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Common Ground

In formal logic, a premise is a plank of an argument. If your premises are true and the form of your argument is valid, then your argument is sound.

1. All men are mortal.
2. Socrates is a man.
3. Therefore, Socrates is mortal.

If you’re trying to persuade someone of your conclusion (“Socrates is mortal”), you’re not going to get anywhere if they don’t already agree with your premises (“All men are mortal” and “Socrates is a man”). The premises are the common ground on which you can meet your opponent and find what you can agree on.

If you can’t find any common ground– that is, agree on the premises– then you might as well not bother arguing. If you can find the common ground, then you have hope that your opponent will go along with you to your conclusion. Opting to shout across a chasm instead is a pastime that many people find satisfying for reasons that can be discussed elsewhere, but this is the real substance of argument.

Forward Thinking: What Would You Tell Teenagers About Sex?

Libby Anne and Dan Finke at Patheos have started a project called Forward Thinking, which is a series of questions they put to bloggers to encourage them to think productively. The replies to these questions are then rounded up and a new prompt posted. This will be my first crack at it. 

Congratulations, teenager! You are the recipient of a rapidly and perhaps scarily developing sexuality. By “sexuality,” I am of course referring to the parts of you which are growing and in some cases becoming hairier at a rate which is almost certainly not to your satisfaction in one way or another, but also to the feelings you have about those parts and what you’d like to do with them, either by yourself or with friends. I’m referring to the changes in the way you carry yourself, the way you dress to either show off or hide (or frequently both) your body, and the way your relationships with pretty much everyone you know are changing in mutual recognition of all this. It’s a lot to take in, I know– “fraught” would not be too strong a word for it. But you’ll get through this.

I want to talk a little bit about how to do so, while being a good person– what you could call sexual ethics. There are two aspects of that which I’m going to cover:

  • Taking care of yourself
  • Taking care of others

Yep, that’s it. That’s what sexual ethics is. You might think it’s a no-brainer, but it isn’t to a lot of people…and I’m going to try and explain that too.

First, let’s talk about taking care of yourself.

You need to do this both mentally and physically, and oftentimes they will amount to the same thing.

For example, masturbation. It’s something you should do– you know, if you want to. It feels good, it’s sanity-preserving, and most importantly for teenagers, it give you an opportunity to get to know your body better and achieve some sexual satisfaction without engaging in intercourse with another person. It is not wrong and never in your life will it become wrong. It can only be inappropriate, such as if you don’t take proper care to preserve your privacy while masturbating, or count as poor behavior toward your sexual partners later on if you decide that masturbating is more important than interacting with them. But generally speaking, masturbation is simply treating yourself to an orgasm without having sex. If you’re a virgin, you remain one after masturbating– but you have become more educated about what pleases you sexually, which means that when/if you do eventually have sex with someone else, you will be better equipped to know how they can please you. That’s taking care of yourself.

When you’re ready to actually have sex with someone– or rather if you are, since some people never want to have sex with someone, and live out their lives quite happily that way– taking care of yourself means making some demands of that person. No, not literally (unless you and your partner(s) are into that sort of thing). But there are certain things you’ll need to insist on, for your own well-being. The first and foremost being contraception. Contraception is not magical— it is a real thing that really prevents you from creating a pregnancy and, in certain forms, prevents you from catching or transmitting a sexually transmitted disease, when you use it correctly. The pregnancy thing is something you will be concerned about for most of your life– certainly now– and the disease thing is something you’ll be concerned about forever. So don’t let the embarrassment of talking about sex prevent you from taking care of yourself– this stuff is important. Using contraception doesn’t make you paranoid, judgmental, slutty, or a killjoy– it makes you smart. Don’t have sex with people who are not smart, or who don’t respect your desire to be. They are the judgmental killjoys, not you.

The other demand you need to be willing to make of your partners is that they listen to you, and don’t do things you’re not comfortable with. Because guess what? Sex is a relationship, and relationships have to be conducted according to the terms of the people involved in them. What you want matters, and you have veto power– always. You don’t get to force your partners to do things, but you can refuse to do things. Get comfortable with this power, so that you can use it without hesitation if the need comes up. Agreeing to hold hands with someone (yeah, I’m going back to the basics) doesn’t mean you agree to kiss them. Agreeing to kiss someone doesn’t mean you agree to have them touch your body. Agreeing to have them touch your body doesn’t mean agreeing to have your clothes taken off. And so on down the line. You can agree to these things, sure, but it’s not assumed. You always have the right to stop. Always. That’s you taking care of yourself.

Now let’s talk about taking care of others.

The best way you can take care of others is by remembering that it’s not all about you. Sex is not about getting what you want and forget everybody else. Other people and their sexual desires matter just as much as yours– they are not simply targets and obstacles in the way of targets. So forget about treating people like crap if they won’t sleep with you, or talking crap about other people because of who they sleep with or want to sleep with. Sexual competition– people wanting to sleep with the same people that other people do– exists. It’s a thing, and it’s nobody’s fault. If you get mad at some other girl for attracting the guy you like, you’re saying he doesn’t have the right to make his own choices. But he does, doesn’t he? Just like you do. So maybe you’re upset, and that’s fine– it’s upsetting to not get what you want. But you can’t require that the people you like have to like you back. That’s not fair to them, and just because you want something to be true doesn’t make it true. So take a deep breath, listen to some good music, and move on. That upsetness you’re feeling is called jealousy, and it’s understandable and natural but it can make people do some terrible things if they can’t deal with it. Don’t be one of those people.

Following in the line if “it’s not all about you,” you can take care of others by respecting their decisions. They’re allowed to like what and who they want to like. They’re allowed to sleep with who they want to sleep with, provided that person is agreeable, of course, and– here’s the most important thing– nobody is obligated to sleep with you. Ever. There is nothing you can do or say that makes a person owe you sex, and nothing they can do or say. There’s this term called “enthusiastic consent,” and what it means is that a potential sex partner should be just as into the idea of having sex with you as you are about having sex with them. If they’re not, something is wrong and you should stop. Does it suck to stop when you don’t want to? Yes, but it’s better than being the kind of person who tries to have sex with someone who doesn’t want it, or isn’t even conscious enough to express clearly (in words or in actions) that he or she wants it. Consent is agreeing to do something. If someone isn’t clearly agreeing or isn’t capable of agreeing and you go ahead anyway, that’s sexual assault or rape. Now you know. Do not forget.

