Tag Archives: ethics

The Devout Agnostic

by Jay Parr

Sunrise as seen from orbit. Taken by Chris Hadfield aboard the International Space Station.

I am a devout agnostic. No, that is not an oxymoron.

After considerable searching, study, and introspectionand, having been raised in the Protestant Christian tradition, no small amount of internal conflictI have come to rest in the belief that any entity we might reasonably call God would be so alien to our limited human perceptions as to be utterly, and irreconcilably, beyond human comprehension.

Gah. So convoluted. Even after something like a dozen revisions.

Let me try to strip that down. To wit: Humankind cannot understand God. We cannot remotely define God. We wouldn’t know God if it/he/she/they slapped us square in the face. In the end, we cannot say with any certainty that anything we might reasonably call God actually exists. Nor can we say with any certainty that something we might reasonably call God does not exist.

Splash text: I don't know, and you don't either.

To horribly misquote some theologian (or philosopher?) I seem to remember encountering somewhere along the way, humankind can no more understand God than a grasshopper can understand number theory.

I mean, we can’t even wrap our puny little heads around the immensity of the known physical realm (or Creation, if you prefer) without creating incredibly simplistic, and only vaguely representative models.

Let’s look at some of the things we do know. With only a handful of notable exceptions the entirety of human history has happened on, or very near to, the fragile skin of a tiny drop of semi-molten slag just under 8,000 miles across. That’s just under 25,000 miles around, or a little more than two weeks’ driving at 70 mph, if you went non-stop without stopping for meals or potty breaks.

Freight train in the American west, looking dwarfed by the landscape, with mountains visible in the far-off distance.

Even that tiny drop of slag can feel pretty vast to our little human perceptions, as anyone can tell you who has been on a highway in the American West and looked out at that little N-scale model train over there and realized that, no, it’s actually a full-sized freight train, with engines sixteen feet tall and seventy feet long and as heavy as five loaded-down tractor-trailers. And even though you can plainly see the entire length of that little train, it’s actually over a mile long, and creeping along at seventy-five miles per hour. Oh, and that mountain range just over there in the background? Yeah, it’s three hours away.

If we can’t comprehend the majesty of our own landscape, on this thin skin on this tiny droplet of molten slag we call home, how can we imagine the distance even to our own moon?

To-scale image of Earth and the Moon, with the Moon represented by a single pixel.

If you look at this image, in which the moon is depicted as a single pixel, it is 110 pixels to the earth (which itself is only three pixels wide, partially occupying nine pixels). At this scale it would be about eighty-five times the width of that image before you got to the Sun. If you’re bored, click on the image and it will take you to what the author only-half-jokingly calls “a tediously accurate scale model of the solar system,” where you can scroll through endless screens of nothing as you make your way from the Sun to Pluto.

Beyond the Moon, we’re best off talking about distances in terms of the speed of lightas in, how long it takes a ray of light to travel there, cruising along at about 186,000 miles per second, or 670 million miles per hour.

On the scale of our drop of moltener, Earthlight travels pretty fast. A beam of light can travel around to the opposite side of the Earth in about a fifteenth of a second. That’s why we can call that toll-free customer-service number and suddenly find ourselves talking to some poor soul who’s working through the night somewhere in Indonesiawhich, for the record, is about as close as you can get to the exact opposite point on the planet without hiring a more expensive employee down in Perth.

Earthrise_apollo8_19681224_NASA_500crop

That capacity for real-time communication just starts to break down when you get to the Moon. At that distance a beam of light, or a radio transmission, takes a little more than a second (about 1.28 seconds, to be more accurate). So the net result is about a two-and-a-half-second lag round-trip. Enough to be noticeable, but it has rarely been a problem, asin all of human historyonly two dozen people have ever been that far away from the Earth (all of them white American men, by the way), and no one has been any further. By the way, that image of the Earthrise up there? That was taken with a very long lens, and then I cropped the image even more for this post, so it looks a lot closer than it really is.

Beyond the Moon, the distances get noticeable even at the speed of light, as the Sun is about four hundred times further away than the Moon. Going back up to that scale model in which the Earth is three pixels wide, if the Earth and Moon are about an inch and a half apart on your typical computer screen, the Sun would be about the size of a softball and fifty feet away (so for a handy visual, the Sun is a softball at the front of a semi trailer and the Earth is a grain of sand back by the doors). Traveling at 186,000 miles per second, light from the Sun makes the 93-million-mile trip to Earth in about eight minutes and twenty seconds.

iss-sun-over-earth

Even with all that empty space, our three pixels against the fifty feet to the Sun, we’re still right next door. The same sunlight that reaches us in eight minutes takes four hours and ten minutes to reach Neptune, the outermost planet of our solar system since poor Pluto got demoted. If you’re still looking at that scale model, where we’re three pixels wide and the sun is a softball fifty feet away, that puts Neptune about a quarter of a mile away and the size of a small bead. And that’s still within our home solar system. Well within our solar system if you include all the smaller dwarf planets, asteroids, and rubble of the Kuiper Belt (including Pluto, which we now call a dwarf planet).

To get to our next stellar neighbor at this scale, we start out at Ocean Isle Beach, find the grain of sand that is Earth (and the grain of very fine sand an inch and a half away that is the Moon), drop that softball fifty feet away to represent the Sun, lay out a few more grains of sand and a few little beads between the Atlantic Ocean and the first dune to represent the rest of the major bodies in our solar system, and then we drive all the way across the United States, the entire length of I-40 and beyond, jogging down the I-15 (“the” because we’re on the west coast now) to pick up the I-10 through Los Angeles and over to the Pacific Ocean at Santa Monica, where we walk out to the end of the Santa Monica Pier and set down a golf ball to represent Proxima Centauri. And that’s just the star that’s right next door.

See what I’m getting at?

What’s even more mind-bending than the vast distances and vast emptiness of outer space, is that our universe is every bit as vast at the opposite end of the size spectrum. The screen you’re reading this on, the hand you’re scrolling with—even something as dense as a solid ingot of gold bullion—is something like 99.999999999% empty space (and that’s a conservative estimate). Take a glance at this comparison of our solar system against a gold atom, if both the Sun and the gold nucleus had a radius of one foot. You’ll see that the outermost electron in the gold atom would be more than twice the distance of Pluto.

atom-vs-solar-system

And even though that nucleus looks kind of like a mulberry in this illustration, we now know that those protons and neutrons are, once again, something on the order of being their own solar systems compared to the quarks that constitute them. There’s enough wiggle room in there that at the density of a neutron star, our entire planet would be condensed to the size of a child’s marble. And for all we know, those quarks are made up of still tinier particles. We’re not even sure if they’re actually anything we would call solid matter or if they’re just some kind of highly-organized energy waves. In experiments, they kind of act like both.

This is not mysticism, folks. This is just physics.

The crux of all this is that, with our limited perception and our limited ability to comprehend vast scales, the universe is both orders of magnitude larger and orders of magnitude smaller than we can even begin to wrap our minds around. We live our lives at a very fixed scale, unable to even think about that which is much larger or much smaller than miles, feet, or fractions of an inch (say, within six or seven zeroes).

Those same limitations of scale apply in a very literal sense when we start talking about our perception of such things as the electromagnetic spectrum and the acoustic spectrum. Here’s an old chart of the electromagnetic spectrum from back in the mid-’40s. You can click on the image to expand it in a new tab.

1944electromagnetic_spectrum-5000

If you look at about the two-thirds point on that spectrum you can see the narrow band that is visible light. We can see wavelengths from about 750 nanometers (400 terahertz) at the red end, to 380 nm (800 THz) at the blue end. In other words, the longest wavelength we can see is right at twice the length, or half the frequency, of the shortest wavelength we can see. If our hearing were so limited, we would only be able to hear one octave. Literally. One single octave.

We can feel some of the longer wavelengths as radiant heat, and some of the shorter wavelengths (or their aftereffects) as sunburn, but even all that is only three or four orders of magnitudetwo or three zeroesand if you look at that chart, you’ll see that it’s a logarithmic scale that spans twenty-seven orders of magnitude.

If we could see the longer wavelengths our car engines would glow and our brake rotors would glow and our bodies would glow, and trees and plants would glow blazing white in the sunlight. A little longer and all the radio towers would be bright lights from top to bottom, and the cell phone towers would have bright bars like fluorescent tubes at the tops of them, and there would be laser-bright satellites in the sky, and our cell phones would flicker and glow, and our computers, and our remotes, and our wireless ear buds, and all the ubiquitous little radios that are in almost everything anymore. It would look like some kind of surreal Christmas.

visible-vs-infrared

If we could see shorter wavelengths our clothing would be transparent, and our bodies would be translucent, and the night sky would look totally different. Shorter still and we could see bright quasi-stellar objects straight through the Earth. It would all be very disorienting.

