November 1, 2011

Two Thoughts for 11.01.11

Due to travel and the press of other work, blogging has been light. There will follow a series of relatively short posts about things that have been on my mind. Here is the first.

The May 2011 issue of Scientific American (yes, my magazine reading is backlogged, too) had two interesting articles. The first was a short piece on Bayes’ Rule by Sharon Bertsch McGrayne, author of a book on the subject, The Theory That Would Not Die. The rule (or theorem) has a more complicated definition in probability theory, having to do with linking the uncertainty concerning the likelihood of an event prior to collecting evidence with the uncertainty after trial evidence has been collected. As McGrayne puts it in plain English, “the formula is a simple one-liner: Initial Beliefs + Recent Objective Data = A New and Improved Belief.”

It struck me that this is the way all systems of human knowledge should work, but that in the real world objective data often seems not to have much impact on people’s beliefs.

The second and more interesting article, “The Hidden Organ In Our Eyes,” by Ignacio Provencio, dealt with the discovery that certain special neurons in the eye are responsible for sensing light — not for the purpose of vision but in relation to the circadian cycle — the internal clock by which we adjust to day and night. Thus the eye serves two purposes. This reminded me of something I cited in my Reasonable and Holy (7):

The difficulties with ends-based natural law arguments in this regard, which are advanced against birth control as much as against same-sexuality, in particular those that focus narrowly on the mechanics of sexual intercourse, are well summarized by Gerard J. Hughes in The Westminster Dictionary of Christian Ethics.
It is one thing to say that the natural function of the eye is to see. But even bodily organs can and do serve several functions. And if one asks of the body as a whole what its function is, the answer is much less clear. Even less clear is the answer to questions such as “What is the function of a human life?” or “What is the function of sexuality in a human life?” The way one might try to answer these questions seems quite unlike the way one might try to answer questions about the function(s) of the endocrine glands or the heart in the human body. The notion of “function” at this point becomes much more a matter of moral assessment than a scientific inquiry. (“Natural Law,” 413)
I reflected on this issue in parabolic fashion with the short fable, On the Island of Silence. I am fascinated by the extent to which some people insist that anatomy — or their understanding of the nature of anatomy and biology — must be determinative of moral values. Fidelity is a moral value. Gender isn’t. Those who insist that only heterosexual relationships are capable of moral value are in fact insisting that there is a moral value to “male and female,” and ultimately, therefore, to the Y chromosome.

The fact is that we are more than our bodies. What we do with them is important, but just as the eye is not only for seeing, so too the body is not only for reproduction. Morality does not lie in our chromosomes, but in how we treat each other as complete human beings.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG


IT said...

Meanwhile, the Catholics are trying to show that homosexuality is of the Devil (and mistating the science whilst they are at it)

That is, if God causes same-sex attraction, and yet commands that it not be satisfied, then this is divine cruelty. Or, if God causes same-sex attraction, then it must be the divine will that those with the attraction should act on it and it is the Church that is being cruel in its teaching or at the very least tragically mistaken about what God wants. In either case, the belief that the Church is wrong on this issue starts from a faulty premise. God does not cause same-sex attraction....

the scientific evidence of how same-sex attraction most likely may be created provides a credible basis for a spiritual explanation that indicts the devil.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Not surprising that the RCC would find it easier to believe in a supernatural cause of homosexuality than that they might be mistaken in their teaching on the subject.

Yet another reason I'm glad to be an Anglican, "...the Church of Rome hath erred... in matters of Faith." (BCP page 871)

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

I see this is not an official statement from the Roman Catholic Church, but rather from one of its adherents and (former?) servants. So at this point is seems only Mr Avila who has "erred" and not his whole church. Thought they've erred on the issue as well in calling same-sexuality intrinsically and objectively evil. That puts them back into the "moral value of gender" camp. Though, perhaps I shouldn't say "camp."

John Sims said...

I for one would be interested in hearing you expand on your phrase above, "in the real world objective data often seems not to have much impact on people’s beliefs." When you have time and are so inclined ...

IT said...

