How Evolution Can Help Us Think About Gay Marriage

Adam Smith, Charles Darwin, and gay marriage. The wisdom we take from evolution is the same that a good economist takes from the Invisible Hand: absent really good reasons, let things be. Don’t be hubristic; don’t interfere too much with markets or an individual’s inherited characteristics. Make room for people’s sirens (their inner calls); for expressions of novelty and experiment.

Our temperaments, our sexual preferences, our energy levels, etc. all have important biological components; they all occur along inherited continuums. Twin studies attest to this. Let them be.

If we live in a society that values the individual and freedom, then we’ll have a bias against hastily putting the kibosh on biologically inherited behavioral variation; we’ll be reluctant to force individuals into conformity absent very, very good reasons to do so.

This reluctance is grounded in our knowledge of how evolution works (by variant gambits). It’s not because we imagine ourselves helping evolution along or taking moral cues from evolution. It’s just deriving wisdom from the way things are and the way they change, Grasshopper.

Plato against the individual. If we don’t value individuals qua individuals or freedom qua freedom, then we won’t care what biology and evolution tell us about variation. The facts on the ground won’t matter. We’ll run roughshod over individuals on our way to achieving our version of an ideal society (as Plato did in the imagining of his perfect republic).

But once we say we value individuals and freedom, our quest for the ideal society relaxes a bit. We see the individual’s autonomy as a competing good with our utopian schemes, and we want to be informed by biology in making decisions that impact people with variant behaviors.

Biology and evolution help us to see the individual; to wisely and compassionately recall that, just as we don’t want our own biologically influenced and contingent siren calls of conscience, reason, or passion blocked by social coercion, so we shouldn’t want to block these calls in others absent very compelling social reasons for doing so.

Evolution and private v. public. No “is” needs to dictate your personal bucket list of “oughts.” Given that evolution plays every gambit–cooperative to selfish, etc.–what generalization could you make from it in any case?

As a contingent and variant creature, you may surmise that your own inner logic and private sirens are calling you away from any Golden Mean or evolutionary strategy adhered to by the herd.

That’s you on the private level.

But on the social level, in the weighing of competing goods, we should use biology and evolution to inform public policy.

How so? By letting evolution function as a source of wisdom. It reminds us that individual siren calls exist along a continuum, and they frequently have a significant biological basis. This ought to bring us to greater empathy in our decision making.

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Form v. Change: Gay Marriage, Thomism, Capitalism, and Evolution

I’ve had a modest insight: the dividing line that I’ve been trying to articulate between Thomists and myself surrounding gay marriage can actually be pretty succinctly stated: Thomists take clues from the nature of form to guide them in how an issue ought to be navigated, and I’m arguing that we should take clues from the nature of change.

Whether it’s woman’s “end” or the penis’s, both appeal to aspects of nature that we actually observe, but one leads to an argument for heterosexual conformity (follow the given, or an ideal derived from the given, or a Golden Mean), while the other appeals to allowances for nature’s dicing of diversity (variant expression along a continuum).

The Thomist position is grounded in hubris (one can know the right thing to do; one size fits all); mine is grounded in epistemic humility (we don’t really know how the contingent inner logic of a variant might actually benefit the organism in its contingent environment, and thus how the future might play out if we take a hands-off or “let it be” approach to its expression).

Both of us are reasoning from how we take nature to be most essentially (form v. evolutionary change), and are deriving, from our particular emphasis, an ought (generally follow the Golden Mean vs. generally allow for the Invisible Hand of evolution).

In practice, of course, both form and change come under consideration whenever we try to navigate a situation. Just like we, in a mixed economy, leave capitalism to itself unless it’s obviously running over a cliff (such as with the banking crisis), so we do the same with evolutionary diversity (pedophilia as a sexual variation along the human continuum of sexual preference is a “Big No,” gay marriage is a “Tolerable Yes” that we can be presumptively neutral about; let the experiment take place, as with marijuana legalization, and see how it plays out).

Or at least I think gay marriage should be a yes.

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Why Call “Gay Marriage” Marriage?

Conservatives sometimes ask why gay marriage has to be called “marriage” at all. Why not, for example, stick with “civil unions”–or adopt some other distinctive name?

But there already is a serviceable name distinction: civil marriage v. religious marriage.