Of course, the ability to perceive such a range of wavelengths would require different organs, once you got beyond the near-ultraviolet that some insects can see and the near-infrared that some snakes can see. And in the end, one might argue that our limited perception of the electromagnetic spectrum is just exactly what we’ve needed to survive this far.

I was going to do the same thing with the vastness of acoustic spectrum against the limitations of human hearing here, but I won’t get into it because acoustics is basically just a subset of fluid dynamics. What we hear as sound is things movingpressure waves against our eardrums, to be precisebut similar theories can be applied from the gravitational interaction of galaxy clusters (on a time scale of eons) to the motion of molecules bumping into one another (on the order of microseconds), and you start getting into math that looks like this…

acoustic-theory

…and I’m an English major with a graduate degree in creative writing. That image could just as easily be a hoax, and I would be none the wiser. So let’s just leave it at this: There’s a whole lot we can’t hear, either.

We also know for a fact that time is not quite as linear as we would like to think. Einstein first theorized that space and time were related, and that movement through space would affect movement through time (though gravity also plays in there, just to complicate matters). We do just begin to see it on a practical level with our orbiting spacecraft. It’s not very bigthe International Space Station will observe a differential of about one second over its decades-long lifespanbut our navigational satellites do have to adjust for it so your GPS doesn’t drive you to the wrong Starbucks.

Physicists theorize that time does much stranger things on the scale of the universe, and in some of the bizarre conditions that can be found. Time almost breaks down completely in a black hole, for instance. Stephen Hawking has posited (and other theoretical astrophysicists agree) that even if the expanding universe were to reverse course and start contracting, which has not been ruled out as a possibility, it would still be an expanding universe because at that point time would have also reversed itself. Or something like that; this is probably a hugely oversimplified layman’s reading of it. But still, to jump over to popular culture, specifically a television series floating somewhere between science fiction and fantasy, the Tenth Doctor probably said it best:

wibbly_wobbly_timey_wimey_stuff_jnapier99_edit

So far we’ve been talking about physical facts. When we get into how our brains process those facts, things become even more uncertain. We do know that of the information transmitted to our brains via the optic and auditory nerves, the vast majority of it is summarily thrown out without getting any cognitive attention at all. What our brains do process is, from the very beginning, distorted by filters and prejudices that we usually don’t even notice. It’s called conceptually-driven processing, and it has been a fundamental concept in both cognitive psychology and consumer-marketing research for decades (why yes, you should be afraid). Our perceptual set can heavily influence how we interpret what we see—and even what information we throw away to support our assumptions. I’m reminded of that old selective-attention test from a few years back:

There are other fun videos by the same folks on The Invisible Gorilla, but this is a pretty in-your-face example of how we can tune out things that our prejudices have deemed irrelevant, even if it’s a costume gorilla beating its chest right in the middle of the scene. As it turns out, we can only process a limited amount of sensory information in a given time (a small percentage of what’s coming in), so the very first thing our brains do is throw out most of it, before filling in the gaps with our own assumptions about how things should be.

As full of holes as our perception is, our memory process is even worse. We know that memory goes through several phases, from the most ephemeral, sensory memory, which is on the order of fractions of a second, to active memory, on the order of tens of seconds, to various iterations of long-term memory. At each stage, only a tiny portion of the information is selected and passed on to the next. And once something makes it through all those rounds of selection to make it into long-term memory, there is evidence in cognitive neuroscience that in order to retrieve those memories, we have to destroy them first. That’s right; the act of recalling a long-term memory back into active memory physically destroys it. That means that when you think about that dim memory from way back in your childhood (I’m lying on the living-room rug leafing through a volume of our off-brand encyclopedia while my mother works in the kitchen), you’re actually remembering the last time you remembered it. Because the last time you remembered it, you obliterated that memory in the process, and had to remember it all over again.

I’ve heard it said that if scientists ran the criminal-justice system, eyewitness testimony would be inadmissible in court. Given the things we know about perception and memory (especially in traumatic situations), that might not be such a bad idea.

court

Okay.

So far I have avoided the topic of religion itself. I’m about to change course, and I know that this is where I might write something that offends someone. So I want to start out with the disclaimer that what I’m writing here is only my opiniononly my experienceand I recognize that everyone’s religious journey is individual, unique, and deeply personal. I’m not here to convert anyone, and I’m not here to pooh-pooh anyone’s religious convictions. Neither am I here to be converted. I respect your right to believe what you believe and to practice your religion as you see fitprovided you respect my right to do the same. Having stated that

Most of the world’s older religions started out as oral traditions. Long before being written down they had been handed down in storytelling, generation after generation after generation, mutating along the way, until what ends up inscribed in the sacred texts might be completely unrecognizable to the scribes’ great-great-grandparents. Written traditions are somewhat more stable, but until the advent of typography, every copy was still transcribed by hand, and subject to the interpretations, misinterpretations, and agendas of the scribes doing the copying.

Acts of translation are even worse. Translation is, by its very nature, an act of deciding what to privilege and what to sacrifice in the source text. I have experienced that process first-hand in my attempts to translate 14th-century English into 21st-century English. Same language, only 600 years later.

SGGK_facsimile

Every word is a decision: Do I try to preserve a particular nuance at the expense of the poetic meter of the phrase? Do I use two hundred words to convey the meaning that is packed into these twenty words? How do I explain this cultural reference that is meaningless to us, but would have been as familiar to the intended audience as we woulds find a Seinfeld reference? Can I go back to my translation ten years after the fact and change that word that seemed perfect at the time but that has since proven a nagging source of misinterpretation? Especially in the translation of sacred texts, where people will hang upon the interpretation of a single word, forgetting entirely that it’s just some translator’s best approximation. Wars have been fought over such things.

The Muslim world might have the best idea here, encouraging its faithful to learn and study their scriptures in Arabic rather than rely on hundreds of conflicting translations in different languages. Added bonus: You get a common language everyone can use.

quran

But the thing is, even without the vagaries of translation, human language isat besta horribly imprecise tool. One person starts out with an idea in mind. That person approximates that idea as closely as they can manage, using the clumsy symbols that make up any given languageusually composing on the flyand transmits that language to its intended recipient through some method, be it speech or writing or gestural sign language. The recipient listens to that sequence of sounds, or looks at that sequence of marks or gestures, and interprets them back into a series of symbolic ideas, assembling those ideas back together with the help of sundry contextual clues to approximatehopefully—something resembling what the speaker had in mind.

It’s all fantastically imprecisewristwatch repair with a sledgehammerand when you add in the limitations of the listener’s perceptual set it’s obvious how a rhinoceros becomes a unicorn. I say “tree,” thinking of the huge oak in my neighbor’s back yard, but one reader pictures a spruce, another a dogwood, another a magnolia. My daughter points to the rosemary tree in our dining room, decorated with tinsel for the holidays. The mathematician who works in logic all day imagines data nodes arranged in a branching series of nonrecursive decisions. The genealogist sees a family history.

Humans are also infamously prone to hyperbole. Just ask your second cousin about that bass he had halfway in the boat last summer before it wriggled off the hook. They’re called fish stories for a reason. As an armchair scholar of medieval English literature, I can tell you that a lot of texts presented as history, with a straight face, bear reading with a healthy dose of skepticism. According to the 12th-century History of the Kings of Britain, that nation was founded when some guy named Brutus, who gets his authority by being the grandson of Aeneas (yeah, the one from Greek mythology), sailed up the Thames, defeated the handful of giants who were the sole inhabitants of the whole island, named the island after himself (i.e., Britain), and established the capital city he called New Troy, which would later be renamed London. Sounds legit.

sggk-edit

In the beginning of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Gawain beheads the huge green man who has challenged him to a one-blow-for-one-blow duel, right there in front of the whole Arthurian court, but the man picks up his head, laughs at Gawain, hops back on his horse, and rides off. Granted, Gawain is presented as allegory rather than fact, but Beowulf is presented as fact, and he battles a monster underwater for hours, then kills a dragon when he’s in his seventies.

Heck, go back to ancient Greek literature and the humans and the gods routinely get into each other’s business, helping each other out, meddling in each other’s affairs, deceiving and coercing each other into to do things, getting caught up in petty jealousies, and launching wars out of spite or for personal gain. Sound familiar?

