Blog Reader Shameless Self-Promotion Day!

Gelpen_stubSo since I’m going to be blogging less frequently in the next few days, I’m going to brazenly steal an idea from Feministing — Shameless Self-Promotion Day!

If you’re a blogger, I’m inviting you to post a link to your blog in this post’s comments. You can link to a specific post or two that you’re extra-fond of (that’s how they usually do it on Feministing), or just let us know about your blog generally.

If you’re not a blogger, feel free to post a link to somebody else’s blog that you like — again, either a specific post you like, or to the blog as a whole.

No commercial content, advertising, sales, marketing, etc. However, if you’re an artist or activist or something, and you don’t have a blog but you have a Website, please feel free to link to that instead.

If this goes well, I may make it a regular feature. So have fun, and I’ll see you in a couple of days!

Kisses,
Greta

Brief Blog Semi-Break

Ingrid and I are going out of town for a week to see my dad and go to my cousin’s wedding. Our neighbors will be looking after our cats and our apartment; but while I will be taking the laptop with me, I may not be looking after my blog as attentively as usual. I’ll probably skip some days, and will almost certainly pull some stuff from the archives. Those of you who get cranky when I don’t blog (and there do seem to be some of you — I’m touched), be patient — I’ll be back into regular form in about a week and a half.

Also, I realized that I never updated you all on my dad’s condition after his stroke, and some of you have been asking. The good news: He’s alive, he’s home, his agility is pretty good, and he’s pretty mobile. The bad news: He has some serious language and cognitive impairment that hasn’t gotten better and probably isn’t going to. (The speech problems aren’t the usual slurring people get with strokes; his enunciation is fine, but the words don’t make any sense. Also, he doesn’t always understand what’s being said to him.) The bad stuff is sad and frustrating, but the good stuff is better than we’d originally thought it was going to be, and we’re grateful for it. Thanks, and I’ll be back soon.

Friday Cat Blogging on Saturday: Violet the Diva

And now, four cute pictures of our cat. (Typepad was down on Friday night, which is why this week’s Friday Cat Blog pictures are going up on Saturday.)

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Violet is really the beauty of our cat family (as well as being the diva), but she’s very hard to photograph. Our apartment doesn’t get much light, and with the flash she tends to just look like a shapeless black lump. Plus the flash makes her close her eyes, so you can’t see her different colored eyes, which are spectacular.

But Ingrid got this series of her on a sunny day in the brightest room of the house, and I think they turned out amazingly well. Please note the exquisite “tuck and roll” formation in Pictures 1 and 3; the paw over the eyes in Picture 2, and the heterochromia (different colored eyes) visible in Pictures 3 and 4. (You can click on the photos to enlarge and get a better view of the eyes.) Please also note the little black spot on her pink nose, and the way the white patch on her face cuts across her blue eye.

And speaking of which, I have to share with you the song Ingrid wrote about Violet and her one blue eye:

Why don’t you scritch me like you used to do?
Why do you treat me like a worn out shoe?
My fur is still furry and my eye is still blue
So why don’t you scritch me like you used to do?

That is all. Thank you for your time.

Pain, Connection, and Being Here Now: The Blowfish Blog

Important note: This post, and the post it links to, may be Too Much Information for family members and others who don’t want to know a lot of details about my personal sex life. If that’s true for you, well, we’re having a great conversation about the politics and aesthetics of high-end restaurants, with lots of interesting questions being raised about why we value different artistic and cultural experiences differently. If you don’t want to read about my personal sex life, you might want to check that out instead. Or else there’s the Fluffy Bunnies video, which is always a good place to go when the blog gets too heavy. Just giving you a heads-up. Thanks.

Consensual_sadomasochismEvery now and then, it occurs to me that getting off on physical pain is a little bit odd. Every once in a while, I have to stop taking it for granted and re-examine what exactly the hell that’s all about. I do that in my latest piece for the Blowfish Blog, Pain, Connection, and Being Here Now. It begins thus:

Why does pain feel good?

