Drunken "Consent"

Jeremy Stangroom asks an interesting question over here.  "Suppose somebody says this to you--
I want to want to have sex with you, but I never want sex unless I’m high or drunk. I can’t relax and I don’t enjoy it. But look, I’ll start drinking, and hopefully there will come a point where my inhibitions are sufficiently lowered and I’m relaxed enough so that we can go ahead. But realize I’m not consenting right now to have sex with you later, I’m simply telling you that I’m making the choice to drink in the hope that I will come to want sex later on. If that happens, I’ll let you know, but it might not. 
This person then starts drinking, ingests some ...  amount of alcohol (i.e., past the point at which under normal circumstances you would consider it wrong to have sex with them), and then tells you they are ready to have sex with you."  Is there anything wrong with going ahead?  A bunch of assumptions we're supposed to make come next--have a look over there.

Let's make this more manageable by putting it all in the third-person.  John wants to have sex with Mary.  Mary merely wants to want to have sex with John, and makes the speech above.  The odd thing about the speech is that at first, Mary more or less tells John that she does want to have sex with him, but she's simply not ready yet.  That seems to be the import of her telling him that she has to be high or drunk to want to have sex. In essence, she's saying to him "My reluctance at the moment has nothing to do with you. In principle, I do want to have sex with you.  But I want to be able to control whether we stop or go, at every point in time." OK, fine ...

But then Mary shifts gears, telling John he has to wait for consent that may or may not come later on.  "But realize I'm not consenting right now to have sex with you later."   This sounds like more than wanting to maintain moment to moment control.  She actually wants John to think there's been no consent yet, and consent may come later on, at the point when she's drunk -- or may not.

Well, no!  Imagine it's like this--
John wants to sell his motorcycle to Mary. Mary wants to want to buy, but she's nervous about it, so suggests they go to a bar, where she will have a few beers in the hope that she will start wanting to buy the motorcycle. She's adamant that consent for the sale hasn't been granted yet, but says consent may (or may not) be given in the bar.
John should certainly decline this plan. You need mutual consent for a major sale, and he won't be able to secure it.  Likewise, you need mutual consent before sex, and John won't be able to secure genuine consent from someone who's inebriated.

Now, there are times when we don't really need mutual consent, because the activities in question are too trivial.  Here's another John and Mary story--
John wants to go on the roller coaster with Mary. Mary only wants to want to go on the roller coaster with John, but doesn't want to. She suggests they go to the Green Beer Booth first.  She has a few beers, then says "let's do it!" 
Fine. He doesn't have her consent before getting on the roller coaster with her, but doesn't need it--the activity is too trivial.

I take it that in our society we see having sex with someone as more like buying a motorcycle from them and  less like going on a roller coaster together.  That's why the drunken willingness that's sufficient in the roller coaster scenario just won't do when the issue is whether to have sex.  Is that silly or irrational?  Hardly!  Sex involves bodily penetration, risk of pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases, emotional risks, and so on.

Poor Mary and John! If she really can't consent to sex without being inebriated, I think she's going to have to remain celibate.  And he's going to need to find another partner.

"I am an animal"

There's a movie about the life of PETA president Ingrid Newkirk, called "I am an animal."  Saying "I am an animal," in that context, is an expression of ethical solidarity with animals.  In my course on animal rights, I use the term "animalism" to encompass all who give more-than-traditional status to animals, whether rights advocates, utilitarians, or people with other perspectives.  So "I am an animal" is an expression of animalism, as I use the term.

There's a position in metaphysics that says each of us can truly say "I am an animal." This is the view that the lifespan and persistence conditions for me are the same as for a particular organism--the one now sitting in my chair.  On that view, I came into existence before my mental life did, and I may very well go out of existence after my mental life does. It so happens, the standard name for that metaphysical position is "animalism".

So--metaphysical and ethical animalism.  Do they just coincidentally have the same names and make us utter the same sentence?  Or is there some real connection between the two? Sometimes I share my thoughts in progress here, and sometimes I just share my questions in progress! 


What is Civility?

