His Eyes Were Open But The Old Man Looked Dead

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Memoir  |  House: Booksie Classic
This is my last essay/memoir under the category of My Old Professor. It basically concerns my struggle with his teachings. Up next is the category of existential considerations, considerations that have helped me survive a rather risky lifestyle.

Submitted: July 26, 2009

A A A | A A A

Submitted: July 26, 2009




Spooky Deserted Farmhouse

July 4, ‘77



 After a couple hours more biking, I saw what looked to be an abandoned farmhouse setting back in a field. I felt there was little risk, so I got off my bike and hiked up to the house. Standing on the rickety front porch, I could see a room full of newspapers. Upon entering the half opened door, I found the papers stacked a couple feet high. They gave off an unpleasant odor, but the clouds had darkened, so I figured I could live with the smell. After going back for my bike, I made myself at home. I was feeling pretty good when, through the broken windowpane, I saw a car pull up and three people get out. They didn’t look like owners. They were young. I figured what the hell; getting kicked out of this place wasn’t the worst thing that could happen. The girl entered first, and upon seeing me sitting on a stack of newspapers, screamed. The situation was pretty awkward. I couldn’t speak French and they couldn’t speak English. As it turned out, I figured out that they were making a movie and were looking for a place to film. They were making a Dracula movie. In broken English the girl said, “A good place to film, no!” I replied, “Yes,” but what I was really thinking was “Go away before you blow my cover!” After they finally did leave, I waited to see if the farmer down the road was going to show up, but after thirty minutes, I began to feel more secure.


Actually, in another way, I began to feel less secure. The place really was spooky. It was definitely suited for a Dracula movie; it had multiple rooms and an eerie over all atmosphere. Also there were noises. Most of the squeaks and creeks came from the next room. When I went in to look for a cause, I found only a room with a metal bed frame in it. I have to admit, the place made me uncomfortable, but that wasn’t the worst of it. Bugs, the kind you couldn’t see, were biting me. I would have left, but outside the rain had finally started to come down. Instead, I climbed in my sleeping bag, and covered my head.


It was hot, and I had nightmares. In one of the nightmares, I woke up to find a light coming from behind the door in the other room. On my way to investigate I stumbled over a pile of newspapers. The door wouldn’t open until I forced it. Upon entering, I found myself standing in an immaculate room. In opposite corners were antique lamps giving off an ultra soft light. The light brought out the redwood floor’s rich tones. A canopy bed stood in the middle of the room. Lying in the bed was an old man who looked to be more than a hundred years old. We remained fixed in each other’s gaze until I looked away in fear. I wanted to run, but I couldn’t. And then came the voice: “If you have come for a visit you are welcome. Visitors are rare!” The voice sounded strangely familiar. Was this guy really my old college professor?


His eyes were open, but the old man looked dead; then came the voice again, “Well,” he said. I didn’t respond. I just stood there, silently looking into his eyes, watching his breathing become more labored with each passing moment. Finally, the silence was broken when he again said, “What are you doing here?”


I looked back at him hard. How could this be? My Professor wasn’t that old, but that was certainly his voice. “What are you doing here?” I shot back to him.


“Are you blind, I’m sleeping,” came the response.


“I mean, you’re not supposed to be here,” I said, “you’re supposed to be back in Michigan teaching classes.”


“Not anymore,” he replied. “That was a long time ago. If you have come for a visit, that’s okay. I don’t get visitors anymore.”


“Well, not exactly,” I said. “Actually I don’t know why I’m here. I mean, I don’t know if I’m really here, or why you’re here. I was hoping you could tell me. It’s all screwed up.”


“Get on with it,” he tersely replied, “You’re either here, or you’re not, which is it?”

His face began to contort. The last place I wanted to be was in front of an upset college professor and, as was common in dreams, at that moment I lost dream consciousness. The next thing I knew, the dream switched to a bar. I was drinking a beer, and into the empty barroom walked Dr. Gill. This time he was his right age—60 something. He came over to where I was sitting and asked, “Would you like some company?”


