My problem with the social sciences strikes again

As I once wrote

This type of psychology demands that human behavior have explanations rather than reasons.  The explanations involve my unconscious fear of new experiences, my unconscious fear of my father, my unconscious homosexual urges, or some other such unconscious prompting.  None of these claims has any credible evidence behind them, and they all clash with the evidence of direct introspection–hence the recurring need for “unconscious” qualifiers.

“The unconscious mind” is one of those things that people are afraid to question for fear of being thought “unscientific”; I’m sure I’ll shock some readers with even the basic observation that “unconscious mind” is a contradiction in terms.

Let us take one of the most celebrated claims of psychoanalysis, that I can have “unconscious” sexual desires.  What does it even mean to say that I have a sexual desire if I don’t experience it?

Thanks to The Elusive Wapiti, I now see this claim

..he added that many women were in denial about what they found to be a turn on. ‘The plethysmograph was showing lots of arousal when women were telling Chivers they didn’t feel turned on at all,’

I suppose it just shows I’m a blue-pill prude if I suggest that the simplest explanation is that blood flow to a lady’s private parts just isn’t a reliable measure of whether she’s sexually aroused?  But wait, I see from this NYT article (also linked by EW) that Professor Chivers, who actually carried out this experiment, is pretty much on my side.  She distinguishes physiological and subjective sexual response and makes no claim that her subjects were lying or “in denial” about the latter.  I would add that when most people talk about sexual arousal or desire they are referring to subjective states, not blood flows.

Victims, and other categories

One of the things I really like about being an obscure anonymous blogger and speaking for no one but myself is that I don’t have to sugar-coat things to make me or some organization sound nice.  For example, I don’t have to repeat that nonsense we always hear from the pro-life movement and the Catholic Church about women who have abortions being “victims” who “deserved better” then and deserve our sympathy now.  Of course, any particular woman may have been a victim of some wrong in the past or may be a victim of some wrong in the future, but for the murder in question, she’s that other thing–you know, the person in a crime who’s not the victim but is the one who causes the crime.  I remember now!  The perpetrator!  Yes, that’s what she is.

I don’t oppose abortion because women who have them might be sad later in life.  I don’t oppose it because it just might infinitesimally increase a woman’s chances of getting breast cancer.  (Really, what doesn’t increase one’s chances of getting cancer?)  I oppose it because I want to stop prenatal children from being murdered.

But isn’t the woman a victim in a spiritual sense?  Doesn’t having an abortion wound her soul, and shouldn’t we pity her for that?  Sure, but that’s true of any sin.  One might as well say that rapists are the real victims of rape, because of the harm they do to their souls.  You might even be able to prove that rapists often get depressed after their crimes, the poor dears.  In some ultimate sense it is true that the sinner is the worst victim of his sin.  But in our normal way of speaking, no, a rapist is not a victim.  The woman he attacks is.  And it’s the murdered baby who is the victim of abortion.

But surely, Bonald, you at least agree that if abortions are going to happen, they should be safe (for the perpetrator)?  Why in the world should I want that?  Suppose one were to pass a law giving out armor and machine guns to aspiring muggers because, although one may not approve of mugging, one should at least agree that muggers shouldn’t get hurt.  But that’s obviously crazy.  Why take away one of the best deterrents?  One could argue that the world would be a better place if abortions were so unsafe that a woman who procured one could be certain that she would die within the hour.  Of course, we shouldn’t kill them ourselves, but neither should we as a society endorse their evil acts for the purpose of making them safer.

And before somebody asks, yes, I do oppose the right of a woman to murder her child, even if that child was conceived by rape or incest.

UPDATE:  Here’s me picking a fight at Touchstone.

What (and who) drives Religious Right?

At the American Conservative, Michael Dougherty argues that the well-known division of the Republican coalition into social/religious, fiscal, and national security “conservatives” is deceptive.  In fact, the evangelical Protestants who we tend to think of as comprising the “religious right” are the most enthusiastic on each issue:  more committed to Zionism and democracy exporting than the neoconservatives, more passionate about lowering taxes than the libertarians.  Based on the stated beliefs of its members, the Tea Party is not a libertarian compeditor to the religious right, but rather the religious right itself in a new guise.  Assuming this is true, I w0nder if it is meaningful to speak of the religious right per se, as opposed to calling them the Republican party “base” or “grassroots”.  Indeed, Paul Gottfried in his response to Dougherty’s article claims that, in his experience, members of the religious right care more about promoting the Republican Party at home and democracy abroad than they do about abortion or other social issues.  Gottfried attributes this to intellectual laziness.