There's been a lot of discussion about that question at atheist blogs recently and I've had a growing sense that a lot of people are on the wrong track. They focus too much on decorum--politeness, name-calling, and the like. Civility has something to do with decorum, but the essence of it is something else.  I like what Robert Talisse and Scott Aikin say about civility in a recent post at 3 Quarks Daily.
In order to get a clearer view of what argumentative civility is and why it is important, we need to begin by saying something about why we argue.  Argumentation is the process of articulating our reasons for holding our beliefs.  The point of articulating our reasons is to put them on display so that they may be examined and evaluated.  When we argue specifically in response to disagreement, we supply our reasons for the purpose of demonstrating to our interlocutor their strength, and the comparative weakness of the reasons that support opposing views.  Argumentation hence has within it the idea that one should believe only what the strongest available reasons support; it is, again, the activity of supplying reasons for the purposes of testing and evaluating them.  This means that arguers are committed to the possibility of finding that their reasons are weaker than they had initially thought or that their opponent’s case is in fact stronger than expected; and when one’s reasons come up short, one may have to revise one’s belief.  Unless conducted against the background commitment to the possibility of revising one’s views, argumentation is pointless.
We now are able identify civility in argument with tendencies that enable the exchange of reasons among disputants. Chief among these concerns the need for those who disagree to actually engage with each other’s reasons.  This requires arguers to earnestly attempt to correctly understand and accurately represent each other’s views.  For similar reasons, arguers must also give a proper hearing to their opponents’ reasons, especially when the opponent is responding to criticism.  In addition, when making the case for their own view, arguers must seek to present reasons that their opponents could at least in principle see the relevance of.  We can summarize these ideas by saying that civility in argument has three dimensions: Representation, Reception, and Reciprocity.
The essence of incivility, then, is failing to engage with someone's reasons. Of course, rudeness tends to drown out engagement with reasons, but rudeness isn't the heart of incivlity.

Talisse and Aiken have gone for "3 Rs" and so have I, in my comment policy.  Mine are "be reasonable, be relevant, and be respectful."  I think this covers more or less the same ground as their more technical-sounding requirements.

Most of the time I find commenters here as civil as I could want. Things tend to degenerate only when I venture into the land of atheism--that's when we get into endless comment threads that go nowhere. One of the reasons these threads tend to be uncivil--remember, civility is engagement with reasons--is because it seems the atheosphere (pardon the hideous term) is full of people who have stories to tell about what was once done to them in some previous setting. They see a post with some connection to their stories, and they think "now's my chance to unload."  And then it gets even worse--they get angry if they're denied the chance to unload.  So they start off with "core" incivility--they don't offer a relevant, reasonable response to the post; and then move on to just plain rudeness.

If you've been reading my blog, you probably know I have a specific example in mind. My "Backlash Against Feminism" post talked about abusiveness toward a specific group of women (and supporters of women)--the X's, shall we say. Someone came along and said--wait, I'm not an X, and I've been abused too!  This is basically like reading a post about the abuse of wives and commenting, "But wait, I'm a husband, and I've been abused too!"  The comment would only make sense if someone were alleging that only wives get abused. And why would anyone say that?  Likewise, why would I say that the X's are the only people ever treated abusively?  It's especially strange, because I've written previous posts about non-X's being treated badly. There was nothing in my post and there is nothing anywhere in this blog to suggest I have the view that X's are the only people who have been treated badly in the atheosphere.

The X's are being treated badly, and I think it's strange (very strange) not to be willing to say so, and say it emphatically, and protest it, and take the time to understand why it's happening and how it can be prevented. (I like Phil Plait's "take" on that subject, over at Skepchick.)  I don't think every time the treatment of the X's comes up we should allow the subject to quickly be changed to other transgressions.   Not only is that rapid change of subject an injustice to these women, but if I write a post about the X's, it just does not engage with my argument and my reasons to divert the subject to a Y.  It is, in the truest sense of the word, uncivil.


What fun ...

... I've not been having, since I posted my blog about the backlash against feminism in the "atheosphere".  Not to be unoriginal, but we really aren't in Kansas anymore.  Moral of the story: watch who you talk to, because there are people out there who basically act like mad dogs (with apologies to mad dogs). They bark, scratch, bite, beg to be petted, whine, and them bark some more.  When you finally lose patience and try to rein them in, they get even madder. Worse, they're talking dogs, so they can go away and tell lies about you.  My mantra now: no mad dogs, no mad dogs!  I will be more careful about who I allow to comment in the future, and will moderate more strictly when the topic requires it.


