On “Unconscious Bias”

Here are some quick thoughts I jotted down about the idea of “unconscious bias” the other night. I figure I’ll just post them instead of cleaning them up and turning them into a clearer and more thoughtful post.

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Unconscious bias is not a thing. It is just a rhetorical device used to subtly re-frame the discussion to focus not on what is true but who you are. Unconscious bias is a way of labeling beliefs in a way so as to dismiss them without engaging in them.

What is a bias?

A bias is just a preference, something that you favor. Cognitively, it means that you favor a certain kind of explanation. Being “narrow-minded” means that you favor a very small handful of explanations. You heavily bias a few explanations. We develop “biases,” or preferences, because they are reliable. We find them useful for explaining things.

So we form beliefs and explanations, and we prefer them because of their powerful ability to explain things. We can get this wrong and see everything as a hammer, but the point is that these preferences develop because our beliefs are useful for understanding reality.

You can see a bias in action by seeing which kinds of explanations people tend to prefer over others; that is, you can observe it the same you observe any other kind of preference: repeatedly give someone a choice and see which one they make.

What is an unconscious bias?

It means a belief you aren’t aware that you have. Being accused of unconscious bias simply means that someone has observed that you prefer to apply a certain kind of belief given certain circumstances, but maybe you aren’t aware that you are doing it.

The point of all of this is to make it seem as though your “unconscious bias,” or “unintentional explanatory preference” as we could call it, can be contrasted with reality rather than reflective of it. The fact that you have a bias really just means that you’ve made an association. And we make associations by making observations. Calling it an “unconscious bias” draws attention to the fact that we made the association, telling us something about ourselves, but distracting us from the more relevant question of why we made it–presumably because it’s true. It’s to subtly undermine the idea that you hold beliefs rationally without actually rationally engaging in those beliefs.

The insinuation is always that we made that association actively rather than passively, that the bias reveals that we engaged in motivated reasoning. This smuggles in the assumption that the real world is completely neutral and equitable; if this were true, the only way to explain how people came think otherwise is that they engaged in motivated reasoning. Put differently, the idea is that our perception of reality is biased in certain ways because we have biased them, not because those perceptions reflect reality.

The reason we have a bias toward associating women with the home and men in the workplace isn’t because that’s generally the way the world works; it’s because we choose to see it that way, even if we don’t realize it. If there is a bias in the way we think of the world, it’s because we put it there. If we don’t think that we put it there, if we think that we are seeing the world (more or less) clearly, then we are simply not aware of how we are biasing our perception of the world. That is, we are unconsciously biasing our perception. So the thinking goes.

Of course, how someone can be motivated to do something and yet simultaneously be unconscious of it is beyond me.

But this ends up working against the Social Justice adherent because those same things can be said about perceptions of racism, white privilege, and so on. If you have a bias toward seeing whites as inherently racist, you put it there. If you don’t admit it, you just aren’t aware that you’re doing it.

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My Biggest Disagreement with “Social Justice”

I’ve been trying for a long time to get my head around the problems with the secular religion known as “Social Justice.” It’s something that has confused me for a long time, and I’ve had a hard time putting my finger on it. Which is weird for me, because I am usually pretty good at putting my finger on things that bother me, at least when it comes to ideas.

I’ve tried to explore the emotional logic of Social Justice and the social dynamics it creates (or more precisely, destroys) by emphasizing perception, emotions, and cynicism over facts, intentions, and trust. I’ve also tried to analyze the broken notion of justice that it pursues, which is actually just partiality (and therefore anti-justice) dressed up as justice. But I think I have found the thing that best summarizes my biggest disagreement with Social Justice, and it’s actually something I’ve known for a long time without realizing it. But before I get into that, I want to explain what exactly I’ve been looking for and why I think I may have finally found it.

I’m a pretty analytical person, and I have joked that I get triggered by logical fallacies the way others get triggered by hate speech. Some people don’t like political incorrectness; I don’t like mental incorrectness. It really bothers me, and usually when I hear someone say something really off, I have to go for a walk to sort things out. It’s like my mind is a shelf of meticulously organized knick-knacks, and fallacious statements have a way of messing up the shelf. What I’ve wanted is a simple, reliable way to figure out how things got moved and how I can put them back. It’s like having an illness without a diagnosis: you just want a magic word that you can say that makes it all move from inside your head and into reality.

I think the emotional and relational problems with Social Justice are many, and I think restoring them can do a lot to make our society much healthier. But I think there is some faulty thinking, a faulty philosophy, at the root of Social Justice, and I don’t think the church can give a full response to Social Justice if it does not account for this faulty philosophy. I think it is this faulty philosophical commitment that allows the emotional and relational problems to burn out of control. I will describe it, and then I will name it.

