Saturday, January 30, 2010

Auto Mechanics to Quantum Mechanics: Any Questions?

Been a while since we've done this, so let's go.

I have a schtick I do at the beginning of every class where I let my students ask me absolutely any question they have, any question at all, as I say, from auto mechanics to quantum mechanics. When I started up this blog years ago, some former students asked me to revive it on-line, so every once in a while I open it up.

So, if there's a question you've always wanted to ask or something that's just been stumping you, here's your chance. Ask away and I'll try to open up to discussion as many as possible in this week's posts.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Who Owns the Pronunciation of Names?

The shorter of the short people had a field trip the other day to the Utz potato chip factory (for those not on the east coast of the US, Utz makes the best potato chips in the world). It turns out that the granddaughter of the owner is one of his classmates and she informed him that it is pronounced "Ootz" not "Uhtz."

It it reminiscent of a divide in Einstein studies. there are those who call him "Einstein" and those who say "Einshtein" which is the German pronunciation and what he called himself. But what if he used the other one? On the radio program "Marketplace" a few years back, the former host, David Broncoccio, received a letter telling him that he was pronouncing his name wrong, that the true Italian pronunciation was not the one he used on the air.

So, the question is who owns the pronunciation of names? With most words, pronunciation is a matter of convention in the linguistic community. A word is pronounced the way most people pronounce it. But is this true with names? Are names owned by the named in a way that normal words are not? Does the linguistic community that gave us the name own its pronunciation? Is it possible to pronounce your own name wrong or is it correct by definition?

Thursday, January 28, 2010

RIP Howard Zinn

Howard Zinn died yesterday of a heart attack. He was an amazing man with the brains and courage to take on any injustice.

The son of Eastern European factory workers, he became a bomber in World War II. Disturbed by the mismatch between the Hollywood image of the nobility of war and the internal politics and pettiness of the real thing in which actual human lives were treated without a thought, it would lead him on a path that would reshape how we think of great events. He used the GI Bill to go to college, NYU and Columbia, where he eventually earned his Ph.D. in history. His first job was teaching at Spelman College, a traditionally black women's college, in Atlanta in the 50s. The horrors of racism in the South and being so close to smart, outraged, oppressed students led him to document and participate in their struggles, marching and protesting with them. He became an adviser to the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and was eventually released as a tenured professor for his radical activities in the name of justice.

He went to Boston University where he remained a vocal advocate for causes he found including the anti-war movement. While there, he wrote his most famous book, A People's History of the United States where he worked systematically through the history of the nation, debunking self-aggrandizing myths and showing how wealth, privilege, and power shaped this nations in ways that ought to make us worry and bring us to change the way things are for the betterment of all Americans.

We lost part of our national conscience yesterday. Howard Zinn lived a life of ideas and action. He will be missed.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Paying the Cost to Be the Boss?

I'm currently the chair of my college's Institutional Review Board, the group that has to approve every experiment that involves human subjects on legal and moral grounds. As such I was brought into a conversation about a new requirement from the National Science Foundation that requires research ethics training for everyone connected to one of their grants. The NSF did not spell out what such training was to consist of and our administration thought it a good idea to come up with a campus-wide uniform approach. so, we did what administrators always have us do -- we had a meeting.

At this meeting one of the scientists was talking about one of her big fears, that one of the students working in her lab would sandbag her, that s/he would hold out on an idea, not sharing it with her, and take it with them to grad school or somewhere else. Her argument was that what happens in her lab is her science. She does all the training and background teaching, she sets the research agenda, secures the funding, oversees the experiments, and so all the science that happens their belongs to her. She would, of course, give co-authorship credit to the students, but any idea that arises in her lab deserves her name and to take it elsewhere is a breach of laboratory ethics.

On the one hand, she is making the scientific version of B.B. King's claim that in running the lab, she is paying the cost to be the intellectual boss. But it has an odd effect. It means she owns her lab assistants and their minds. Their brains are, in essence, lab equipment that belongs to her. That seems odd.

