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Relationship Agnosticism: process over teleology February 8, 2013

Posted by shaunphilly in Skepticism and atheism.
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In conversations with people over the years, I have been asked, in a myriad of ways, if I think that polyamory is better than monoamory.  Do I think that being polyamorous is better (necessarily or generally) than monoamory?

I’ve dealt with the question before, but I want to take a different approach–a different perspective–on the question today.  I don’t think that polyamory, per se, is better.  I do think many of the skills and lessons that being polyamorous has taught me are superior, but those same lessons could, potentially, be learned while being monoamorous.  What I have come to see as superior is not the ends–not how many romantic, sexual, etc partners one has–but the process of how we get to those ends.

Process over teleology, in short.  Let me explain.

I’ve talked a fair bit about my annoyance that being with one person, even if that monoamory is not the short-term goal, is the mainstream default ultimate goal.  While young and dating, many people will date two or more people within the same time-frame, but the ultimate goal in our culture is to find one person to either settle with or to convince yourself that this one person is all that you need romantically and sexually.  And sometimes it ends up being true, whether for several years or a lifetime, but this model of relationships is not universally ideal.

The problem here is that this approach to relationships is teleological, which means it’s concerned with the ends, rather than the means or the process.  It views the purpose of relationships as being concerned with a set goal (or set of goals) which all current relationships should aspire to.  We should be tying to find a single life-partner, because that’s what real love is or something.  If you are not interested in that, then you might not find happiness, or you may even be doing something wrong.

Let’s take a couple of basic examples; Let’s say that you have been with someone for 5 years and are not married yet, and not considering marriage.   For many people you are doing something wrong, the relationship is a dead end, and you may need to find someone else you are ready to be serious with.  Marriage, monogamy really, is the goal for many people, and if that ring doesn’t present itself, then move on (that’s the wisdom, anyway).  Or maybe you don’t have a single partner for very long, whether serially monogamous or you keep dating more than one person simultaneously.  In this case, the common wisdom says that you might have commitment issues (which may be true), because if you were ready to commit you would stop playing the field and finally become an adult, or something.  In short, if you are not in a monogamous marriage, in a relationship moving towards monogamy, or even looking for that, then you are doing it wrong.

The problem here is not that finding one person to spend your life with is bad per se.  The issue is not about where you end up, the issue is how you were thinking about your desires, emotional and physical needs, and whether you were getting what you actually want from relationships rather than thinking about a default and expected end.

If you have read Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, you will see this default set of relationship expectations turned on it’s head.  Here’s a snippet from chapter 3:

Mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters. But there were also husbands, wives, lovers. There were also monogamy and romance.

“Though you probably don’t know what those are,” said Mustapha Mond.

They shook their heads.

Family, monogamy, romance. Everywhere exclusiveness, a narrow channelling of impulse and energy.

“But every one belongs to every one else,” he concluded, citing the hypnopædic proverb.

The students nodded, emphatically agreeing with a statement which upwards of sixty-two thousand repetitions in the dark had made them accept, not merely as true, but as axiomatic, self-evident, utterly indisputable.

“But after all,” Lenina was protesting, “it’s only about four months now since I’ve been having Henry.”

“Only four months! I like that. And what’s more,” Fanny went on, pointing an accusing finger, “there’s been nobody else except Henry all that time. Has there?”

Lenina blushed scarlet; but her eyes, the tone of her voice remained defiant. “No, there hasn’t been any one else,” she answered almost truculently. “And I jolly well don’t see why there should have been.”

“Oh, she jolly well doesn’t see why there should have been,” Fanny repeated, as though to an invisible listener behind Lenina’s left shoulder. Then, with a sudden change of tone, “But seriously,” she said, “I really do think you ought to be careful. It’s such horribly bad form to go on and on like this with one man. At forty, or thirty-five, it wouldn’t be so bad. But at your age, Lenina! No, it really won’t do. And you know how strongly the D.H.C. objects to anything intense or long-drawn. Four months of Henry Foster, without having another man–why, he’d be furious if he knew …”

Some may think that this is the polyamorous ideal (and for some it may be), but this, as a societal norm, is equally problematic because it discounts the possibility that some people, few or many as they are, may not want more than one person (or anyone at all, for that matter).  This commits the same error as our current culture as being more concerned with the goal than how one gets to where we get.

 

Process-oriented relationships

What do you want?

I mean, what do you desire?

This may not be as easy a question as you think it is.  The reason is that many of our wants are a result of the acculturation we receive as we grow up.  We are guided towards the social and cultural ideals of the world we live in, if not out-right trained or programmed (in some extreme cases), which informs the kinds of answers that come to mind when asked what we want.  When I ask you what you want, here, I’m not asking you what your long term goals are, what you hope to achieve, and especially not what you think you should want.  No, in this case I’m asking what you desire, generally and right now, from people around you.

What types of interactions do you desire with people?

What we actually desire may conflict with the cultural norms around us, and when those things conflict we may find that we automatically, or possibly feel compelled to, lean towards the norm rather than the desire (and for many the opposite is true as well, but that’s an error I’ll not address right now).  People who find themselves attracted to their own gender may pretend otherwise, especially if they are bisexual, due to religious or cultural expectations which devalue homosexuality and bisexuality (especially for men).

