Saturday Night Live: Is This A Representation Of The Prophet Muhammad–Or Not?

After Charlie Hebdo and Pamela Geller, Prophet Muhammad drawing is amusingly dealt with below by Saturday Night Live. In a picture drawing game, what could a blank canvas be inferred to be–but the Prophet Muhammad himself?

So was the Prophet Muhammad represented by the white square of butcher paper–or not? It strikes me as a way to imply that a person has been represented–even as you take that representation back at the same time (much like a politician who resorts to plausible deniability after making an inflammatory statement without explicitly making it).

So again: does the white sheet constitute the “drawing”–the framing–of the Prophet Muhammad, or not? And if not, why did the contestant get the right answer?

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How to Save Adam and Eve from Genetics and Darwin

Darwin and genetics have blown up the idea that Adam and Eve had a special creation physically. No new species tends to bottleneck down to two (unless perhaps two stray birds get isolated on an island and start a new species). In any event, geneticists tell us that humans have never had such a species bottleneck. So, if you’re a fundamentalist or religious traditionalist, what can you do to save Adam and Eve?

The Thomist philosopher Edward Feser has a solution: make Adam and Eve have an undetectable special creation of souls. In other words, to save Adam and Eve we need a singular mutation–a soul mutation–to demarcate a new species boundary that is undetectable by geneticists.

That is, Feser posits an event that is beyond any appeal to evidence.

Yes, he’s that brazen.

Recall that an evolutionary lineage (such as from bacteria to you) knows only a continuum, but a literal Adam and Eve can have a discontinuous moment that demarcates them as the beginning of a new species in possession of a power that evolution could not have evolved in them naturally: a soul power. This soul power gets spread to their offspring. (And because Adam and Eve sinned in the Garden of Eden, think original sin here–and Augustine’s idea that their offspring inherit it.)

So geneticists can be correct materially (humans evolved), but incorrect spiritually (Adam and Eve had a special soul implantation that set them apart from all other members of their species).

Physically, no geneticist says, “With this single mutation, I now declare a new species boundary.” There are numerous mutations from all across a population before one says, “This is different enough to declare a new species.” There’s no single couple so wildly different from their parents, because of a singular mutation, that a new species is declared straight off from that one event.

But theologians don’t have this limitation. They can have God enter the scene and implant souls into two soulless primates that magically transforms them into Adam and Eve–the first true humans. And souls can then spread to their offspring without material detection. Problem solved.


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Why Gay Marriage Is Really Winning

Ed Feser’s Thesis. On gay marriage’s advance to date, the Thomist philosopher Ed Feser writes the following: “How have we descended into such Orwellian insanity?…Part of it has to do with the fact that what is at issue here concerns sex.”

That’s comforting to believe. Horny sex-libbers don’t think clearly.

But that’s not the big reason gay marriage has gained traction. It’s not even a significant reason. Here are the really big reasons: love and history.

Big Love and Big History. Love that once dared not speak its name has asserted itself, and empathy (a form of love) is now coming from the broader community.

So that’s Big Love; a soul force (to put it in Gandhian terms).

And here’s the Big History: for millennia, gays and lesbians have been terrorized by threats of hell, silenced, humiliated, demonized, dominated, imprisoned, rendered invisible, burned at the stake, marginalized, manacled, rounded up, tortured, murdered, pathologized, closeted, isolated from organizing, fired from jobs, banned from professions, blackmailed, mocked, and shunned.

So attitudes are changing because of a recent historical move of compassion. Gays and lesbians are seen as Christ figures (despised and rejected of men), and many are aroused by empathy for them. It’s exactly the dynamic that accompanied Martin Luther King’s nonviolence–and Gandhi’s. The opponents of gay marriage ignore this dynamic, blaming a degenerate culture. But it’s actually a sign of the culture’s health and vitality.

So when traditionalists bash gays, even just rhetorically, they’re bashing Christ; they’re bashing Gandhi and King. (“When you’ve done it to the least of these…”)

Therefore, Big Love and Big History are key things that traditionalists like Feser fail to emphasize. They make it about sex, but it’s about love; about self-definition; about a redress of historic grievances–and the empathy of the larger community determined not to let longstanding wrongs persist.

So even if many people don’t have an out-of-the-closet gay or lesbian relative or friend, they see them in pop culture and say, “These are not bad people. Too much is being made of their private lives.”

