Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Gender Neutrality and Language

I'm politically liberal. I'd probably even go so far as to classify myself as very liberal--I'm a registered member of the Green Party, I give money to the ACLU, and support a whole slew of liberal social causes (e.g. gay marriage, drug policy reform, gun regulation, etc.). I do, however, consider my identity as a philosopher to supersede my identity as a liberal, so I'm careful to critically examine even the issues I support, and never blindly endorse a position just because it's the "liberal" thing to do; this often results in shock and/or outrage from friends and acquaintances when I refuse to support traditionally liberal causes that make no logical sense--affirmative action and militant feminism being two that come to mind. It's the latter that I want to talk about today.

A good friend of mine linked me (indirectly) to a story on Feministing (a feminist blog, in case you can't tell) criticizing another article published by a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. AEI is a very well known conservative think-tank specializing in policy papers decrying all sorts of progressive ideas; I'm loath to agree with an AEI fellow on anything, but this guy is correct, at least in part.

His position, basically, is that the huge feminist campaign to remove 'he' and 'him' as gender-neutral pronouns is, not to put too fine a point on it, idiotic. His reasoning is that it breaks down the elegance of the English language, making it difficult to teach students to write without sounding hopelessly awkward, which including 'one' or 'he/she' in a sentence almost invariably does. See--even that sentence was awkward. Most of his argument revolves around the historical roots of the language and, in typical conservative fashion, his desire that things stay Just The Way They Are; I don't agree with that part, but I think his point is valid nontheless. Here's why.

The crux of the feminist argument is that words like 'mankind' (which apparently conveys the idea that male is the "default" human) and 'woman' (which apparently conveys the idea that women are just afterthoughts to men) perpetuate "The Patriarchy" (which presumably is some kind of ruling cabal of giant penises ruling the world from a smoke filled bunker somewhere) by...well, somehow. They're not too clear on that, but they are clear on the fact that The Patriarchy is a very bad thing, and that it's responsible for most (if not all) of the trouble in the world. This irritates me for much the same reason that Communism irritates me--it blames incredibly complex social problems on a single issue, which is disturbingly myopic--but that's a post for another day.

Several comments on the original Femisting post point to the fact that 'werman' and 'wifman' were the original words for 'woman' and 'man,' and that the suffix -man simply meant 'human.' Eventually, as the language evolved, the prefix was dropped from one and changed on the other; nothing more insidious than that, and only a paranoid mind could think that there was some kind of male conspiracy behind it. As I said, though, I find these historical arguments more or less irrelevant, as language certainly is alive and constantly evolving; it's a symbolic means of expression, and the symbols have meanings only because we, as speakers of the language, think they do. There's nothing inherent to 'man' that means 'male,' and we can only legitimately say that it means (and only means) 'male' if most of the English speakers think it does.

Suppose I say 'The citizen approached the monarch with a deep bow.' You understand just what I mean--that is, that the supplicant bent over a the waist when approaching the monarch. There's no confusion about whether I was talking about the bending action (a bow), the weapon used to fire an arrow (a bow), or the front of a sailing ship (a bow). Why is this? Clearly, it's because English is a context-dependent language; the meaning of words is determined (in part) by the other words around them. That's why we can have so many referents represented by the symbol 'bow' without being confused; when you add in spoken English, things can get even more complicated (as in the bough of a tree). We call these sorts of words (the first set anyway) homonyms--words that are spelled (and often pronounced) the same, but have different meanings in different contexts--and I'd like to submit that words like 'man,' 'his,' and 'he' function similarly in our language.

I can say 'men have beards' and you will understand that I am using 'men' in such a way as to refer specifically to males--you get it based on context. However, I can also say 'all men are created equal,' and you similarly understand that I'm using 'men' in such a way that I mean 'all people.' The two words function differently in different contexts in just the same way that 'bow' functions differently when I say 'Bow before me, mortals!' and 'Hand me my bow so that I might shoot the apple from his head.' Homonyms. The idea that there's some kind of latent sexism in this seems absolutely ludicrous to me; no matter how the language evolved, the most pertinent fact of the matter is how words are used now, and most people don't think for a minute that I'm talking about the males in the group only when I say 'I'll see you guys at 6 for dinner.'