If you find yourself desiring two or more people, in our culture the appropriate thing to do is to spend time with all of them, in order to determine which one you will pick, or to simply decide which to pursue so as to avoid conflicts or jealousy.  But this is absurd from a point of view where one is agnostic concerning where one ends up.

If you are not very concerned about what is expected of you from your culture, and you rather follow what you actually desire, then there is no reason to openly, un-apologetically, and unabashedly pursue all of the people whom interest you.  And you should then stay with the people with whom you share some mutually-pleasurable relationship, whether it be purely physical, purely romantic, purely friendly, or any combination thereof.  You should not be concerned about what expectations there are whether from your culture, society, religion, or family.   You should pursue what you want with concern only for the people with whom you have relationships.

In short, love each person as you actually love them, no more and no less.

And wherever that takes you, whether monoamoryy, polyamory, or some other non-monoamorous option, that’s fine.  If you end up being with one person for the rest of your life, then fine (that’s what I call “Accidental monoamory/ monogamy“) and if you end up being with 25 people (to varying degrees or not), that’s fine too.  The point is not to be perpetually strategizing what type of lifestyle you will have, but to simply allow your relationships to go where they naturally lead according to the desires that everyone involved has.

Of course, you should be transparent about this; you should not claim to be exclusive while not being exclusive, for example.  You need to pursue your desires with care and consideration for the people with whom you have relationships.

To sum up, polyamory is not better per se, although I think that what people can learn from polyamory might raise our cultural consciousness about the nature of desire and relationship possibilities which most people don’t consider.  I don’t necessarily want everyone to be polyamorous, but I think everyone should be aware that monoamory is not the only healthy option.  If we allow our actual desires to fuel our pursuit of love and sex, I think many more people will find options more like polyamory, rather than automatically and unthinkingly choose monoamory out of cultural habit.

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Description v. Prescription in Polyamory September 9, 2014

Posted by shaunphilly in Polyamory.
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In the past, I’ve talked about whether monoamory or polyamory is better, and concluded, essentially, that so long as we are aware of either possibility and we pursue our desires authentically, I’m not concerned where we end up. Today, I’d like to take a look at a set of issues within relationships which fall under the same logical structure, and tease out why I think things like rules and promises, especially when they are intended to remain in place indefinitely, are not only unwise but may be self-defeating.

 

Negotiation as an Ongoing Process, and not a Scripture

DeMilleTenCommandmentsDVDcoverOur culture has a handy trope for a rule which is set “in stone.”  Whether the image come from the old Ten commandments movie (or the Mel Brooks version), or from the Old Testament itself, we understand what it means to create a rule or promise which is not designed to change. The idea is that some person or group has handed down a rule which is meant to be kept indefinitely. It is either thought of as a moral commandment or an agreement with no defined end. In other words it is treated, in some cases, as scripture.

The absolutism of this set of circumstances is comforting, at least to some, but it has an air of moral absoluteness which simply does not fit with the nature of relationships (or anything, really) which depend upon communication, growth, and adjustment to change. The stability and structure of such an agreement might be comforting, but this comfort is an illusion and is often short lived.

Such rules can take the place of agreements, requests, or demands but in any of these cases the same fundamental problem will arise. Of course, the issue of coercion, abuse, or simple fear might also play a role, but at bottom all of these situations suffer from the simple mistake of thinking that it’s possible to create a set of rules which will be relevant after new experiences, growth, and changed circumstances have thrown aside all of our assumptions and intentions.

If we make such rules, we must keep in mind that as we experience more, as the circumstances change, and as we grow (both in our set of desires and our ability to handle new situations), the rules we made might not be relevant anymore. In some cases, the rule might end up no longer being necessary, and yet many people hold onto them out of habit. Because it’s the rule. Because it became scripture, and as many people can attest to, scripture sometimes just stays even after you don’t have any need for it.

In other cases, the rule might end up becoming a crutch upon which we lean in order to avoid facing the fact that the circumstances have, in fact, changed or that the rule was a smoke-screen for some fear. But the bottom line is that the rule may not match up with current needs, desires, and relationships, and so it might be better to see that rule as a temporary agreement to be reconsidered now or in the future.

Especially people new to polyamory, the tendency is to create some hard boundaries, rules, etc in order to create some sense of safety or protection against all sorts of things. But as time goes on, relationships form and new desires may arise which run against these rules created early on. So, what do you do? Do those rules become scripture or do you re-evaluate, re-negotiate, and possible change the nature of your relationship as a result?

 

Prescription versus description

Thinking of rules as a means to protect ourselves is problematic, at best. No rules we can create will protect us from the things we fear, because the things we fear might always happen no matter what rules we adopt.  Fear needs to be dealt with directly, and not through defense mechanisms. Rules, in this case, are often more about identifying what our fears are, and making such rules absolute seeks to avoid dealing with that fear as much as actually avoiding harm.

As any monogamous person likely knows, the rule to not have other sexual or romantic partners does not necessarily prevent our partners from the interest in other people, which is the real source of the problem as much as the potential acts themselves.  When polyamorous people employ similar rules about levels of intimacy, the difference is one of quantity, not quality. Making the exclusivity limited to one person or a few does not solve the problem of fearing the loss of intimacy. Trying to defend this intimacy is absurd; if they want to give it to us, they will regardless of whether they also give it to other people.

