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Philosophy – Page 5 – Life as an Extreme Sport
Life as an Extreme Sport

Politics and Faith in a Pluralistic Society

Archbishop Dolan raised some eyebrows by participating in both the Republican and Democratic National Conventions in the last two weeks, something that dovetails nicely with conversations I’ve been having (mostly with myself) over the necessity to reveal religious motivation in political positions.

On the one hand, I think that if someone can make a rational argument in the public sphere to advocate for a position without clearly relying on non-public concepts and beliefs that are developed via their comprehensive doctrineYes, I’m leaning heavily on Rawls here. Should I apologize? Probably. (whether that comprehensive doctrineThis is a kind of important concept for Rawls, since his political concept of justice is set in opposition to these comprehensive views. There’s a good rundown of what Rawls’ idea is here: is religion or utilitarianism or whatever), then go for it – differing belief systems can and do often have overlapping principles. For example, Judaism and Islam have overlapping principles regarding kosher/halal foods, and so can very easily find agreement about how animals should be slaughtered – but if these religious groups wanted society to change to embrace those principles, they would need to present it to the non-Jews/Muslims in a non-religious way.For example, by trying to connect kosher or halal butchering to a lower incidence of transmissible pathogens advocates could make an argument for the health and safety of an entire community. Smulders F, Korteknie F, Wollthuis C. Control of the bacteriological condition of calf brain. 1985. International Journal of Food Microbiology 2(3):169-176. If their appeal succeeds, well — okay. Society listened to the argument for something, agreed, and there ya go.

On the other hand, though, it sort of skeeves me out when people hide their motivation for a goal. For example, as I’ve discussed elsewhere on this blog, there’s an on-going debate over a drug given to women when they are pregnant in order to prevent something called congenital adrenal hyperplasia, which can cause masculinized genitals, urogenitary developmental issues, and so forth.I’m skipping a lot of the details here in order to avoid detracting from the focus here. If you’re curious, please go read the other post. Go read Dreger et al.’s work. It’s important research. However, this is one of those things that you have to treat before you know for certain that the embryo is female, or has CAH. (Note: treatment isn’t a cure, it’s just an attempt to prevent the worst physical ailments of the disease.) This means that women who take the drug generally have already had a daughter or close family member with CAH.

All sounds good and sane, right? Utilizing the public reason and discourse positions advocated by Rawls, I think just about everyone would go “yeah, if you know there’s a strong chance your baby is going to be born with fused labia, or urethra open to the vagina, or a bunch of other issues, popping a pill for 6 weeks seems to make a lot of sense.”

The problem is when you peel back to the non-public reason and realize that one of the reasons that the researchers are advocating for this treatment is because they think it’s medically wrong and abnormal for women to be lesbians, to be interested in masculine jobs like becoming doctors or firefighters or going into businessNimkarn, S., and M.I. New. 2010a. Congenital adrenal hyperplasia due to 21-hydroxylase deficiency: A paradigm for prenatal diagnosis and treatment. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences 1192: 5—11., and that they believe it’s actually a medically diagnosable problem if a woman does not want to be a mother.Meyer-Bahlburg, H.F. 1999. What causes low rates of child-bearing in congenital adrenal hyperplasia? The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism 84(6): 1844—1847.

By presenting only a fraction of their beliefs to the public sphere, these researchers are able to deceive people into agreeing with something that I think/hope most people would not actually agree to or with, if they knew the entire story.

While this is largely a secular example, unfortunately this behavior does extend to religious beliefs and motivations; people are driven to create laws that reflect the morality and beliefs that they adhere to (see: opposition to gay and lesbian rights, the issue of abortion, birth control access, and just about every other social issue of the current election). Trying to appeal to public reason, many conservative Republican politicians, as well as religious voices, rely on arguing for smaller businesses, less government oversight, and so on, in order to justify their disinclination for support of these social issues. In theory, this is the correct move — appealing to arguments that are separate from their comprehensive doctrine, in an effort to appeal to a pluralistic society. However, it doesn’t take much to strip back to the religious motivations for these positions (often all it takes is an interview on Fox News).