As for creation stories, there are almost as many of those as there are human civilizations. We have an entire three-credit course focused on creation stories, and even that only has space to address a small sampling of them.

BLS300-visions

Likewise, there are almost as many major religious texts as there are major civilizations. The Abrahamic traditions have their Bible and their Torah and their Qur’an and Hadith, and their various apocryphal texts, all of which are deemed sacrosanct and infallible by at least a portion of their adherents. The Buddhists have their Sutras. The Hindus have their Vedas, Upanishads, and Bhagavad Gita. The Shinto have their Kojiki. The Taoists have their Tao Te Ching. Dozens of other major world religions have their own texts, read and regarded as sacred by millions. The countless folk religions around the world have their countless oral traditions, some of which have been recorded and some of which have not.

Likewise, there are any number of religions that have arisen out of personality cults, sometimes following spiritual leaders of good faith, sometimes following con artists and charlatans. Sometimes those cults implode early. Sometimes they endure. Sometimes they become major world religions.

jim-jones

At certain levels of civilization, it is useful to have explanations for the unexplainable, symbolic interpretations of the natural world, narratives of origin and identityeven absolute codes of conduct. Religious traditions provide their adherents with comfort, moral guidance, a sense of belonging, and the foundations of strong communities.

However, religion has also been abused throughout much of recorded history, to justify keeping the wealthy and powerful in positions of wealth and power, to justify keeping major segments of society in positions of abject oppression, to justify vast wars, profitable to the most powerful and the least at risk, at the expense of the lives and livelihoods of countless less-powerful innocents.

A lot of good has been done in the name of religion. So has a lot of evil. And before we start talking about Islamist violence, let us remember that millions have been slaughtered in the name of Christianity. Almost every religion has caused bloodshed in its history, and every major religion has caused major bloodshed at some point in its history. Even the Buddhists. And there’s almost always some element of we’re-right-and-you’re-wrong very close to the center of that bloodshed.

spanish-inquisition

But what if we’re all wrong?

If we can’t begin to comprehend the vastness of the universe or the emptiness of what we consider solid, if we can only sense a tiny portion of what is going on around us (and through us), and if we don’t even know for sure what we have actually seen with our own eyes or heard with our own ears, how can we even pretend to have any handle on an intelligence that might have designed all this? How can we even pretend to comprehend an intelligence that might even be all of this? I mean seriously, is there any way for us to empirically rule out the possibility that our entire known universe is part of some greater intelligence too vast for us to begin to comprehend? That in effect we are, and our entire reality is, a minuscule part of God itself?

In short, the more convinced you are that you understand the true nature of anything we might reasonably call God, the more convinced I am that you are probably mistaken.

understand-everything-crop

I’m reminded of the bumper sticker I’ve seen: “If you’re living like there’s no God, you’d better be right!” (usually with too many exclamation points). And the debate I had with a street evangelist in which he tried to convince me that it was safer to believe in Jesus if there is no Christian God, than to be a non-believer if he does exist. Nothing like the threat of hell to bring ’em to Jesus. But to me, that kind of thinking is somewhere between a con job and extortion. You’re either asking me to believe you because you’re telling me bad things will happen to me if I don’t believe you, which is circular logic, or you’re threatening me. Either way, I’m not buying. I don’t believe my immortal soul will be either rewarded or punished in the afterlife, because when it comes right down to it, even if something we might reasonably call God does exist, I still don’t think we will experience anything we would recognize as an afterlife. Or that we possess anything we would recognize as an immortal soul.

To answer the incredulous question of a shocked high-school classmate, yes, I do believe that when we die, we more or less just wink out of existence. And no, I’m not particularly worried about that. I don’t think any of us is aware of it when it happens.

But if there’s no recognizable afterlife, no Heaven or Hell, no divine judgment, what’s to keep us from abandoning all morality and doing as we pleasekilling, raping, looting, destroying property and lives with impunity, without fear of divine retribution? Well, if there is no afterlife, if, upon our deaths, we cease to exist as an individual, a consciousness, an immortal soul, or anything we would recognize as an entitywhich, as I have established here, I believe is likely the casethen it logically follows that this life, this flicker of a few years between the development of  consciousness in the womb and the disintegration of that consciousness at death, well, to put it bluntly, this is all we get. This life, and then we’re gone. There is no better life beyond. You can call it nihilism, but I think it’s quite the opposite.

Because if this one life here on Earth is all we get, ever, that means each life is unique, and finite, and precious, and irreplaceable, and in a very real sense, sacred. Belief in an idealized afterlife can be usedtwisted, ratherto justify the killing of innocents. Kill ’em all and let God sort ’em out. The implication being that if the slaughtered were in fact good people, they’re now in a better place. But if there is no afterlife, no divine judgment, no eternal reward or punishment, then the slaughtered innocent are nothing more than that: Slaughtered. Wiped out. Obliterated. Robbed of their one chance at this beautiful, awesome, awful, and by turns astounding and terrifying experience we call life.

Likewise, if this one life is all we get and someone is deliberately maimedwhether physically or emotionally, with human atrocities inflicted upon them or those they love—they don’t get some blissful afterlife to compensate for it. They spend the rest of their existence missing that hand, or having been raped, or knowing that their parents or siblings or children were killed because they happened to have been born in a certain place, or raised with a certain set of religious traditions, or have a certain color of skin or speak a certain language.

In other words, if this one life is all we get? We had damned well better use it wisely. Because we only get this one chance to sow as much beauty, as much joy, as much nurturing, and peace, and friendliness, and harmony as possible. We only get this one chance to embrace the new ideas and the new experiences. We only get this one chance to welcome the stranger, and to see the world through their eyes, if only for a moment. We only get this one chance to feed that hungry person, or to give our old coat to that person who is cold, or to offer compassion and solace and aid to that person who has seen their home, family, livelihood, and community destroyed by some impersonal natural disaster or some human evil such as war.

syrian_refugees

If I’m living like there’s no (recognizable) God, I’d better be doing all I can manage to make this world a more beautiful place, a happier place, a more peaceful place, a better place. For everyone.

As for a God who would see someone living like that, or at least giving it their best shot, and then condemn them to eternal damnation because they failed to do something like accept Jesus Christ as their personal lord and savior? I’m sorry, but I cannot believe in a God like that. I might go so far as to say I flat-out refuse to believe in a God like that. I won’t go so far as to say that no God exists, because as I have said, I believe that we literally have no way of knowing, but I’m pretty sure any God that does exist isn’t that small-minded.

einstein

So anyway, happy holidays.

This is an examination of my own considered beliefs, and nothing more. I won’t try to convert you. I will thank you to extend me the same courtesy. You believe what you believe and I believe what I believe, and in all likelihood there is some point at which each of us believes the other is wrong. And that’s okay. If after reading this you find yourself compelled to pray for my salvation, I won’t be offended.

If you celebrate Christmas, I wish you a merry Christmas. If you celebrate the Solstice, I wish you a blessed Solstice. If you celebrate Hanukkah, I wish you (belatedly) a happy Hanukkah. If you celebrate Milad un Nabi, I wish you Eid Mubarak. If some sense of tradition and no small amount of marketing has led you to celebrate the celebratory season beyond any sense of religious conviction, you seem to be in good company. If you celebrate some parody of a holiday such as Giftmas, I wish you the love of family and friends, and some cool stuff to unwrap. If you celebrate Festivus, I wish you a productive airing of grievances. If you’re Dudeist, I abide. If you’re Pastafarian, I wish you noodly appendage and all that. If you don’t celebrate anything? We’re cool.

And if you’re still offended because I don’t happen to believe exactly the same thing you believe? Seriously? You need to get over it.

xmashup

If Elected as Your President…

by Jay Parr

obama-edit

Well, it’s getting to be election season again. I’m sure you’ve noticed. Fox News hosted the first “debate” recently, and there are, what, seventeen candidates going after the Republican nomination now? At least on the Democratic side it’s mostly Hillary against that plucky underdog Bernie Sanders. That is, unless Uncle Joe decides to throw in his hat.

So I’ve decided it’s time for me to announce this: Under no circumstances will I be running for the office of President of the United States of America. No way. Just ain’t gonna happen. Or, to paraphrase that old Sherman dude, if nominated I will not run, if elected I will not serve.

