Marriage and Fundamental Physics

By Sean Carroll | October 19, 2008 4:50 pm

Among other important elections, on November 4 Californians will be voting on Proposition 8, a measure to amend the state Constitution in order to ban same-sex marriages. The polling has been very close, with a possible late break toward a “Yes” vote; this would effectively overturn a California Supreme Court decision from this May that held that same-sex couples had a right to marry under the equal protection clause of the California Constitution. Eventually, of course, gay marriage will be accepted throughout the country, and we will look back on today as the bad old days of discrimination. But that’s cold comfort to the couples who would like to celebrate their love for each other right now. You can donate and learn more about the measure at No On 8.

We are occasionally asked why a Physics Blog spends time talking about religion and politics and all that nonsense. A perfectly correct answer is that this is not a Physics Blog, it’s a blog by some people who happen to be physicists, and we talk about things that interest us, blah blah blah. But there is another, somewhat deeper, answer. Physics is not just a technical pastime played with numerical simulations and Feynman diagrams; nor is it a purely instrumental technique for unlocking Nature’s secrets so as to build better TV sets. Physics, as it is currently practiced, is a paradigm for a naturalistic way of understanding the world. And that’s a worldview that has consequences stretching far beyond the search for the Higgs boson.

Charles Taylor makes an admirable stab at a very difficult task: understanding the premodern mindset from our modern vantage point. (Via 3 Quarks Daily.) There are many ways in which our perspective differs from that of someone living five hundred years ago in a pre-scientific age, but Taylor emphasizes one important one:

Almost everyone can agree that one of the big differences between us and our ancestors of five hundred years ago is that they lived in an “enchanted” world, and we do not; at the very least, we live in a much less “enchanted” world. We might think of this as our having “lost” a number of beliefs and the practices which they made possible. But more, the enchanted world was one in which these forces could cross a porous boundary and shape our lives, psychic and physical. One of the big differences between us and them is that we live with a much firmer sense of the boundary between self and other. We are “buffered” selves. We have changed.

Our ancestors lived in an enchanted world, where the boundary between the physical and the moral and the spiritual was not very clearly drawn. It made perfect sense, at the time, to attribute to the external world the same kinds of meanings and impulses that one found in the human world — purposes, consciousnesses, moral judgments. One of the great accomplishments of modernity was to construct a new way of understanding the world — one based on understandable, formal rules. These days we understand that the world is not magic.

This change in perspective has led to extraordinary changes in how we live, including the technology on which we are sharing these words. But the consequences go enormously deeper than that, and it is no exaggeration to say that our society has still not come fully to grips with the ramifications of understanding the world around us as fundamentally natural and rules-based. That’s the point at which the worldview suggested by science has had a profound effect on moral reasoning.

For our present purposes, the most important consequence is this: notions of “right” and “wrong” are not located out there in the world, waiting to be discovered, in the same sense that a new kind of elementary particle (or even a new law of physics) is located out there in the world. Right and wrong aren’t parts of the fundamental description of reality. That description has to do with wave functions and Hamiltonian dynamics, not with ethical principles. That is what the world is made of, at a deep level. Everything else — morality, love, aesthetics — is up to us.

Which is not to say that moral concepts don’t exist. It’s just that they are things we construct, not things that we come to understand by examining the world around us. To Plato or Aristotle, as well as their Medieval followers, the kinds of reasoning used to tackle moral questions wasn’t all that different from that used to tackle questions about the natural world. One looked at the world, noticed that certain things seemed to serve certain purposes, and (somewhat presumptuously) elevated those appearances to laws of nature. Some sort of conception of Natural Law has been an important strand of philosophical thinking all the way through to the modern era, even showing up in the Declaration of Independence (“We hold these truths to be self-evident…”).

But it’s wrong. There aren’t Natural Laws that distinguish right from wrong in human behavior. There are only Laws of Nature, which can account for the behavior of the complicated chemical reactions that make up human beings, but stand strictly silent about what those human beings “should” be doing. Things happen in the world, not because of any underlying purpose, but because of the combination of initial conditions and the laws of physics. The fundamental category mistake underlying the idea of Natural Law should have become perfectly obvious and universally accepted in the years after the scientific revolution, but it stubbornly persists, because people want to believe it. If the laws governing right behavior were inherent in Nature, waiting to be discovered, everything would be so much easier than if we have to work them out ourselves.