So, what if we thought about rules as a description of an idealized reality rather than a defense? What if we thought of it as a guideline to staying on the path or achieving the kind of life that we want to live? That is, rather than a defense or a set of ways to protect ourselves, what if we thought of rules as a means to keeping ourselves pointed in the right direction and not distracted by road-side attractions along this path?

That’s certainly an improvement over looking at rules as absolute dictates and Hobbes-esque defenses against harm (although guidelines will be this as well), but what if we went even further than this? What if we stopped using the model of prescribing the direction we were going, and adopted a model of exploration? What if instead of defining where we are going, where we will be, and what the destination were to look like, we were looking towards the horizon and discovering what we found?

What if, in our relationships, we are map-makers rather than law-makers?

Laws have to be changed, reinterpreted, and often simply scrapped in order to keep up with our lives. Laws and rule are, in many ways, fundamentally conservative and traditional approaches to reality. Necessary for many reasons, but they are not a force for change or growth in themselves.

In order to change, we need to be explorers, curious and skeptical. As Nietzsche said, we need to be attempters in life (cf Nietzsche, BGE §42 and §210) reaching for the possibility just beyond us. Rules may be relevant for a while, as explorers, but eventually we will run into a new land where the rule simply does not apply. Eventually, we will have to start being ethnologists and adopt a new perspective, and realize that not only is the land upon which we walk different, but the walker is different as well. As we explore, we will change, and the person who left our home shores with notions about right, wrong, civility, etc might no longer exist.

Carrying your civilization into another and remaining the same misses the point of traveling. The point is to grow and change, not to carry your old self to new lands. We don’t want to be imperialists, do we?

 

An example; Primary and Secondary

Consider this; the difference between the rules set up in monogamy and the rules polyamorous people set up around primary and secondary relationships are usually logically similar. In monogamy, you surround your partner with a metaphorical fence and say “no more in here,” while with polyamorous relationships you might say “only one, maybe two or three, in here. The rest of you are relegated to second-class relationships.”Why prescribe this hierarchy? Why go out of your way to define it as such? If someone feels at home in that fence, why would you make a rule saying they can’t come in?

When we set out on our journey of relationships, if we define these roles beforehand we might find a couple of things could happen. First, we might find that it creates unnecessary distance and feelings of inadequacy for “secondary” partners. It’s one thing to actually be less intimate and close to someone, it’s quite another to be defined as such regardless of whether it’s true or not.

Meeting someone, dating them, getting close to someone is already a complicated enough without having artificial boundaries set on how important that person is allowed to be to you in addition to all that. If someone defines my relationship for me, as would be in the case if I were a relegated secondary, it would not change how I would feel about my new partner but it would make me wonder how close I’m allowed to feel or how close I’m allowed to be.

I’m just not sure if “allowed” is a relevant concept when it comes to how we feel about people. Rules, in many cases, attempt to define how we are allowed to feel in addition to how we are allowed to act. Setting boundaries and rules on actions is one thing (and is important). Setting rules about how we are allowed to feel is quite another (and absurd). So the question is whether things such as relationship status is a function of actions or feelings, primarily.

Are statuses–things like being primary, secondary, etc–things we  prescribe or are they things we describe? It’s probably both, but I think that how we actually feel is the primary factor in the nature of a relationship. And so no matter how much we may want and try to prescribe that from the start, how we actually feel will be the primary factor in how close a person is to us. Holding someone at a distance merely because of a rule is, in my opinion, not a decent way to treat another person. And it feels shitty when it happens to you.

Further, you may find that no matter how much you try and pre-define a relationship, that rule might be impotent in terms of actually preventing a person from getting really close. This can lead to situations where someone calls person A their primary, but person B (relegated to secondary status) might end up being equal or greater in terms of intimacy in the long run. Trying to prescribe these statuses thus simply seeks to create rules about territory you have not explored yet, like trying to decorate a room you’ve never been in. You don’t know how close your partner will be to their new partner, and trying to set a rule about it will have as much effect as defining how many chips you’re allowed to eat from the bag.

Clearly, there will be distinctions in terms of how close you are to a person, how much time you spend with them, etc. Clearly, terms such as primary and secondary are useful terms to describe how relationships actually are right now, and I would not try to argue for any “relationship anarchy” which would attempt to argue for use ridding ourselves of labels.

But just like how the dictionary does not prescribe meaning (they simply log use of words, and reflect the world rather than define it), labels such as primary, secondary, etc are descriptions of the nature of a relationship more than a pre-ordained rule about what role someone will play in our lives.

Conclusions

It is undoubtedly true that some relationships are closer and more intimate than others. Insofar as words like primary and secondary have use in the context of relationships, they should be descriptive terms. But these descriptions are not chiseled in stone, and in 2 or 5 years things might be different. We must be aware that this might happen, and that when it does we have to be allowed to re-define our relationships to reflect reality, rather than impose our preferred reality onto our relationships.

The feelings we have for people will exist no matter what labels and rules we have.  Prescribing our relationships is, at best, a conservative attempt to maintain the status quo of the intimacy we have with someone. But that intimacy will remain, grow, or diminish not based upon any prescription, but instead upon the actual changing nature of the relationship. And as relationships change and grow themselves (and sometimes they grow apart), we should view the journey as an exploration, and we should be map-makers, not law-makers, of our lives.

