30 September 2014

Our laws are based on the Ten Commandments

A religious conservative acquaintance of mine actually used this line on me today. Here's the actual quote, from a Facebook post in which I mentioned the deconversion of Rev Rob Ripley, the pastor of the largest Protestant church in Canada:


This is standard religious conservative boilerplate, and it always warrants a facepalm. The following things are not actually illegal to do:

1. Worship gods other than Yahweh
2. Make/worship idols
3. Say "Jesus fucking Christ"
4. Totally forget about the Sabbath
5. Treat your parents like crap
6. Lie (unless you're in court)
7. Cheat on your spouse
8. Want things you don't have


Basically the only commandments that are actual modern laws are our provisions against stealing and killing, both of which are necessary for any human society to function. To paraphrase Christopher Hitchens, if the Israelites thought murder, theft and perjury were permissible, they wouldn't have lasted long enough to make it to Mt Sinai. 

Also, I have to laugh at the Lee Strobel reference. One of my favorite blog posts here at The A-Unicornist (unfortunately it can't go in the forthcoming anthology, for formatting reasons) is my three-part review of the movie based on his book, The Case for Christ:

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3

20 September 2014

My grandmother died today

I last saw my grandmother in 2012. She was quite frail, spending some 16 hours a day sleeping and generally unable to even sit upright for long periods of time. While I was there she remarked to my aunt, "I don't know why the Lord hasn't taken me yet". When I got home I wrote a post about dignity in dying, entitled I wish my grandmother could die. Soon after, she was admitted to a nursing home, where she died last night at the age of 93. While I'm saddened that she's gone, I'm really just relieved that she's no longer suffering. And while she will certainly be missed, she lived a very long and happy life, and that much at least is something worth celebrating.

I was thinking again about the issue of dignity in death, after having heard about what my grandmother was going through. She'd recently had surgery after a pair of nurses broke her femur while they were turning her, and that's on top of the staff having found broken vertebrae when she was admitted to the home. She had to use a bedpan, and could not even sit upright for long periods of time without great fatigue and pain.

If most of us could see our last days coming, I'm confident that the overwhelming majority of us would choose to die on our own terms rather than to become dependent and bedridden. It's one of many reasons why I support assisted suicide — because we deserve the choice to die with dignity, without having nurses wipe our backsides for us and lift us into wheelchairs so we can eat. I don't want to speculate as to whether my grandmother would have chosen that, but I wish she could have at least had the choice.

My grandmother was also at peace with her end. When you live to be 93, it's safe to say that you will outlive many, if not all, of your peers. She had been a widow for nearly 30 years and watched many of her neighbors and friends pass away. Not everyone reaches the end of their lives with such grace, but my grandmother, knowing her body was failing her, had for some time accepted that her end was approaching and seemed prepared. But it was not to be – she lived on for several years more, her body continually growing weaker.

I imagine it must be greatly frustrating to lose your independence, to have to be lifted, bathed, wiped, and even turned in bed. But I imagine there's also guilt, because no one wants to be a burden to their families. Caring for an elderly person can be very stressful, and can exacerbate divides between siblings or forge new ones — all while 24-hour care, medication, tests and surgeries pile up medical expenses. I know my grandmother would not have wanted that could she have chosen.

My mother drove to Wisconsin to see my grandmother in August, when she turned 93. Frankly, I was glad I wasn't able to go. My grandmother was a vibrant, witty, opinionated, charming and loving woman, and that's how I want to remember her. The real tragedy is that in our culture that has an almost paralyzing fear of death, she had to spend her last days as a shadow of the woman she truly was. I wish the end could have come sooner, and spared her the suffering and indignity. I wish she could have chosen when to say goodbye. And I hope that if I'm fortunate to live a similarly long and charmed life, our culture will have evolved enough to allow me to spare my loved ones the pain of watching me wither away.

It should go without saying on atheist blog, but I hold no hope of seeing her again in some charmed hereafter, and that causes me no discomfort. I'm grateful to have known her and to have so many fond memories. I only wish she could have met Vanessa, or at least seen our engagement photos. I know it would have made her happy to see her grandson so hopelessly in love.

17 September 2014

Introducing... yours truly

I haven't had much time to write lately, and probably won't be able to do so for a little while — I'm getting married in just over six weeks, work is busy, there's a new puppy in the house... yeah. And as I'm prone to become periodically, I'm just burned out a bit and lacking inspiration for the topics I generally explore on this blog, and have even thought about closing the curtain on it. I think that'd be hasty, though — I'm sure my head will be clearer when I get back from the honeymoon.

Anyway, I wanted to do something different. You all know me as 'Mike D' or 'that guy who blogs at The A-Unicornist'. But I'm a pretty regular guy with a pretty regular life, and I thought I'd give you a peek into who I really am.

First of all, in case you missed it in the contact info, my last name is Doolittle. I work as a personal trainer, which I've been doing for ten years. I love it. I'm my own boss, make my own hours (to an extent, of course), and I'm fortunate to train some really dedicated, hard-working clients — some of whom have really turned their lives around. It's a fun, rewarding career and I'm really lucky to be where I am professionally.