I think both Dougherty and Gottfried are too hard on their subjects.  They are vexed that Evangelicals would stick by G. W. Bush despite what they see as his manifest incompetance, but this becomes easier to understand when one looks at that the Democrats were offering as the alternative.  As long as the Democrats maintain their fanaticism for abortion, sodomy, feminism, and secularism, it’s hard to see how evangelical protestants have any choice.

As someone who, I suppose, belongs to the religious right–but who despises democracy and capitalism–it is certainly vexing to see these issues not only embraced, but effectively eclipsing the issues I do care about.  If only there were a way to capture and reorient the debate.  What we need is an intellectual leader and spokesman.  A while back, I was reading that Robert George had more or less assumed this role.  George, you’ll recall is a law professor at Princeton and a proponent of “new natural law” Thomism.  To his great credit, he certainly brings focus back onto social issues:  abortion, in-vitro fertilization, homosexuality, pornography, euthanasia.  Against the libertarians, he has affirmed that the state has a duty to foster a healthy “moral ecology” for the community, so he has made a refreshing break with individualism.  My main objection to George’s writings is his strong endorsement of propositional nation nonsense.  He will often start arguments with something like the following:  “Unlike other nations, America is based on an idea:  human equality.  Now let’s go outlaw abortion!”  Perhaps it’s just for show–George wants people to think his inspiration is the Founding Fathers, not Thomas Aquinas–but he’s brought out this line too many times for this to be likely.

One of the disadvantages of not controling the discourse is that a hostile media gets to decide for you who your spokesperson is.  The New York Times has decided that this buffoon is our idea man.  David Barton is described generously by the Times as a “self-taught historian”.  He is also an ordained minister, but his true religion seems to be Founderolatry.  In his mind, the Founders were not deist freemason traitors history records, but infallible gods whose wisdom (distilled in quotations removed from any context) can resolve all of America’s contemporary debates, in the Republicans’ favor.  Did you know that James Madison (peace be upon him) opposes the stimulus plan?

I would love to say that Barton is really an atheist-Jewish NYT conspiracy to make American Christians look dumb, but the fact is that he has gotten approval by a number of prominent Republican politicians.  We’re making ourselves look stupid; we religious rightists have no one to blame but ourselves.  What really handicaps the religious right, and Founderolatry is just one particularly silly manifestation of this, is an absurdly inflated idea of the virtue of the United States of America.  Our own code of ethics would logically lead us to label America as an especially wicked nation.  Instead, we always hear that America is especially, even uniquely, virtuous among nations both contemporary and historical.  We’ve just fallen from our own high ideals in a few isolated areas, like abortion.  These are no doubt a blot on our nation, but they don’t touch its virtuous and glorious essence.  This is implausible, and it seems hard to believe that someone who really believes what a pro-lifer believes would go around saying that America is the greatest nation on earth.  It’s like saying that a certain man you know is the kindest person on earth, except that he’s a serial killer, but, oh, you should just see how nice he is when he’s not killing people.  No, abortion is not just a blot on the surface.  A basically good people doesn’t murder a million of its children each year to promote sexual promiscuity and female selfishness.  The rot goes to the core; the sickness goes to the soul.  One would expect that Christians would be the first to recognize the depravity of unredeemed man (and one might think a Protestant people would be especially sensitive to this point).  Instead, we act like America is holier than God Himself.  The leader we need is someone like Augustine or Calvin.

Two on immigration

Is unpopular mass immigration going to hurt the European Left?  I wouldn’t hold my breath.

Amnesty = Abortion, because it means hordes of new Democratic voters.

More power to science!–be careful what you ask for

From time to time, you’ll hear people declaiming on the differences between “science” and “religion”.  Science, we are told, is reasonable, open-minded, and self-correcting.  Religion, on the other hand, is supposedly irrational and dogmatic.  People’s religious opinions may have psychological causes, but it’s not admitted that they might have reasons to believe those opinions true.  They are only able to maintain their silly beliefs by persecuting anyone who doubts them.  In fact, one might say that, for may people today, for a belief to be unreasonable and intolerant is the very definition of “religious”.  So, for example, we hear new atheists dismiss communism as a religious perversion of atheism–not true atheism at all.  The reason that communism is “religious” is that it enforces an orthodoxy and persecutes heretics, the opposite of the true “scientific” atheist mindset.  On the other hand, one often hears Republican commentators dismiss the movement to counteract global warming as “religious”–meaning unreasonable and viscious toward unbelievers.  Note well how our supposed friends use the word “religion” (as in “global warming religion”) as an insult.