Gays and lesbians, as taxpaying citizens, don’t regard themselves as being in an inferior position to other tax paying citizens. When they go to marry, they seek the same civil marriage certificate from the registrar/recorder as heterosexuals. They don’t want separate but equal, and so a name distinction will not do in the civil realm.

If conservatives would not conflate civil marriage with religious marriage, there would be less friction here, but it’s in the interest of conservatives to conflate them. It’s disingenuous; a way of making it seem that the definition of marriage is being “taken over” by a freakish (to them) minority.

But there has never been only one definition of marriage. Catholics, for example, don’t recognize Mormon marriages beyond the civil realm. And it is only the civil definition of marriage that is being expanded to include same sex couples. No religious definition is impacted in the least (unless the religious group wants that).

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Behavior Drives The Evolution Of Form: One Reason Thomistic Natural Law Theorizing Is Dubious

With regard to natural law theorizing (what constitutes rational or natural behavior for an individual), contemporary Thomists are not, in my view, taking proper account of the fact that, in the higher species of animals, form does not drive the evolution of behavior, behavior drives the evolution of form.

Put another way, if a population of animals only took its cue to behavior from its existing form, its evolution would stall.

Whether it’s the flamingo’s “smile,” the panda’s thumb, or the bonobo female’s huge clitoris (which most characteristically gets rubbed on other females for pleasure and group bonding, countering male power in the species), behavioral variation–not playing to type or form–drives the evolution of form. Behavioral variation drives morphological change, not the other way around.

This is one of the cardinal rules of evolutionary biology. It’s been known for more than a century.

Put yet another way, if you behave differently from your given form, and that behavior proves beneficial to the species, it puts evolutionary pressure on the form to adapt to the new behavior (as with the bonobo’s ever enlarging clitoris).

Another example: before you’ll get shallow sea-dwelling creatures with their flat bellies oriented to the sand, you might first get fish swimming sideways. A disorder, you might say, but perhaps not from the vantage of evolution. In the right environment, it could prove to be an advantage that drives morphological reorganization.

Yet another example: before you’ll get a whale, you’ll first get a hairy land mammal oriented in an obsessive and uncharacteristic way (in relation to its form) to winning pleasure and food from the sea. The first step in the process might be little more than behaviorally dropping an aversion to water. The variations without the aversion might do better over time.

So when Thomas Aquinas proposed 700 years ago that the clues to one’s behavior should be read off of one’s forms–the penis is for reproduction only, etc.–he didn’t know Darwin. He didn’t know the role behavioral variation plays in driving the evolution of forms.

We now know that Aquinas had essence/accident turned exactly the wrong way around in relation to how a new species actually comes into existence. A lot of offspring have to play against type. There is no golden mean of form to conform to; there are only irreducible contingent variations in behavior along a continuum, many of them tugging at the most common usages of form in that species.

Nature doesn’t miss a bet. Behavioral variation is how nature keeps its bets open.

So when the natural law theorist says it’s irrational or unnatural to not play (or conform) to an average or characteristic type, he’s not taking proper account of how God, if God exists, plays against type–against form–to bring about new species.

Aquinas couldn’t have known this. Contemporary Thomists don’t have that excuse.

And this bears directly on irreducible sexual variation along a continuum. What’s rational and natural in sex cannot reasonably be said to be confined to a narrow and golden mean–the penis is for reproduction; the clitoris for stimulation only in the missionary position, etc. Evolution is more complicated than reading a narrow range of behaviors off of an attenuated and impoverished definition of form.

In architecture, form follows function. As a business or family’s needs change and behavior patterns change, rooms might be added to an existing building, and in a way that suits the surrounding environment.

In evolutionary biology, form follows behavior.

What I’m suggesting is that Thomistic essence/accident should be substituted with form follows behavior–and in humans, “form follows imagination.” No golden mean or average to conform to, but forms following contingent pursuits of imagination and passion.

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Gay Marriage: Should Empathy Or Thomistic Intellect Be The Deciding Factor For Heterosexual Opinion?

With regard to gay and lesbian marriage, maybe empathy is not the way to go. Maybe Aquinas-style intellect separated from empathy is correct. Aquinas, after all, was quite tough on Jews without apparent pangs of conscience. He called them “Christ-killers” (Occisores Christi), and believed that God had willed supersessionism on the Jews for killing Christ (the Church replaces Israel). So perhaps Thomas Aquinas, the strictly logical fellow that he was, would say of Auschwitz that the Jews had it coming to them. Who knows what Aquinas would have said of Auschwitz?

