The Case of the Missing Bisexual

This piece was originally published on the Blowfish Blog. I never reprinted it here, for reasons that now escape me. But the Blowfish Blog archives are apparently no longer on the Internets, and the original piece is no longer available. So in the interest of completism and making all my published works accessible, I’m going ahead and posting it here.

Missing bisexual Harebrained speculation time:

Why aren’t there more “true” bisexuals? (“True” in quotation marks — so please don’t all start yelling at me.)

One of the interesting puzzles about sexual orientation is the way it’s distributed in the population. It’s very far from a neat bell curve, with a few heterosexuals and homosexuals at either end, and a big peak in the bisexual middle. It’s not even a slanty bell curve, peaking sharply at “more or less heterosexual” and sloping down gradually towards “more or less homosexual.”

Instead, it’s a double bell curve — with one peak near “leaning towards straight,” and another, smaller peak near “leaning towards gay.” (The height and shape and location of these peaks vary depending on who’s doing the study… but the basic “double bell curve with one high peak and one low” pattern seems to hold pretty steady.)

Translation: Very few people are strictly straight or strictly gay… but most people do have something of a preference for one gender or the other. Quote unquote “true” bisexuals, people who are attracted to women and men equally, are fairly rare. Even if we take self-identification out of the picture — even if we define orientation purely on the basis of desire or behavior — we still see this tendency.

Why would this be?

If sexual orientation were entirely genetic — if there were some evolutionary reason for humans to be more heterosexual than not but to have some fluidity around that — why would we have the double peaks? Wouldn’t we just have the slanty bell curve, peaking around 1 or 1.5 on the 0-to-6 Kinsey scale, and gradually curving down towards 6? Why would we have a small second peak at around 4.5 or 5?

DNA_double_helix I freely acknowledge that there might be some good genetic reason for this “double bell curve” phenomenon, one that we just don’t know yet. I’ll even acknowledge that there might be some good genetic reason for this phenomenon, one that somebody else knows but that I don’t. I’m definitely not a sexual orientation constructionist (translation: person who thinks orientation is entirely constructed by society). The science is still shaking out, but it does seem to be pointing to genetics as at least a significant factor in determining which gender or genders we like to boff. And it might well turn out that genetics play an important role in this “double peak” pattern.

But I’ll also say this:

I think it’s quite plausible that the double peak is entirely cultural.

And there are two specific cultural trends that I think may be skewing our orientations towards the two peaks.

Got-Homophobia The first is homophobia… and the way it’s sorted our culture into Straight and Gay. The two mix and overlap, of course — straight people have gay friends, and vice versa — but they’re still distinct social categories. Especially in parts of the country and the world that are more homophobic. Because of homophobia, people who lean towards being queer have a strong need to create a gay culture, a community shaped around sexual and romantic desire towards people of the same sex. And of course, because of homophobia, straight people have historically shunned queers — and have denied any queer tendencies in themselves. This has improved dramatically, but it’s only improved fairly recently, and it does still go on today.

So because society has sorted itself into two intermingling but distinct groups — Gay and Straight — people somewhere in the middle often feel a need to pick one. There is a bisexual community, but it’s nowhere near as visible, or as well-organized, as either the straight or gay worlds. And it can be very hard to drift back and forth between those two worlds. People whose natural orientations lie close to the middle of the scale — say, a 2.5 or 3.5 on the scale of 0 to 6 — often wind up picking a side, and more or less sticking to it.

And that tendency can be self-perpetuating. A cultural preference for straight society or the gay community can slant your sexual preference towards women over men, or vice versa. I know that I tend to get more interested in women when I’m spending more time in dyke culture, and I get more interested in men when I’m hanging around straight people more. It’s a simple matter of who’s on my mind. Not to mention who’s available. Love the one you’re with, and all that. Or lust after the one you’re with, anyway.

So that’s Harebrained Speculation Number One for the double peak.

Harebrained Speculation Number Two: Biphobia.

BiphobiaThere’s a strong bias against bisexuals in both straight and gay cultures. Gay culture tends to see bisexuals as traitors, fence-sitters, kinky thrill-seekers, people who can’t commit either politically or personally. Straight society tends to see bisexuals as fickle, unreliable, secretly gay people who just can’t admit it. Plus straights often see us as promiscuous… and, of course, in the age of AIDS, they see us as vectors of disease. And both gays and straights tend to see us as confused, experimenting, “going through a phase.”

All of which exacerbates people’s tendency to sort into gay or straight culture. The strong biases against bisexuality — from both gays and straights — push many people to pick one camp or the other… people who might not otherwise need or want to. People who might have identified as bisexual can internalize this biphobia, and decline to call themselves bi. And people who privately identify as bi are often reluctant to do so publicly.

So largely because of homophobia from the straight world, we have a tendency to sort ourselves into straight society and the gay community. Because of biphobia from both straight and gay cultures, this tendency gets exaggerated. And this cultural tendency gets transformed into personal sex behavior and desire… which then turns into a self-perpetuating feedback loop. Hence, the “double peak” pattern in our sexual orientations — a pattern that might be much less pronounced, and might not even be there at all, if these social trends weren’t there.

I’m not sure how you’d test this hypothesis. But here’s what I’d expect to see if it were true:

Rainbow_earth_flag If it were true, then in parts of the world that were less homophobic — and less biphobic — I’d expect to see a less vividly pronounced double peak. (If the less-homophobic, less-biphobic trend had been happening for long enough, anyway.)

And if it were true, then if society continues to become less homophobic — and less biphobic — over the coming decades, I’d also expect to see the strong double peaks soften and flatten towards a more standard slanty bell curve.

It might not flatten out entirely. Again, there may be some genetic reasons for the double peak in the bell curve, ones that we don’t know about. And even in an entirely non-homophobic, non-biphobic society, we still might have something of a cultural tendency to sort into gay and straight cultures. For dating/ cruising purposes if nothing else. But I think without these cultural factors, this double peak would very likely flatten out significantly.

I’m not saying “everyone is basically bisexual.” I think that’s bullshit. Some people are clearly not bisexual. Some people are clearly gay or straight. And even though most people do have at least some capacity to be attracted to both/all genders, that still doesn’t make them “basically bisexual.” Sexual identity is complicated — it’s about political identity, cultural identity, sexual history, romantic and relationship preferences, etc., as well as basic sexual attraction. And when people are deciding which identity (if any) works best for them, they get to decide for themselves which of these factors gets priority. I don’t want someone insisting that I’m “basically lesbian” because I’m currently hovering around 5 on the Kinsey scale — so I’m not going to insist that someone else is “basically bisexual” because they’re currently hovering around 4.

Bisexual symbol So I’m not saying “everyone is basically bisexual.” I’m saying that, at least for those of us in the wide sloppy middle of the Kinsey scale, sexual orientation is at least somewhat malleable. Like I wrote in my piece, The Learned Fetish, the finer points of our sexual desires can be shaped by our experiences as adults — even if the basic outlines are set early on.

I’m not sure why I think this is important. I’m not sure the answer would have any effect in figuring out social policy or political strategy or dating strategy, or any other practical decisions we might make about sex. I’m even not sure that it is important, except that figuring out what is and isn’t true about reality is always important.

But I sure do think it’s interesting.

So what do you think? If you lean more towards one end of the Kinsey scale, do you think you might lean more towards the middle if society weren’t so divided into Gay and Straight? And if you’re already pretty squarely in the middle, do you think you’d have had an easier time getting there if it weren’t for the two camps?

Sex Addiction or Sexual Compulsion?

This piece was originally published on the Blowfish Blog. I wasn’t planning to reprint it here, since after it came out some errors in it were called to my attention (specifically on the neuroscience of addiction). But the Blowfish Blog archives are apparently no longer on the Internets, and the original piece is no longer available. So in the interest of completism and making all my published works accessible, even the ones I no longer totally support or that are no longer relevant, I’m going ahead and posting it here.

Sad silhouetteLet’s start with something we can all agree on. Some people have a hard time controlling their sexual behavior. Some people have sex in ways that damage themselves, and damage others… and they keep doing it anyway. Some people pursue sex — specific sexual activities, or just any kind of sexual pleasure generally — in ways that seriously interfere with their lives: ways that screw up their relationships, or create financial hardship, or even injure their health. And despite this harm, despite the fact that their behavior is making them unhappy, they don’t seem to be able to control themselves, and they keep doing it anyway.

I don’t think anyone would disagree with that.

Does this mean these people are “sex addicts”?

My immediate answer is No.

And my non-immediate answer, my answer after long and careful consideration, is also No.

No, no, no, no, no.

Abso-fucking-lutely not.

The right word for this behavior is “compulsive.” Or “obsessive.” Or “fixated.” Or “self-destructive.” Or “harmful.”

Why?

Why am I so passionately opposed to the very concept of “sex addiction”?

Why am I being such a stickler about this language?

Cocaine fiends Part of my problem is that the word “addiction” has a particular pharmacological meaning. It’s a specific relationship to a particular set of drugs, such as heroin or cocaine or alcohol: needing higher doses to get the same effect, withdrawal symptoms when the drug use stops, etc. It’s a fairly specific concept. And it’s a different concept from compulsive behavior, or self-destructive behavior, or having a hard time stopping a certain behavior. To say that people are “addicted” when they’re being compulsive about exercise, or working, or collecting things — or sex — is just not accurate.

But I’m not usually this much of a stickler about definitions. Quite the opposite. In fact, regular readers may be getting very confused at this point: I’m usually an ardent usagist when it comes to language, a descriptivist rather than a prescriptivist, and I’ve defended this non-stickler position with great passion and waving about of hands. I think words mean what they’re generally understood to mean by most of the people using the language, and I think it’s nonsensical to complain that a word “really” means X when most people speaking and hearing it think it means Y. I understand that the meanings of words change over time. And I’m generally fine when words with specific, technical meanings acquire different meanings in casual, colloquial conversation.

So why am I being a stickler about this one?

Why do I get my panties in a twist about the phrase “sex addiction”?

Dictionary Partly it’s because, although I am usually a happy- go- lucky usagist when word meanings change, I’m more of a stickler when a word’s original meaning is useful — and there isn’t another word to replace it. (I object to the word “literally” being used as an intensifier, for instance, not because “that’s not what the word really means,” but because we don’t have another word to express the concept that “literally” used to express.)