Why, for some people, under some conditions, do certain kinds of stimuli that my body would normally process as unpleasant get processed as pleasant instead? Not just pleasant, but hot and dirty and intensely desirable?

I’ve been a practicing masochist (and sadist) for so long that I sometimes forget what an odd thing this is. Pain is pretty much by definition the body saying No. Why is it that in certain conditions, with certain kinds of pain, my body says Yes instead?

Not just Yes, but More, Harder, Please Don’t Stop?

And I am talking about pain. Not “intense sensation.” Sometimes I’ll experience a mild spanking or a sweet flogging as more like a massage or something. But that’s not what I’m talking about here. I’m talking about P-A-I-N Pain, the kind of pain that my body is screaming No to at the exact moment it’s screaming Yes.

It’s a little odd. What is it about?

To find out what I think it’s about — for me, anyway — read the rest of the piece. Enjoy!

Dinner, Art, and Class Warfare: The French Laundry

French_laundry_2I’ll admit right up front: I may be being unfair.

Here’s how this got started. Ingrid and I have a big anniversary coming up soonish: in January 2008 we’ll have been together for ten years. We’d been making vague plans to celebrate by going to The French Laundry — considered by most to be the best restaurant in the entire Bay Area, by many to be the best restaurant in the country, and by some to be the best restaurant in the world. We knew it was pricey, but when one of the best restaurants in the world is just an hour away, it seems a shame not to splurge on it at least once.

Money_2So we were chatting with my in-laws when the subject of The French Laundry came up. We mentioned our plans
 and they told us exactly how expensive dinner for two at The French Laundry is.

Including everything — food, service, wine, tax — dinner for two at The French Laundry costs about $750.

And poof — there go those plans.

It’s not so much that we can’t afford it. If we saved up, if we stopped going out to dinner for a few months and set that money aside, I’m sure we could manage.

CheBut the idea of spending $750 on dinner for two makes my gorge rise. It doesn’t make me think “romantic luxury splurge.” It makes me think “class warfare.” It makes me think of what the blue-collar families in our neighborhood — hell, on our block — could do with that money. Hell, it makes me think about what we could do with that money. The thought of taking that money and shoving it down our gullets makes me both morally and physically nauseous.

FloysterWhich isn’t exactly the frame of mind you want to be in when you’re eating at the best restaurant in the world.

But I started this piece by saying, “I may be being unfair,” and I meant it.

SunprotectionIt can be argued — it has been argued — that a meal at a place like French Laundry isn’t simply a luxury or a splurge. It’s a work of art. And I don’t have any moral revulsion at all over spending $750 on a work of art. I’d do it all the time if I could afford it. I get a little grossed out when I read about millions of dollars being spent on a Van Gogh — especially since Van Gogh lived and died in poverty and won’t ever see a dime of it — but if someone spent $750 on a sculpture by my friend Josie Porter, I wouldn’t be troubled in the slightest. I’d think she deserved every penny of it, and more. Artists work hard at what they do, and spend lots of time learning how to do it well. And I don’t have any doubt that the chefs at French Laundry are artists.

Hundred_dollar_billAnd it’s also the case that this is, to some extent, a question of scale, a difference of degree and not of kind. We’ve never in our lives spent $750 on dinner for two — but we’ve certainly spent $60, $80, $100. Not that infrequently, either. And while the idea of people spending $750 on dinner for two makes me think fond thoughts about storming the castle and parading around with the baron’s head on a pike, I’m sure that for many people, the idea of people spending $100 on dinner for two makes them feel exactly the same way.

FlparmesanSo maybe the whole gorge-rising, heads-on-pikes, moral and political outrage thing really isn’t fair. Maybe it does make sense — not just financial sense, but moral sense — to save up our eating-out budget, to forego the nice dinners out for a while and save up for one truly spectacular one.

I dunno. I really can’t figure this one out. Thoughts?

Sculpture above: Sun Protection by Josie Porter. Copyright © 2006 Josie Porter, all rights reserved. Image reprinted with permission of the artist, who totally kicks ass.

