Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Why atheism and asexuality taste great together

This is the conclusion to my "Fantastic Primer" series, in which I imagine explaining asexuality to an atheist audience and atheism to an asexual audience, as a tool to explore intersectionality. Please read the introductory post, which explains the premise.

In an earlier post in this series, I explained why I don't trust you atheists to get asexuality right.  But apart from what some atheists say and believe, asexuality and atheism taste great together. These are two identities that have nothing to do with each other, and yet they mesh in a way that gives me philosophical warm fuzzies.

Here are a few connections between atheism and asexuality that I personally enjoy pondering.

Naturalistic asexuality

Humans weren't specially created, and certainly not intended to fulfill any particular purpose.  Humans aren't an essential category of beings with souls.  We're all a bunch of soulless objects which happen to share many similar properties.  So why couldn't there be some humans which simply don't share one of those properties?  Nothing is impossible or wrong about it.  It's practically expected.

Humans appeared by the process of evolution.  In evolution, variation is the rule, and a key element of the evolutionary mechanism.  On a superficial glance you might not expect asexuality to persist, since individuals that don't reproduce are selected out in evolution.  But there are any number of possible resolutions, including genetic drift, biological correlates, developmental factors, and the fact that most human sex is not procreative.  It's not really a problem unless you think homosexuality is also a problem.

You might say that evolution, metaphorically, wants us to have lots of procreative sex.  But I say that evolution, metaphorically, is a jerk, so who cares what it metaphorically wants?  Unlike a personal creator, evolution doesn't literally have feelings so screw evolution's hurt feelings.

The power to reject what I don't want

One of the common responses to asexuality is, "I like sex so much, I don't understand how you can not like what I like."  I've heard this often enough that I've realized how ridiculous it is, and I've become inoculated against it.  And now I realize how often people say the same thing about other things I don't like, and I feel more empowered to reject it every time.

Like geeks, who are always telling me I should like such and such TV show or movie.  Or when people tell me I should enjoy traveling or dancing more.  Or when stories tells me I should be more "adventurous".  Or when society tells me that "classic" works of fiction and art are superior to more modern works.  I'm willing to try stuff when people suggest it, but it makes me happier to know that I don't need to take that crap.  People enjoy different things, and anyone who acts otherwise probably isn't worth taking advice from.

Oh yeah, religion and religious practices are in this category too!  I really don't like religious ceremonies, "spirituality", or religious music.  I've been unhappy with those things since I was a little Catholic kid, and I had trouble making sense of a benevolent god which would torture us with church, prayer, and boring music.  But now the explanation is simple.  Other people like those things, and therefore incorporate it into their religion.  Some atheists like it too, and find secular practices to fulfill their desires.  But if I'm not the sort of person who likes it, I don't have to like it, and that's that.

Skeptical social justice

One idea I'm enthusiastic about is combining ideas from skepticism and social justice (which overlap with the atheist and asexual communities respectively).  I feel like if you just have skepticism or just have social justice, you only have half the picture.  In skepticism, we talk a lot about the difference between things that can and can't be studied by science.  Unfortunately, this leads to some errors, like assuming that something which would be difficult to study scientifically must not be real.  Or thinking that operational definitions of gender define what gender "really" is.

On the other side, social justice advocates are used to talking about social constructs, and when there are problems with our social constructs.  This is a great addition to our intellectual tool set, but its overuse leads to errors, like declaring certain scientific results "problematic" and therefore incorrect.  I often think social justice needs to be tempered with a better sense of pragmatism and reality.

For this reason, I tend to gravitate towards the social justice parts of the atheist movement, and the part of the asexual movement which is enthusiastic about research.

Having ideas from both skepticism and social justice helped me understand my doubts better. When I wondered whether what I experience counts as "sexual attraction" I realized that this is not a scientific question, because the definition of sexual attraction is socially constructed.  When I wondered whether I would eventually feel different about my orientation, I realized that this is a scientific question, albeit one that hasn't been studied yet.  Two different doubts, two different understandings, two different responses.


I hope this was a positive ending to my series on atheism/asexuality intersections.  Nobody has questioned the relevance of this series, but I'd like to take this moment to justify it anyway.  When we talk about intersectionality, we're so used to the big ones like race, gender, orientation, and socioeconomic class.  But are those always the most important identities to every single individual?  Being ace and half-Chinese is an intersection alright, and so is being ace and male.  But to me, none of those have had as large an impact as being ace and atheist, even though they seemingly have little to do with each other.  That's why I talk about it all the time, and this series won't be the last of it.