Also, as I mentioned of course, I'm getting married. I met my fiance Vanessa at my previous personal training job. She came in for a one-off session on biomechanics, as she'd been doing some group classes and having some back pain in some of the exercises. We had chemistry right away, but I didn't figure I'd ever see her again. Later, I started doing a "stretch class" for free on Fridays, which she made a habit of attending. I wanted to ask her out, but didn't want to make the leap because she was a paying client. So naturally, when she came in one session and said it was her last day, I was pretty happy. The classes had a mediocre reception, but I had kept doing them because it was a chance to see her. Once we started dating she revealed that she kept coming to the classes because she'd have a chance to see me.

So here we are, a couple of years later, and we're getting hitched! We did our engagement photos recently, but in the absence of those hi-res and professional photos, here's one of us wearing goofy hats:


We live in a quiet neighborhood in Tulsa, where we have two 'kids' — one is my cat Alexi (named after the guitarist Alexi Laiho)....



 .....(and yes, that's what he does most of the time)... And our new addition to the family, a puppy we rescued and named Zelda:


We think she's a mix of Australian Shepherd, Blue Heeler, and Great Pyrenees. Aside from minor puppy-related annoyances (peeing in the wrong spot, gnawing on everything, and being super hyper 99% of the time), she's fantastic. She's very smart and well-behaved, and she and Alexi are good buddies already.

When I'm not writing, I'm usually playing guitar or gaming on my totally swanky console-crushing gaming PC. I do love to write though, and not just about religion. I spent nearly a decade as a writer for the gaming webzine GameCritics, and I've toyed with reviving my game-related writing with a blog I started last year called PC Gaming Are Yes!, which is called that for no reason whatsoever.  I also have an old blog called Moon Waffles (a Simpsons reference) and one related to my music interests called Demonic Art. But while I love to write, I'm terrible about writing. I think I've just lucked out to have a small but engaged readership here at The A-Unicornist, because truthfully I'd probably dedicate more time to one of my other blogs were it not for the fact that I really do enjoy the debates and discussions here.

Musically, I'm a pretty die-hard metalhead. My current obsession is the new album Titan from Septicflesh, but in general I listen to stuff like Opeth, Children of Bodom, Behemoth, Fleshgod Apocalypse, Dimmu Borgir, Scar Symmetry, and lots of instrumental stuff — Animals As Leaders, Paul Wardingham, Jeff Loomis, Andy James... lots of guitar wizardry, toward which I aspire as a player (but have a ways to go!). Here's a track off the new Septicflesh album to give you an idea of how beautifully dark and abrasive I like my music:



I'm also a major sci-fi nerd. On Netflix and Amazon Prime I pretty much just hop from one sci-fi show to another, which are mainly background noise while I practice guitar. I've watched every episode of every Star Trek series, BSG, Warehouse 13, Eureka, and lots of others. I'm currently binge-watching Stargate SG-1.

Oh, and I love to cook. Vanessa and I are both foodies. We eat at trendy restaurants not because we're hipsters, but because we just love trying new food. We cook often, and often cook together. 

So, that's me. This blog is fun, but my atheism is a microscopic part of who I am. Most of the time, I'm too busy enjoying life to worry about people like this:


But then, every once in a while, I feel like this:






And that's why this blog will probably be around for a long time to come, even if life gets in the way now and then.

05 September 2014

Thoughts on fidelity

Taking a much needed break from conversations about metaphysics, there's another topic on my brain of late as my wedding fast approaches: fidelity. And before you ask, no, I've never been even remotely unfaithful to my fiance; she's truly the love of my life.

But marriage is not something I want to do more than once. It's a commitment I hope will last us both a lifetime. And let's get real — monogamy takes a lot of work. I can speak with some experience on the matter because while I've personally never cheated on a girlfriend, I have been the 'other man' in a relationship before. I have first-hand understanding of what makes a marriage break, and how infidelity happens.

If there's any great lesson I learned from that relationship (which lasted roughly a year), it's that the worst mistake we can possibly make is to say to ourselves "I would never cheat. I love my spouse/partner too much. Cheating is something only dishonest people do, and I'm a good person". The reality, not unlike the Stanford prison experiment showed, is that you will do things that may seem unthinkable given the right set of circumstances. One of my clients spent most of his career in law as a public defender for murderers facing the death penalty, and I asked him once how many of his clients were bona fide psychopaths. His answer? Almost none. The vast majority, he said, are people who would never imagine themselves being capable of murder but, through a complex web of extraordinary circumstances, did something they thought they could never do. Going into my marriage, I think it's extremely important for me to acknowledge this fact rather than draw sharp lines between "moral Mike" and "those people", those unsavory people who have affairs. We're all human beings, and all capable doing things that at one time may have seemed unthinkable.

During the course of the aforementioned relationship, I read an interview with the woman (I forget her name) with whom the politician John Edwards had his career-ending affair. (Side note: odd that Edwards faced the end of his career by cheating on his cancer-stricken wife, while Newt Gingrich did the exact same thing and campaigned on "family values" in 2012). I remember reading the comments online and being struck at how much she was vilified, as though Edwards wasn't equally complicit. But in any case, she made an interesting comment — when asked what it felt like having broken Edwards' marriage, she said that affairs don't break marriages; the break happens before the affair.

And from my experience, I think she is right. The woman with whom I had a relationship described her marriage as cold, distant, and chronically lacking intimacy. They had sex only a few times a year, what some psychologists see fit to classify as a "sexless marriage". He prioritized his friends over her, spending nearly every night of the week with his buddies while she sat at home by herself. (Side note: there's nothing to have prevented her from kicking up her own social engagement, but nonetheless when you're married, your spouse comes before your friends.)