"I wish my mother had aborted me"

"Aeolus" sent me an article from the Guardian with that very puzzling title. The author, Lynn Beisner, says she's tired of all the abortion deliverance stories that pro-lifers like to tell.  They seize upon accounts of people who were nearly aborted, but whose mothers changed their minds.  She writes--
What makes these stories so infuriating to me is that they are emotional blackmail. As readers or listeners, we are almost forced by these anti-choice versions of A Wonderful Life to say, "Oh, I am so glad you were born." And then by extension, we are soon forced into saying, "Yes, of course, every blastula of cells should be allowed to develop into a human being."
Beisner tries to counter abortion deliverance stories, and the argument based on them, by saying her case is just the opposite -- she thinks her mother should have aborted her.  Her mother had a terrible life and gave her a child a terrible life as well, though she says she's come to be happy in the last 12 years. You have to read the article to see how moving this is--I won't try to summarize.

I like the anti-pollyanna tone of this article, and it's worth knowing that not every mother heroically overcomes adversity.  But truth be told, giving examples of lives that shouldn't have started isn't the best way to counter the "argument from gladness": the argument that moves from "I'm so glad you were born" or "I'm so glad I was born" to "aborting this pregnancy would be wrong." That gladness is a very hice thing, but nothing really follows from it about abortion.

Think about it.  I'm glad I was born.  Had my mother had an abortion, I wouldn't have been born.  But there are lots and lots of other precursors of my birth besides her not having an abortion--things that had to be that way, or I wouldn't have been born. Another precursor is that my parents didn't go to a movie on that fateful night. And they didn't use contraception.  And they spent 15 minutes washing the dishes. Because the exact timing of conception alters which sperm meets the mother's egg, there are actually zillions of precursors to any particular person existing.  Lots of things had to be that way for me to wind up existing and being glad I exist.

If I say my gladness means my mother would have been wrong to have an abortion, I'll also have to say she would have been wrong to eliminate any of the other precursors. The fact that I'm glad I exist will mean she had to skip the movie, and had to skip contraception, and had to wash the dishes for just 15 minutes. But all that's absurd.  Surely nobody's obligated to do the vast number of things that imperceptibly make it so that one eventually-ever-so-glad person comes into the world, rather than another person or no one at all.

It's certainly more dramatic and compelling to counter deliverance stories with tragic stories like Beisner's.  But here's the thing. Very, very few people are not glad that they exist.  If the gladness argument made any sense, someone contemplating an abortion would at least be able to reason: my eventual child will almost certainly be glad she was born, so I shouldn't have an abortion.  It's crucial, then, to see that it doesn't make sense ... ever, at all.

The fact that I'm glad I exist tells us literally nothing about what my parents should and shouldn't have done many moons ago, when all the events were transpiring that eventually brought me into existence.  I suppose that's sort of surprising. The gladness argument seems rather appealing at first. That's why the deliverance stories are a good marketing device for pro-lifers. But scratch the surface and you actually find something barking mad. There's no way we're all obligated to do whatever it takes to create exactly those people who will eventually exist, just because they'll be glad they exist. 


The Backlash Against Feminism

Jen McCreight has a long post today about the backlash against feminism within the atheist-skeptic (AS) movement.  I think she's right that there's a backlash, but it would pay to dissect it dispassionately, and not overstate how big it is and who's a part of it.

By a "backlash against feminism" you might think what's meant is that a lot of people have been challenging the positions of atheists and skeptics on issues affecting women--like abortion, contraception, child marriage, oppressive religious institutions, and the like.  But no. Lots of people at atheist blogs write about those issues, and I don't believe I've ever seen any kind of revolt against them.

The backlash is not about general issues pertaining to the status and treatment of women. It's entirely (from what I can see) about interactions between men and women at AS blogs and conferences.  It's a very small bit of land that's being fought over, relatively speaking.  These are the kinds of things igniting all the fires--
  • Is it, or isn't it, OK for a man to (in so many words) proposition a woman in a hotel elevator at 4 in the morning? 
  • Is it, or isn't it, OK for a couple to give their "swinger's card" to a speaker after she's finished presenting at an AS conference?
  • Is it, or isn't it, OK for people to protest against actions of a group using parodies of jewelry created by a member of the group? 
  • What kinds of codes ought to be put in place to protect women from harassment at AS conferences?
  • How much time/energy should bloggers put into discussing the issues above?
  • Is it possible for excess attention to these things to backfire, scaring women away from the AS movement, instead of increasing participation?
Now, there are people who take a skeptical position on all these things. They think it's OK to proposition women in elevators at 4 in the morning, etc. etc. etc.  But it pays to distinguish two types of skeptics. 