1. Introduction
2. Why I don't trust you
3. Yes, I'm one of those atheists
4. A skeptically-oriented Asexuality 101 
5. Atheism as minority, atheism as political cause  
7. Why atheism and asexuality taste great together

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Triply-linked cubes

Triply-linked cubes

This one is simple, yet so elegant.  There are three standard open cubes, and they're all linked together.  I got this idea from someone offline, and I thought it must be a classic modular origami design, but I can't find anything like it on the web.

The windows on each face of each cube are exactly half the length of the cube's total face.  Therefore, each cube has room to link with two other cubes, making for a three-cube maximum.  In the link above, there's a picture of fourteen linked cubes, but the fourteen cubes are linked in a chain fashion.  In this triply-linked design, each pair of cubes is linked, including white to black.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

I want to write a novel

Once before, I jokingly wrote a list of my "life goals", one of which was to write a novel.  I am actually serious about that particular goal, but I've been taking my time about it.  I figured I'd start after this blog died, but for some reason that's not happening.  So I'll do it while the blog's still alive.

Here's where I'm at.  I have not written anything.  I do not have any plot ideas.  I do not know what genre I want--either sci-fi or "literary" fiction.  I have some character ideas and structure ideas, but they're pretty vague and haven't been written down.

I do not have any particular end in mind.  Traditional publishing?  Self-publishing?  Keep it all to myself?  I have no idea.  Maybe I'll only make it part way through and decide that writing books is unenjoyable.  I'm not terribly optimistic, because I figure most people who set out to write books have higher hopes than outcomes.

It's hard to tell how good my writing is.  I've had this blog for many years, but being well-practiced doesn't necessarily make me any good.  To really improve my writing I'd need some sort of feedback, but all the feedback I get as a blogger is thoroughly biased.  Furthermore, it's far from clear that writing skill in short-form nonfiction transfers over to long-form fiction.  Basically the only thing I do know is that I am not afraid of a keyboard or a blank page, for whatever that's worth.

Step one: Write this post as a pre-commitment strategy.
Step two: Start collecting any character ideas I have, and try to think of plot ideas.
Step three: Report back in a month
Step four: ???
Any thoughts?

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Christian doubt

When I grew up in Catholicism, I was never taught to think that doubt was a bad thing.  In fact, doubt was a good thing, ennobling even.  Doubts were something that everyone experiences.  Why then, is it said that Christianity is all about faith, dogma, and purging all doubt?  Where does this image come from?

Let me tell you what happened next.  I started doubting Catholicism.  And even though I was never taught that doubting was bad, I knew that the particular way I was doing it was bad.

What I was doing was reading on some arguments against Catholic beliefs, comparing them to the arguments for it.  I knew that changing my mind on so many things all at once was impossible, so I considered each issue independently, one at a time.  I worried about the consequences of deciding one way or the other, but I tried not to let that affect my judgment.  Finally, I collected my many thoughts and tried to draw some overall conclusions on Catholicism and God.

In my mind, this is more or less the proper way to deal with doubt, so why did I know in my gut I was running afoul of some rule of my religious upbringing?  The truth is that doubt was accepted in the Catholicism I grew up in, but only if the doubt fit into a specific narrative.  Doubt was not an epistemological tool, but a personal struggle to be overcome.  This is a fundamentally negative depiction of doubt.

Even the supposedly positive narratives about doubt are fundamentally negative.  When doubt is seen as ennobling, it's the same sense in which a chronic illness is seen as ennobling.*  It's not the doubt which is good, it's that we respect someone who maintained (or even strengthened) their faith despite their painful struggle with doubt.**  When everyone is said to have doubts, this is not a way of saying that doubts are good.  It's a way of saying that Christians are not Mary Sues.  Christians are imperfect (being afflicted with doubt and sin), and thus relatable.

*Even when someone literally has a chronic illness, I do not think we should see it as ennobling.
**This is largely how Catholics saw Mother Teresa's "Dark Letters", in which she expressed her struggle with doubt.

This isn't just my personal experience growing up, it's a pervasive narrative about doubt within Christianity.  To show this, I will pull out quotes from the top three page hits for "Christian doubt" (bold emphasis all mine).

1. A letter to William Lane Craig:
Natalie: When my best friend told me she was struggling, I figured it was just a phase and started thinking about what books to recommend to her. But then something hit me that had never really been an option before—what if Christianity really isn’t true?