It got worse. When they were together, they had difficulty with even basic connections. She once told me, a few months into our relationship, that she had asked him to just look her in the eyes and tell her he loved her; he couldn't do it without awkwardly laughing. She felt that she had tried, to her wits end, to work things out with him. Eventually, she said, she just felt defeated. She resigned herself to an unhappy marriage, which is a pretty awful place to be.

I don't mean to say that I think this makes her infidelity okay; in my view, she should have had the courage to be honest with him about how deeply unhappy she was, and end the marriage if necessary rather than stringing each other along in a cold and distant relationship. But from her perspective, it was more complicated; she was very close to his family, and was afraid of the social repercussions of leaving him. Making matters worse, she'd been unfaithful for some time (I wasn't the first, and probably won't be the last) but felt she could never tell him because of how deeply it would hurt him. The thought of seeing him broken terrified her. Again, this doesn't say the infidelity was okay; it says that these types of situations are not the black and white scenarios we would imagine them to be and, pushed to extremes, we will do things that we wouldn't ordinarily think ourselves capable of. The early days of her marriage were as lovestruck and idyllic as any.

It's in our genes to need emotional and physical intimacy; when we enter into a marriage or even just a committed monogamous relationship, we are accepting responsibility for fulfilling that need for our partner. When one partner does not do their job, the other partner is likely to find that intimacy elsewhere. It doesn't matter if you're religious or not, or how good or faithful a person you think you are; we're all capable of cheating.

So, what can we do? I learned from that relationship that like the affair itself, the disconnect in a marriage comes slowly, in small steps. It starts with a lack of daily intimacy, those little small reminders that your spouse is the most important person in your life. Every day, Vanessa and I make it a priority to have some time together and to tell each other "I love you". We regularly text each other and/or write notes to each just saying simple things like "I miss you" or "Thinking of you". We've done our best to make appreciation and intimacy behaviors, not just ideals. We set aside time for each other in which we can communicate openly such as taking walks in the evening, going on a date once a week, and just setting aside "us" time even if it's only for a 30 minutes in an otherwise overwhelmingly busy day. We have rules like "no cell phones at the dinner table" to make sure we're focused on each other. I view her wholly as my equal, and we always make important decisions together — as a 'team'.

My goal, then, isn't to avoid infidelity by being steadfastly committed to an ideal, but to do my best to ensure that neither Vanessa nor I ever find ourselves in the kinds of circumstances that would make infidelity tempting by prioritizing the intimacy of our own relationship. I can't say "I would never cheat", because I know that's not a realistic expectation of human behavior; instead I have to say, "I never want to cheat". I don't want to lose the trust, love, and friendship of this amazing woman. When people say that marriage is a lot of work, that's what I think they're most referring to — the small things, those daily gestures of love and appreciation that keep us close through thick and thin.

03 September 2014

What is reductionism, anyway?

From the response on the last couple of posts, I get the sense that some of the theists who dispute my position haven't spent much time thinking about the alternative to their metaphysically-loaded point of view: reductionism.

Case in point, here's commenter 'Jayman' sarcastically characterizing reductionism:
A water molecule can be reduced to hydrogen and oxygen. Hydrogen and oxygen are both flammable. Clearly water is also flammable as it is nothing but hydrogen and oxygen.
I'll get to that in a moment, but first I'm going to summarize my objections to both the essentialist positions being put forth, and 'metaphysics' in general.
  • On parsimony, there is no reason to assume that 'essences', 'natures', etc., exist. The physical description of an object (whether person, animal, tool, or natural object) fully accounts for what that thing is. It is an amalgam of physical components, and there's nothing demonstrably absent or insufficient about that material description. Obviously this is the meat and potatoes of reductionism, so more on this below.
  • Supposedly 'metaphysical properties' like essences and natures are not only descriptively superfluous, but they raise more questions than they answer:
    • What are they composed of?
    • By what mechanism do they interact with physical reality?
    • If they do not exist spatiotemporally, then in what sense do they exist, and how can and do they interact with the spatiotemporal universe?
    • What laws govern their structure and behavior? 
    • What method of inquiry could provide falsifiable answers to these questions, demonstrating them true in lieu of alternative hypotheses?
  • "Metaphysics" as an intellectual discipline is ambiguously and equivocally defined.
    • What metaphysics are, exactly, is not universally or even generally agreed upon [1]
    • What constitutes a metaphysical problem is not unambiguously established, and has changed significantly over the centuries
    • Even if a small number of 'metaphysicians' can agree on what constitutes a metaphysical problem, there is no unambigously established methodology for weeding out erroneous hypotheses and establishing the veracity of a proposition.
    • The language and assumptions of metaphysics have been largely abandoned by scientists, which should not be the case if metaphysics represent some deeper, more fundamental reality under which scientific inquiry is subsumed.
That's all pretty much retreaded from many an earlier post, but there you have it. The question now is whether reductionism really does provide a complete, unambiguous description of reality without the necessity of assuming that some non-empirical reality underlies all material things. So let's return to Jayman's comment:
A water molecule can be reduced to hydrogen and oxygen. Hydrogen and oxygen are both flammable. Clearly water is also flammable as it is nothing but hydrogen and oxygen.
Of course, water is neither hydrogen nor oxygen, but two hydrogen atoms bonded with one oxygen atom. This chemical bond causes new properties to emerge. Reductionism does not claim that composite objects are identical to their components or that they are the sum of their components, but that the state of an object is defined by the state of its components. Water has different properties than just hydrogen or just oxygen, because it is not just hydrogen or just oxygen. Physicist Brian Greene discusses this view in his book The Hidden Reality:
I believe that a physical system is completely determined by the arrangement of its particles. Tell me how the particles making up the earth, the sun, the galaxy, and everything else are arranged, and you’ve fully articulated reality. This reductionist view is common among physicists, but there are certainly people who think otherwise. Especially when it comes to life, some believe that an essential nonphysical aspect (spirit, soul, life force, chi, and so on) is required to animate the physical. Although I remain open to this possibility, I’ve never encountered any evidence to support it. The position that makes the most sense to me is that one’s physical and mental characteristics are nothing but a manifestation of how the particles in one’s body are arranged. Specify the particle arrangement and you’ve specified everything.
The philosopher Alex Rosenberg, in a talk with John Dupree, asks us to think of an elephant. Let's imagine we can know the exact wave function for every subatomic particle composing the elephant. Now imagine there is, anywhere else in the universe, another identical arrangement of wave functions. Is there any coherent sense in which the second elephant is not identical to the first? For any macroscopic property of the second elephant to be different, so too the arrangement of its constituents would have to be different. 