First of all I was an adventurous and nonconformist poor kid in my teens and twenties (okay, and thirties). There’s way too much dirt to be dug up on me. Sure, my response to most of it would be, “Yeah? And?” But no one wants their friends to end up becoming collateral damage, right?

rally

That and I really have no stomach for the machinations of politics. I get a bellyful of politics and diplomacy just trying to advocate for our students, here in my bottom-rung administrative position for the BLS Program. If I had the entirety of Congress trying to stymie me at every turn (Every. Single. Turn.), I would probably either have a psychological breakdown or a psychotic break. Think, “Hammer-Wielding President Rampages Through Capital!”

Anyway, it’s still fun to think about what one would do as the “leader of the free world,” so why not?

I’m thinking my campaign slogan would have to be SHAMELESSLY LIBERAL. Something along those lines anyway, and I don’t think “What a Pinko” has quite the right tone for a presidential campaign.

Anyway, I hear you say. Enough of this navel gazing, what would you do?!

health-care-sm

Universal Health Care: Single-payer style. You need a doctor, you go to a doctor. Doesn’t matter if you’re a billionaire or homeless, a veteran or an artist. Every citizen, every veteran, every President, every billionaire, every college student, every crack addict, every member of Congress (yes, every member of Congress), has the same level of coverage. I am firmly of the opinion that for-profit health insurance and for-profit medicine are among our great societal evils, in that they profit handsomely on the misfortunes of others. So let’s take them out of the picture; you go get the medical care you need, and your taxes pay your doctors’ salaries. Yes, your taxes will go up. Yes, the doctors’ gross incomes will go down. You’ll still be paying less for your healthcare, and your doctor will still be making the same net income, maybe more, after our taxes also pay for her education. Which brings me to…

education-phonetic

Access to Education: At any level. Free of charge. Any student who is doing reasonably well can attend any public university, in-state or out-of-state, to any level, absolutely free, with a stipend for living expenses, and can finish a BA, an MA, an MFA, an MDiv, a PhD, a JD, an EdD, or what have you, and walk away totally debt-free. Also paid for by our taxes. It’s not as expensive as you might think (a fraction of our annual spending on our recent wars, less than we spend incarcerating nonviolent offenders), and in the long run it is simply in the best interest of the nation to invest in an educated populace. Educated people contribute more to their communities and to their countries, both in tangible contributions to GDP and in intangible contributions to quality of life. When the reason a talented and motivated young person doesn’t pursue her PhD in engineering is because her family’s working-class background makes it financially untenable, it’s not just that child that suffers. It’s all of us. When the person who would have discovered the cure for diabetes is stuck flipping burgers in West Cowtown because the cost of education is prohibitive, it’s not just she and her family that suffers. It’s all of us. When the poor black kid from Baltimore starts his lifelong career in the corrections system at fourteen simply because he is presumed to be a criminal by everyone he meets, that’s one more life lost. One less chance for the world to have its next once-in-a-century artist, musician, scientist, statesman, what have you, and at a cost several times higher than providing him with a top-notch education.

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Campaign Finance Reform: The billionaire Koch brothers want to eliminate all limits on campaign contributions so that the wealthiest citizens can basically buy the government. I want the opposite. At the very least I would like to see individual donations limited, and corporate donations and superpacs eliminated altogether. I even like the idea of going a step further and requiring candidates to campaign under uniform conditions (think of NASCAR’s equipment restrictions): Each candidate campaigns through a standardized system supported by tax dollars, through which their sponsored bills and voting records are shown, they have the opportunity to comment on their votes, and they can make positional statements. Advertising reminds voters to study the candidates, make their choices, and to vote on election day. And hey, let’s make election day a national holiday while we’re at it.

Automatic Voter Registration: Oregon just did it. We can do it nationally. Anyone who is eligible to vote is automatically registered upon receiving a driver’s license or state-issued identification card. Other mechanisms may also be explored to catch the people who have neither (e.g., Social Security rosters). The idea is that anyone who is eligible to vote is registered by default. To further encourage participation, it would be worth exploring a small stipend for each voter, to be issued when the ballot is cast at the polls (or when the absentee ballot is processed). For less than the costs of recent campaigns, each voter could be offered a few bucks to encourage her to actually show up and vote. Democracy simply doesn’t work when most of the population doesn’t bother to vote.

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Eliminate the Political Party System: The party system mostly works to keep representatives in line with the wishes of an elite power base. Independent candidates are rarely elected (there are 2 in Congress, out of 535 members), and that leads anyone with political aspirations to align themselves with one major party or the other. From that moment they endure pressure to vote certain ways on specific items of legislation and even on whole issues. This pressure, in effect, means they can no longer represent their constituencies or even their own consciences, because they are beholden to represent their political party. When there are no sides of the aisle, no party affiliations, that pressure is removed and the candidate can run, and the representative can represent, according to their own convictions and the wishes of their constituencies.

lobbyists

Eliminate Corporate Lobbying: Another method by which a monied few exercise disproportionate influence on political outcomes. No energy-policy debate can be balanced when petroleum-industry interests are pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into lobbying efforts. Likewise, no healthcare-policy debate can be balanced when insurance-industry interests are doing the same. Lobbying is a $3,250,000,000.00-per-year business. That’s over a thousand dollars a year for every single person in the country. Imagine what could be done with that money if it weren’t being used to skew political outcomes in the favor of the wealthiest individuals and corporations.

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Restructure Congress: In 1789, there were about 30,000 constituents per representative in the House. Today, there are some 700,000 constituents per representative. That makes each seat more powerful and thus more subject to big-money influence. It’s time to go back to representatives who actually know their constituencies; in today’s world of teleconferencing and telecommuting, we could easily go back to one representative for every 30,000 constituents. Yes, that would make the House some 10,000 members. No, it would not be necessary to assemble a 10,000-member House of Representatives at the Capital building for every session of Congress. Each member could work from a local office in her district, accessible to her constituents. That office could be her designated location for voting and for filing legislative documents. Floor debate could be held with a combination of in-person and electronic attendance. A representative could serve her entire term, in fact, without ever setting foot inside the Beltway.

senate-ed

Eliminate the Senate: Having two senators per state skews senatorial representation in favor of the less populous states: Montana, Wyoming, North Dakota, South Dakota, Alaska, Delaware, and Vermont each have only one representative in the House, and they each have two senators. California, with 53 representatives and a far greater population than those seven states added together, also has two senators. Further, having two senators who represent a large and wealthy state means those senators are far more likely to be influenced by big-money interests within their states (and maybe even from outside their states). Basically, senatorial representation is in no way representative of the populace, and is far too subject to big-money interests. It’s a throwback, a mimicry of the equally non-representative House of Lords. Let’s get rid of it.

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Marriage Equality: Wait, I hear you say. The Supreme Court just did that. Well, not exactly, and not completely. Yes, Obergefell v. Hodges was definitely a step in the right direction, but a Supreme Court ruling is an interpretation of constitutional law. It is not, and should not be, federal law or even federal policy. The ruling also has its limitations, and I’m sure you’ve heard about folks agitating to resist, or ignore, or otherwise malign the Supreme Court’s authority in this matter. I’d like to put an end to all that.

The first order of business would be separation of church and state in the marriage business. A couple of ways this could be done: 1) Perform all legal marriages in the courts, as is done in Mexico, and let the spouses also have a non-legally-binding church ceremony if they’re so motivated; or 2) Separate the role of officiant (i.e., representative of the state in the matter of the marriage to be performed) from that of ordained clergy (i.e., representative of the church), and create a process by which a person can have herself authorized to officiate a wedding ceremony. Anyone would go through the same process, ordained clergy or otherwise, but it would be a separate process, a legal process, and the role of officiant would be understood to be (and literally) a legal role independent of any religious ordination.

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On the matter of marriage equality, I would also go a step further than simply same-sex marriages. Marriage equality needs to be for everyone. As marriage is the legal codification of a committed relationship, and the legal status carries certain rights and benefits, the legal framework should accommodate any configuration of committed relationship. This means not only same-sex marriage, but nonbinary-gender relationships and consensual polygamy in any configuration (polygyny, polyandry, or other polyamorous arrangements). I don’t have this all sorted out, because I’m not a gender-studies person and the math can get complicated in a hurry, but the basic idea is that there is a status for spouse and one for co-spouse, and that the legal rights carry between anyone in that status (and yes, in theory, one could be in more than one multiple marriage, with branching relationships of co-spouses in either direction). My one caveat would be that all parties in the marriage would be required to sign the license to add a new member.