You may have noticed that in all of this talk about how to be ethical sexually, I’ve said nothing about the wrong people to have sex with, or the wrong kind of sex to have with them. With one very important exception that I’ve stressed in different ways: the type of people to have sex with are those who are capable of consenting to have sex with you, and have done so. The kind of sex to have with them is the enthusiastically consenting kind. Beyond that, I haven’t said “Having sex with this sort of person is bad,” “Having sex with this many people is bad,” “Having sex at this point in your life is bad” (assuming, of course, that you’re a consenting adult yourself) or “Having this kind of sex is bad.”

And I’m not going to.

Because those statements do not fall within the bounds of taking care of yourself and taking care of others. Those statements, for that matter, often amount to the very opposite of taking care of yourself and others. They’re used to harm people who aren’t harming anyone themselves, and that is (you guessed it) bad.

To illustrate this, I’ll tell you a little about what was going on when I was a teenager and going through my own internal struggles about sex and sexuality. I went to high school in the mid-90’s. During that time the movies I saw included Philadelphia, Reality Bites, Threesome, and Jeffrey. You may not have seen all or even any of these movies, but here’s something they all have in common– they all feature at least one gay character. In every case it’s a man, and in two cases there’s a gay male character with AIDS. Because the mid-80’s was when the AIDS scare hit if you were paying attention, and the mid-90’s was when it hit if you weren’t. And I wasn’t– not until high school, anyway, when sex and sexuality really started mattering to me.

The third season of The Real World, back when reality shows were still something of a novelty, included a gay housemate called Pedro Zamora who was living with AIDS. As entertainment editor of the school newspaper I wrote about this, as well as another article on the experience of coming out as a gay high school student (which got me branded as a dyke by anonymous sources). I knew several gay fellow students, some out and some closeted, and dated one of them (you’re awesome, Jeremy). We founded a gay-straight alliance club at our school. I volunteered for the Red Cross as part of the National Honor Society program and my job was to go to local middle schools and give presentations on sexually transmitted diseases and how to avoid them. We attended seminars on AIDS and met people living with it– gay men. A theater geek, I spent my summers working at Music Theater of Wichita, where the majority of my friends were gay men (and one lesbian). I got to know what they were like and what their relationships were like. And what they were like is: normal.

I’m telling you all of this because these are people who, it was being declared all over the place then and still sometimes is today, have been punished by God with a horrible disease for having the wrong kind of sex, with the wrong people.

Fuck that.

If God or the universe punished people for having the wrong kind of sex, with the wrong kind of people, do you know who would have AIDS? Rapists. Child molesters. And nobody else.

Actually that’s not true since AIDS doesn’t just affect the person who has it but also anyone that person has sexual intercourse with, which could include any future victims of a rapist or child molester. But you get my point– if God or the universe care what kind of sex you have, and with which kind of people, they clearly do not express it in any clear and unambiguous way in terms of physical afflictions. So don’t look to natural consequences to tell you what is moral or immoral sexually. Good people also experience STDs, unplanned pregnancies, and other sexual misfortunes. Those fall under the category of precautions you should take to take care of yourself; not judgments from above for doing something wrong.

Single question pop quiz:

Which of the following stops an STD transmission or the creation of an unplanned pregnancy?
a) being married
b) being straight
c) being a guy
c) having sex with only one person, or a small number of people
e) a condom

If you answered “e,” then you have grasped the relevant point of this section (and you’re also correct). Let me explain the answers a bit more:

  • Being married. A marriage is a contractual agreement between two people– usually opposite sex, but sometimes not– who have decided that they want to be together for the foreseeable future, usually with at least the pretense of being monogamous. However oftentimes they are not completely monogamous, and sometimes they’re even deliberately not monogamous. The vast majority of Americans will have sex before getting married, which statistically speaking includes you. Some of you, of course, will not ever get married. That being the case, marriage– while a wonderful thing for many people– cannot be counted upon as a reliable way to avoid diseases and unplanned pregnancies. Especially unplanned pregnancies. 
  • Being straight. AIDS became known as a “gay disease” because it’s more easily transmissible via anal sex, and anal sex– it was and still is often assumed– is how the gays do it. But here’s a little secret for you: straight people have anal sex too, and plenty of gay people don’t! Yes, lesbians, but a lot of gay men aren’t into it either. Lesbians, for that matter, have the lowest rates of STD transmission of any sexually active group. And when it comes to avoiding unplanned pregnancies, gay sex is unquestionably a better method. 
  • Being a guy. I don’t actually think that anyone believes being a guy is, in itself, a way to avoid STDs or unplanned pregnancies. But there’s no shortage of people who act like neither one is or should be a concern for guys, because after all they’re not the one who gets pregnant. And if someone is going to be suspected of being infected with STDs based on their sexual behavior, it will invariably be a girl. More on this in the next point.
  • Having sex with only one person, or a small number of people. Promiscuity is far and away the factor most people assume to be the cause of STD transmission or unplanned pregnancy, but strangely the already strong assumption of this becomes even stronger when we’re talking about a girl. It’s as if we manage to forget that transmission of an STD requires two people, two straight people if we’re talking about an unplanned pregnancy. The next time you hear someone characterize prostitutes or promiscuous women as disease-ridden, think about this. Who did they get these presumed diseases from? In any case, the real determining factor is not the number of partners, but whether contraception is used and used correctly. A person who has sex with multiple partners but does so safely is taking care of him/herself better than someone who has sex with one person without contraception. (If you’re interested in learning more about STD transmission in prostitutes– more accurately, the lack thereof– who use contraception, check out Alexa Albert’s excellent book Brothel: Mustang Ranch and Its Women). 
  • A condom. At this point, I think this is self-explanatory.