The respectable skeptic may be on board with all substantive feminist goals, but they lean very liberal on sexual issues and libertarian-ish on rules and codes. They may also have distinctive positions on purely empirical matters, like how often harassing incidents occur, and what the impact is of discussing them at blogs. Their views on what will advance the status of women may also be distinctive. It strikes me as inflammatory and distorted to accuse these people of misogyny, or even of being anti-feminists.  Even if some of these people dress their views in provocative clothing, underneath it all they do not have troubling attitudes toward women. 

The second group is another matter. These are people who are seized by a desire to attack women when there's the least hint of a question about male behavior at blogs and conferences. The notion of codes being imposed on their behavior sends them into a rage.  These are the people whose existence you have to find surprising ... and very disturbing.  At the very least, they're seriously lacking in empathy. Some of them even seem to feel an awful lot of hatred. I don't know how numerous they are, but too numerous--and their ranks seem to be growing too.

Why bother making all these distinctions? Just to be accurate and truthful, but there are also repercussions to worry about. One worry I have is that group 1-ers will wind up being driven away as a result of the misrepresentations.  Why shouldn't they be a part of an atheist-skeptic movement that's committed to social justice? Furthermore, I think those misrepresentations tend to incite the people in group 2. Granted, they're easily incited, and their behavior is their own responsibility, but still: the more group 1-ers are maligned, the more group 2-ers respond by going after individual women and men in a hateful fashion. I've noticed this pattern over time--it's something that needs to be taken seriously.

That's all very general.  No examples of group 1-ers or group 2-ers, no links, nothing about where I stand.  But it's a beautiful day in Dallas.  Only 90 degrees!!!!!!  Plus new kitty wants to play.  That's enough for the moment.


Little Kitty

This is our new little kitty, a cat of three names, since we haven't decided yet. She's either Harriet, Soji (short for Sojourner), or Arietty (of Borrowers fame).  Awww!


Must we read letters from our past selves?

My daughter wrote letters to her future self when she was about 8 years old. She had noticed that perfectly nice kids sometimes turn into grumpy teenagers, and she wanted to tell herself not to do that. Now that she's 15, she refuses to read these letters. She thinks her 8-year-self has nothing to teach her.  Possibly cute, but something of a dolt -- I think that's about how she sees her past self. I personally think her 8-year-old self was a genius, and want her to get a hearing.

Her ... wait a second!  The standard metaphysics says a person is a single entity about whom different things are true in the past and the future.  My daughter is an entity such that once she wanted to avoid teenage grumpiness.  Now the very same entity doesn't want to avoid teenage grumpiness.  A subtly different view sees persons as collections of temporal stages. One stage of my daughter wanted to avoid teenage grumpiness. The stage that exists right now doesn't want to.

So this is my question: does the temporal stage story have a different upshot with respect to my daughter's problem than the standard story?  If people exist in stages, do we have past selves in an especially robust sense?  Can we wrong our past selves by not listening to them (that's stage talk) more than we can do wrong by not caring about what we used to want (that's standard metaphysics talk)? Does picking one of these theories or the other make a difference to how I ought to counsel my daughter?

Don't know yet -- I'm just thinking aloud.  Truth is, I don't want to figure this out so I can counsel my daughter (I already have:  READ THOSE LETTERS!) I just want to know if different theories about the self are really different enough to generate different life decisions. Or they all just rival "ways of thinking" about the world, with no palpable consequences?

Next on my personal identity reading list--Eric Olson's What Are We? and David DeGrazia, Creation Ethics.


Feminine Faces of Freethought

If you'll be in the Dallas area, please consider attending Feminine Faces of Freethought, a conference being held on September 15, under the auspices of the Dallas Fellowship of Freethought.  More info here.  The program (as it stands so far) reads--

Women of Reason--Dallas presents Feminine Faces of Freethought, a conference featuring women speaking about topics that affect the freethought community as a whole.

Join us for a day of talks by

Panels include  
  • Secular Parenting,  
  • Diversity in the Freethought Movement,  
  • and What Atheist Women Really Want.

My talk is going to be on a very Big topic.  In fact, on the meaning of life.  I'll be talking about "preservationist" atheists, who think we can dump God, and retain lots of other nice elements of our world view, like the self, free will, objective morality ... and life's meaningfulness; and "revolutionary" atheists, who think our reasons for dumping God have lots of other ramifications, and force us to give up on all or most of those goodies. Alex Rosenberg, in his new book The Atheist's Guide to Reality, proves to be the ultimate revolutionary atheist. To see just how revolutionary he is, you have to dig into his argument for life's meaninglessness. He thinks life has no meaning because people have no desires or purposes -- indeed, they don't even have contentful thoughts.  Talk about radical! I shall be explaining why he's wrong and casting my lot with the preservationists.

