Obligatory end of summer update

Whoa, so I haven’t been around here in, like, forever. I’ve been splitting my time between working on a paper and actually having a social life for the first time in about a year. On Monday it’ll be back to having no life: I start my new job and then after a week of orientation it’s back to school. After taking part in the book discussion group earlier this summer, my professor–who has turned into something of a mentor this past year–gave me permission to sign up for her graduate seminar in Advanced Metaphysics in the fall, which will be focusing on feminist metaphysics this semester. I just got approved for that class on Monday by UNL’s Graduate Studies department, so I dropped my Spinoza class. Here’s the new schedule:

  • Intro to Physical Anthropology
  • Ethical Theory
  • Advanced Metaphysics
  • Fiction Writing
  • Writing Theory for Consultants (job-related)

In addition, I’m still volunteering at the LGBTQA Resource Center, so it should be a pretty busy semester. I’ll probably either end up killing myself or coming out totally prepared for grad school. My Philosophy of Language professor has been helping me with my paper. I’ve decided to write on the reappropriation of the word ‘queer’. Specifically, I want to explore how a word which started its modern life as a pejorative could end up changing connotations due to a conscious effort among
a specific language community. I suspect it has something to do with how much a word is needed to perform a particular job. Professor Dowell sent me some information about a conference coming up in November in Memphis that she said my paper would go over well at, so I think I’ll be submitting it.

Also, I had my almost-three-month hormone check-up on Wednesday. I switched doctors and am now going to Planned Parenthood. The doctor I was seeing at UNMC is more qualified, but it’s just easier to grab a 5-minute bus ride to Planned Parenthood than to venture up to Omaha at the asscrack of dawn, especially with how busy I’ll be this semester. They did more blood tests, and I’ll find out next week if they’re going to do anything with my doses. I have been noticing some significant changes already. The most exciting is that I’ve started developing breasts. They’re painfully sensitive and nearly microscopic, but progress is progress. Also, my body hair has started to diminish and grow more slowly. My skin also seems smoother and generally healthier, but I’m not sure how much of that is the hormones and how much is the fact that I recently started a new skin-care regimen. I’ve also started getting ma’amed a lot on the phone, which is a big plus. And today when I went to the pharmacy to refill my sleeping pills, which are prescribed under my full male name, the pharmacist asked if I was picking them up for someone else, which made me feel good.

Finally, on the dating front, I’ve met a lady whom I think seems like quite the winner. We seem to have quite a bit in common, and she is incredibly sweet and caring. The main problem is that she lives in Omaha and my piece-of-shit car probably isn’t fit to travel the highways. Also, she’s allergic to cats, which could be an issue…

Anyway, I’ll try not to disappear for weeks on end again. I realize that a lot of my friends come here to keep up with what’s going on in my life, which is nice, but I may be kinda busy for a while. I’ll still try to keep you folks posted.

I want to clear some things up about the philosophy thing

So, seeing as how I study philosophy and am hoping to go to graduate school for the subject, I get a lot of people coming up to me and asking me philosophical questions or telling me about their favorite philosophy. The thing is, there seems to be a major disconnect between what the average American thinks philosophy is and the actual subject as it is practiced by American academics.

You see, there are several different types of philosophy, and each one is so distinct from the other that they almost seem like completely different fields of study. The two major traditions of philosophical practice in the Western world are analytic and continental. Most professional philosophers in the English speaking world practice analytic (or analytical) philosophy. This is the type of philosophy I practice.

Different philosophers define analytic philosophy differently, and there are philosophers with wildly divergent methods who all call themselves analytic. The thing that ties all of us together, though, is an emphasis on clarity of argument and cold, hard logic. Analytic philosophy is concerned primarily with finding out the truth of things and determining what those truths mean for humanity. We generally aren’t concerned with things like spiritual growth or how to lead a productive life or any of that fluff. That’s continental stuff.