And this is definitely true about the word “addiction.” The concept of “a specific pharmacological relationship to certain drugs, characterized by withdrawal symptoms, needing increasingly higher doses, etc.” is a useful one. It’s a very different concept from “any sort of obsessive or compulsive behavior that people have difficulty stopping.” And while these two concepts are obviously related, the distinction between them is worth preserving.

But in the case of the word “addiction” — and especially in the case of “sex addiction” or “porn addiction” — there’s another reason I’m being a stickler. And it’s a far more important one.

The word “addiction” has, I think, certain implications. They’re implications inherent in the original technical definition of the word, and they carry over into the colloquial, casual, non-technical use.

And they’re implications I think are grossly inaccurate, wildly misleading, and seriously harmful when they get applied to sex.

Alcohol The word “addiction” refers to a specific kind of relationship: not just with drugs, but with specific drugs. Some drugs are addictive — others are not. Heroin and cocaine and alcohol, for instance, are addictive: marijuana is not. People can certainly form unhealthy relationships with weed — but those unhealthy relationships don’t include withdrawal symptoms, needing increasingly higher doses to get the same effect, etc. People can and do get those symptoms with heroin and cocaine and alcohol. That’s what addiction means.

So as a result, we tend to see addiction as being a problem that’s rooted in the substance itself. We tend to see addiction as a problem, not with the quirks of the human brain, not with the way certain human brains deal with certain drugs, but with the drugs. We’re obviously not very consistent about this — we happily demonize heroin and cocaine, while we have a much more accepting attitude towards alcohol — but we still tend to see the harmful potential of addictive drugs as somehow inherent in the drugs themselves. Maybe we shouldn’t — okay, we definitely shouldn’t — but we do. And while this isn’t the most useful attitude towards drugs humanity has ever come up with, there is a grain of truth to it. Our relationships with addictive drugs are different from our relationships with non-addictive drugs. Or they often are. I certainly don’t think it makes sense to demonize addictive drugs… but I do think it’s reasonable to acknowledge that they often have a different effect on us, and to set them apart in some ways.

But this is a very, very bad approach to take when we’re talking about sex.

Sex fiend pulp And it’s an approach that feeds into our culture’s existing demonization of sex. The concept of “sex addiction” treats sex as an experience that is inherently harmful: an experience that has financial disaster and screwed-up relationships and ruined health somehow inherent in the experience itself.

When we’re talking about people having a hard time controlling their sexual behavior, “compulsive” or “obsessive” are much better words. Because when we talk about compulsive or obsessive behavior, we understand that the problem doesn’t lie in the specific thing being obsessed about. We understand that people can get compulsive about anything: work, exercise, eating, falling in love, collecting Simpsons memorabilia. In fact, we understand that people tend to get compulsive about positive, pleasurable experiences, experiences that are central to human existence. We don’t blame work or exercise, food or love, for the fact that some people get compulsive about them.

And sex should be in that category. It’s not a substance, like heroin or alcohol, that people can form pharmacological dependencies on. It’s a fundamental human behavior, like eating or working or falling in love: a behavior that, tragically but understandably, some people get destructively compulsive about.

But when we talk about “sex addiction” — as opposed to “sexual compulsion” — it places the blame on sex itself. It treats sex, not as a positive and necessary part of human life that can sometimes go wrong, but as a dangerous and harmful substance: best avoided entirely if at all possible, to be treated like a minefield if you absolutely have to engage with it.

And that’s both denigrating to sex, and flat-out mistaken.

Sex-madness I would never deny that sex can be harmful. Anything can be harmful. And I think it’s quite possible that sex has more potential to cause harm than many other human behaviors. Sex is a powerful drive, an irrational, deeply ingrained, lizard-hindbrain urge: it has hundreds of millions of years of evolution powering it, and our fears and desires and feelings about it run deep and hard. We’re not going to be as smart or as self-controlled about it as we are about, say, collecting Simpsons memorabilia. Strong drives have more potential to go wrong, and to go wrong more badly. That’s true of hunger, and fear, and pleasure, and competition, and family loyalty, and love: these experiences are powerful — which means they have more power to screw us up.

But these experiences are also our most fundamental ones. They have the power to harm us, of course — but they also have the power to give us joy, to inspire us towards greatness, to take us out of ourselves, to connect us with our future, to keep us alive, to engage us with the world.

We’re not going to cope with the problems they create by treating them like poison… as if evil and destruction were woven into their very core.

The Fat Positive Feminist Skeptical Diet, Phase 2, Part 2: How Do You Know When Enough Is Enough?

This is Part 2 of a two-part post. In yesterday’s piece, I talked about the process of switching from weight loss to weight maintenance… including the strange attraction of the process of losing weight, and the challenges of letting go of that process and embracing lifelong weight management. Today, I talk about how you even decide what a healthy weight might be… and how loving and accepting your body is part of that decision.

Done button So, like I said yesterday: I am officially done losing weight. I’ve reached my target weight. Or, to be more accurate: I have reached the bottom of my target weight range. Or, to be even more accurate than that: I have made a final decision as to what my target weight range should even be — something I wasn’t sure of at the beginning of this project — and have reached the bottom of that range.

But how did I make that decision?

Feet on scale Deciding when to stop losing weight was an interestingly tricky question. Much trickier than I’d thought it would be. I knew I didn’t want BMI (weight to height ratio) to be my only metric of healthy weight. I knew that BMI, while a fairly good measure of healthy or unhealthy weight in populations as a whole, isn’t the best metric for individuals. It can give some good broad strokes — I knew that at five foot three and 200 pounds I should definitely lose weight, and that at 160 pounds I should probably keep going for a bit — but when it comes to the fine-tuning, it’s really not the best gauge. There’s too much variation in how people of different heights are built — different frames, different muscle masses, etc.

So once I got closer to my “ideal” BMI, I had to decide when to stop.

And I had to decide how to decide.

Which metric of healthy weight should I use? Body fat percentage? Waist circumference? Waist to hip ratio? Should I use body mass index after all? Some combination of the above?

Yoni Freedhoff (of the Weighty Matters blog), an evidence-based doctor/ weight loss expert I’ve been following and whose work I greatly respect, advises his readers not to get too hung up on external metrics. Instead, he says, we should find a weight we’re happy and healthy at, one with a calorie budget we can sustain and not be miserable with. And there’s some real value in that. When I was hovering near my “ideal” BMI and trying to decide whether to stop or keep going, one of the factors I considered was whether I could be happy dialing down my calorie budget a little more to lose a few more pounds… or whether that would restrict my eating too much for me to be happy with.

Broken plate But there are also real problems with this approach. The whole point of this weight control project is that my own instincts about what is and is not a healthy weight are pretty broken, and I can’t trust myself to make that decision without some external metrics. After all, I deluded myself for years into thinking that I was happy and healthy at 200 pounds… and that eating any less than I was eating would make me miserable. And on the other side of those broken instincts lurk eating disorders. Like I wrote yesterday, the process of losing weight itself has a strange appeal, with its constant cycle of victorious accomplishments and new goals to reach for. I could see myself coming up with a rationalization for continuing the process, even if I had no earthly health-related reason to do so. And since even at a completely healthy weight, my body still isn’t the exact perfect body I’d choose if I could, it’d be easy to delude myself into thinking that more weight loss would solve that imperfection. I could see myself deciding that I’d be happier with my body if I lost just a little more weight… and then lost a little more… and then just a little bit more after that…

Target 1 So I knew this “decide for yourself what weight you want to be” method wouldn’t work. I didn’t just want to paint a target around myself and call myself “done.” I knew that my powers of rationalization would make that a dangerous path. It’d be way too easy, if my weight slid up again (or slid too far down), for me to just keep re-painting that target at every new place that I landed. I needed some other way of deciding.

But what else? BMI isn’t great, for the reasons I detailed above. Waist-hip ratio isn’t bad, it’s pretty strongly linked to health outcomes… but the problem is that you can’t really do much about it. Spot reducing (i.e., losing weight in one particular part of your body) doesn’t work — so if you want to improve your waist-hip ratio, all you can do is lose weight, and hope you lose more of it in your waist than your hips. Waist circumference? Seems a bit weird for that number to be the same for everyone, regardless of height or frame. But sure, I’d gotten that below the danger point. Was that enough?

I decided to go with a combo of BMI, waist circumference, and body fat percentage. I figured if all three were in a healthy range, I was probably fine. So when the first two were where I wanted them to be, I signed up with a hydrostatic body fat testing company — you know, one of those places that measures your body fat percentage by dunking you in a tub of water — and got that number.

And here’s where it got interesting.

Digital-23 According to the Tub of Water Dunking Company (no, not their real name), my body fat percentage is 23%. And according to the company’s calculations and categories, this puts me squarely in the “healthy” range. In fact, it puts me close to the bottom of that range.

I had my answer. I was done.

In theory, anyway.

But according to the Tub of Water Dunking Company and their calculations and categories, my 23% body fat percentage put me very close to the “athletic” range. And the moment they told me that, I found the idea almost irresistibly appealing.

Book_Nerd I have never, in my entire life, considered myself “athletic.” I’ve always been nerdy, indoorsy, a bookworm. Growing up, I was always a fat, gawky, “last picked in gym class” kid. Even when I lost weight in my teens, even in high school and college when I was taking tons of dancing classes and getting an A in fencing — hell, even when I was dancing at the Lusty Lady peep show fifteen hours a week and making a living being professionally beautiful and sexy — I never once thought of myself as “athletic.” And now, finally, according to the Tub of Water Dunking Company, if I lost just a few more pounds of body fat, I’d officially be in that category.

And I thought: Maybe I’m not done after all. Maybe I should lose a few more pounds, and get my body fat percentage into that “athletic” range. Maybe it would be worth it to keep going, just a little bit longer.

It took some time, and some thinking, and a bit of Googling, to realize that something was very wrong here.

The Tub of Water Dunking Company had ranges for body fat percentages that they considered too high — but they didn’t have any that they considered too low. Their categories were Obese, Overfat, Healthy, Athletic, and Excellent. They had no category for You Don’t Have Enough Body Fat. They had no category for You Are Dangerously Thin And Need To Start Gaining Weight Now.