Do your ideas belong to someone else if you are working in their lab when you have the idea? Suppose your idea undercuts or contradicts the beliefs of the senior researcher and he or she not only thinks you are wrong, but tries to keep you from working on your idea in his or her lab until the evidence garners positive reactions from others? Would the senior researcher still deserve credit for the idea, should his or her name really be associated with the advance?

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Fear of Public Speaking

An old friend of mine used to say, "Don't worry about making a fool of yourself, it'll happen soon enough." But we do worry about it. The fear of public speaking regularly ranks along with or above fears of that which could actually cause us harm. Why are we so afraid of it, especially when those whom we heap praise and money upon are those who do it. We want to be actors and singers, yet we find ourselves petrified at the very thing we desire.

Why are we so afraid of public speaking?

Monday, January 25, 2010

How Effective Is Fear as a Motivator in the Classroom?

There are three basic approaches to motivating students to learn: love, utility, and fear. If students love something, if they are interested in a subject, if they are excited by it, then they'll put it in the time and effort needed to acquire the understanding. If they think it is useful, that they will be able to employ the knowledge for some other end that they desire, then they'll try to gain it. Then there are the cases where we convince them that they'll sink if they don't put everything into it, we keep them in perpetual worry about being called on and humiliated if they do not know the answer.

The question is how effective this third approach is. No doubt it can be used successfully to accomplish a physical task, say moving a pile rocks, but what about when it is a cerebral matter? Is fear a successful motivator for learning?

Saturday, January 23, 2010

The Feast of Saint John

My Fellow Comedists,

This weekend would have been the 52nd birthday of John Belushi, the Hunter S. Thompson of comedy. He was born in Chicago to first-generation Albanian-Americans in Chicago, growing up just outside the city. In high-school, he was a model student and star middle linebacker and captain of the football team. He had intended to become a football coach, but appearing in school variety shows, he caught the drama bug. He went to college to major in drama, but after a bout of freshmanitis, transferred to a junior college in the Chicago-area.

He found himself preferring comic roles to the serious ones he had been playing and started an improv troupe in Chicago. When it got some notice, he earned an invitation to join THE improv troup in Chicago. His time at Second City led him to work with some of those who would help him fill out that cohort of comedic geniuses.

His Joe Cocker impression, later made famous on Saturday Night Live, got him a spot in a National Lampoon stage show, "Lemmings," that spoofed Woodstock. It got him in the door with National Lampoon and he became part of their radio troupe, ultimately taking over as director. Here, he worked with many of those who would become the "Not Ready For Prime Time Players" when they made the move to television with Saturday Night Live.

In a spot that had been re-runs of various bits from The Tonight Show during Johnny Carson's heyday, NBC tried something akin to Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In, a comedy/variety show aimed at the younger generation. Little was expected of it, but Belushi led the company to change American comedy giving it the Second City gonzo edge. Leaving the troupe to pursue a film career, he made several films two that that define the comic generation: Animal House and The Blues Brothers.

Here's the bit that started him:

Favorite Belushi moments?

Live, love, and laugh,

Irreverend Steve

Friday, January 22, 2010


The shorter of the short people has his first crush. Of course, the only concepts he has that he can use to express his feelings is the language of love which he hears TheWife and I use with them and each other. But, of course, it doesn't really fit. Or does it?

Is a crush a form of love or something different?

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Why Do We Resent the Good?

I've been thinking about the derogatory term "goody-goody," the label we attach to those who do the right thing even when it is not to their advantage. We give lip service to doing the right thing, but in cases where we are called upon to do it, we resent those who follow through at the cost of our own comfort. The person who reminds the teacher that she forgot to collect the homework assignment is subject to retribution. We see this reflected politically in Rush Limbaugh's rants against helping the Haitian people in their time of greatest need.

It cannot be simply that these people touch on our insecurities because the same treatment is not reserved for those who are better looking, more athletic, or more artistic. What accounts for this?

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Where Do You Find Philosophy?

A colleague of mine once taught a section of introduction to philosophy which he called, "Philosophy is where you find it." So today's question is, where in current popular culture do you find philosophy?

