Monday, June 17, 2013

How Margaret Cho made me think about lazy dualism

At some point, every man has been told to think with his head rather than, well, his dick. Watching a long and not always funny bit by Margaret Cho about her own genitals made me think about this. As she went on and on about parts I neither possess nor have much experience with, I was thinking both how strange it would be for me suddenly to find myself in possession of a vulva and how that would affect at least some of my thoughts. (At this point, I was also thinking about Thomas Nagel and Madonna.) 
That is not, of course, to say that it is strange to be a woman, but to say—what is probably obvious—that I have always experienced the world as a male. And, this doesn't mean just being treated as a boy and now a man by others, it also means having a certain sort of body, a body with which I am constantly in contact and in which and through which I experience the world, through which and in which I think. It would be strange for me to have a woman's body. 
I'm not going to argue that this means that there is something essentially different in the thoughts of men and women; that gets the scope of my concern wrong. I began thinking about this in terms of sex, but the issue is more fine-grained. It's not that my thinking has always occurred in a particular kind of body; it has always occurred in this body. (Obviously, it has also always occurred in a body.)
For the good old substance dualists, the body had very little to do with thought, at best serving as an ancillary for gathering materials. But, almost no one (at least among philosophers) still holds on to substance dualism. We are all, or mostly, some sort of physicalist now.
But, at least some physicalists seem implicitly to accept something like the old dualism. Consider the way that futurists and transhumanists argue that we will be able to live forever as computer programs or cyborgs or something else yet to be envisioned. Or, even the way in which both Daniel Dennett and Derek Parfit—intending ultimately to undercut our notions of personal identity—among others, place the kernel of our existence in a psychological continuity that is located wholly within the brain. 
They ask: Where would I be if my brain were transplanted into the body of my partner and his were transplanted into my body? The assumption is that it is obvious that I would be wherever my brain is, because that is what would have psychological continuity with me. But this assumes that my psyche is divorced from the rest of my body and resides fully within my brain, that the composition of my body matters not at all to my mind or my thought processes.
They ask: What should we say if there were an exact replica of our brains in a computer or if our brains were in a vat but our body was at a distance? Won't we be able to survive bodily death if we only upload before then?
The same assumptions underlie these sorts of question. And, they exhibit a dualism—a lazy brain/body dualism—that is perhaps more problematic than good old Descartes'. He may have thought that the mind was a non-material substance, but at least he thought that (somehow) that mind permeated the entire body. Now we have a view where the mind exists in a throne-room, connected to the body only contingently. This ignores, in a way that one who wants to be naturalistic, the way in which our cognition—not to say all cognition—is embodied.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Risky behavior, victims, dirty boys, and the way we talk about HIV

At least a few times a year, I get to have the seroconversion conversation with a friend. There's nothing novel or unique about that. It's common enough for gay men my age and it has been since I came out. I'm right in that age group so that when I came out, HIV and AIDS were already major and established parts of the community. They were facts of life and of death.
When I opened a gay magazine—they were still relevant then—almost all the ads were for viatical settlement companies. They hadn't yet been taken over by pharmaceutical ads. The older guys who took me out to bars and showed me the ropes were few and far between, since so many of them had died, and they both taught me to assume anyone I would have sex with was positive and to expect that there was a good chance that I would be someday.
We've come a long, long way since then. For many people, a diagnosis is more like a diagnosis of diabetes than the death sentence it once was; yes, you will have to take medication for the rest of your life, but it won't be the thing that kills you and your life expectancy most likely won't be affected.
But, some of the same attitudes hang around, attitudes that are damaging to all of us.
All too often, when someone tells me that he has found out that he is positive, he will tell a story—it might be one that he believes, it might even be true—about the very unlikely way in which he got it. This will usually involve some practice for which there is a theoretical risk but no—or almost no—actual documented cases of infection. It will be a story about a tiny scratch in the mouth, chapped skin, or something else. Why do people do this?
We tell these stories and convince ourselves of their truth because we hold onto a dichotomy of those who are victims of the disease, those who got it accidentally or through extreme circumstances and thus are innocent; and, those who deserve it, whose own decisions and actions are the reason they became infected. Yes, there are people who had no causal role in their infection and there are those who have challenged fate (not that this means they deserve anything), but this dichotomy misses the great reality in the middle. 
Whether positive or negative, anyone who has been sexually active has done something risky at some point. I'm old enough to remember when a huge effort was made to eroticize safer sex, an effort that was doomed to failure, because even the most anonymous, meaningless sexual encounter is a moment of intimacy. Sex is often about pleasure, but that doesn't mean that even hedonistic sexual acts are not about a connection with another person. The introduction of a condom or any other barrier necessarily limits that intimacy. And, almost everyone has chosen pleasure—because we also have to face that unsafe sexual practices feel better—and intimacy and risk over safer but less intimate and less pleasurable practices.
We all do this or have done this sometime; Apollo has a hard time winning when Dionysius is offering us so much more. And, some of us have been lucky and some of us have been unlucky. 
To admit this is to admit that we've been stupid and if we've gotten something because of that our decisions had a role there. We aren't victims; we were involved. 
But, it also involves admitting that if we haven't gotten something, luck had a lot to do with that. No one deserves their bad luck. So, no one deserves to be infected or sick.
In other words, to admit this means to admit that the world is much more complex than we like to tell ourselves.
All of this also means that we have to overcome another really horrible dichotomy: clean and dirty. You aren't virtuous or perfect or clean because you have avoided some infection. If you are sexually active, the odds are that you are lucky or you might be the one person who is perfectly responsible in every situation (and who has never been lied to by a partner or friend). And, you aren't vicious or a slut or dirty because you became infected. You may have made bad choices or one bad choice—or you may not have, maybe you just trusted someone you shouldn't have—and you weren't so lucky.
To see these attitudes hanging around after all these years is more than disheartening; overcoming them is necessary for loving ourselves and loving one another.

