On Illness, Bodies, and This Weird Free Will Thing

Caduceus_largeSo for the last week or so, I’ve been dealing with some health issues. Nothing serious, and I’m dealing with it, so don’t anybody worry. That’s not why I’m telling you this.

Here’s why I’m telling you this. I spent much of last week pretty well flattened: in serious discomfort, occasionally verging into real pain. And I was struck — as I always am when I’m sick or injured — by how fragile I am.

I don’t just mean my body. I mean my… well, me. My selfhood, my identity. What I would call my soul, if I believed in that.

409pxglassofwaterThis is what I mean. So many of the things that are central to my identity, things I pride myself on and think of as central to my self — my optimism, my cheerful disposition, my compassion, my ability to cut people slack, my energy, my libido, my hard-workingness, my consciousness of others — all of these were shot to hell last week. I was irritable, I was lethargic, I was self-absorbed, I was whiny. I was everything I don’t like.

All because of pain.

Computer_keyboardWorse — for me, at least — I got almost no writing done. Partly because I was having abdominal pain and had a hard time sitting up, but largely because I just didn’t want to. I didn’t even want to read. I simply didn’t have it in me. I didn’t have it in me to do anything except lie flat on the sofa with a hot water bottle and watch TV.

And I started thinking: What if this were chronic?

What if I felt like this all the time?

Who would I be?

FrameI have a tendency to be a bit smug and self-righteous about my optimism and cheerfulness and whatnot. I have a tendency to see having a good nature as something you can choose. Because most of the time, that’s how it is for me. I see a situation, and I see in front of me the way of looking at it that’s suspicious and gloomy and pessimistic, and I see the way of looking at it that’s generous and hopeful… and when it’s reasonable and not obviously deluded to do so, I opt for the latter. I see optimism as a choice, a conscious way of framing your life and the world that not only makes you feel better in the short run but makes actual external things in your life better in the long run. And I get truly baffled by people who can’t or won’t do it.

SeesawaaBut when I’m sick or injured, I get a lot more humble about it. I realize that a huge amount of my ability to choose optimism is balanced on some very precarious teeter-totters: good physical health and financial stability being the most obvious. (It doesn’t help that I’m reading the new Oliver Sacks book, “Musicophilia,” and thus am reading all this stuff about the freaky ways that brain injuries can radically change the things most central to a person’s self and the things that connect them with the world. Eep.)

Hot_water_bottleI just kept thinking last week, as I got up to refill the hot water bottle for the twentieth time: If the pain I’m in became chronic, would I adjust and find a way back to my native optimism and energy, sucking up and dealing with the pain the way I suck up and deal with the other things in my life that are crummy? I’d like to think so; but I really don’t know. I know some people can. I honestly don’t know if I’m one of them. (Ingrid says there’s a large body of research on chronic pain and its effect on people’s selves and lives and freedom; and not surprisingly, that effect is Not Good.)

And would I even have developed my native optimism in the first place if I hadn’t spent most of my life in pretty good physical health? Again, I’d like to think so; but I really don’t know.

HandsI think this is important stuff for atheists and humanists and naturalists. This is the thing that was really striking me when I was on the sofa with the hot water bottle. If there is no God and no soul, and everything we are is comprised of physical things and the relationships between physical things… then when you change those physical things, the self changes as well. Our selves are not in our own hands nearly as much as we like to think.

Skinner_boxI’m not saying that we don’t have any responsibility for ourselves and the choices we make. I think we do. I’m not quite sure what, if anything, this weird free will stuff is — I don’t think anyone does at this point — but I do think that we have something resembling free will and moral accountability. And unless a preponderance of evidence piles up showing that human beings really are just elaborate stimulus-response machines, I’m going to go on holding myself and others morally accountable for our choices. If I’m not responsible for how I manage my pain, then nobody is responsible for anything they do… and in the absence of a preponderance of evidence to the contrary, I’m just not willing to accept that.

Light_switch_insideWhat I am saying is this: Whatever free will is, it seems to not be a simple matter of either/or, a light switch that’s either on or off. (See the excellent On the Possibility of Perfect Humanity at Daylight Atheism for more on this.) Things happen in our lives that can limit or expand our freedom, that can broaden or diminish the choices that are available to us. Some of these are things that we can do something about; some of them really, really aren’t. And I think those of us who have a lot of choices need to remember to have compassion for people who don’t have as many.