In short, we should be curious, open, and skeptical of the new terrain which is the future and not merely carry our assumptions, preferences, and comfortable spaces with us. Let our experiences, and not our presumptions, define us.

 

5 years February 12, 2014

Posted by shaunphilly in Culture and Society, Polyamory, Religion, Skepticism and atheism.
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On February 12th, 2009, I started a blog with this post.  I had just been laid off from a job that I really liked (and was good at), I was living in Philadelphia (it was several months before I moved to Atlanta), and the blog was called ‘The Atheist, Polyamorous Geek’. That was 5 years ago today.  Some things have changed around here.  New logo, writers, and more followers have been added since 2009, and I still enjoy writing.

 

remember this logo?

remember this logo?

In the beginning, most of my writing was about atheism and religion.  Early on, I dropped the “Geek” at the end and replaced it with “skeptic”, due to my increased exposure to the larger skeptical community.  It would be some time before I would add writers, some of which have moved on due to interpersonal issues.  Who will be writing down the road is something I don’t know.  Will it make it another 5 years? If so, what will it look like? I don’t know that either.  But with that said, let’s take a look at some of my posts that I like from over the years.

Theis XKCD comic epitomizes "agnostics" for me

I love XKCD

Very early on, I wrote a post aimed at agnostics, because I had had so many conversations with people who disliked and avoided the word ‘atheist’, even though they were one.  The word ‘atheist’ has become somewhat more mainstream in the last 5 years, but this post is still relevant, and will probably be so for years to come.  Shortly after that, another favorite of mine is this short story about a conversation with God, which was intended to be a response to the design argument and the special pleading fallacy inherent to irreducible complexity.  Recently, DarkMatter2525 made a video which reminded me of that post:

Shortly after that, a post about death and the appreciation of life was apparently translated to French, and then back to English, which prompted a post about translation (since, at the time, I was reading Douglas Hofstadter’s book Le Ton beau de Marot: In Praise of the Music of Language, which I highly recommend to anyone who is interested in language).  This post actually led me to have a brief email correspondence with Douglas Hofstadter, who commented on the translation himself.

Of course, I would have to poke at Christianity now and then, and my favorite post about Christianity is this one about how Jesus’ death (even if it happened) is not a sacrifice at all.Also, I wrote about how the love of god is misplaced, with a little science geekery mixed in.  Late in 2009, I wrote a long, 3-part post about how God is a metaphor, which was originally not written as a blog post (hence the length). Parts one, two, and three.

One of my all-time favorites is the post, from 2011, where I argue that I prefer atheism to humanism, mostly because I find humanism to be atavistic and still steeped in the mistakes of religious history.

Also, there were a couple of posts looking at history and culture, and showing how religion (Christianity specifically) contribute to diminishing culture, rather than making it better.  I especially like the McDonald’s post.

Of course, I can’t forget my take-down of Alain de Botton (who I still despise).

I still wear this shirt

I still wear this shirt

Eventually, i started writing more and more about polyamory, and one of the posts that stands out for me is the one about jealousy, where I argue that jealousy is not a reason to not be polyamorous.  Also, sex-positivity is a good thing, and we should all be comfortable with being slutty (if we want to) and we should sin responsibly.  What else did I write about polyamory? When it comes to love, we should do so authentically.. We should be creating a new and improved polynormativity.  We were in some documentary, apparently. another personal favorite is my post about accidental monogamy, where I started thinking about how there is no reason to ever want to be monogamous (one should get there only by accident), which later led to a post about relationship agnosticism.  Of course, I got nerdy with set theory and polyamory, but much more recently I wrote about the space between being friendship and being lovers, which is still quite relevant this very day.

Of course, having a MA in philosophy means that I will occasionally become erudite…ok, more like smart-assed and long-winded. Some of my favorites include Facts or it didn’t happen: unhooking the bra of reality, Thorough and perpetual Sskepticism, and this post which got a little too meta, even for me.  Also, let’s not forget my tendency to try and simultaneously criticize monogamy and religion.

There is also my post about the history of Christmas, which I have reposted a couple of times and always put on Facebook around the end of December.

Sometimes, I got political.  I liked this short post where I quote from a book about the American Revolution that demonstrated that political tropes we use today are not new.  But my favorite post about politics was where I essentially declared that I could never be a conservative.

That's me!

That’s me!

Lastly, I wrote about the various wars going on in the atheist community.  In this post, I utilize Moral Foundation Theory to talk about the “great schism” (as it is called by some) in the atheist community.  I also talk about feminism, both in terms of the #shutupandlisten debacle (as it pertains to lessons from Zen Buddhism) of last year but also as it pertains to the history of technology.

Lastly, I wrote a book.  This is significant because I started writing that book around the same time I started the blog.  And as I move towards another 5 years of blogging (perhaps), I will also consider finishing the second book (I’ve written 3 chapters or so).

Thank you to everyone who has liked, commented, and continues to read.  I do this because I love it, and I also love when other people love my work.

If you think I missed a post you loved, let me know in the comments.

I’ll leave you with this song.