“Why not,” I replied. And then after he ordered two beers, one for both of us, he said, “Why did you get up and leave my lecture?”


I looked at him curiously, and then said, “I couldn’t take it anymore. I had to leave or scream. Which would you have preferred?”


“That’s what I figured,” he said. “Well, you’ve got my full attention now; so why did you get so upset? Was it the lecture? Sometimes I get carried away, you know.”


“No. When I left you weren’t even lecturing,” I said. “You were in the middle of one of your famous digressions. You went from ‘why mechanical principles don’t apply in social and psychological situations’ to describing a hike you once took in WashingtonState’s Olympic Mountains.”


“Oh yeah, I remember that,” he said. “I was talking about the natural beauty of the place, and how I loved to get away from it all by going there. But, why did that upset you?”


“There was more,” I said. “You were describing how impossible it was for a person to be sensitive in a selfish society. Where people cared only for themselves, where greed, killing, and war were the norm, where love and hypocrisy were inseparable, in a society like that you said, ‘hearts turn to stone.’ ‘In the darkest hours,’ you said, ‘thoughts of life turn into thoughts of death.’ After that I left.”

“I remember” came the reply, “but I didn’t mean to sound like we actually lived in that society. I was talking hypothetically.”


“It doesn’t matter,” I said. “You said it, and you meant it, every word of it, I could tell. I didn’t just get up and leave because of that. I left because most of the time you talked as if ‘right and wrong’ were inviolable absolutes, yet other times you would go on and on about how life was one big massive confusion. I can take only so much of that. Which is it anyway? Who exactly should I believe--the Pope or the pragmatist?”


 “It’s not as if a professor has to think for his class you know,” Dr. Gill responded, “It’s a professor’s job to make the class think. Some students like that method; it even excites them, while others do not. I always thought you were in independent thinking group?”


“I am,” I said, “that’s the problem. I totally disagree with you. When you start talking about how logical inferences will one day set humanity free, my stomach starts to churn. That’s bullshit. Logical calculations are what nuclear bombs are made of--not human kindness and compassion. The only reason I go to class is to see what disagreements will arise. In fact, you seem to encourage them. It blows my mind. I don’t know how you can go on teaching when the whole class doesn’t know what the hell you’re talking about. You’re an enigma! So, I say it again, which is it, the Pope or the pragmatist? There’s no time like the present. I really want to know. I need to know!”


“I doubt very much if behind Papal decrees you’ll find much deductive reasoning,” Dr. Gill responded.


“What’s the difference,” I said, “its all about ‘authority,’ isn’t it? Your paper scratching isn’t science. Astronomers predict events. What can you predict--headaches?”



Everybody Wants What’s Good Even If The Good For Them Is Distorted And Confused


Professor Gill’s Answer To My Question—Pope or Pragmatist

(Dr. Gill’s comments paraphrased from his 1971 article,

The Definition Of Freedom published in the journal Ethics)



“You’ve missed the point,” my old Professor said, “To my way of thinking, ‘knowing,’ even knowing about material objects, is less about the discovery than it is about the ‘doing.’ You have to look before you discover. Astronomers look to the sky because they ‘know where to look,’ and, what to look for. Science, like other forms of knowledge, is a value. Its what you do with it that counts. The formal sciences with their axiomatic deductive arrangements illustrate knowledge, but so to do other ordered and consistent conceptual schemes. Of course, there is always a direct relationship between knowledge and the social milieu that a person finds himself/herself in. But, the oh so important structure of that knowledge, the systematic ordered whole built by each person for himself, is what determines the intensity of the level of commitment to act responsibly. If you want to call that authority, go ahead. It doesn’t change a thing. Every decision we make is made in accordance with some existing rule or law. Every valid law or valid code of behavior connects with other valid laws. That’s what validity is—‘right thinking.’”


“If that’s true then what laws do bigots, crooks, and rapists follow?” “How much ‘theory’ is required before they—the criminals, excel?” I said.