“That’s the fun of it”: An Interview with “Best Erotic Comics” Artist Justin Hall

Bec_2008_2I’m very proud and happy to present the first in a series of interviews with the artists of Best Erotic Comics 2008. One of the things I’m most proud of with this book is the wide variety of first-rate comic artists I was able to showcase, and I was thrilled to have the chance to talk with some of them directly and find out more about how they work, how they approach comics in general and dirty comics in particular.

Today’s interview is with Justin Hall, best known for his True Travel Tales comic series, and known to Best Erotic Comics readers as the artist of the sweet, kinky, hilarious, and seriously dirty “Birthday Fuck.” Justin and I talked about the comics industry, the sex industry, the challenge of telling true stories, the balance of arousal and artistry in erotica, and lots more.

Please note: Some of the content of this interview, and some of the images illustrating it, are not appropriate for minors. If you’re under 18, please do not continue reading.

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Carnival of the Godless #85: The Dirty Version

Carnival_of_the_godlessWelcome to the 85th edition of the Carnival of the Godless! And welcome to what I believe is a first in the history of this Carnival.

Welcome to the Carnival of the Godless: The Dirty Version. (And yes, there is a clean version, for those who prefer their atheist blogging pure and wholesome.)

When I signed up to host the Valentine’s Day edition of Carnival of the Godless, I had a grand scheme for writing an actual dirty story, incorporating concepts and quotes from all the posts in the Carnival. But I soon realized that that would have been a very large project indeed; and besides, I’m not sure how appropriate it would have been to work a porn story around the item on the Down syndrome suicide bombers.

So instead, in an attempt to be only marginally inappropriate instead of wildly inappropriate, I have taken the regular Carnival… and lovingly and painstakingly illustrated it with raunchy pulp fiction cover art. I have, in fact, made every effort to make the illustrations relevant to the posts, or at least not glaringly irrelevant. (And if you think it’s easy finding a vintage pulp fiction cover to illustrate a blog post about Tacitus, you’ve got another think coming.) Enjoy!

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Two Erogenous Zones Walk Into A Bar: Sex and Humor: The Blowfish Blog

Note to family members and other who don’t much want to read about my personal sex life: While I don’t talk a ton about my personal sex life and sex history in this piece, I do somewhat. So you might not want to read it.

LaughterI have a new piece up on the Blowfish Blog. It’s about humor and laughter in porn, and humor and laughter in sex generally. And you might be surprised by my take on it. The piece is titled Two Erogenous Zones Walk Into A Bar: Sex and Humor, and here’s the teaser:

I once had a sex date with someone — a couple, actually — who wanted to have sex with Warner Brothers cartoon music in the background. They were definitely of the “people take sex too seriously, we wish they’d lighten up and have some laughs with it” camp. I liked the idea in theory… but in practice, I found the music extremely distracting. I’d be working up to a nice erotic climax, when I’d hear some comic “boing” in the background, and completely lose my momentum. I felt bad — I felt like I was one of those people they were complaining about who took sex too seriously — but it absolutely did not work for me.

So here’s what I think the problem is:

Laughter is a tension breaker.

And I don’t want the tension broken during sex.

To find out what I think about sex, humor, and why they aren’t always two great tastes that taste great together, read the rest of the piece. Enjoy!

Look, Ma, I’m On An Internet Poll!

C.L. Hanson of Letters from a Broad is doing a poll asking who the sexiest atheist blogger is… and I’m one of the seven choices.

Sexiestatheistblogger

Nifty, huh? I feel like I should change my home photo for the duration of the poll. Maybe to one of the corset photos… or maybe to my sexy, sexy Simpsons avatar.

Vote for me, don’t vote for me… but for the love of Loki, vote. It is your solemn duty as a citizen of the blogosphere. If you don’t vote for sexiest atheist blogger, the theocrats win.