Thomas Jefferson and Charles Darwin, meet Harvey Milk and Justice Anthony Kennedy. Gay marriage is also about the Anglo-French Enlightenment, science, and the Supreme Court. If you don’t like gay marriage, blame Thomas Jefferson and biologists like Alfred Kinsey, one of the first to study homosexuality and place it along a continuum of normal human sexual behaviors. Kinsey was an evolutionary entomologist and taxonomist before he was a sex researcher. He knew that evolutionary taxonomy is about studying irreducible behaviors along a continuum, not trying to match them to an ideal average or Golden Mean (as, for example, Thomistic essence/accident presumes to do, separating the “normal” from the “abnormal”). He recognized that evolutionary change is driven by the appearance of variety in a species, not conformity.

So biological research and the logic of the Anglo-French Enlightenment as epitomized in The Universal Declaration of Human Rights are now on a collision course this summer with Reagan court appointee, Justice Anthony Kennedy. It’s not some product of the cult of Mao that’s going to ring in gay marriage in all fifty states, but the cult of Reagan.

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Atheists Added to Madison’s Non-Discrimination Ordinance

Madison, Wisconsin recently added atheists to its non-discrimination ordinance. Here’s a quote from the AP article:

Todd Stiefel, the president of Openly Secular, which helps non-religious people become open about their absence of faith […] said people who tell their employers or family members that they are not religious face rejection and harassment. He said he’s heard from atheists who were fired the day after sharing their non-religious views with their employers or disinherited by their parents after opening up about their lack of faith. “It boils down to the misinformation and prejudice that gets passed down generation to generation. People have been raised being told that atheists are evil and they eat babies and they can’t be trusted.”

The AP article played this news story like it was: (a) unnecessary; (b) some sort of freak show idea coming out of a liberal city; and (c) a political hot potato that almost no other city would dare touch–but I’d like to see ordinances protecting atheists go viral. It’s time. As people in increasing numbers define themselves in secular terms privately, more and more of them will also want to come out of the closet about it, and such ordinances would nip in the bud public discrimination.

So I say yes. What say you?

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The Terrible Toos (Too Fat, Too Poor, Too Old…)

Too this, too that. Theatrical, but moving. Might bring tears.


Watching Jade Beall’s TED talk on body hatred recalled for me the general problem of human suffering described by John Koller in Asian Philosophies (2007, p. 9, fifth edition):

Two fundamentally different approaches to the problem of suffering are possible. Both approaches recognize that suffering is the result of a gap between what one is and has, and what one wants to be and wants to have. The solution to the problem seems obvious: what is and what is desired must be made identical.

But how can this identity be achieved? One approach to the solution is to try to attain what one desires. […] The second approach consists in adjusting one’s desires to what one has.

I especially like the phrase, “what is and what is desired.”

Grasp or let go.

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Speak Now Or Forever Hold Your Peace: Traditionalists Turn Gay Marriage Into Greek Drama

A wedding ceremony needn’t consist of drama–unless someone objects. “Speak now, or forever hold your peace.”

If someone objects, then the Greek drama starts. As in the conflict in Sophocles’ Antigone, in which King Creon feels he has to stop the eccentric love of his son for Antigone because it is contrary (as he imagines) to the will of the gods and good order, so it is with the traditionalists in relation to gay and lesbian marriage.

In 21st century America, traditionalists have placed themselves in the role of the rigid and angry father–as in the last five minutes of The Graduate (when Dustin Hoffman carries off Katharine Ross, and they escape by bus to Simon and Garfunkle’s “The Sounds of Silence”).

So the drama will end over gay marriage–not like Antigone–but like The Graduate.

Why? Because empathy from the larger community and love between individuals are stronger than the will of the would-be restrainers. The black civil rights movement also won by appeals to love and empathy–as will gay and lesbian marriage equality in our day. Traditionalists find themselves belated, behind the times–and holding a bag of metaphysical arguments that have been absented of love and empathy.

Pharisees don’t win in a democratic era. Marriage was made of humans, not humans for marriage. Experiment wins.

Time is passing the traditionalists by, and time waits for no (definition of) marriage or man.

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Let Them Eat (Or Not Eat) Wedding Cake: Religious Conscience, Gay Marriage, And Empathy For Others

With regard to bakers who might balk, out of conscience, in making a cake for a gay wedding, I think many of us who are heterosexual and support gay marriage have a problem: our empathy goes all in one direction–toward gays and lesbians, but not religious traditionalists.

I think we should carve out narrow legal spaces for traditionalists who don’t want to have anything to do with gay weddings–and I say this out of empathy (imagining myself in another’s shoes).