The Argument From Design Part Two: What Would We Do If We Didn’t Exist? Plus Begging the Question, and What Is the River Trying To Do?

In yesterday’s episode, our heroine revealed how evolution demolishes the argument from design when it comes to the complexity of life, and how David Hume dismantles the argument from design when it comes to the complexity of the universe. In today’s conclusion, she reveals two more arguments against the argument from design – including the most devastating of all — and discusses how our minds can fool us into seeing intention where none exists.

TreesArgument 2: If we didn’t exist, then
 well, we wouldn’t exist.

The argument from design — both for life on earth specifically and the cosmos generally — often goes like this: The planet is so perfectly set up to support life — and the universe with its principles of physics is so perfectly set up to support the existence of the earth — that it can’t possibly be a coincidence.

My answer: And if it hadn’t happened the way it did, then we wouldn’t be here to be wondering about it.

Is it really that hard to imagine the possibility of life on Earth not existing?

SpermeggHere’s an analogy. If your parents hadn’t met, hadn’t gotten together, hadn’t had sex on exactly the day that they conceived you, in exactly the right way to make that one particular sperm out of thousands fertilize that egg… you wouldn’t have been born. Ditto their parents, and theirs, and theirs… all making your birth even more unlikely, by several orders of magnitude.

Does that mean you were fated to be born? That everything about human evolution and reproduction was designed so that you could be born?

Or was it simply chance that you got born instead of somebody else? (Okay, chance plus adaptive descent with modification.)

DiceThe fact that you’re here doesn’t mean you were fated or designed to be here. It means that the million-sided evolutionary dice got rolled, and your number came up. You won the lottery. That doesn’t mean the lottery was designed so you could win it. If you roll ten dice, the chances that they’ll come up in the pattern 4636221434 is over 60 million to one… but the fact that this particular pattern is astronomically unlikely doesn’t mean it was designed to happen.

ZeroI get that it’s extremely difficult to conceive of a world without you in it. Here you are conceiving it, after all; your presence is kind of implied in the imagining. But if you step back from your own life and look at the world from an outside perspective, logically you have to admit that you’re not actually the one necessary lynchpin on which all of human existence turns. Sorry to be a buzz-kill (I’m pretty sure David Hume said that as well), but the human race could easily have happened without you.

And the exact same thing is true of life on this planet.

JupitermoonThe universe existed for billions of years before this planet came along and spewed out this weird self-replicating DNA stuff. And it will continue to exist for billions of years after the earth is boiled into the sun. The fact that life happened to take hold on this planet doesn’t make it necessary that life had to have taken hold on this planet. If it hadn’t happened, then things would have happened some other way, and there’d be a bunch of planets and stars and stuff whirling around with nobody to wonder about them. (Unless there’s conscious life on other planets, which is of course a possibility.)

Galaxy_2jpgIn the same way that you are not the necessary lynchpin on which all human life turns, human life is not the necessary lynchpin on which the entire universe turns. The fact that there is a hole in the universe perfectly shaped to fit the puddle of humanity doesn’t mean that the hole — much less the entire universe — was designed for that purpose. Our wondering about the universe isn’t required for it to exist.

Universe_expansionAnd you know what? The exact same thing is true for the existence of the universe itself. Some have argued that the laws of physics and gravitational constants and whatnot are so perfectly balanced to allow the universe to exist at all, that it’s impossible for it to be a coincidence, for it to not have been designed. But I say again: If the laws of physics and gravity and such didn’t allow the universe to last billions of years, if they’d dictated that after the Big Bang the universe would either collapse instantly or expand so rapidly that everything just flew apart… well, then that’s what would have happened. And again, we wouldn’t be here to wonder about it.

God_creating_adamArgument 3: God just begs the question.

If you’re going to argue that life and/or the universe is too amazing and complex to have just come into being on its own, that it had to have been designed by a creator… then where do you think that creator came from?

Wouldn’t the creator also be huge, amazing, complex, perfectly balanced
 all of the qualities the universe has that make people think it had to have been designed?