A confession of that philosophy could be as follows: “Your mind does not tell you what is real.” Another statement might be, “There is no theory-independent perception of the world.” You could call this a “tabula rasa” view of the mind. The basic idea is that everything we know, we come to know through our mind and our sense organs. But our mind and sense organs structure sense data in a particular way when they give it to us. For example, there are broad swaths of the electromagnetic spectrum that we cannot see. Or, we unconsciously create and deal with unifying abstractions like “face” rather than the constituent elements. This leads us to erroneously identify faces in clouds or rock formations.

This creates a doubt about how we know things. It makes us feel as though our mind and senses are lying to us because they are pre-arranging the information we get, structuring it in a way to lead us, like a lawyer leading a witness, to certain conclusions without giving us informed consent. This doubt can become become severe enough that it becomes “closed.” In this case, our beliefs and perceptions can at best only tell us about ourselves, but are simply unreliable for telling us about the real world.

This can lead to a more pernicious doubt, which is that we are somehow involved in the process by which we come to know things–whether we recognize it or not. There are no thoughts that just “come” to us naturally, on their own. There is no notion of a belief that we come to through much pain and experience, perhaps even against our will, no notion of a fact which is so pervasive and inescapable that would cause even the most persistent skeptic to either give in or go crazy. We are responsible for what we believe, of course, insofar as we ought to ensure that we aren’t engaging in motivated reasoning, that our beliefs are coherent and supported by evidence, and so on. But when you combine this responsibility with the notion that our minds cannot reliably tell us about reality, we begin to feel that we should believe certain things because we ought to believe them, but not necessarily because they are true.

Contrast this with “common sense,” which would say that our minds deal with abstractions like “faces” because faces are real. In this “realist” view, our mind is not a lawyer leading a witness but a counselor helping a patient see the truth. Our mind, with all of its baked-in tendencies, and our senses, with all of their pre-structuring ways, are the way they are precisely so they can deliver reality to us. In this common sense view, we trust our mind to reliably connect us to what is real–even if we aren’t always able to reliably articulate it, even if we sometimes make mistakes.

A corollary is that if our mind’s connection to reality is at best tenuous and at worst completely severed, then we need a powerful mechanism to explain how people form beliefs at all. If our gut-level, innate reactions to certain truths don’t come simply by virtue of our mind’s connection with reality, then where do they come from? The answer seems to be that they come from social conditioning.

All our deeply held moral beliefs don’t come from an innate moral sensibility which can be either sharpened or dulled through study and practice, but rather through society constantly policing us to think one way rather than another. Because our minds have no reliable connection to reality nor a structure which puts limits on the kinds of beliefs a person will naturally believe, we suspect that all people are equally susceptible to conspiracy theories, false narratives about history, or deception at the hands of fanatics.

How is any of this related to Social Justice? Consider the above statement, “our beliefs and perceptions can at best only tell us about ourselves.” This doubt is what makes the notion of “unconscious bias” at all plausible. Unconscious bias is a rhetorical device used to dismiss a person’s point of view. Suppose you think that women are more nurturing than men. You probably think this because of the thousands of micro-interactions you’ve had with women, compared to men, accumulated over a wide variety of circumstances and people. This vast expanse of experiences teaches you this fact, and it lives as an intuition, humming in the background. Labeling it as an “unconscious bias” has the effect of stripping away legitimacy without having to do any actual work. You can simply dismiss that person’s experience out of hand.

The label is rhetorically effective because it smuggles in a hidden assumption: namely, that the real-world experience that gives rise to that belief is in no way connected to what’s real, and therefore provides no justification for that belief. This is true even though having passively formed a belief makes it more reliable because it was less likely to be formed as a result of motivated reasoning. But in the Social Justice view, it is precisely that passivity that makes the belief unreliable, because it shows how unaware you are that your inner lawyer was leading the witness. Unconscious bias is simply a way to assert at the outset that we have no reason to suspect that anything you believe has any bearing on reality. Your mind does not tell you what is real.

Or, consider anytime someone invokes “society” as an explanation for something, such as beauty standards or reactions of disgust at homosexual behavior. Of course, moral standards for sexuality, or aesthetic standards for beauty, can vary widely. But the principled move here is to deny that these judgments have any connection to reality at all. Being disgusted by homosexual acts simply informs us that we have internalized society’s homophobia, as opposed to saying that society merely clarified and enforced the already existing disgust that God has placed in man’s heart. Similarly, “conventional” beauty standards are merely that: conventional. There is no rational or natural basis, and the broadly shared recognition of certain individuals’ beauty tells us nothing about beauty itself but only about the society those allegedly beautiful individuals and their beholders occupy.