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Art and Popularity

Today is the birthday of Thomas Kinkade, the painter of light. He is simultaneously one of the nation's most popular artists and a punchline for those who study aesthetics. Duke Ellington, when asked what made for good music, famously replied, "If it sounds good and feels good, then it is good." To many "good art" is utterly inaccessible and Thomas Kinkade's work is beautiful.

But, of course, beauty is not a simple experience, it is mediated through categories we acquire. A dear friend and aspiring vintner once took me wine tasting in Napa. For him, each mouthful exposed complex molecules that evoked multiple layers of flavor. To me, wine tasting went like this..."Yup, tastes like wine." What tasted good to me is not necessarily what tasted good to him. One significant difference is that I could never explain why something tasted good to me beyond, "I just like the way it tastes," whereas he could give an lengthy, in depth discussion to this same question

But while the answer may not be capable of explanation on my part, that doesn't mean my experience of pleasure is uncaused. Emile Durkheim argued in The Rules of the Sociological Method, "We can no more choose the design of our houses than the cut of our clothes - at least, the one is as much obligatory as the other." What we like is in part mediated by what we are told to like, what we learn to like.

But the fact is we, those of us without the depth of understanding about the art form, do like what we like. Is there a reason to elevate the opinions of those who understand the history and context of the art form? Is the fact that something is adored by those without the background just a cultural artifact or is indicative of a certain pre-theoretical aesthetic value? Certain works of music just catch us. It sounds good and feels good. Is that really enough to say it is good? Are there two different notions of good at work here?

Monday, January 18, 2010

Can Communities Be Dissolved?

On MLK Day, it seems fitting to think about what divides us and how we come back together. We use phrases like "the gay and lesbian community" or "the hearing impaired community" for subcultures and it often makes sense because many of these groups of people bound together by certain features suffer marginalization. As such, they come together and have to create the sort of social structures that exist in the wider mainstream culture, but which they have been marginalized and kept from or which do not fit their particular needs.

I just finished a wonderful book called Einstein on Race and Racism by Fred Jerome and Rodger Taylor which discusses portions of the racist history of Princeton, New Jersey and illustrates this perfectly. The African-American populations were segregated in terms of location and kept from many of the businesses, churches, and schools in the area and so had to open their own. They had to create institutions of their own and like organism who randomly mutate and then adapt to their surroundings, the culture acquires new and different aspects, features, and means of expression.

The sociologist Ferdinand Tonnies argues in his famous book Community and Society that groups of humans will always create communities -- groupings that bind us based on unity -- and societies -- groupings based on diversities and difference. He contends that all all societies give rise to communities, that is, they find ways creating us versus them situations that unite them, and all societies give rise to societies, that is, any group with more than one person will divide itself up into factions of some sort for some reason.

But it doesn't happen all the time. There is, for example, no left-handed community. Yes, we are a minority, about 10% of the population, and we face certain subtle forms of oppression -- for example, in certain classrooms in which I teach, there are no left-handed desks or when there are fewer than the number of left-handed students that need them, thereby pitting us against each other. But these difficulties are small enough that we have not been forced to create a left-handed community.

But in the cases where one has been created, does it have an intrinsic value that warrants protection of it? When we come to realize that the ways we have divided ourselves are artificial and harmful can we and should we uncreate communities? Is it possible for the grandchildren or great-grandchildren of oppressed members of a community to become completely assimilated? And if so, should this assimilation be avoided?

Saturday, January 16, 2010

What Counts as a Joke?

My Comedist Brethren and Sistren,

I have a theological question for everyone this weekend. In Comedism, nothing is as holy as the joke. but the question is what counts as a joke.

The standard structure of a joke has two parts. First is the set up. Set ups are narratives that have two interpretations, a primary interpretation that you naturally think of when hearing it and a secondary interpretation that you generally don't think of. then you get the punch line whose purpose is to make you realize that you've been misunderstanding the situation in the set-up and that you need to completely reinterpret it or some part of it. The laughter comes when your brain is trying to merge these two interpretations to make sense of both simultaneously, but can't.

There are some jokes whose set ups are notoriously long and the fun of the joke is how long they go on before you get to the punch line. Sometimes this is to divert your attention away from the ambiguity that will be played on, sometimes it's to make the joke complex, other times it's just to have fun messing with the listener. But how long can the set up be and have something still count as a joke?