Just because moral instructions are not located out there in the world, immutable and awaiting discovery, doesn’t mean that “anything goes.” It means that moral guidelines are invented by human beings. Too many people fear that if this sort of moral relativism is true (which it is), then there is no way to denounce Hitler or Charles Manson from a standpoint of ethical absolutes. Well, what of it? I don’t need to live in a world where Hitler was wrong because the universe tells me so — I feel that he was wrong myself, and fortunately many other people agree with me. So I and these other like-minded people sit down to work out among ourselves what rules we want to live by, and we decide that people like Hitler are bad and should be stopped. The codification of moral rules does not come from examining the world or thinking about logical necessities; it comes from individual human beings examining their own desires, and communicating with other human beings to formulate rules of common consent. Some people might prefer that moral rules have a more timeless, universal standing; but personal preference does not affect the working of the actual universe.

Gay marriage is a excellent example of a rule that would be almost universally agreed upon by individual human beings negotiating in good faith, and it is to our culture’s endless embarrassment that at this late stage we are still struggling to get it right. Deep down, there are only two arguments against gay marriage. One, which is the one that actually drives most people’s views on the matter, is that it’s icky. They just don’t like the idea, and therefore don’t want it to exist. There is little point arguing against that, but we can hope that increasing normalization of the idea of homosexuality will cause such attitudes to become increasingly rare.

The other argument is that gay marriage is a violation of Natural Law. That the two human sexes clearly belong together (“Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve”) and the institution of marriage is a sacred covenant between a man and a woman. But once we understand how the universe works, in our post-Enlightenment era, there is no reason to take arguments like this seriously. Nature doesn’t have anything to say about the moral status of two individuals falling in love and formalizing their relationship. It is a matter for us individual human beings to get together and decide how we should structure our legal system. We have long ago decided to recognize the special legal status of two people who love each other and wish to formalize their status as a legal union. Marriage is a wholly invented institution; there is nothing “natural” about it. And there is simply no reason — ickiness aside — to limit that institution to heterosexual couples. There might be, if the existence of gay married couples had directly deleterious effects on other members of society; but it doesn’t, crazy exhortations about the looming threat to traditional families notwithstanding.

Opponents of gay marriage are either squeamish and prejudiced, or philosophically confused. Eliminating prejudice takes time, but the situation is gradually improving. But there is even less excuse for the philosophical confusion surrounding issues like this. And if it takes a Physics Blog to sort things out, we’re happy to take up the challenge.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Human Rights, Philosophy
  • http://zenoferox.blogspot.com/ Zeno

    Some right-wing Christian students got organized and took over the student council at American River College in Sacramento, where some of my friends teach. The student council voted to endorse Proposition 8 and they’ve been the toast of right-wing radio in California ever since. I just heard that there’s a recall election this week, after which a more sane student council may take over. I hope so. The current crew are the same people who ran on a platform of “reforming” college instruction so as to remove “anti-Christian prejudice” from the curriculum. That meant treating creationism and Noah’s flood seriously in anthropology classes and the Bible as literally correct history in the Bible-as-literature course. Given enough time, I’m sure they would have worked their way around to the atheistic physics and astronomy classes that insist the earth is more than 6,000 years old. Let’s see if the other Sacramento students have had enough and exorcise the cabal in the recall.

  • applmak

    Is natural selection a fundamental law? If you would argue so, they I would propose a new theory, based on a variation of the principles involved in natural selection, that would apply to communities of people. Such a law would say that communities that are better adapted to their surroundings persist longer than those that are not. Given such a law, then “Natural Laws” could be defined as laws that have been observed to help communities to survive. This is not to say that these laws are intrinsic to the universe, independent of any human reference frame, but rather that these laws have been shown to work best for the continuance of the human race. In this way, the moral outrage the founding fathers felt at British colonialism and the modern scientific worldview need not be at odds, as you would have it.

  • joe

    If morality is simply the result of “individual human beings examining their own desires, and communicating with other human beings to formulate rules of common consent,” then why can’t a group of human beings meet together and agree that homosexuality is wrong? And if they do, on what grounds can you claim that *your* morality is more right than theirs? How can you convince people on the other side to adopt your beliefs if you also tell them that morals are relative and that there is no basis for morality beyond popular consensus.