The Simpsons Church Sign Generator

I ran across this when I was hunting for images to illustrate my Non-Science of Intelligent Design piece. It’s unbelievably nifty, and I thought I should share the wealth and the glory.

Simpsons_church_1It’s the Simpsons Church Sign Generator.

It’s a website/ widget that lets you put any text you want onto the sign in front of the Simpsons church. Blasphemy, obscenity, stupid jokes, football scores, total gibberish — whatever you want. As long as the text fits… and you can change the font size, so it’s fairly easy to get longer or shorter text fitting snugly into the sign.

Like this:

Simpsons_church_3

Or this, from the Duelling Billboards comment thread (thanks, Mark!):

Simpsons_church_5

Or this, inspired by my cat’s newfound worship of the Norse gods:

Simpsons_church_4

I’ve used other image generators before for this blog — most notably a gravestone generator and a newspaper headline generator. But this one totally takes the prize, and I suspect that you’ll be seeing a lot of it in the months to come.

BTW, the Simpsons Church Sign Generator site does link to some regular Church Sign Generator sites as well, using photographs of actual church signs as their templates. But somehow, that doesn’t seem right to me. I don’t like having words put in my mouth, and I don’t feel right putting my words in the mouth of actual, literal churches.

I am, however, perfectly happy to put my words in the mouth of the Reverend Lovejoy. Fictional ministers seem like fair game to me.

So go forth and spread the gospel of the Good Reverend Lovejoy. Whatever you decide that is. And if you put your own made-up Simpsons church signs on your blog, please drop me a comment and let me know.

Pressure Points

I don’t talk about my personal sex life a lot in this piece, and I don’t talk about it in much detail; but I talk about it a little, in fairly general terms. Family members and others who don’t want to read about my personal sex life — use your own judgment on this one. This piece was originally published on the Blowfish Blog.

“If you won’t have sex with me, I’m going to break up with you.”

PressureThis is supposed to be one of the meanest, most selfish, most manipulative things to say to someone you’re dating. In the dating books and teenage advice columns, girls and women are constantly told that if guys say this — if they insist on sex as a condition of preserving the relationship (or getting into it in the first place) — then they’re bad guys who don’t respect you and aren’t worth your time. They’re pressuring you into sex when you’re not ready for it… and that’s a bad, bad thing.

But here’s the problem.

The “I’m going to break up with you if you won’t have sex with me” thing?

I actually don’t think it’s unreasonable.

BridalsetThis is kind of a moot point for me, since I’m out of the dating scene. But if I were going out with someone — of either gender — who said they didn’t want to have sex until marriage, I’d suddenly remember an urgent appointment elsewhere, and would be out of there so fast it’d make your head spin.

Even if marriage weren’t the issue. Even if they said they wanted to date for, say, several months before having sex. If someone told me that on a first date, there wouldn’t be a second one; if they said it after a couple/few dates, they’d get the “This isn’t going to work” conversation.

And I wouldn’t consider it “pressure.”

I wouldn’t consider myself an asshole for doing it. Not in the slightest. I’d consider myself completely reasonable, and entirely within my rights.

TimetableLet me be totally clear here. Of course people have the right to have sex on their own timetable. And that includes delaying sex for months into a relationship, or even waiting until marriage. (I think that’s a bad idea for a whole lot of reasons… but people certainly have the right to do it.)

But the people that these “wait ’til marriage” people are dating? They have the right to their own sexual timetables, too. And that includes wanting sex fairly early in the relationship. Saying, “I want sex pretty soon, you don’t, so I don’t think this is going to work” isn’t the crime of the century. It’s a reasonable thing to say.

AmanipulationObviously, it’s not okay to say it in a way that’s pressuring or manipulative. It’s not okay, for instance, to use peer pressure; to say things like, “Everyone else is doing it.” And it’s not okay to make your partner feel like a bad, flawed, inadequate person for saying No, or for saying they want to wait. That is mean and selfish. It’s pretty much a textbook example of it.

Girls_under_pressureAnd obviously, I’m talking about relationships that are more or less equal: relationships between adults, or between teenagers and other teenagers. The dynamic where adults use their greater confidence and experience to manipulate teenagers — who generally have less confidence and are more vulnerable to social pressure — into having sex… that’s some fucked-up shit.

