Monday, 24 September 2012

What is patriarchy?

After quite a series of Notes on my Facebook on sexuality and feminism, none of which went anywhere very much, I wrote a couple of enormously long ones to try and tie it all together.  Here's the first one, which I published as a Note on 6 August 2012.
I've been reading Steven Pinker's The Better Angels of our Nature a lot, as you'll see; the central argument of this essay is owed to it, though framed differently from how Pinker would see it.  Throughout what follows, I endorse or critique various points in that book.  Exactly which points, I encourage you to find out by reading it for yourself. 
Also, I know much more about Western history than other parts of the world, which unfortunately means I've had to focus on Western patriarchy.  This doesn't mean there haven't been, or aren't still, other patriarchal civilizations; it just means I can't discuss in depth how their patriarchal systems evolved over time. Trigger warning: I discuss rape. 

Patriarchy, part 2: biology, and rape culture

After quite a series of Notes on my Facebook on sexuality and feminism, none of which went anywhere very much, I wrote a couple of enormously long ones to try and tie it all together.  Here's the second one, published as a Note on 21 September 2012.
I'm basically going to assume that you've already read Part 1 before coming here, so if you haven't, go read it first.  I argued there that patriarchy is not a war of men against women; it is a war of men against men, in which women's bodies are the spoils.  Again, if you disagree, please comment with your arguments on that Note, rather than this one.  I'll be drawing a lot of material from Steven Pinker again -- The Better Angels of our Nature, like last time, but also How the Mind Works and The Blank Slate
What I left un-dealt-with was the question of why this has happened across various cultures for such long periods of history.  Actually, there are several separate questions involved here.  Why do men compete with each other, in any sense, for women's bodies?  Why does the competition take the form of aggression, dominance, and one-up-manship?  If women's bodies are the prize, why aren't women the referees?  We must answer all these questions in order to have a shot at fixing the problems that patriarchy creates. 
Let me say up front that I do think there's reason to hope that patriarchy can be brought down.  I'm going to be delving into biology to answer some of these questions, and I'm afraid many people (especially on the Left, alas) are firmly of the opinion that once you bring in biology in human behaviour you exclude any possibility of change.  I'll have to argue against that, but I can't give it the attention it deserves or it'll take up the whole Note and the patriarchy bits will end up falling out the bottom.  Actually, I'll put the main point in bold for the benefit of skim-readers: "Biological" does not equal "deterministic".  (And "deterministic" does not equal "fatalistic", but that's an argument for another time.) 

Sunday, 23 September 2012

The Dawkins debate

(Originally published 20 December, 2011, as a Note on my Facebook.) 
Yes, I've been arguing on the internet again.  I guess I'll never learn. 
I try not to spend too much of my time debating other people's religion -- it's very hard to stop once you start.  In general these days I take a live-and-let-live approach: if you believe in God, that's fine, we can agree to disagree.  Provided, that is, that you aren't doing one of two things: (a) accusing others of wrongdoing on insufficient grounds, or (b) setting yourself up as a guru dispensing wisdom.  Either of those, I take as a licence to ask probing questions until the requisite evidence is forthcoming. 
And, of course, if you do want to talk about whether God exists and why I think he doesn't, then I'm ready and willing to reply.  This is more or less what happened recently, after someone I know posted a Facebook post that fit (b), above, pretty well. 

A science of morality? My thoughts on Sam Harris

(Originally published 26 July, 2011, as a Note on my Facebook.) 
After a frustrating delay, the University of Otago's library has finally got around to acquiring a copy of Sam Harris's The Moral Landscape.  Having been champing at the bit for months, reading only such excerpts as Harris has chosen to present on the internet, I can at last comment on it from a position of knowledge. 
Harris's basic thesis can be summed up as follows:
  • Moral values are synonymous with the well-being of conscious creatures.
  • Science can, in principle, determine what actions will enhance or diminish the well-being of conscious creatures. 
  • Therefore, science can, in principle, determine moral values. 
Harris's title is carefully chosen: there may, he says, be many peaks on the moral landscape, and he is not claiming to prescribe a simple formula for right living.  Most of the other criticisms of the thesis that will no doubt have occurred to you from my brief summary are covered in the book, which (I can assure you) is well worth reading. 