But I think Aquinas’ anti-Semitism stains his whole legacy–and concretely illustrates its folly. Nobody who closes their hearts to racism, anti-Semitism, or women’s inequality is on a path that’s moving them closer to God, and I think it’s true as well for those who have hardened their hearts to gay and lesbian equality and marriage. If God exists, intellect divorced from close attention to empathy is not a path to God.

So to oppose, as Aquinas did, love between two men or two women, it’s difficult to ground it in positive emotions. All you’ve really got is appeal to religious authority and “natural law,” two dubious epistemic constructs, not reason.

Appeals to natural law are dishonest about sex. Contemporary Thomists are really just proscribing sex in accord with religious authority. Natural law is the window dressing. They equate natural law with reason because reason has the sheen of legitimacy that religion no longer has. Religious prohibition seems arbitrary–and who wants to seem arbitrary?

But natural law is not reason, it’s rationalization. And it’s often heartless, walling off people from one another–and, by guilt, turning sexual desire, variation, and otherness into an emotional dungeon (“The form of the penis is for reproduction only, therefore…”).

If Christianity is true, humility should bring one to the cross, wrestling with such things as Auschwitz, evolutionarily derived sexual variation in humans, and empathy (imagining oneself in the shoes of gay and lesbian people). There shouldn’t be arrogant, smug, confident, and pat answers to such question as Auschwitz, evolution, and gays. A state of doubt about what God really wants for gay and lesbian people follows an honest wrestling with Auschwitz, evolution, and empathy.

Unfortunately, after God didn’t prevent Auschwitz, we don’t even know whether He (She?) is moral–unless you’re ready to get Orwellian about what morality and goodness are (“Whatever God does or doesn’t do is good, and (S)he doesn’t answer to anybody”). And so a question mark ought to be the new cross; the new way to interact with Jesus. Doubt gives gay and lesbian people space to flourish as themselves. Maybe their existence is just part of the healthy continuum of human sexuality–and if it’s not, God will sort that out. At least you haven’t iced up your heart with intellect and erected hate on them, harming your own soul.

If you adopt an empathic attitude–as Aquinas might have done toward Jews, women, and gays, but didn’t–even if you’re being over-indulgent about an issue, at least your heart is staying open to love.

Pope Francis is trying to keep an open mind and heart about the lives of gays and lesbians–“Who am I to judge?”–and surely any God worth wanting to love–and worthy of human love–can hardly be too angry at those who erred in life on the side of love. Jesus hung out with “sinners.”

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The Separation of Church and Sex

Masturbation is liberation. In light of the fact that God appears to be hidden and silent, what could be the (non-question begging) foundations for proscribing sexual behavior?

Sex seeks to hijack the mind and body to a very particular agenda (reproduction), and patriarchal religious institutions seek to hijack the mind and body to a very particular agenda as well (the perpetuation of the power structures of the patriarchal religion itself).

So when somebody masturbates, or uses the pill or a condom, or engages in same sex acts, the hijacking of the body and mind by reproduction and religion gets subverted. It is no longer reproduction or religion that are in the driver’s seat, but the mind. It governs its own body, hijacking sex and religion to purposes of its own.

This is healthy; it is in accordance with natural law (Walt Whitman’s, not Thomas Aquinas’s). Sexual liberation is mental liberation; it makes all things new.

Dance. The powers that be hate that. There’s a reason that rock music, psychedelics, dancing, and nudity accompanied the 1960s counter-culture. To shake off the shackles of the conformist mind, it is a good strategy to shake the body; to break out of the mental box of external agendas like reproduction and religious prohibition (Blake’s “mind-forged manacles”).

Imagination precedes essence. This is obviously not what theologians mean by following “natural law,” but behold, it is good. If there ever was a natural law, this is it: imagination precedes essence. Evolution has placed in humans a desire for self-determination and subversion of the given through imagination. It’s our evolutionary superpower; our eagle’s wings and claws. It’s how we’ve come to dominate the planet. We don’t do what our oppressors (natural or human) tell us to do. Our imaginations precede essence.

