in hell they were going to stop me. They warned me against going. I said fuck it and took off towards the concert. Fresno Treatment center was unique in one way. Usually when I ran away from a group home they notified the police and then the police would look for you (or not). But here, when someone ran away, they would get all of the houses together in their vans (each house had a van of their own) and they would drive around Fresno looking for you. They finally spotted me skating down the street towards the concert and the van pulled over. Everyone jumped out and I was booking it down the street. Suddenly another van comes around the corner and cuts me off. They grab me and I am trying to fight them off but I can’t and they start dragging me back towards the van. There are people on the street watching this whole thing and so I start yelling, “help! Help! I’m being kidnapped”. One person sort of looks concerned and asks what is going on but no one does anything. They throw me in the van and take me back to the group home.

The whole time I am telling them that I will just leave again and so they took my shoes from me to make sure that I couldn’t go. But I was not going to let that stop me! I jumped out of our second story window and then headed towards the concert. I was used to being barefoot and in fact before I was arrested I preferred being barefoot (that is how I stepped on a nail and had to get a tetanus shot but that was way earlier). Besides I had my skateboard and so did not have to walk on the concrete too much. But now I know that they are looking for me so at some point I jump on a city bus. I transfer to the bus that drives by where the concert is and I just ride it. We must have done the route three times and I am seeing these vans all over town but these idiots don’t ever think to look at the busses driving by. I wait until the concert is about to start, get off at the right stop and I’m in the concert!

The concert was awesome and I remember being blown away by the stage show. They had a giant Statue of Liberty that exploded and Kirk Hammet came out and stood on its head and soloed. This was the first time I had ever seen a pit and I was instantly hooked. It looked like fun so I went in barefoot and all! I loved being in the pit. As I said I had been hit before and it felt good to get in there and bash the fuck out of people. By the end of the night I was a bruised and bloodied mess. And I loved it. After the concert was over I made my way back to the group home and slept in my own bed. They found me there in the morning and they were very surprised! I remember there were some consequences for this but I forget what.

One particularly disturbing event involved one of the new kids in our house. I forget his name but he was even crazier than I was. Big E and Keith and I got along with pretty well but there was this other guy named Jerry that no one liked. Jerry was a bit greasy, and he was a diabetic, and he liked to whine a lot. Well, Jerry for some reason was saying he was going to tell the house parents about our little operation in the heating vents and none of us were happy about it. So one night I got woken up and it is Big E telling me to get up because we’re going after Jerry. So I get up and come out into the hallway. There is the new guy with a bottle of Pert, or Prell or something, in his hand, you know the shampoo. He says, “stay here and if you see anyone coming knock on this door” and then all three of them go into Jerry’s room. I hear a scream and then some struggling. No one is coming so I just hold my position. After a bit they come out and we high tail it back to our rooms. Big E and I jump into our respective beds and start to pretend we are sleeping. I can hear Jerry screaming from the other room. “What the fuck did you do to him?” I whisper. E responds by hissing that I should shut the fuck up. So I do.

It turns out that they had held him down, taken off his pants, and inserted the Pert bottle into his anus and squeezed. The new guy had put the whole bottle of shampoo into his rectum. That was pretty messed up, to say the least, and is probably the worst thing that I was personally involved in. I didn’t recognize it at the time but this was the only sexual assault I heard about during my time in the juvenile justice system and I was a part of it! The worst part is that at the time I thought he deserved it. I don’t really remember what happened as a result of that but somehow I have a feeling the new guy got blamed for it and sent back to juvy. I kind of remember them getting all us up and questioning us one by one. I just did what I always did. I stuck to my story. I was asleep and then I heard screaming. It is strange how when you are in the midst of these kinds of experiences you don’t even realize how fucked up they are. They seem like business as usual.