Or, consider the Social Justice concern over policing “Fake News” and conservative content on social media like YouTube. Because the mind has no natural boundaries or limits, listening to Ben Shapiro criticize the “radical left” will easily lead you to become an alt-right nazi sympathizer and a flat-earther. In this view, all people are highly susceptible to the wrong kind of influence because they have no internal “brakes” on their mind that would stop them from indulging in radical thinking. In the realist conception, man has certain natural barriers, like a conscience and an internal “B.S. sensor” that helps them gauge the plausibility of a claim.

This would also explain why the Social Justice crowd would have no compunction about engaging in thought policing. In their mind, society is constantly engaged in thought policing, because our beliefs come to us as a result of society’s thought conditioning. Now, all societies engage in thought conditioning, but what is specifically denied by Social Justice is that the conditioning has any connection to reality or the truth. Beliefs are merely the result of conditioning, and therefore can be conditioned away and replaced by new ones, with only cursory attention ever paid to actually providing sound, rational arguments for the new beliefs. So information is controlled in order to “nudge” or influence you, rather than information being freely given alongside arguments designed to persuade.

Or, consider that mass shootings are never talked about in terms of crime but as a gun problem. There is no concept that a person, in order to commit a mass shooting, would have to forcibly overcome so many internal barriers of mind and conscience. In the realist view, such a person is depraved and ill. But in the Social Justice view, such a person is actually a victim, a victim of circumstance and conditioning, for which they cannot be expected to bear any responsibility.

Again, all of this is not to deny that social conditioning plays a role in belief formation, or to deny that our perceptions are ever influenced by our desires or pre-existing beliefs. Rather, it is to emphasize that, alongside these “psychological” concerns exists a rational part of the mind that is capable of know what is true. We can learn to think clearly and balance our motivations, experiences, and peer pressure against sound thinking. But if we deny that this kind of intellectual check-and-balance is possible, then all that remains is conditioning and motivation. We become irrational.

So the point is not that every intuition we have about morality, truth, beauty, and so on is always right. In fact, we are often wrong about these things. Nor is it to assert that people easily resist conditioning, or that no ideas ever pose a risk to people because everyone knows exactly how to discern truth from falsehood. Rather, it is to affirm that our intuitions are made to connect us to the truth. Intuitions may be foggy and unclear, or formed by a process of motivated reasoning. But intuitions can also be formed by paying attention to reality and honed through the proper motivation, the motivation to know the truth.

This is why the Scriptures give us both doctrinal statements of truth and exhortations to grow in wisdom and discernment. Like any skill, we must develop, through study and practice, the ability to sift truth from falsehood. Abandoning this battle merely makes us more susceptible to motivated reasoning, more susceptible to peer pressure.

In the way of naming this phenomenon, I think it is probably safe to label this kind of thinking as an expression of post-modern epistemology (I recommend Stephen Hick’s Explaining Postmodernism for a treatment of the philosophical history of the subject). Post-modern skepticism denies that the mind has any contact with reality, and then asserts that arguments are merely power plays–hence the demands for the victim hierarchy associated with Social Justice.

Not all of Social Justice is bad in this way. I think a lot of, like sympathy and justice for the oppressed, are Biblical concepts. But while the end goal might be partially shared by Christians, the thinking that gets us there needs to be grounded in reality. Social Justice indulges far too much in anti-realist thought. You can protect yourself from this by reminding yourself, whenever you hear odd statements about gender, about “society,” about your own perceptions, that Social Justice is trying to convince you: Your mind does not tell you what is real.

Correction: are ID arguments always probabilistic?

I wrote a post a few days ago about why arguments from intelligent design are always probabilistic. The main point was that if creating life is just about getting the right stuff in the right place, then the very fact that life exists means that it’s possible for the right stuff to get in the right place. It’s just a question of how to get it there.

In reading it over, I had two thoughts that made me question whether I was right about this.

First, this would only be true given a materialistic view of life. I argued that our world is good at keeping life but bad at causing it. Life can come from life (making babies), non-life can come from life (excrement, buildings, tools), non-life can come from non-life (rocks breaking apart, chemicals reacting), but life doesn’t seem able to come from non-life (??????? atheists: 0, christians: 1).

And, life can turn non-life into life through reproduction (nutrients, etc get built into an embryo inside the womb). So living things have some property that they can confer onto non-living material that, when organized in the right way, makes it alive. I can’t make a sheet of paper alive because the stuff isn’t organized the right way, but through reproduction I can make non-living nutrients and fluids into a baby. The point is, we don’t seem to be able to just electrocute a corpse and bring it to life (contra Frankenstein, et al).