Sex and politics. The independent mind combined with sex can be a politically powerful tool for subverting the agendas of centralized power (think Aristophanes’ Lysistrata–women who act up are dangerous). Thus two lesbians are not just indulging in a “disordered” and private lust when they make love, but a political act–an act against patriarchy; against a historic injustice that has, for millennia, restrained the flourishing of women. They are saying no to the chains that men have placed on them.

There’s a reason, in Orwell’s 1984, that Winston Smith seeks to subvert his oppressors, not just by keeping a diary, but by pursuing a sexual affair.

And so Blake says, “One law for the lion and ox is oppression,” and, “As the caterpillar chooses the fairest leaves to lay her eggs, so the priest lays his curse on the fairest joys.”

Sexual liberation is among the fairest of joys, and the foundation for the highest natural law–the law of the free human mind and body. What is ethical and decent is to free mind and body; to leave these to the individual’s conscience, not generic religious or Thomistic “natural law” proscription.

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God Is Maximally Existent; Existence is Good; Therefore God Is Maximally Good?

A bait-and-switch I notice among Thomist theologians and philosophers: they’ll say that existence is good; and God is the most existent Being; therefore God is maximally good. He has the greatest degree of “ontological Goodness.” (Imagine the sweetest and largest baked cookie ever.)

The more existence, the more goodness. In other words, for Thomists, goodness picks up the lint of everyday moral associations, but that’s not really what goodness means in this context.

What’s the difference, after all, between “ontological Goodness” and simply saying that existing maximally is good?

Why not take the loaded term good out of God altogether and just say that the Tao (or the Kubrick Monolith, or Ginsberg’s Old Nobodaddy, or whatever you want to call it) is the “ontological Maximum”?

What would it mean to say that God is not maximally moral, but only maximally existent? What are the consequences? I see three:

  • The Holocaust. It takes us off the hook for explaining the Holocaust–and by extension, the problem of evil generally. God didn’t save the Jews from Hitler because God isn’t moral.
  • The end of mystical holism. It wouldn’t necessarily be pleasant to be at one with God. If God is maximally existent, but not maximally loving, personal, or moral, perhaps we wouldn’t want to exist in the way that “God” or the Tao exists. Who really wants to participate in that form of existence–making it a goal? There’s no evidence it feels good, has moral impulses, thinks–or does much of anything. It’s just maximally existent; the uncaused first cause, unmoved, just sitting there. Kind of boring.
  • We could do unnatural things (not follow natural law). We wouldn’t have to conform to the created order. Our created form, after all, would be given to us by the impersonal and amoral ontological Maximum. Why would an amoral Being care if we don’t play to type? If God isn’t morally good in the conventional sense, but just maximally existent (and that’s “good”), that upends the whole point of following natural law, as in, say, using the penis solely in accord with what can be inferred that God made it for–reproduction. God’s cool with anything you do with a penis–or anything else. Experiment. Read Nietzsche.

So if God doesn’t answer, for example, the Jews’ cries at the Holocaust, why not be existentially open and experimental, not looking to conform to anything given? God (the Tao) obviously doesn’t care about what humans do. We are bereft. Auschwitz tells us that.

So a maximally existent Being doesn’t necessarily mean a maximally moral or maximally attentive Being; therefore, unless one can plausibly explain the Holocaust as metaphysically coherent with a moral God, God is not good–just maximally existent.

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Tony Perkins: “There’s a shared desire to come behind a candidate.”

Calling Dr. Freud. This is in The New York Times today:

“There’s a shared desire to come behind a candidate,” said Tony Perkins, the President of the Family Research Council, a national lobbying group that opposes abortion and equal rights for gays.

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Why Adam and Eve Never Existed (Illustrated By An Analogy To Birds On An Island)

Imagine an island off the coast of a continent. Two birds from the continent–a male and female–get swept up by a storm and find themselves stranded on this island. They go on to mate and a new species of bird evolves. They’re the Adam and Eve of that particular species on this particular island.

But wait. What if six birds are swept over to the island, and they begin interbreeding? Over time, mutations swap in all sorts of directions between the descendants of those six, and those mutations add up to a new species specially adapted to that island.

Which couple is the Adam and Eve of the new species now? Answer: there was no Adam and Eve for that species. There was a population that got isolated down to six–that bottlenecked at six–and those six combined their genetic inheritance to generate and swap genes to make the new species–and the variety of genetic diversity it possesses today.