“That’s my point,” replied Dr. Gill. “Everybody wants what’s good—even if the good for them is distorted and confused. Getting what you want comes at a price. ‘Knowing’ what you ought to want pays that price. That’s too high a price to pay for a lot of people. It requires hard choices, tough decisions, and intelligent plans of action. Rules must be followed, laws paid attention to. In our own personal worlds we obey the rules to which we owe allegiance; else it would be impossible to decide anything at all. But, far too often what we want is inconsistent with what we need. In fact, far too often what we want today is inconsistent with what we wanted yesterday, or will want tomorrow. There is an inescapable requirement between action and thought. Consequences exist if rules are not followed. Self-control is necessary if a responsible individual, or a society for that matter, can act as a unit, and be counted on not to break valid laws, or in the case of the rapist, not to commit acts of violence. I am neurotic as an individual, or we are corrupt as a society when we become fractured by conflicting obligations. Contradictory obligations or unreconciled legitimate demands break down an individual’s ability to function responsibly as a citizen. Each fragment of shattered personality appears to the rest of the personality as enemy, -- as death drive. Violence is slavery. Tyranny is a nation enslaved. If an individual is radically fractured, sanity becomes the issue. Self-contradictory behavior, obeying rules that say everything and nothing at all, is nothing less than insanity.”


“Okay. I’m confused. What exactly is a valid rule?” I said.


“Good question!” responded Dr. Gill. “In mathematics and logic, what is even more basic than the law of contradiction, is the requirement that any entity be equal to itself. Symbolically, that idea is expressed as A=A. To deny it involves absurdity. It is the simplest of all equations. Without it, science and mathematics would be impossible, and mind, as we know it, would cease! Heraclites was right! You can’t step into the same river twice. A=A does not exist in the empirical world, but in no way does that make it unimportant, or unreal.”


“What’s that supposed to mean?” I said.


“If you want me to answer your question, you’re going to have to let me finish my thought,” came the reply. “The key discoveries that made civilization possible were the taming of fire, the discovery of agriculture, and the idea of abstract identity. In fact, the backbone of civilization, self disciplined behavior, wouldn’t even be possible without the identification of the norms that permit and encourage self-disciplined behavior. Norms, at first, are selected on the basis of utility, but after that the norms themselves get selected in accordance with further norms until, on a fundamental level, the definition of a norm is acquired by use. At that level, norms function the same way primitive terms do in geometry. A line is defined as any continuous pathway through space. A straight line is defined as lying evenly with the points on itself. In the same way the activity that constitutes reciprocity-- the Golden Rule, categorical imperative, life-affirmation, reverence for life-- gets defined as a norm. The norm validates itself through its use-value and universal applicability.


 “But science,” I replied, “ultimately, is based on observation. I get to see, feel, hear, taste, or smell the results. No matter how conflated a theory, eventually, it touches base with reality. What you’re suggesting, it seems to me, is that imagination rules. All we have to do is agree to an ‘imagined first principle’ and that makes us ‘right,’ or am I missing something?”


“That’s not how mathematics works,” Dr. Gill replied. “In math ‘the elimination of contradiction’ is the overriding principle that keeps the mathematician on track. And besides you have to keep in mind that in the empirical world change is ubiquitous. Stepping in the same river twice is impossible—old water always gets replaced by new. Even Galileo downplayed the significance of the ‘real world.’ ‘We cannot understand the universe,’ he said, ‘unless we can understand the language it is written in.’ From primitive terms--from primitive norms--consistent arguments can be built. Consistency is to an argument what structure is to a bridge. In analytical thinking, symbols get repeated without change. In ethics, normative commands range into disparate areas of application without contradiction.


“In the empirical world points, lines, figures, and rules of inference do not exist. The North Pole does not exist in the empirical world, but it exists nevertheless. In nature’s world of constant flux, we use fixed concepts to describe change. Science is permitted because of the use of concepts like ridged motion, perfect circles, frictionless falls, and pure oxygen. Contradictions have pretty much been eliminated from the basic theories of mathematics and physics. That is most certainly a measure of their success. Whatever stands in a definite relation to an existing thing exists.