Analytic philosophers differ in their opinions of the relationship between philosophy and science. Until around the mid-20th century, most analytic philosophers saw philosophy as a sort of adjunct to the natural sciences. Now, most analytic philosophers reject things like logical positivism and the idea that philosophy is subservient to the natural sciences. My view on the matter is that philosophy and science are best practiced together, with philosophy doing the bulk of the “intellectual” work. In my opinion, philosophy’s first job is to set up the boundaries in which science is required to work: we define the appropriate scientific method, the standards of evidence, ethical guidelines, etc. Then, science goes out and collects the data while working within the framework set up by philosophy. Once science has collected its data, they perform a preliminary analysis of it and then bring it back to us philosophers. We then perform a more thorough examination of the data and figure out what it all actually means. Some scientists (and some philosophers, as well) may disagree with this framework, but I think things would go best if this is how it all worked. (It actually does work like this most of the time.) Initially, I actually wanted to go into astrophysics until I realized that I was more interested in the philosophical side of science than the applied side of the equation.

Another thing that analytic philosophers have in common is the belief that our inquires ought to be conducted into narrowly defined topics and with a great attention to detail and the ordinary usage of language. Other philosophical methodologies like to paint with a much broader brush, and frequently the have a tendency to use language or specific words in unusual ways (which really pisses me off).

Continental philosophy is more like what most people think of when they hear the word “philosophy.” Continental philosophy tends to put more emphasis on spirituality and personal growth and stuff like that. One of the more central themes of continental philosophy is the idea that human experience is entirely subjective, and that human consciousness can somehow be changed or reprogrammed. (The now-famous concept of an altered state of consciousness comes from continental philosophy.) Probably the two most famous schools of continental philosophy in the English speaking world are psychoanalysis (which is not a science) and existentialism (the philosophy that life has no true meaning and that we each must create our own meaning of life). While these are perfectly fine philosophies (I agree with some ideas from existentialism and I think that psychoanalysis has great value as an art/lit critical theory), they are not what most academic philosophers in mainstream English speaking institutions mean when they speak of philosophy.

So, next time someone tells you they’re a philosopher or philosophy student, before you start to talk their ear off about anthroposophy or whatever, it would be kind of you to ask first whether they are interested in analytic or continental (or Eastern or Islamic, etc.) philosophy. Not all analytic philosophy like or know very much about other philosophical traditions. I, for one, enjoy reading from a wide selection of philosophical traditions. However, I’m a philosophy snob, and while I think that circular living and subtle energies make for fun stories and interesting things to think about, I don’t think they have any real value in the scholastic world. Bitchy, I know, but I loves me my precise arguments back by cogent logic.

Book discussion group and other philosophy jazz

So I haven’t been posting here for a while because I got invited to join a book discussion group one of my philosophy professors has put together with her grad students and I’ve been busy doing reading for that. Honestly, it’s kind of intimidating, since I’m just an undergraduate and probably not as smart as everyone else there, but I figured I would try it out since I’ve decided that I want to pursue a Ph.D. in Philosophy. The book we are discussing is Judith Butler’s Bodies That Matter, which is an incredibly interesting read. Not sure how much I agree with her, but it’s interesting nonetheless.

One thing that came up during the discussion that makes me want to reread the introduction came from a woman I’ve had a class with named Clare. I had read Butler as arguing that our classification of people based on sex leads to two groups: those who are “people”, i.e., those who fit into the category of “normally sexed”, and those who are categorized as “not normally sexed”, who are culturally unintelligible. Clare, on the other hand, thought Butler split people into three groups, with the “culturally unintelligible” as people outside the “masculine/feminine” spectrum. We never quite figured out who was right, so I’m going to go back and re-read that bit.

Another thing that came up is something I feel strongly about. I’m only going to bring it up here because I’m thinking of using the idea for a writing sample for graduate school applications; I’m not going in-depth because I haven’t properly fleshed it out yet. Anyway, we were discussing the nature of language as well as trying to get to the central focus of humanity’s collective worldview, and I proposed that the answer was control. Everything we do is an attempt to control our environment, which drive has been the primary moving force behind all of human history. It’s similar to Foucault’s notion of power, but slightly more nuanced. I haven’t yet figured it all out, but I’ll try to post more as I do.