Population geneticists would know that there were six individual birds from which the species branched, not two, based on the amount of genetic diversity displayed by the contemporary members of the group. They would know this for the same reason that population geneticists know today that the contemporary diversity of humans indicates that our species has never bottlenecked at a figure of less than 1250, and that the Khoisan tribe in Africa possesses the most divergent genetic profile of any group of people on the planet.

But what if those birds evolved a civilization and had a religious text that told them that their species started with a couple, and they read it literally?

Then you could posit that of those six original birds, two of them were given one mutation–a spiritual mutation–in which God put an eternal soul into them. This is not something traceable by genetics, but it would be reasonable to assume that if the soul mutation was advantageous, then it would spread to all the descendants of the six birds over time (by interbreeding).

The birds could even posit that their Adam and Eve soul mutation started on the continent, and spread among many birds before it ever even came to the island, and that all six original inhabitants of the island had souls from day one (because their parents had souls back on the continent).

In other words, there’s a way around the genetics. If you’re prepared to treat a miraculous soul change in two birds as a species change that confers benefits to the possessors, you’re home free.

So when it comes to miracles, you can make up any wild theory you want. You can put God’s eternal soul mutation anywhere along the continuum of the birds’ evolutionary lineage. All bets can be off. Population geneticists can’t prove the birds’ religious story is wrong, but the birds can never know whether or not they’re deluding themselves.

Which of course they are.

But imagine if the birds had experts in literature and the study of bird culture, the overwhelming majority of whom saying, “The Adam and Eve bird story in the Old Book is an etiological narrative. It doesn’t need to be read literally.”

Now things get complicated again. Would it be wise of the birds to go against both the geneticists and the cultural and literary academics of their species? Surely it would be better for them to say, “Let’s read our Adam and Eve bird story as a good campfire tale, and leave it at that.”

That would be their out so that they wouldn’t have to make up a strained Adam-and-Eve-bird-soul-infusion hypothesis to save the veracity of the Sacred Book.

If the birds took their Adam and Eve tale to just be a myth, it would accord with empiricism and Occam’s razor. It would fit all the evidence and expert opinion simply and naturally. But the problem, of course, is whether the birds’ religious orthodoxy could really withstand the dropping of sacred text literalism and evolve to accommodate the deliverances of their reality testing.

Easier and more fun for the birds would be to blow off the snooty genetic, cultural, and literary experts, stop thinking so hard, maintain nostalgia for the inerrancy of the Old Book, fly to Kentucky, and build a bird creation museum there.

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From The Brothers Karamazov To The Holocaust: Could You Will It Again and Again?

In the Brothers Karamazov, a little before the Grand Inquisitor section, Dostoevsky describes the death of an eight year-old, and this is sufficient to cause Ivan in the novel to reject the whole notion that a good God made the world. If I recall, the child accidentally hurt the paw of the dog of a rich man, was hunted down for it, and lifted onto a bayonet in the presence of his mother.

This sort of existential horror is too much for Ivan to hold together with the idea that a good God exists–and now multiply that by 6,000,000.

So I have a question for anyone who wants to answer it: if humanity goes on for another 10,000 years, and in each century there is a Holocaust-level horror (death by torturous degrees for a whole mass of people–akin to Dostoevsky’s eight year-old with his mother, multiplied by 6,000,000), would you still say that God’s creation is good–or would you say that you would have done it differently?

Could you will such a playing out of history–the Holocaust in reruns–or would you switch off the cosmic television set?

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God’s Pregnancy Test: The Law of Non-Contradiction and the Holocaust

With regard to God’s existence, what happens when we apply the law of non-contradiction to the Holocaust?

God is said to be all good and powerful–but the Holocaust happened; therefore if God is good, he’s not all powerful, and if all powerful, not good, for an all good and powerful God would have stopped the Holocaust–unless he had supremely good, overriding, and unavoidable reasons for not doing so.

What might those supremely good, overriding, and unavoidable reasons be?

If one can’t come up with plausible, non-cringe inducing, metaphysical justifications for the Holocaust, there’s good reason to think that God’s existence as both good and all powerful is incoherent–and should be abandoned altogether. As in: this idea must die.

And merely plausible justifications really aren’t enough. As a matter of logic–compelling logic–God cannot be all good and powerful if God had no truly overriding and compelling reasons for allowing–or (gasp) willing!–the Holocaust.