Greene hits the nail on the head in mentioning that much of the objection to the reductionist comes from what I think is wishful thinking — that humans have eternal souls that animate our bodies and rise off the brain in death. Sam Harris has artfully argued the incoherency of the latter proposition, while YouTuber 'QualiaSoup' has a great pair of videos concisely showing the incoherency of the former, and I believe the conceptual ambiguity of 'souls' is reason enough to dismiss it. But essentialists and other proponents of a 'metaphysical reality' are also concerned with abstractions; indeed Aristotle himself was greatly concerned with the implications of Platonic Realism [2]. Are they 'non-physical objects'? Where and how do they exist? What about mathematics? Are numbers non-physical objects? And what the hell is a non-physical 'object', anyway?

Science, though, has given us a means to understand what abstractions actually are. And before I get to that, it bears emphasizing that science has a clear advantage over 'metaphysical' methods of inquiry in that it has a universally agreed-upon method of inquiry. While it's true that the limits of science is a question of longstanding philosophical dispute, there is little if any disagreement over the fact that science is centered on a well-defined methodology that allows competing explanatory hypotheses to be tested and erroneous ones to be identified and discarded. So at the very least, science has a structured way of examining abstractions, even if the answers are not immediately obvious or forthcoming.

Science has lifted the veil, and we now know what abstractions are: they are neural structures in the brain. Cognitive linguist George Lakoff elaborates in Philosophy of the Flesh:
Our most important abstract concepts, from love to causation to morality, are conceptualized via multiple complex metaphors. Such metaphors are an essential part of those concepts, and without them the concepts are skeletal and bereft of nearly all conceptual and inferential structure.
Each complex metaphor is in turn built up out of primary metaphors, and each primary metaphor is embodied in three ways: (1) It is embodied through bodily experience in the world, which pairs sensorimotor experience with subjective experience. (2) The source-domain logic arises from the inferential structure of the sensorimotor system. And (3) it is instantiated neurally in the synaptic weights associated with neural connections.
In addition, our system of primary and complex metaphors is part of the cognitive unconscious, and most of the time we have no direct access to it or control over its use.
Lakoff, with Rafael Nunez, takes a similar approach in Where Mathematics Comes From:
1. Human beings can have no access to a transcendent Platonic mathematics, if it exists. A belief in Platonic mathematics is therefore a matter of faith, much like religious faith. There can be no scientific evidence for or against the existence of a Platonic mathematics.
2. The only mathematics that human beings know or can know is, therefore, a mind-based mathematics, limited and structured by human brains and minds. The only scientific account of the nature of mathematics is therefore an account, via cognitive science, of human mind- based mathematics. Mathematical idea analysis pr ovides such an account.
3. Mathematical idea analysis shows that human mind-based mathematics uses conceptual metaphors as part of the mathematics itself.
4. Therefore human mathematics cannot be a par t of a transcendent Platonic mathematics, if such exists.
There's obviously much to unpack here that's beyond the scope of a short blog post, but the point is this: scientific inquiry has allowed us to understand what abstractions are, how they are structured in the physical brain, how they are formed, and how we think about them. At no point is any assumption of the existence of some Platonic reality, or some deeper 'metaphysical reality', required for us to have this understanding; reductionism gets the job done with parsimony fully intact: conceptual metaphors and abstractions are emergent properties of the physical brain. They do not 'rise off the brain' or 'emerge from the brain'; they are neural structures within the brain.

When I'm pressed to consider an anti-reductionist point of few, I have to ask myself a few questions:
  • What is missing from the reductionist point of view?
  • If something is missing does an anti-reductionist point of view fill in those blanks?
  • Does the anti-reductionist position have to make dubious assumptions in order to fill in those blanks?
Occam's Razor, the principle of parsimony, states that we should not multiply assumptions beyond necessity, and it's my view that the only way to entertain any sort of anti-reductionist view is to toss parsimony out the window. As detailed above, propositions that purport to explain the universe by positing a more fundamental reality underlying the physical universe raise far more questions than they could possibly answer, and those same questions are already adequately answered on a reductionist point of view. An object is defined by the state of it components, and that includes our brains, our thoughts, our bodies, and everything in the universe. There is simply nothing left to deconstruct.

