Saturday, May 30, 2009

Houlie’s Choice

For a girl with a fairly active life, the Better Half has a singular talent for getting hurt doing absolutely nothing.

We were at the county fair, walking along the stables and schmoozing with the horses and their owners. Heather’s always had that girl/horsie thing going; I don’t spend too much time thinking about that.

In this particular fairground, the equestrian stadium is a modest oval track with a surrounding fence and a set of aluminum bleachers at one end — nothing more than you’d see at your average youth baseball field. The stables, a series of outward-facing paddocks with solid wooden gates about chest high, stand a couple hundred yards away, at a right angle to the bleachers.

So as we stand there, checking out the Persons of Hoof, a double-plus-ungood commotion arises from the overflow crowd standing around the bleachers. I take a step in that direction, and a hand grabs my arm — Heather, reminding me of Rule Number One in SAR, EMS, what have you: “scene safety,” making sure the problem that created your N patients doesn’t make you into patient number N+1, and thus worse than useless.

The crowd parts, and we can see a mare, trailing a sulky in the worst possible way — namely, not on its wheels but bouncing all the hell around — run around the far side of the bleachers. She caroms off a tree — I was sure the poor thing would go down then and there, all her limbs mangled, but fortunately no — then, pinball-like, bounces off another tree — this one finally stripping the ruined sulky from the harness — and takes off into the open.

Straight toward us.

We stand there for a moment, our back to the stable gate and with no place to go that seems any safer than where we are.

Now’s the point where I tell you What We Didn’t Know: the panicked horse was, in fact, running from her own sulky. Never having been cart-broken, she had nevertheless been harnessed by a young equestrian scheduled to compete in the sulky competition but whose regular horse was for some reason not able to compete. Attached to — chased by — a Horse Eating Thing that she couldn’t outrun, she went nuts. And now she was running for the safest place she knew in that fairground: her paddock.

Directly behind us.

The horse comes right at us; I dive right, Heather dives left. My direction was better. The mare pulls up just short of hitting the stable gate — if we’d just opened the damned thing we would have been fine, 20/20 hindsight — but not short of Heather, who she body blocks into the gate, and who dribbles a few times between solid wood and a half a ton of Frenchman’s sandwich before losing enough momentum to actually fall.

I’m looking at my wife through the horse’s stamping hooves, aching to get to her but physically unable, for about a second or so — it seemed a lot longer — before the horse runs off to my left. I close the 10 feet to Heather, drop to one knee, and as I begin the trauma assessment she says:

“What took you so long?”

I told her I’d come as fast as I could; but a better question would have been why I ducked right when she ducked left. There are thousands of little moments like that in a complex organism’s life, when it has no time to think a situation through and just acts first, thinks second. When it works out, we call it instinct; when it doesn’t, we call it Hate to Be You.

Of course, there’s a determinist school that says there is no choice: that every critter’s behavior is essentially the product of a vast equation that factors in all genetic predisposition and all life experience to create merely the illusion of free will. Heather tended left when I tended right because of a gigantic number of factors that forced us, in extremis, to do just that. A lot of neurobiologists, who are successfully dissecting surprisingly complex decisions into their neural components, are thinking that way these days.

Well, Martin Heisenberg [1] says their mamas wear Army boots — or the collegial, respectful, academic version thereof — in a thought-provoking essay in Nature that rescues free will, though maybe not exactly in a way completely agreeable to Judeo-Christian-Islamic belief.

Heisenberg’s argument is that chemical chaos and his dad’s indeterminacy principle between them more than rescue the concept. Randomly generated action has been seen in organisms a simple as fruit flies to bacteria; in Heisenberg’s own words:

“… my lab has demonstrated that fruit flies, in situations they have never encountered, can … solve problems that no individual fly in the evolutionary history of the species has solved before.”

His crew can even observe flies improvising, much as corvid birds and many other species do.

Ironically enough, while the idea poses problems for neurobiological determinism, it pretty much underlies behaviorist theory (my own beef with which being elsewhere, in the absolute behavioral flexibility inferred by the purest forms of that school of thought, which breaks down big time in the real world). The whole idea behind operant conditioning is that organisms solve problems by generating random behavior, and stick with those behaviors that elicit a reward. ’Course, their formulation isn’t exactly bullish on free will, either ...

Still, while Heisenberg argues persuasively that what we know about chemical randomness rescues the idea of free will, he makes the point that nothing in this formulation requires it to be conscious, which is not the usual way we think about it. But he also says an interesting thing that many religious thinkers may have missed [2]: consciousness can act upon free will, make the choice wiser, but there’s no requirement that the initial impetus behind the choice be conscious. To put it another way, which perhaps takes it farther than the author intended, maybe free will isn’t about the conscious choice: it’s about an urge to act that may not be in consonance with our standards of right and wrong. Maybe consciousness’ and morality’s roles have more to do with editing free will than creating it [3].

Of course, it’s interesting whether some of the theological arguments over free will might not only be recast in our current understanding of the biology, but also, paradoxically, grow in relevance somewhat. Whatever you think of the ultimate question of religious belief, the folks who did some of this thinking were nobody’s dummies, and understood the problems posed by the concept of free will in a predetermined universe.