 

 

 

 

 

Progress versus Process December 2, 2012

Posted by shaunphilly in Culture and Society.
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Politically, I tend to align myself with progressive thought.  I generally like the idea of progress; moving towards an ideological target.  But when I think more closely about the idea of progress as a concept, I think it lacks something important, and has some potential inherent dangers, when compared to the idea of a process.

One of the dangers of political ideologies is that very distracting idea of a target or set of social and political goals.  Because while those goals may be based upon clear thinking, good values, and hopefully even empirically sound philosophical bases, the fact is that circumstances change and we may not notice if we keep looking at the destination.

See, progress is teleological.  Process is methodological.

Teleology implies intention, design, and is associated with religious theology in many ways.  The presence of intent and purpose, when it come to theology especially, might seem safe because the designer is often believed to be perfect, or at least optimally knowledgeable and powerful.  But progress in the real world involves imperfect people, and so when we think about progressing towards some ideal utopia, or merely a better set of values and policies, we are almost certain to err.  And if we are attached to the destination too strongly, we may not even see those errors.

Instead, we should be focusing on the process by which we solve problems and understand the world.  Goals are nice, and often necessary to accomplish anything, but by focusing on the goal rather than the road we walk upon, we will lose sight of many things.

Many forms of religion, and religious thinking, suffer from this very problem.  The focus on Heaven (or Hell) for many people is a prime example of this.  Built into the worldview of many forms of Christianity, for example, are things like purpose, intent, and ultimate destinations for us in God’s plan.  And even within the Christian world people will criticize other believers for focusing too much on the goal, rather than what God wants us to do here.  By being focused on getting to Heaven (or avoiding Hell), many people are not doing many of the things here and now that they could, or should, be doing in this life.

And, of course, this leads to the common atheist criticism of religion; people’s focus on the afterlife, rather than this real life (the only one we have), leads people to miss all that we really have.  But this mistake is prevalent throughout all of human groups, including some atheists.  It’s one of the many imperfections with how our brains evolved, and I think we can all benefit from an awareness about what methods we use, rather than an ideological goal.

That’s what skepticism and science are good for.  Because skepticism and science are not goals; they are methods.  Granted, it’s hard to avoid looking at the potential horizon in our pursuit of the truth, but we need to make sure that how we think about those goals in the here and now, so we don’t get caught up in the dream rather than the reality.

Focusing on our process, our method, will make sure that we are on the right road, because all-too-often people find that the road they are one don’t lead anywhere; that the location in the horizon was a mirage, and the road (which they were not looking at) just goes in circles, or merely stops one day, nowhere near their illusory destination.

And there are many images of potential futures with science as our road (I’m looking at you, transhumanists).  But we cannot live in the hope that those futures will occur.  We can be inspired by them, but we have to live where we are.  I’ve known Christians who miss too much of life because they are awaiting Heaven, and I have known atheists who let life pass by because they desire their cybernetic bodies or their mind to be uploaded into a different kind of immortality.

In my opinion, we all would be better off by making sure that the thinking we are doing today is connected to real goals and real life, otherwise we may be letting precious time slip by in the name of illusory goals.  I want my goals to be attached to a skeptical worldview, utilized to make this life better for us and our descendants.

All of my distant goals and ideals are subject to change and revision because I keep my attention to what is going on around me, and thus my goals sometimes change.

 

Of Facts and Values May 7, 2011

Posted by shaunphilly in religion, atheism, polyamory, culture.
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Over at Eric MacDonald’s blog Choice in Dying, there is a discussion about Sam Harris’ book the Moral Landscape (of which I published some early thoughts previously).

Now, I did have some issues with Harris’s book, but they are minor.  I feel like many people are not understanding what Harris’ point is.  Now, it is quite possible that I am reading my own thoughts in Harris’ words, but in any case I want to discuss some of my own thoughts about this issue, as I have been talking with Eric in the comments of the post linked to above.  Now, my thinking about this goes back long before Sam Harris’ book.  Upon finding Hilary Putnam’s book The Collapse of the Fact Value Dichotomy, I found an expression of thoughts I have had most of my philosophical life.  Thus, when I read Harris’ book, I felt at home, not challenged.  His starting points seemed to be my starting points in thinking about things like science, facts, values, and morality.  And so I want to take a first stab at articulating my own thoughts here.  Just remember that this will be a sort of public rough draft, and I will welcome any criticism and comments.  Also, at any point where I seem to be talking for Sam Harris, I recognize I may be at odds with his opinion.

Definitions

What is a fact? If I am to define what the relationships between facts and values are, I ought to make sure I define my terms.  I’ll give a bit of a nod to Wittgenstein when I say that a fact is something that is the case.  In other words, a fact is something that is  true about the state of real things.  The cat is on the chair is a fact, iff in the real world there is an observable feline upon a piece of furniture designed for sitting upon, which is similarly observable, and their orientation is consistent with the use of “on” with the cat being the subject and the chair being the object.  A fact is a real state of the world.

What is a value?  This is slightly more difficult because this word has many uses, including in math and color.  In this sense, I am using it to mean an ideal or principle accepted by an individual or group.  It can be a goal, but more often than not it is a motivation, a preference, or a purpose towards some goal.  When I asked Ginny what she thought, she came up with “what people should want.”  We’ll get back to that later.

What is morality? I’ll hold off on that, as I believe that this actually has little to do with the philosophical point at hand.

Ontology, philosophy of mind, and sets, oh my!