So what are these intellectually and emotionally irresistible, captivating, and spell-binding reasons? What greater good (or goods) was God shooting for that required the Holocaust to happen–and that he simply could not have reached without bringing six million European Jews to collective crucifixion?

(I do hope among those goods was not simply his pleasure and those of his saints in heaven. As flies to wanton boys are we to this god?)

God is either pregnant with supreme goodness and power, or he’s not pregnant. He can’t sort-of be pregnant, or be both pregnant and not pregnant at the same time–and the Holocaust is his pregnancy test.

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Does The Holocaust Render Natural Law Problematic?

Think about the Holocaust in relation to natural law.

Even if the Holocaust doesn’t give you pause in relation to God’s existence, it nevertheless functions as an impasse to comprehension. What was God up to in letting the Holocaust happen? What is God up to in creating the penis?

It will not do to say that the first question is uncertain, but the second certain. If the first question is uncertain, it’s all uncertain.

The Holocaust casts a shadow over reason itself–and therefore natural law.

Who knows what God ultimately made anything for?

There appears to be nothing rational about a good God using (or allowing) the Holocaust to achieve his (her?) ultimate ends, so the Holocaust ought to set all of natural law theorizing into a tailspin.

God’s rational purposes are what are in question with the Holocaust–which means that what constitutes reason is up for grabs everywhere.

After the Holocaust, it borders on dark comedy to assert that, though you have no clue what God was up to with the Holocaust, you nevertheless know what God is up to in other domains of existence–such as what the penis should be used for (reproduction only).

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Art Students Recreate Nude Masterpieces

The following link is interesting:

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2015/03/20/artsy-nudes-sva_n_6913694.html

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Life on Enceladus?

It appears that beneath the ice of Enceladus, a moon of Saturn, is an ocean with sand resting on its bottom and heat vents reaching 190 degrees. Life around the vents? Possibly. Cassini will get within thirty miles of Enceladus later this year.

http://www.npr.org/…/researchers-think-theres-a-warm-ocean-…

A new analysis of particles believed to be from the bottom of oceans inside Enceladus suggest the moon is toasty warm.
NPR.ORG
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Steven Pinker Says Violence Is On The Decline. Really.

A short and excellent talk, by Steven Pinker, on the global decline of violence.

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“Why the Germans? Why the Jews?” Thinking about Gotz Aly’s New Book, 70 Years after Auschwitz

Given that this week marks the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, I’d like to share a new book on the Holocaust that I’ve been reading: Gotz Aly’s Why the Germans? Why the Jews? It raises the question of how the conditions for the Holocaust could have come together in the first place, and one of those conditions (he suggests) is a simple one: the seventh deadly sin–envy–and its correlates, such as resentment, Schadenfreude (taking secret pleasure in the misfortune of others), and over-compensation born of self doubt (“I’m really superior to those elitists over there; I’m exceptional, they are crap–and holding me back!”).

Such attitudes had infected German politics.

So it’s a hard-to-put-down read that resonates (troublingly) with some of the dynamics in contemporary American politics. While reading this book, for instance, I can’t help but think that the chest-thumping phrase, “American exceptionalism,” is a milder version of the Germans’ “master race,” bandied about as a Medusa amulet to ward off the self-doubt that we actually aren’t all that different from other countries.

Nations suffused with envy and resentment (masked as defiant independence and supreme confidence) grow paranoid, irrational, and dangerous. A lesson we need to relearn again and again, apparently.

http://www.amazon.com/Why-Germans-Jews-Pre…/…/ref=sr_1_sc_1…

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How Do You Know? Factive Verbs in Relation to Political, Religious, and Scientific Discourse

I’m thinking about factive verbs this morning in relation to such things as global warming, God’s existence, evolution, the future of the stock market, etc.

ESTABLISH, for example, is a very strong, emphatic verb, as in, “I’ve established the truth of this matter.” It’s akin to LEARN (as in “I have just learned that my father has died”), or to KNOW (as in, “I know that my father has died”), or to DISCOVER (as in “I just discovered that my father died yesterday”).

Other verbs like this are admit, perceive, recognize, secure, confirm, observe, show, and remember.

Grammarians call these factive verbs.

The linguist Steven Pinker, in his book The Stuff of Thought (2008), gives this example of a particularly dishonest and pernicious use of a factive verb: “When [President] Bush said that the British government had ‘learned’ that Saddam had sought uranium, he was committing himself to the proposition that the uranium seeking actually took place, not that the British government believed it did” (8).