And that was very disturbing.

Body fat percentage So I did some Googling. Mostly to get a reality check on my “Yes, a 23% body fat percentage is totally healthy, you can stop losing weight now” answer… but also to get a reality check on my disturbance. And I got both. Yes, the body fat percentage range that the Tub of Water Dunking Company called “healthy” is also called “healthy” by the somewhat more reliable World Health Organization and National Institutes of Health. I really and truly didn’t have to lose any more weight. Yay!

But here’s where it gets really interesting. The body fat percentage range that the Tub of Water Dunking Company called “athletic,” the WHO and NIH call “underfat.” Yes, many athletes have a body fat percentage in this range… but athletes often have serious health problems, and sacrifice their long- term health to reach short-term goals. Serious athletic training is about achieving extraordinary feats of performance — not about good health.

And I started thinking:

Why was I so eager to be in that “athletic” range?

Why was I so eager to keep losing weight?

A lot of it, I think, has to do with what I talked about in yesterday’s post. There is a powerful appeal in the process of losing weight, and in the sense of accomplishment and approaching a concrete goal that it gave me. That’s been surprisingly hard to let go of. I also knew how much harder weight maintenance is than weight loss, and I think I was nervous about embarking on this new leg of this project that everyone says is so much more difficult. So as relieved as I was at the thought that I was done, a part of me was disappointed, even somewhat scared… and eager to jump at an excuse to keep going. And again, even at my “ideal” weight, my body still wasn’t the perfect body I would choose if I could …and since weight loss had gotten me so much closer to where I wanted my body to be, it was seductive to think that a little more weight loss would get me a little closer to that ideal.

But some of the appeal, I’m embarrassed to admit, has to do with that word “athletic” — and the feeling of validation and approval I could feel in having someone else, someone with some sort of objective eye, apply it to me.

Even if it was just the guy at the Tub of Water Dunking Company.

War of the simpsons There’s a Simpsons episode that perfectly illustrates what I’m talking about here. (Because there’s a Simpsons episode to illustrate everything important about life.) It’s the one where Homer and Marge go on the couple’s counseling retreat, and Homer sneaks off to go fishing for the legendary giant catfish the locals are obsessed with, and thus be respected and admired. When Marge asks him, “By whom?”, he answers, “Those weirdos down at the worm store!”

Why on earth did I care about those weirdos down at the worm store?

Why on earth did I care whether the guy at the Tub of Water Dunking Company thought I was an athlete?

And this is where I come back around to Yoni Freedhoff, and his “whatever weight you’re happy with and can sustain without being miserable” metric.

Foot on scale The truth is that we don’t really know what a healthy weight is. A lot of research is being done in this area, but right now, we just don’t know. There are lots of different metrics, and not much agreement about which one is best, or where on each metric it’s best to be. The answer is almost certainly a range, not a single fixed number. The range is almost certainly different for different people. And we don’t really know exactly what that range is, or how wide it might be. We have some clear ideas of what a definitely unhealthy weight is… but we don’t have a clear idea of what a healthy weight is. We have some very broad outlines… but for any given person, the question, “What should I weigh?” does not have an obvious answer.

So ultimately, I do need to take responsibility for this decision myself.

Yes, I need my decision to be evidence-based, informed by the best available research I can find. Yes, I need to avoid denialism about the serious health problems connected with overweight and obesity. (And, for that matter, denialism about the serious health problems connected with underweight and disordered eating.) Yes, I need to be aware of my human ability to rationalize and justify decisions that I find comforting and convenient. And so yes, I need to find reliable outside sources that will give me a good reality check.

Biceps But I don’t need the guy at the Tub of Water Dunking Company to tell me I’m athletic. I know I’m athletic. I pump iron three days a week, most weeks. I’m doing bicep curls with 25-pound dumbbells. I can run up a flight of stairs without getting winded or breaking a sweat. I can dance for hours, and be disappointed and ready for more when the night is over. I can bench press half my weight. (Not that I would, usually: my trainer says bench pressing is a waste of time.) And when I flex my biceps, I look like a freaking Amazon goddess. I don’t need to get my body fat percentage below some essentially arbitrary line, above which I’m just an ordinary schlub, and below which I am somehow magically transformed into Martina Navratilova.

Greta full I know I’m athletic. And more importantly: I’m healthy. My body does most of what I want it to do, most of the time. In fact, lately it’s been doing things I never in my wildest dreams would have thought to ask of it. It’s not perfect, and it never, ever will be. But it’s strong, and it’s sexy, and it’s awake and alive and happy, and it connects me intimately with this universe I love so much.

And I’m learning to be okay with that.

Also in this series:
The Fat-Positive Diet, 7/28/09
The Fat-Positive Skeptic (Part 2 of 2), 7/29/09
An Open Letter to the Fat-Positive Movement, 11/11/09
The Fat-Positive Feminist Skeptical Diet: An Update, 3/8/10
Weight Loss and Strange Emotional Stuff: The Fat-Positive Feminist Skeptical Diet, Part 2, 3/9/10
The Fat-Positive Feminist Skeptical Diet, Part 3: The Actual Diet, 3/10/10
Some Evolving Thoughts About Weight and Sex, 3/17/10 (reposted here 6/28/10)

The Fat Positive Feminist Skeptical Diet, Phase 2: Switching from Loss to Maintenance

Done I’m done.

I am officially done losing weight. I’ve reached my target weight. Or, to be more accurate: I have reached the bottom of my target weight range. Or, to be even more accurate than that: I have made a final decision as to what my target weight range should even be (something I wasn’t sure of at the beginning of this project), and have reached the bottom of that range. My goal was to get my weight between 135 and 140 pounds; as of this writing, I weigh 135. I’m done. I am off of weight loss… and am now on what everyone informs me is the much harder project of life-long weight management.

As I always do when I write about this stuff, I promise yet again: This is not going to turn into a weight control blog. If you want to know the details of how I lost the weight, you can read them here: but I’m not going to bore you every day, or indeed every month, with the tedious details of what I’m eating and how much I weigh and how I feel about it all. I’d rather lock myself in a box with snakes. And as I always do when I write about this, I want to make it clear: I’m not evangelizing about weight loss for every fat person. I know that weight loss takes a lot of work, I know that it’s harder for some people than others, and I think the cost/ benefit analysis of whether that work is worth it will be different for everybody.

But enough of you have been interested in the other writing I’ve done about this project, so I wanted to update you on where I’ve gotten… and where I’m going from here.

Road_work_sign Or, to be accurate, where I think I’m going from here. Because everything I’ve read tells me that, as difficult as it is to lose weight, it’s more difficult by an order of magnitude to keep it off. Lots of people lose weight; relatively few people lose weight and keep it off. It does happen, but it’s less common by far. I do have some ideas of what I need to do (and not do) to make this work: I’ve done a lot of reading about this, I know what many of the pitfalls and success strategies are, and since forewarned is forearmed, I feel reasonably confident that I’ll be able to make this happen. But this part of the project is very new to me — I’ve only been on maintenance for a couple of weeks now — and this post is going to have a lot more questions in it than answers.

Lose it The first question, of course, is, “What am I going to do to maintain my weight?” And in an entirely practical sense, that question has a very simple answer: I’m going to do exactly what I did to lose the weight in the first place. I’m counting calories, and I’m exercising almost every day. The only difference — and I mean the only difference — is that my daily calorie budget is a little higher. I am not changing anything else… and I don’t plan to.

Couch_potato Everything I’ve read about maintaining weight loss says the same thing: One of the biggest mistakes people make with weight loss is that they think they’re done. They think that, once they’ve lost the weight, they can go back to their same old eating and exercise habits. And their old habits are what got them to gain the weight in the first place. As I’ve said many times when I’ve written about this topic: Our “natural” food instincts cannot be trusted. Our “natural” food instincts evolved 100,000 years ago on the African savannah, in an environment of food scarcity, and they are not capable of coping with a food environment where Snickers bars are easily and cheaply available on every street corner. Our “natural” food instincts are dummies. That’s just reality. Weight control isn’t something you do once and then forget about. It’s a permanent lifestyle change. Like any lifestyle change, it becomes less self-conscious and more automatic as time goes on… but it’s still a permanent lifestyle change, and not a one-time project. (That’s why it’s so important for weight loss programs to be sustainable: if you lose weight, but don’t learn healthy eating and exercise habits that you’ll be happy with for life, it’s not going to work in the long run,) When people stop consciously managing their weight, and go back to their old unconscious eating habits, they gain the weight back.

Peets-freddos And I can see exactly how that could happen. The day I decided, “I’m done,” one of the first thoughts that came rushing into my head was, “Woo hoo! Now I can go have a frappuccino at Peet’s! I can get a double cheeseburger with fries at the Double Play! I can eat anything I want! I’m not losing weight anymore!”

Fortunately, forewarned is forearmed. I knew this was coming. And I knew it was a bad, bad idea. I knew that this inner “Woo hoo!” was the siren song leading me back to 200 pounds. So I ignored it. I kept up my program. The day I decided, “I’m done,” I ate exactly as I would have if I’d still been on the weight loss program. I think I ate a cookie, and let myself go over budget by about 50 calories. (Both of which are things I did fairly often, even when I was on weight loss.) I’ve since dialed up my calorie budget slightly, and am still trying to decide what it ultimately ought to be… but the nuts and bolts of my program are the same. Counting calories; staying within a daily calorie budget; exercising almost every day.

Doll tape measure But weirdly, and very unexpectedly, the other thought that rushed into my head when I decided I was done was, “You could lose a little more.”

“Come on.” the voice said. “Keep going. Five more pounds, and you’d be a Size 6! Ten more pounds, and your body fat percentage would be in the ‘Athletic’ range! You can do it!”

This wasn’t about anorexia, or any other body image distortion. I didn’t think I was too fat, or even fat at all. This was about being weirdly attached to the process of losing weight. The little victories, the sense of accomplishment, the feeling of having a goal that I was getting closer and closer to every week… that’s been very deeply satisfying. And it’s been strangely hard to let go of. As difficult as this process has been, I’m going to miss it. I clearly have to find some Zen-like way of seeing ongoing weight management as a victorious goal in itself. (I’m thinking anniversaries. Celebrating six months of maintenance, a year of maintenance, two years, three years… those are goals, too. And getting to a year of successfully maintaining weight loss will mean getting to sign up for the National Weight Control Registry… and I’m enough of a nerd to think that will be loads of fun.)