The talk connects with my review of Rosenberg's book in the current issue of Free Inquiry; and also with my book The Weight of Things: Philosophy and the Good Life; and also with a course I've been teaching at SMU for the last 10 years; and with work I've done in the philosophy of mind. My topic has nothing directly to do with women and secularism, but never fear--I do have a more or less feminine face, so I will fit into the program. (Joke.) Furthermore, I'll be showcasing the ideas of some female philosophers and highlighting some issues in women's lives. I share the goals of the conference organizers -- advancing the role of women in the secular movement.


Pink Boys, Blue Girls

Yesterday's New York Times Magazine had an interesting article by Ruth Pradawer about boys who like to dress like girls ("pink boys" is the phrase the author uses).  Parents get much more concerned about these boys than about girls who want to dress like boys.  Why is that?  One reason is because their futures are less conventional. The author writes--

The studies on what happens in adulthood to boys who strayed from gender norms all have methodological limitations, but they suggest that although plenty of gay men don’t start out as pink boys, 60 to 80 percent of pink boys do eventually become gay men. The rest grow up to either become heterosexual men or become women by taking hormones and maybe having surgery. Gender-nonconforming behavior of girls, however, is rarely studied, in part because departures from traditional femininity are so pervasive and accepted. The studies that do exist indicate that tomboys are somewhat more likely than gender-typical girls to become bisexual, lesbian or male-identified, but most become heterosexual women.
One of the experts interviewed by Pradawer has a different interpretation of why "pink boys" are worrisome for parents, but "blue girls" (a phrase never even used in the article) aren't--
These days, flouting gender conventions extends even to baby naming: first names that were once unambiguously masculine are now given to girls. The shift, however, almost never goes the other way. That’s because girls gain status by moving into “boy” space, while boys are tainted by the slightest whiff of femininity. “There’s a lot more privilege to being a man in our society,” says Diane Ehrensaft, a psychologist at the University of California, San Francisco, who supports allowing children to be what she calls gender creative. “When a boy wants to act like a girl, it subconsciously shakes our foundation, because why would someone want to be the lesser gender?”
This doesn't ring entirely true to me. People can desperately want to have a girl, and be thrilled with the girliness of their girls, yet be anxious when boys start doing "girl" things.  That doesn't mesh with the notion that girliness is undesirable in boys because it's viewed as inferior, period.

No, what people (many, anyway) don't like to see is girliness in boys; it's not a question of girliness in general.  For some reason masculinity seems more fragile. Forgive the crude analogy, but masculinity and femininity seem sort of like chocolate and vanilla. Chocolate (femininity) is the more durable flavor. You can add vanilla to chocolate, and it still tastes like chocolate. 

Adding chocolate to vanilla, on the other hand, makes it no longer vanilla. Masculinity has to be scrupulously protected or it disappears.  That's how we perceive it, anyway ... but based on what?  The first paragraph might shed a lot of light--perhaps "pink boys" really are much more different from other boys than "blue girls" are from other girls.  That's why we think of small deviations from "pure masculinity" as major differences, to be guarded against diligently.  (What a lot of stress for boys who are drawn to "feminine" things, and for their anxious parents.)

Sure to help me think about these things is Charlotte Witt's new book The Metaphysics of Gender, arriving courtesy of Amazon any day now.  We published a review written by Asta Sveinsdottir in The Philosophers' Magazine (you can read it here).  A longer review by the same author is at NDPR.

Short Story, Manque

Too bad I'm not a short story writer. I think I recently encountered material for a good story.  Alas, all I can do is relate this as an anecdote. 

I went to see The Dirty Projectors last weekend with my husband and 15-year-old daughter.  They were performing at the Kessler Theater in Oak Cliff, which is a very small, consummately cool venue, where it's hard to blend into the crowd. My daughter felt age-conscious because she was too young and was sitting with her aged parents.  I felt age-conscious because I'm one of her aged parents.  We sat on the balcony, which has one row of upholstered chairs on two sides and a few rows at the back. 