But what are values? I mean, what are they made of?  For that matter, what are facts made of?  I think that for many people, part of the sticking point for many people with Harris’ book is this issue and its relation to the philosophical point at hand.  I feel like Harris’ book addresses an ontological point that seems, at least from a metaphysical naturalistic perspective, trivial; the things we believe, value, and generally experience as conscious beings are actual states of our brains.  They are observable realities about the world.  The physical substance of my brain and the processes that occur there are (in some cases, but not all) my conscious experience.  Observing our brain-states through tools such as MRIs or whatever is just another (low resolution) way of experiencing our brains, which we do all the time by experiencing our own thoughts.

Our brains perceive and simulate, probably very imperfectly, the objective world outside of that process.  The facts about the world are removed from us (in the Kantian sense of noumenal and phenomenal) but our perception allows us to think about them.  Now whether the facts in our heads and the facts of the things themselves (of which Nietzsche was so skeptical about, probably rightfully*) are the same is not the point.  The point is that the facts in our heads are also verifiable and objective realities that can be quantified (at least in principle, even if our technology may be insufficient currently) by scientific analysis.

The things we value are conscious experiences as well.  They are actual brain-states that can, in principle, be observed and quantified in the same way as the fact that I’m typing right now.  Not only is a this fact an observable, quantifiable event in the universe, it is an experience I am currently having.  And in experiencing a value, it is similarly a real event that I have at that moment.  In this sense values are like facts, but are they the same things as facts?  Well, let’s think of facts as being like sets.  In the same way that the set of all cookies includes chocolate chips cookies and peanut butter cookies (and the set of all peanut butter cookies), values are comprised of facts (and sets of facts).    My value of honesty, if I were try and define the term and it’s importance to me, would be comprised of facts in relation to one-another.  And sets of facts can be facts themselves.  So in this trivial sense, values are facts.  They are real states of the world, even if they can be broken down into smaller real states of the world.  I hope this is uncontroversial.

Are values oughts?

I’m not quite sure that the philosophical issue at hand in asking about facts and values is the same as what Hume was addressing.  I think the question has changed in the few centuries between. But first I want to address a hair-splitting point; that of the distinction between the distinctions between is/ought and facts/values.

When Hume (supposedly), and others, say that there is a distinction between facts and values, what can they possibly mean?  This, as I understand it, is Harris’ point.  It seems to me that this distinction is a holdover from times when we thought of ideas not as physical realities, but somehow non-physical things.  This distinction between facts and values is an atavism of a view of mind as a non-physical thing (whatever that means), and criticism is using these obsolete concepts to insist that there still exists a distinction.  The distinction is a linguistic trick, one which is pervasive and resilient.

For the sake of context, here is the section of Hume that Eric MacDonald quoted in his post:

In every system of morality, which I have hitherto met with, I have always remark’d, that the author proceeds for some time in the ordinary way of reasoning, and establishes the being of a God, or makes observations concerning human affairs; when of a sudden I am surpriz’d to find, that instead of the usual copulations of propositions, is, and is not, I meet with no proposition that is not connected with an ought, or an ought not. This change is imperceptible; but is, however, of the last consequence. For as this ought, or ought not, expresses some new relation or affirmation, ’tis necessary that it shou’d be observ’d and explain’d; and at the same time that a reason shou’d be given, for what seems altogether inconceivable, how this new relation can be a deduction from others, which are entirely different from it. [Treatise of Human Nature, Book 3, Part 1, Sect. 1, paragraph 27]

But is this what Harris is doing? Is he identifying facts about the world and saying that because of these facts we should be doing this or that? No, what he is doing is more complex than that. To clarify, I want to make two points:

  • First, the concept of deriving an ought from an is, in a theological context, is not comparable to deriving a value from a fact in a naturalistic worldview.  In a theistic world (not the world of Harris not myself), the state of the world would be a result of the deity’s creation, and so in a sense we might be able to argue that because it is so it may be related to some intention of a god.  Here, Hume’s point is that where a theologian draws the ought from the is, he does not overtly explain how or why he has done so.  And even if he were to try, Hume (as well as I) cannot conceive how.  It is a fair point to make.  But in an atheistic universe, the state of our being, as conscious beings with various facts about ourselves, we cannot draw any ought because an ought necessitates the presence of an agent.   We, the agents, are not the cause of our various facts, but as Sartre said, we find ourselves thrown into the world with them.  At least within a theistic worldview it is possible to indicate some possible teleology, even if you can’t demonstrate its justification (as Hume points out). However, there is not even the possibility of drawing a logical connection between our actual state and what we should be doing within an atheistic worldview without creating, as agents, a goal for ourselves.   This leads to the next point.
  • Harris is saying that there are observable facts and values about us which are discoverable, and if we want to get somewhere (in his case, well being for people) then we need to use science as a means to figure out how to get there.  This would include determining what values we will hold in our lives as motivation and inspiration towards those ends.  The ought only comes into play upon accepting the goal, not as a direct consequence of the facts.  Hume’s observation is a good one, but it seems to me to be more of a commentary on theologians (and others) inability to make this link, not that it is necessarily impossible to do so given goals which may or may not be arbitrary.  Hume does not address, at least in that quote, any goals.  Hume addresses only an ought, which is a means towards some not-discussed goal.