Attention What’s more, the process of losing weight has been bringing me attention and compliments that ongoing weight management probably isn’t going to provide. There’s going to come a time when the people I’ve known for years are finally used to the weight loss, and they’re going to stop mentioning it. And new people I meet aren’t going to know that I ever looked any different. I do have seriously mixed feelings about the compliments — there is a “What was I before, chopped liver?” quality to them that annoys me — but they’re still compliments, and I know I’m going to miss them when they start to fade.

And some of it is just a mental habit I need to break. For a year and a half now, I’ve been thinking that losing weight was Good, and that maintaining the same weight was Not Good. I now need to unlearn that mental habit, and learn the new one. Maintaining Weight Good. Maintaining Weight From Week To Week = Success.

But there’s another reason the “losing weight” part of this project is proving hard to let go of.

It’s that I now, officially, have to accept my body the way it is.

Road ahead For many months now — for the year and half since I’ve been on this project — I’ve been very focused, not on what my body was like at the moment, but on what I was trying to get it to be. Don’t get me wrong: I’ve been very happy with my body during this process. I’ve actually been happier with my body during this process than I’ve been in a long time. I’ve been getting tremendous pleasure out of my body, and I’ve had many, many stretches of being intensely present in it, and very much in the moment with it. But as much as I’ve been enjoying my body, I’ve also been very focused on the goal of getting it to a different place. And it was easy to displace any anxiety or unhappiness I had about my body onto my weight… and to assume that, as the weight dropped, the unhappiness would too.

And some of it has. A lot of it has. But it’s not like my body is now the exact perfect body I would choose if I had the power to. I still have a flat butt, droopy breasts, chronic middle- aged- lady health problems I won’t bore you with (nothing life-threatening, just annoying). Since I’ve been losing weight, a lot of my anxiety about my body has transferred from my size to my age — something I really can’t do anything about. And the weight loss itself has brought on a few changes in my body that I’m not thrilled with. (Have we talked yet about loose skin? Oy fucking vey.)

Peace So now that I’m officially done losing weight, I have to accept it: This is the body I have. Sure, there are a few things I can tinker with still — getting my abs stronger, my legs more muscled, my bicep curls back up to 25 pound dumbbells and maybe even higher. But when it comes right down to it, this is my body. It’s not going to change that much, except for a few gradual changes from strength and stamina training, and the gradual changes of getting older. I have to learn to accept it, and to love it, and to find peace in it. I am way, way happier with my body than I have been for years; it works better, it feels better, and I’ll admit that I think it looks better. But it’s not perfect. And it never, ever will be.

And I have to learn to be okay with that.

To be continued tomorrow. In the meantime: If any of you have been through this process, I’d love to hear what you have to say about it. If you’ve lost weight and kept it off successfully, I’d like to hear what maintenance strategies have worked for you; if you’ve lost weight but then gained it back again, I’d like to hear what you think made maintenance harder. Forewarned is forearmed.

Born or Learned? Sexuality, Science, and Party Lines

On Sunday, AOL news — perhaps not the best source of science reporting on this beautiful green earth — reported on a study supposedly showing that gay parents are more likely to have gay kids. Unfortunately, some of the responses I’ve seen from the LGBT community have focused, less on whether the science in question is sound (it seems likely that it’s not), but on whether the conclusions of this study are likely to hurt our cause. So it seemed like a good time to revive this piece from the archives, on the dangers of criticizing science simply because it reaches conclusions we don’t like.

Baby_2When I first came out into the gay community, one of the most common party lines going around was, “Gay parents aren’t any more likely to have gay kids than straight parents.” Some of the big political battles being fought at the time had to do with gay parenting, and the community was trying to reassure/ convince the straight world that it was “safe” for gay people to have and raise kids, that our kids wouldn’t be any more likely to be gay than anyone else’s. (Of course, many of us personally thought, “So what if our kids turn out gay? There’s nothing wrong with being gay, so why does it matter?” But we knew the straight world didn’t feel that way. Hence, the line.)

Dna_double_helix_horizontalNot too long after that, I started hearing the party line, “Being gay isn’t a choice — we’re born that way.” Again, this was used in political discussions and debates, as a way of putting anti-gay discrimination in the same civil rights camp as racist or sexist discrimination… and as a way of gaining sympathy. Now, this would seem to be in direct contradiction with the “Gay parents aren’t any more likely to have gay kids” line. If people are born gay, doesn’t that mean it’s genetic, and doesn’t that mean gay parents are more likely to have gay kids? But in fact, these two party lines overlapped. I heard them both at the same time for quite a while… and I never heard a good explanation for why they weren’t contradictory. (Please see addendum at the end of this post for clarification of this point.)

Then I started hearing the strict constructionist line. “Sexual orientation is a social construct,” it said. “Our sexuality is formed by our culture. All that ‘we’re born that way’ stuff — that’s biological determinism, rigid, limiting, a denial of the fluid nature of sexuality and sexual identity.” (I am embarrassed to admit that I bought and sold this line myself for quite some time, in a pretty hard-line way… solely because I liked the idea.)

ArgueAnd now… well, now it’s kind of a mess. Some in the queer community say, “it’s genetic,” and argue that this is a core foundation of our fight for acceptance. Others fear that the “genetic” argument will lead to eugenics, parents aborting their gay fetuses, the genocide of our community. The constructionist line about rigidity and determinism still gets a fair amount of play. And more and more I’m starting to hear the combination theory: sexual orientation is shaped partly by genetics, partly by environment, and may be shaped differently for different people.

And in all of these debates and party lines, here’s what I never heard very much of:

Evidence to support the theory.

Or, to be more precise: Solid evidence to support the theory. Carefully gathered evidence. Evidence that wasn’t just anecdotal, that wasn’t just personal experience.

The line of the day — and the debates in our community surrounding it — always seemed to be based primarily on personal feeling and political expedience. I’d occasionally hear mention of twin studies or gay sheep or something… but that was the exception, not the rule. And the line has shifted around over the years, based not on new evidence, but on shifting political needs, and shifting ways that our community has defined itself.

Man_using_microscopeI am profoundly disturbed by the ease with which many in the queer community are willing to dismiss the emerging science behind this question. Yes, of course, scientists are biased, and the research they do often reflects their biases. But flawed as it is, science is still the best method we have for getting at the truth of this question (and any other question about physical reality). Double-blinding, control groups, randomization of samples, replication of experiments, peer review: all of this has one purpose. The scientific method is deliberately designed to filter out bias and preconception, as much as is humanly possible.

It’s far from perfect. No reputable scientist would tell you otherwise. Among other things, it often takes time for this filtering process to happen. And it completely sucks when the filtering process is happening on your back: when you’re the one being put in a mental institution, for instance, because scientists haven’t yet figured out that homosexuality isn’t a mental illness. But when you look at the history of science over time, you see a consistent pattern of culturally biased science eventually being dropped in the face of a preponderance of evidence.

Biological_exuberanceAnd if you’re concerned about bias affecting science, I think it’s important to remember that many of the scientists researching this question are themselves gay or gay-positive. We can no longer assume that scientists are “them,” malevolent or ignorant straight people examining us like freakish specimens. Many of them are us… and if they’re not, they’re our allies. Yes, science often reflects current cultural biases… but right now, the current cultural biases are a lot more gay-positive than they used to be. And that’s even more true among highly educated groups such as the scientific community.

But more to the point: What other options are being offered? How else do we propose to answer this question? Or any other question about the possible causes of human behavior? If answering it based on science is subject to bias, then isn’t answering it based on our own feelings and instincts even more subject to bias? How can we accuse scientists of bias in their attempts to answer this question — and use that accusation as a reason to dismiss the science — when our own responses to the question have been so thinly based on evidence, and so heavily based on personal preference and political expedience?

Deconstruction_for_beginnersUnless you’re going to go with the hard-core deconstructionist argument that there is no reality and all of our perceptions and experiences are 100% socially constructed, then you have to accept that the question, “Is sexual orientation genetically determined, learned, or a combination of both — and if a combination, how much of each, and how do they work together?”… well, it’s a question with an answer. It’s not a matter of opinion. And it’s exactly the kind of question that science is designed to answer: a question of cause and effect in the physical world.

I’m not a scientist myself. But I’ve been following this question in the science blogs for a little while now. And as best I can tell, here’s the current scientific thinking on this question:

1) Sexual orientation is probably determined by some combination of genetics and environment (with in utero environment being another possible factor). (Here, btw, is a good summary of the current scientific research on this topic, and how it evolved.)

2) We really don’t know yet. The research is in the early stages. It’s probably a combination of genetics and environment… but we really don’t know that for sure, and we don’t know which factor is more influential, or how they work together, or whether different people are shaped more by one factor and others by the other. We just don’t know.

Evidence_posterBut I’ve said it before, and I will say it again: We should not be thinking about this question on the basis of which answer we would like to be true. We should not be thinking about this question on the basis of which answer we find most politically useful. We should be thinking about this question on the basis of which answer is true. We should be thinking about this question on the basis of which answer is best supported by the evidence.

Biology_for_christian_schoolsIf we don’t, then we are no better than the creationists, refusing to accept evolution because it screws up their view of the world. We are no better than the 17th century Catholic Church, refusing to accept that the Earth revolves around the Sun because it contradicted their theology. We are no better than the Bush administration, refusing to recognize clear warnings about Iraq and Katrina and global warming because it got in the way of their ideological happy thoughts. We are no better than the “Biology for Christian Schools” textbook, which states on Page 1 that, “If [scientific] conclusions contradict the Word of God, the conclusions are wrong, no matter how many scientific facts may appear to back them.”

If we expect the straight world to accept the reality of our community, the reality that our lives and relationships and families are as healthy and stable as any other, then we ourselves need to be a committed part of the reality-based community. And we therefore need to accept the reality of the causes of our orientation… whatever that reality turns out to be.