Extended narratives that do not seem like jokes at first glance have this exact structure and my question today is whether they should be thought of as jokes. Movies that are not billed as comedies like The Wizard of Oz, The Sting, and The Sixth Sense all lead you down a path and then give you the punch. Books, especially mysteries like Murder on the Orient Express, also fit in this category. Even songs like "Dixie Chicken" have this structure.

So, are these jokes? Can you think of others?

Live, love, and laugh,

Irreverend Steve

Can you think of others that might or might not be?

Friday, January 15, 2010

Corporate Use of the Peace Sign: Diluting Its Meaning or Infiltrating the Young Mind?

The less short of the short people has officially entered the "tween" stage. She and TheWife went through her clothes, purging that which was too babyish. She also let us know that she has a favorite clothing store, a place whose offerings fit what she envisions as "her style." It is a typical corporate mall-based store, but has the interesting name "Justice." It isn't fair-trade clothes as one would hope, but when entering, it was filled with pseudo-tie-dye and other shirts sporting facsimile protest slogans designed for pre-teens -- "Save the Earth: It's the only planet with candy" and "Peace, love, and hope."

The clothing has lots of bright colors and lots of glitter, but I also noticed lots of peace signs. I couldn't help but notice an incredible ambivalence as I tried to tune out the sappy boy band music. On the one hand, it is corporate appropriation. This is an attempt to capitalize on the shallowest idea of peace within the usual consumeristic American way of being, not trying to induce people into a sustainable, thoughtful, caring lifestyle. In that sense it seemed a betrayal to use our symbol against us. On the other hand, the overt attempt to include sentiments at least on our side made it seem like a painless first step that could coax young girls just worried about clothes to begin to think about these issues. A spoonful of sugar does help the medicine go down. And success is, in some sense, going mainstream. It is making basic notions of peace entirely unoffensive to the middle of America where they can do the most good. Cohousing communities in Oregon are one thing, malls in conservative central Maryland are another. If it can help make it part of the psyche, maybe it is a good thing.

I don't know which instinct to follow here. Is the corporate appropriation of the peace sign a good thing or a bad thing?

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Tipping Point and the Minimum Wage

The minimum wage for hourly employees is currently a very sad $7.25 per hour. But for many it is $2.13 an hour. That is the "tipped" minimum wage, that is, what employers can pay service workers like restaurant wait staff who regularly receive gratuities as part of their job. While it is certainly true that the tip is income and is made in the course of doing their job, it is not a wage; the waiter or waitress is certainly helping me, but he or she is not working for me, this person is working for the establishment. It seems odd, then, that the establishment can count my thank you for the service against his or her actual wage. At the same time it is expected and it is part of the compensation the worker receives. So, should we have a tipped minimum wage at all? Is this fair?

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Tourists, Vacationers, Travelers, and Visitors

What is the difference between tourists, vacationers, travelers, and visitors? There does seem to be a negative connotation attached to "tourist" that may not be a part of our understanding of the other terms. If I travel to a new place, does that automatically make me a tourist or is being a tourist a way of visiting a place? Does length of stay matter? If so, how long do you have to go in order to stop being a tourist? Is vacationer more or less shallow than tourist?

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

The Humanity of Broken Hearts

In the wake of the suffering post a couple weeks back, Confused, Maybe Not and I considered a proposition I want to throw out here. Is it an essential part of being a human to have had your heart broken? Is it an experience everyone should have? Does it teach you something about being human that you can't learn in other ways? Is someone who lives his or her whole life in bliss with the object of his or her first love missing something?

Monday, January 11, 2010

Privacy and Safety

Traveling day, so it seems an appropriate time to ask about privacy and safety in the air. In light of the BVD bomber's attempt, full body scans are being employed. These are made by imaging machines that let security folks look at you without your clothes. Clearly, the next step is mandatory cavity searches (if they were smart, Homeland Security could be folded into the health care bill, so that the orifice checks could be done by urologists thereby fighting terrorism and prostate disease at the same time).