As we looked around for age-mates (and found none), my daughter and I started to focus on a couple in their 40s about 15 feet away, sitting in the comfy chairs.   He was grey haired and pudgy, with a potbelly and wearing shorts, but his face suggested that once he had been as good-looking and cool as the Kessler crowd. His equally pudgy wife kept stroking his thigh, suggesting that to at least one person, he was still hot.  I told my daughter this man probably still felt 18 inside, and no doubt had been to tons of great concerts in his day. I reminded her (for the zillionth time) of the fact that I once crashed a Jefferson Airplane concert (or was it my friends who crashed it -- memory fades, I think maybe I had a ticket).  You can't judge people by externals, blah, blah, blah. Anyhow, watching this couple soothed our worries about age. If this couple could enjoy the show, so could we.

The lights went down and a warm up band (Wye Oak) started to play.  A short time into their set, we started hearing loud voices over where the middle-aged couple were sitting. Everyone around us started focusing in that direction.  We could see pushing and shoving and the voices got louder. Then a fight broke out, and we could see a guy slam someone into the wall.  My immediate thought: Aurora. I'm ready to drag my daughter down to the ground. But quickly Security came in and dragged someone away. The middle aged couple's seats were empty now.  Ten minutes later, the wife came back to collect her purse. Everyone was murmuring--people were passing along accounts of what had happened.

When Wye Oak was done playing, a definitive story was passed around: someone had leaned against the middle-aged guy's chair, and he'd freaked out. Somehow or other the two had gotten into a fist fight and the couple had been evicted from the theater.

In the short story that I won't be writing, because I don't have the skills, it's all about the wife --how she feels going to this youthful venue in the first place, the hand she keeps on her husband's thigh, and especially her trip back in to collect her purse.

Somehow it's about age. Maybe it's about how we -- my daughter and I -- looked to the wrong people to deal with feeling out of place.  Because they turned out to be not just out of place, but kicked out of the place. I think there's a story here, not just an anecdote, but (sadly) not one I have the skills to write!

Oh yeah, the concert.  I like The Dirty Projectors, but not as much as my daughter and husband do.  I agree with a line in a Pitchfork review--something to the effect to that they're enjoyable to listen to but don't get inside your head.  There's something zig-zaggy and jazz-like about them, and non-melodious.


Why Philosophy Helps

Massimo Pigliucci has written a fine post today about irrationality and bad behavior in the so-called "community of reason."  Having regularly followed atheist blogs for about 5 years now, this strikes a deep chord with me. I'm much less familiar with "real world" skeptic/atheist groups than Massimo is (I imagine they're much better), but I am continually amazed by the online shenanigans. Massimo has done an excellent job of listing the sins.

One of Massimo's constructive proposals is "more philosophy."  I've been thinking the same thing lately, because I find the philosophically-trained members of the atheist/skeptic community, as a group, less guilty of the various sins in Massimo's list. Of course, it doesn't follow they're "the fairest of them all". Individual non-philosophers can be just as (or more) sagacious and fair-minded. Some philosophers are less sagacious and less fair-minded. But on the whole, people who study/teach/write philosophy seem to be (on average) more reasonable and reflective.  (Wouldn't it be nice to have some X-Phi data to back that up?)

Which makes me wonder -- why does philosophy help?  Some of the reasons are obvious, but some aren't.  Starting at the less obvious end--

(1) I started out in philosophy as a student of the history of philosophy. So I've spent insane amounts of time reading Kant, Hegel, Plato, Aristotle, etc.  Back in the day, I used to periodically wonder what the point was. If only I'd been studying science, instead of spending hours and hours of my life reading Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit (twice!), trying to figure out what Aristotle said, and so on.  But these days I see a huge payoff, not just in terms of substance (Hegel and Aristotle said some smart things!), but in the state of mind that results from all that difficult exegesis.  After hours, months, years of reading painfully difficult texts, you develop the habit of working hard on understanding what others are saying. The pay off, for members of the "community of reason," is a willingness to work hard to "get" another's meaning, rather than rushing immediately into combat. 

(2) Half, or more than half, the work of philosophy is to "problematize" the seemingly simple and easy.  Any philosophy problem worth thinking about is vastly more complex than immediately meets the eye.  So one benefit you get from studying/teaching/writing philosophy is appreciating the difficulty of problems -- being less prone to premature pretend solutions. Lots of the sins in Massimo's list are sins of premature solution (so to speak).

(3) One of the things I like most about teaching philosophy is that in a philosophy class people with hugely different viewpoints are expected to sit in a room together and discuss matters politely and reasonably.  In my animal rights class, vegans talk to hunters--without anyone going berserk. In my course on the meaning of life, religious students talk about life with atheists--all in a mode of mutual respect.  In a contemporary moral problems class, if you're skilled, you can get pro-life and pro-choice students to talk to each other calmly, and even see eye-to-eye on some issues.  This is great preparation for being part of an inclusive "community of reason," one in which nobody's sent into exile just for the "crime" of accommodationism, thinking one way or another about sexual harassment policies, etc.