So while I can see the benefit in being able to portray beliefs across comprehensive theories in a pluralistic society, there’s an element of truthfulness missing that I think forms a fatal flaw in the entire thing.

Practically speaking, that flaw — that inherent lack of open truthfulness — is what drives me away from Rawls’ position. And perhaps this is a reflection of my tendency to ask “why” — why do you hold your position? What makes this a reasonable thing for you? Can you show me science? What forms the foundation that your argument rests on? It seems like Rawls isn’t interested in the foundation so long as the public face is convincing. These seems a bit like an Old West backdrop on a Hollywood backlot, though — put up the pretty front and hope no one knocks the saloon down during filming.

Sometimes, it doesn’t matter if a bunch of diverse opinions all end up at the same final point; people have different life experiences, cultures, and so on. While one person may be motivated by a strong sense of justice, another may be motivated by compassion and a third by pragmatism. The important thing there is that, while their paths may have been different to the conclusion of say, Civil Rights, they all reached the same goal in the end. But at other times, the path taken to reach the conclusion is as, if not more, important as the conclusion itself.

In the realm of public discourse, people should be able to examine the foundations a position relies upon, regardless of if that foundation rests on religion, flawed logic, science, spaghetti or anything else between.

This was written, in part, for the Faith and Science Synchroblog.
It was also written because I told a certain instigator I would.

Living in Shatner’s World

I grew up in an ecumenical household. There was no battle between the Stars – Star Wars, Star Trek, Battlestar Galactica. As long as it was space opera, it was welcome, and this was the influence of my father. I don’t have any memories of this starting, because it always was.

What I do remember, however, is my first.

Oh, you typically hear of “the first” – genre-wise – with regards to Doctor Who; who was your first Doctor? And while I certainly have a first Doctor (Nine, thankyouverymuch), it doesn’t have the same hold on me as my first captain.

Oh captain, my captain – Captain Kirk.

Yes, Sir Patrick Stewart was wonderful as Captain Picard, and I suspect you can trace much, if not all, of my interest in philosophy and history and most importantly, ethics, to Captain Jean-Luc Picard and his thoughtful troubleshooting and conflict resolution. I will happily debate episodes, quote Darmok to you (and Jalad, at Tanagra), and discuss all the ways in which John de Lancie was a fantastic foil to Picard.

But it’s William Shatner that is my captain. Every afternoon, Dad would make sure he was home in time to watch Star Trek with me (in reruns, obviously). We watched Kung Fu, also, but it just wasn’t the same. There was something about Star Trek. Maybe it was because I had been raised on science fiction, Dad choosing to read me scifi novels instead of children’s books. Maybe it was because of NASA and the shuttle and the sense of the potential out there – space, that final frontier. Maybe it’s because as they’ve aged, William Shatner and my father have become similar, in posture and appearance and voice. Maybe it’s a little of it all, bound together with those afternoons watching the TV, rapt, with Dad.

It’s that ephemeral thing that makes something yours, and that fondness hasn’t faded over the years, even if I haven’t always followed Shatner’s career closely.

So it was with some apprehension I looked at the Philadelphia ticket sales for Shatner’s World, William Shatner’s one-man play. While I came of age after that particular incident that was so soundly mocked on SNL, I was a con-goer when I was young, and I’d heard the stories, and I was wary. I have these wonderful memories and an enduring warmth for Shatner; did I want to risk it on a play that might snuff that out and, for lack of less poetic a term, shatter illusions?

I did what any girl in my position would do: I called my father and asked him what he would do. Was it my only chance, he asked me. I confirmed that it was, and Dad held the beat for just long enough before asking, nicely, if maybe I was a little wrong in the head.

William Shatner. When would I ever have the chance again? Sure, he’s going to be here for a comics convention in May, but that’s crowded and… different. Perhaps it’s my con-going youth, but crowds of people paying large amounts of money for a signature and perhaps a photo is just not what a con should be, and not how meeting someone you admire should be. You can call me old-fashioned, I’ll do the yelling to get off my lawn.