My friend pointed out that, as a philosopher, I should be concerned with getting the most precision in language that I possibly can. I agree that absolute precision is needed when talking about complex philosophical issues, which is why the specialized philosophical vocabulary has evolved (just ask a philosopher of action what 'freedom' means sometime to see what I'm talking about). However, I don't think that every day conversation requires this level of precision, simply because absolutely crystal-clear definitions with NO ambiguity at all aren't necessary for day-to-day communication; I can rely on your knowledge of English grammatical and linguistic conventions and your ability to deduce what I'm talking about from context to get my meaning across without a specialized vocabulary.

For any academic inquiry, we should ask ourselves "what does it add?" See my Pithy Mission Statement over to the right side of your screen for more on this. One of the reasons many academics in other fields (myself included) have difficulty taking disciplines like "Women and Gender Studies" seriously, I think, is that so many of the issues championed by those fields are utterly specious--this is a prime example. The struggle to rid the English language of 'gendered' words (which, if I'm right, aren't gendered at all) doesn't seem to add anything to the academic discourse, and doesn't seem to advance human (oh no! even 'human' has the word 'man' in it!) knowledge at all. Instead, it seems that the only thing it does accomplish is the creation of a problem that wasn't there in the fist place: no one was thinking about 'mankind' in terms of gender until feminist 'academics' made it an issue.

For the record, I'm all in favor of gender equality. I know it's a virtual certainty that if this post gets seen by the right people, I'll be called a "chauvinist pig" and/or an "agent of Patriarchal oppression." I'm not. There are lots of great women, and there are lots of sucky women, just like there are lots of great men and lots of sucky men. We're all people. Get over it. If that's not feminism, I don't know what is.

Saturday, February 23, 2008


I just got my formal job offer from the Center for Talented Youth for this summer, and it looks like I'll be teaching Philosophy of Mind once again both sessions at Franklin & Marshall in Lancaster, PA. I'm a little bit disappointed, as I was hoping to teach Philosophy of Technology with Eripsa during the first session, but I'm still pretty excited. CTY, for those who are unfamiliar, is an absolutely amazing summer camp for gifted high school students featuring classes on subjects ranging from Greek to computer science to the history of disease (along with a very interesting non-academic culture). I taught philosophy of mind last year, and thoroughly enjoyed the experience--the kids are beyond brilliant, and the atmosphere is fantastic--so I'm returning again. If any of you have children of the ages between 12 and 17, I highly suggest you look into sending them--I'll be sure to instruct them in the ways of biological naturalism.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Immoral Technology (Or: Another Reason to Embrace Natrualism)

According to a recent study conducted by researchers at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, 66% of Americans think that nanotechnology is "morally unacceptable." Nanotechnology, of course, is the (very broad) field of science dedicated to manipulating matter at very small scales--we're talking machines that can build molecules like assembly line robots build cars, repair organic cells from the inside, and generally do all sorts of things that, as Arthur C. Clarke might have predicted, seem to border on magical. The fact that more than half of all Americans think that this technology is unacceptable on moral grounds troubles me, and should probably trouble you too; the approval rate in Europe is much higher, with 71% of French respondents agreeing that nanotechnology research is just fine. The authors of the study conjecture that one plausible explanation for this cognitive gap between the United States and nations with similar education and technology levels is (surprise) the strong role that religion plays in the lives of most Americans; it seems that the problem isn't that Americans don't understand nanotechnology, but that they reject it on purely religious grounds.

We've seen the rather unfortunate results that religious based decision making can play (2000 and 2004 elections, anyone?), but this seems to be a new low, even for the United States. It seems that most respondents who called nanotech "morally unacceptable" did so because "In short, researchers are viewed as "playing God" when they create materials that do not occur in nature, especially where nanotechnology and biotechnology intertwine."

Only a worldview fundamentally based in irrationality and superstition could look at a promising technology like this, a technology with the potential to cure countless diseases, create incredibly fast computers, build materials with the strength of carbon steel and the weight of aluminum, and generally benefit the human condition immensely and say "Nah, I think we'll pass." Just add one more reason to the list of why we need a major paradigm shift in this country, or we're going to be technologically left behind.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

A little comic relief...