If so… then who designed the designer?

Question_marksvgAnd if not, if God has just always existed… then why is he logically necessary? If there’s some unbelievably huge, complicated, beautifully balanced entity that was the first thing to exist… why can’t that entity be the universe, and not God?

God doesn’t answer the question of design. God just begs the question. God just sets the question back one level, meanwhile adding an unnecessary layer of complexity to the explanation.

This is a rather shorter argument than the other two. But I think it’s far more devastating.

TeapotAfter all, with the first two arguments, people can always say, “Well, it just doesn’t seem likely to me.” Non-believers can wave evolution books and statistical principles in their faces all day; we can talk about Bertrand Russell’s imaginary teapot orbiting the sun and point out that just because something is theoretically possible doesn’t make it reasonable to believe it. But the believing mind can still say, “You can’t 100% prove it, therefore you still could be wrong, therefore the part of my mind that decides what is and isn’t likely still gets to make a choice.”

God_blakeBut I have never — and I mean NEVER — seen a counter to the questions, “Who designed the designer? And if the answer is ‘nobody,’ then why can’t that be the answer for the universe?” Not one that’s made a lick of sense, anyway. People always just say things like “There has to be an unmoved mover,” and when you ask them why there has to be an unmoved mover, they reply, “There just does. It just makes sense.”

They have no real reply. There isn’t one.

River_bayFinally:

The thing you have to remember is this. The human brain is designed — not by God, but by evolution, and for very good evolutionary reasons — to see the world in terms of intention. Our brains are designed to see things as happening because somebody made them happen — tigers who want to eat us, rabbits who want to escape from us, other people who want to have sex with us or make alliances with us or steal our yummy rabbit stew. It’s embedded in our language in ways we’re not even conscious of: water seeks its own level, the river is trying to return to the sea, the plant is reaching for the sun. (I’ve done it myself, right here in this piece, talking about the process of evolution “designing” the human brain and the laws of physics “allowing” the universe to exist.)

River_2But it’s not always true. According to the best evidence we have, intentionality seems to be a very specific biological process, probably limited to animal species with nervous systems. The river isn’t trying to do anything. The river is moving towards the sea in accordance with the laws of nature. It seems as if it’s trying to get somewhere, but it isn’t, except in the most metaphorical or poetic sense of the word. It seems as if it’s trying to get somewhere because we’re trying to get somewhere, and because our brains have evolved to see the world in terms of things that are trying to get somewhere.

PondBut that doesn’t mean that life as a whole, or the universe as a whole, is trying to get somewhere. And it doesn’t mean that life or the universe was designed by someone who was trying to get somewhere. Yes, it may seem as if life and the universe have a designer, but it also seems as if the sun goes around the earth, and that doesn’t make it true. We don’t need the God hypothesis to explain life or the universe, and the God hypothesis doesn’t answer any questions about the universe that don’t then immediately beg to be asked about God himself. “This had to have been designed by someone” may be the most common reason that people believe in God, but it really isn’t a very good one.

The Argument From Design — Now With 40% More Cosmology! Or, Why David Hume Rocks

Earth“This can’t have all just come into being by itself. It’s too big, too complex, too perfectly balanced. Nothing this amazing could have just come into existence on its own. It had to have been designed.”

This is the argument from design. And it’s not just for wacky creationists. According to Michael Shermer’s How We Believe, it’s the single most common reason that people give for believing in God — including progressive, rational, science-loving believers in God.

It’s the single most common argument for the existence of God. And it’s a terrible one.

I want to talk about why.

Tree_with_gardenfernsArgument 1: No, it isn’t.

The argument from design essentially says, “Look at the world, how wonderful and complex and perfectly balanced — it has to have been designed!”

The response to that argument: No, it doesn’t.