The question is where the privacy line is. Is there any point at which we can say that the risk involved is outweighed by our personal right to bodily autonomy or privacy? If so, where is that line and why?

Saturday, January 09, 2010

Resurrecting the Chimp

My Comedist Brothers and Sisters,

Over the holidays, my old college roommate was back in town so he, I, and another old friend met to drain a couple and catch up. The bar where we met was playing a montage of old clips and in the series was a bit from Mr. Ed and from Lancelot Link, Secret Chimp. For those too young to remember Lancelot Link, take any of the Austin Powers movies and keep everything exactly the same, except that the entire cast was comprised of chimpanzees. Here's a video from his rock band, the Evolution Revolution:

When seeing them so close to each other, it became clear that talking chimps are inherently funnier than a talking horse. Here's a clip from mr. Ed so you can compare.

So, why is it that talking chimps are funnier than talking horses?

If you want to take the easy line that they are more like humans, then explain why talking chimps are funnier than talking babies:

So, why are chimps so funny?

Live, laugh, and love,

Irreverend Steve

Friday, January 08, 2010

Why Do You Know That?

Let's go back once more to this one. It's the converse of "Auto Mechanics to Quantum Mechanics" where you provide everyone with those tidbits of useless knowledge you have stored away for no good reason.

My contribution:

Not all horse/donkey hybrids are mules, only those with a donkey father and a horse mother. A male horse and a female donkey produce a hinny.

Graham crackers were developed by the Reverend Sylvester Graham in 1829 as part of a religious movement. The cookies were thought to be nutritious in a way that would suppress immoral desires...including those that come with gooey marshmallows and soft melted chocolate.

Isaac Newton only laughed once in his life, when a student asked him of what use is learning geometry.

So, what do you know and why do you know it?

Thursday, January 07, 2010

Destroying Colleges to Save Them

Lamin sent me this article from The New York Times -- Making College Relevant. It shows how those selecting colleges are among the most well-intentioned and ill-informed consumers in the marketplace.

We had an alum come back to visit us a couple weeks ago -- Billy. Good kid, not a brainiac but loved philosophy. he's now got a good job in the private sector and like so many others before came back to say that it was his studies in philosophy that got him the job. All his competitors for the position had "practical" majors -- business management, economics,... -- but he was the one who got it and it has helped him every day of his career. It's a story we hear again and again.

Yet, we see movement in the opposite direction. Here's the worst sentence from the entire article:

"Dr. Wilcox (Provost at Michigan State) says curriculum changes at Michigan State have just as much to do with what students, and the economy, are demanding."
It mistakes a correlation between what students are demanding and what the economy is demanding. Students (and more so their parents) demand from college what they think the economy is demanding. But they are wrong.

Parents and students are justifiably worried about incurring huge student loans obligations and having no job or a poor paying job on the other side. the fear is real and legitimate. But what that fear leads to is viewing a college education as vo-tech training for white collar jobs. "If only I have more classes that teach me to work with spreadsheets, that teaches me to be an entrepreneur, then I'll really get ahead."

But, of course, it is not training of the pedestrian sort that helps students entering the work force. Every job will train you. They know they have to train you. They expect to spend time training you. What they need from you is the ability to think clearly, analytically, creatively, and rigorously. They need you to be able to express yourself well and convincingly. They need you to be able to understand why things happen and to be able to see how they might be done better. They need you to be able to make connections between ideas, especially ones the other guy didn't make. And this requires learning, not training.

Students ask me why they should study logic when they will never have to construct a first-order natural deduction proof in their lives. I answer them by reaching both hands over my head and showing what a lat pull down looks like. "You'll never ever do this in the game of lacrosse," I tell them, "but if you don't spend time in the pre-season doing this a whole lot, you'll never be a good lacrosse player." You may never quote Plato in a marketing meeting. You may never calculate experimental error during a conference call with customers. You may never have to write a ten page expository essay about implementing software packages. You may never make use of the details of what you learn, but learning it is itself training that you could never get by just looking at the details of what you hope is going to be your job.