There's a lot of talk going around about The Singularity these days. Here's a grim reminder of the potentially disastrous consequences of letting the robots win.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Brights, Naturalism, and My Own Rebranding

I've recently become officially affiliated with the Brights movement, and as I was browsing through their site, and came upon the following in the FAQ:

Each person deciding whether to self-identify by the shared characteristic—a naturalistic worldview—has employed a personal understanding of the terminology (including supernatural and mystical) and of any brief elucidation elsewhere on the site. We see little need to reach a common understanding of these terms, or to explicate beyond what is provided on the home page. We anticipate that those individuals who joined the constituency employed for all these terms some understanding in general use that they personally find apt.

I joined the Brights in order to network with others who share my dedication to the (rather loose) ontological position of naturalism, which regular readers will know pervades much of my work. However, as a philosopher, their explicit disinterest in defining 'naturalism' makes my skin itch. I'd like, therefore, to make a post trying to (briefly) give a sketch of what 'naturalism' is, and what a 'naturalistic worldview' consists of. This is not an easy task; I've actually been trying to write this post for a few days now, and have discovered that naturalism, like pornography, suffers from the "I can't define it but I know it when I see it" syndrome. I suspect that it is for precisely this reason that the Brights are reluctant to try to pin a concrete definition on 'naturalism;' as authors of a relatively new movement, the Bright powers-that-be most likely want to avoid alienating any potential supporters with overly restrictive definitions. While I sympathize with this, it does seem to me that at least a solid working definition of a term so central to the movement should be sought.

It seems to me that the best way to define 'naturalism' is to contrast it to (the woefully more common) 'supernaturalism.' A supernaturalistic worldview is one which incorporates forces, entities, or concepts that are fundamentally (that is, by definition) outside the scope of natural science; any sort of theism obviously falls into this category. A God that is all-seeing and all-powerful, an immaterial soul that survives after bodily death, or a natural spirit that pervades the world and unites all living things are all examples of supernaturalistic constructs. The key here, again, is that each of them is by definition inaccessible to science; they're specifically and enthusiastically endorsed as things that fall outside the realm of physics.

Many people find these ideas--of Gods, souls, and spirits--appealing (even comforting), and are more than willing to hold onto them while cheerfully admitting that there is no scientific basis for accepting the truth of them. Brights (and others who hold naturalistic worldviews) do not. Naturalism, then, is perhaps best understood in opposition to supernaturalism: a Bright (or other naturalist) believes that we live in one and only one world (as opposed to a supernaturalist, who might believe that we've existed before in a 'spiritual dimension'), and that that world is composed entirely of physical particles (not physical particles plus souls).

Still, I'm not sure this definition is satisfactory. On the face of it, there are two characteristics about it that bother me: as presented here, it is defined negatively (which is part of the reason why I want to move away from the label 'atheist' in the first place...more on that later), and as presented here it seems to presume much about the world, and to leave little room for future ontological revolutions. I think both these problems can be addressed; let's start with the latter.

When I say "we live in one and only one world and that world is composed entirely (and only) of physical particles," it might be easy to misconstrue my statement as arrogant, if not hypocritical. Regular readers will no doubt be aware that I myself do not subscribe to any species of eliminative materialsim when it comes to consciousness--that is, I don't believe the common physicalist assertion that beliefs, desires, tickles, pains, and all the other mental states you and I experience every day are somehow illusory or don't exist: mental states are not ontologically reducible to brain states. My view on the mind/body problem is nuanced, and this isn't really the place to elucidate it fully, but I'd like to address the apparent contradiction here before I move on; I hope that in doing so, I can show that it is possible to be a Bright without being an eliminative materialist, and thus that the label "naturalistic" is sufficiently broad to accommodate major theoretical revolutions in the sciences.