A condom has tremendous advantages. They’re (comparatively) inexpensive and can prevent both STDs and  pregnancy, and don’t require a prescription. However, condoms can break. They’re expensive given that you need to open and use a new one each time you have sex, and some people manage to use them incorrectly. So my recommendation would be: use backup. If you’re a girl, there are several options– the pill is most popular, but you might investigate Norplant, NuvaRing, and IUDs as well. See a gynecologist. Make this your priority if you’re even thinking you might have sex sometime soon. And when you talk to him/her, don’t be afraid or embarrassed– his/her job is to make sure you’re healthy, to help you take care of yourself. There should be no judgment involved, and if there is, find another doctor.

There are important things this post hasn’t covered: Alternative sexuality. Abortion. Slut-shaming generally. How to talk to your parents about all of this, and what they expect (and why). But hopefully I’ve gotten across the main point I was trying to address, which is that the morality of sexuality is not really about what people often pretend it’s about. Ultimately, what matters is the consequences of the decisions you make for yourself, and for others. In all of the judging, there’s a stunning lack of taking care going on out there. And that’s not only also important; it’s most important.

So please….take care.

Aping morality: non-human (secular) humanists?

Whenever I’ve been involved in a discussion of the evolution of morality, the English language trips things up a bit. Due to the fact that “morality” could mean “being good” or “the capacity and tendency to distinguish right from wrong,” it’s always important to note which, specifically, you’re talking about. Generally speaking, it would seem that the latter entails the former– if you have an idea of what it means to be good, then you can probably be good. We all have our failings and occasionally fail to live up to our own standards of morality. But when asked what it means to be a good person, we usually give a description that most human beings could live up to, if they put their minds and consciences to it. By contrast, if a being doesn’t distinguish right from wrong, we generally don’t hold him or her responsible for doing things that would normally be considered wrong. I touched on this last week when talking about what agency means in terms of moral responsibility. An entity with a concept of right and wrong has the capacity to behave morally– this concept is sometimes called a moral sense. Having a moral sense is not the same as being moral, any more than having a car is the same as driving.

Are we good so far? Not moral, I mean, but clear? Okay.

Whether non-human animals can have a moral sense, and to what extent, is a very hot topic. It calls into question our own capacity to make these determinations, where that capacity comes from, and how we can recognize it. Maybe other animals have a moral sense, but it’s so different from ours that we wouldn’t know it if we saw it! Maybe other animals make judgments about all kinds of things that humans just don’t care about. Humans certainly don’t share all of our moral views about things– moral standards can vary significantly from culture to culture and from individual to individual– but most of us have both an extensive repertoire of ways to express moral approbation or disapprobation and an adeptness for registering when others approve or disapprove of something. We’re excellent communicators, both vocally and non-vocally. We’re actually so good at communicating that we sometimes betray feelings we’d rather not. I’m particularly bad at lying about or otherwise misrepresenting how I feel about something, which is why my career as a professional poker player ended before it began.

Our means of registering how other people feel without their telling us, or even in spite of their telling us something to the contrary, is called empathy. It’s what enables us to “read minds”– not via literal ESP, but by  interpreting patterns of behavior and comparing the situation others are in to our own past experiences, and extrapolating from that how they must feel, what they must be thinking. The simplest form of empathy is emotional contagion– imagine a nursery in which one baby starts crying, and the sound sets off others as well. This form of empathy is reflexive, which means there’s no point at which you actually think “This person must be feeling/thinking ______.” There’s a scene in the movie Clue where Mrs. White describes how her husband was murdered: “His head had been cut off, and so had his…you know.” Cut to three men listening while sitting on the couch, all simultaneously crossing their legs at the knee.

With reflexive empathy, you are effectively projecting yourself into another person’s body and situation and feeling what you imagine they feel, whether you want to or not. This is generally referred to as sympathy or a sympathetic reaction, and it’s very effective in terms of getting us to care about the welfare of others. It’s the reason that witnessing suffering bothers us, and it inspires us to help those who are suffering and be angry with those who cause it. If the person who is suffering is familiar to us or similar to us, our sympathetic reaction to their suffering is both more likely and stronger when it happens. If you want to prevent someone having a sympathetic reaction to another’s suffering, a good way to go about doing it– after attempting to disguise the fact that there’s someone suffering at all– would be to make the person suffering seem as unfamiliar and/or dissimilar as possible, so that it’s harder to relate to them.

Hume characterized empathy as the origin of morality. That is, he said, how we become moral– we are moved by the pain of others because we associate them with ourselves, and from this we extrapolate general dispositions about how others should be treated. We derive a moral sense.

So if other animals have empathy, does that mean they have a moral sense?

I think the answer from Frans deWaal is “yes” and “yes.” That is, yes he believes that some non-human apes have the capacity for empathy, and that this constitutes a capacity to form moral judgments. That’s what I expect him to argue in the new book he has coming out, The Bonobo and the Atheist.

A primatologist– and one you should read, if for some reason you haven’t already– deWaal has decades of experience observing the behavior of captive chimpanzees and bonobos, and has written copious books and articles on the topic, especially the ways in which that behavior is similar to our own. And then he began writing books and articles defending his emphasis on the ways in which their behavior resembles our own. The charge, as you might expect, was anthropocentrism– an insistence on incorrectly interpreting things (in this case, non-human primate behavior) in terms of human thoughts and behavior. To this, deWaal responded by accusing his accusers of “anthropodenial”– an insistence on refusing to interpret things in terms of human thoughts and behavior, even when it’s correct (accurate) to do so. You can see this exchange take place explicitly in Primates and Philosophers: How Morality Evolved, where deWaal argues basically that chimpanzees and bonobos have the ability to empathize and therefore at least a precursor to a moral sense, which can be recognized in their behavior by its similarity to human empathy– and there’s nothing hasty or unparsimonious (i.e., inaccurate) about  it.

That’s not what this post is about, though. Nor is it, really, about the general topic of morality in non-human primates or other non-human animals. It’s really about the fact that The Bonobo and the Atheist will be deWaal’s first book addressing religion specifically, and what I’m afraid he’ll say about it. See, his books to date have (largely) been about the possibility and extent of a moral capacity in the great apes, non-human primates, particularly chimpanzees and bonobos. Now my concern is that he’s going to use this body of data to argue that we– human beings– don’t need morality to come from God, because we’ve evolved it. That our closest living primate relatives are, in effect, secular humanists (or at least capable of being such), and therefore we humans might as well be, too.