What I keep hearing critics of Harris say is that while science can allow us to find facts about us, it cannot choose what to value.  And to that I can only slap my forehead, because I don’t think Harris is saying that, and I’m certainly not saying that.  Science cannot choose what to value because this is a category error; science does not choose anything because science is a method, not an agent.  So, in other words, science does not choose facts either; the method of science only allows us to recognize what is and is not a fact, and can give us information about its relation to and affects upon other facts.  Similarly, it can allow us to see what values are and how good those values might be at achieving various goals, whether they be well being, ennui, or whatever.  Hume is not talking about facts and goals, and Harris is only doing so insofar as to say that here as his goals, and if we want to reach them here is the best way to do it; science!

What our goals should be, and why that doesn’t matter in discussing facts and values

We are the choosers (Assuming free will is true, but that’s another tangent).   Science is a tool we use to determine the facts about the world, including the facts about ourselves.  One of the facts we can determine about ourselves is what our values are, what values are possible, and which of those values might be better at achieving some goal, which in Harris’ case is well being (which he admits is vague).  So, it seems to me that the critics are conflating the values with the goal (in this case, well being) and arguing that science cannot determine what our goals should be.  These criticisms miss the point completely, because for Harris it is axiomatic that ethics is about increasing well being among people.  His thesis is not to defend this premise, even if it is clear that he thinks this premise is true, but rather how to best find a way to reach it.  If you disagree with this starting point, then you are not addressing Harris’ book’s major thrust, but saying that its metaethical goals are wrong (which they may be), but that does not matter.

Can science determine our goals? Well, of course not.  Just like logic, science is a tool.  A tool can only help you on your journey towards a destination, assuming you have one.  If you don’t have a destination, then the tools are useless.  If you don’t have a goal, then you would not care how, let alone try, to find the best way to reach said goal.  Well being, as I understand Harris’ book,  is NOT the value; it is the vague, admittedly ill-defined concept that our values are being judged as being good at achieving (or not).  And if not well being, then what would be the goal of morality? And whatever that may be, we still would have to use science to determine which facts and values to use towards getting there.  This is why the criticisms about the definition of well being and of utilitarianism are missing the point so much.  It does not matter if the goal is wrong, the method still has to be science to get there.  That is what Harris’ book, as I understand it, is about.

Now, if Harris, or myself, were arguing that science can help us decide what we should think the goal should be (it can help define the parameters and factors, for sure), then I would be with the critics.  But all I (and, I think, Harris) are saying is that the ideals or principles we think are  important in trying to attain well being (or whatever goal we choose) are quantifiable, measurable things.  And no method can compare to science in determining what those values should be, thus a science of morality is possible even if the goal of that morality is up for grabs.

Eric MacDonald’s criticisms, as well as other criticisms about the poorly defined concept of well being, are problems that Harris admits to, and so do I.  We know that more research is necessary, and that implementing what we find will be a huge uphill climb to the peaks of Harris’ landscape.  Problems with utilitarianism and definitions of well being are only secondary to Harris’ thesis, which are about how our values, as facts, are real things that can be measured in terms of composition and effectiveness towards whatever goals we are trying to attain.   If you don’t know what well being is, or if your specific goal in being well differs from mine, that does not matter. Harris’ (and my) goal is well being, but that is a variable in the equation, not a coefficient.

Just as we can be wrong about facts, we can be wrong about valuing certain things.  Values are not objects outside the realm of analysis and criticism, they are brain states just like facts and equally subject to being wrong.  In other words, what you value may in fact be bad for you and whatever goals you have.  And if so, science is the best tool we have to describe how and why.

*”We believe that we know something about the things themselves when we speak of trees, colors, snow, and flowers; and yet we possess nothing but metaphors for things — metaphors which correspond in no way to the original entities”

[edit: I want to add that the goals we may have are also facts in the same sense as values are here.  And the question of what goals to choose is indeed a philosophical one that science can help clarify.  But just as science cannot choose the goals, it cannot choose the values or facts either.  Again, that is a category error.]

Science; the horse to theology’s cart of progress January 13, 2010

Posted by shaunphilly in religion, atheism, polyamory, culture.
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Progress.  The word implies a goal, teleology, or purpose.  Some, such as Alfred North Whitehead, preferred to think about process.  And while my views differ significantly from Whitehead, I agree that process might be the better term for the improvement, over time, of our understanding of the world around us.  Purpose implies a purposer, which is what theology is all about.  Science does not carry this assumption with it into the lab (nor does it discount its possibility).

There are a multiple processes we use in our lives, and they have led to increased and subtle understanding of ourselves and of the universe that surrounds us.  But not all processes are equal, playing different parts in our lives.

Our thinking is complex, largely hidden from our conscious awareness, and often incoherent.  It is often attracted to processes which have lesser pragmatic efficacy, but which nonetheless have psychological gravitation.

The scientific method is a late addition to our intellectual toolbox.  It starts with observation, but it’s life-blood is experimentation.  It seeks to eliminate bias–to lesser and greater degrees depending upon how an experiment is structured–and thus to attempt objectivity.  I prefer the term ‘intersubjectivity,’ at the risk of encroaching on some possibly semantic hair-splitting.