Also interesting is the fact that the classic Roman Catholic formulation of free will reconciles it with the state of grace — God’s omniscience and sole ability to save souls pretty much meaning that the choices we make are pre-writ, and so how free can they be? — by positing a creator who exists outside time. So Catholics opted for an essentially relativistic basis for free will, while biologists may eventually push us toward quantum mechanics.

It turned out that in another article, in the previous week in Science — an otherwise good perspectives piece on human volition based on brain scans — Patrick Haggard says something nonsensical:

“Every day we make actions that seem to depend on our ‘free will’ rather than on any obvious external stimulus. This capacity not only differentiates humans from other animals, but also gives us the clear sense of controlling our bodies and lives.”

Not to pick on the guy, but how the hell does he know that humans have this faculty while animals don’t? The brain structures that the scans show produce the actions and conscious urges associated with free will — the motor cortex and parietal cortex, respectively — exist in animals as well as us. Who’s done that experiment?

It speaks to something that’s bugged me about scientific discussions of animal intelligence for a while: we seem to have exchanged a chauvinistic, unreflective anthropomorphic view of animals with a chauvinistic, unreflective Cartesian view [4].

Nor is what’s coming out of mathematical, physical, and biological research necessarily kind to the reductionist ideal that every organism — everything — is a linear product of its parts that can be understood by disassembling them and learning how they individually work. Too many systems, ranging from planetary dynamics to brain function to weather patterns, seem to proceed in a complicated, nonlinear way that makes them essentially unpredictable.

I don’t mean to pillory reductionism — it’s had a great run that will likely continue, and has given us some great stuff. But I do think it’s got its limitations — and understanding limitations in as dispassionate a way as possible is kind of the whole point of scientific investigation, no?

Heather, as it turned out, had chosen badly but not too badly — the horse, credit where it’s due, hadn’t stepped on her, and she was pretty scraped up but not really hurt. The horse people, initially wary that we might start screaming for a lawyer, were relieved and then intrigued by the way we shrugged the experience off. You get to a point where you dust yourself off, check for any serious injury, and if you don’t find one, say “I guess I won’t try that again,” and move on. Free will is like that.

I’ll close with a quote from Tolkien, one that I used to open my doctoral dissertation:

“… he that breaks a thing to find out what it is has left the path of wisdom.”

For my dissertation, it worked on so many levels.

Like anything else, the sentiment can be overdone. But it ain’t a bad thought for a sunny spring day, with the farm chores done, some time on your hands that you need to decide how to use, and not a runaway horse to be seen.

[1] His son.
[2] I could be wrong, I’m no theological scholar — anybody knows better, please chip in.
[3] Though, dang it, what of the choice of whether or not to give into the urge?
[4] Anthropomorphism is an modern urban/suburban thing, I think, and thus may be much newer than the 19th-century thinkers who scorned it realized. I think our ancestors were much smarter than us on this account. If you look at hunter-gatherers, pastoralists, or traditional farmers, they seem to have a handle on animal minds that recognizes them for what they are — animal minds, neither human minds in fur coats nor cog-and-wheel machines.


Heather Houlahan said...

1) Paddock? Stall, Hon. Exactly like the things in our barn, exact same name. If you had any currency with that "girl/horsie" thing at all, you'd get the terminology right. Those solid wooden chest-high gates are called stall doors. You own six of them.

And folks, doG help me if some schlub on the History Channel misidentifies a WWII bomber by one letter or garbles the name of some model of naval gun, because the rant will hang in the air over the cable box for weeks.

2) I absolutely knew she was running from the equiphagic sulky the moment I looked up. What else would it have been?

3) I ducked left because someone was standing to my right. Dear.

4) Anthropomorphism has some venerable roots. During the Middle Ages, quite a number of domestic animals stood trial for crimes -- murder, assault, bestiality -- and were executed -- maybe in some cases acquitted. And there's Saint Francis, getting the Wolf of Gubbio to sign legally binding contracts with the villagers.

I think humans have always had trouble -- to varying degrees, and in different ways -- with projecting their own motivations and cognition onto animals as well as one another.

And animals do it right back at us. Why be surprised that our species does what most other complex species seem to do?

One of the things that is icky about some modern anthropomorphisms is the version of "anthro" that simmers in the fevered minds of the projectors. They project vices that do not bear contemplation, and gooey "virtues" that are anything but. The nothingness that Behaviorists project terrifies me most of all.

5) "Not really hurt" except for the unibody sway that put my pelvis about 15 degrees off level, torqued my ribcage, and required the expertise of a most masterful chiropractor to rearrange. Though, granted, it could have been much worse, and the equine Quasimodo makeover was not immediately apparent.

Anonymous said...

Quantum mechanics in psychology. Whodda thunk it?

Kathy said...

Yup, horses always run for their stalls--that's why they often die in barn fires--it's really difficult to get them to leave. That's the safe place--even when it's on FIRE...

I guess we can forgive you, since you're from Hackensack.

As a veteran equestrian and graduate H-A Pony Clubber, I'm really glad you weren't hurt worse, Heather.

Anonymous said...

This is the first time I've read the blog in a while, so I had no idea that this had happened. Heather, I'm very sorry to hear about this, and very glad you're all right.