Blind_watchmakerThat’s the whole point of the theory of evolution. (Let’s start there — we’ll get to the cosmology in a minute.) If you believe in the argument from design, you really need to read about the theory of evolution a whole lot more. (I suggest The Blind Watchmaker by Richard Dawkins, easily the best explanation of modern evolutionary theory for the layperson that I’ve read.) The whole point of evolutionary theory is that it explains exactly how life came to be the complex and amazingly balanced web of interconnections that it is, with species beautifully adapted to their environments — not through design, but through natural selection and descent with modification.

Mutation_and_selection_diagramsvgSome people — mostly creationists — mistakenly see evolutionary theory as saying that life evolved by accident. Nothing could be further from the truth. Evolution is the opposite of accident. Evolutionary theory says that accidents — mutations — happen… but only the ones that help the life form survive and reproduce will get replicated in the next generation. It’s the opposite of accident. It’s a series of accidents that get filtered out through the harsh, unforgiving, entirely non-accidental process called survival of the fittest.

Puddle_with_reflectionDouglas Adams (the “Hitchhiker’s Guide” guy) summed this up beautifully in his posthumous book The Salmon of Doubt: “Imagine a puddle waking up one morning and thinking, ‘This is an interesting world I find myself in — an interesting hole I find myself in — fits me rather neatly, doesn’t it? In fact it fits me staggeringly well, must have been made to have me in it!'” That’s evolution in a nutshell. Just like the hole was not designed for the puddle, the world was not designed to fit us — we evolved to fit into the world.

Fossil_3Other people — many non-creationist theists — argue that evolution happened, but God helped it along. But there’s no evidence for that theory whatsoever. There’s no explanation as to what the mechanism for that process would be, or for how we would determine whether it’s true. And more to the point, there’s no need of it. There is an unbelievably enormous mountain of hard physical evidence — fossil records, DNA, anatomical studies, you name it — supporting the idea that evolution is entirely capable of happening all by its lonesome, as a 100% natural event with no divine intervention necessary at any point.

GalaxyAnd here’s where we come to cosmology. Still other people completely accept evolution, accept that life on earth doesn’t need God to explain it… but think that the cosmos does.

This is where David Hume comes in.

David_humeI’m going to paraphrase here, since I don’t have his books handy, and don’t feel like ordering them from Powell’s just so I can quote them in my blog. Hume argued that order and stability in the universe can easily be explained without a designer. He pointed out that, even if you start with a completely chaotic, random, unstable universe, given enough time some forms are going to come into being, purely by chance, that are stable and orderly. And because they’re stable and orderly, they’re going to last longer than the forms that are unstable and chaotic.

SieveTherefore, given the filtering process that you naturally get from huge gobs of time (I’m pretty sure that’s how Hume put it), you’ll eventually have a universe with fewer and fewer unstable and disorderly forms, and more and more stable and orderly ones.

Origin_of_speciesBear in mind — Hume was writing a good century before Darwin. And yet this is one of the best broad outlines of evolutionary theory to date. Especially if you add “self-perpetuating and self-replicating” to “stable and orderly.” Hume’s theory works even better then: in a chaotic universe, forms that are not just stable but good at perpetuating and replicating themselves (read: surviving and reproducing) will not only stick around but will proliferate. Hume was a goddamn genius. He rocks.

SaturnAnd the thing is, this principle DOESN’T just apply to biological life on earth. It applies to the cosmos as well. There are planets because planets are a stable form. There are stars because stars are a stable form. It’s not really evolution — it’s not descent with modification — but the filtering process over time is not at all dissimilar.

Big_bang_timelineNow, it’s true that we know far less about the cosmos than we do about life on earth. (We know a lot more than we did fifty or even five years ago, but there’s still an enormous amount we don’t know.) Why the universe developed the way it did, how it came to exist in the first place… these questions, along with “What is consciousness?” and “What, if anything, is free will?” and “Will the Cubs ever win the World Series?” are the great mysteries of our time, the great questions that science is working on but has yet to answer.

ApolloSo for about the billionth time on this blog, I’m going to cite my piece The Unexplained, the Unproven, and the Unlikely. And I will again say this: Look at the history of the world, and the history of knowledge in the world. The number of times that a once-mysterious phenomenon had a divine or supernatural explanation successfully replaced by a natural one — thousands upon thousands upon thousands. The number of times that a once-mysterious phenomenon had a natural explanation successfully replaced by a divine or supernatural one — zero.