So I shrugged and I bought a ticket. The play, after all, had been getting wonderful reviews – at worst, I would lose a few more of the illusions that I had clung to into adulthood. At this point, there aren’t too many left, so they’d be in good company if they did go away.

But oh, oh, they didn’t. I came out of the theatre more starry-eyed and head-in-clouds than before, and so did everyone else. I have never left a show where everyone is talking about the same thing: how amazingly profound what they just saw was, and yet, that’s exactly what happened.

Shatner’s World is a retrospective of William Shatner’s life. It’s a narrative, so while it starts with him as a young man, the stories are what link the show together, rather than strictly linear narration. Shatner’s. Famed. Delivery. is not on hand here, save for casual mocking – instead, it was more like listening to a good friend tell a story – a long, engrossing story that you don’t want to end. This play wasn’t polished; he stuttered and stammered, he got lost in his story, he slipped up and misspoke and corrected and laughed – or then again, maybe the play was just that polished, that these slip-ups that felt natural were worked in to feel natural.

That, right there, is the genius of the experience – while clearly being rehearsed, it felt not-rehearsed-at-all. And Shatner is fast on his feet; he had quippy remarks for the crowd, especially as they reacted to young and shirtless images of him, and the poor person handling the spotlight had a rough time of it when his (or her) aim was off, and Shatner started deviating from his story to give staging directions.

Or was that scripted, too? I couldn’t tell you.

Here’s the thing: I’ve been a fan for my entire life, so I know these stories. I know about his horses, I know about the tragic death of his beloved Nerine and how he found love again. I know the Star Trek saga inside and out, the rivalries and friendships. I know the jokes about him doing anything for money, about the CDs and Priceline and on and on…

And yet I sat, rapt. I was leaning forward on the edge of my (very nice, thank you again lovely usher who moved me to a plush box seat with generous leg room) seat, absorbed in everything Shatner said. And I wasn’t the only one. When I did pull my eyes off the stage to see how the crowd was reacting, rather than just hearing the sighs and laughter, it was hard to miss the fact that almost everyone else was leaning forward, too. Drawn in, and to, attention.

I don’t know that I expected to laugh, but I hoped, and I did – hard and often. What I didn’t expect was to tear up, which I also did at several points, and where I also know I wasn’t the only one, because you could hear the sniffles traveling through the crowd. And it wasn’t at the necessarily expected points, either – it was in moments like hearing his sorrow over his horse, his acceptance at being Captain Kirk, his pride at the house his kidney stone bought, in his first trip to NASA and his final recording for Discovery.

It was in the tender, and the funny – and he was able to turn a story from one to another in the span of a few steps across the sparse stage.

Shatner gets mocked a lot for saying yes – he’s known for doing almost anything put in front of him. But he explained this philosophy in his show, and it makes sense: it’s easy to say no. It’s easy to stay inside, away from the world, disengaged. But one of the hardest things you can do is say yes. Yes to opportunity, yes to life, yes to potentially making a fool of yourself, yes to wonder and awe – yes to love.

Is it Shatner’s World? It is while he’s on the stage, and I’m lucky enough that – even in such a culturally distant way, he’s so central to mine. So perhaps it’s not surprising that I think the ultimate answer to that question, is yes.

Why I Don’t Like Twilight & You Shouldn’t Either

This started out as a blog comment response over on The Nerdy Bird’s blog regarding Twilight and if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all. I was directed to this from Nerds in Babeland’s post defending sparkly vampires, which I flailed about and responded to on Twitter, after GeekGirlCon tweeted the link this morning.

Caught all that? It’s as convoluted as it sounds.

What it boils down to is this: as far as I’m concerned, Twilight tells girls that their only value is in what an older man thinks of them, and it primes these young girls to accept that abusive relationships are normal, romantic and desirable, when the reality is ever so very different.