One day I was walking from my physics class to my P.E. class and all of a sudden I fell down in agonizing pain. This was in early 1989. I started to vomit and roll around in agony.  I was in bad shape. So they rushed me to the hospital but they didn’t know what was wrong with me. I had been sick occasionally before but it had always gotten better on its own so I never did anything about it. I had a pretty high tolerance for pain and besides that my motto at the time was ‘you either die or you get better, either way things work out fine’. They ran a bunch of tests on me including a Barium Enema (which really sucked) and an x-ray. They said they would call us with the results and sent us on our way. I was feeling a little bit better but I was still in bad shape. When we got home there a message on the answering machine that was asking where we had went and saying that I was scheduled for emergency surgery as soon as I could get back to the hospital. I vaguely thought that this wasn’t good but I was in so much pain that I could not really focus. I arrived back to the hospital and once they knew it was me they rushed me to the surgery prep area. I was on a cart wearing my shorts with a big skull on the side of them and the nurse said ‘do you think that’s appropriate?’ looking at the skull, I yelled back ‘do you think I give a fuck?’ As they strapped me to the table (right arm across my chest, exposing my side) and ran the I.V. all I could think about were the lyrics to a slayer song “surgery, with no anesthesia, feel the knife pierce you intensely” and then the guitar riff, over and over (this song was about Auswitzch and obviously what I was going through was nothing like what was depicted in the song but this is what I was hearing in my head) until the nurse asks me to count backwards from 100. 100, 99…I begin and the next thing I know I wake up and someone is holding a little baggie with a bunch of shit in it saying ‘this was your appendix’

”can I keep it?” I squeak back.

“No, it’s hospital property now” whoever it was responded.

”well fuck you then” I slurred back and drifted off into unconsciousness

I lay in my hospital bed recovering. The doctor said I needed to spend a day, maybe two in the hospital. The people from the group home had left to tend to the other kids and so I was at the hospital all by myself. It was boring. I used the phone by the bed to call the group home and I told them that the doctor had said that I was free to go. They didn’t know any better and said they would be right over to get me. I pulled out the I.V. and got dressed. It hurt.  A lot. They arrived and helped me to the car and took me home. I was on the couch watching T.V. when the phone rang. The house parent went to answer it. I could hear a loud frantic voice on the other end

“Hello?! Yes, uh, we seem to have misplaced the boy you brought in. He was in his room, but now he is gone and we don’t know what happened to him!”

The house parent looked at me on the couch and then said that I was there and that I had told them that it was ok for me to come home. I could hear them on the other end loudly denying that they had said it was ok for me to leave the hospital. Uh oh, busted! But since I was already there they said it might be too traumatic to come all the way back so as long as I rested I could stay put. The very next day I was outside, a bit stir crazy, and I was trying to ride my skateboard in the street. I tried to do an ollie and then felt a rush of pain and wetness. I had pulled out the staples and stitches, but not just the surface ones, the ones in the deep layers of the incisions. Back to the hospital where I got a lot of ‘we told you so’ looks. I learned my lesson and let it heal.

Eventually I was let out of Fresno Treatment Center. They let me go at midnight of my 18th birthday. During the summer of 1989 I was required to take summer school and they were helping me get enrolled in Fresno City College. Someone in the group home was helping me to find a place to live after I got out. I ended up living with another, somewhat older guy, name Julio who was a previous “graduate” of the group home I was in. He was a construction worker who had a nice car with “Metallica” stenciled on the back window. I ended up getting a job at the local McDonalds (I had worked at a McDonald’s back in my freshman year and so knew the routine) and hanging around in Fresno with some people I had known in High School.

young me

Shortly after getting out of Fresno Treatment Center. This must have been in 1989 or 1990..

It was odd for me to suddenly be out on my own. I was used to having to ask to use the bathroom and having someone monitor my every move at all times. And suddenly, in the blink of an eye, I was free. I know now that I overdid it a bit but at the time I couldn’t believe it. You mean, for the most part, you can do whatever you want, whenever you want? Holy shit! I remember the first time I ever got drunk happened just shortly after I was let out of the group home (at a hotel party, remember those?) and I also started smoking cigarettes.

Another thing I remember from 1989 was my seeing Warrant at the Wilson Theatre. This was obviously not my kind of music but my roommate, Julio, told me there would be a lot of girls there and he liked the music. We both liked Metallica but for me that was on the light end of the spectrum whereas for him it was on the heavy end. He was a full-on Hessian. Long flowing hair, a great physique from physical labor. The girls loved him. So I went. I remember getting really drunk and at one point I ended up on Julio’s shoulder’s yelling at the band that they sucked. The singer was trying to swat at me with the microphone stand and I think I ended up running up on stage and getting into a fight with one of the bouncers.