So why don’t we try a different angle for a while. Maybe something like this:

“We don’t really know what causes sexual orientation. And we don’t think it matters. It’s probably a combination of genetics and environment, but until more research is done, we don’t really know for sure. And we don’t think it matters. It’s an interesting question, one many people are curious about — but it doesn’t really matter. Homosexuality doesn’t harm anybody, and it doesn’t harm society, and our relationships are as healthy and stable and valid as anybody else’s… and it isn’t anybody’s business but our own.

Vows“We deserve rights and recognition because we are human beings and citizens: as much as racial minorities, whose skin color is inborn, and as much as religious minorities, whose religion or lack thereof is learned. The ‘born versus learned’ question is a fascinating one, with many possible implications about human consciousness generally. But it has absolutely no bearing on questions like job discrimination, or adoption of children by same-sex couples, or whether we should be able to marry. We don’t yet know the answer to this question… but for any practical, political, social, or moral purposes, it absolutely does not matter.”

*****

Addendum: As several commenters to the original post pointed out, it is actually possible for a trait (such as sexual orientation) to be genetically caused or influenced, and still not be any more likely for parents with that trait to have kids with it than parents without it. Fair point, and worth knowing. But I think my basic point about party lines, and the prioritization of political expedience over scientific evidence,still stands. After all, we didn’t know that in the early ’90s. Geneticists may have known it, I don’t know — but lay people in the queer community definitely didn’t. And yet we were still willing to repeat both tropes: the “we’re born that way” trope and the “gay parents aren’t any more likely than straight parents to have gay kids” trope.

Why Near Death Experiences Are a Terrible Argument for the Soul

This piece was originally published on Alternet.

Soul leaving body “But when people are near death, they have out- of- body experiences. Some of them, anyway. Doesn’t this prove that there’s an immaterial soul, separate from the body, that leaves the body and survives when we die?”

As I’ve written before: Most arguments for spiritual belief that I encounter are so bad, they don’t even count as arguments. But some believers in religion or spirituality do try to make real arguments for their beliefs, and try to defend them with evidence and logic. This evidence and logic are never very good… but they are sincere attempts to engage with reality instead of ignoring it. So I want to do these argumemts the honor of taking them seriously… and pointing out how they’re completely mistaken.

Today, I’m taking on, not an argument for God, but for some sort of soul, separate from the brain and the body, that sparks consciousness, animates life, and survives death. More specifically, I’m taking on the argument that near- death experiences are evidence of this immortal soul.

*

Out of body Here’s the argument being made. Sometimes, when people are near death, they have weird experiences: experiences that seem like their consciousness is leaving their body. These experiences are rare — even those who believe in the soul acknowledge that NDE’s only happen to a small proportion of people near death — but they happen. And there are some reports that people having these experiences see things they couldn’t have known were there. These experiences can only be explained — so the argument goes — by a soul, separate from the brain, that departs from the brain when it’s near death, and returns to it when death is staved off.

That’s the argument.

So here’s the problem.

Consciousness.Explained-daniel.c.dennett There’s this phenomenon — consciousness.

There are essentially two ways to explain it. Either it’s a physical, biological product of the brain — or it has a component other than brain function: a soul that is separate from the brain, and that survives when the brain dies.

And there are two sets of evidence supporting these two explanations.

The evidence supporting the “biological product of the brain” explanation comes from rigorously- gathered, carefully- tested, thoroughly cross-checked, double-blinded, placebo- controlled, replicated, peer-reviewed research. An enormous mountain of research. A mountain of research that is growing more mountainous every day.

Phantoms_in_the_Brain I cannot emphasize this enough. Read any current book on neurology or neuropsychology… or at least, any current book on neurology or neuropsychology that isn’t written by a woo believer with an axe to grind who’s cherry-picking the data. Read Oliver Sacks, V.S. Ramachandran, Steven Pinker. We are getting closer to understanding consciousness every day. The sciences of neurology and neuropsychology are, it is true, very much in their infancy… but they are advancing by astonishing leaps and bounds, even as we speak. And what they are finding, consistently, thoroughly, across the board, is that, whatever consciousness is, it is intimately and inextricably linked to the brain. Changes in the brain result in changes in consciousness — changes sometimes so drastic that they render a person’s personality entirely unrecognizable. Changes in consciousness can be seen, using magnetic resonance imagery, as changes in the brain. This is the increasingly clear conclusion of the science: consciousness is a product of the brain. Period.

And this evidence has been gathered, and continues to be gathered, using the gold standard of evidence, methods specifically designed to filter out biases and known cognitive errors as much as is humanly possible: rigorously- gathered, carefully- tested, thoroughly cross-checked, double-blinded, placebo- controlled, replicated, peer-reviewed research.

Now. Compare, please, to the evidence supporting the “independent soul” explanation of consciousness.

Including near-death experiences, and the supposedly inexplicable things that happen to some people during them.

The evidence supporting the “independent soul” explanation is flimsy at best. It is unsubstantiated. It comes largely from personal anecdotes. It is internally inconsistent. It is shot through with discrepancies. It is loaded with biases and cognitive errors — especially confirmation bias, the tendency to exaggerate evidence that confirms what we already believe, and to ignore evidence that contradicts it. It has methodological errors that a sixth-grade science project winner could spot in ten seconds.

And that includes the evidence of near-death experiences.

Bogus beer There is not a single account of an immaterial soul leaving the body in a near-death experience that meets the gold standard of scientific evidence. Not even close. Supposedly accurate perceptions of things they couldn’t have seen by people near death? Bogus. Supposedly accurate predictions of things they couldn’t have known by people near death? Bogus. The “shoe on the window ledge that the dying person supposedly couldn’t possibly have known about?” Bogus. The supposed eerie similarity of near-death experiences? Bogus. (The similarities that these experiences do have are entirely consistent with them all being created by human brains… and the differences between them are not only vast, but exactly what you would expect if these experiences were generated by people’s brains, based on their own beliefs about death. Christians near death see Jesus, Hindus near death see Hindu gods, etc.)

Gossip,_Norman_Rockwell1 These claims — and the claims that these experiences could not possibly be explained by anything other than a supernatural soul — are anecdotal at best. Second- and third- hand hearsay. Gossip, essentially. And like most gossip, it leaves out the parts of the story that are less juicy, less consistent with what we already think about the world or what we want to think about it… and exaggerates the parts of the story that tell us what we already believe or want to believe. Believers in the soul love to tell the bogus story about the shoe on the window ledge. They’re less likely to tell the stories about the people near death who saw things that weren’t there, or who made predictions that didn’t happen, or who saw people alongside them in their supposed out- of- body experience who weren’t actually near death themselves.

Skeptical inquirer And every time a claim about a soul leaving the body when near death has been tested, using good, rigorous methods, it’s utterly fallen apart. Every single rigorously-done study examining claims about near death experiences has completely failed to show any perceptions or predictions that couldn’t have been entirely natural. Again. And again. And again, and again, and again. And again. And… oh, you get the idea.

And I have yet to see a good explanation for a believer in near-death experiences of why they don’t happen to everyone: why they only happen to a small percentage of people who are near death. Are they saying that only about 10% of people have souls? Really? Is that an argument you want to make?

What’s more, believers in the immortal soul, and in near-death experiences as evidence of this soul, consistently fall back on bad arguments and poor logic to defend it. “You can’t prove with 100% certainty that it isn’t true; therefore, it could hypothetically be true; therefore, it’s reasonable to think it’s true.” “Neither side can prove their case with absolute certainty; therefore, both sides are equally likely; therefore, it’s reasonable for me to believe whatever I want to.” “Science has been wrong before; therefore, it could be wrong this time; therefore, I don’t have to provide any good evidence for why it’s wrong this time.” “Scientists are human, subject to as much human bias as anyone else; therefore, I don’t have to show exactly how their bias is affecting their conclusions in order to reject them.” “Lots of smart people believe it; even some scientists believe it; therefore, it’s reasonable to think it’s true.”

See no evil It seems clear that, for most believers in an immortal soul, this belief is unfalsifiable. It shouldn’t be; in theory, this is an evidence-based conclusion that should be open to changing upon seeing better evidence. But in practice, it clearly is. In practice, for most believers, there is no possible evidence that could convince them that they’re wrong. They will reject the best available evidence, and clutch at the worst, since the latter confirms their belief and the former contradicts it. (Which is understandable — death sucks, and we’d all like to live forever and see our dead loved ones again — but it doesn’t make their arguments very convincing.)

Now, many believers in the soul will argue that yes, they are biased in favor of their belief — but so are the scientists who’ve concluded that consciousness is a physical process and the soul doesn’t exist. But this makes no sense whatsoever. Scientists are human, too: they don’t want to die, and they’d be just as happy as anyone to learn that they were going to live forever. In fact, for centuries, most scientists did believe in the soul, and much early science was dedicated to proving the soul’s existence and exploring its nature. It took decades upon decades of fruitless research in this field before scientists finally gave it up as a bad job. The conclusion that the soul does not exist was not about proving a pre-existing agenda: quite the opposite. It was about the evidence leading inexorably to a conclusion that was both surprising and upsetting. What’s more, if any scientist today could conclusively prove the existence of the soul, they’d instantly become the most famous and respected scientist in the history of the world. What possible motivation could they have for being biased against the soul hypothesis?

This is patently not true for the claim about the immortal soul, and the claim that near-death experiences are good evidence for it. This claim is not only unsupported by any solid evidence, and flatly contradicted by plenty of solid evidence. It is also, very clearly, based on the most wishful of all wishful thinking — the deep, intense, completely understandable desire to not die.

So.

Given that all this is true.

Science_journals Given that the evidence supporting the “biological process of the brain” explanation is rigorously gathered, carefully tested, thoroughly cross-checked, internally consistent, consistent with everything we know about how the brain and the mind work, able to produce mind-bogglingly accurate predictions, not slanted towards wishful thinking, and is expanding our understanding of the mind every day.

Wishful thinking Given that the evidence supporting the “immortal soul separate from the brain” explanation is flimsy, anecdotal, internally inconsistent, blasted into non-existence upon careful examination, totally at odds with everything we know about how the brain and the mind work, and strongly biased towards what people most desperately want to believe.

Which of these explanations of consciousness seems more likely?