When I say "mental states are not ontologically reducible to brain states," I don't mean to say that there is some "mental stuff" floating around in our heads, or that beliefs, desires, tickles, pains, and all those sorts of things have any kind of totally independent ontology--they don't exist as any kind of separate substance, and they certainly don't exist independently of the body. What I mean to say, rather, is that there are certain facts about reality that can only be intelligibly understood as higher level processes that result from low-level physical behavior. See emergentism. Again, this is not to say that these higher level processes exist independently from the lower level physical particles that cause them, only that one cannot understand the whole system by only looking at the low-level behavior of its constituent parts; properties of the system as a whole must be taken into account, and some of these properties may manifest behaviors that cannot be deduced from looking at the behavior of the individual particles. It is worth reiterating, though, that consciousness (as the prime example of an emergent property) is still causally reducible to physics and, though it has certain properties that its constituent particles do not have, is still essentially part of the physical world.

I'd like to move on now, though the above explanation will undoubtedly strike some as less than satisfactory; to them I can only advise patience, and suggest that they read some of the back posts on this blog, as this is a topic I've discussed more than once. For now, though, I'd like to address the other problem I had with the definition of 'naturalism' we came up with above: that it is essentially negative, and makes sense only in opposition to another term ('supernaturalism,' in this case). This isn't really a technical problem per se I suppose--the definition qua definition is at least adequate, but I think there are a few compelling reasons to try to frame it differently.

I've self-identified as an atheist roughly since I was 15 years old. I was raised Catholic-ish (my immediate family wasn't terribly devout, but my grandmother was hardcore Irish Catholic, and made sure we went to church at least intermittently, and insisted I get my Fist Communion), so I most certainly did buy into the whole supernaturalism thing at one point. However, in late middle school I developed an interest in analytic philosophy, which eventually lead me to Bertrand Russell's seminal essay "Why I am Not a Christian." He raises issues that I found myself unable to ignore, and over the period of a few years I drifted from Catholic to agnostic to committed atheist, the position which I maintained henceforth. However, it always bothered me that 'atheist' is, by its very etymology, a negative term. By this I do not mean that it has "bad" connotations, or that it is "negative" in the sense that your really pessimistic friend is a "negative person;" instead, I just mean that the word 'atheist' literally means "non-theist"--it is a definition by opposition. I didn't like identifying my own worldview in this fashion, and searched for some time for a positive term that I liked--eventually, I found Bright, which satisfies me.

I most certainly still consider myself an atheist--I don't believe that God (in virtually any common sense of the word) exists--but I think the term 'Bright' more accurately captures my broader metaphysical position. Though our discussion thus far has focused on defining 'Bright' in opposition to 'Super' (the Bright-invented neologism for someone who endorses supernaturalism), I think it is the wide-ranging positive metaphysical claims of the Bright movement that really attracted me to it, and so I'd like to take a moment to discuss them.

'Atheist' implies a rather narrow set of beliefs; Alonzo Fyfe over at The Atheist Ethicist is fond of comparing being an atheist to being a heliocentrist--it is simply a claim about a single aspect of the nature of the universe, and is not necessarily incompatible with a wide range of other beliefs; it is quite possible to be an atheist, yet still believe in ghosts, souls, reincarnation, and all sorts of other supernaturalism. 'Bright,' I think, covers more ground and makes a much stronger metaphysical claim than does 'atheist.' 'Bright' represents a rejection of supernaturalism broadly--that is, not just when it comes to deities--and, moreover, represents an acceptance of a set of positive beliefs.

If naturalism is true, then the universe is inherently comprehensible by humans. It operates according to a set of natural laws, laws which are (in principle) discoverable, knowable, and understandable by us. If naturalism is true, then we are responsible to no one but each other for our actions--there is no cosmic force waiting to reward us or punish us (either with Heaven/Hell, reincarnation, or anything else), so we better learn to get along all on our own. If naturalism is true, then the pursuit of concrete truth--through science and philosophy--is perhaps the highest calling a human can strive for. If naturalism is true, then even awe-inspiringly complex processes--such as consciousness--are legitimate targets of this investigation, and will likely one day be understood by humans. Perhaps most importantly, if naturalism is true then we as individuals and as a species cannot count on intervention--help or hindrance--from occult powers; we are our own ultimate authorities, and we must face our problems, passing or failing, succumbing or surviving, all on our own merits.

I find this rather inspiring.