01 September 2014

Bruce Gerencser disappeared again

So, there's that.




















I've always thought Bruce was a really nice guy and an insightful writer, and I don't pretend to have the full scoop on his health problems or personal and familial issues, but I just know that as someone following his writing this is pretty disappointing. He'll blog for a while, get plenty of great content up, then disappear. It's happened enough times that it can safely be called a pattern, and I'm not sure why. Bruce, my friend, I wish you the best.

Metaphysical bigotry

In researching the previous post, I came across an old post by Ed Feser, the arguments in which I've heard parroted many times by amateur Thomists but one I'd never read directly from the mouth (or keyboard, as it were) of the sacred leader of modern Thomism himself. My gut reaction to Thomism has always been twofold: one, that it's really just an elaborate, semantically convoluted way of trying to defend the indefensible — of trying to 'prove' the existence of the Judeo-Christian god. And two, that it's really just an excuse to perpetuate bigoted and antiquated ideologies about human behavior. If you ask someone what Thomistic metaphysics have contributed to science and human progress, you'll likely get a blank stare.

In any case, Feser brings out the old antiquated canard about things having 'natures' — sophisticated-sounding shorthand for "that's how God intended it to be" — as a means to argue that things like contraception and homosexuality are bad. Let's get to the meat of it. First of all, what does this guy mean by "nature" anyway?
Everyone knows that it is in the nature of grass to require water and sunlight but not too much heat, and that for that reason it is good for grass to be watered and well lit and bad for it to lack water and sunlight or to be exposed to great heat. Everyone knows that is in the nature of a tree to require soil into which it can sink its roots and from which it can draw water and nutrients, and thus that it is good for a tree so to sink them and bad for it if it is somehow prevented from doing so. Everyone knows that it is in the nature of a squirrel to gather nuts and the like and to dart about in a way that will make it difficult for predators to catch it, and thus good for it to do these things and bad for it if for whatever reason it fails to do them. The natures of these things entail certain ends the realization of which constitutes their flourishing as the kinds of things they are. 
Feser makes it clear that he's not talking about nature in the sense of how the natural world works, but in the sense of things having a quality that, when realized, allows natural things to flourish.
... a squirrel’s being born without a leg or a tree’s having weak roots constitute failures to realize the ends that define the flourishing of these sorts of thing, and thus are failures fully to realize a thing’s nature. That is why we call them defects in a thing.
This is where the slippery semantic slope starts to take hold. Yes, we know what a healthy animal or plant must have in order to flourish optimally. We also recognize when things hamper that flourishing. But we have to be careful in conceding that this is because things have some invisible 'nature' that permeates their being, because there's no reason to think such a thing exists. Feser, of course, is operating from the view that God made everything and did so with the intention that everything should, ideally, be a certain way. Ignoring for a moment the innumerable problems with the messiness of the natural world, it's sufficient to say that we can broadly agree that things have an optimal and less optimal way of flourishing.

Of course, that also depends on how we define 'flourishing' in the first place — anyone who's kept up with Sam Harris' musings on morality knows how contentious the term can be. With humans, the issue is especially complicated, as Feser himself seems to recognize:
Now where human beings are concerned, to know in detail what our nature determines to be good for us would require a careful analysis of each of our various faculties and capacities -- reason, speech, labor, sex, and so forth.
We have to excuse Feser's dubious use of the phrase "what our nature determines to be good for us". Because not only is it not evident that we have such a 'nature' in the first place, but it's also not evident that following its supposed precepts is objectively better for us given the contentious nature of what constitutes human flourishing. Anyway, Feser doesn't waste much time in getting to the ultra-conservative position of the Catholic church:
when [natural law theorists] say that contraception is bad, they don’t mean that it’s bad because it involves the use of pills, or mechanical devices, or man-made substances like rubber. They mean that it positively frustrates the natural ends of the sexual faculties (or at least partially frustrates them, since it is not denied that sex is naturally oriented toward bonding the spouses, expressing affection, and the like, as well as toward procreation).
The use of the term "frustrates the natural ends" is particularly weird. Frustration is a human construct. Feser is cavalierly using the term to describe what he perceives as the divinely imbued ideal of human flourishing not being realized.

Hand gestures may frustrate the ends of human sexuality
But while reproduction is certainly a normal and healthy part of being human, it's not evident that it's necessary for the flourishing of individuals. For the perpetuation of human existence, obviously, but that seems tangential
because merely existing strikes me as a necessary but not sufficient criteria for 'flourishing'. Presumably, flourishing has a deeper meaning about the depth of human experience, and if there's anything that's obvious it's that procreation is not an experience that is universally valued among human beings. There are many who neither need nor want it, who are perfectly content to live out their lives without having children. Should they feel guilty because blowhards like Feser are accusing them of "frustrating the natural ends" of their humanity, as though humanity itself is some deeper property we all have that is trying to realize itself through our existence?

One could quite easily make the argument, using Feser's own idiosyncratic terminology, that procreation in many ways frustrates the natural end of a great many other deep and significant human experiences. Kids are expensive and time consuming. Couples have less time for each other, for friends, for travel, for careers, for charity, etc. How do we determine which of those many components of the human experience constitute optimal human flourishing?  What is the proper balance of experience here? And why is sacrificing certain human experiences better or worse? And again, who decides? Feser?