We also went to see Motley Crue, again at Selland Arena, in February of 1990 and I remember spitting on the guitar player and they were very unhappy about it. They stopped the show and he grabbed the microphone and yelled “who the fuck just did that?!?” I kind of remember flipping him off and all of the fans around me pushing and yelling at me. I responded by trying to start a pit and was escorted out. At the time I thought it was hilarious and was proud to have spit on Motley Crue but obviously I don’t endorse that kind of behavior now! I would also have to add that the laser light show they had was pretty good!

I remember one night Julio and I were at the bowling alley, which was a local hotspot in Fresno, believe it or not, and we met these two girls. I really liked one of them but she ended up hooking up with Julio that night. I could hear them the room next door and I remember feeling very upset by it. This kind of thing happened to me a lot. Anyway, at some point this girl, named Maddy, moved with her sister and family to Morro Bay. We used to keep in touch with phone calls (on a land line!) and I think even a couple of letters back and forth (hand written! Oh man, those were the days!).

Eventually at some point I was really depressed and tried to “commit suicide”. This must have been part of the way through 1990. I put it into quotes because I did not really want to die. I am pretty sure what I wanted was attention from a girl, or help, or something like that. But I got a razor and instead of nicking like I did before I cut deep. I also cut my right arm (at that point I mostly cut my left arm, because that’s the “bad arm” haha). One slash was kind of hesitant, and then again a little harder, and then once a little harder, and then a final deep gash. I had heard that if one was serious about this one should cut length wise so I did, but I did not hit any of the veins. I bleed a lot and got light headed but that was it. I woke up the next morning and realized I had to go. Why was I in Fresno any?

I packed up my Cadillac El Dorado that I had bought for $500 (that’s a whole different story but this tank of a car had some issue where every time you started it the battery would drain and so you had to either get a new battery or charge it every time you drove it…I would often just leave it running if I had to make a stop) and decided to head to Morro Bay to visit Maddy. She was always telling me to come out so I thought I would finally do so. On the way out of town I saw a tattoo shop and decided to get a real tattoo. I had a skate mag and I brought it in with a picture of the Santa Cruz Screaming Hand and I got it done for 50 bucks cash. I got back in my Caddy, with newly tattooed arm hanging out of the rolled down car window, and I headed out of town.

Look out Central Coast, I’m a-coming home.

Eliminative Non-Materialism

It struck me today that all of the eliminativists about the mind are physicalists (or materialists) and a quick google search didn’t reveal any eliminativist dualist out there. But why is that?

I can see why a particular kind of dualist would reject eliminativism. If one held that the mind was transparent to itself in a strong way then the existence of beliefs and other mental states can be known directly via the first-person method of introspection. But does that exhaust the possibilities? Suppose one thought that there was a robust correlation (or even causation) between the brain and mind. Then one would expect a robust NCC for every conscious state (assuming a law-like connection or at least correlation between the brain and mental states).

To give us a model to work with let’s assume that there is correlation between function states of the brain and consciousness such that whenever certain functional states are realized that guarantees (given our laws of physics, etc) that a certain (non-physical) state of consciousness is also instantiated. Now suppose that we have a pretty good functional definition for what the functional correlate of a given metal state should be. That is, suppose we have worked out in a fair amount of detail what kinds of functional states we expect would be correlated with the conscious mental states posited by folk-psychology. Now further suppose that when we advanced far enough into our neuroscience we saw that there were no such states realized in the brain or that the states were somewhat what we thought but varied in some dramatic way from what we had worked out folk-psychologically.

At that point it seems we would have two options. One thing we could do is to maintain that there is after all no law-like correlation between brain states and mental states. There is a belief or a red quale, say, but it is somehow instantiated in a way independently from the neural workings. This seems like a bad option. The second option would be to abandon folk-psychology and say that the non-physical states of mind are better captured by what the correlates are suggesting. The newly non-physical states might be so different from the original folk-psychological postulates that we might be tempted to say that the originally postulated states don’t exist. Wouldn’t we then have arrived at an eliminative non-materialism?

As a corollary, doesn’t this possibility suggest that there aren’t any truly a priori truths knowable from introspection?