Saving the planet is not what's keeping us from exploring other ones

(Originally published 13 June, 2011, as a Note on my Facebook.) 
Recently one of my friends was seen to praise a politician known to seriously employ the slogan "People before the planet!"  Boggling somewhat, since my friend is an intelligent person, I mentioned the fundamental problem with this.  His reply:
...this is a positive approach to counter the anti-evolutionary madness promoted by some Greens. Evolutionarily speaking, anything that impedes or does not actually advance the human race is a toxic dead-end. Humans are no longer bound inexricably to this planet (in fact the sooner we get a viable population off it the better). The comment makes imminent [sic] sense in that context. 
My friend is wrong, for illuminating reasons. 

Take a deep breath before commenting...

(Originally published 26 April, 2011, as a Note on my Facebook.) 
I've been avoiding writing about this for years.  Because this is going to make people angry.  The topic for today is abortion. 
As most of you know, I used to be an evangelical Christian, and most of my family still are.  As most of you also know, I'm of a left-wing bent politically.  This means that unless I take a weaselly middle-of-the-road not-saying-anything-really position on abortion, I am going to be fitting myself into somebody close to me's definition of "evil". 
And that would be easy to do.  I'm male; abortion is not something I'll ever be in a position to experience personally.  I can even argue that it would be a bit presumptuous of me to take one position or the other, simply for that reason!
But that's not going to fly.  I vote.  I (occasionally) make submissions on bills before Parliament.  I intend to live alongside women for the remainder of my life, and their welfare matters to me.  I'm never personally going to experience child slavery either, but that doesn't mean I should avoid forming a strong opinion on it. 

Induction Exhumed

(Originally published 23 March, 2011, as a Note on my Facebook.)
Will the sun rise tomorrow?  Will electricity still work?  Will the next piece of bread I eat be any good as food?  Are there such things as laws of physics, or is the universe just winging it?  Since 1758 the answer to these philosophical questions has been "We can never know" -- as explained by David Hume, in what has come to be known as the Problem of Induction. 
If a body of like colour and consistence with that bread, which we have formerly eat, be presented to us, we make no scruple of repeating the experiment, and foresee, with certainty, like nourishment and support.  Now this is a process of the mind or thought, of which I would willingly know the foundation...  As to past Experience, it can be allowed to give direct and certain information of those precise objects only, and that precise period of time, which fell under its cognizance: but why this experience should be extended to future times, and to other objects, which for aught we know, may be only in appearance similar; this is the main question on which I would insist.  The bread, which I formerly eat, nourished me; that is, a body of such sensible qualities was, at that time, endued with such secret powers: but does it follow, that other bread must also nourish me at another time, and that like sensible qualities must always be attended with like secret powers?  The consequence seems nowise necessary. 
Formally, we can express inductive reasoning as follows:
  • Bread nourished me on Monday. 
  • Bread nourished me on Tuesday. 
  • Bread nourished me on Wednesday. 
  • Bread nourished me on Thursday. 
  • Bread nourished me on Friday. 
  • Therefore, bread will nourish me tomorrow. 
The conclusion is not a necessary consequence of the premises.  Hence, inductive reasoning is invalid.
Since not only all of science, but every move we make in our daily lives, is based on inductive reasoning, this is a bit of a worry.  Naturally, a number of people have proposed solutions, or at least workarounds.  To date, none have been entirely satisfactory.  The best is a position called "probabilism", which basically replaces the conclusion to the above with
  • Therefore, bread will probably nourish me tomorrow.
...which is not too bad, considering.  We have a very large historical statistical sample of incidences of people eating bread, and it correlates very strongly with nutrition; so that gives us pretty good confidence in there being a connection between the two.
Provided, that is, that we know there is some kind of underlying order which we just have to find.  If there isn't, then the probabilist is in the position of the superstitious gambler who has yet to figure out that "winning streaks" end randomly and without warning; that no matter how many times in a row a coin comes up heads, the chance of its coming up heads next time remains precisely 0.5.
I don't want to make grandiose claims... but I think I have solved this 253-year-old problem.  Not all on my lonesome, obviously; shoulders of giants, and all that.  There are three critical mental tools, all taken from much greater thinkers than myself, without which I couldn't have come near it.