Factive verbs are extraordinarily tricky to use, for we all know (know itself is a factive verb!) that we cannot ever really know things with absolute and complete certainty, and yet factive verbs function in sentences in this absolute fashion.

They are meant to set before the mind something that is to be treated as true. And yet, when we are trying to speak carefully and honestly, there is always a feeling that we should qualify our factive verbs, especially when we put them in the past tense, as in ESTABLISHED, for they seem to want to deconstruct themselves.

Another aspect of factive verbs, therefore, is in relation to deductive and inductive reasoning. In deductive reasoning, if our premises are true, the conclusion is 100% certain (“Socrates is a man, all men are mortal, therefore Socrates is mortal”). In inductive reasoning, if our premises are true, the conclusion is something less than 100% certain (“Socrates sneezed, people who sneeze tend to have colds, therefore Socrates PROBABLY has a cold”). Factive verbs follow readily from deductive arguments, but are exaggerations in relation to inductive arguments (“We KNOW Socrates has a cold”; “We KNOW that sea levels will rise six feet over the next century,” etc.). Inductive reasoning requires that we qualify our claims (“We think it’s probable Socrates has a cold,” etc.).

So factive verbs are all variations on the claim to definite knowledge. Thus the implications for caution and skepticism in the use of factive verbs like “know” or “settled” in political, religious, and scientific discourse are pretty clear, especially in relation to the future. You can, for example, listen for a speaker’s use of factive verbs, and when it’s your turn to speak, point to the factive verb and ask a simple question: “How do you know?”

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Pipeline vs Freeway: What is Net Neutrality, Really?

Net neutrality treats the Internet as a data pipeline, akin to a water pipeline. It doesn’t discriminate between the content that flows through it.

That’s all net neutrality is.

But there are Republican politicians who want to monetize the Internet pipeline on behalf of Internet providers, turning it into something more akin to a freeway with fast lanes and slow lanes. On the freeway model, websites, ads, and streaming videos from large corporations and billionaire-funded politicians would load quickly (because they’ve paid big bucks to get their messages prioritized and channeled past non-paying messages), while everybody else’s messages (whistle-blowers, small alternative media, YouTube video makers, podcasters, bloggers, etc.) would stall and get buried in the data slow lanes.

A monetized Internet dis-empowers individuals and empowers large corporations and rich interests.

I support leaving the Internet pipeline a pipeline, not turning it into a freeway with fast and slow lanes. Whatever flows, let it flow at exactly the same rates (as the situation is now). That’s net neutrality.

If you have an Internet connection, and put data out on the Internet in the form of a podcast, a video, an image, or a text, people should be able to locate you, and download what you have to say as quickly and as easily as, say, McDonald’s or the Koch brothers. It’s what makes the Internet awesome and democratically empowering–whether you’re 18 or 80.

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China’s New Silk Road Economic Belt

Eight jarring quotes from a recent Salon article by Pepe Escobar, a correspondent for Asia Times, suggest to me that China is going to fly past the United States as the preeminent global power–perhaps as early as a decade from now. Here’s the first quote:

Singapore’s former foreign minister George Yeo sees the newly emerging world order as a solar system with two suns, the United States and China.

Second quote:

Russia, India, and China have just sent a powerful message westward: they are busy fine-tuning a complex trilateral strategy for setting up a network of economic corridors the Chinese call “new silk roads” across Eurasia. Beijing is also organizing a maritime version of the same, modeled on the feats of Admiral Zheng He who, in the Ming dynasty, sailed the “western seas” seven times, commanding fleets of more than 200 vessels. Meanwhile, Moscow and Beijing are at work planning a new high-speed rail remix of the fabled Trans-Siberian Railroad.

We can’t even get high-speed rail between LA, Vegas, and San Francisco. Third quote:

[T]his is just part of the frenetic action shaping what the Beijing leadership defines as the New Silk Road Economic Belt and the Maritime Silk Road of the twenty-first century. We’re talking about a vision of creating a potentially mind-boggling infrastructure, much of it from scratch, that will connect China to Central Asia, the Middle East, and Western Europe. Such a development will include projects that range from upgrading the ancient silk road via Central Asia to developing a Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar economic corridor; a China-Pakistan corridor through Kashmir; and a new maritime silk road that will extend from southern China all the way, in reverse Marco Polo fashion, to Venice.