Just as with gays and lesbians, I think increasing the circle of empathy to religious traditionalists needs to happen here–and that empathy in general should be more broadly and systematically taught in the larger civic culture.

How so? In the reading of good imaginative literature; in the cinema and television; in public schools as a civic virtue (to walk in the shoes of others, most especially those who oppose you; to reflect on the historic victims of utopian ambitions).

Teaching students about the Holocaust and the cult of Mao, for example.

Public opinion shifted on gay marriage largely from media portrayals of gays and lesbians, and gays and lesbians coming out of the closet.

But empathy is a two-edged sword: if you feel empathy for somebody, and you discover a group that doesn’t display empathy for what you now love, you’re going to start feeling hate for the resisters.

And that’s the start of wars. Traditionalists hating and fearing secular liberals; secular liberals hating and fearing traditionalists.

It’s a failure of imagination. But blessed are the peacemakers. It takes work to step over into the shoes of others; to increase the circle of empathy enough to at least tolerate what makes you angry or uncomfortable. For a while, I was strongly against the coverings of Muslim women in secular spaces. It felt like an upending of feminism. It still feels that way. But I’ve come around to saying: let people express who they are.

I have a circle of secular friends who, when one of them recently jumped in with a snarky comment about the Indiana legislative carve outs for religious conscience, I retorted that I didn’t support the broad nature of Indiana’s proposed law, but I nevertheless supported some limited carve outs for conscience (and why). That set everybody back on their heels–accompanied by some pushback, then more or less silence.

I got them thinking. If a few in a community speak up against the knee-jerk group think, it can shift the tone. A little rudder moves a ship.

I believe that once a local community communicates its red lines to the larger community, the larger community better have super good reasons for crossing those lines (immunization of children in public schools is a good reason to cross one of those lines, wedding cake inconvenience is not).

The energy with which evangelicals have responded to the wedding cake issue tells me that a red line is being crossed for a lot of Christians who might otherwise take a live-and-let-live approach to gay marriage and the gay community generally.

So I think intellectual religious traditionalists have a role to play in communicating concerns to the broader community:

  • Articulate why gay marriage is opposed, and accept that not everybody is going to agree with your metaphysics, moral reasoning, and appeals to authority.
  • Tell the larger public, in a reasoned way, what the traditionalist community’s red lines are and why–and what traditionalists can live with.
  • Set a tone of empathy for one’s political opponents. Just as there ought to be liberals among liberals saying–“Increase the circle of empathy”–there ought to be traditionalists among traditionalists doing the same.

It’s not enough to win the abstract and intellectual argument. The empathy component has to be worked at as well. If you’re an American traditionalist, and don’t show any concern for the historic plight of gays and lesbians, or for gays and lesbians in Uganda, Russia, and Muslim countries today, then why is it surprising that others don’t show much concern for your red lines and sublime projects?

I’m not saying that’s right. I’m not saying the traditionalist has to go first. But somebody has to go first. Who’s on first? You are. I am.

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Imagination, Desire, And Action Through Chemistry: My Theory Of Free Will

In terms of free will, I don’t think we have contra-causal free will (free will that actually interferes with and pushes around determinate matter). I think our brains are modular, governed by often contending impulses, and that sometimes–or even characteristically in some people–one part of the brain predominates over the other.

And so a person who is, by temperament, hyper-religious, may find in herself (when she introspects) a powerful will to override the sexual siren coming from the same brain. She imagines herself, in the narrative of herself, being quite righteous–and this very thought motivates her still more to hold down her sexual siren–but, as Blake, says, “Those who restrain desire do so because theirs is weak enough to be restrained.” So one part of the modular brain dominating another part is hardly evidence of free will (let alone contra-causal free will).

I like something the novelist Don DeLillo writes in his novel White Noise:

Who knows what I want to do? Who knows what anyone wants to do? How can you be sure about something like that? Isn’t it all a question of brain chemistry, signals going back and forth, electrical energy in the cortex? How do you know whether something is really what you want to do or just some kind of nerve impulse in the brain? Some minor little activity takes place somewhere in this unimportant place in one of the brain hemispheres and suddenly I want to go to Montana or I don’t want to go to Montana.

I would add to DeLillo’s notion of desire driven by brain chemistry the notion of imagination driven by brain chemistry (another part of our modular brains): the illusion of free will is caused by our ability to imagine logically possible futures, and to imagine how we might choose one of those futures over the others. We then notice in ourselves a desire to choose one of those imagined futures. We follow that desire. But at no point in the process have we actually violated the deterministic cosmos; the swerve of atoms. We just imagine that we have.