This position– if indeed that’s what deWaal argues, and I don’t know if it will be– doesn’t bother me because it’s false. It bothers me because it’s beside the point.

Let me back up.

If Great Apes-Who-Are-Not-Humans (that would include chimpanzees and bonobos, but also gorillas and orangutans) do indeed have the capacity for empathy, then I would say that “precursor to morality” is a fair description for it. It would seem, on the face of it, that if nonhuman primates  have the capacity for empathy, then it is indeed evolved. I expect deWaal to argue this– he has before. (However, this isn’t necessarily the case. It could be, for example, that the great apes have evolved to have the kind of brains which make it possible for us have an empathetic response, but not be “wired” for empathy per se. To continue the clumsy analogy I began with, this would be like saying that just because you have a car, doesn’t mean you have a drive-to-the-store device. You have a device which you can drive to places, including the store if you so desire. This distinction goes to the heart of the “general learning device” vs. “kludge” discussion of how our brains have evolved, which I do not have any desire to get further into here.)

But even if other Great Apes have the capacity for empathy and hence morality, that is not a good point of evidence with which to oppose a theological insistence that morality must come from belief in God. That’s why I think, if this is the arrow deWaal will be firing, it will miss the target. Because we don’t need to have evolved morality (that is, to have inherited a moral sense) in order to have it– both the capacity to be moral, and the tendency to exercise it. Clearly, however we came by these things, we have them. And they are universal, and they do not require belief in a deity.

Now you may ask, why does this matter? Shouldn’t demonstrating that we have evolved a moral sense answer that question just as well, if not better? I say no, for a few reasons. First, because a lot of the people who believe that if your morality doesn’t come from God you don’t have morality at all, don’t believe in evolution. They very likely don’t have a good grip on what evolution is. And plenty of people– theist and atheist alike– who do know what evolution is, and are fully onboard with it, nevertheless have a distaste for evolutionary psychology or anything that smacks of it. And even those who don’t have such a distaste at all but have a dedication to scientific rigor (which all of us should, presumably) will need to be convinced. And I’m saying this convincing is important– very much so– but also beside the point.

You don’t need to demonstrate that morality is evolved in order to show that it doesn’t need to come from God, or at least a belief in God. The reality of nonbelievers being moral now, and the immoral behavior of not only believers but by believers in the name of the deity who is supposedly the origin of morality (not just the capacity to be good, but Good itself), accomplishes that.

I think of this every time I see, for example, someone claiming that those who oppose him or her politically are opposing morality itself. As if there’s a monopoly on morality: it only comes in one brand, and anyone who doesn’t have that brand doesn’t have morality at all. No knock-offs, even. Fellow nonbelievers– you’re not the only ones who, it’s being maintained, are not just insufficiently moral but incapable of acknowledging morality itself because your concept of it is somewhat different from that of the person making the accusation. Often that person will pretend that members of the morally bereft group he/she is describing are nonbelievers, because no “true” believer would support the right to an abortion/separation of church and state/feminism/sex before marriage/ending school-sanctioned prayer/supporting the teaching of evolution/ending the War on Drugs/ending war, period etc. But realistically speaking, there are nowhere near enough nonbelievers to accomplish any of these goals. And yet there is ample support for them. Hmmm.

So…yeah. Perhaps I’m flailing at windmills, and in fact deWaal’s book will not go anywhere near making the we-evolved-morality-therefore-we-don’t-need-God argument. But since this argument exists, and is actually relatively common to see whenever a believer challenges a nonbeliever regarding where he/she finds his/her foundation of morality on the basis that if God does not exist we should all be out murdering, raping, stealing, etc., I think it’s worth discussing why this approach is not actually the best one.

The best one is far simpler: There are loads– loads– of moral standards which are not based on divine mandate. Many of them were endorsed by Greek philosophers before Jesus ever set foot in Bethlehem. It’s not possible to show that morality didn’t come from God, because God’s existence itself is non-falsifiable. Fine. But it’s easy to evaluate whether the morality that is claimed to come from God, is in fact, moral or not. This will very likely get a person accused of “judging God” (and who has a right to do that?), but since the person making these proclamations is invariably not God, but a man…well. It carries just as much weight as anything else said by man.

I’m really looking forward to deWaal’s book, despite my misgivings stated here– and hey, for all I know, they might be totally off-base. I hope so. And if you aren’t familiar with his books, go get Chimpanzee Politics when you can. Everybody should read that one, and will likely enjoy it.


Prior relevant writing: Is Darwin Responsible for the Chimp Attack?

Secret Agent Woman

Jennifer Shewmaker, a psychology professor at Abilene Christian University, has a blog post blaming the Steubenville rape case in part on objectification of women. You should go read it, but first read about the Steubenville matter if you haven’t already. I have some theories about what would possess teenagers to create videos of themselves mocking a fellow student for getting repeatedly sexually assaulted at a party and then post the videos online, but they’re half-baked. And right now I want to talk about the aspect Shewmaker focuses on.

First, I agree that objectification does contribute to this, but a “me too” isn’t good enough here. “Objectification” has become to pat a word, too cliche. It’s not wrong, but it’s so commonly used that I think the meaning has been largely sucked out of it and people’s eyes tend to glaze over when they see it. And I say this having written about objectification and the problems with it multiple times before, each time cringing a little internally while thinking about how the word, a very important word, has become a slogan.

So let’s focus instead on the opposite of sexual objectification– sexual agency. Or just, you know, agency to start.

An agent is a being with a will, desires, motivations, and responsibility. An agent does things for reasons, and can be blamed or praised when those things are wrong or right, respectively. In order to be a fully realized agent, you need to be capable, adult, mature.

An agent, when it comes to legality, is someone who can be party to a contract. We do not hold a person to a contract if important information was withheld from him or her in the contract’s arrangement (that would be fraud), or if the person him/herself was for some reason not mentally competent to enter into such an agreement, because these are factors that diminish agency. They make a person less capable of making an informed, responsible decision. And it’s wrong to deceive people into doing things against their best interest (that’s taking advantage of them), and it’s wrong to blame people for behavior that either wasn’t immoral or over which they had little or no control, or both.