But as long as you’re respectful of your partner’s right to say No, being clear about what you do and don’t want in a relationship is reasonable and healthy. And that includes being clear about what you do and don’t want regarding sex.

BrideBesides… think about it. Why is it considered mean, manipulative pressure to say, “I won’t go out with you if we don’t have sex”… but it’s perfectly fine, virtuous even, to say, “I won’t go out with you if you won’t wait until marriage to have sex”? Why does the latter count any less as pressuring your partner into a kind of relationship they may not want?

SlashcirclesvgYou can argue that it’s different for teenagers. You can argue that teenage girls lack the confidence and ego strength to clearly state what they want in a relationship, they they’re extra-vulnerable to social pressure and the desire for attention and affection… so it’s important to teach them that it’s okay to say No.

Green_lightSo fine, let’s teach them that. Do we also have to teach them that it’s not okay to say Yes? And that the boys in their lives who want them to say Yes are selfish, manipulative jerks who don’t respect them and are just using them for sex?

GatesBecause of course, this issue consistently gets presented as if boys or men are always the beastly animals who want the sex, and girls or women are always the ones holding out, the virtuous gatekeepers of sexual morality. The idea that women might want sex, too? That women might be the ones with ants in our pants? It’s apparently inconceivable to the folks writing the dating advice. (As is homosexuality or bisexuality… but that’s a rant for another day.)

Alarm_clockWell, count me as one big counter-example. I’ve always liked to have sex fairly early in a relationship. Even as a teenager. Sex is important to me, and I don’t want to spend years, or months, or even very many weeks, dating someone if the sex isn’t going to work. I want to know early on if we’re sexually compatible. And besides, I’m a horny bugger. I want sex because I want it. Sex, like virtue, is its own reward.

And I’m sick unto death of being told that my libido is either freakish or non-existent. I hated it when I was a teenager, and I hate it now.

Just like guys who date women are sick of being told that their libidos make them bad, selfish, manipulative boyfriends.

Hand_writingSo let’s rewrite this dating rule, shall we?

Let’s delete, “If a guy says he’s going to break up with you if you won’t have sex with him, then he’s a mean, selfish, manipulative jerk who doesn’t respect women, and you’re better off without him.” Let’s strike it out of the dating advice database forever.

And let’s replace it with something like this:

“If the person you’re dating — regardless of gender — wants sex a lot sooner than you do, that’s probably a sign that you’re not compatible.

“And if they want to delay sex a lot longer than you want to, that’s also probably a sign that you’re not compatible.

“You have a right to your own sexual timetable — and so does the person you’re dating.”

(I developed this piece in a comment thread on the Friendly Atheist blog. So thanks, dude.)

Darwin Day, Judgment Day, and the Non-Science of Intelligent Design

Happy Darwin Day, everybody!

I’ve been meaning to blog about this for a while, and I realize I’m very late to the party. But Darwin Day seemed like the perfect opportunity.

Judgement_dayI want to talk about the PBS program “Nova”
 and their episode about the Dover trial on teaching intelligent design in the public schools, “Judgment Day: Intelligent Design On Trial.” (They have an entire web page about the episode, and the program is available to watch online (as are the transcripts.)

I could easily blog about this program for pages. It was one of the best summaries I’ve seen or read of both the science and the controversy surrounding the Dover trial, and I strongly recommend it to everyone. But in the interest of brevity, I want to focus on what jumped out at me most dramatically from the program.

It’s this: Intelligent design is not science.

CreationismI don’t even mean that it’s bad science. I mean that it’s not science at all. The theory is not a scientific theory, and its proponents do not engage in the activities of science. It is, purely and entirely, an attempt to provide a scientific cover story for getting religion taught in public schools. And when its proponents testified under oath that ID is not based on religious beliefs or convictions, they — how exactly shall I put this? — lied.

The theory isn’t a scientific theory for some fairly obvious reasons, reasons which I already knew about going into “Judgment Day.” It’s not testable; it’s not falsifiable; it doesn’t make predictions; any possible outcome can be explained by the theory. All of that, just by itself, makes it not a science.