    I’m not saying homosexuality is wrong or that morality isn’t relative; I’m just curious how you reconcile your belief in moral relativism and your belief that homosexuality is not immoral. Normally people either say, “Morality is relative. There are no true morals!” or “Morality is objective. If you don’t believe what I believe, you’re wrong!” but not both at the same time.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/sean/ Sean

    They could, of course; that’s exactly what they’ve done for many millennia. However, once you understand that morality is a human construct, there isn’t much actual justification for saying “homosexuality is wrong” outside of “because I think it’s icky.” Instead, most reasonable people who moved beyond the ick-factor would be willing to allow for almost all kinds of personal behaviors that didn’t affect other people in any way. And that is what I would argue to them when we got together to decide what moral rules we should have.

    In other words: people use the fiction of natural law to elevate their personal preferences to absolute truths. Once we admit that they are not absolute truths, we are much closer to adopting reasonable live-and-let-live attitudes.

  • applmak

    Most reasonable people who moved beyond the ick-factor would be willing to allow for almost all kinds of personal behaviors that didn’t affect other people in any way

    Most reasonable people realize that every behavior affects other people. I don’t believe that a gay couple would want to be gay in complete isolation from everyone else, like some hermit on a mountain; rather, they want to be held up as Good by their community as a regular married couple is. They seek acceptance on par with other kinds of marriage, I would imagine. There’s something else that allows your “reasonable people” to come to a consensus on supporting gay marriage, besides a belief that there can be personal behaviors that do not affect others.

    Disclaimer: I do not know any gay couples, nor have had the in-depth conversation required to know for sure what they think about such things. I’m only applying my own experience to the situation.

  • Jason Dick

    applmak,

    Is natural selection a fundamental law? If you would argue so, they I would propose a new theory, based on a variation of the principles involved in natural selection, that would apply to communities of people. Such a law would say that communities that are better adapted to their surroundings persist longer than those that are not. Given such a law, then “Natural Laws” could be defined as laws that have been observed to help communities to survive. This is not to say that these laws are intrinsic to the universe, independent of any human reference frame, but rather that these laws have been shown to work best for the continuance of the human race. In this way, the moral outrage the founding fathers felt at British colonialism and the modern scientific worldview need not be at odds, as you would have it.

    This is a seductive idea. But it’s fundamentally flawed. The problem is that there is no reason whatsoever why selection should lead to a society in which people would like to live.

    Just to give an example, take rape. Now, we almost universally agree that people have a right to refuse to have sex, and nobody should force themselves on another. Does it change anything if rape is a result of selective pressure?

    Take this just as a thought experiment: consider that we live in a society where some men are able to have sex with women, while other men are extremely undesirable to women and can’t get women to choose to have sex with them. In this society, when a man finds himself in the situation of being undesirable, if he wants to procreate the best way to do so would be to rape. If a man can achieve procreation by consensual means, of course, that’s going to be much better for success, but if that door is closed, then rape seems to provide definitive advantages.

    It is entirely possible, then, that in humans, as we know it is in some other species, rape is an adapted behavior for males who find themselves unable to find a consensual mate. But just because it’s a good strategy for reproduction, does that mean that we should do it? Does that make it okay? Certainly not!

    Simply put, the fact that something is a good trick for survival or reproduction says nothing whatsoever about whether or not we should value something. Instead, living in a good, pleasant society should be just one of many goals that we have, independent of such things like survival and procreation. And when there is a conflict between living a wholesome life and the success of future generations, we should be able to make that choice ourselves with eyes wide open. But we should [i]not[/i] simply assume that selection will automatically result in a society in which we want to live.

  • applmak

    Jason Dick:

    Very well reasoned. I would agree with you wholeheartedly, based on your understanding of my initial comment, but I must admit I misrepresented my original idea. I didn’t mean to imply that this variation on natural selection would be based solely on survival and procreation as Darwin’s original idea is. This is because I believe for a human society to last for a long time, there are more complex factors than simply survival and sex involved, and I assumed that future readers would think the same thing and come to the same conclusions. The variation of natural selection that I introduced would need to reflect the more complex animal’s behavior: taking into account, say, the desire of the individual to be in the society or the happiness of the individual. If we assume that this new law is in effect now and has been over the course of human existence, then we could examine the societies that exist currently, and ask whether or not they now condone behavior like rape. I would argue that lasting cultures forbid such behavior, and actively work to prevent it. Only the cultures that promote certain Good principles would last under the conditions of the Law. That is a way of defining Natural Laws, without being too relativistic nor absolute.