And which explanation of near-death experiences seems more likely?

Forget about the “you can’t disprove it with 100% certainty” fallacy. We’re not talking about 100% certainty. We don’t apply the “100% certainty” test to anything else in our lives, so let’s not apply it here. Which explanation is more plausible? Which has more credibility? If we were talking about any other question — if we were talking about global climate change, or evolution, or whether the earth orbits the sun — which set of evidence would you give greater weight to?

Mri_head_scan Yes, weird things sometimes happen to some people’s minds when they’re near death. Weird things often happen to people’s minds during altered states of consciousness. Exhaustion, stress, distraction, trance-like repetition, optical illusion, sleep deprivation, sensory deprivation, sensory overload… any of these physical changes to the brain, and more, can create vivid “perceptions” that are entirely disconnected from reality. It’s been extensively demonstrated. And being near death is an altered state of consciousness, a physical change to the brain. (What’s more, as my wife Ingrid keeps pointing out: Near death experiences are not death. What happens to consciousness when the brain is briefly deprived of oxygen tells us nothing about what happens to consciousness when the brain is decayed in the grave into dust and nothingness.)

So which explanation of this weirdness is more plausible? The physical one — the one that says, “Yeah, the brain does weird things sometimes when deprived of oxygen or otherwise altered, and these experiences are completely consistent with what we know about the brain”? The one that’s backed up by a mountain of rigorous, replicated research?

Or the supernatural one — the one that’s backed up by anecdotes, cognitive biases, bad logic, and wishful thinking?

Gravestone Look. I don’t want to die, either. Just about nobody wants to die. That includes scientists, and it includes researchers into neurology and neuropsychology and consciousness. When I was letting go of my spiritual beliefs, this was by far the hardest part: letting go of my belief that my soul was immortal, and accepting that death is permanent. It’s true that, when I think about it carefully, it’s impossible for me to imagine an eternal afterlife that wouldn’t be intolerable… but that doesn’t change my intense emotional attachment to life, and to the people I love. We evolved from millions of generations of ancestors who really, really wanted to survive: it makes sense that we would fear death, and want to stay alive. We evolved from thousands of generations of ancestors in social species; it makes sense that we would love other people and grieve for them when they die. And it makes sense that we’d want to believe that death isn’t final.

But if we care whether the things we believe are true, we can’t just believe that we’ll live forever, simply because we want to.

Reality wins. Reality is more important than anything we could make up about it. (And it’s a whole lot more interesting.) If we want to be intimately connected with the universe, we need to accept what the universe is telling us, through evidence, is true about itself. We need to not treat the world we make up in our heads as more important than the world outside our heads. If we want to be intimately connected with the universe, we need to accept the reality about it.

Even when that reality contradicts our most cherished beliefs.

Even when that reality is frightening, or painful, or sad.

And that includes the reality of death.

Eye If we find the idea of death upsetting, we need to not cover our eyes and ears in the face of death, and pretend that it isn’t real. We need, instead, to find and create secular philosophies of death that provide comfort and meaning. We need to find value in the transient as much as in the permanent. We need to see change and loss and death as inherent and necessary to life, without which the things we value in life would not be possible. We need to see death as providing inspiration and motivation to experience life as fully as we can, and to get things done while we still have time. We need to view death as a natural process, something that connects us with the great chain of cause and effect in the universe. We need to take comfort in the idea that, even though we will die and our death will be forever, the memories people have of us will live on, and the world will be different because we were here. We need to take comfort in making this life as meaningful and valuable as we possibly can: for ourselves, and for everyone else around us. We need to recognize how astronomically lucky we were to have been born into this life at all, and not see it as a tragedy because that life won’t last forever.

Hand outstretched When we let go of religious or spiritual beliefs, it can be painful to accept the reality and permanence of death. But we can take comfort in the knowledge that, whatever secular philosophies of death we have, they aren’t based on sloppy evidence and wishful thinking and an intense effort to avoid cognitive dissonance. We can take comfort in the knowledge that our philosophies of death are built on a solid foundation of good evidence, reason, plausibility, and the acceptance of reality.

And that’s more comforting than any spiritual belief I’ve ever held.

Also in this series:
Why “Everything Has a Cause” is a Terrible Argument for God
Why “Life Has To Have Been Designed” Is a Terrible Argument for God’s Existence
Why “The Universe Is Perfectly Fine-Tuned For Life” Is a Terrible Argument for God
Why “I Feel It In My Heart” Is a Terrible Argument for God

Why “The Universe Is Perfectly Fine-Tuned For Life” Is a Terrible Argument for God

This piece was originally published on AlterNet.

Radio control knobs “But the Universe is so perfectly fine-tuned for life. What are the chances that this happened by accident? Doesn’t it seem like the Universe had to have been created this way on purpose?”

As I’ve written before: Many arguments for religion and against atheism are so bad, they can’t even be considered arguments. They’re not serious attempts to offer evidence or reason supporting the existence of God. They’re simply attempts to deflect legitimate questions, or ad-hominem insults of atheists, or the baffling notion that “I want to believe” is a good argument, or attempts to just make the questions go away. Or similar nonsense.

But some arguments for religion do sincerely offer evidence and reason for the existence of God. They’re still not very good arguments, and the evidence and reason being offered still don’t hold water…. but they’re sincere arguments, so I’m doing them the honor of addressing them.

Today’s argument: the argument from fine-tuning.

Orbits The argument from fine-tuning goes roughly like this: The Universe is perfectly fine-tuned to allow life to come into being. The distance of the Earth from the Sun, the substance and depth of the atmosphere, the orbit of the Moon, the nature of matter and energy, the very laws of physics themselves… all are perfectly tuned to let life happen. If any of them had been different by even a small amount, there could not have been life on Earth. And the odds against this fine-tuning are astronomical. Therefore, the Universe, and all these details about it, must have been created this way on purpose. And the only imaginable being that could have created the universe and fine-tuned it for life is God.

Okay. We have some serious misunderstandings here.

The Perfectly Fine-Tuned Puddle Hole

Let’s assume, for the moment, that the Universe really is perfectly set up for life, and human life at that. I don’t think that for a second — I’ll get to that in a bit — but for the sake of argument, let’s assume that it’s true.

Does that imply that the Universe was created that way on purpose?

No. It absolutely does not.

Yellow_dice Here’s an analogy. I just rolled a die ten times (that’s a six-sided die, all you D&D freaks), and got the sequence 3241154645. The odds against that particular sequence coming up are astronomical. Over 60 million to one.

Does that mean that this sequence was designed to come up?

Or think of it this way. The odds against me, personally being born? They’re beyond astronomical. The chances that, of my mom’s hundreds of eggs and my dad’s hundreds of millions of sperm, this particular sperm and egg happened to combine to make me? Ridiculously unlikely. Especially when you factor in the odds against my parents being born… and against their parents being born… and their parents, and theirs, and so on and so on and so on. The chances against me, personally, having been born are so vast, it’s almost unimaginable.

But does that mean I was destined to be born?

Does that mean we need to concoct an entire philosophy and theology to explain The Improbability of Greta-ness?

Lottery_winner Or does it simply mean that I won the cosmic lottery? Does it simply mean that my existence is one of many wildly improbable outcomes of the universe… and if it hadn’t happened, something else would have? Does it simply mean that some other kid would have been born to my parents instead… a kid whose existence would have been every bit as unlikely as mine?

Yes, life on Earth is wildly improbable. And if it hadn’t happened, some other weird chemical stew would have arisen on Earth, one that didn’t turn into life. Or life would have developed, but it would have evolved into some form other than humanity. Or the Earth would never have formed around the Sun, but some other unlikely planet would have formed around some other star. (Maybe one with cool rings around it like Saturn, only Day-Glo orange with green stripes.) If life on Earth hadn’t happened, something else equally improbable would have happened instead. We just wouldn’t be here to wonder about it.

Douglas Adams (of The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy fame) put this extremely well in his renowned Puddle Analogy. He said:

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!”

Puddle Yes, the hole fits us rather neatly. But that doesn’t mean the hole was designed to have us in it. We evolved to fit in the hole that happened to be here. If the hole had been shaped differently, something else would have happened instead.

And how perfect is this hole, anyway?

Bitter Expanses of Cold and Blasting Chaotic Heat — The Perfect Vacation Spot!

Douglas Adams’s puddle analogy doesn’t end there. It continues:

This is such a powerful idea that as the sun rises in the sky and the air heats up and as, gradually, the puddle gets smaller and smaller, it’s still frantically hanging on to the notion that everything’s going to be alright, because this world was meant to have him in it, was built to have him in it; so the moment he disappears catches him rather by surprise.

How perfectly fine-tuned for life is the Universe, really?

Life on Earth has only been around for about 3.7 billion years. Human life has only been around for 200,000 of those years (more or less, depending on how you define “human”).

Sun red giantAnd since the surface temperature of the Sun is rising, in about a billion years the surface of the Earth will be too hot for liquid water to exist — and thus too hot for life to exist.

The universe, on the other hand, is about 14 billion years old. (Post Big Bang, at any rate.)

Therefore, the current life span of humanity is a mere one 7,000th of the current lifespan of the Universe.

And after Earth and all of humanity has boiled away into space forever, the Universe will keep going — for billions and billions of years.

How, exactly, does that qualify as the Universe being fine-tuned for life?

To use Adams’ puddle analogy: The sun is rising. The air is heating up. The puddle isn’t getting smaller yet, but it’s destined to. And yet, many droplets in the puddle are still frantically hanging on to the notion that everything’s going to be alright… because this world was supposedly built to have us in it.

Cosmic_Heavyweights_in_Free-For-All-_One_of_the_most_complex_galaxy_clusters,_located_about_5.4_billion_light_years_from_Earth. And that doesn’t even take into account the mind-boggling vastness of space — the mind-boggling majority of which is not hospitable to life in the slightest. The overwhelming majority of the universe consists of unimaginably huge vastnessess of impossibly cold empty space… punctuated at rare intervals by comets, asteroids, meteors (some of which might hit us, by the way, also negating the “perfectly designed for human life” concept), cold rocks, blazingly hot furnaces of incandescent gas, the occasional black hole, and what have you. The overwhelming majority of the universe is, to put it mildly, not fine-tuned for life.