But patience is hard to come by when you are worried about your child. The straight path is surely the quickest and best, the thought is. State universities have to bend to legislators who have little appreciation for those elitists and their education. Private institutions have to please the parents. When you react out of fear, you don't make the best decisions and what is happening now is that students and parents are scared and higher learning is responding in ways they know do not render maximum benefit. Like the parent who pulls into the fast-food burger joint because the kids will not stop their nagging, colleges are feeding the minds of their students less intellectually nutritious offerings because that is what they are demanding.

The business world and the culture at large benefits from a population that is better educated rather than better trained. People who are rounded and thoughtful create a society that flourishes. But it is hard to think about flourishing when you are worried about surviving.

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Debunking the "Naturalistic" Argument Against Gay Marriage, Part II

Yesterday we began considering the argument that one hears from gay marriage opponents that the state should not grant equal rights to gay and lesbian couples because being gay is immoral due to its unnaturalness. The argument has two steps:

1) Homosexuality is unnatural
2) That which is unnatural is immoral
Therefore, homosexuality is immoral

We looked at the problems with premise 1 in the last post and examine premise 2 today. Is there any sense in which the moral status of an action is tied to nature and does this connection touch human sexuality? Clearly, there are unnatural actions we do not want to condemn -- nothing immoral about wearing eyeglasses or using a computer even though neither is natural in any meaningful sense of the word. So, it must mean something else. It seems that there are two possibilities to justify premise 2: a) moral right and wrong are to be determined according to aspects of nature, or b) it is not unnatural, but anti-natural that is the problem, there is moral import to "the natural order of things."

There is a longstanding debate in ethics between those who support ethical naturalism -- the view that morality has something to do with properties in the world -- and those who oppose the view. Opponents have even coined the phrase "the naturalistic fallacy" for any attempt to ground ethics in the happenings of the world. This argument hinges on what philosophers call the fact/value distinction, that is, that ethics is about what ought to be the case, not what is the case; ethics prescribes, it doesn't describe. Those who support ethical naturalism are trying to get ought from is, but all you can get from is is is.

These views come in several flavors. Social contractarians argue that morality comes about through the formation of human organizations, in other words, it is the creation of civilization that separates itself from nature that gives rise to moral obligations. Nature is red in tooth and claw, a place where anything goes, there is no morality in the wild, but morality is essential for well-lived human lives and arises as a social construction. On this view, morality is there is save us from our nature.

Others, like feminist care-based theorists, move it from society at large down to individual human relationships. I have obligations to my family, my friends, my colleagues and students because of the relationship we share. I do for my children, not because I expect anything in return, but because I care about them. Their well-being is my concern. Either way, if organized society is the place from which moral obligations derive, then it seems that locating them in nature fails.

Ethical naturalists, however, contend that moral judgments are to be based on aspects of reality. Utilitarianism, for example, locates moral goodness in the flourishing or suffering of people. We can tell when and in general terms how much someone is affected by our actions and we ought to strive to create the best possible world. Any attempt to oppose gay marriage on such grounds would need to show that granting equal rights to people who express their care for each other in places you don't see, somehow harms us more than depriving them of their rights harms them...and the rest of us. Good luck with that one.

Emotivists argue that moral statements are really just claims about personal preference. When I say, "You ought not torture puppies for fun," what I mean is that I do not like it when you do such. Clearly, this locates morality in the world, but not in a way conducive to the case of the opponents of gay marriage.

But then there are the ethical supernaturalists, those who place moral duties on a metaphysical platform. Divine command theory is the view that there are a set of absolute rules set forward by God. Here, we have left the realm of ethics -- rational thought about judgment concerning human behavior -- and entered the realm of theology. It is certainly true that different religions have different theological behavioral codes and that much of these codes overlap with ethics. You shouldn't kill, steal, or bear false witness, all other things being equal. But what makes these actions immoral is that there are reasons why not. Simply referring to the mind of a deity which, even if He does exist, you don't have access to is not a basis for reasonable discussion. If you say the Christian God dislikes homosexuality and I say the Comedist God is cool with it, there is no rational place to go. Theological discussions are language games closed in on themselves and should not be confused with ethical discussions that can be meaningfully conducted across all other human boundaries.