My intuition is still that it is, but I am in dire need of your help—someone whom I know has a strong faith as well as a strong philosophical background. What advice could you offer me, my best friend, and the non-believers we know to elucidate Christianity and rekindle our faith?
Craig: I find that when folks are struggling with doubt, the doubts can balloon all out of proportion, so that their belief system comes to look rather like those maps of the world which show a country’s size according to its economic wealth rather than geographical area.
 2. Dealing with Doubt in our Christian Faith:
So what can we do if we find ourselves struggling with doubts about the truth of Christianity? Why do such doubts arise? And how can we rid ourselves of these taunting Goliaths?

First, we must always remember that sooner or later we'll probably all have to wrestle with doubts about our faith.
I know of a young man who had converted to Christianity, but who's now raising various objections to it. But when one looks beneath the surface, one sees that he's currently involved in an immoral lifestyle.
3. An interview with Greg Boyd, author of Benefit of the Doubt: Breaking the Idol of Certainty:
Many today assume that doubt is the enemy of faith–as though a person’s strength is as strong as they are free of doubt. I argue that this common model of faith today is neither biblical nor healthy.
When we embrace a biblical model of faith, we no longer need to squelch doubt. To the contrary, we will find that doubt can sometimes prove beneficial in helping us grow spiritually and in keeping us honest in our relationship with God and others.
Sadly, many today think that people are “saved” simply because they espouse certain beliefs, apart from any consideration of how they live.  This is why research demonstrates that the vast majority of Americans admit to believing in Jesus (and a host of other Christian things) while also demonstrating that this belief has very little impact on how they actually live.
The reason I choose the top three hits on Google is to avoid cherry-picking on my part.  Note that #3 does not espouse the negative views on doubt that I grew up with, and in fact #3 rebels against such views.  Also note that #2 states that doubters are really trying to justify an immoral lifestyle, and this is not something I believed as a kid.  I conclude that some Christians have more positive attitudes towards doubt, and some have more negative attitudes.

I understand why Christians see doubt as a struggle.  I've seen similar patterns among questioning queer people.  But even if, in one situation, doubt is causing you distress, I think it is best to see doubt as a tool--neither good nor bad, only useful.  Doubt is a tool used to better align our beliefs with reality.  "Giving in" to doubts is bad if and only if the thing being doubted is justified and true.  Thus, the only way to know whether doubting is good or bad is to not have doubts!

(This topic was inspired by Greta Christina, but my perspective is entirely independent from hers.)

Monday, April 14, 2014

Currently reading

What have I been reading lately?

I read The City and the City by China Miéville, a mystery novel taking place across two city-states, but the city-states actually seem to be in the same location.  The unusual setting got far more mileage than I thought it would, but I didn't think much of the flat characters.  I would be willing to read more Miéville in the future.

I read A Perfect Vacuum by Stanislaw Lem, a collection of reviews of books that don't exist, mostly books of the postmodernist sort.  This format allows it to describe really fascinating books that probably wouldn't work in practice.  My major complaint is that Lem didn't use the premise to its full potential--most reviews simply summarized the books they were reviewing, without much actual judgment.  I would have liked to juxtapose the contrasting perspectives of the book's characters, the book, the reviewer, and the reader.

I read The Casual Vacancy by J K Rowling, which is mainly an exercise in juggling lots and lots of characters and the dynamics between them.  The main plot arc is about class struggle and urban development politics.  I enjoy having lots of unsympathetic characters, so this was a book for me.

I just finished reading Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake, which takes after the apocalypse, with the prior dystopia described through flashbacks.  The dystopia is a world where scientists are developing pigs that grow human organs, where sex slavery is common, and where the upper class (mostly researchers) live in compounds separated from an increasingly impoverished lower class.

I'm not generally a fan of speculative fiction, but I liked the parable of a coffee company that developed a coffee plants whose beans would ripen all at the same time.  This of course leads to rioting because all those coffee pickers are out of jobs.  It's funny how the technology leads to more efficient production, but ultimately harms the quality of life because it concentrates wealth.  One hopes that in the real world, as scientific technology progresses, political "technology" can keep pace.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Brief blogging break

Due to lack of time I will not update until April 15th or so.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Made in Criticalland

Massimo Pigliucci started a new blog Scientia Salon, which is already bearing fruits.  I enjoyed this essay by Alan Sokal (yes, that Sokal) about academic postmodernists and extreme social constructivists.  In the 80s and 90s there were many such academics claiming that science was entirely based on prejudices.  Interestingly, Sokal claims that they have now backed off from the most extreme views, particularly because they were upset at the way the Bush regime used postmodernism to justify its anti-science policies.

Sokal's primary citation for this is "Why has critique run out of steam? From matters of fact to matters of concern" by sociologist of science Bruno Latour in 2004.  I thought it was worth a read.