When a child or someone with a severe mental disability does something bad, we temper our judgment according to their diminished agency. When an animal does something bad, we blame it scarcely at all. Children, the mentally disabled, and animals are placed in the care of rational, caring adults, fully-realized agents, who make decisions for them. Even though they are not fully-realized agents– especially because of this– we consider it wrong to abuse them. Though they are not moral agents, they are moral patients– beings we should treat morally, even though they may not be able to treat us in that same manner.

There are men who think that women are like children, the mentally disabled, or animals in this regard. No, they probably don’t think in terms of moral agents and moral patients, but to them the only people who can be fully responsible, mature actors are adult men. To this sort of person, sexually assaulting a woman is wrong– but primarily because it goes against the interests of whatever man is in charge of her, her husband or her father. A woman’s sexual “purity” (scare quotes here because having sex is not like dropping a bit of black paint into a can of white, or a fly into a pitcher of milk) is a commodity, the strength of which determines her value to these men. In that regard she hovers somewhere between child/mentally disabled person and animal, because children/the mentally disabled aren’t expected to provide a service, whereas animals often are. It would be more accurate to say, actually, that they are used for something– dogs for hunting or sniffing out drugs, horses for pulling carts, various livestock for eating, and so on. Women are used, to this mindset, for sex and baby-making. If they can no longer be used for these functions or nobody wants to use them for these functions, they are irrelevant. As Tina Fey said, “crazy” is a woman who keeps talking when nobody wants to fuck her.

To this mindset, rape is only as wrong as theft– and it’s theft not at her expense, but at the expense of another man. If no man is in charge of a woman, or if she’s been “used” too much, then….eh. If you take someone’s dog and beat it with a stick, you’re in serious trouble. If you take a stray dog and do the same thing, not nearly as big a deal.

A study performed earlier this year indicated that people, male and female, literally see women as more like objects and men as more like people. Of the images that Shewmaker used to accompany her blog post on objectification of women, the worst one to me is an ad depicting a woman in her underwear lying on a bed, with a Playstation controller lying nearby, its cord leading directly into her belly button. With this, you can control the woman, haha. The caption reads “Keep on dreaming of a better world.” Of all depictions of woman-as-sexbot in media– and there are so many the idea is well past cliche at this point– that’s certainly one of the clunkiest. Congratulations, Che Men’s Magazine– you’re even lousy at sexism!

But even so, even in spite of these, I find it easier to focus not on how women are turned into objects, but how they’re denied having agency. It seems more accessible to take what a man is generally considered to be, and then examine what is subtracted for a woman (“How do you write women so well?” “I think of a man, and I take away reason and accountability”). And then look at the ramifications.

There are people, and then there are women. 
There are two kinds of people: men and women.
There are people, and amongst them are men and women.

Yes, that’s better.

I am not a cockroach– what materialism is, and isn’t

Several years ago, I bounded out of a faculty building on a university campus and, in a thoughtful and optimistic mood, joined a couple of lecturers in the pub across the street. After we’d settled on benches in the garden out back, I mentioned that in the course of my studies, I seemed to be becoming a materialist. The reaction was immediate and memorable: “A Marxist, you mean?”

Not memorable, mind you, because unusual or unexpected. I had, after all, been studying political philosophy that semester, and this was the United Kingdom– and my interlocutors were British and Austrian, respectively. What else could I possibly mean? After all, Marx was a continuation of a long line of becoming more and more about…well, the material. German philosophy in the 19th and 20th centuries has in large part been about coming down from the ideological rafters and starting to deal with mundane, real, ordinary life. Realism in reaction to idealism. Imagine that scene from Mary Poppins in which they visited a friend of hers stuck on the ceiling because he laughed so much, and eventually everyone started laughing along and floated up there with him, while Mary stood on the floor beneath them impatiently waiting for them to come down. Those people floating around, drinking tea? Hegelians. Mary Poppins on the floor (at least, at that specific moment)? Young Hegelians, which sounds like progeny but is actually more reactionary. Estranged progeny. Marx was one of them. He was impatient with philosophers pretending that philosophy could be about things that don’t really matter– or to be more charitable, things that don’t really matter in daily, practical existence, such as making a living and feeding yourself and your kids. While Hegel waxed on about the für sich (for itself) and the an sich (for us), Marx took from that a lesson to figure out what it means to exist for yourself as opposed to for someone else, and translated it into a matter of property, and who is control of property. That’s Marxist materialism.

That was not really what I meant. But it’s connected.

What I meant was that, in the course of studying religion and culture, I for some reason got it into my head that I ought to learn more about the mind and how it produces…well, anything, including culture, to begin with. And with that thought, in rapid succession I read a long list of books which included the following:

  • Consilience, by E.O. Wilson
  • Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, by Daniel Dennett
  • The Blank Slate, by Steven Pinker
  • How the Mind Works, by Steven Pinker
  • Consciousness: An Introduction, by Susan Blackmore (if you have not read this, and are interested in the science and philosophy of consciousness and the theories of principle thinkers on such…do)
  • The Meme Machine, by Susan Blackmore
  • Consciousness Explained, by Daniel Dennett
  • Freedom Evolves, by Daniel Dennett
(This was pre-Breaking the Spell. This was pre-, for that matter, a lot of the popular literature on the cognitive science of religion, which became a thing in 1993 but didn’t really catch fire until about ten years later)

When you think about that, it’s really no wonder my MA thesis was a mess. It was a struggle between social constructivism– “continental philosophy”– as I was being taught, and a much more…well, naturey approach which I’d undergone basically on my own. Now, I hasten to pull up a bit here and note that the constructivist perspectives I was hearing about in the classroom (“post modernist” would be the indelicate term) were not useless. Far from it. I learned how important perspective is– that it must always be taken into account, and that manifold factors shape one’s perspective without any requirement of awareness or acknowledgement on the part of the speaker. I learned what it means to have privilege, and to lack it, and that claims of objectivity must never be taken for granted. That differences are as important as generalities. That it’s important, critical, to understand where people with other views are coming from– but that you don’t “win” against them by knowing it; you can’t psychoanalyze someone into submission. Anthropology, sociology, psychology…studies of human thought and behavior can’t begin and end with what people say about their own motivations for doing things. You need a heterophenomenological approach, which acknowledges that experience but doesn’t take it as authoritative. And knowing someone’s motivation may not confirm or refute what he or she is saying, but it can tell you a hell of a lot about why they’re saying it.