So the claim that homosexuality is immoral because it is unnatural runs into problems when you try to fill out the notion of morality in terms of naturalness.

So let's construe the claim differently. It's not that all immoral acts are unnatural, but any action which violates the "natural order of things" is immoral.

- The human body has parts whose biological function is procreation.
- Most people feel an urge to use them in such a way that can result in procreation.
Therefore, it is not of the natural order to use them in ways that differ from that which would satisfy the urges of most people, even if you feel that urge.

The obvious questions are why should the urges of most people be considered "the natural order of things" and why should they be given any moral weight? Most people like fatty and sweet foods and there is good natural reasons for this evolutionarily. To hold the above argument, you would also have to believe that someone who just doesn't like sweets is acting immorally in eating only other foods, say, broccoli.

The argument further assumes that reality is a well-oiled machine, but one that is fragile. Any deviation from normality is a threat to it. The natural order is intrinsically valuable and small actions in opposition to it can derail it. Of course, large-scale constant deviations can threaten nature (see warming, global), but it is hard to see how affording civil rights to people whose sexual preferences are in the minority poses any threat whatsoever. As we saw, homosexuality is present in at least 1,000 species, none of which is endangered by this -- only by us. So, it seems that the "natural order of things" is not actually threatened.

But if it were, why would this necessitate the action's immorality? Adaptation, the changing of the natural order of things, is also quite normal. In some cases, the changes would be unnecessarily harmful to others (see warming, global); but in other cases, the changes would be innocuous, even helpful. So it is yet another burden to the opponents of gay marriage to explain what it is about the state of things in nature that is inherently good. Again, good luck.

So, it seems that any way you try to connect nature to ethics does not lead to the immorality of homosexuality, much less the granting of equal rights to all members of our society regardless of race, sex, or sexual orientation.

Monday, January 04, 2010

Debunking the "Naturalistic" Argument Against Gay Marriage, Part I

As John points out over at The NonSequitur

"Arguments against gay marriage tend to fall into one of two groups: (1) the slippery slope group, which alleges that if gay marriage is permitted, all sorts of outrageous consequences will follow (such as the very Biblical polygamy or man-beast marriage); (2) question-begging Buckleyesque appeals to the natural order: gay marriage is contra naturam."
I discussed the fallacies in the slippery slope argument against gay marriage a while back in the post Countering the Slippery Slope Nonsense: Why Gay Marriage Doesn't Lead to Box Turtle Nuptials, and now want to look at the flawed argument that gay men and lesbians should be denied equal treatment under the law because "homosexuality is unnatural."

There are two steps here. Today, we will examine whether there is any sense to the claim that homosexuality is not natural. Tomorrow, we will examine whether any notion of natural is essential to the moral status of an action.

Before we can say that there is something wrong with homosexuality because of its unnatural nature, we need to know whether it is, in fact, unnatural and for that we need a clear sense of what is meant by the term "natural." The first and most obvious interpretation is "found in nature." This is the sense which contrasts with artificiality. Given this meaning, the claim is simply false. "The pairing of same sex couples had previously been observed in more than 1,000 species including penguins, dolphins and primates." "[M]ale sheep exhibit homosexuality at least as often as humans: roughly 8% of rams turn out to have sex exclusively with other rams." Its prevalence in the sexual behavior of bonobos, one of our closest genetic relatives is well documented.

If that meaning is not available to the opponents of gay marriage, let's consider other possible meanings. It could mean that being sexually attracted to members of the same sex is contrary to one's own nature. But, of course, nothing could be more natural. We do not select those to whom we are attracted. When you look at someone and get that "ooooh" feeling, it is a natural feeling that arises from within you, not the end of a cognitive process or a choice. One could not decide to become attracted to someone whom one is not. So, with this sense of the term, again, gay men and lesbians are naturally gay.

Maybe it means that it is contrary to human nature. This, then, requires a clean definition of human nature -- should one exist. Are there properties that are innate to all people, aspects that are not environmental? And if so, are any of these aspects sexual?