Thursday, June 06, 2013

Why should Pride be respectable?

Every year about this time, the same sort of debate arises about the evils of Pride. See, for instance, Patrick Range McDonald's takedown of LA Pride. 
There are those who see Pride as outmoded, as childish, as a celebration of all that is wrong with the gay world—and it is mostly about what is wrong with gay men, there is little worry about Dykes on Bikes. It's go-go boys and muscle queens (and drag queens) drinking and drugging and grinding up on one another. It's immature and sexualized and—American puritanism being what it is—sinful and shameful.
The other half, an old high school buddy, and the author at last year's Pride.
It should be, they say, a celebration of all our heroes. The piece above picks out Bayard Rustin, Ludwig Wittgenstein, and others. It leaves out good old Alan Turing, maybe because he was proud of the sex part of his sexuality. We should come together to reflect and share and work towards equality. In short, Pride should be both a political event and an opportunity to put our best face forward.
Of course, much of this discourse directly parallels that of the people who show up at Pride events to protest against the evil, slutty gays. It often goes further to say that we end up being treated as degenerates because of how degenerate we are. No one ever seems to see that this is the "if she didn't want to be raped she shouldn't have dressed that way" argument. So, it seems that when I get called "faggot" because I am walking the dog with my partner, I should blame Pride events. 
If only we were more respectable, we would be more respected. Thus it always is with minorities; we are supposed to make ourselves presentable to others, so they won't beat us up or fire us. But, why? There's a lot to celebrate in gay history—sometimes I think less in the gay present, but I am a curmudgeon—composers, authors, artists, philosophers, scientists, adventurers, the founder of Boy Scouting, .... 
But that isn't what Pride is primarily about (and it hasn't been for a long time). Pride is a party. It might not be the kind of party everyone wants to attend, but it's still a party. And, it's a party for the community, not for others. I don't get a say in what goes on in other cultural celebrations; they don't get a say in what goes on in mine. It isn't about them (or equality or other political goals), it's about us. 
And, it is about a bunch of drag queens and hustlers and old queens who wanted to be allowed to drink and grind and whatever in a bar in New York many years ago. That is, about some people who wanted to be allowed to be perverts. 
There is plenty of time to be rational and political and attend whatever HRC or homocon event you want to. This is time to leave Apollo and get a little Dionysian. 

If you want to argue that Pride has been co-opted by corporate America and that is a bad thing, you will get a sympathetic hearing from me. Just don't tell me that it has to be something the Cleavers would have found wholesome and edifying.

Tuesday, June 04, 2013

The faith without which not

We all assume that human perceptual and conceptual apparatuses are sufficient to a large understanding of the world in which we find ourselves. The only people who deny this are radical skeptics—and they can only deny it, as it were, in the lecture hall—and the insane. But, this is a matter of faith. At the very least it is a matter of faith for the vast, vast majority of us who never reflect on just how unlikely this should be.
It is undeniable that our minds allow us to function very well in the world, but other animals have quite different perceptual abilities (bats, dolphins, dogs, just to name three easy examples) and may lack much of anything that we would countenance as a conceptual scheme. And, they get along quite well in the world, too. That is, they get by without having minds that model the world correctly, by our lights. What reason do we have, then, to think that our abilities are the ones that are able to hit upon the truth?
If we are theists—as, for instance, Alvin Plantinga is fond of saying—we can ground our minds in the God who gave them to us. We then do have the problem that this God gave us minds that find as much evidence against the existence of a personal God as they do for it. 
But, if we aren't theists or are wary of supporting claims by pointing to God's role, we have an apparent problem, for—again channeling Plantinga—natural selection selects for survival aptitude, not veracity. The most useful conceptual apparatus need not be the one that gets at the world correctly. In fact, it might often be survival apt to get the world wrong, to impute agency where there is none in order better to avoid predators when they are present, for example. Whatever forces act in addition to selection are at play in evolution—and I am no selectionist—do we have reason to believe that they would pressure the mind to match the world? And, do we have much strong reason to think that minds such as ours, which appear to have gone well beyond our mere survival needs, have reached truths when they have gone beyond? We shouldn't forget that humans have invented some pretty amazing—and false—ontologies in their short time on earth.
If true, it is an amazing thing that when consciousness arises it is able to become conscious of the universe in which it has arisen. And, we cannot help but believe that it is so able. But it is worthwhile now and again to reflect on just what a leap of faith this belief is for most of us.