Of course, it’s silly to say that there are no reasons to believe that some religion is true, or that some particular religion is true.  Certainly, at least some religious believers hold their beliefs for intellectually respectable reasons, and most are very good at being accomodating to unbelievers.  However, the basic claim, that the scientific community utilizes doubt (except regarding its basic methodological premises) while religious communities must discourage it, is true.  The difference, though, has nothing to do with how “reasonable” either way of knowing is.  The difference lies in the different social responsibilities of science and religion.

In Purity and Danger, anthropologist Mary Douglas asks the question “what is the fundamental difference between primitive and modern religions?”  She considers some standard answers, e.g. that primitive sects are ritualistic and superstitious while modern sects are ethical and skeptical, and finds them incompatible with the actual records of primitive peoples.  The real difference, she decides, is that primitive religions are responsible for maintaining a social order–keeping people in line–while modern religions aren’t.  This isn’t because we moderns are freer than our superstitious forebears.  Rather, it’s because we are enmeshed in a much more pervasive and invasive network of social controls, organized with thorough bureaucratic and technological efficiency.  Religion can afford to be tolerant and individualistic now, now that nothing important depends on it.

What does this have to do with science?  Well, the fondest wish of our loudest science advocates is that science should have a stronger social presence, that its disinterested logic and open-mindedness would be allowed to inform public policy to a far greater extent.  Far better, they say, that government should rely on science than on superstition.

Whether or not it would be better for society is one thing we could debate.  I wonder, however, if anyone has thought about whether it would be good or bad for science itself.  If scientists ever should assume the mantle of social responsibility, our famed open-mindedness, our happiness to be proven wrong, would be the first thing we’d inevitably sacrifice.  As soon as some scientific theory becomes the main motive for a people’s collective action, skepticism towards that theory becomes a menace to society.  Today, I feel perfectly free to publicly doubt the existence of dark matter or the Higgs boson, because whether or not those things exist doesn’t affect the legitimacy of the government or any of its policies.   Consider instead the case of anthropogenic global warming.  As one often hears it complained, doubts on this subject are not welcomed; in fact, they are regarded as immoral.  Is this because, as alleged, this one part of science is becoming “religious”?  Not at all; what’s happened is that this one part of science has become socially and politically important.  There is strong evidence that the Earth is heating due to human release of greenhouse gases.  Curbing this effect before its results become catastrophic requires joint action by much of the industrialized world.  Well-publicized doubt threatens this joint action.  Therefore, it must be countered, by character attacks if necessary.  The reasoning here is perfectly valid.  It is the reasoning of a statesman, not a scientist, but that’s nothing to be ashamed of.  In this case, scientists have been thrust into a position of importance.  They must (and, I believe, they are) discharge these unwanted responsibilities as well as they can.  Still, if science continues to become more “relevant” in the coming years, expect centuries hence a future Dr. Douglas to someday write that this was the time that science switched from its “modern” open phase to its “primitive” dogmatic phase.

As a scientist, I hope, pray, and expect that my own field of astrophysics will remain gloriously irrelevant to the practical concerns of mankind.  I rather like it that I can feel free to propose a new explanation of short-duration gamma ray bursts without risking social anarchy.

Peculiarities in the “war between science and religion”

One can often disprove the media’s propaganda without even knowing the facts of the matter, just because the official story is incoherent.  An example I’ve already given is our feminist crusade in Afghanistan.  If the Taliban were simultaneously as unpopular and as poor at governing as we have been led to believe, this war would not still be going on.  Another example is the supposed “war between science and religion” that was allegedly waged in Europe from the sixteenth to the twentieth centuries.  One could always do some historical research and prove that this story is factually false.  But, actually, the story couldn’t be true, because it doesn’t make sense.

According to this story, at the beginning of the war, “religion” was by far the stronger party.  Over the centuries, “science” kept being proven right, and “religion” kept being proven wrong, until finally people wised up, and “science” came out on top, so that today, we scientists–the oracles of “science”–rightly enjoy our nearly godlike authority over the enlightened masses.  What’s wrong with this picture?

