Skip to main content

Alzheimer's and Identity



An age seems to take a particular disease as a sort of emblem. One disease serves as greatest fear and most intensely over-used metaphor.

I think of consumption for much of the 19th century, polio for the early part of the 20th, AIDS for later in  the 20th. Now, perhaps ... Alzheimer's.

One point you may have gleaned from my short list is that the emblematic disease ceases to be emblematic when it becomes curable. It can't be a metaphysical bugaboo any longer once it begins the fade into a lesser status as a manageable health concern. Alzheimer's certainly qualifies on this account. 

It also qualifies by virtue of the way it attacks an individual's identity, taking it away piece by piece -- in a century that seems intent on attacking personal identity from all directions even without literal organic assistance.

It attacks our identity because as humans our identity is one with certain sorts of continuity within this stream of consciousness. Knowing your name, the names of your children, the name of the street on which you grew up, the core vocabulary of your native language: these aren't just data that you've happened to pick up. These are the continuities that make you, you. and all of that comes under attack.

This line of thought brings me back to some thoughts of the fellow for whom this blog is named, William James. In his essay on immortality, James observed how the fact that A is a function of B NEVER justifies the conclusion that B is "nothing but" A, or even that one of the two causes the other. He would say, I'm sure, that the fact that physical structures (in the brain or in a computer) store knowledge doesn't justify us in treating knowledge, including knowledge of this self-defining sort, as a physical fact.

He might ask us (in accord with his further examples of non-reductive functional relationships) to consider the light streaming through a window. The window is the medium through which the light reaches me. The cleanliness of the window has a functional relationship with the steam of light that does reach me. As the window becomes dirty, my life becomes dark. That is, indeed, a decent metaphor for the condition of an Alzheimer's patient: someone who relies on the light that gets through a window that can no longer clean itself. But the light does not equal the material fact, the window.

Just following my own stream of consciousness through a familiar stretch of bed there....

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

England as a Raft?

In a lecture delivered in 1880, William James asked rhetorically, "Would England ... be the drifting raft she is now in European affairs if a Frederic the Great had inherited her throne instead of a Victoria, and if Messrs Bentham, Mill, Cobden, and Bright had all been born in Prussia?"

Beneath that, in a collection of such lectures later published under James' direction, was placed the footnote, "The reader will remember when this was written."

The suggestion of the bit about Bentham, Mill, etc. is that the utilitarians as a school helped render England ineffective as a European power, a drifting raft.

The footnote was added in 1897. So either James is suggesting that the baleful influence of Bentham, Mill etc wore off in the meantime or that he had over-estimated it.

Let's unpack this a bit.  What was happening in the period before 1880 that made England seem a drifting raft in European affairs, to a friendly though foreign observer (to the older brother…

Cancer Breakthrough

Hopeful news in recent days about an old and dear desideratum: a cure for cancer. Or at least for a cancer, and a nasty one at that.

The news comes about because investors in GlaxoSmithKline are greedy for profits, and has already inspired a bit of deregulation to boot. 

The FDA has paved the road for a speedy review of a new BCMA drug for multiple myeloma, essentially cancer of the bone marrow. This means that the US govt has removed some of the hurdles that would otherwise (by decision of the same govt) face a company trying to proceed with these trials expeditiously. 

This has been done because the Phase I clinical trial results have been very promising. The report I've seen indicates that details of these results will be shared with the world on Dec. 11 at the annual meeting of the American Society of Hematology. 

The European Medicines Agency has also given priority treatment to the drug in question. 

GSK's website identifies the drug at issue as "GSK2857916," althou…

Francesco Orsi

I thought briefly that I had found a contemporary philosopher whose views on ethics and meta-ethics checked all four key boxes. An ally all down the line.

The four, as regular readers of this blog may remember, are: cognitivism, intuitionism, consequentialism, pluralism. These represent the views that, respectively: some ethical judgments constitute knowledge; one important source for this knowledge consists of quasi-sensory non-inferential primary recognitions ("intuitions"); the right is logically dependent upon the good; and there exists an irreducible plurality of good.

Francesco Orsi seemed to believe all of these propositions. Here's his website and a link to one relevant paper:

https://sites.google.com/site/francescoorsi1/

https://jhaponline.org/jhap/article/view/3

What was better: Orsi is a young man. Born in 1980. A damned child! Has no memories of the age of disco!

So I emailed him asking if I was right that he believed all of those things. His answer: three out of …