Knowing all of this augmented, rather than detracted from, my understanding that we are simply organisms making our way in the world, in our environment (both natural and social). I started to see culture as more of an extended phenotype than an independent causal force. My thesis was, in retrospect, a rather weak project and a terribly ambitious one at the same time– I was trying to sell cognitive science to scholars of religion. Make what seemed obvious to me– that you need to understand the brain in order to understand belief and behavior, including religious belief and behavior– seem even palatable, much less relevant.

Admittedly, I didn’t do the best job. At least, it didn’t appear to be very convincing. When it became clear that my PhD was going to be more along those lines, a meeting was held and it was determined that I’d need to go elsewhere. Why not to Denmark, where this university is starting a brand new program for the cognitive science of religion?


Anyway, getting back to materialism. I’m writing this in the first place in reaction to an “open letter to atheists”  posted on Answers in Genesis, which repeats every last misconception and outright falsehood about what it’s like to be an atheist– and therefore a materialist (which doesn’t actually follow, but oh well)– there is. To wit:

Do you feel conflicted about the fact that atheism has no basis in morality (i.e., no absolute right and wrong; no good, no bad?) If someone stabs you in the back, treats you like nothing, steals from you, or lies to you, it doesn’t ultimately matter in an atheistic worldview where everything and everyone are just chemical reactions doing what chemicals do. And further, knowing that you are essentially no different from a cockroach in an atheistic worldview (since people are just animals) must be disheartening. Are you tired of the fact that atheism (which is based in materialism, a popular worldview today) has no basis for logic and reasoning? Is it tough trying to get up every day thinking that truth, which is immaterial, really doesn’t exist?

Okay, yes, there is a version of materialism which entails that nothing but physical objects exist. That’s why I now prefer not to call myself a materialist– or a material girl, for that matter (diamonds have never been my best friend, or even a close acquaintance, really). I much prefer the term naturalist (which should not be confused with naturist. No nudism in this instance). It means, basically, that the natural world is what we have. That science has it right, and we should consider things to be real only if they have an objectively demonstrable existence. Which means, yes, that supernatural factors should not be taken into account. Metaphysical naturalism pairs well with secular humanism, the ethical philosophy that as humans we have to rely on our own resources and abilities to make existence better. To flourish, to reach our full potential, to do what my former adviser called “becoming divine.” But by that, she did not mean we should literally become gods ourselves. She was talking about enabling fulfillment, becoming the best, most satisfying version of yourself. We might have disagreed on several things, including terminology such as this, but not on the concept itself. To hear the author of this “letter to atheists,” you’d think such a pursuit would be worthless without a belief in God.

Actually, the author is mistaken about a lot of things, and it makes my head spin to try and articulate exactly how many. Perhaps most ironically, the fact that not only is atheism not based in materialism (since not being convinced of something doesn’t need to be “based” in any particular philosophy) but there are plenty of non-materialist atheists out there. Believers in the supernatural are certainly the stars of the mind/body dualism debate, but they certainly aren’t the only players. The most obvious part of this portrayal of  “atheists are materialists, which is a crap philosophy” is the inability to imagine that there can be any meaning in life without a belief in God, which I don’t think most atheists acknowledge the strength of. That is some powerful conviction, even with the similarly powerful fear of eternal hellfire which frequently accompanies it. What the author of the above letter, Bodie Hodge, is doing is conflating naturalism– the belief that objective reality is all we have– with the naturalistic fallacy, which says that the way things are is the way things should be. This is a common mistake, perhaps the most common mistake made regarding any view of life which appears too reductionistic for the person critiquing it: You think this is all there is. That must mean that’s all you want it to be. Well, of course not, replies the naturalist. If I point out that we’ve got a newly built house and several cans of paint, that doesn’t mean I’m opposed to having a painted house. I’m simply refusing to believe that the house will be or has already been painted by magical elves. If we want that house to be painted, we’d better get out the brushes and roll up our shirt sleeves.

Similarly, the criticism that “everything and everyone are just chemicals doing what chemicals do” is only really a criticism if you fail to recognize that what chemicals do is freaking amazing. Complaining that what we do and are is chemicals is like complaining that the Sistine Chapel is made of bricks, only worse because a chemical is far more versatile than a brick (and bricks are pretty darn versatile). “Greedy reductionism” is Daniel Dennett’s term for when you explain how something works by describing the interactions of its components (reductionism), but in the process of doing so, you leave some things out. You fail to take into account the true complexity of what you’re explaining, and end up doing the equivalent of describing how to bake a cake without mentioning that it requires some heat, a move which is legitimately invalid. Anti-reductionism, by contrast, is a refusal to see something in terms of its components in the first place. Opponents of evolutionary theory, and of what I’m going to stick with calling naturalism, often seem to have a hard time with the concept of emergent properties. Or at least, the concept of us being emergent properties. It’s okay for a lot of cars to equal traffic, but not for the activity of a load of chemicals to equal consciousness. Dennett was famously quoted as saying that we have a soul, but it’s made of lots of tiny robots. Religious anti-reductionists don’t like the robots. They don’t like the idea of unthinking things combining to form a thinking thing, at least not without the outside help– the outside design– of some grander, elevated thinking thing who had this all planned out from the beginning. Whenever that was.