“Existence, in addition to being ‘out there,’ is ‘in here,’ too. When we discover what’s ‘out there;’ we also discover what’s ‘in here.’ Related to identity and perhaps derivable from it, is the rule of contradiction. Whatever does not agree with itself cannot exist. According to law, contradictory testimony is false. Logic, mathematics, and science rest on the principle that the absurd is impossible. Bertrand Russell made it very clear--from a contradiction, everything follows; in the midst of contradictions, talking sense is thrown right out the window. In other words, without ‘consistent fixed concepts’ there wouldn’t be an ‘in here’ to discover. Without an ‘in here,’ identity, self-control, independence, and personal liberty would be impossible. Judgments, scientific or otherwise, would be impossible.”


Truth Is Derivative-The “Ought” Is There In The Theory’s First Principles


Dream Concluded


“You’re beginning to sound like you’re back in the classroom,” I responded, “If I remember correctly, the problem back then was getting from the ‘is’ to the ‘ought.’ The ‘is’ can always be made to sound like it should be an ‘ought,’ but the problem has always been ‘how do we really know?’ Help me here! When does the ‘is’ become the ‘ought?’”


“That’s a problem,” said Dr. Gill, “a problem that’s gone unsolved for far too long. Many attempts have been make to get from the ‘is’ to the ‘ought,’ but every attempt has ended in failure. The reason is that it can’t be done. The relationship moves in the other direction. You can’t go from the ‘is’ to the ‘ought,’ but you can go from the ‘ought’ to the ‘is.’ Implications always follow from valid conceptual schemes (operationally defined concepts structured according to established rules). These implications, when extended, produce necessary and self-consistent results. In other words, first you set up the rules that you are going to use. Then, by experiment, or by reasoning, you explore the logical implications of those rules. Truth is derivative. In the use of the scientific method, it is not unusual for the ‘ought,’ the implications of a theory, to turn into the ‘is,’ the scientifically confirmed results of the theory. In ethical theory it should be the same way. The ‘ought’ is there, in the theory’s first principles. Turning the ‘ought’ into the ‘is,’ however, will always take work.


“When the self-contradictory is used to keep a person honest, self-consistent behavior follows naturally, like water running downstream. Mark my words; the day is coming when arbitrary ethical decisions will be no more. Just like in mathematics where it is impossible to both be consistent and not follow the rules of consistency, so too future ethical decisions will both inform and lead. Make no mistake about it; the men who braved the unchartered territory in mathematics on their way to discovering the tools underlying the scientific revolution—differentials, sets, groups, and topological spaces, were all courageous individuals. When you are moved to do otherwise, ‘doing what’s right’ is always hard. However, it becomes a whole lot easier when reason, conviction, and consistency are there to back you up. Upon his return from performing the experiment that confirmed Einstein’s General Relativity predictions, Sir Author Eddington greeted Albert Einstein and was surprised to find him unmoved by the news of the successful experiment. When he asked, ‘Why so unconcerned?’ Einstein replied, ‘Measurements sometimes lie, numbers do not.’ A sensitive human being winces at the ‘global norms’ presented on the nightly news, but I believe putting an end to ethical disputes will one day be greeted with Einstein-like self-assurance. On that day ‘wrong headedness’ will turn into ‘right action.’ On that day there will be jubilation in the streets. And, on that day, you will no longer feel compelled to run away from my lectures.”


As a thunder boom shook me awake, I found myself in a cold sweat. I picked up my sleeping bag and went out on the porch. It wasn’t raining, and I was scared to fall back to sleep. I felt a lot better out in the fresh air and after watching the bats fly above my head for a while, I finally dozed off, but shortly after I woke up with rain in my face. I went back inside and somehow salvaged a couple hours of sleep. At first light, I was out of there!







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