In other words: In the enormous vastness of space and time, one rock orbiting one star developed conditions that allowed the unusual bio-chemical process of intelligent life to come into being for a few hundred thousand years — a billion years at the absolute outset — before being boiled into space forever.

Somehow, I’m having a hard time seeing that as fine-tuning.

A couple of weeks ago, I asked the question: If biological life was intentionally designed by a perfect, all-powerful God… why did he do such a piss-poor job of it? Why does the “design” of life include so much clumsiness, half-assedness, inefficiency, “fixed that for you” jury-rigs, pointless superfluities, glaring omissions, laughable failures and appalling, mind-numbing brutality?

Big bang Today, I’m asking a similar question: If the universe was “fine-tuned” for life by a perfect, all-powerful God… why did he do such a piss-poor job of it? Why was the 93- billion- light- years- across universe created 13.73 billion years ago… just so the fragile process of human life in one tiny solar system could blink into existence for a few hundred thousand years, a billion years at the absolute most, and then blink out again? Why could an asteroid or a solar flare or any number of other astronomical incidents wipe out that life at any time? If the universe was “fine-tuned” for life to come into being, why is the ridiculously overwhelming majority of it created to be so inhospitable to life? (Even if there’s life on other planets, which is hypothetically possible, the point still remains: Why is the portion of the Universe that’s hospitable to life so absurdly minuscule?)

Atheists are often accused by religious believers of being arrogant. But it’s hard to look at the fine-tuning argument and see any validity to that at all. Believers are the ones who are arguing that the Universe was created just so humanity could come into existence… and that the immeasurable vastness of stars and galaxies far beyond our reach and even beyond our knowledge was still, somehow, put there for us. Maybe so we could see all the pretty blinky lights in the sky. Atheists are the ones who accept that the Universe was not made for us. Atheists are the ones who accept that we are a lucky roll of the dice; an unusual bio-chemical process that’s happening on one planet orbiting one star that happens, for a brief period, to have conditions that allow for it. (I know this is kind of a buzz-kill; here’s a nice humanist philosophy about it that might cheer you up.)

Red_and_blue_dice_3 Yes, the existence of humanity is unlikely. But so is my personal existence, and the existence of the Messier 87 galaxy, and the roll of a die in the sequence 3241154645. That doesn’t mean these things were designed to happen. We are a puddle that evolved to fit in a convenient hole. There is no reason to think that the hole was created for us. And there is every reason to think that it was not. If “The existence of life in the universe just seems too unlikely” is the only argument you can make for why the universe was designed by God, you’re going to have to find a better argument.

Also in this series:
Why ‘Life Had To Have Been Designed’ Is a Terrible Justification for God’s Existence
Why ‘Everything Has a Cause’ Is a Terrible Justification for God’s Existence

Why “Life Has To Have Been Designed” Is a Terrible Argument for God’s Existence

This piece was originally published on AlterNet.

Design “Just look around you. Look at life, and the universe, and everything. Doesn’t it seem like it had to have been designed?”

A lot of arguments for religion are very bad indeed. A lot of arguments for religion aren’t even arguments: they’re deflections, excuses for why the believer isn’t making an argument, bigoted insults, expressions of wishful thinking, complaints that atheists are mean bad people to even ask for an argument, heartfelt wishes that atheists would just shut up.

But some believers do take the question “Why do you believe in God?” seriously. Some believers don’t want to believe just out of blind faith or wishful thinking; they care about whether the things they believe are true, and they think that the question “What evidence do you have to support this belief?” is a valid one. And they think they have good answers for it. They think they have positive evidence for their spiritual beliefs, and they’re happy to explain that evidence and defend it.

The argument from design — the argument that life had to have been designed, because it just looks so much like it was designed — leads the list of these answers. According to Michael Shermer’s How We Believe, the argument from design is the single most common reason that religious believers give for why they believe.

So since these people are taking atheists’ questions about their religion seriously, I want to return the favor, and take their religious answer seriously.

And I want to talk about why this is really, really not a good answer. At all. Even a little bit.

Have You Heard Of This Darwin Fellow?

The argument from design argues that the evidence for God lies in the seemingly inexplicable complexity and functionality and balance of life: of individual life forms, of specific biological organs and systems, of the ecosystem itself. “Look at the eye!” the argument goes. “Look at an ant colony! Look at a bat’s sonar! Look at symbiotic relationships between species! Look at the human brain! They work so well! They do such astonishing things! Are you trying to tell me that these things just… happened? How can you possibly explain all that without a designer?”

Charles_Darwin Not to be snarky, but: Have you heard of this Darwin fellow?

I’m assuming that I’m not talking to creationists here. Creationists definitely do not count as people who care about reason and evidence and whether what they believe is consistent with reality. I’m assuming that I’m talking here to reasonably educated people, people who accept the basic reality of the theory of evolution… but who still think that God had to have been involved in it somehow. I’m assuming that I’m talking to people who understand that the theory of evolution is supported by a massive body of evidence from every relevant field of science (and from some that you might not think of as relevant)… but who still think that evolution, while a jolly clever idea, is still not quite sufficient to explain the complexity and diversity and exquisite high functioning of biological life.

To those people, I say: You really need to study evolution a little more carefully.

Evolutionary_tree The theory of evolution is completely sufficient to explain the complexity and diversity and exquisite high functioning of biological life. That’s exactly what it does. 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. It explains it beautifully, and elegantly, and with no need for any supernatural designer to explain anything. Descent with modification; the survival and reproduction of life forms who are best able to survive and reproduce; great heaping gobs of time. That’s all it takes. (Here’s a good primer on what evolution is and how it works; for a more detailed explanation, you can check out Why Evolution Is True by Jerry A. Coyne, or The Greatest Show On Earth: The Evidence for Evolution by Richard Dawkins, or Evolution: What the Fossils Say and Why It Matters by Donald R. Prothero, or… oh, you get the idea.) The more familiar you become with evolution, the more you understand that it is more than sufficient to explain what seems at first glance to be design in biological life.

And in fact, biological life is an excellent argument against God or a designer.

Why? Because so much of this supposed “design” of life is so ridiculously piss-poor.

The Three Stooges School of Design

Knee Yes, there are many aspects of biological life that astonish with their elegance and function. But there are many other aspects of biological life that astonish with their clumsiness, half-assedness, inefficiency, “fixed that for you” jury-rigs, pointless superfluities, glaring omissions, laughable failures, and appalling, mind-numbing brutality. (Here’s a very entertaining short list.) I mean… sinuses? Blind spots? External testicles? Backs and knees and feet shoddily warped into service for bipedal animals? (She said bitterly, getting up to do her physical therapy on her bad knee.) Human birth canals barely wide enough to let the baby’s skull pass… and human babies born essentially premature because if they stayed in utero any longer they’d kill their mothers coming out? (Which sometimes they do anyway?) A vagus nerve that travels from the neck down through the chest only to land back up in the neck… travelling ten to fifteen feet in the case of giraffes? Digger wasps laying their eggs in the living bodies of caterpillars… and stinging said caterpillars to paralyze but not kill them, so the caterpillars die a slow death and can nourish the wasps’ larvae with their living bodies? The process of evolution itself… which has brutal, painful, violent death woven into its every fiber?

You’re really saying that all of this was designed, on purpose, by an all-powerful God who loves us?

Origin of species Evolution looks all this epic fail, and explains it neatly and thoroughly. In the theory of evolution, living things don’t have to be perfectly or elegantly “designed” to flourish. All that matters is that they be functional enough to survive and reproduce, and to do so more effectively than their competitors. In fact, in the theory of evolution, not only is there no expectation that the “designs” be perfect or elegant — there is every expectation that they wouldn’t be, since every new generation has to be a minor adaptation on the previous one, and there’s no way to wipe the slate clean and start over. And the comfort or happiness of living things matters not in the slightest bit to the process of evolution… unless it somehow enhances the ability of that living thing to survive and reproduce.

The argument from design looks at all this epic fail, and answers, “Ummm… mysterious ways?”

Before and After Science

If we didn’t know about evolution, the argument from design might have some validity. Even Richard Dawkins, hard-assed atheist that he is, has acknowledged that atheism, while still logically tenable before Darwin, became a lot more intellectually fulfilling afterwards.

But once you know about evolution — not just about Darwin, but about the rich and thorough, broad-ranging and finely-detailed understanding of life that evolution has blossomed into in the 150 years since “On The Origin of Species” — the argument from design collapses like a house of cards in a hurricane.

Why_evolution_is_true The theory of evolution provides a powerful, beautiful, consistent explanation for the appearance of design in biological life, one that can not only explain the past but predict the future. And it’s supported by an overwhelming body of evidence from every relevant field of science, from paleontology to microbiology to epidemiology to anatomy to genetics to geology to physics to… you get the point. The argument from design explains nothing that evolution can’t explain better. It has massive, gaping holes. It has no predictive power whatsoever. And it has not a single scrap of positive evidence supporting it: not one piece of evidence suggesting the intervention of a designer at any point in the process. All it has to support it is the human brain’s tendency to see intention and design even where none exists, leading to the vague feeling on the part of believers that life had to have been designed because… well… because it just looks that way.

And if “it just looks that way” is the only argument you can make for why life was designed, you’re going to have to find a better argument.

Also in this series:
Why “Everything Has a Cause” Is a Terrible Justification for God’s Existence

Are Atheists Open-Minded?

See no evil 2 “You have to keep an open mind. That’s the trouble with you atheists/ materialists/ skeptics. You’re just as bad as fundamentalists. You’re so convinced that you’re right, and you’re not willing to consider the possibility that you might not be. The universe is profoundly strange: we’ve been surprised by it thousands of times in the past, and our assumptions about it often turn out to be mistaken. So how can you be so close-minded about the universe? How can you just reject the idea that God, or the soul, or a spiritual realm, might be part of it?”

If you’re an out atheist — heck, if you’re an entirely closeted atheist who reads atheist blogs and forums and whatnot — you’ve almost certainly heard some version of this spiel. And it’s almost certainly made you want to scream and tear your hair out.