Fourth quote:

In 2009, the Asia-Pacific region had just 18% of the world’s middle class; by 2030, according to the Development Center of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, that figure will rise to an astounding 66%. North America and Europe had 54% of the global middle class in 2009; in 2030, it will only be 21%. 

Fifth quote:

Follow the money, […] no less than 200,000 Chinese workers were involved in the production of the first iPhone, overseen by 8,700 Chinese industrial engineers. They were recruited in only two weeks. In the U.S., that process might have taken more than nine months. The Chinese manufacturing ecosystem is indeed fast, flexible, and smart — and it’s backed by an ever more impressive education system. Since 1998, the percentage of GDP dedicated to education has almost tripled; the number of colleges has doubled; and in only a decade, China has built the largest higher education system in the world.

Sixth quote:

The extent and complexity of China’s myriad transformations barely filter into the American media. Stories in the U.S. tend to emphasize the country’s “shrinking” economy and nervousness about its future global role, the way it has “duped” the U.S. about its designs, and its nature as a military “threat” to Washington and the world. The U.S. media has a China fever, which results in typically feverish reports that don’t take the pulse of the country or its leader. In the process, so much is missed. One prescription might be for them to read The Governance of China, a compilation of President Xi’s major speeches, talks, interviews, and correspondence. It’s already a three-million-copy bestseller in its Mandarin edition and offers a remarkably digestible vision of what Xi’s highly proclaimed “China Dream” will mean in the new Chinese century.

Seventh quote:

Xi Dada (“Xi Big Bang” as he’s nicknamed here) is no post-Mao deity. He’s more like a pop phenomenon and that’s hardly surprising. In this “to get rich is glorious” remix, you couldn’t launch the superhuman task of reshaping the Chinese model by being a cold-as-a-cucumber bureaucrat. Xi has instead struck a collective nerve by stressing that the country’s governance must be based on competence, not insider trading and Party corruption, and he’s cleverly packaged the transformation he has in mind as an American-style “dream.” Behind the pop star clearly lies a man of substance that the Western media should come to grips with. You don’t, after all, manage such an economic success story by accident. It may be particularly important to take his measure since he’s taken the measure of Washington and the West and decided that China’s fate and fortune lie elsewhere. 

Eighth quote:

[L]ast November he [Xi] made official an earthshaking geopolitical shift. From now on, Beijing would stop treating the U.S. or the European Union as its main strategic priority and refocus instead on China’s Asian neighbors and fellow BRICS countries (Brazil, Russia, India, and South Africa, with a special focus on Russia), also known here as the “major developing powers” (kuoda fazhanzhong de guojia). And just for the record, China does not consider itself a “developing country” anymore.

Note to self: learn Mandarin, pronto. (What’s pronto in Mandarin?)

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How Global Warming Denialists Are Likely to “Reason” about Berkeley Physicist Richard Muller’s Findings

I suppose Berkeley physicist Richard Muller is a fool for putting together a team that included a Nobel Prize winning scientist, revisiting all the data on climate change to date, and coming to the same conclusion as the current scientific consensus: the globe is warming, and carbon dioxide is the cause.

Muller sees no other plausible alternative thesis–indeed, none is ever consistently on offer. No other thesis accounts for all of the converging lines of evidence better than the current scientific consensus.

So Muller, in discovering this, is obviously a fool.

Global warming denialists, on the other hand, are not at all foolish, for they read the Rush Limbaugh funded American Thinker website for the lowdown on global warming.

And though global warming denialists have no competing alternative thesis that accounts for all of the converging lines of evidence better than carbon dioxide as the cause of global warming, they are in need of none. Instead, they can simply shift among a menu of theses, briefly offering one thesis, then another.

The alternative thesis, in other words, can be the kitchen sink: maybe global warming is caused by volcanoes; and if not volcanoes, maybe it’s the sun; and if not the sun, maybe it’s not happening at all. Maybe the scientists are involved in a conspiracy to promote a hoax, etc. In any case, it couldn’t possibly be the thing that happens to account for the converging lines of evidence most directly and simply: carbon dioxide from human activity. Of that, they’re 100% certain.

William of Occam was a fool, Richard Muller is a fool–but AM talk radio? Nobody’s fool.

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