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A Legal Third Gender: Here are the facts: Not all people identify as the gender they are assigned at birth. Not all people identify as either gender. Not all people even fit into binary gender categories at birth (i.e., intersex). There needs to be a legal gender category for people who don’t fit into that binary. I like “nonbinary” as a catch-all term, myself (“other” is, after all, quite literally othering). And yes, there are countless subdivisions of nonbinary gender, but in the end it’s a small enough population that I’m inclined to think one catch-all category is sufficient for most legal purposes (I’m talking driver’s licenses and the like) . Of course, finer distinctions can be made where they’re called for, but any legal document that notes gender needs to have a nonbinary option.

mass-incarceration

End Mass Incarceration: We love to call ourselves the “land of the free,” and yet we have an embarrassing percentage of our population incarcerated, most of them minorities, and most of them for nonviolent crimes. Zero-tolerance drug laws, three-strikes policies, and other hardline legislation mean a lot of people are serving years- and decades-long sentences over petty lifestyle offenses and what I like to call crimes of poverty. Oh, and it costs us a ridiculous amount of money. As in, enough money to make college free for every student in the country. Justice would be better served, and in the long run it would cost us a lot less money, if the majority of those prisoners had their sentences lifted. Of course, amnesty isn’t quite that simple, as most of those prisoners, by virtue of their disadvantages from having been prisoners, will need financial support and career rehabilitation to help them get reestablished in society. In the short term, implementing such an amnesty policy would be herculean, but it shouldn’t be necessary in the first place. So here are some thoughts on how to correct the situation in the long term.

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End the War on Drugs: The War on Drugs hasn’t done a whole lot to reduce drug use in this country. Most of what it has accomplished (aside from creating an enormous prison population) is to drive the black market for drugs further underground and make it more violent. Prohibition taught us that illegal distribution creates violent gangs, whereas legal distribution creates a peaceful business culture. It also taught us that, all moral objections aside, where there is demand for a product or a service, someone will provide a supply. The demand for weed isn’t going away. Neither, unfortunately, is the demand for harder drugs such as heroin, cocaine, crack, meth, et cetera. The solution is not to attack the suppliers of those demands with militarized law-enforcement agencies. All that does is create a militarized black market. Instead, we should allow businesses to create legal, taxed, and regulated supply streams, at prices that can out-compete the black markets, and let the economy run its course (how often do we see black-market liquor these days?). Instead of sinking revenue into futile attempts at enforcement, we generate tax revenue, which we in turn use to discourage the more violent elements of the market, and to provide quality rehabilitation services to those who need them.

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Decriminalize Prostitution: Most people who engage in prostitution do so because they have little choice. We must create a legal system which protects those sex workers from further harm and recognizes their vulnerability to abuse, instead of criminalizing them for engaging in what may well have been a last resort for survival. Sex workers should be able to come to law-enforcement agencies knowing that they will find sympathetic advocates. The current reality is that most sex workers find themselves unprotected, in lawless conditions, because approaching law-enforcement agencies will most likely result in slut-shaming and denigration at best, and arrest and imprisonment at worst.

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Decriminalize Poverty: Let’s face it, in the final analysis the vast majority of people in prison are there because they are poor (and minorities). The wealthy Duke student gets busted with ten grams of weed, his family knows a good lawyer who keeps the kid out of jail, and maybe successfully argues to have the arrest expunged because, you know, wouldn’t want to ruin the kid’s career potential over a youthful indiscretion. The poor black kid from a bad Durham neighborhood gets busted with the same ten grams of weed, the entire system presumes it to be one sign of a larger pattern of criminality (not helped by the fact that he’s not very good at code-switching into white “civilized” speech), he gets assigned a green public defender straight out of a bottom-tier law school, and there’s that time he got busted for throwing a rock at a cop car on a dare, and next thing you know the kid’s serving a good chunk of his twenties in county.

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Outlaw Private Prisons: The incarceration of prisoners should never be a for-profit business, and allowing it to run as such only encourages prisoner abuse. The corrections system also allows prisoners to be paid well below minimum wage for assigned work; combine that with a for-profit prison and you basically have slave labor.

End Capital Punishment: Two words: Posthumous exoneration.

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Police Reform: It has become obvious to me that there needs to be a sea-change in the attitudes of police agencies. There seems to be a default assumption of criminality on the part of law-enforcement personnel in far too many of their interactions with the citizenry. Police departments need to be demilitarized, and shows of military-grade force on the part of police departments needs to come to a stop nationwide. Right now. The climate of policing needs to shift such that police personnel interact with the public from an assumption of innocence, that the person they are facing, even the person they are detaining, is a fellow citizen trying to do his best to get by. Even if he runs. Gunfire should be reserved for situations in which the officer or nearby civilians are actively under threat of imminent harm. I’m even starting to wonder if the average beat cop may even be better off without that sidearm. That will bring me to my ideas on gun control in a bit.

But first, I think policing could be improved with a couple of other little adjustments. First, fine revenue should be divorced from municipal budgets in such a way as to remove any pressure on police personnel to generate fines (and most fines should be eliminated anyway, as they disproportionately impact people with lower incomes). There should be no room for even the perception that a police officer’s primary role is to ticket law-abiding citizens for minor offenses. I also think a lot could be done for the quality of policing if the starting salary were somewhere in the range of $50,000.

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Gun Control: I’m going to lose some people here. I’m okay with that. I’ve hit on an idea that I think might help reduce some of the insane gun violence in our country without inciting the “well-regulated militia” to revolt. Here it is: You get to keep your guns. No one is going to come and take them away from you. Some of them might become a little harder to buy in the future, and some of them you may not be able to sell to anyone but the government for destruction. But you can keep them. The catch: If you have that firearm in public it must be unloaded and in a locked case. If the firing chamber can be disassembled without tools, it must be disassembled. If you have ammunition, it must be in a separate locked case. That way, you can still go hunt on private property or shoot at the firing range. But if anyone walks into a big-box store with a holster on her hip, or walks down the street with a rifle on his back, we don’t have to wonder if that is someone about to go on a killing spree or a law-abiding citizen who just happens to be an open-carry activist. Because anyone in public with an uncased and loaded firearm is not a law-abiding citizen. Possession of an uncased firearm would be a primary offense under this law (which is to say you could be arrested on sight for it), and such possession within sight-lines of a school, hospital, place of worship, shopping area, performance venue, or other public gathering place would be a felony.

Tension Rise On Mexican Border After Border Patrol Agent Slain Last Week

Immigration reform:  A path to citizenship for dreamers and past illegal immigrants, and reasonably open borders for people who would come to live and work in the United States. As with drugs and prostitution, I am essentially proposing a legal path for what is already happening on the black market, and a recognition that our current laws tend to criminalize actions taken out of sheer necessity. As things are, illegal immigrants are literally second-class citizens in this country. Our immigration and naturalization system considers the fact that they are in the US illegally more important than anything they may come to law enforcement agencies about, be it that they were cheated out of pay for work they’ve done, or that they were detained, imprisoned, and forced into slave labor, or even that they were raped, physically abused, and forced into prostitution.

And So Much More: Comprehensive sex education and free, no-questions access to contraception for students. Close GITMO (not like Obama didn’t), not just the prison camp but the whole base, and give the land back to Cuba. While we’re at it, close all our bases in foreign nations where our presence is a signal of oppression and not cooperative peacekeeping. End our involvement in sundry military engagements, significantly downsize our standing military, divert those funds into improving the quality of life in our own country and taking care of the veterans who have made lifelong sacrifices in the line of duty. End subsidies for fossil fuels and subsidize development of domestic renewable energy sources. Subsidize a shift away from point-source power plants to distributed generation and storage of energy (rooftop solar, neighborhood-level wind generation and power storage). Subsidies to encourage the development of offshore wind and desert solar generation. Mass transportation at a level that can effectively compete with personal transportation, both on a local level and on a city-to-city level. Road-use taxes and fees to subsidize mass transportation and encourage use of alternative, non-car modes of transportation. A legal class of intermediate city vehicle between the highway-rated passenger car and the 25-mph NEV (“neighborhood electric vehicle,” essentially a golf cart).

As it turns out, putting together a platform for president means thinking deeply about a whole lot of issues. I’m gaining on 4,000 words here and still haven’t addressed any number of major issues. But I’m done. I’ve run long, I’ve run out of time, and I’m not really running for president anyway so I don’t even have to answer your questions if I don’t feel like it. And of course, these are all just my opinions. Some of them are more thought-out than others. Some of them may be downright uninformed, but that hasn’t stopped any number of presidents from doing any number of things in the past. The ideas in this post have been a long time in the making, and I am glad to see certain candidates talking about some of these ideas, and calling attention to a lot of things that have been very wrong for a very long time. I am even glad to see our sitting president, with whom I have had my disagreements, using his lame-duck position to get serious about some of the things that he has been talking about for a long time.