First, our own observations indicate that this war is very one-sided.  Lots of partisans of “science” attacking religion, which they publicly equate with superstition and ignorance.  On the other hand, when was the last time you heard a religious leader assert that science is incompatible with his creed?  Or that the scientific method is impious or otherwise sinful or unreliable?  Well, sure, you’ll say, of course we don’t see that now.  Now science has the upper hand, and religious leaders are cowed by it.  But, remember, this isn’t how it always was.  According to the official story, “religion” used to have much the upper hand in power and prestige.  Surely if we go back to the sixteenth century, we will find prominent churchmen condemning the insipient scientific enterprise, calling the whole thing wicked, ungodly, or dangerous.  Does anybody have these quotes?  I haven’t seen them.  And I’m sure if they were there, the media would bring them to our attention.  Was the Church afraid to admit that it was at war with religion then?  Why?  At the time, if someone had said “science is incompatible with Christianity”, what would have been, for 99% of the people at the time, an argument against science, not against Christianity.  That is a crucial part of the official story.  If science enjoyed its current prestige during the Middle Ages, then it would be hard to regard those times as an era of “darkness” compared to our “enlightenment”.  Furthermore, if science held its current prestige then, at the apex of confessional strength and aggression, it would be impossible to maintain that religion is a serious threat to the scientific enterprise.

So, during the first half of this war, the churches could have condemned science with little danger to themselves, but they didn’t.  That brings us to the second question.  Why didn’t they?  If science and religion are locked in permanent conflict, why didn’t “religion” squash “science” like a bug when it had the chance?  Perhaps clerics were worried that they would lose out on technical advances to other, more science-friendly societies?  Not likely.  Science didn’t become practically useful until around the nineteenth century.  Before that, it was mostly speculation about the heavens, and that sort of thing.  Was it because confessional differences kept the churches from acting in unison to hound their common enemy?  But why should united action be necessary?  Ecclesiastic divisions didn’t keep Catholics, Lutherans, Calvinists, etc. from each separately attacking atheism, adultery, and other things obviously inimical to the Christian faith in general.  If “science” is at war with “religion” in general, or even with Christianity in general, we would have expected science to have been treated like atheism or Arianism.

But religion did attack, they say.  Here they’ll usually say something about the trial of Galileo or the Scopes monkey trial.  But that won’t do.  First, because a five century war should consist of more than two skirmishes.  After all, the question is not whether some scientist might run afoul of some cleric, or whether some denomination might find some scientific theory objectionable.  Of course these things might happen.  At most, this proves that science and religion are capable of friction, which I don’t deny.  But the “war” story demands more than this–namely, that they are inevitably and irreconcilably opposed.  To prove this, more than occasional friction is required.  After all, far more artists than scientists have gotten in trouble with the Church, but no one would claim that there’s an eternal war between “religion” and “art”.  No, what we should see is some systematic effort on the part of “religion” to suppress science.  No one even makes a beginning of this.

Buying for babies

My wife and I have found out that we’re having a girl.  (Three weeks till the due date, by the way.)  This is important to know so that we can buy the right stuff.  Even in this androgynist-feminist age, the baby industry is quite up front about its gender-specific products.  Do you want a boy crib set or a girl crib set?  The Wal Mart web page will let you search them separately.  There are boy and girl car seats and boy and girl baby clothes.  The pregnancy books list the advantages of determining the child’s sex before birth; the main one is that you can buy gender-appropriate baby stuff.  They don’t qualify it by saying “things our homophobic, patriarchal culture regards as gender-appropriate” or anything like that.  In the pregnancy world, there are boyish boys and girlie girls.

This is actually an area where I would have been willing to compromise with the feminists, because I doubt that having blue vs. pink crib sheets has much to do with inculcating appropriate gender roles.  Since we don’t have to, though, my wife and I are getting pink things to prepare for the arrival of our little princess.

The most obvious lesson here is that the feminists are smart enough to defer to consumer sentimentality when challenging it wouldn’t be worth the cost.  Attacking the pink care bears on my daughter’s crib might provoke backlash, and it would do very little for their efforts to turn her into a lesbian later in life.

I think there is more going on here, though.  It is interesting that parents are most insistant about gender distinctions at this time in life when they really do matter least.  After all, without the cues from colored clothes, we would hardly be able to tell the difference between a baby girl and a baby boy.  And perhaps this is the issue.  For us, being manifestly gendered is a part of being human.  If what you’re carrying in your stomach or your arms isn’t a “he” or a “she”, it must be an “it”, a thing.  It was a real relief for my wife and I when the ultrasound technician told us we had a girl.  At last we knew what pronoun to use, and this allowed us to relate to our baby much more vividly.  We could only really think of her as a person when we knew her as not just a person, but as a girl.  All deep relationships are “gendered”.  Only in the impersonal workforce are people just “people”, rather than being the rich realities of men and women.