Another idea I’m playing with is a pragmatic account of hate speech and its relevance for radical word reclamation/reappropriation. I’m waiting for some articles I ordered through interlibrary loan to get here (they weren’t available online). Once I get the details set in stone I’ll post more.

Mark Twain on plagiarism: There are no original ideas

So, I’m a huge fan of Brain Pickings and I get their newsletter on my subscribing email (I have one email for personal/professional jazz and another for subscriptions), and this week said newsletter included this post about Mark Twain’s letter to Helen Keller about the plagiarism fiasco Keller faced some years earlier. In case you’re not familiar with the story, Keller once wrote a poem that was found to be strikingly similar to an earlier poem, yet she claimed it was her own original work. She was cleared, and these days most people think it was a case of cryptomnesia. Anyway, the gist of Twain’s letter is that “all ideas are second-hand.” As a writer and artist, I find this to be an incredibly apt observation.

I frequently refer to myself as a collagist because when I was 18 and first went off to college I came to the realization that nihil sub soli novum est. Every idea I had that I thought was great or award-worthy had been had before by someone greater or more award-worthy than me. I came to this realization first when I wrote a short story about AIDS that my teacher pointed out was uncannily similar to Ernest Hemingway’s famous short story, Hills Like White Elephants, which I hadn’t read yet. Then I wrote a screenplay about a child murderer preying on children in a working-class neighborhood until the adults in the neighborhood take matters into their own hands. One of the working-class adults marked the killer after stalking him and the rest of the community ganged up on him. I had no idea who Fritz Lang was at the time. Shortly after that I began working on an essay about how we can’t do anything without creating art, only to buy a copy of The Writings of Marcel Duchamp on eBay and see that Duchamp had the same idea 80 years prior to me.

Anyway, after getting really pissed off for a really long time that a bunch of great dead dudes were biting my game from beyond the grave, I realized that it’s probably something that every creative person deals with. In fact, it could be seen as a good thing: I am thinking along the same lines of some of the greats minds in 20th-century art and literature. This is probably a sign that I’m on the right track. Now what I do is I take other people’s ideas (or ideas that I assume have been had before me) and mash them up and try different executions and juxtapositions and so forth. I just make collages. In fact, recently I took the collagist title to a new extreme and have stopped doing any actual painting and stuck with creating collages. Last summer I made nearly two dozen collages.

So, the point is this: There are only a finite number of ideas that can be had, and with all of the people who have ever lived thinking of ideas for most of their lives, the chances are overwhelmingly great that nothing you think is actually original. The trick isn’t to do something new, it’s to do something better. Like I said before, Apple’s only innovations in the past 25 years have been in combining other people’s ideas into “better” ones and then marketing the hell out of them. And look how far Steve Jobs was able to go before his untimely death.

“We need a leader who is biblically based”

So the Reverend Ralph Martino just got done blabbing his word-flap on CNN about this big shitstorm with Obama alienating lots of black voters by showing that he has a heart. I sort of knew this was going to happen, because black folks in America are slightly more concerned with gender roles and norms than whitey. (Generally speaking; obviously, there are people who break the mold.) Anyway, when asked if he and Watch and Pray Ministries would still be supporting President Obama, he responded that they will be praying for them and went off on a tangent about how we need an über Christ-lover in the Oval Office. I think this is rather coincidental, because I just found out that I got an A+ on my paper about why atheists are qualified to hold public office. If I were clinically insane, I might think this was synchronicity at work.

Anyway, I won’t go into the fine details about why I’m opposed to deeply religious folks running things. If you want, you can read my full project, which is up on my Open Letter to American Atheists page. Really, it boils down to this: Christianity is a deficient belief system, and people who blindly follow its tenets are not going to have the problem-solving skills to run a country. It is perfectly possible to have a secular ethical system based on logic (again, read my paper or this post or the entry on Humanism at ReligiousTolerance.org). In fact, I think it is desirable to have an ethical system based on reason as opposed to faith. You see, the nice thing about basing things on reason is that you actually have reasons for them. Reasons which are objectively verifiable and don’t boil down to gut intuitions.