I don’t have a problem with emotionally healthy and mature grown women enjoying Twilight as a guilty pleasure – a lot of people scoff at some of my guilty pleasure reading, which includes a paranormal romance series that many people have similar abuse concerns with (Kresley Cole’s Immortals After Dark – a concern I don’t share for consent reasons that are absent in Twilight, and I can go into in another post if people are really all that curious).

Regardless, what adults read? Is what adults read.

My concern is largely about the message that tweens and teens take away from the Twilight series. Obviously the biggest issue I have is the domestic violence one; everything – EVERYTHING – Edward does shows up as a red flag in DV handouts (something Dr. NerdLove addresses well in his recent Twilight post). And as I mentioned on Twitter, I know of too many young girls who wonder why their boyfriend isn’t as jealously protective as Edward is, or who justify the stalking and abuse because that’s what love is like, just look at Edward and Bella.

I genuinely believe that any teen girl seen reading these books needs to have an adult intervene and make sure she doesn’t have screwy ideas about what a relationship is, because too many girls are grasping on to it – and to be fair, this is precisely what The Nerdy Bird wonders: why are young girls taking that wrong message?

And naturally, being an opinionated soul, I have ideas. 😉

I do think SMeyers got something very right with the book – she tapped into that feeling that I think the majority of teen girls have. That feeling of awkwardness as your body shifts and your gravity changes and you’re suddenly a klutz. The whole roil of hormones, the feeling like an outsider because of the hormones and sudden competition between female friends for the guys and seeing guys through that light of hormones and all the travails and trials that every single teen girl EVER goes through. Except, of course, the one teen girl you wanted to be like – the one with the perfect hair and clothes and everything else that you never were.

Well, in Twilight, that’s subverted – Bella ends up learning that she really is the perfect one that the pretty (vampire) girl wants to be because of her functional uterus and the worship of this perfect male god and on and on.

Which are all the reasons that adults like the books – the understanding and fond remembrance of being THAT girl (and thank god for growing out of it).

And Twilight isn’t the only series that has done this. I think we can probably look back at any time period and find That Series of Books that teen girls latched on to and loved, which probably had similar themes of the to-die-for (just not literally) older guy seeing the beauty and value and inherent goodness in the not-really-mousy girl who just needed to get contacts and change her hair. (It could be those of us from the late 80s and 90s had it in Brat Pack movies instead of books – in this I am not a good example, as I discovered Pride & Prejudice early, and then was busy reading fantasy and scifi novels in my teens, which whoa, want to talk about unhealthy relationships,…)

The difference with Twilight is that it’s the first time (as far as I know) the message has been combined with the ones that come along with the domestic violence flags.

Unfortunately, we know, from research, that the things we see on TV or read subconsciously influences us and tells us this is “right.” The most common example is the so-called CSI effect, but it’s also been tracked in medicine. (People who watch medical shows like ER or Chicago Hope or even Scrubs believe that CPR is much more effective than it is. When asked how they know, they just know that they “learned it somewhere”.) So we in effect have an awful lot of girls getting the idea that these abuse-y, red flag, drama and control and danger relationships are normal, if not ideal (“he’s so protective because he loves me”). There isn’t popular media out there countering the *bad* ideas in Twilight, or giving alternate models of romance for girls to form their ideas – and ideals – on. In fact, I would argue that popular media aimed at this demographic reinforces that ideal – a pretty big change from the ideas teen girls were exposed to in Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Or at least, that’s my brief (and yet still too long) blog response on the idea.

(There are other issues I’ll beat on with Twilight, too, like that the only role a woman has is the one the male wants for her, and motherhood. [Some, for example, might want to frame Darcy and Elizabeth’s romance as bordering on an abusive situation, but Lizzy’s life doesnt’ revolve around Darcy – she has her family, her own life, her own dreams and desires that extend beyond marrying. In fact, to the point of accepting she won’t marry, because it’s so important to her to stay her own person.] And that’s not even touching on the really creepy “imprinting why is no one concerned about the pedophilia implications here?” But that’s deviating WAY further than I should – although give me an ounce of encouragement and I’ll go there, too.)