When we dress a baby girl in girlish clothes, or surround her with girlish toys, we are attempting to complete the manifestation of her humanity.  “This is not an ‘it'”, we say, “This is a ‘she'”.  As children mature, sex differences become more obvious, and there is less need for color cues.  The battle switches inward.  Then we must resist the capitalist-feminist complex that is ever-eager to reduce our “he”s and “she”s into “it”s.

Whatever happened to “quality of life”?

While we’re on the subject of abortion, whatever happened to that old argument that abortion should be legal out of consideration for the “quality of life” of expected babies?  It went like this:  pro-lifers only care about the right to life, but they don’t consider how well off the babies who are born will be.  Those that are born to poor or disfunctional families would probably be better off not being born at all.  Therefore, abortion is the compassionate choice.  Back when I was growing up, this was the pro-choice argument.  Everybody I talked to, read, or heard on TV who was in favor of legal abortion brought out this argument and put it front and center.  Nowadays you never hear it.  Of course, the argument is really, really stupid.  It wasn’t any less stupid back then, though.


The end of the fetus

“Fetus” is a perfectly good word–don’t we need a a word for “prenatal baby”?–but I suspect that it won’t exist much longer in the popular consciousness.  It may survive as medical terminology, but that’s it.  I’m basing this on the experience my wife and I have acquired with the Ob-Gyn profession over these past months, in particular how doctors talk to their patients.

When a woman goes to the gynecologist after seeing the “+” on her home pregnancy test, she has one of two conditions.  She may have a “baby”, or she may have a “pregnancy”.  When my wife and I went to the doctor the first time after our “+”, one of the first things they asked us was, “Is this a planned pregnancy?”  After we said “yes”, things were pretty much set.  My wife had a “baby” in her; no one would have ever thought to tell her she had a “fetus” gestating.  Doctors talked about the baby; ultrasound technicians gave us print-outs with “baby” labels on them.  The only time my wife had a “pregnancy” was when they talked to us about prenatal genetic testing.  They like to have these tests done even though they can’t cure any of these genetic diseases.  Thinking aloud, I said that it might be good to have time to prepare for an especially needy child.  The midwife chimed in with, “Also, some couples choose to terminate the pregnancy.”  That was the first time I heard this word “pregnancy” described as if it were a thing, rather than the fetus being the thing and pregnancy being the mother’s relationship to it.  Nobody nowadays terminates a fetus, much less a baby.  We only terminate pregnancies.

One day, while my wife and I were in the waiting room, another pregnant woman came in, walked up to the receptionist, and explained her situation in a carefree, jocular tone:  “I’m here because the doctor said my pregnancy might not be viable.  We’re going to find out for sure now.  If the pregnancy isn’t viable, I’m going to get it terminated.  No point in throwing up every morning for no reason, eh?”  The receptionist laughed and said “I don’t blame you”.  I think my wife and I, while pretending not to notice, both turned pale.  It’s not the contemplated murder that I found so disturbing.  It was the casualness of it.  This woman was in a horrifying position–her baby condemned to die before or soon after birth.  If she had come in distraught and announced that she wanted to put her poor doomed baby out of his misery, that would still have been morally problematic, but at least it would have acknowledged the seriousness of the situation.

What makes this ghoulish casualness possible is the rhetorical trick of saying that what a woman has is not a baby, or a fetus, or even a meaningless “lump of tissue”, but rather a “pregnancy”.  That’s all we’re ending, right, just a pregnancy?  And pregancies always “terminate” eventually anyway, right?  Either in the delivery room or the abortion clinic, it’s all the same as far as the state of pregnancy is concerned.  Nobody could be concerned to defend the rights of a “pregnancy”.

So there we are.  The word “fetus” is going to go off the market for lack of demand.  Every pregnant woman who comes to the doctor has her heart set on either birth or murder.  Either way, they don’t want to hear about fetuses.

The miracle pill

Watching television at night, I see a lot of birth control pill commercials.  (I guess I watch chick shows.)  It’s pretty amazing the things this pill is supposed to do.  I can remember hearing

  • The pill cures acne.
  • The pill lets you skip two out of three periods.
  • The pill improves your memory.  (This one was a news announcement.)

“Of course I’m not sleeping around, Mom.  I’m just taking this to get rid of my pimples.”  There’s something encouraging in this.  It seems that humans really do have synderesis, an intuition of right and wrong.  I’ve never seen a commercial for any other drug that focuses so much on side benefits unrelated to the drug’s main purpose.  For “the Pill”, though, they really go out of their way to talk about these things, because normal human beings can’t help but sense deep down that the main purpose of this pill is shameful.