This is a burden to be assumed by those who make the claim and I've never seen a good account of human nature, but the strongest version seems to be based upon evolutionary concepts (something not easily made consistent with the worldviews of many gay marriage opponents). The argument would run like this:

- Humans are animals.
- Animals have a prime directive to perpetuate the species.
- Perpetuating the species requires having offspring.
- Having human offspring requires sexual intercourse with a member of the opposite sex.
- Gay men and lesbians do not have sexual relations with members of the opposite sex.
Therefore, homosexuality is contrary to humans' biological nature.

It is an odd argument in a number of ways. First, it makes heterosexual rape natural, since it would be an effective means of having offspring, and if we want to take the next step to natural entails morally necessary, the results are clearly problematic. Second, if the argument is sound, then it means that any reason for not having children would be problematic, creating an odd moral equivalence between being gay and being abstinent, and thus it would also be unnatural and thus immoral to be a Catholic priest. Third, it assumes that the only way to help perpetuate the species is through procreation. Of course, there are many ways that members of species contribute to the whole other than impregnating and giving birth, so even if we do have some sort of primal obligation to help maintain the species, surely there are many ways that can be done for those who for any reason choose not to have children. Finally, it impoverishes sexual intercourse, reducing it to nothing but baby creation. Human sexual relations are, indeed, an incredibly complex phenomenon which serve many, many functions -- some social, some biological, others interpersonal. This argument takes it and makes it only, or at least primarily, a function of reproduction. We are sexual beings by nature, but to take this aspect and argue that it amounts to a drive to populate the planet is a gross oversimplification of a complex part of the well-lived human life.

So, whether we take "nature" to refer to the entire natural world, the nature of the species, or the nature of the individual, the argument that homosexuality is unnatural fails. I believe the real sense of "unnatural" in many cases is as a synonym for yucky. Opponents of gay marriage find homosexual relations personally distasteful. That may or may not be true, but in any case it takes the claim to a subjective level that does not support the ultimate claim. That claim requires not only that homosexuality be unnatural, but that there is a link between naturalness and morality. That, is tomorrow's discussion.

An Honest Question to Christian Readers

The week before Christmas, I was outside of a grocery store that had a sale on holiday hams. It struck me as odd that the birth of someone who was Jewish would be regularly celebrated by His followers with something that was not kosher, clearly forbidden in Leviticus 11. This would be no problem at all if the the entire Old Testament was rejected, but the creation story in Genesis and the Ten Commandments seem to be still taken seriously.

So, the question I've never understood is what criterion is used to determine what parts of the first five books is still operative and which parts God changed his mind about? In determining Christian theology, how do you know when it is o.k. to refer to the earlier sections and when are they obsolete? Is it opt-in or opt-out, that is, does there have to be reference to the passage in the New Testament for it still to be enforceable Divine command or does there have to be contradiction of it in the Gospels for it to be overturned? Or is the condition something else altogether? Growing up Jewish and watching Christians eat anything they wanted during Passover -- especially when it overlapped with Easter -- always left me curious about this.

Saturday, January 02, 2010

The Feast of Saint Rowan

My Fellow Comedists,

This week we celebrate the feast of Saint Rowan. Rowan Atkinson will turn 55. Appearing in the late 70's in Not the Nine O'Clock News, the BBC's version of The Daily Show. It's success led to his shot in Black Adder. This, of course, led to Black Adder II, Black Adder the Third, and Black Adder Goes Forth.

Following Black Adder, Atkinson created Mr. Bean, probably his most well-known persona. The quality of slapstick work Atkinson turns out rivals Peter Sellars. Even Hollywood couldn't destroy it.

He's become a mainstream character actor, appearing in a number of high profile roles, but one of my favorites came from one of his first appearances. In The Secret Policeman's Ball, he appears beside Peter Cook and several members of Monty Python, a hall of fame collection of British comic talent, and still -- as a young nobody -- manages to still the scene. No small feat.

Happy Birthday Rowan Atkinson.

Live, love, and laugh,

Irreverend Steve

Friday, January 01, 2010

New Year's Wishing Well

Happy New Year everyone! Here's wishing a happy and healthy 2010 to everyone, a year in which you get what you wish.

Log those 2010 wishes in the comments and let's see how many come true.