Ten Years at LaGuardia

The spring semester is finally coming to an end for us (classes end next week; we are on a slightly different schedule than the rest of CUNY) and while I was getting ready for the end of the semester I realized that this marks the end of my 10th year at LaGuardia! I officially started at LaGuardia September 1st 2007 but I was interviewed sometime in June of 2007. This is definitely the longest I have ever held one job in my entire life! If you count the four years I taught at Brooklyn College before coming to LaGuardia that makes 14 years working for CUNY! I hadn’t really been planning on including this period in my current series of memoir-note posts. The plan was roughly to get up to the point where I earned my Bachelor’s degree (January 2000; I am currently up to 1987 or so) and save graduate school and beyond for a possible ‘second volume’ in the future (Volume I=the life of the body; Volume II=The Life of the Mind ?) but I can’t help adding a couple of comments about what was going on in my life 10 years ago.

Back in 2007 I was a graduate student with at least a year and a half or so of work on my dissertation (which I finished in the summer of 2008 and defended September 3rd 2008). It is a long story (aren’t they all!), but I had started working on my dissertation officially in 2006 and at that time it had been a project that I had had on the back burner for a while. I worked on it for about a year with my committee and then had to basically start the project over because of various things.

I was also a full time faculty member at Brooklyn College teaching 5 classes a semester (and beginning to form what would be the New York Consciousness Collective), on what is known as a Substitute Line. These are two year contracts that are limited and non-renewable. I started at Brooklyn College in the fall of 2003 as an adjunct lecturer and I really liked teaching there. Especially since I was allowed to teach philosophy of language, philosophy of biology, scientific revolutions, and philosophy of psychology (as well as Ethics, Business Ethics, and Intro to Philosophy). I knew my time as a Sub was coming to an end (I had been hired on the two-year contract in 2005 and so in 2007 it was up). I had had a taste of what a full-time salary was like and I didn’t see how we could go back to just what an adjunct makes. As a result I was on the job market pretty heavy at that point. I forget how many places I applied to but it was quite a few. I was really hoping to leave New York and wasn’t planning on applying to LaGuardia at all but the chair of our department at Brooklyn College told me that I should apply there and that it was a really great place to work.

So I did.

I was getting no responses and I was getting worried. I even considered the possibility that blogging was having some kind of detrimental effect (I had received an anonymous email after all). I wasn’t sure but I brushed off the concern (no one even reads my blog!). It is striking that I didn’t talk to anyone about where or how I should apply. I just did it because I needed to get a job. I had taken out over 100 thousand dollars in debt. I started taking loans out my first semester of community college back in 1994 and took the last one out in 2003 or 2004. I was taking a lot of classes so I mostly used the loans to support myself over those ten years. I did work here and there, most notably at the mortuary (which I’ll get to later) but also at several coffee shops and restaurants in San Francisco and a few other odds and ends, but that was usually during breaks between semesters. So, I knew that once I defended my dissertation and was awarded my PhD (should I be so lucky) I would have to start paying that back. And so I *needed* to find a job. I was really really nervous. I had known going into this whole thing that it was a long shot and that the market was pretty bad for philosophers (and this was before 2008!) but I really had no other choices (or so it seemed to me at the time). I had been on the market the year before (in 2006) and got an interview but ultimately nothing panned out so it was really wearing on me at this time. If I graduated with all of that debt and then failed to find a job (and/or then failed to get tenure…but one step at a time!)…

On top of all of that I had just found out that my aunt had died. This is a very sad story that is probably best for another time but I had been very close with my aunt before I ran away from home. She had had a very rough life and back in 1982/1983 she was kidnapped at gunpoint by an ex-boyfriend, driven to a secluded place, told that if he could not have her then no one could, and shot point blank in the chest. The coward then turned the gun on himself and shot himself in the stomach. They both survived but my aunt was paralyzed from the waist down after that. Her life spiraled from there (I will skip all of the details) and though she was a strong independent woman I don’t think she every fully recovered from that event. I lost contact with my family when I moved to Connecticut in August of 2002 and was focused on graduate school.