Theology is the study of god(s).  More generally, it is the study of the divine, the supernatural, etc.  It is an attempt to apply logical and rational thinking to the propositions of revelational thinking which is largely primitive and based open pattern-recognition gone-awry.  It, strictly, is not science.

Now, this is not to say that theology is completely separate from science.  It is not not even a different epistemological realm of science, despite what Stephen Jay Gould thought (I am not a fan of NOMA).  We live in the same universe, under the same laws, whether we are doing theology or science.   And some theologians use science in addition to their logical approach to religious or spiritual insights.

The question is which one is pulling the other along or whether they take turns doing the work.

Well, that may depend on your point of view.  If you are working with the Templeton Foundation, for example, you may see some give and take going both ways.  Such people tend to see that science and religion influence one-another, and an attempt to not only bridge these processes but to find ways that they intersect is a good thing.

In a larger cultural sense this is true, but perhaps only to the limited extent that they both exist simultaneously and people carry both of them in the same minds and thus they communicate.  There is certainly a sense where the ideas of religion influence how scientists think as well as the discoveries of science influencing theology (unless, of course, you are these guys).  And as time marches on, the cultural influence will continue, most undoubtedly.

But there is a difference between science and religion in another sense; one that transcends mere cohabitation.  While the language, stories, and flavor of religion has helped carve much of our culture, and thus those that live in it, our pragmatic understanding has been dominantly influenced by science rather than theology.  There is a difference between the methodologies of science and religion which results in a dramatic personality difference between them.  Neither one is misidentified as the other, except in very superficial ways.

Charlatans and shysters from various theological backgrounds have been trying to sell snake oil, utopias, and personal redemption of various kinds to people for ages.  From new age self-help, evolving messages of redemption from Christian evangelicals, and religions created by science fiction writers, there are multiple ways that theology has tried to advertise itself as a product that will help you either in this world or the next.  But it is rather interesting that with the advent of the scientific method theology has been hanging off the coattails of science, feeding off the droppings left behind in almost unnoticeably slow changes to their beliefs and attitudes.

With new age philosophies and religions loving every moment of quantum mechanics (all while getting it wrong), Christianity getting slowly more and more progressive, and with the invention of religions that even try to call themselves something that sounds scientific, it is clear that the primitive human mind is trying to adapt the “metaphysical need” (as Nietszsche called it) to the realities of scientific processes.

Just imagine what a progressive theologian of several centuries ago would say to Rick Warren now.  Imagine what a pre-Christian pagan would say to Deepak Chopra.  Imagine how Scientology would be greeted by L. Ron Hubbard ten years before he thought of the idea.  The progress of theology has made much of it more modern, tolerant, and informed (even if it only sounds this way), but this was not because of their own efforts.

All good intelligent and open-minded people of today taking the progress of the times into their lives and incorporating them into their modern theologies is quantifiable improvement on society and their religion.  The problem is that it is the wrong kind of improvement because it overlooks a more robust update to the theological software (theology 2.0 anyone?) of many religious traditions.

It has been said that Christianity (for example) has been dragged, kicking and screaming, into modernity by other cultural forces.  And with it came a new theology that was able to incorporate what science has brought to us via the blood and sweat of those that the once-great Catholic Church once considered heretical.  And now the Church accepts evolution, heliocentricism, and perhaps eventually female church leaders as other denominations of Christianity have.

But this is not progressive revelation, it is a reluctant acceptance of overwhelming facts, cultural pressure, and economic interest.  These are means to adjust theology to survive in the real world, based upon facts and theories from another method which theology does not fully understand or accept.  And even when it does understand this method, it does not employ it to the points of their theology because they believe that the two are different realms.  This is not theology growing up, it is theology listening to its better educated, more worldly, and successful little brother named science.

And while there are certainly exceptions, theology of most faiths has neither grown up to understand nor to use the methodologies that science employs.  Rather, it accepts the conclusions of those methodologies after they become overwhelmingly true–or at least overwhelmingly accepted among people that either are adherents or potential tithers.

Much of the world’s religious communities have learned to recognize the power of science, but has not quite recognized the methods that science uses as applicable to the theology they continue to adjust.  Theology does not discuss things that science cannot deal with because theology makes claims about the world, even if indirectly.  If the supernatural influences the real world, then the effects should be open to empirical study at very least.

The proclamations of theology are subject to the same scrutiny as stars, brains, or particles.  And while facts about the physical world don’t directly lead to ideas about morality, meaning, or beauty, they certainly can tell us a lot about how these things are increasingly becoming part of science’s domain.

The hard problem of consciousness, the question of what really caused the universe to exist (if such a question is meaningful), and the nature of the quantum world are still beyond our reach scientifically, but theology provides no methodology for answering these questions which is better than science.  Theology provides some answers, sure, but what reason do we have to accept them?

Science is tugging theologians along the path of history and theology is redefining itself based upon what is sees science doing.  Theology dons the apparel of the strange places that science ventures, but in a sense this garb is little more than a souvenir which will make it look stylish and trendy.  Those who follow in religion’s wake in these trends will think they are modern but they miss that they are only following fashion.  Theology wears scientific-colored robes in order to maintain its own goal which is more about maintaining itself rather than pulling the cart of culture along.

Thus, by re-writing theology in order to put science in a reverential but secondary place behind these divine speculationss, one is surely putting their cart before the horse.