  • http://collateraltales.blogspot.com/ Jay

    Awesome post Sean, thanks—the “paradigm” premise especially is something I’d like to take home for future use, and your take on the origins of moral concepts makes at lot of sense too, at least to me. With regard to this topic, I slightly tripped over your choice of Charles Taylor—I might have misread his Sources of the Self, but it had appeared to me that he actually strains himself to resuscitate Platonic ideas so that ethical concepts could indeed be found as “embedded” in nature somehow.

    Again, a great post, and I’m very glad that all of you cover ethical and political topics on Cosmic Variance from time to time.

    ^_^J.

  • Michael

    I think the “ickiness” factor has a deeper explanation as well. Human beings have a completely natural tendency to project themselves onto whatever situation they happen to be viewing or thinking about or surrounded by. People watch action movies in a sense because of the excitement they feel from the projection of themselves onto the roles of the character. The same phenomenon explains the popularity of pornography. The idea of heterosexual sex is always going to be less “icky” because no matter who is thinking about it (gay or straight person), there is always at least one participant to which a person can comfortably project him/herself onto. This is not true in the homosexual case. I think it is thus reasonable to say that homosexual sex is due the same level of “ickiness” as say, sex between two extremely ugly people. I’d rather not think about either. But of course the point of the post was about the morality of it all on which I completely agree with you.

  • Jesse

    Sean-
    You may want to take a look at this fascinating article by Jonathan Haidt. It’s entitled “What makes people vote Republican”, and in it he describes some of the pitfalls in the moral relativism argument. I don’t agree with all of it, but it opened my eyes a bit. I think the main conclusion is in line with yours, but he stresses that to follow the argument to its conclusion can still result in absolutist societies.

  • Beke

    you write “We are occasionally asked why a Physics Blog spends time talking about religion and politics and all that nonsense.”

    who cares about that. i wonder why you so horribly and disgustingly bias and never explain yourself

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/sean/ Sean

    Jay– you’re absolutely right about Taylor, I don’t think he reaches the right conclusions from this diagnosis. He seems rather nostalgic about the loss of enchantment, whereas I’m all in favor of accepting it. But I thought he made some sense when trying to capture the premodern mind-set.

    Jesse– I think Haidt’s article is great, and we’re certainly learning a lot about the neuropsychology of belief these days. But I think there is a metaphysical question concerning the status of moral reasoning that is a prior question, which it would make sense to clarify before attempting to draw any lessons from biology or psychology.

  • spyder

    Thank you so much, Sean, for the philosophical critique; it is obviously much needed.

    For those with real questioning minds, and who are willing to reach beyond themselves rather than bask in their own prejudice and bias, i strongly recommend reading this essay by Richard Rorty: HUMAN RIGHTS: Rationality and Sentimentality.

    Serbian murderers and rapists do not think of themselves as violating human rights. For they are not doing these things to fellow human beings, but to Muslims. They are not being inhuman, but rather are discriminating between the true humans and the pseudohumans. They are making the same sort of distinction as the Crusaders made between humans and infidel dogs, and the Black Muslims make between humans and blue-eyed devils. The founder of my university was able both to own slaves and to think it self-evident that all men were endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights. He had convinced himself that the consciousness of Blacks, like that of animals, “participate[s] more of sensation than reflection”2. Like the Serbs, Mr. Jefferson did not think of himself as violating human rights.

    The Serbs take themselves to be acting in the interests of true humanity by purifying the world of pseudohumanity. In this respect, their self-image resembles that of moral philosophers who hope to cleanse the world of prejudice and superstition. This cleansing will permit us to rise above our animality by becoming, for the first time, wholly rational and thus wholly human.

    I submit that some commenting above still feel compelled to purify the world.

  • spyder

    Some how the donors choose link interfered with the proper linkage for the essay.

    http://www.usm.maine.edu/bcj/issues/three/rorty.html

  • http://www.nutcase.org H.M. Amir al-Mumenin al-Mutawakkil ‘Ala Allah Rab ul-Alamin Imam Yahya bin al-Mansur Bi’llah Muhammad Hamidaddin, Imam and Commander of the Faithful, and King of the Yemen.