But this seems to heavily imply the existence of something like a soul, with the soul being that “thing” that animates the otherwise non-living but properly organized stuff. This isn’t an argument; it’s more of an observation. But I am curious whether further exploring this idea would yield the conclusion that, in fact, life is impossible in principle without a creator. My suspicion is that it’s actually impossible to properly distinguish life from non-life on materialistic assumptions, which means that you couldn’t even coherently argue that life can come from non-life because the two are really just the same thing. The conclusion would be that “life” as a metaphysical reality does not exist–but the denial of metaphysical reality is precisely what the materialist worldview is all about.

It seems like the conclusion would be that if you’re a materialist, you’re not so much arguing that some elaborate coincidence is capable of getting the puzzle pieces to fit together correctly, but rather that there’s no fundamental difference between a puzzle that is solved and one where the pieces are just sort of lying around next to each other; in other words, it’s not a question of whether the right material can kind of somehow fall together in the way that it just makes a living thing, but whether there is even any difference between that living thing and the non-living material that preceded it.

Second, the idea I had was that, at least under materialistic assumptions, a living thing is just a collection of properly organized materials, and the fact that living things do exist is empirical proof that it’s possible in principle for those materials to become properly organized. The question just becomes how to get them organized properly. This made me think about how atheists speculate about highly elaborate Rube Goldberg scenarios to explain how all the right pieces might just happen to fall into place on their own.

It occurred to me that such explanations are actually the atheists themselves designing the proper conditions in which they could bring about life. This is an observation many others make in the origins debate (that creating life in a test tube actually just demonstrates that it takes intelligent scientists to create life), and funnily enough, I made it in an earlier post, talking about a bicycle getting milk on its own. The idea is that at a certain point, the scenario becomes so elaborate that it actually takes conscious, intelligent thought to figure out how to get all the pieces to fall together, and it takes will and power to act in a way to bring those conditions about.

What’s more, such a scenario requires a great deal more intelligence and power, since putting a bunch of gears on a game of Mousetrap in such a way that running the game assembles a functioning watch is actually way harder to do than just making a watch normally. You’d actually have to be capable of building the watch, and you’d have to be capable of figuring out how to coordinate that task using the independent movements of the Mousetrap game. Such an elaborate, complex scenario is far more demanding of an intelligent designer than just an ordinary watch.

My goal in the original post was to understand why ID arguments are never definitive but instead rely on some probability. Christians should not be concerned that the arguments aren’t definitive because they are simply “scientific” questions about the physical materials that compose a living thing. Because we see fully solved puzzles all around us, we know that it’s possible to get the pieces to fit together correctly. But the definitive arguments are philosophical: how do we distinguish, in a purely materialistic way, a solved puzzle from bunch of random pieces that are close together, and what is the threshold of plausibility that makes some elaborate scenario implausible unless cause by an intelligent actor?

How Christ fulfills the Law

I remember I used to read in the book of Acts how the apostles would preach Christ from the Law and Prophets. I always wanted to know specifically what they were saying, because I felt like I didn’t understand how exactly Christ “fulfilled” the Law and Prophets. I think this topic is a pretty deep one because it gets into a large set of questions that have to do with our expectations of Scripture, what we think of today when we think of fulfilling a prophecy, and so on. I want to give just a very brief overview of where I’ve come to on this question.

Let’s begin by thinking about what it means to “fulfill” something. Today we tend to think of fulfillment in literal way, like someone predicting the future. This is a very “scientific” notion of fulfillment: we have a hypothesis, we make a prediction, we run an experiment, and the fulfillment of the prediction (the ball fell, the chemicals exploded, the star was next to the other star) proves the hypothesis true. If the Old Testament had had in it similar predictions of Jesus’s first coming, a lot of the ambiguity would be removed. But there’s another way to think of fulfillment. It’s a little more abstract, but I think it’s a more intuitive way to think of it.

I had a conversation with my daughter, who likes to read Greek mythology. She was wondering about the fact that everyone believes that their God is the true God. I pointed out that all of the Greek gods and heroes had both strengths and flaws; for example, Zeus had authority and power, but he was a womanizer and constantly getting into trouble with his mistresses.  To worship him or any of the other gods would be to worship something that is in someway incomplete. If you wanted to make sure you worshiped everything good, you’d have to worship lots of gods to make sure you didn’t leave anything out. But if you did this, you’d also be worshiping a lot of flaws. Ideally, you’d want a way to take out all of the good things and worship those while throwing away all the bad things. What you’d be worshiping is the perfection of all that is good and righteous and holy and just, and in whom there is no fault or blemish or sin. Now who can such a god be but the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ?