 Latour actually says a lot of great, quotable things about critical theory:
What has become of critique when my neighbor in the little Bourbonnais village where I live looks down on me as someone hopelessly naı̈ve because I believe that the United States had been attacked by terrorists? Remember the good old days when university professors could look down on unsophisticated folks because those hillbillies naı̈vely believed in church, motherhood, and apple pie? Things have changed a lot, at least in my village. I am now the one who naı̈vely believes in some facts because I am educated, while the other guys are too unsophisticated to be gullible: “Where have you been? Don’t you know that the Mossad and the CIA did it?” What has become of critique when someone as eminent as Stanley Fish, the “enemy of promises” as Lindsay Waters calls him, believes he defends science studies, my field, by comparing the laws of physics to the rules of baseball? What has become of critique when there is a whole industry denying that the Apollo program landed on the moon? What has become of critique when DARPA uses for its Total Information Awareness Project the Baconian slogan Scientia est potentia? Didn’t I read that somewhere in Michel Foucault? Has knowledge-slash-power been co-opted of late by the National Security Agency?
Of course conspiracy theories are an absurd deformation of our own arguments, but, like weapons smuggled through a fuzzy border to the wrong party, these are our weapons nonetheless. In spite of all the deformations, it is easy to recognize, still burnt in the steel, our trademark: Made in Criticalland.
Latour uses an extended war analogy, although it's not clear who he thinks his enemy is.  It's something something capitalism something.  He talks about reassessing our tools of war as the times change, which seems to really mean changing his epistemology to better fit the conclusions that he had already decided on.  He only knew his epistemology (ie scientific facts are purely social constructs) was wrong when other people used the same epistemology to come to conclusions he didn't like.  But okay, his epistemology was terrible, so it's probably a good thing if he gets rid of it.

A third of a way through the paper, it takes a sudden turn towards the incomprehensible.  I found it so baffling, that my mind could only interpret it as a series of non sequitur jokes.  So I laughed.  I feel the same way I do about many an unwanted commenter on my blog.  "It's not that I disagree with you, it's that I literally don't understand what I would be agreeing or disagreeing with!"

It begins with Letour introducing his solution to critical theory's problem:
What I am going to argue is that the critical mind, if it is to renew itself and be relevant again, is to be found in the cultivation of a stubbornly realist attitude—to speak like William James—but a realism dealing with what I will call matters of concern, not matters of fact.
Curiously, "matters of concern" and "matters of fact" are crucial to Letour's thesis, but they are not immediately defined, nor ever defined.  I can only guess at the definition based on contextual clues scattered throughout the article.

This is immediately followed by a long discussion of Heidegger's distinction between objects and things.  (I can see why Heidegger is famous for being so opaque, even compared to other philosophers.)  A handmade jug is a thing (which is a celebrated category), while a can of Coke is merely an object.  On first glance it sounds like Heidegger is merely conveying his prejudices, his romanticization of handmade objects.  Letour appears to agree.

But rather than dismissing the distinction between objects and things, as I would, Letour argues that objects and things have been complicated in the modern era.  For instance, when the space shuttles Challenger and Columbia had their disasters, they transformed from objects into things.  I don't know what conclusion Letour draws from this, because I cannot make sense of how he describes his conclusion:
My point is thus very simple: things have become Things again, objects have reentered the arena, the Thing, in which they have to be gathered first in order to exist later as what stands apart.
 Letour goes on to describe the current state of critical theory:
We can summarize, I estimate, 90 percent of the contemporary critical scene by the following series of diagrams that fixate the object at only two positions, what I have called the fact position and the fairy position—fact and fairy are etymologically related but I won’t develop this point here. The fairy position is very well known and is used over and over again by many social scientists who associate criticism with antifetishism.
To Letour's credit, he at least immediately defines what the fairy position is, though I don't understand his definition.  I'm not sure why it is necessary to observe the etymological relation between fact and fairy--perhaps in Criticalland, unlike everywhere else, etymology is destiny?

 Figure 2: I think that the dark circles represent "facts" and the white circles are "fetishes".  I think the circles on the left might be the "fairy" position, and the ones on the right the "fact" position?  I'm honestly not sure.  This is the first in a series of diagrams, none of which have captions.  I'll spare you from the others.

Letour goes on and on about this.  But to be honest I couldn't read the whole thing, because at this point my palm was in the way.  I'm not saying that Letour's article is nonsense because it's incomprehensible--papers in my own field, condensed matter physics, are also notoriously impenetrable.  But I get the sense that the underlying things being described are rather simple, and that nothing really justifies being so opaque.