Earth_axisTherefore, with any given unexplained phenomenon — including the nature and origin of the universe — it is about a billion times more likely that the explanation will eventually turn out to be a natural one rather than a divine or supernatural one. And David Hume’s “order out of chaos” filtering process provides an excellent basic framework for reaching that explanation.

To argue, “We don’t know exactly how this happened, therefore it’s reasonable to say that God made it happen” is called arguing from ignorance, and it’s a logical fallacy. There’s no more need to explain the cosmos with intelligent design than there is to explain life with it.

End of Part 1. In tomorrow’s conclusion: What we would do if we didn’t exist; begging the question; and what the river is trying to do.

Christian Spanking Porn

This piece originally appeared on the Blowfish Blog. I don’t really talk about my own sex life in this piece, but it may still be too much information for family members and others with, you know, boundaries. So be advised.

BeltSince this piece appeared, some changes have been made to the Christian Domestic Discipline website. The half-hearted language about consent being important for legal reasons even though the Bible doesn’t require it has been removed, and replaced with a simple, straightforward sentence that they do not condone nonconsensual CDD. And the porn (excuse me, the “Christian spanking romance fiction”) and the “CDD 101 Handbook” have either been removed entirely or moved to an area where you have to register to access. (I’m not sure, since I wasn’t willing to register.)

I doubt highly that my piece was the sole instigator of these changes, since the Christian Domestic Discipline thing was all over the blogosphere for a while, including sites with a lot more traffic than mine. But since the questionable nature of their consent and the dirty dirty nature of their stories was largely what the blogosphere commentary was focusing on (that and the crotchless pantaloons), it seems likely that these changes were made in response to that commentary and to the extensive critical traffic they no doubt received as a result.

In the case of the consent issue, I’m extremely glad that they changed the language, and can only hope that they haven’t simply removed the “wink wink, the Bible says consent isn’t required so be careful of the lawman” stuff to a less public area. In the case of the stories, I’m sorry that they’re gone, since they were weirdly hot. -GC

Christian_domestic_disciplineChristian Spanking Porn
by Greta Christina

Christian spanking porn. Not three words I ever expected to string together.

But that’s what this is. It’s not what the creators call it — but there’s no question in my mind, that’s what it is.

And I’m finding it deeply weird.

[Read more...]

Carnival of the Godless #74 and Humanist Symposium #7

Carnival_1It’s a beautiful Sunday for godless/ humanist/ naturalist/ atheist/ freethinker/ bright/ etc. blogging, as we have not one but two godless/ humanist/ etc. blog carnivals.

Carnival of the Godless #74 is up at the new Atheist FAQ blog. They were kind enough to include “Where is my Faith”: Mother Teresa and Suffering, my piece on Mother Teresa’s loss of faith and how it might have led to her obsession with suffering, and hence to the appalling conditions in her hospitals and hospices. Some pieces I especially like in the carnival: The Ridger’s I cast you in that role at The Greenbelt, which totally cuts to the heart of the “all powerful God vs. free will” problem, and vjack’s Belief Does Not Equal Truth!, at Atheist Revolution, which rips into the whole Bill Nye the Science Guy/”moon as reflected light” kerfuffle with an excellent analysis of the hypocrisy of religious extremists rejecting science while they happily accept its benefits. Neat stuff. Check it out.

Carnival_2And The Humanist Symposium #7 is up at Bligbi, with its tri-weekly collection of positive atheist thought. My faves from this one: Eric Michael Johnson’s The Sacrifice of Admetus at The Primate Diaries, about altruism as a natural phenomenon in social species; C.L. Hanson’s “He has his faults…” at Letters From A Broad, about relationships between atheists and believers; and The Ridger again, with Looking Up at The Greenbelt, on why looking up at the sky is less important than looking where you’re going. Lots of good stuff. Enjoy!