In other words, while there were many gods, and each god represented different things, all the gods had this in common: they represented something good. What made all these different gods alike? They each embodied, in some way or other, a part of this thing we call “good.” So each god was a partial expression of some deeper, underlying goodness that transcended any particular god. But the gods were also alike in that they partially expressed something called “badness,” or evil or sin. This sin was distributed across all the gods, expressed in different ways and in different measures. So while each god was different in the kind and amount of “badness” he expressed, each god did have something bad. What we want is to worship all that is good, and none of what is bad. We want to worship goodness itself.

What we have done here is we have “completed” or “perfected” the notion of God by separating the good from the evil. God is the “true” or “perfect” god because he has all the virtues of any particular god (he has authority and power, like Zeus), yet he is without the faults of that god (God has complete self-control and is not driven by his appetites or passions, assuming he has any). So God is the perfect God, complete, lacking nothing. Another way of putting all this is that God “fulfills” the notion of goodness that the previous, lesser gods “pointed to,” “hinted at,” or “foreshadowed.”

Christ does this, too. What makes Christ worth worshiping is not that he is the only heroic, self-sacrificial god-man (other religions have this notion). Rather, Christ is the perfection, completion, fulfillment of the notion of a heroic, self-sacrificial god-man. There is no quality that he lacks, no good thing he ought to have done but didn’t do, no bad thing he shouldn’t have done but did anyway, and so on. So while there are many similar stories in the world, they are mixed with good and evil, or they are only a partial representation of the fullness of the goodness that could be represented in such a story. So, Christ perfectly and completely fulfills the aptly-named “Christ figure” archetype.

So how does Christ fulfill the Law and Prophets? When we then look at the Old Testament, we see many stories (Abraham and Isaac, Joseph sold into slavery, the prophet Moses, King David who truly loved God), and underneath each of these stories there is some deep, true lesson that we learn about God. Christ “fulfills” the Law and Prophets by perfectly embodying those deep realities that those stories were pointing at. The story of Joseph, for example, was a story about a brother, betrayed by this brothers, suffered injustice after injustice, but who never himself committed any unrighteousness (that is, never depicted as having done so), and who at the end is raised up and given all the king’s authority, and the brothers who rejected him come and worship him, and he forgives and receives and blesses them.

Jesus is the perfect embodiment of this story. Jesus takes this story and makes it into flesh and blood. Jesus is the flesh-and-blood representation of God’s word. Jesus brings this story to its completion. Everything that that story was “about,” Jesus lived perfectly. Jesus fulfills this story.

Similarly, we read in the Law that we should repay eye for eye, tooth for tooth, bone for bone, and so on. The Law prescribes true justice, and justice means proportional responses. But why should I, the injured party who suffered injustice, be interested in limiting my response to only what is proportional? Why not avenge seventy-seven fold, like Lamech in Genesis 4:24? Because to demand any more would be to inflict injury on the perpetrator. But why should we care about whether the perpetrator suffers some injury, since by doing evil they deserve whatever comes to them?

The answer is, because we love them. To love someone means to will their good, even to the point of sacrificing yourself for their sake. To forgive means that you don’t demand what is owed. By forgiving, you sacrifice the potential repayment so there is no injurious burden of debt on the perpetrator. We forgive because we will the good of even those that hurt us. We forgive them because we love them. So if we limit justice to what is proportional, we have a model of justice that is motivated by concern for those that hurt us. When we practice true justice, we learn to set limits on ourselves for the good of others; we learn how to love. Love is the fulfillment of the Law.

So when we ask what it means to fulfill the Law, we can ask, what is the point of this? What is this getting at? Where is it leading us? What we apprehend in our minds is often some dim, vague notion, something we can intuitively sense but can’t quite fully “grasp.” When we look at Jesus, we see a clear representation of that ungraspable, vague intuition. Paul says in Galatians that the Law is like a tutor, a teacher to form our minds and shape us so that we become able to perceive Christ. The ceremonial law and sacrifices are, as the book of Hebrews says, shadows of the heavenly realities. They are the shadows, and Christ is the real thing. This is why we don’t have to obey those laws: Christ did the thing that those laws were pointing to, and he did them completely and perfectly. And this is why we have perfect forgiveness of sins and a firm hope for salvation:

Christ fulfilled the Law and Prophets, because he loves us.

Why Intelligent Design arguments are always probabilistic

I was watching this Joe Rogan clip about aliens, and within the first few seconds, his guest says, in reference to the possibility of advanced alien civilizations, something like, “If civilizations are common, there should be some that are ahead of us.” Now it is as obvious that this statement is true as it is that civilizations are in fact not common. Let’s explore this.