Monday, June 03, 2013

The philosophers' ailment

Many philosophers have a nasty habit that is best thought of as a kind of illness. Maybe some therapy would help.
It isn't new. You can see it at least as far back as der Wiener Kreis, in the work of Carnap, sometimes Russell and Frege, even Wittgenstein. Dennett and the Churchlands exhibit it in philosophy of mind, and any number of ethicists seem to be suffering from it as they read studies in neuroscience and psychology and evolutionary biology.
A lot of us probably catch it in graduate school where it attaches either to a sense of inadequacy or admiration for people practicing other real disciplines. Its hold is strengthened in those conversations where social acquaintances tell us they can't figure out why anyone would be paid to shovel such meaningless bullshit and those moments when students ask us when they will ever use what we are talking about.
Its symptoms are such an overwhelming deference to scientists that one soon loses any sense of what exactly philosophy is supposed to be, as well as an inability to see that philosophy can ever do anything—has done anything in the two-and-a-half millennia it's been knocking around—except clear up a few minor confusions in the hallways of the people who really understand the universe and its inhabitants, the scientists
Ultimately, it leads to a kind of hard-on for science that the infected philosopher is no longer able to see any value that philosophy and its tools and methods and questions might offer, not least because she has given up the idea of value to science.
For example, here a philosopher decides that we cannot know whether literature has any value because the psychologists haven't done enough experiments yet, ignoring his own realization that literature might just be too complex to study by means of a set of laboratory experiments, and further ignoring that he has said nothing—as several commenters noted—about what makes literature good, or what moral improvement might be like, or whether we could even analyze morality by means of psychological experiments. He's too much in thrall of psychology to see that he has decided not to do philosophy or even be critical about the methods of the social sciences or question whether the right sorts of questions are being asked.
Of course, it must be sad to be engaged in a discipline that you think is no more than the handmaid of all the other—legitimate?—ones, but that's only half the problem. When students see this and when administrators see it, is it any wonder at all that philosophy gets shunted aside and cut with all the other humanities? When you give up on your own discipline, you shouldn't be amazed when others do as well.

Saturday, June 01, 2013

Why would you want to get married? In praise of old wineskins.

Last night I got to play faculty spouse at a party celebrating the other half's promotion to full professor. I don't always do well at these events. I am not generally comfortable in groups and I tend to get into heated arguments with other academics. But if the crowd and my BAC are just right, I can be quite the wit. Last night, all was good.
As the evening was drawing to a close, I was talking to a visiting Scots academic and her partner. We began talking about the intricacies of American law, the relations among the various branches of the federal government and between the federal and State governments, the end of common-law marriage, and the laws and cases regarding same-sex marriage. My Scots interlocutor, having told me that marriage was, after all, a worn-out institution, asked why we had gotten married—of course, she and her (male) partner had not. Was it because we felt we had to? Was it to prove a political point? Was it a statement about rights? What reason could we have had beyond the practical reasons?
I'm not sure that she was ready when I asked her what reasons there might be beyond the "practical" ones. We got married largely for all those practical reasons. I suppose this sounds strange. To me it is the only one that makes sense in a secular setting.
There is a discourse that is shared both by those who reject marriage as hopelessly outmoded and by those marriage advocates who too often take themselves to speak for the gay and lesbian community that sees marriage as primarily about a particular picture of a romantic relationship, a particular image of love. It is all tuxedos and white dresses and cakes and, ..., well you know the rest.
But of course civil marriage is a contract, one we have inherited from the Romans as much as from anyone. And contracts are about practical purposes. 
I don't need to be married to validate my love—and the highest title I can bestow on the other half isn't "spouse" or "husband"; it's "friend." There is love and romance in our relationship, but the marriage didn't create that and isn't, primarily, about that.
Nor does being married define our relationship. I am married because the contract allows us better to pursue many of our practical goals; and, the contract provides an impetus to continue to work on those goals together.  And, within the framework of that contract, the relationship itself can be worked out in a number of ways.
Marriage may be an old institution, but to see that it has played out in any number of horrible ways in the past doesn't mean that the outlines of the contract cannot be put to good use. You can have the frame without filling it in in exactly the same ways. Sometimes it might make sense to put new wine in old skins.