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And I will leave you with this: No matter your political convictions, please please please (please!) take the time to keep yourself politically informed, to research your candidates, and at the very least, to get out on election day and vote. Democracy only works if the people participate. Otherwise, it reverts back to some form of plutocracy, in which the wealthy hold all the political power and we hoi-polloi become more and more disenfranchised. So for the love of all that is sacred and holy, please, vote! Or to put it a different way…

Chew on This: The Ethics of Carnivory

by Matt McKinnon

bbq-porkchops

Let me start by being perfectly clear: I like meat. No, I love meat. And I eat my fair share of it. As the one who does most of the cooking for my wife and three sons, I cook a lot of it. Almost every night in fact.

Meat. Starch. Vegetable.

Just like most every meal my mother cooked us when I was growing up.

And aside from a brief foray into vegetarianism when I fancied myself a Buddhist monk, or the year I tried to abstain from meat during Ramadan when I was attempting to be a Muslim, or the meatless and fast days I put my wife through whilst contemplating becoming a Russian Orthodox priest, I have always been a meat-eater.

Tyrannosaurus Rex ain’t got nothin’ on me to be sure.

Oh, I have often wished I was a vegetarian, mostly for the health benefits — cooking and then consuming a rather large meal of fried animal muscles and skin and fat, only to push myself away from the table at the end of the engorging, and bemoaning out loud (much to the annoyance of my wife), “Sickness and death. Nothing but sickness and death.”

But also in view of the way we treat the animals we eventually consume. Especially after watching a documentary or news report on the latest scandal within our industrialized food industry.

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I just have never been able to commit to it, and I don’t intend to do so now.

To be honest, I have never been all that convinced by the moral argument against killing and eating other animals, finding it the height, in fact, of anthropocentric thought. After all, nature, as Tennyson reminds us, is “red in tooth and claw,” and no other species of animal that I am aware of refrains from killing and consuming other animals based on moral principles.

There is thus a disconnect from nature in the moral argument against eating animals. A version, I think, of Hume’s Guillotine whereby normative claims (what ought to be the case) are made based on positive premises (what is the case). The idea that we ought not to eat animals has absolutely no basis in observable nature. And in fact, the opposite may be true: We evolved to the point of having such large brains able to come up with ideas like vegetarianism and the is/ought problem as a direct result of the large amounts of protein our pre-homo sapiens ancestors got by virtue of eating meat—from eating other animals.

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But arguments for or against vegetarianism aside, the manner in which we treat the animals that we eat is beyond unsettling. It is downright inhumane and, I would argue, unnatural (thus steering clear of my own is/ought dilemma).

As a student of religion, I am aware of and even sympathetic to religious convictions about why humans are superior to other animals. Whether we humans have a “soul” and are made in the image of God, or whether we humans are in a better position to reach enlightenment, or whether we humans are just better adapted to do things other animals cannot, I can accept the idea that, for the most part, we are at the top of the food chain, and thus are in the same position to cows and chickens and pigs as grizzly bears are to salmon or chickens are to bugs and worms or pigs are to, well, absolutely anything that wanders into their pen.

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As humans, we define ourselves, for better or worse, in relation to the rest of nature and the rest of the animal kingdom, and we define ourselves, for the most part, as superior to it.

Okay, that’s all well and good (though it is also the cause of the environmental destruction we have wrought over the past few hundred years).

So we are at the top of the food chain and are, using nature as our model, free to kill and cook and eat whatever we find tasty and/or nourishing.

I get that: For Christians, all other animals are not created in the image of God and, a few crazy cat people notwithstanding, are not endowed with the same inalienable rights that humans are. Or for Buddhists, who forbid the killing of animals by their adherents but nonetheless allow them to eat animals that someone else (presumably a non-Buddhist) has killed, and for whom those other (non-human) sentient beings are not in the same position as humans to work out their karma and achieve enlightenment in this lifetime. Or even for scientific materialists, who merely see this behavior as that of a dominant species in a given food chain.

But what I don’t get, and what I don’t think I have ever come across, is a discussion of how it must feel to be one of those animals unfortunate enough to be trapped in the middle of our industrial food complex.

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For that, I would argue, is where the real issue lies.

Those who would argue for human superiority often go too far in distinguishing us from the rest of the animal kingdom, based upon our possession of souls, or higher-order reasoning, or what have you. But likewise those who would argue against the eating of other animals go too far in asserting an egalitarianism, an equality, that simply does not exist or is not respected anywhere else in nature.

But what rarely gets discussed in arguments about the superiority of humans is what we sentient beings all hold in common: Sentience itself. The ability to feel. And more to the point: The ability to feel pain.

After all, do we really think that animals, while not possessing the same quality or degree of reason and consciousness that we do, therefore do not feel pain? Or feel it any less or differently than we do? Indeed, science tells us that animals do feel stress—direct evidence I would argue that they do in fact feel, and process sensations, in a similar manner to humans.

But why then does it not matter that the vast majority of animals that we end up eating live lives where their pain and discomfort is not taken seriously? And if it does matter, why then do the vast majority of us continue to support such practices by turning a blind eye, effectively supporting the system and perpetuating the problem?

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Well, the biggest reason is probably the cost of buying organic meat in the form of grass-fed cattle and free-range chickens. Availability is also an issue. And yet, most of us are not up in arms about any of this, instead seeking out the weekly specials on flank steak or chicken wings or baby back ribs, oblivious at best and unsympathetic at worst to the plight of those animals’ lives before we eat them. Complicit just the same.

Indeed, why is it ever alright to participate in this brutality by excusing it, supporting it, or simply ignoring it?

Thus it seems to me that this is the important and defining issue: Not lauding ourselves over the rest of the animal kingdom as possessing an inherent right to treat our food source any old way we choose. But neither in simply equating the value of a human life to be the same as that of any and every other animal in nature. Most of us simply don’t equate the lives of other animals with that of humans.

But both positions seem wrongheaded to me.

The issue is not whether or by what right we eat animals but how we treat them before we eat them. The solution, I contend, is simply to treat animals in a way that is conducive to a natural life—to the manner in which they would live naturally if they were not part of an industrialized food factory (the way, arguably, humans have done since we domesticated these animals for our own consumption thousands of years ago). Whatever it costs in terms of higher prices or lower profits.

And then eat them. Presumably with a smile on their faces as well as on ours.

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Why All Babies Deserve to Die: Science and Theology in the Abortion Debate

by Matt McKinnon

The debate rages on…

The debate rages on…

Just a few of the headlines on the abortion debate from the last few weeks:

I would say that the Abortion issue has once again taken center stage in the culture wars, but it never really left. Unlike homosexual marriage, which seems to be making steady progress towards resolution by a majority of Americans that the freedom to marry of consenting adults is basic civil right, the abortion debate continues to divide a populace who is torn between adjudicating the priority of the basic rights of both mother and “potential” child.

I say “potential” child because herein is where the real debate lies: exactly when does a fertilized human egg, a zygote, become a “person,” endowed with certain human if not specifically civil rights?

Is it a person yet?

Is it a person yet?

Dougherty’s main point in his article on liberal denial focuses on the “fact” of the beginnings of human life. He claims that liberals tend to make one of two types of arguments where science and human life are concerned: either they take the unresolved legal issue regarding the idea of personhood and transfer it back to the “facts” of biology, concluding that we cannot really know what human life is or when it begins, or they acknowledge the biological fact of the beginning of human life but claim that this has no bearing on how we should think about the legality of abortion.

Both sorts of arguments, he claims, are obscurantist, and fail to actually take into account the full weight of science on the issue.

But the problem, I contend, isn’t one of science: it’s one of theology—or philosophy for those less religiously inclined.

The problem is not the question of “what” human life is or “when” it begins. Dougherty points out:

After the fusion of sperm and egg, the resulting zygote has unique human DNA from which we can deduce the identity of its biological parents. It begins the process of cell division, and it has a metabolic action that will not end until it dies, whether that is in a few days because it never implants on the uterine wall, or years later in a gruesome fishing accident, or a century later in a hospital room filled with beloved grandchildren.

Two-cell zygote.

Two-cell zygote. Is this a person?

So basically, human life begins at conception because at that point science can locate a grouping of cells from which it can deduce all sorts of things from its DNA, and this grouping of cells, if everything goes nicely, will result in the birth, life, and ultimate death of a human being.

He even gets close to the heart of the problem when, in arguing against an article by Ryan Cooper, he claims that many people are not fine with the idea that an abortion represents the end of a life, nor are they comfortable with having a category of human life that is not granted the status of “humanity”—and thus not afforded basic human rights.