On the one hand, our universe is capable of supporting life, and in particular our planet is capable of supporting it. On the other hand, life seems to be something that our universe doesn’t seem capable of producing “on its own.” By this, I mean that life only seems to come from pre-existing living things rather than pre-existing non-living things. Life can make non-life: living things can die and produce non-living corpses, living things can produce non-living excrement, certain sophisticated living things can produce physical but non-living structures like tools or buildings. But non-life doesn’t seem to be able to create life: chemical reactions take non-living material and re-organize it into other non-living material, physical process like the rubbing two things together or electrocuting things produce changes in substances used but again don’t change those substances from non-living into living.

The takeaway is that it actually seems really, really hard for the universe, in all of its organized splendor, to get life. Life seems like the kind of thing that can only be conferred onto physical matter by some other living thing. This means that civilizations are actually rare in the scope of the universe; they aren’t likely to “just happen.” And the intelligent design arguments all focus on this point, typically appealing to statistical calculations demonstrating the enormous improbability of life simply arrive by chance.

But the Christian hopes for something more, not just improbability but impossibility. We don’t want it to be unlikely for life to arrive without God, we want it to be impossible for it to arrive without God. This is because atheists appeal to that little window of hope, that 1 in 10^127 or whatever chance that it could happen. But it’s important that we understand why there can only be improbability, not impossibility.

If life is in part the arrangement of physical matter into a body, then it is simply a matter of finding some mechanism that can so arrange it. Atheists will appeal to vastly improbable circumstances, the likes of which if offered as a defense of an otherwise obvious first degree murder would be laughed out of court, simply because they just need to get the pieces together in the right way.

Here’s the important part: it is possible to get the pieces together in the right way. How do we know this? Because we exist. Our pieces are together in the right way. This means it isn’t impossible to get the pieces together in the right way; it’s just a matter of how exactly we got about getting them like that. So what atheists and materialists propose isn’t actually impossible. It is possible for life to exist in this universe, and we know this because here we are talking about it.

Our universe has a certain set of properties, a certain set of rules. Those rules seem to make it really really hard for life to just happen on it’s own, yet those same rules seem to make it very easy for life to sustain itself, at least on this planet. Our universe and planet, being just the way they are, is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for life. Petri dishes are really good at facilitating the existence bacterial colonies but really bad at causing the existence of bacterial colonies.

So the point is: civilizations are not common in the universe. This is because the universe is not made in a way that makes the spontaneous appearance of life at all likely. The fact that it is unlikely but therefore not impossible is exploited by atheists and materialists to serve as a window to avoid relying on God as an explanation for life. Because life can indeed exist, this window is impossible to shut. On the other hand, we needn’t worry that the window can’t be shut because it’s delusional to appeal to a window which is cracked ever so slightly that for any practical purpose it’s impossible to tell if it’s even actually open.

De-sexualizing the modesty issue

I was doing some searching last night on biblestudytools.com, and this article caught my eye:

Why do so many women show off cleavage in church?

I won’t go over the article, but I did want to call out a section of the article near the bottom, where they quote someone named Sharon Hodde Miller:

How do we discuss modesty in a manner that celebrates the female body without objectifying women, and still exhorts women to purity? The first solution is to dispense with body-shaming language. Shame is great at behavior modification, even when the shaming is not overt. But shame-based language is not the rhetoric of Jesus. It is the rhetoric of his Enemy.

Second, we must affirm the value of the female body. The value or meaning of a woman’s body is not the reason for modesty. Women’s bodies are not inherently distracting or tempting. On the contrary, women’s bodies glorify God. Dare I say that a woman’s breasts, hips, bottom, and lips all proclaim the glory of the Lord! Each womanly part honors Him. He created the female body, and it is good.

Finally, language about modesty should focus not on hiding the female body but on understanding the body’s created role. Immodesty is not the improper exposure of the body per se, but the improper orientation of the body. Men and women are urged to pursue a modesty by which our glory is minimized and God’s is maximized. The body, the spirit and the mind all have a created role that is inherently God-centered. When we make ourselves central instead of God, we display the height of immodesty.

What sticks out the most to me is the line, “Women’s bodies are not inherently distracting or tempting.” There is a weird invisible line being crossed here, and it’s one that really drives me crazy when I hear it.

What exactly does it mean to say that women’s bodies aren’t inherently distracting or tempting? For something to be tempting, it must be tempting to someone. And for it to be inherently tempting, it must be tempting by nature of what it is, in this case, a female body. So what she’s saying is that there are no people who find the female body distracting or tempting by virtue of the fact that it’s a female body. But this just seems like wishful thinking, like she’s really saying, “Men shouldn’t find women’s bodies inherently tempting.”