Nature and those pesky gays

Remember again that Feser is an ultra-conservative Catholic. He despises abortion and homosexuality. He lauds the banning of gay marriage. Why? Because homosexuality, according to him, "frustrates the natural ends" of human sexuality — y'know, reproduction. But while sex clearly evolved for reproduction, the same human flourishing dilemma rears its head here. Homosexuality is, as far as we know, epigenetic. That means, in a nutshell, that people don't choose to be gay. Just as I didn't wake up one day and decide I would get a boner when I laid eyes on an 80s issue of Playboy, gay people don't wake up and decide they're going to be sexually aroused by the same sex. So if anything, given that homosexuality is epigenetically determined, suppressing one's gay desires to fake their way through a heterosexual relationship could be construed, according to Feser's view, as frustrating the ends of that person's sexuality.

Now, maybe Feser would simply say that homosexuality, like his example of the tree with weak roots, is a defect. Sex evolved for reproduction, so when someone has some genetic or epigenetic disposition that causes them to feel repulsion toward intimacy with the opposite sex, it could be considered a type of anomaly or defect. Desmond Morris would call it a mal-imprint — a behavior that evolved for survival and reproduction being directed toward something that doesn't further survival and reproduction. But even if we take that rather clinical view, it doesn't follow that this anomaly hampers human flourishing — again because human flourishing is not so rigidly defined as Feser would like it to be.

While sex might have evolved for reproduction, it's obviously become much more than that not just to us humans, but to our primate cousins as well, like the bonobos who use sex (including gay sex) to resolve conflict and strengthen inter-group bonds. It's worth noting that Feser follows up his "frustrate the natural ends" comment with this:
(or at least partially frustrates them, since it is not denied that sex is naturally oriented toward bonding the spouses, expressing affection, and the like, as well as toward procreation)
There's the rub (no pun intended). Who is to say which of those qualities of sex should be most valued? In a world increasingly plagued by overpopulation, reproduction must be controlled. Contraception is vital to the long-term flourishing of the human species, because the planet cannot sustain indefinite population growth. And since sex has all these other deep and important qualities that we value even as we necessarily reign in population growth, are we rationally obligated to yield to Feser's view that reproduction is somehow the most natural or most important of these qualities? Of course not. The aspects of sexual intimacy to be most valued is not a matter of objective inquiry, but a subjective matter to be decided among consenting adults. If adults choose to sacrifice reproduction in order to more greatly realizing bonding and affection, how are they deficient? If they choose to reproduce and thus have less time to use sex for bonding and affection, are they objectively better or worse off, objectively flourishing more or less?

Feser's inanity isn't even internally coherent. His own views are self-defeating, and that's if we grant him the charity of adopting his convoluted metaphysical lexicon, which we're under no obligation to do. Things don't have 'natures' that get 'frustrated' if they don't 'achieve their ends'. That's just some bullshit that, like most things theologians yammer on about, Feser just made up to retroactively justify an ultra-conservative, narrow-minded and antiquated world view. And am I the only one who notices the irony of a conservative Catholic lecturing people on sexual frustration?

Essences, natures, and identies, oh my!

Ed Feser, uber-Catholic conservative philosopher extraordinaire, recommends a book by a chap named David Oderberg called Real Essentialism, in which the author argues that 'essences', 'natures', and 'identities' are literally real properties of things. The book's been recommended to me in several of my discussions with Christians who view themselves as 'Thomists', though I'm confident that given the $118 price tag, most if not all of those people are just recommending it because Ed Feser recommends it and not because they've actually been bothered to read it. But while I maintain a strict policy of "I'll read the book you're recommending if you buy it for me or loan it to me", its central thesis — that those supposedly 'metaphysical' properties are literally real, existing independently of the human mind — is a central point of contention in my many conversations with Thomists.

It can be difficult to debate Thomists, precisely because they adopt a highly esoteric lexicon and apparently idiosyncratic definitions of their key terms that are not always obvious. For example, a Thomist might tell you that you cannot so much as think about a thing without thinking about its identity — the very thing which allows us to distinguish one thing from another. And surely, we all agree that our brains can and do require us to categorize things and make distinctions between them in order to coherently think about them. But what the interlocutor may miss is that the Thomist is saying more than that — the Thomist is claiming not just that our brains organize patterns into discrete categories and objects, but that objects have, independently of the brain, the property of identity.

This is a subtle but critical distinction. Because surely, again, we all agree that if tomorrow all humans were wiped off the face of the Earth, cats (for example) would still be cats — that is, they would retain the amalgam of physical properties that our brains categorize as simply "cats", even there wouldn't be anyone around to say, "Hey, that's a cat!" But does it follow, then, that cats have a property of identity that makes them cats?

The silliness of such a proposition can possibly be illuminated by looking at things in evolutionary terms. Let's take a mountain. Mountains are formed, if I remember grade school geology correctly, when massive tectonic plates press against each other, forcing the earth to slowly rise over eons. I wonder how the Thomist might think about this, then — at what point does the earth have the property of identity of a mountain, versus just being a really big hill or a giant pile of rocks? If we were to watch a computer simulation of mountain formation, sped up so something like Everest formed in a few minutes, would the Thomist be able to pause the video at the exact right moment and say "There! Now it has the property of identity of a mountain!" Where might this property of identity have come from? Did it evolve from some lower-order property, or did God just put it there?