“Knowing that you are essentially no different from a cockroach in an atheistic worldview…” Religious anti-reductionists have a problem with essentialism, too. And by that I mean, they seem to be addicted to it. They are too fond of it. Things have properties, and those properties are immutable, and there’s no room for one thing to turn into another thing– the very notion is ridiculous. Gender essentialism is the belief that men have to be one thing and women another, and never the twain shall meet– except to have sex and make babies, of course. That’s common enough in religion, but the “atheists are just the same as cockroaches according to atheists” thing is saying that unless we consider humanity to be separate from the rest of existence as distinguished by our relationship with God (aka possession of a soul), then we might as well be cockroaches. Hodge assumes the conclusion of atheists by his own standards– we reject what he thinks distinguishes us from vermin, therefore we must perceive ourselves as vermin. And wow, that must suck for us, huh? That must be why when you enter a room and turn on the lights, all of the atheists scatter for the dark space under the stove or the fridge.

But strangely…no, we’re not. We’re living our lives as human beings, thinking thoughts, doing work, relating to others, practicing empathy and creating works of art and caring for family and occasionally taking a road trip or seeing Avatar in 3D or making a podcast about video games. No demonstrable diminished joie de vivre; no elevated angst; no visible heightened incidences of people being told to get off of lawns or general curmudgeonliness (well, I can’t exactly speak to that– I’ve been a curmudgeon since age 20 or so). Hodge is simply mistaken about the consequences of non-belief, apparently because he cannot comprehend what it’s like not to believe. It’s like the god-of-the-gaps wrapped up in an argument from incredulity– “I can’t fathom what it’s like to not have, much less not need, this thing I find so important. So I can’t help but conclude that people who lack it are missing something important, and must suffer from the lacking.”

That– assuming someone’s conclusion through the lens of your own philosophy– is part of prejudice, or more basically it’s a form of ignorance which gives birth to prejudice. It seems to be most easily overcome by not just actually getting to know members of the group you’re prejudiced against and seeing that they have no existential gaps in their lives which need to be filled, but also by coming to realize that the choice you made (more or less voluntarily, depending), was in fact a choice. There were/are others, equally legitimate. Comparative religion courses are valuable in part because they encourage this realization– they nudge a student to take note of the fact that if he or she had been born somewhere else, his/her beliefs about the order and creator of the universe might well be radically different. It’s fine to stop there– this is the foundation of inter-faith exchange, after all– but some of us go on to conclude that if all faith-based perspectives are equally valid, then they are all equally invalid, and that maybe it would be better to go about life on the assumption that they are. This is a conclusion I reached in my junior year of college as a religious studies major, as part of a program at Texas Christian University which I recall the local Campus Crusade for Christ called an “atheist training camp.” Not hardly– it simply wasn’t/isn’t a seminary.

Is it tough trying to get up every day thinking that truth, which is immaterial, really doesn’t exist?

No, because I have no trouble distinguishing between the legitimacy of beliefs and the reality of physical objects. I’m perfectly aware that the fact that modus ponens can’t be found anywhere in the universe using a GPS or any other tracking device makes it no less real. You will not catch me stepping out of an airplane at 10,000 feet without a parachute on the conviction that truth is relative, and therefore doesn’t matter. But you also won’t catch me declaring that gravity (which is not material, but is physical) or modus ponens (which is neither) created the universe, and therefore should be worshiped. One thing a naturalistic worldview does cut down on is relentlessly anthropomorphizing things.

A simple ethics of expectations

On the news this morning I listened to a report about a new virus discovered in Saudi Arabia. But after talking about how scary and disturbing that is, it was mentioned that it has infected a total of two people and is believed to be only transmissable from non-human animals to humans, so it probably won’t be any significant threat to the tens of thousands of people expected to flood into the country for the Hajj, the pilgrimmage to Mecca.

And I thought…, I’m glad I don’t believe in a god who wants me to do things.

Not just things like go on a pilgrimmage to a country where I might get infected with a virus, but anything. Because those things might be against my own interests, and because they’re expectations of a god, they’re not expectations I could advisably ignore.

Now, morality requires you to act against your own interests sometimes– only psychopaths go around using other people with absolutely no regard for those peoples’ welfare. But with morality, you’re refraining from harming people for the sake of those people. With the expectations of a god, you’re refraining from doing things because of the demands of a being that you don’t even know exists. And whom you can’t harm.

Frequently, and happily, the expectations of the gods people believe in just happen to be things they would do anyway, because they’re also moral (e.g. giving to the poor). Infrequently, the expectations of the gods people believe in are very immoral indeed (e.g. punishing non-believers). And frequently those expectations are morally neutral or close to it (e.g. making a pilgrimmage). But even a morally neutral expectation can be an unnecessary pain in the ass at best for the believer because it still requires him or her to at least exert some energy, time, and/or money on something he/she wouldn’t otherwise do. And in this case, could actually prove very harmful to him or her.

Good things are worth doing because they’re good.

Good things may be good because of God, or they may not. But regardless, you don’t need to believe in God to know what Good is, and to do good things.

If God is good, then God should only expect us to do good things. Not bad things, and not neutral things. Not because neutral is bad, but because it’s subjective– once you demand that someone do a neutral thing rather than them doing it for their own pleasure, you’re imposing on them. And that’s bad.


Therefore, it would be reasonable for a believer in God to do only those things which God expects that are recognizable as good by the believer him/herself. Which would mean that “God says so” is never sufficient reason to consider something good.

Therefore, a believer who is moral should behave identically* to a non-believer who is moral.

Therefore, you can tell if the god someone believes in is good by whether that person’s behavior reflects an expectation of doing only Good things, not bad things or neutral things.

Therefore, believing in God, if God is good, is a morally neutral thing to do. As is not believing in God. If God is bad or neutral, then believing in God is an imprudent (bad for you) or bad (immoral) thing to do.

*Edit: This is a problematic term. I don’t mean “exactly the same as” but “indistinguishably from.”

What would convince you that God exists?