(4) Then there are the more obvious benefits.  In any philosophy program, you will take classes on logic and critical thinking, developing debate skills that ought to innoculate you against the various diseases of internet debate--all the wanton straw-manning, ad-hom-ing, etc. etc. In the heat of debate we can all succumb, but after studying philosophy one is at least more aware of the ideal we should aspire to.

(5) And of course in philosophy one studies the great issues that are central topics for atheists and skeptics--the existence of God, the relationship between religion and morality, the nature of science, free will, and so on.

This list of benefits might convince someone to take a philosophy class (one hopes!), but it has another purpose.  A new school year is about to begin.  I know that a philosophy professor or two reads this blog.  We are particularly vulnerable, as a group, to "what's the point?" type thoughts.  Well, there you are.  What we do in philosophy classes helps people becomes better citizens of the "community of reason."  I believe this is really true, and I find it motivating.

And now I'll get back to preparing for the fall semester--no, it's not too soon.


The Creation Evidence Museum

Here in Texas, creationists lurk everywhere, so it seems reasonable to try to understand how they think. A place called the "Creation Evidence Museum" is an hour and a half from Dallas, right near Dinosaur Valley State Park.  At the park you can see dinosaur track fossils in a the bed of a shallow stream --very cool.  A man by the name of Carl Baugh created the museum close by in 1994, presumably to educate visitors from the park who might reason "dinosaurs existed long before humans, so the Bible is not entirely true."  Baugh's position is that dinosaurs and humans actually existed at the same time. 

I've always been curious about the museum, ever since we visited the State Park way back when (a memorable trip, because I contracted a terrible case of poison ivy).  When my kids started asking questions about creationists earlier in the summer, I decided it was time to check it out. Yesterday we made the journey--a party of six in all.  It was one of those hotter than hell Texas days, but we fearlessly set out, armed with sunscreen and an extensive de-contamination kit (four books by Richard Dawkins).  OK, I lied about the sunscreen.

So yes (we were told), dinosaurs and humans existed at the same time.  The museum has a couple of pieces of evidence for this-- a rock with a dinosaur footprint as well as a human footprint   Also: a little clay pitcher with a baby dinosaur-shaped handle, dated 1250 AD and found in Mississippi.  There were dinosaurs not just in earliest biblical days, but in the middle ages!  Also: an image of a dinosaur in a Peruvian bas relief, indicating that dinosaurs were also in South America not so long ago. (Some images here.)

What fun!  We got to hear a lecture on the geologic column by Mr. Baugh himself, which was all very interesting. His team of "geologists" was present, and they seemed to have some very impressive "credentials".  They inserted themselves here and there, reporting on their "excavations", demonstrating their "sensitivity" to the possibility of fraud, asking "penetrating scientific questions", etc.  You will have noticed a lot of scare quotes in the last two sentences. Let us not belabor the obvious.

A fair number of the people in the room (40 in all) appeared to be part of the magic show.  It was a little difficult to say, looking around, who were the performers and who they were performing for.  We came away quite curious about the state of mind of Baugh and Co.  To what extent are they sincere true believers, and to what extent are they involved in a deliberate fraud?  Presumably they do believe in creationism.  But do they really believe in the whole dog and pony show they're putting on to get others to believe in creationism too? Or is the show a noble lie, so to speak--with the ends justifying the means (in their minds)? If they don't know they're talking nonsense, should they know?

Well anyway, it's sort of a fun thought, isn't it?  Dinosaurs in America in the middle ages. Dinosaurs off-stage, throughout the bible.  I'm tempted to go look up the Leviticus dietary code, and see which instructions could possibly be construed as saying whether or not humans are permitted to eat Tyrannosaurus burgers. Surely if there had been dinosaurs around, they would have loomed rather large (literally) and that would have been covered. Plus, one wants to have a closer look at pre-historic cave paintings. Early people were obviously fascinated with mega-fauna. What, no dinosaurs?

It would certainly be a fun exercise for a high school critical thinking or science class: how do we know that dinosaurs did not live at the same time as humans?  We discussed this during the car ride back, and only once needed to consult the decontamination kit (there's a great section on dating techniques in The Greatest Show on Earth). We discovered two great truths on the trip:  you're never far from a Starbucks, even in the bowels of Texas. And: there really is a town called Venus, Texas, and they really are fussy about their speed limit. Ahem.