We therefore confuse the tight coupling of imagination, desire, and action with free will. Our lives, in other words, run on a huge correlation-causation fallacy. Imagination, desire, and action seem to be in a causal relation to one another absent chemistry, but they aren’t. They’re only coincident. We make a narrative of them. We think we’re pushing the world around–making it break our way, in accordance with our purposes. We think we’re disturbing the universe, collapsing the wave function of logically possible worlds down to our single world–the world of our choosing. Actually, we’re just being puppeted by the swerve of atoms as we dream (as we run tapes in our heads of mental images of the future) and act on the desires that come to us. In short, we’ve got going a great narrative of ourselves as existential actors because we can imagine alternative futures. But that’s all it is. A story. In terms of the actual causal processes at work, we’ve got them completely backwards.

And in the biggest picture, I think we have to think about the multiverse. There’s little doubt among physicists that our universe is essentially infinite in an inflationary sense–and it may also be infinite in the quantum sense as well (splitting in each moment into different possible futures ala Schrodinger’s Cat).

It’s also plausible that we live in a big bang cosmos that got its laws and physical constants out of a random quantum flux from a larger multiverse. But whatever is going on exactly, from all the logically possible ways that our known cosmos could have banged at the big bang, it banged in just one way. It’s how the cookie crumbled.

And each new big bang cosmos produced by the multiverse is a fresh swerve of atoms blasting forth to cool and impact one another in a novel, yet determinate, manner. Lucretius intuited this well two millennia ago:

For myriad atoms sped such myriad ways

from the All forever, pounded, pushed, propelled

by weight of their own, launched and speeding along,

joining all possible ways, trying all forms,

whatever their meeting in congress could create,

that it’s no wonder if they all tumbled

into such patterns and entered on such orbits

as those that govern our cosmos and its changes. (V 187-194)

And, again, we aren’t in any way disrupting these material atoms in their determinate courses. Each of us consists of some of those atoms, and we’re all along for the ride. There is no such thing as contra-causal free will (minds disrupting the course of causally determined atoms).

That’s my thesis. What’s yours?

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Flying Into The Sun

What would it be like to be a dog? I think of Blake’s binding and loosing of energies here. Wouldn’t it be great if life could always be this energetic, free, joyous, and simple? At the leap, notice the sun–and call this dog Icarus.

I like these lines from a Jack Gilbert poem:

I believe Icarus was not failing as he fell,
but just coming to the end of his triumph.

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Disappointment, Awareness Attribution, And Empathy: How To Ground Morality Absent God

Because I’m a nominalist, chopping up the world without divine guidance, a theist might think any reference I might make to “humanity” can’t possibly mean anything, but is something arbitrary. Therefore, I might just as well be an “it”–and treat others like an “it.”

Absent God’s existence, why not?

But there is a way for an atheist or nominalist to ground moral behavior and orient in the world absent God, and want to go on living and being moral after losing belief in (or doubting) God’s existence.

I don’t need an elaborately worked out metaphysics to do this, only my relation to awareness and God.

Yes, I said God. Exactly like the theist, I need God to ground my morality, but not in the way that the theist does.

How so? My disappointment.

In other words, my very awareness of my own pain that God probably doesn’t exist, and that I am bereft in the cosmos, elicits in me compassion for those who I think are in the same boat.

So my disappointment, and an attribution of awareness in another person, is all I need. Once I attribute awareness to another–awareness like I have–I feel solidarity with that person (whether she believes in God or not). I want the best for me and I want the best for her, and I’m sorry we can’t have that. I feel empathy. I think we will both die, and not go on after death, and I can see that we both feel pain–and I wish it was different for both of us.

Buddha, for example, didn’t step out from under the Bodhi Tree with a conviction that God exists, only that he’d figured out a way to arrest the cycle of human pain. His compassion for other beings with awareness like his own was enough to motivate him to speak and act in the world.

I think this is enough for any evolved social animal with powerful social emotions to go on living. Suddenly, I want to say, “Well, here we are in the same bad situation. God isn’t talking, we feel pain, and will one day die. What do we do together? What sort of society do we want? Is the game worth the candle? If we say yes, and want to go on living, then let’s make the best of it.”

Think of Taylor (Charlton Heston) in the original Planet of the Apes. He is stranded on a strange and uninhabited planet (so he thinks), but then he encounters others who he recognizes as aware, who feel pain, and who will die exactly like him. He enters into solidarity with those he recognizes as seeing in him the same thing.

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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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