The problem with all of these discussions is that they dance around the real issue here—the issue not of “human life” and its definition and beginning, but rather the philosophical and often theological question of the human “person.”

If we look closely at Dougherty’s remarks above, we note two distinct examples of why the generation of human life is a “fact”: (1) we can locate DNA that tells us all sorts of things about the parents (and other ancestors) of the fetus and (2) this fetus, if everything works properly, will develop into a human being, or rather, I would argue, a human “person.”

For there’s the distinction that makes the difference.

After all, analyze any one of my many bodily fluids and a capable technician would be able to locate the exact same information that Mr. Dougherty points out is right there from the first moments of a zygote’s existence. But no one claims that any of these bodily fluids or the cells my body regularly casts off are likewise deserving of being labeled “human life,” though the sperm in my semen and the cells in my saliva are just as much “alive” as any zygote (believe me, I’ve looked).

No, the distinction and the difference is in the second example: The development of this zygote into a human person. My sperm, without an egg and the right environment, will never develop into a human being. The cells in my saliva have no chance at all—even with an egg and the right conditions.

Nope, not people.

Nope, not people.

So the real force of Doughtery’s argument lies in the “potential” of the zygote to develop into what he and anti-abortion folks would claim is already there in the “reality” of a human person.

The debate thus centers on the question of human personhood, what we call theological or philosophical anthropology. For one side, this personhood is the result of a development and is achieved sometime during the embryonic stage (like “viability”) or even upon birth. For others, it is there at conception. For some in both camps it would include a “soul.” For others it would not.

So the reason that the abortion debate is sui generis or “of its own kind” is because here the issue is not the rights of a minority versus the rights of a majority, as it is in the debate about homosexual marriage, or even the rights of the mother versus the rights of the child. Rather the real debate is about when “human life” is also a human “person” (note this is also informs the debate of whether or not to end the life of someone in a vegetative state).

Is this a person?

Fetus at four weeks. Is this a person?

To this end, Mr. Dougherty is correct: We can and do know what human life is and when it begins. And he is correct that many are uncomfortable with the idea that abortion means the death of a human life. But he fails to recognize that the reason this is the case is that while those on one side regard this “life” as a human person, others do not. Potentially, perhaps, but not a “person” yet. And certainly not one whose “right to life” (if there even is such a thing: nature says otherwise—but that’s another blog post) trumps the rights of the mother.

So what does all of this have to do with all babies deserving to die? It’s simple: this is what the (necessary?) intrusion of theology into public policy debates entails. Once theological ideas are inserted (and note that I am not arguing that they should or shouldn’t be), how do we adjudicate between their competing claims or limit the extent that they go?

For the two great Protestant Reformers Martin Luther and John Calvin, representing the two dominant trajectories of traditional Protestant Christianity, humans are, by nature, sinful. We are conceived in sin and born into sin, and this “Original Sin” is only removed in Baptism (here the Roman Catholic Church would agree). Furthermore, we are prone to keep sinning due to the concupiscence of our sinful nature (here is where the Roman Church would disagree). The point is that, for Protestants, all people are not only sinful, but are also deserving of the one chief effect of sin: Death.

romans_6-23

“For the wages of sin is death.” — Romans 6:23

 

Calvin was most explicit in Book 2, Chapter 1 of his famous Institutes:

Even babies bring their condemnation with them from their mother’s wombs: they suffer for their own imperfections and no one else’s. Although they have not yet produced the fruits of sin, they have the seed within. Their whole nature is like a seedbed of sin and so must be hateful and repugnant to God.

Since babies, like all of us, are sinful in their very nature, and since they will necessarily continually bear the fruits of those sins (anyone who’s ever tried to calm a screaming infant can attest to this), and since the wages of those sins is death, then it’s not a far-fetched theological conclusion that all babies deserve to die. And remember: “they suffer for their own imperfections.”

But they don’t just deserve to die—they deserve to go to hell as well (but that’s also another blog post). And this, not from the fringes of some degenerate religious thinker, but from the theology of one of Protestant Christianity’s most influential thinkers.

A sinner in the eyes of God (or at least Calvin).

A sinner in the eyes of God (according to John Calvin, anyway).

Of course, it should be noted that Calvin does not imply that we should kill babies, or even that their death at human hands would be morally justifiable: thought he does argue (and here all Christian theology would agree) that their death at the hand of God is not just morally justifiable, it is also deserved. It should also be noted that the Roman Catholic theology behind the idea that children cannot sin until they reach the age of reason is predicated on the notion that this is only the case once their Original Sin has been removed in Baptism (So Jewish, Muslim, and Hindu kids would be sinful, unlike their Christian counterparts).

Again, this is not to argue that philosophical and theological principles should not be employed in the abortion debate, or in any debate over public policy. Only that (1) this is what is occurring when pro-choice and anti-abortion folks debate abortion and (2) it is fraught with complexities and difficulties that few on either side seem to recognize.

And contrary to  Mr.Dougherty, this is beyond the realm of science, which at best tells us only about states of nature.

But the only way we have a “prayer” of real sustained dialogue—as opposed to debates that ignore our competing fundamental positions—is to take seriously the philosophical and theological issues that frame the question (even if my own example is less than serious).

But I’m not holding my breath. I would most certainly die if I did.

Shut Down

by Matt McKinnon

About a month and a half ago, I agreed—as part of my job—to write a contribution for the BLS blog, due by October 6th, and to be published shortly thereafter.  I agreed to this based on my understanding of what my job is, what it entails, the compensation I receive as a BLS instructor, and my belief that a community only works when its members participate in just that: a “communio” or sharing, from the Latin “union with.”  I made this agreement in good faith and free from constraint.  And, though some might argue this point, I made it being in sound mind and body.

But the situation has changed.

broken

(The first image would be here if I were not shut down.)

I am not happy with the present way in which the elected officials of the State for whom I work have conducted business regarding the educational system within which I work.  In short, I disapprove of the massive cuts to higher education that the North Carolina State Legislature has made over the past several years.

Never mind that these folks have been duly elected by a legal process and have conducted this business in a manner consistent with the Constitutions of both the State and the Nation.

Never mind that “legal” does not necessarily mean “fair.”

Never mind that there are regular procedures in place to check the manner in which they do this business—that there is constitutional recourse to persuade, recall, impeach, or merely vote them out of office at the next election.

Never mind that what they have done is now “law”—and has become “law” in a legal and constitutional manner.

Never mind all of this because…well, I just do not agree with them or their “law.”

(The second image would be here if I was not shut down.)

(The second image would be here if I were not shut down.)

And while I adhere to the principle that writing a blog entry is part  of my job, and that I have a duty to myself, to my institution, and to my students to faithfully execute the duties of my job, I have another principle that outweighs all of these:

If I do not get what I want, then I shut down.

(The third image would be here if I was not shut down.)

(The third image would be here if I were not shut down.)

At this point, I am not even sure what would make me not shut down.  Or stop shutting down.  Or start back up.

At this point, I am not even sure what I hope to get out of shutting down.  Other than the shut down itself.

But none of that matters.

Because I have shut down.

So, until further notice—until an agreement can be reached that satisfies the righteousness of my indignation at the manner in which duly-elected officials representing the State by whom I am employed have conducted business in a lawful and constitutional and regular manner—until then, there will be no blog contribution.

I will not fulfill this part of my job.  I have deemed it “non-essential.”

There will be no witticisms or anecdotes about me, my classes, my life, or my family.

There will be no funny or interesting or bizarre pictures to punctuate my points.

There will be no weblinks to follow for more information—at least none supplied by me.

There will be none of this.

Because I am shut down.

(The fourth image would be here if I was not shut down.)

(The fourth image would be here if I were not shut down.)

Of course, by shutting down and writing about how I am shutting down, I am still, technically, fulfilling some of my responsibilities and thus doing my job.  Therefore, I will continue to be paid and will continue to accept and spend my paycheck.

After all, shutting down is hard work.

Jumping the Shark

By Marc Williams

The Fonz

In 1977, the television sit-com Happy Days began its fifth season with an audacious episode that was different in tone from its first four years of episodes, it took the viewers by surprise. Happy Days’ appeal had always been its nostalgic attitude toward the 1950’s and the likable, down-to-earth characters around whom each episode focused. The motorcycle-riding, leather jacket-wearing heartthrob, Arthur “the Fonz” Fonzarelli–played by Henry Winkler–was the epitome of cool and remains an icon of coolness today.