This line of thinking extends to other terms integral to the Thomistic view, like essence and nature. From my reading, the distinction between identity and essence seems a bit fuzzy, but to use the example of the cat again, we can say that the 'essence of cat' is whatever it is that makes it a cat. A cat has some sort of 'catness' — its material form and the properties that arise from that material form. Try to wrap your head around this convoluted explanation:
The essence of material substances is composed of substantial form and prime matter. Substantial form is the source of the specific identity or identity as a species, as a human being, as a dog, etc. Prime matter is pure potentiality to be specified, determined, activated by the form. It is the principle of individuation: it multiplies the form and accounts for diversity within the unity of the form or species by receiving and restricting the form to “this” material subject–the possibilities of the species are not exhausted by an individual. For example, “humanity”is  multiplied into “many human individuals” by matter.
This illustrates why conversing with Thomists is often confusing; the term 'prime matter' here is not being used to refer to 'matter' in the physical sense (that's the 'substantial form', or the 'form' — a cat, in this instance — that the substance takes). The IEP clarifies it a bit:
If we think of matter as without any form, we come to the notion of prime matter, and this is a type of matter that is totally unformed, pure materiality itself
This is the point when any rational person should want to say Whoa, hold up. "Pure materiality"? "Matter that is totally unformed"? What does that even mean? Suffice to say that no person has ever observed unformed matter. The IEP goes on to explain... sort of:
prime matter, as pure potency, cannot in fact express any concrete mode of being, since as pure potency is does not exist except as potency. Thus, prime matter is not a thing actually existing, since it has no principle of act rendering it actually existing.
Here we get to the central confusion that Thomists trip over — they inadvertently blur the distinction between conceptual abstractions and literally real objects. By the description here in IEP, 'prime matter' by definition doesn't exist; it's just an abstraction of the concept of matter. And yet somehow, on the Thomistic view, this 'pure potentiality', which doesn't actually exist, is somehow able to be acted upon — specified, determined, and activated by the 'form' of things that do exist. To which I have only one reaction:


How does something non-existent interact with existent things, or vice versa? Well, that's a whole other pile of confusion because, according to the Thomist, existence is just a property that something does or doesn't have. The SEP clarifies:
While [material substances] exist, their existing is not what they are. Thomas accepts from Boethius that it is self-evident that what a thing is and its existing differ (diversum est esse et id quod est).
Yes, they differ, in our minds. In reality, things cannot have properties if they do not exist, and things especially cannot interact with other things or be acted upon if they do not exist. Cognitive abstractions do not have properties, but abstractions of properties. This is how we know, for example, that unicorns are imaginary and not real. Unicorns don't have the property of being equines, of having horns, of being able to traverse rainbows, etc., because unicorns are fucking imaginary. Rather, unicorns have the conceptual properties of being equines, having horns, etc.

And that's the rub with Thomism. Thomists take things like identity, essence, nature, 'prime matter' and potentiality to be literally real properties of the external world, independently of human minds. But at every turn, we can see that we have no reason whatsoever to think that any of these 'metaphysical' properties are anything more than conceptual constructs. There's no reason for us to think that the concept of "cat" is anything more than a useful categorization of our brains for a particular arrangement of matter; we have no reason to think that there exists any such a thing as the identity, essence, or nature of a cat independently of our minds. 

To reiterate, this is of course not to say that cats don't have distinct properties, or that cats would cease to be cats if humans suddenly disappeared. But we can reject the Thomistic metaphysical gobbledygook on the principle of parsimony — the notion that cats have a distinct, non-physical property of 'catness' (their 'essence'), for example, is completely superfluous to our understanding and description of what a cat is. We can have a fully accurate, useful description of the animal simply by recognizing it as an amalgam of physical properties which our brains categorize in a particular way, and nothing more. There is no need to postulate any extra non-physical or 'metaphysical' properties to understand what a cat is, why it behaves as it does, or what it evolved from. Since the assumption of the existence of such things is not essential to our description or understanding of cats, we can discard it. We don't even have to demonstrate its falsity — i.e., somehow 'disprove' the existence of those metaphysical properties — we can simply discard them as superfluous and thus meaningless.

In fact, the whole proposition of metaphysical properties just complicates our understanding of the physical world. We know, for example, that the domestic dog evolved from wild wolves. Yes, even Binky the Pekingese is an evolutionary descendent of the mighty wolf, and even science-denying IDers and creationists will not dispute this fact. So at what point does the 'essence of wolf' become 'essence of domestic dog'? This was a gradual process, taking tens of thousands of years as wolves lived on the edges of human settlements; more docile wolves were artificially selected by humans and, over the millennia, became the companion dogs we know and love today. Where does the essence of one species end, and the other begin? How do these essences and substances interact with one another, particularly if they are (in the case of prime matter) non-existent? At what point does a population of wolves take on the metaphysical property of 'dogness'? None of this terminology illuminates anything at all about what these creatures are or the process of evolution itself; it unnecessarily complicates the issue by layering on superfluous and unjustified assumptions.