Have Your Sleep & Eat It, Too

I have insomnia. (Thus explaining the time this is being posted.) It comes and goes, as insomnia is wont to do, and I’ve apparently been in an upswing period of late. A friend of mine on the other coast, who blogs over at Geek Girls Rule, is also plagued by insomnia, and sometimes I think we trade off on who has to be awake in some sort of cosmic balance. We’re defenders of the night, each taking shifts to maintain vigil over the sleeping world, in case… well, I’m not sure in case of what, being that about the only weapons Mickey and I have are awesome racks and rapier wits, neither of which are likely to save the world from imminent destruction. But, I digress, which is common when I’m tired.

If certain dessert-makers have their way, Mickey and I, along with the rest of the Sleep is for the Weak Not Cranky club really will be able to have our sleep and eat it, too. It seems that the latest fad is melatonin baked into pastries, sort of a pot brownies for the convenience store crowd.

In an article of concepts that jumped out and did a samba for attention, the Len Goodman-pleasing number was the idea that the makers of these baked goods label them as “not for food use.” This appears to be the way that Lazy Cakes, Kush Cakes, and Lulla Pies (all rotten tomato worthy puns) get around FDA labeling laws. You see, while using melatonin as an additive in food would be regulated under federal law (and likely not allowed), dietary supplements don’t need what’s known as FDA premarket approval, and (more importantly) are not required to be proven safe or effective.

So regardless of the fact that we’re talking a sugary Ho-Ho hopped up on a neurohormone, it’s perfectly fine so long as it’s a diet modifier, and not so fine if it’s just part of the diet.

It’s this kind of splitting of hairs that drives people batty – and leads to the odd regulatory issue where it’s better (at least cheaper) for a company to attempt the “dietary supplement” route and change if forced to, than to start out following the rules in the first place. It is, in other words, a bandwagon-seeking food manufacturer’s version of the choice to ask permission or to say sorry.

Much like the toddler who has figured out that if you say you’re sorry rather than ask permission, you at least get to do what you want, these companies know that it is both cheaper and more profitable to sell your food as a dietary supplement and hope to fly under the radar than it is to play by the rules in the first place.

It’s a broken system, and one that can cause harm to the people who don’t realize how unsafe what they’re taking could be – the lack of regulation in the dietary and herbal supplements market is extremely concerning. The solution here is simple: make it much, much more costly to ask forgiveness after action, and reward those who ask for permission first.

In Which Our Heroine Learns The World Is Not Flat

Oh Stephen Fry, this is just wrong.

Saying that philosophers don’t tell you how to live your life is… I actually have a hard time getting my head around that point of view, given that many philosophers (especially those of the applied and normative branches) do, well, just that. Is Bentham’s calculus something other than how you should like an ideal utilitarian life? What about Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, a treatise aimed at doing/becoming good, a practical application (some might argue the first in the applied ethics) rather than a meta or theoretical knowledge? (Spawned this entire field, really, called virtue ethics. Be hard to argue that virtue ethics is about anything other than how one should live one’s life.) Kant’s categorical imperatives are certainly prescriptions on how to live your life as a moral agent! (Right there we cover utilitarianism, virtue ethics, and deontology, with just three well-known philosophers. There are entire library sections devoted to the ideas each discusses on how to live.)

I can understand not being familiar with modern philosophy, even of the last 100-odd years, if it’s not your field, or your field’s kissing cousin. I am not shocked that he has no familiarity with modern virtue ethicists, casuistrists, or much of the work that’s gone on in both applied and normative ethics. But the fields themselves, as subdivisions of ethical study in philosophy, have existed for much longer; Mr. Fry appears to equate philosophy with logic, epistemology, and metaphysics, extending a sort of brief acknowledgment of metaethics (which does indeed ask more broad questions such as “what is goodness” rather than “how do I live a good life?”), and going no further.

It’s sad and frustrating, and to be frank, a bit shocking. Mr. Fry is one of the last great polymaths, and I would have thought he would know his philosophy. Discovering that I know more than him on a subject is, well, I can only imagine that it’s like finding out, for the first time, that the world isn’t flat.