I have argued at length elsewhere that the real argument is not with those who deny that there is a biological basis to sexuality (who can be disproven by the science) but with those who agree that some people are born gay, but consider it a pathology, rather than a normal variant.

And that is a harder nut to crack. Consider, for example, the Deaf community, who do not consider themselves disabled or defective, where hearing people generally would do.

When does a variant become a pathology?

Jesse said...

Thanks for this, Tobias. One of the delights of the blogosphere is that it exposes me to people who read more widely than I do. (Well... I suppose I too am widely read these days if you count literature for toddlers...)

Your "Island of Silence' parable, which I hadn't read before, is very thought-provoking indeed. To it I can only add a bit of Aristotle: "The lofty mind, the free man is not always asking what use a thing is." (Politics VIII.3)

I wonder, though, how your Islanders might be persuaded that our faculties of speech may be legitimately used. Morality is, to a large extent, concerned with forbearing to do what we would otherwise be capable of doing (with food, words, bodies, machines...). I don't think your Islanders were right to do what they did, but I'm not sure how I could persuade them of their error without appealing to a standard of morality that happens to be convincing to me, but for which I could adduce no stronger arguments than they could for theirs...

Article XIX, which you've quoted in the combox, is why I remain an Anglican. If I ceased to believe its basic proposition, I would be compelled to go elsewhere. As it is, no matter how bad things may seem within our Communion at times, I continue to trust that a Church that once reformed itself may do so again (and again... and again...) and never cease all the while to be (part of) the (visible) Church.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Thanks John. I will do that at some point. I'm referring to the invincibility some beliefs tend to enjoy in spite of massive evidence that should undermine same. I suppose it is a kind of mental inertia.

IT, I've followed some of those arguments, and been amazed at the low level of understanding of genetics in the public sphere (the Avila article being a good (or bad) example. Even science is not enough for some Doctors of Veterinary Medicine ;-) And I think you are correct about the "cultural" issue about various abilities. The problem, it seems to me, is the failure to embrace a truly nominalistic stance and say that each person is who they are, rather than to put people into convenient classes based on "shared characteristics" --- which characteristics then bear the onus or the honor attributed to them regardless of how the individual feels. It seems a variant becomes a pathology when someone decides that is what it is.

Jesse, thanks. The way to reach the islanders may not be too far from the way I and others of my sort of "wanting to reach out" people have attempted in this recent trip to Africa. I learned a great deal, but the major learning for a number of the Africans present is that they have been given a very distorted understanding of homosexuality, and the Episcopal Church. The most important thing in this outreach is listening to the other to learn their language. The first step on this island would not be to go in shouting and speaking, but learning the gestural language, and then perhaps showing how the hands (as media of language) are also the means to work, to eat, to play, to love! We then focus on the morality of the act as relationship, rather than actus purus -- that it is about "communication" in the case of gesture or vocal language, and that the capacity to speak is in furtherance of that more commendable goal. Would it convince? Well, I might hope a further expedition might find that out!

As to XIX, it's the main reason I'm an Anglican, too. After a mind-numbing upbringing in pre-Vat II Rome, I was delighted in adolscence to discover a church that allowed me to think, and to question.

Anonymous said...

I looked at IT's link to the Boston Pilot. Actually, there have been some Catholic saints who would hold that homosexuality might be caused by the Devil, but might be even beneath him. For example, here is a passage from St. Catherine of Siena's Dialogues about the subject:

"They not only fail from resisting this frailty [of fallen human nature] … but do even worse as they commit the cursed sin against nature. Like the blind and stupid, having dimmed the light of their understanding, they do not recognize the disease and misery in which they find themselves. For this not only causes Me nausea, but displeases even the demons themselves, whom these miserable creatures have chosen as their lords. For Me, this sin against nature is so abominable that, for it alone, five cities were submersed, by virtue of the judgment of My Divine Justice, which could no longer bear them…. It is disagreeable to the demons, not because evil displeases them and they find pleasure in good, but because their nature is angelic and thus is repulsed upon seeing such an enormous sin being committed. It is true that it is the demon who hits the sinner with the poisoned arrow of lust, but when a man carries out such a sinful act, the demon leaves."