Unexpectedly, in the fifth season’s premiere episode, the Fonz decided to prove his bravery by jumping over a shark while water skiing. It was a baffling moment in television history. The first four years of the show had nothing to do with water skiing and the Fonz had never been the kind of character who needed to “prove himself” to anyone. More superficially, viewers weren’t accustomed to seeing the Fonz in swimming trunks. It was an odd episode after which the series could never be the same–a point of no return. This moment gave birth to the phrase “jumping the shark,” a term coined by John Hein to describe the moment when a television show betrays its origins–perhaps suggesting that the writers have run out of ideas. Often, shows are thought to have jumped the shark when a key character leaves the show, or if an important new character is introduced. Hein started a website dedicated to the phenomenon, where readers can debate the moment in which their favorite television shows jumped the shark. Hein sold the website in 2006 but the site is still active.

Here’s a clip (via YouTube) of Fonzie’s famous shark jump:

The website argues that virtually any creative endeavor can jump the shark: musical groups, movies, advertising and political campaigns, and so on. But can an educational television program jump the shark? Some have argued that Discovery Channel’s Shark Week has done so.

For years, Shark Week has provided viewers fascinating documentaries about recent shark research and has captured some truly eye-popping footage. For example, the images captured in a 2001 Shark Week episode entitled “Air Jaws” captured some of the most stunning nature film I’ve ever seen–images of enormous great white sharks leaping completely out of the water, attacking seals and seal decoys. Like nearly everything one expects to see on The Discovery Channel, Shark Week is usually both entertaining and educational.

Clip from Air Jaws

Click to view a clip from “Air Jaws”

When watching that spectacular 2001 episode, I wondered to myself–”how will Discovery Channel ever top this?” What shark footage could possibly compete with these amazing images? How will they possibly attract viewers next year? Not surprisingly, Discovery Channel dedicated many of its subsequent Shark Week shows over the past twelve years to more footage of jumping great whites–and not much else. Perhaps the producers acknowledged that indeed, they simply couldn’t surpass the spectacle of “Air Jaws.” Until the 2013 installment of Shark Week, that is.

“Megalodon” was the centerpiece of Shark Week 2013, a documentary about the prehistoric shark that paleontologists believe grew to lengths of 60 feet or more. I’ve always been fascinated by megalodon; my older brother was a shark enthusiast when we were young and I vividly recall him showing me a photo of fossilized megalodon jaws he found in a book–I couldn’t believe that such an enormous creature ever lived. I was awed by the thought of it. Naturally, when I read that Discovery Channel was featuring Megalodon in its 2013 Shark Week series, I set my DVR.

The episode begins with some amateur video footage from a fishing party aboard a boat off the coast of Cape Town, South Africa. The amateur footage ends with some fearsome crashes and the viewer then learns that the footage was recovered from the boat’s wreckage–and that none of the young passengers survived. When my wife and I watched the episode, we both thought the footage looked a little too polished to be amateur footage. My wife said she didn’t remember hearing anything on the news of a horrible boating accident and I didn’t remember such a story either.

Viewers were then introduced to a self-proclaimed expert in mysterious oceanic events: a dubious specialty, held by a man who was perhaps a bit too comfortable in front of the documentarian’s camera.

As the program continues, viewers learn that megalodon may not be extinct after all! And of course, in true Shark Week fashion, there was some stunning footage that offered tantalizing glances of what might be a live megalodon in the ocean. The ocean is a huge place, we’re reminded, and new species are discovered every year. The coelacanth, for instance, was thought to be extinct for over 60 million years until a live specimen was discovered in 1938. Even very large animals like giant squid and megamouth sharks have only been recently captured on film, so the evidence supporting a modern-day megalodon simply can’t be dismissed.

Clip from Megalodon

Click to view a clip from “Megalodon”

The program was extremely entertaining and was easily the most exciting Shark Week show I’ve seen since “Air Jaws.” And not surprisingly, “Megalodon” received the highest ratings in the history of Shark Week. Unfortunately, as you may have guessed, it was all a hoax. Like Animal Planet’s 2012 documentary on mermaids, all of the nature footage and expert testimonies were fabrications. My wife and I hadn’t heard about the vanished boating party on the news because, of course, there never was a boating party. There was virtually nothing true about Discovery Channel’s “Megalodon.” But many viewers were fooled, and subsequently criticized the network for misleading and humiliating the audience.

What do you think? By airing a work of fiction–and presenting it as truth–did Shark Week jump the shark? Have the producers run out of ideas? Have they abandoned Shark Week’s reputation? Or were Shark Week viewers naive all along for seeking education through commercial television?

Environmentalism and the Future

by Matt McKinnon

Let me begin by stating that I consider myself an environmentalist.  I recycle almost religiously.  I compost obsessively.  I keep the thermostat low in winter and high in summer.  I try to limit how much I drive, but as the chauffeur for my three school-age sons, this is quite difficult.  I support environmental causes and organizations when I can, having been a member of the Sierra Club and the Audubon Society.

1I find the arguments of the Climate Change deniers uninformed at best and disingenuous at worst.  Likewise, the idea of certain religious conservatives that it is hubris to believe that humans can have such a large effect on God’s creation strikes me as theologically silly and even dishonest.  And while I understand and even sympathize with the concerns of those folks whose businesses and livelihoods are tied to our current fossil-fuel addiction, I find their arguments that economic interests should override environmental concerns to be lacking in both ethics and basic forethought.

That being said, I have lately begun to ponder not just the ultimate intentions and goals of the environmental movement, but the very future of our planet.

Earth and atmospheric scientists tell us that the earth’s temperature is increasing, most probably as a result of human activity.  And that even if we severely limited that activity (which we are almost certainly not going to do anytime soon), the consequences are going to be dire: rising temperatures will lead to more severe storms, melting polar ice caps, melting permafrost (which in turn will lead to the release of even more carbon dioxide, increasing the warming), rising ocean levels, lowering of the oceans’ ph levels (resulting in the extinction of the coral reefs), devastating floods in some places along with crippling droughts in others.

2And according to a 2007 report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, by 2100 (less than 100 years) 25% of all species of plants and land animals may be extinct.

Basically, our not-too-distant future may be an earth that cannot support human life.

Now, in my more misanthropic moments, I have allowed myself to indulge in the idea that this is exactly what the earth needs.  That this in fact should be the goal of any true environmental concern: the extinction of humanity.  For only then does the earth as a planet capable of supporting other life stand a chance.  (After all, the “environment” will survive without life, though it won’t be an especially nice place to visit, much less inhabit, especially for a human.)

3And a good case can be made that humans have been destroying the environment in asymmetrical and irrevocable ways since at least the Neolithic Age when we moved from hunter and gatherer culture to the domestication of plants and animals along with sustained agriculture.  Humans have been damaging the environment ever since.  (Unlike the beaver, as only one example of a “keystone species,” whose effect on the environment in dam building has an overwhelming positive and beneficial impact on countless other species as well as the environment itself.)

4So unless we’re seriously considering a conservation movement that takes us back to the Paleolithic Era instead of simply reducing our current use and misuse of the earth, then we’re really just putting off the inevitable.

But all that being said, whatever the state of our not-too-distant future, the inevitability of the “distant future” is undeniable—for humans, as well as beavers and all plants and animals, and ultimately the earth itself.  For the earth, like all of its living inhabitants, has a finite future.

Around 7.5 billion years or so is a reasonable estimate.  And then it will most probably be absorbed in the sun, which will have swollen into a red giant.

5(Unless, as some scientists predict, the Milky Way collides with the Andromeda galaxy, resulting in cataclysmic effects that cannot be predicted.)

At best, however, this future only includes the possibility of earth supporting life for another billion years or so.  For by then, the increase in the sun’s brightening will have evaporated all of the oceans.

6Of course, long before that, the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere (ironically enough) will have diminished well below the quantity needed to support plant life, destroying the food chain and causing the extinction of all animal species as well.

And while that’s not good news, the worse news is that humans will have been removed from the equation long before the last holdouts of carbon-based life-forms eventually capitulate.

(Ok, so some microbes may be able to withstand the dry inhospitable conditions of desert earth, but seriously, who cares about the survival of microbes?)

Now if we’re optimistic about all of this (irony intended), the best-case scenario is for an earth that is able to support life as we know it for at most another half billion more years.  (Though this may be a stretch.)  And while that seems like a really long time, we should consider that the earth has already been inhabited for just over 3 and a half billion years.

So having only a half billion years left is sort of like trying to enjoy the last afternoon of a four-day vacation.

7

Enjoy the rest of your day.