I’ve been running into it a lot lately. So today, I’m taking it on. I’m summing up some ideas I’ve written about before… and I’m presenting some new ones. (Please note: There are a few places in this piece that are more strongly worded than usual, as my feelings on this particular form of anti-atheist bigotry run high. Consider yourself warned.)

*

Evidence There are a zillion things to say about this canard. For starters: “You have to have an open mind” is not the same as “Here’s some good evidence for why my idea is right.”

Yes, it’s good to have an open mind. How is that an argument for religion or spirituality being correct? I mean, if someone insisted that they had a three- inch- tall pink pony behind their sofa who teleported to Guam every time anyone looked back there — and, when faced with people who were skeptical about this hypothesis and asked for some evidence in support of it, merely said, “You have to keep an open mind”… would you consider that a good argument for the pink pony hypothesis?

And if not — then why is it a good argument for religion or spirituality?

The fact that a hypothesis can’t absolutely be disproven with 100% certainty doesn’t make it likely or plausible. And not all hypotheses are equally likely to be true. To persuade me to accept an idea — heck, to persuade me to seriously consider it, or even to respect it as a reasonable possibility — you have to do more than show me that it hasn’t been absolutely disproven, and then scold me about having an open mind. You have to show me some good, solid, positive evidence supporting your idea. And you have to use good logic to show why this evidence supports your idea better than any other idea.

But wait! There’s more! Whenever believers ask atheists and materialists and skeptics to be open-minded and not to close ourselves off to possibilities, I always want to ask them: Do you honestly think atheists have not considered the possibility of religion?

Religious symbols Religion is the dominant paradigm in our culture. Non-believers have considered it. We continue to re-consider it all the time. We can’t help but consider it. It is constantly in our faces. We’re soaking in it. Telling atheists, “Have you considered the possibility that religion or spirituality might be true?” is like telling gay people, “Have you considered the possibility that you might be straight?” I mean — do you seriously think this idea has never occurred to us? Do you seriously think this is the first time anyone’s suggested it?

In fact, most atheists were believers at one time. Most atheists are former Catholics, Baptists, Muslims, Hindus, Jainists, religious Jews, moderate or progressive Christians, New Age believers, and more. The culture of religion we’re steeped in isn’t limited to traditional or fundamentalist belief, and most of us have considered a wide range of religions before rejecting them all. It’s the very fact that we do have open minds that led us to change our minds about religion and become non-believers in the first place.

What’s more, the accusation that atheists aren’t open-minded is extra- aggravating — because it so often comes from people with completely closed minds. When it comes to religion, anyway.

Ask most atheists, “What would convince you that you were mistaken? What evidence would make you change your mind about God or the supernatural world?” Most of us can answer that question. (Or, if we’re too busy/lazy to answer it ourselves, we’ll point you to someone else who answered that question really thoroughly, and whose answers pretty closely dovetail with our own.)

See no evil Ask most believers the same question… and they’ll say, “Nothing could persuade me that I’m mistaken about my God. That’s what it means to have faith.” Either that — or they’ll dither. They’ll say that their beliefs are too complicated and subtle to summarize. They’ll say that they don’t want to proselytize… even though they’ve been directly asked to explain what they believe and why. They’ll say that they don’t know for sure what they believe… they’re just trying to keep an open mind. (Even though you know perfectly well that they have very definite beliefs — they just don’t want to explain them to a critical audience.) They’ll come up with some standard of proof that’s ridiculously impossible. They’ll offer “evidence” for their beliefs that’s flatly terrible — not replicable, not double-blinded, not controlled, not screened for confirmation bias or the placebo effect, with methodology a sixth-grade science class could poke holes in. They’ll turn the debate about the evidence for religion into a meta-debate about how atheists are being big meanies, and how we’re rude or intolerant to ask these questions in the first place. They’ll insist that our questions and critiques are valid when it comes to other religious beliefs, but not to theirs… without explaining why theirs should be the exception. They’ll change the subject. (And then, three sentences later, they’ll once again accuse atheists of being close-minded.) In my experience, the overwhelming majority of religious and spiritual believers will do anything at all to avoid explaining exactly what it is that they believe, and what evidence they have to support that belief — and most importantly, what evidence would persuade them to change their minds.

So on what basis are these believers accusing atheists of being the close-minded ones?

100_percent Then, of course, this “close-minded” canard ignores a basic fact about atheists that we keep repeating until we’re blue in the face — namely, that atheism doesn’t mean being absolutely, unquestioningly, 100% certain that God does not exist. It simply means being certain enough. It means concluding that the God hypothesis isn’t plausible or supported by any good evidence, and that until we see better evidence, we’re going to conclude that there’s almost certainly no God.

In other words: Atheism doesn’t mean we’ve absolutely made up our minds, without the possibility of ever reconsidering. Atheism means we’ve provisionally made up our minds. That doesn’t make us close-minded. Being close-minded doesn’t mean reaching a conclusion; it means being unwilling to reconsider that conclusion even when new evidence contradicts it. And that doesn’t describe most atheists. Atheists understand that we’re not perfect and that we might be mistaken. If you give us some good evidence showing that we’re mistaken, we’ll reconsider.

But — to repeat my first argument — you have to actually show us some freaking evidence already. Just repeating “Have an open mind” — that does not qualify as evidence. That just qualifies as annoying.

Okay. Most of this is stuff I’ve said before.

Here’s the part I haven’t said before.

*

Man using microscope The world of science — the world of carefully examining cause and effect in the universe, using rigorous methods of testing hypotheses designed to filter out bias as much as possible — has given humanity our most surprising, shocking, unexpected, counter-intuitive, mind-expanding, mind-boggling revelations about the true nature of existence.

Science shows us that solid matter is almost entirely made up of empty space. Science shows us that the ground beneath our feet is not solid, but is constantly shifting. Science shows us that the universe is expanding. Science shows us that space bends. Science shows us that time is not constant, that it moves differently depending on how we move. I could go on, and on, and on. Science — carefully examining cause and effect in the universe — has shown us things about the world we live in, and about ourselves, that we would never have come up with if we’d set our best poets and artists on the project for ten thousand years. Science has opened our minds to possibilities we would never have imagined without it.

And maybe more to the point: Science has given us revelations about the world that are not only mind-bogglingly surprising, but that have been profoundly unsettling and difficult to accept.

Death from the skies Science shows us that we are not at the center of the universe, not at the center of our galaxy, not even at the center of our puny little solar system: that the Earth is nothing special, only one of billions of rocks orbiting one of billions of stars in one of billions of galaxies in a universe that dwarfs us. Science shows us that humanity is simply another life form: not uniquely created with a special purpose by a loving divine maker, but just another species that evolved from proto-organic soup along with sponges and slugs and seaweed. Science is showing us that, whatever the heck consciousness is, it’s a biological product of the brain, and that it therefore dies forever when the brain dies. Science shows us that the Sun is one day going to expand and heat up, and that when it does, all the Earth will be boiled into molten rock. Science shows us that the universe itself is eventually going to die.

So don’t go telling skeptics and non-believers that trusting science and scientific evidence makes us close-minded and unwilling to consider new possibilities.

Fingers-in-ears We’re the ones saying, “Yup — humanity isn’t that special, and death is the end. Those are hard realities to accept. But that’s what the evidence overwhelmingly suggests, so therefore we accept it.” Believers are the ones sticking their fingers in their ears and saying, “I can’t hear you, I can’t hear you, I can’t hear you! Humanity is a special snowflake, and we’re all going to live forever!”

So yet again, I ask: On what basis are believers accusing atheists of being the close-minded ones?

Now. At this point, many believers will step in and say, “I’m not against science! Science is great, it’s shown us wonders! But science is limited. It’s flawed, It doesn’t know everything. Therefore, God.”

Yeah. See, here’s the problem with that.

Charles-darwin-the-origin-of-species You don’t get to pick and choose. You don’t get to say, “I accept the scientific consensus showing that continents drift — but when it comes to the scientific consensus showing that life developed entirely naturally through evolution by natural selection, I’m going to insist that life must have been designed, because that’s what my preacher tells me, and besides, it sure seems that way to me.” You don’t get to say, “I accept the scientific consensus showing that germs cause disease — but when it comes to the scientific consensus showing that consciousness is a biological product of the brain, I’m going to dither and equivocate and say that it hasn’t been proven with absolute 100% certainty and therefore it’s reasonable for me to believe in an immaterial immortal soul.” You don’t get to say, “I accept the scientific consensus showing that the universe is expanding — but when it comes to the fact that supernatural hypotheses have been repeatedly tested using rigorous scientific methods and have never once been shown to be true, when it comes to the fact that science has probably been applied to religion and spirituality more than any other topic and has consistently come up empty, I’m going to repeat ‘Science is sometimes wrong, science is sometimes wrong’ until the skeptics give up and go away.”

You don’t get to say, “With ideas I already agree with or am comfortable with, I’m willing to accept the rigorous process of using reason and evidence to sift through ideas and reject all but the most plausible ones. But when it comes to ideas I don’t believe or that I find troubling, I’m going to prioritize my highly biased intuition — which tells me that the things I already believe or most want to believe are probably true. I’m going to keep pointing out all the flaws and mistakes of science… and completely ignore the far greater flaws and mistakes in intuition. And unless you can prove to me with absolute 100% certainty that I’m wrong, I’m going to keep believing.”

Well, okay. Obviously, you can do that. People do it all the time. And it’s certainly your right to do that.

But if you do that, then one last time, I must ask:

On what basis are you accusing atheists of being the close-minded ones?

I Feel The Earth Move: Boobquake 2010!

As you may already have heard — it’s not only been all over the atheosphere, but all over the news — Iranian Muslim prayer leader Hojatoleslam Kazem Sedighi was recently quoted as saying, “Many women who do not dress modestly … lead young men astray, corrupt their chastity and spread adultery in society, which (consequently) increases earthquakes.”

Blag Hag blogger, atheist student leader, and all-around badass Jen McCreight is conducting a scientific experiment: Get women around the world to dress immodestly for one day — today, Monday, April 26 — and see if we cause a significant uptick in seismic activity.

So with Jen, for the sake of science, I offer my boobs. (And Ingrid offers hers.)

Greta boobquake 2

Greta boobquake 1

Ingrid boobquake

Greta_and_ingrid_boobquake