So Mr. Avila's speculation isn't outside the Catholic pale by any means, even though his short essay is just an opinion without authoritative weight.


JCF said...

And that is a harder nut to crack. Consider, for example, the Deaf community, who do not consider themselves disabled or defective, where hearing people generally would do. When does a variant become a pathology?

One can see a direct connection to the Intersexed. Some in the Deaf community object to parents imposing cochlear implants on their deaf children. In the same way, those in the Intersexed community say that the gender-imposing surgeries done on them as minors amounted to a violation [Because the medical community still says "God forbid a child have ambiguous genitalia!"]

Harder nuts (so to speak :-X) indeed.

[I linked to Avila's article last night at FoJ's: even for a Popoid, still found it *gobsmacking*]

June Butler said...

Though, perhaps I shouldn't say "camp."

Tobias, if you wish me to take your post seriously, you shouldn't say such things like the above. You set me to laughing, and I forget what I wanted to say.

It struck me that this is the way all systems of human knowledge should work, but that in the real world objective data often seems not to have much impact on people’s beliefs.

That we so often see that objective data have no impact on what people believe is a continuing source of amazement to me. With some of the people, it seems more than mental inertia. What I see is a persistence in believing what they want to believe in the face of all evidence to the contrary. Plus, there's the resistance to having admit that they were wrong.

Erika Baker said...

"It seems a variant becomes a pathology when someone decides that is what it is."

But there are more objective criteria. For something to be pathological you would have to show that it does genuine harm to someone. Deafness, to our minds, does genuine harm to deaf people but not to anyone else, so when deaf people tell me they don't perceive deafness as harmful, I have no choice by to re-assess my evaluation.

I think that's one of the reasons homophobic people are still so desperate to come up with "research" that proves that we all live in misery and die earlier than the rest of society.

And it also explains why they are so determined to close their eyes and ears to the reality of gay people all around them - the fiction could not be maintained by genuine looking and listening.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Thanks for the citation, Fr M. Just goes to show that just as the Roman Church has erred, so have many of its leading members. I wasn't aware of Catherine of Siena's homophobia, but this provides ample documentation. Of course, as we now know, homosexuality isn't "against nature" any more than the earth is the center of the solar system, so we're dealing with a systemic error in the church (one still not corrected or repented of, and even supported by authority, sadly) perhaps exacerbated or amplified in her case by Catherine's own psychological problems.

JCF, thanks for the additional reminder and example. I'm reminded of the Stalinist clinical approach towards psychological tendencies towards democracy, or the psychological affliction drapetomania or dysaethesia aethiopica, that slaves suffered, leading to the the notion they should run away. Dr. Cartwright also attributed this to devilish influences and prescribed whipping. (He and Catherine of Siena would likely have gotten along well.)

Mimi, it is astounding. And I think you are correct that there must be some deep need being met in deniers' psyches by their denial. I suppose the "cui bono" rule might apply: who benefits from these denials?

Erika, that seems a good "objective/subjective" standard. When "different" becomes "inferior" or "faulty" there is a value judgment which may not reflect the actual values of the person judged.

IT said...

The article claiming being gay is Of the Devil has been withdrawn due to "theological error":

tAP story

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Wonder what was considered erroneous. Surely not the attribution of crimes against nature to demonic influence. Otherwise, will the same happen with Catherine of Siena's canonization?

Anonymous said...

IT, the retraction is nothing but the continued corruption of the Archdiocese of Boston. It is an unmitigated disaster of sexual, theological, moral, and financial corruption. I'm thinking that maybe it needs to merge with the TEC Diocese of Massachusetts and a new RC diocese get set up.

Catherine of Siena is good. She has a bit more pull upstairs than anybody trodding this Earth at the present time.


Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

FrM., good to see that we at least agree concerning the dysfunction of the RC Archdiocese. I can't speak on the virtues of Catherine, or her "pull" among the Saints, but she clearly backed the right horse in this life.