This isn’t a new question, that’s for sure.  I’ve been asked it more times than I can recall, starting roughly ten years ago when I thought it would be fun to go online and argue at length with strangers about whether it makes sense to believe in God or not.  But apparently it has become a hot topic of conversation in the atheist blogosphere recently.  Let me explain.
No, there is too much. Let me sum up:

  1. P.Z Myers wrote a post in response to something on the Richard Dawkins web site, saying that there is no evidence that could convince him of the existence of a god, mainly on the grounds that the concept is made so nebulous (by design, in his view) as to be indemonstrable.  And the only proper response to indemonstrable claims is unbelief. 
  2. Jerry Coyne replied by suggesting a hypothetical scenario in which P.Z. encountered someone who could do really cool and mysterious things and goes by the name of Jesus. Would that convince him?
  3. P.Z. responded to that by elaborating on his argument from incoherence.
  4. Coyne then detailed the difference between intrinsic methodological naturalism (IMN) and provisional/pragmatic methodological naturalism (PMN).  Methodological naturalism is the term for what science does in refusing to invoke supernatural explanations for the phenomena it studies.  IMN, as he explains, is the “a priori philosophical commitment to not even consider supernatural explanations.” PMN, on the other hand, is an approach which does not automatically discount supernatural explanations, but basically says “I’ll believe it when I see it.”  A practitioner of PMN would not simply assert that ghosts, for example, can’t be studied scientifically, but would also not be willing to shut the door on inquiry and just accept truth claims about ghosts without investigation. Coyne said that IMN “appears to be the official position of the National Center for Science Education and the semi-official position of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the National Academy of Sciences” and also P.Z. Myers, whereas Coyne himself agrees with PMN.  
  5. Then yesterday Greta Christina weighed in on Coyne’s side of things, though she sees P.Z. as making some good points.  She asks: 1) if there is, or should be, anything which convinces atheists that they are mistaken about the non-existence of gods, and 2) if not, does that mean they are closed-minded and dogmatic?  She agrees with P.Z.’s argument from incoherence that religious believers do not have a clear and sturdy hypothesis, let alone evidence to support it, and do not generally make falsifiable claims.  She declares that “in order to persuade me that it was probably true, a religion would have to do more than just provide some decent evidence for its hypothesis. It would have to provide a decent hypothesis in the first place. It would have to provide a hypothesis that explains existing evidence, makes accurate predictions about future events, can be tested, can have those tests replicated, is consistent with what we already know (or provides a better explanation for it than existing theories), and is internally consistent. What’s more: This hypothesis would have to do more than just explain whatever new evidence might appear to support it. It would have to explain the utter lack of good supporting evidence in the past. It would have to explain why, in thousands and thousands and thousands of years of human history, supernatural explanations of unexplained phenomena have never once panned out…and a natural explanation has always, always, always turned out to be right.”  If a religion could do that, Greta Christina says, she would cease to be an atheist.   

Okay, there’s a lot going on there. There are multiple questions flying around in this conversation, and they deserve to be teased apart and addressed separately.  So:

Q: Is atheism falsifiable?
A:  Not unless by that question you mean “Is the existence of atheists falsifiable”?  Yes it is, and yes atheists exist.  But atheism itself is not a truth claim– it’s an epistemological position people take in relation to the proposition of at least one god existing.  All a person need do to be an atheist is be unconvinced of the existence of any gods.

Q: What is the appropriate view for naturalists to take of claims for the supernatural?
A:  I’m with Jerry Coyne on this one.  The statement that “science has nothing to say about the supernatural” is, so far as I can tell, either so obvious as to be tautological or so flimsy as to be like a Jenga tower contructed by toddlers.  Science studies the natural, and insofar as claims about “supernatural” entities are natural claims (praying cures cancer, for example), they are within the bounds of scientific inquiry.  As Greta Christina points out, every time science has investigated something claimed to be supernatural, it has revealed it to in fact be natural or non-existant.  The existence of ESP is something science can study, because it posits a falsifiable event– people reading the minds of others.  Even if the mechanism could not be verified just yet, a scientist can test whether it is actually possible to know exactly what someone is thinking without using cues from their behavior, your familiarity with their character, being told by someone else, and so on.  And if such a capacity were confirmed to exist, I can guarantee that scientists would not rest until they discover the mechanism, and furthermore that they would eventually find it.  And if scientists can find it, it is natural.

Q:  What would convince you that the supernatural exists?
A:  The answer to what would make me say “Wow, that’s really strange and amazing and I have no idea how it happened” is trivially easy.  Any number of magic tricks would accomplish the job.  But that hardly means those amazing events have no explanation, does it?   The only difference between a magic trick and “real” magic is the matter of how many people know what’s actually going on.  In the former case the at least the magician him/herself knows, and in the latter case he/she doesn’t.  Meditation wasn’t magic when even its practitioners didn’t know how it worked, and it isn’t now that we do know (at least somewhat).  Claiming that magic and/or the supernatural are things we cannot explain is simply begging the question– why can’t we explain them?  By what justification would you say “can’t” to mean “can’t ever” instead of “can’t just now”?  If we’re talking about an observable event, an event detectable in any way by humans, then the former position is thoroughly unscientific.  A scientist who looks at something strange and mind-boggling and says “We can’t ever explain that” has abdicated thinking like a scientist with regard to that thing.  Wearing the scientist hat means refusing to ever close the door on inquiry and hang a sign on it that says “Keep Out: Mystery Inside.”

Q: What would convince you that a god exists?
A: Nothing, and there is no conflict between that answer and what I’ve already said, nor does taking that position make me closed-minded.   “It could be aliens” is not at all a cop-out when it comes to that question, because it points to the ever-present problem that we have no way of distinguishing between that which is infinite and that which is really, really, really impressive.  Arthur C. Clarke’s law declaring that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic could without any loss of significance be modified to say that any sufficiently advanced agency is indistinguishable from deity.  Finite beings cannot comprehend, much less confirm, the nature and existence of infinite beings.  I could be wrong about that, and if so by all means feel free to point out how.  But I’ve thought on this quite a lot and can find no way around it.  Could you convince me of the existence of aliens?  Yes, pretty easily.  But the gap between aliens and infinite beings is…..well, infinite.  “Almost infinite” is a nonsensical concept, and the frequency with which humans seem to forget this is a testament to our lack of imagination.  As is, for that matter, the tendency of humans to describe supernatural entities as thinking, behaving, and often looking uncannily similarly to humans.  The anthropologist Stewart Guthrie proposed decades ago that religion is essentially systematic, codified anthropomorphism.  I’m highly skeptical that it could be anything else.

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