When we got home we discovered that Mr. Baugh is considered a disreputable young earth creationist, even by other young earth creationists. Ouch!  We also discovered that he was once featured on The Daily Show and that he is fond of The Flintstones.  Enjoy!


First Contact (2)

So (I was asking, here)--when do we make first contact with our children? Did they exist way back when they were developing in the womb, or do they come into existence only once they are conscious selves or full persons? I'm not quite at the "full conviction" stage yet, but I'm finding Eric Olson very persuasive. His book The Human Animal: Personal Identity without Psychology is a thing of loveliness--clear, novel, interesting, and ever so subtly funny.  (I even like the dedication: "to unemployed philosophers"!) A short version of the core argument is here, and there's a very interesting and amusing interview with Olson here.

Obviously something very important happens when a fetus starts to have conscious feelings--probably some time between 20 and 30 weeks.  Another important milestone is when an infant or child starts to have the capacities we associate with personhood--self-awareness, rationality, and the like.   It's only at that point that a being exists who can remember its past experiences and/or in other ways maintain a continuous mental life.  The dominant view of personal identity, the psychological view, says that something even more monumental happens as these important mental powers set in: a whole new entity comes into existence.  Before one of these crucial mental milestones, only an organism existed, but not my son, not my daughter.

No doubt it makes good sense that we see these milestones as extremely significant, but should we really think of them as ontologically significant--i.e. as moments when something new pops into existence?  Olson says no.  Each of us is an organism, an animal, and we start to exist soon after conception.  More on all of that when I've finished his book ....

And now for something new.  I'm visiting the Creation Evidence Museum in Glen Rose, Texas today. Perhaps I'll come back with something to say about it.


Complaining about Sexism

Greta Christina says complaining about sexism and other forms of oppression is a Catch-22: if we don't complain, the problem remains invisible, but if we do complain, we
... get accused of “playing the victim card.” We get accused of making up the marginalization, or exaggerating it, or going out of our way to look for it, or twisting innocent events to frame them in this narrative of victimhood, or trying to manipulate people into giving us our way by scoring sympathy points we haven’t earned.
If wish I could just agree and move on.  Here's the part I do agree with. Yes, it's risky complaining about sexism. You can have a completely well-founded complaint, yet find things just getting worse if you complain.  I've had this dilemma myself.  Recently I was at a philosophy seminar and a male participant did something to me I considered sexist*. I thought about discussing the incident here or elsewhere, but complaining does tend to elicit skepticism.  Are you sure you read that right?  Are you being overly touchy?  Complaining about sexism also seems to trigger outbursts of sexist rage in some quarters -- I'm talking about the secular blogosphere now.  So you have to weigh your options before you complain.  Sometimes you can't raise consciousness or rectify anything by complaining. Sad but true, and yes, that's frustrating.

Here's why I can't just agree with Greta Christina and move on.  But first--a tad more expression of solidarity.  Women need to stand up for each other at least in the sense of jointly acknowledging that there are still major problems for women in all sorts of contexts.   There's something to the old lefty rule that you don't cross a picket line.  Questioning Greta Christina here is a bit like crossing the feminist picket line...

But I have to do it. While it's frustrating that complaints are sometimes greeted with excessive skepticism and even sexist rage, it's certainly not true that everyone should take every complaint at face value.  Sometimes people actually do exaggerate, misread situations, judge them by inappropriate standards, etc.  Sometimes it's ambiguous or debatable what qualifies as appropriate behavior in a certain situation.   If I had talked about the incident in the seminar room at this blog, it wouldn't have been fair to expect universal assent.  Right?  Right!

If you read the rest of her post, you'll see Greta Christina is trying to use the Catch-22 theory to defuse criticism (from people the likes of me, in fact). That just doesn't work.  Though it's generally true that complaints about sexism elicit excessive skepticism and criticism, any specific complaint does have to hold up under critical scrutiny. You can't write off your critics as just putting you under a frustrating Catch-22.

Bet you're curious about the incident in the seminar room!  If I talk about it publicly I'm going to do it here.  I'd urge women in the secular community to create a similar forum. It's a great way to amass a lot of data, and stop individual women from having to endure the sexist rage backlash.  That's clearly a reality (if you follow these things, you'll know that's true), and nobody's exaggerating about it. 

* I should clarify, to protect the innocent: the guilty party was not a member of my own department.