July Diary
Asteroids, Tiger Wives, and more.


John Derbyshire

A listener wrote in to tell me of a similar case in the U.S.A. 130 years ago. This was Elizabeth “Baby” Doe, whose origins were as humble as Wendi’s. Elizabeth went off to Leadville, Colo., with her loser husband in the Silver Boom of the 1870s. There she caught the eye of mining millionaire Horace “Silver Dollar” Tabor. She divorced; he divorced; they were married in 1883. Because of the divorces, though, and the 24-year age difference, they were not welcome in polite society. Baby Doe was assumed to be a gold digger (silver digger, whatever).

Ten years later Horace’s fortune crashed. He was penniless. Baby Doe stood by him loyally till he died six years further on, still penniless, and remained true to his memory thereafter. It’s a very touching story: An opera was written about it — “one of the two or three uniquely American operas,” says my listener.

Possibly this is all old news to native Americans, but I never knew any of it. Now I want to see the opera.

The extended self.

Your body image is surprisingly flexible. Expert skiers, for example, can extend their consciously experienced body image to the tips of their skis. Race-car drivers can expand it to include the boundaries of the car; they do not have to judge visually whether they can squeeze through a narrow opening or avoid an obstacle — they simply feel it.

That’s from Chapter Three of Thomas Metzinger’s fascinating book The Ego Tunnel, which I’ve mentioned before. Metzinger’s a professional philosopher and a star of the Science of Consciousness movement that has come up this past 20 years.

Metzinger isn’t just spinning ideas out of the air. Philosophy of mind nowadays is all tied up with brain studies, and these guys all have neuroimaging or brain-pathology data to (according to them) back up their theorizing.

What Metzinger’s saying there makes a lot of sense. It’s something that I think, in fact, we all sort of know. It came to my mind with some force in mid-July when I was shooting skeet with some friends.

I’m hopeless at skeet, though I enjoy getting out there, handling the guns, and watching the occasional — too occasional — “bird” fly apart when my shot hits it. One of my friends, though, is an expert who’s been shooting most of his life. On this occasion we were joined by another fellow whose level of expertise is even higher. He’s been shooting since he was six years old, he told us, and has taken thousands of dollars’ worth of instruction from big names in the sport. He told me that his gun — custom-made, of course — had cost more than either of his first two cars.

Watching these two experts, I recalled Metzinger’s remark, and saw the truth of it. If you see me shooting skeet, you’re seeing a man brandishing a shotgun. (That is, unless you have flung yourself to the ground in terror and buried your face in the grass.) With one of these guys it was more like seeing a single organism, fully conscious of all its parts. Their guns weren’t so much objects they were handling as extensions of themselves. Each of their brains had incorporated a gun as part of the body image, in a way that neuroscientists can tell you about in surprising detail.

The extended mind: It’s beautiful to watch.

Tragic truth or feelgood falsehood?
  Metzinger is calmly reasonable about the cold purposelessness of existence, and the great improvement in quality of life gained by self-deceptive strategies — pretty lies — for denying the dark. He thinks that when we build “Ego Machines” — that is, artificial consciousnesses — we should include powers of self-deception among their capabilities.

According to the naturalistic worldview, there are no ends. Strictly speaking, there are not even means — evolution just happened. . . . If this is true, the logic of psychological evolution mandates concealment of the fact from the Ego Machine caught on the hedonic treadmill. It would be an advantage if insights into the structure of its own mind . . . were not reflected in its conscious self-model too strongly. From a traditional evolutionary perspective, pessimism is a maladaptation.

He goes on to point out the ancient conundrum here. We want ourselves, and our thinking machines when we build them, to engage with true facts. True facts are not often happy facts, though.

Metzinger tries for a recovery: “Truth may be at least as valuable as happiness . . . ” It may indeed, but no large portion of humanity has ever really thought so — or at least, to be sure, has never behaved as if it thought so. Perhaps those Ego Machines, when they show up, will do better.