BlindfoldAnd it’s also not science in the sense that its practitioners either are not familiar with, or spectacularly ignore, the current scientific information, even in the areas they’re most focused on. (They are, for instance, obsessed with the bacterial flagellum and its supposed irreducible complexity, how it could not possibly have evolved from previous forms… without, apparently, being familiar with the current scientific thinking on how, precisely, the flagellum probably evolved.)

ManusingmicroscopeBut what really struck me was how dramatically intelligent design is not science… not just in theory, but in a practical, physical, day-to-day sense. Its proponents do not engage in science. They do not engage in experiments to test their theories.

And as a prime example of this, I’m going to quote a section from the trial transcript (as taken from the PBS Website): an interchange between ID proponent Scott A. Minnich and the lawyer for the plaintiffs, Robert Muise.

ROBERT MUISE (Dramatization): Now, Dr. Minnich, a complaint that’s often brought up — and plaintiffs’ experts have brought it up in this case — is that intelligent design is not testable. It’s not falsifiable. Would you agree with that claim?

SCOTT A. MINNICH (Dramatization): No, I don’t. I have a quote from Mike Behe: “In fact, intelligent design is open to direct experimental rebuttal. To falsify such a claim, a scientist could go into the laboratory, place a bacterial species lacking a flagellum under some selective pressure, for motility, say, grow it for 10,000 generations and see if a flagellum or any equally complex system was produced. If that happened my claims would be neatly disproven.”

ROBERT MUISE (Dramatization): Is that an experiment that you would do?

SCOTT A. MINNICH (Dramatization): You know, I think about it. I’d be intrigued to do it. I wouldn’t expect it to work. But that’s my bias.

STEPHEN HARVEY (Dramatization): Now you claim that intelligent design can be tested, correct?

SCOTT A. MINNICH (Dramatization): Correct.

STEPHEN HARVEY (Dramatization): Intelligent design, according to you, is not tested at all, because neither you nor Dr. Behe have run the test that you, yourself, advocate for testing intelligent design, right?

SCOTT A. MINNICH (Dramatization): Well, turn it around in terms of these major attributes of evolution. Have they been tested? You see what I’m saying, Steve? It’s a problem for both sides.

Science_magazineI’m not just going to point out that Minnich is flatly mistaken here, that the theory of evolution can be tested, and has been tested extensively. And I’m not going to go into detail about why I think he’s mistaken about ID, why ID isn’t actually testable or falsifiable. (Very short answer: If the flagellum developed in the experimental example he gave, they could always say, “Well, okay, the flagellum didn’t need an intelligent designer — but what about this other thing over here?”)

What I want to point out is this:

Minnich believes himself that ID is a testable theory. He’s even thought of an experiment he could do that might falsify the theory.

But has he done that experiment?

He has not.

Scientific_method_2This is what I mean by ID not being science. That’s not what scientists do. When scientists have a theory, and an idea for an experiment that could show that theory to be false, they run the experiment. The fact that the ID proponents have not done this makes it clear as day: Whatever they’re doing, it’s not science. It’s not a scientific theory, and it’s not a scientific practice.

It is, instead, a religious belief: a belief in a supernatural power that interferes with natural processes. And one of the most dramatic parts of “Judgment Day” was the way it showed the ID proponents being caught red-handed at it.

Of_pandas_and_peopleThe program reveals smoking gun after smoking gun after smoking gun. Statements by ID proponents slipping and using the word “creationism.” Drafts of an ID book that originally read “creationist” having the word replaced with “design proponent” (including places with the transitional fossil, “Cdesign proponentsists”). The publisher’s catalog of said book listing it under “Creation Science.” Documents showing that ID books had been sent to the Dover public schools by a fundraising drive in the local church. Internal documents from the ID organization The Discovery Institute stating that they want to change American culture back to a religious foundation and plan to use ID as a wedge to accomplish this goal.

Church_signI could go on an on. The evidence is overwhelming: Intelligent design is not science. Intelligent design is a way of getting around the Supreme Court decisions banning creationism from being taught in public schools. Intelligent design is a religious belief, and it differs from science in all the ways that religion differs from science. The evidence is overwhelming… just like the evidence for evolution is overwhelming.