Also, I was shocked when Rev Martino said that his ministry prays for more than 32,000 minutes a week. What a waste of time. Prayer has never solved any problems. Active doing of things is what gets things done. That’s why it’s called “doing things.” Prayer doesn’t do anything other than shut down certain parts of your brain, causing you to mildly dissociate and think that things coming from your own mind are coming from supernatural fairy-being. Direct action is the way to effect change in the socio-political world.

SOrry, Christians, but you’ve had your millennium of dominance. Time to let the rational empiricists have a turn.

Can science disprove God?

It really irks me when theists claim that science can’t disprove God. To me, saying that is like saying that science can’t disprove the existence of unicorns. It demonstrates an ignorance for how scientific proof works.

The only way to prove that something isn’t true is to look for proof that it is true. Finding none, we can reasonably conclude that whatever we were trying to prove does not exist. This is what science has done for God. We have naturalistic explanations for everything that God was created to explain: creation of the universe, good and evil, the mind (“soul”), natural events such as earthquakes, etc. It’s simple logic: When you have two possible explanations, you go with the one which makes the least egregious assumptions. This is called Occham’s Razor. So what assumptions do each of these theses make?

The naturalistic thesis makes the assumption that our powers of observation, experience, and reason are reliable sources of knowledge. This is why the scientific method is known as “rational empiricism”: it combines the best elements of rationalism and empiricism. The theistic thesis, on the other hand, makes the opposite assumption: we can’t know anything based on reason and experience. Sure, the universe seems to be 14 billion years old and operating on laws which were formed naturalistically in the first few milliseconds of existence, but that’s all really a big hoax perpetuated by an all-good creator-god. Which of these assumptions is more egregious?

Furthermore, absence of absolute disproof does not qualify as proof. It’s called Russell’s teapot, yo. Read it.

What would qualify as absolute disproof, anyway? A note from God saying, “Sorry, dudes; don’t really exist”?

Pseudonaturalism is the bane of my existence

Okay, so there’s this thing which has always bugged me since I was a young kajigger just getting into science and philosophy. It’s a philosophy that I call pseudonaturalism. It’s mostly used in conservative moral philosophies (moral naturalism) and liberal philosophies of science. It’s the theory that something which is “natural” is somehow superior/better than things which are “unnatural.” For instance, moral naturalists usually say that homosexuality is unnatural, therefore it is wrong. (I’ve never been able to ask a moral naturalist what they thought of rape, but I’d really like to hear it if any of those types are lurking out there.)

Anyway, my problem with this is how they define “natural.” For me, natural is the entire physical world. I think things which are natural are things which actually exist in the natural world (i.e., the universe) and which arise from the laws and processes of nature. I lump everything into two categories: “natural” and “supernatural.” The natural is the physical, empirically verifiable jazz what we deal with in our quotidian lives, and the supernatural is any nonsense that can’t be verified through naturalistic means. Such as crazy mutant killer GM food that gives our babies ADHD and makes them retarded.

You may say that my definition of “natural” is nonstandard (or unnatural, if you will). However, the reason I define it this way is because every other way of defining the term for technical use relies on arbitrarily drawing lines at some point or other with absolutely no rational basis. Take, for instance, the fear of GM food. Fear of GM food is based on scant rational scientific reasoning: the fear is that an allergenic protein will get spliced into a food product, which will then cause a reaction in some unwitting person who doesn’t realize that they are eating food laced with proteins from a substance they are allergic to. Granted, this fear is not unfounded; however, the GM industry has an absolutely sterling track record for self-regulation. The fearmongers like to whine that the FDA doesn’t have any explicit regulations for GM crops, but that’s just because none are necessary at this point: the industry does it on its own out of fear of the inevitable lawsuits which would arise if they didn’t. Why fix what ain’t broke? As for claims that GM food can cause ADHD and all sorts of other jazz (I’ve even heard cancer!), that’s just utter nonsense (i.e., “supernatural” mumbo jumbo). I also hear people bring in the pseudonaturalist argument here: we are “playing god,” which makes GM food wrong. To me, I don’t understand how this is playing god while giving an individual infected with HIV antiretrovirals isn’t. But then, there are people who think the pharmaceutical industry is evil because it’s all “unnatural.” For both of these distinct types of nutjob, I’ve come up with what I call the Banana Argument.