On the one hand, I don’t want to psychologize about what she’s really thinking and feeling (e.g. that she finds the responsibility of managing her enormously powerful sexuality too much of a burden and is engaging in a project of rationalization to excuse herself from having to care about men), but on the other hand, psychologizing is exactly what she’s doing to men, whether she means to or not.

By saying that women’s bodies aren’t inherently tempting, she’s implying that the source of the temptation is really some other thing. But what this would have to mean is that men experience sexual temptation for some other reason, not having to do with actual sexual desire triggered by a sexual cue, and then project that temptation onto women’s bodies. And not just that one man does this, or a certain group of men, or a lot of men, but men in general, all men who find women’s bodies a source of temptation.

In other words, the implication of what she’s saying is to deny the common-sense notion that women’s bodies are a source of sexual temptation to men simply because men want to have sex with women, and that women’s bodies (primarily their secondary sex characteristics, which she lists) therefore represent a sexual cue. I suppose this would be like saying, “Men should not be sexually aggressive, but not because sexually aggressive behavior is inherently threatening. We should learn to celebrate male sexual aggression but make it clear that feeling threatened by this would be wrong, because it would denigrate the glory of male sexuality.”

The fact that this line is followed by “On the contrary, women’s bodies glorify God” is an indication that Miller is engaging in the common attempt to de-sexualize the issue of modesty by simply denying the reality of how men think. It is easy enough to just declare that a woman’s body is not inherently tempting. And if it were true, then men would have no legitimate reason to want sex, or to pursue sex as a goal (and therefore pursue marriage), or to want women to be modest in order to make it easier for them to control their sexual desires by being less frequently exposed to sexual stimulus.

This is reinforced by her statement that we should “celebrate the female body without objectifying women.” What this means is that the female body should be celebrated for its beauty in a way that disregards the fact that men find sexual value in it. The Bible teaches us that we should not depersonalize any person, since they bear the image of God, and here that means not reducing women to mere instruments of sexual pleasure. But the encouragement not to reduce women to nothing more than sexual objects must come with a recognition that for men, women are at least sexual objects, not because they viewed as non-personal objects, but in the grammatical sense that they are the “direct object” of desire.

In the third paragraph, she says, “language about modesty should focus not on hiding the female body but on understanding the body’s created role.” But what is the created role of the female body? Why is there male and female? The answer is sex. Male and female bodies differ precisely with respect to the roles they play in sex and reproduction. The whole point of modesty’s focus on “hiding the female body” is precisely because men desire sex with women, and their bodies can be presented as sexual cues. To talk about the body in a way that focuses on hiding those sexual cues is exactly what it means to be honest about the body’s created role.

In other words, maybe I’m reading in between the lines here, but behind her three points, I see an attempt to reorient the notion of modesty so that it has nothing to do with sex at all: modesty is about glorifying God rather than glorifying the self. It’s not that this is false; obviously modesty is about not drawing attention to yourself but to God, or at least to your godly behavior. Rather, it’s that it combines with what else was said to communicate that modesty is about the issue of vanity and not about women doing what they can to help men avoid sexual temptation. Making a series of observations on the issue of modesty without once acknowledging the basic realities of sexual attraction is, I think, to live in a fantasy land.

This is all highly irritating to me. Again, I’m happy to be wrong about this, but it almost feels like she’s saying, “I’ll be modest, but not because my body has sexual value.” Emotions on this issue run high, obviously, and I get that there’s a lot of shame that goes along with having to cover up. But at some point trying to counteract the shame goes too far. I think we can be more realistic than this.

On Socialism

I don’t usually write about economics, although I do think about it a lot. I think this might be because I am of somewhat divided mind about this: the Bible seems to clearly teach individual responsibility and the inherent justice of natural consequences while affirming social responsibility and the value of charity. Finding a way to enforce both responsibility and charity is a hard needle to thread.

However, some folks at my company took an opportunity to take a public dump on “unfettered capitalism” in a company-wide chat. Normally we are politics-free, which is great because the software world is a mix of libertarians and Silicon Valley-style progressives. So I want to write out some of my thoughts just for my own sake, to process what was said. Here’s a recap:

Someone posted a link to an article saying that a NASA contractor had falsified some tests, leading to $700 million dollars of “damage” in that they cause two missions to fail. The company agreed to pay back $46 million. The responses:

  • Unfettered capitalism at its best. [angry emoji]
  • Laws are for little people, yo.
  • we have the best justice money can buy.