Aquinas, and his forebearer Aristotle, did not know about the evolution of species nor about the eons over which the earth slowly changed. They had no concept of quantum superposition or indeterminacy. The idea of emergent properties was foreign to them. They seemed to think that something was either this or that, clearly and completely distinct and precisely the way God made it to be. Similarly, they did not understand the mind like we do today; they did not understand that concepts are neural structures in the brain, and not necessarily representative of actual things. And that is why their metaphysical musings are irrelevant; they were a failed science, an ambitious but hopelessly hamstrung attempt to make sense of the world around them and, more importantly, backwards-rationalize the existence of the God they assumed exists. But we no longer have any reason to take their claims about reality seriously, much less take seriously any conclusions about the divine that they hoped to gleam from their metaphysics. Thomism can go to the dustbin, with the rest of metaphysics.

21 August 2014

On the meaning of life

Steven Jake had a post over at his blog The Christian Agnostic in which he quotes Thom Stark in an exchange with John Loftus on the nature of faith and the meaning of life. You can read the full post at Steven's blog, but my comment ended up being long enough that I thought I'd just repost it here.

And, just to shamelessly plug myself a bit, I discussed these issues not long ago in a post On death and dying.

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Why is the alleviation of human suffering the right thing to do? If the universe is a cosmic accident (and it may very well be just that), I can’t figure out why human beings should have impetus to behave morally, other than when it helps us to preserve ourselves or our species or to make us happier in some way. When morality conflicts with self-preservation or self-gratification, I just don’t know why morality should win out. [Stark]

I confess that even in my days as a Christian, this type of view (which is pretty standard boilerplate for religion, in my estimation) didn't make much sense to me.What difference does it make whether the universe has some grand cosmic purpose? How does that change what I find meaningful in my life or what my moral imperatives are?

My life is meaningful to me in large part because it is so rare and special, an infinitesimal spec of space and time in an incomprehensibly vast universe that is almost entirely a lifeless void, one that contains more black holes than it does humans that have ever existed. Whatever this life of mine is, one thing's for sure – it is mine to live. Regardless of how I live my life, I'll almost certainly be soon forgotten, and the universe will continue on without me, just as it got along fine without me for billions of years prior to my brief existence. If there is some grand cosmic meaning, it's certainly well-hidden beneath our utter cosmic insignificance.

So, I have this time to make of my life what I can. I can try to live a good life, to enjoy life's pleasures great and small, to learn and grow, to pick myself up when I stumble. I can enjoy a twilight walk with my fiance, or wrestle with our new puppy, lose myself in guitar for hours, or expand my mind with literature or science. The world is at my fingertips waiting to be experienced and discovered, and that is enough for me. I don't need to be told I'm a special snowflake, that all this was put here with me in mind. I make my life's meaning for myself.

Why be good, then? Because I do not exist in a vacuum. I am an interdependent conscious creature living in a cooperative social hierarchy. I do not have the luxury of moral autonomy, because my actions impact the well-being of others and because, as we all are, I'm dependent on the cooperation of others for my own needs. I'll never meet the farmer whose crops have fed me or the people who logged the wood that built my house, but I can recognize that if I don't wish to respect others' needs and interests, others have no reason to respect my own. And again, that is enough for me. I do not need to be told there are eternal consequences for my actions, because I can see the consequences of them in the here and now. How many cheating spouses never felt the joy of truly loving and trusting their partner? How many oppressed and marginalized people could have been great leaders, doctors, teachers, or innovators?

To me, the finality of death or the relative brevity of my existence is not depressing; what's depressing is the thought that this life is not good enough. There can't just be the wondrous universe — there must be gods and angels and magic, too. There can't just be this life — there must be something more, something that never ends, in which I'm free from failure, from the pain and losses that have allowed me to grow and appreciate the time I have, from new beginnings and from bittersweet endings. It's like a book that never ends, or the perfect crescendo of a piece of music that goes on forever. Those things are meaningful to us precisely because they are so fleeting and precious. I don't need or want eternal life. I don't need or want the promise of eternal reward or the pithy threat of eternal torment. My life is meaningful to me because it's all I have.

The irony is that Thom seems to recognize this in his last paragraph. If there is some grand cosmic purpose to our existence, no one seems to have it figured out. Sure, some people claim they have, but really all they've done is declare meaning for themselves. So whether you believe, as I do, that death is the end and life is what we make of it, or that we are reaching for some elusive transcendent purpose that will outlive our Earthly bodies and indeed the universe itself, we're all ultimately forced to do the same thing — find meaning for ourselves. I suppose where I part ways with Thom is his phrase "and hope we get it right". I don't believe there is a "right way" for us to exist. There are better ways and worse ways, but only we can decide what is right for us both individually and collectively. I neither need nor care whether I "get it right", beyond the simplest interpretation of the phrase — that I've spent my life sharing in happiness with others, that I've appreciated the beauty and wonder of the universe, that I've done my small part to make the world a better place for the many others who are like me in our shared humanity, and that when I go, I go smiling back on a life well-lived.


You know that pain and guilt can't be taken away with a wave of a magic wand. They're the things we carry with us, the things that make us who we are. If we lose them, we lose ourselves. I don't want my pain taken away! I need my pain! - Captain Kirk

There's a movie coming out about Stephen Hawking, and it looks fabulous

I enjoyed 2009's Creation, about Charles Darwin, quite a bit. And now another renown and influential scientist is being graced with a biopic that, by the looks of it, could end up being pretty damn good.