It may shock you to hear this, but every banana you have ever eaten in the past 50 years–every banana you’ve seen at the supermarket–has been genetically identical to every other banana you’ve encountered. The Cavendish banana, which is the Banana in Chief of the edible fruit world, is the product of direct human intervention. Wild bananas are so far removed from the Cavendish that you wouldn’t even recognize them. Somewhere around 10,000 years ago, humans in Asia decided to start “playing god” with different varietals of a wild fruit known to the modern scientific community as musa. Some of these fruits had sweet flesh but were riddled with massive seeds which were difficult to remove, while others had small seeds but bitter fruit. They figured out that they could splice and cross-polinate these plants to get mixes of traits of the parents in their offspring. This went on for thousands of years, and eventually the Cavendish was born in the 1960s in the wake of the extinction of the Big Mike (Gros Michel). However, the problem with the Cavendish–the problem with all modern bananas of the past few hundred years–is that it is completely sterile. This makes for great news for banana lovers, since it means you don’t have to pick out any seeds, but it also means that the only way to keep the species alive is to continually take cuttings of existing plants and growing them into new trees–new trees which are virtually genetically identical to the parent tree.

Now, are bananas natural or unnatural? Clearly, the pseudonaturalist would be forced to call them “unnatural” and swear them off as morally repellant/bad for your health. However, doesn’t this seem a bit counterintuitive? After all, bananas are one of the most nutritious foods around, and there are societies which use the leaves and skins of these plants for a wide variety of important doodads (paper, cloth, etc.). Should we really conclude that bananas are evil? If you’re a pseudonaturalist, it’s your only option. Pseudonaturalism makes arbitrary assumptions about what is and isn’t natural. Bananas are just the latest casualty of irrational thinking.

The funny thing is that genetic modification may be the only thing that can keep the banana from going extinct. Since bananas are all clones of each other, there is no genetic variance, which means they are incredibly susceptible to disease. One disease could wipe out the entire population. In fact, that’s how Cavendish became king: Big Mike, the previous banana sovereign, got wiped off the planet by a fungal infection which spread like wildfire through the identical plants. Cavendish was just waiting in the wings–designed with this fungus in mind–for Big Mike to sputter out. However, while Cavendish have been stuck in evolutionary stasis due to the fact that they reproduce through cloning, the killer fungus has been getting stronger. Now it’s mutated and Cavendish is no longer immune. Only this time there isn’t any back-up banana: once Cavendish is gone, it could be decades before bananas hit the shelves for human consumption once again. The only thing that can save bananaphiles now is good old genetic engineering. We need science to find us a protein what makes bananas rot-resistant, and we need it now. If we don’t, not only are we losing an excellent source of protein and nutrients, but whole economies could collapse, bringing down the global market. Genetic modification doesn’t seem so scary now, does it?

Okay, so I know it’s not the best argument. Here’s another one: arsenic is natural. So is mercury. Also, dying of cancer and men sleeping around with lots of ladies. On top of that, the vast majority of modern pharmaceuticals are derived from plants (the scientific discipline which studies plant-based drugs is known as pharmacognosy). Killing for reasons other than food (i.e., socio-political reasons such as war or punishment) is almost unheard of in the “natural” world. It’s perfectly natural to walk around completely naked, and it’s unnatural to shave or wear deodorant or brush our teeth. The point is, if you’re gonna start drawing the line between “natural” and “unnatural” and your basis for doing so isn’t something to do with natural laws, then you’re going to have to make some arbitrary decisions. It seems highly likely that these decisions would be difficult to defend. It’s just easier to do it my way.

Also, quit bitching and starting petitions trying to stop GM baby food. Sorry science likes to help the world. Next time we’ll leave our fates in the hands of a cruel, indifferent “natural” world in which we have only existed for a few milliseconds of geological time.