I find this highly irritating. I’m not the world’s biggest proponent of capitalism or anything; I have my own criticisms of it. But this kind of stuff is just really lazy. I responded:

  • Nothing says “capitalism failed” like the failure of a government agency

This generated some confused responses, namely that the contractor was a private company, which makes sense because it was a botched attempt to seem witty. I clarified, and the guy from comment #3 said:

yep, pretty much. unchecked capitalism seems to cause representative democracies to devolve into plutocracies. this is probably the case as long as politicians are reliant on the oligarchic rich establishment to maintain their (relative) wealth and power. (why *capital*ism concentrates wealth with the very few is left as an exercise for the reader.)
in theory, this is why campaign finance reform is such an important issue. if we can limit the correlation between how much money a candidate can raise and the number of votes they get, it’ll put the breaks on the plutocracy train.
but none of this really addresses why justice wasn’t served here, although the underlying issue is very similar.
in this country, the outcome of the justice process largely depends on who can hire the highest quantity and/or quality of lawyers. in cases like this where a settlement seems exceptionally small, it’s likely due to the overs/unders of potentially protracted litigation. justice is ellusive because it’s costly.
essentially this is an example of the same problem as, say, a renter not getting their full deposit back due to their landlord’s fraudulent damage claims. the landlord is very likely to just get by with this behavior because it costs more in time and effort than it is worth for the tennant. justice is ellusive because it’s costly.
hence…

we have the best justice money can buy.
…which is just another way of saying capitalism and justice don’t mix.

I want to de-tangle the above statements, because I think this kind of thinking is really common.

1) People constantly tell the story of rich people buying an elected leader’s way into office. For some reason, this seems to always imply that it’s billionaire republicans doing this; never are, for example, public sector unions or planned parenthood held up as examples of this. This double-standard is a real problem, because I’ve never heard anyone complain about CNN, or the New York Times, or any liberal media institution engaging in political speech. And the Citizens United case which people love to cite as opening the floodgates of money against democracy was a case where Hillary Clinton had sued a private company for making a negative documentary about her. So the flip side of campaign-finance reform is the limitations on free political speech.

2) Politicians are just as reliant on working-class votes as they are on “oligarchic rich establishment wealth” to win; they don’t buy the office, they buy ad space. Unless, of course, you have such a contemptuously low view of the working class that you think they are this easily influenced, an ironic belief for a socialist to have. This betrays socialism’s motives for me: It’s always the wealthy, privileged elite who want socialism, because they believe they’re the ones that are qualified to run everything. They don’t really believe in the dignity of the working class; they want to be their custodians, not their peers.

3) The over/under of protracted litigation is a real issue. Does anyone think this is what happened here? That the federal government itself (NASA is an agency of the federal government) were unable to compete with a Norwegian metals company? Are we seriously comparing to a poor tenant and the private company to a landlord? This is ridiculous. In this case, it’s more like the tenant is the child of the landlord, and the contractor is the building manager that the landlord-father hired.

Of course if it were SpaceX that had been defrauded, and they had responded by suing the contractor out of existence, then they’d be complaining about the heartlessness of big corporations. Their obsession with big corporations makes them miss the ways the principles of capitalism actually help the majority of people.

4) “In this country…” Again, the inability of little people to go up against teams of high-priced lawyers is a problem that should be solved. But are we going to lay this at the feet of capitalism? How is this not simply a problem inherent to the realities of being poor, something which would be true in any system of justice, from vigilante anarchism to outright communism? The most “powerful” people (whether violent in the first case or politically connected in the latter) will always have an easier time getting their way. It is highly irritating when people frame this as being an aberrant result of capitalism. “In this county” these things happen really means, “…and only in this country.”

Again, notice that this frame betrays the obsession with “big corporations.” If a private citizen were the victim of some injustice, would we not want them to be able to hire the best lawyers? Put differently, if you were the victim of injustice, wouldn’t you want to be able to hire a better lawyer if you could afford a better one? That big corporations do this is a problem, but it is a problem at the margin of free society, not one at its core; liberals always want to ban everyone from doing something legitimate because a tiny percentage of the population does that thing in a harmful way.

5) Easily the most astonishing claim: “capitalism and justice don’t mix.”  Again, I’m not a full-throated defender of capitalism. I think insofar as it is an economic application of liberal individualism, it has serious limits. But insofar as capitalism is simply the state reinforcing the natural right a laborer has to the output of his labor and his freedom to dispose of that output as he deems best, you cannot have justice without capitalism.

Finally, let me just point out that I think social is a little absurd. The argument seems to be that rich, wealthy people have too much influence over ordinary people, that capitalism creates an aristocracy. But making the government an administrative state over all property would seem to have the effect of concentrating even more wealth and power in the hands of even fewer people, and in this case it would be people who did absolutely nothing to earn it and who have the power to throw you in jail. At least Warren Buffet is investing his own money, at least he’s taking a risk. He’s either spending time figuring out where to invest, or he’s paying people from his own pocket to do it for him. Socialism seems to ossify the very conditions it’s trying to eradicate.