It turns out that my mom had hired a private detective to find me and she found me teaching out at Brooklyn College. She called and left a message with the department secretary and left her number saying she had ‘information’ I might want. I am pretty sure this was in late 2006 or early 2007. I eventually called her back and she told me about my aunt.  That really hit me hard. It was a such a sad, pointless, story. I hadn’t talked to her in years but it brought back a flood of memories and threw me for a loop for a few weeks. I also found out that both of my mom’s parents (my grandparents) had died in 2002. I had talked to both of them sometime before I moved to Connecticut and apparently my grandma had died shortly after that, in May 2002, and my Grandfather followed her a few months later in August. The last time I spoke with her I told her that I was sorry for all of the trouble that I had caused as a kid and how much I appreciated her and grandpa sticking by us through it all and letting us live with them when we needed to. She said she was proud of me but that they never expected me to be the one that did so well. I remember trying to explain Sartre to her. People are not static objects, they can change if they choose to change. Not just once, but every day.

It turned out that my grandfather had dementia from Alzheimer’s and would get angry and upset. He would misplace his keys, for instance, and then accuse my grandma of hiding the keys. Apparently she was terrified of him and so she took a bunch of sleeping pills and killed herself. She was laying on her bed with a bunch of photos of the family from when they were all young played out around her. After that my grandfather just withered and kind of gave up. So, my favorite aunt died of a drug overdose, her last words were “I think something’s wrong” according to my mom, my grandmother committed suicide because of my grandfather’s potentially violent rages. So I was not in the greatest of moods back then. I kept hearing my mom’s words from the last time we spoke echoing in my mind. All of this had happened while I was ‘polishing the brass on a sinking ship’. If I had stayed in California was there anything that have been done differently? It seemed like my life might still ultimately end up like that of the rest of my family. Maybe I hadn’t come as far as I thought I had.

But then I got a phone call one day from LaGuardia asking me if I was available for an interview. This was the only place that had contacted me at this point (I did hear from one other place but that was later). All of my eggs were suddenly in this basket!

I was overjoyed at having an interview, but not entirely happy that it was here in New York. New York is great for philosophy but if you don’t have a lot of money it is difficult to live here. But anyway,  it turned out they were holding the interview on a Friday and I just happened to be going to the Society for Philosophy and Psychology meeting up in Toronto Canada to present a poster of “Consciousness, (Higher-Order) Thoughts, and What It’s Like” (blog post here). The plans were all set and I asked if there was any chance to reschedule. I was told they would get back to me. I hung up the phone and then, in shock, realized what I had done. Had I just passed on this interview? Should I call back and say I would cancel my trip? I was panicking and my wife (then girlfriend) was at work. I was about to call back when the phone rang. It was them. I answered and was told that they really wanted to interview me and could I come in the following Monday (or something). I said no problem. I didn’t realize it at the time but I was the only one coming in for an interview that day. They were all meeting just to interview me. Luckily I was in the city already so it was no big issue to get there.

As I sat in the office waiting for my interview, nervous of course, the secretary, Alice (remember no real names) who I later came to know really well said to me “you want to work here?” I nodded. She laughed and said “you should run!” and I laughed nervously with her. After that an older professor walked by, stopped and looked at me and said “you’re applying for the philosophy job?” I nodded and he turned to the secretary and said “he has a great tie on, hire him!” and walked out of the room. What had I got myself into?

After my first interview I had a second with the Vice President, and then a third and final interview with the President. I think that was in July. I did not find out that I was actually hired until mid-August and was hurriedly prepping for a Philosophy of Religion course (I had never taught this course before but obviously I was interested in the topic!). I stopped teaching philosophy of Religion regularly back in 2009 (I think) since we hired people who actually knew what they were doing.

My interview was actually a lot of fun and I really liked the environment at LaGuardia. I had started at a Community College myself and so I knew the power that education had to transform lives for the better. I still believe that. It is funny because at the end of the interview they asked me if I had anything I wanted to say to the hiring committee and I said that I had come into the interview not knowing if I would be happy at LaGuardia but that they had convinced me that this would be a great place to work. I walked out feeling good but also wondering if I should have said that. Truth be told, I did not really want to stay in New York. Back then I was still hoping to ultimately end up back in California and was naively assuming that if it didn’t work out this year I would try again next year. Boy was I wrong.

I can’t imagine what would have happened to me if they had not decided to take a chance on me. For most of my life I thought of myself as a Californian more than anything else but now I am proud to be an honorary New Yorker (14 years in the city!) and a part of the world’s community college. Here’s to 10 more years!