    The following is a true story.

    Some time ago a man was arrested in Bangkok for vandalizing public property. He contested the case on the grounds that what he was doing did not in fact harm public property or anything or anyone else. What he was really doing was having sexual intercourse, late at night, with lamp-posts. No, I am not making this up. Many lamp-posts at that time in Bangkok were made of wood and came equipped with…umm…orifices at a convenient height. [He was caught because one of his lovers had splinters, making it impossible or at least very painful for him to escape, so there he was in flagrante delicto the next morning.]

    Note that the ickiness factor here is relatively low, though I apologise to the men out there who are cringing. Certainly a less icky story than anything associated with homosexuality. OK, so far so good.

    It then transpired that the lover of lamp-posts had applied to be a teacher in a primary school. The application was immediately rejected at the behest of angry parents. Why? “Because if he is crazy enough to do that, he is crazy enough to do anything,” said the principal.

    Excellent! Now I don’t want to get into deep philosophical issues here; as it happens, I am fully in agreement with Sean about natural law and all that. All of us can agree, however, that hypocrisy is a bad thing. I think we can also agree that it is a bad thing for people with serious, untreated mental illnesses to be schoolteachers. In particular, I would not want my small son to be taught by a male teacher who gets a kick out of intercourse with public works or animals [*now* we start to get icky] or other men. If they are disturbed enough to get a kick out of subjecting themselves to the most extreme forms of humiliation, then who can say what they might do?

    Now if homosexuals would just avoid such jobs and live quietly and not go around loudly declaring how normal they are, I would say good luck to them, no problem. But that is precisely what they are unable to do: and the demand for the right to be married, this craving for the ultimate symbol of respectability, is suggestive, is it not?

  • http://lablemminglounge.blogspot.com Lab Lemming

    Are morals a result of logical deduction, or subconscious reactions that we create rules around to justify?

  • http://collateraltales.blogspot.com/ Jay

    Couldn’t help smiling, kind of eureka! moment here—”nostalgic” is indeed le mot juste. Never occured to me. But in retrospect now, yes, there was a trace of melancholy throughout the development of his arguments.

    ^_^J.

  • applmak

    I suppose, I should apply my theory to actually create a point. One on hand, you could ban gay marriage, and create a split in your society between those who are being hurt by the law and those who are not similar to any law that takes away privileges. This split would inevitably be detrimental to society’s progress. On the other, you could choose not to ban it, and continue the current moral arguments for and against. I would prefer the latter.

  • applmak

    Lab Lemming:

    How do we know subconscious reactions aren’t logical deductions? :)

  • masonk

    I’m with #3. You make the case for moral relativism powerfully. But the case for moral relativism is not the case for homosexual marriage. (If anything, it’s the case for a ballot referendum.)

    To make your case for homosexual marriage you are first forced to discover your own absolute guiding principle, which seems to be “live and let live”. E.g.: “Most reasonable people… would be willing to allow for almost all kinds of personal behaviors that didn’t affect other people.”

    But this statement, when subjected to scrutiny, marks you as a man with a clear notion in his head of what is right and wrong, and a man with a full set of justifications for your beliefs. Well, to play that game, you have to be a moral objectivist.

    A correlary of your premise is:
    (1) One who does not agree with the live and live philosophy, is [likely] not a reasonable human being

    Also, I want to draw attention to an underlying assumption of the line of reasoning of (1):
    (2) An unreasonable person is not qualified to participate in the work of morally ordering society
    which presumably would be because
    (3) Reasonability is the necessary and sufficient criterion for access to what is objectively true about the world, including any objective moral principles.

    Moral relativism is a hell of a philosophical quagmire. Perhaps it is the case that there is no absolute ethical principle to guide our way. However, I don’t think you have really grappled with the implications of that philosophical position. Because if you believe it, then you wouldn’t think of any temporal moral norm as something that might be able to embarrass or dignify a society. If the arguments for moral relativism hold, then by what criterion could we judge such norms? For any criterion you give, I could repeat the question: by what criterion shall we judge that criterion? Whereas, if what you actually believe are a combination of (1), (2), and (3), then you would be writing a more honest essay by defending those points (which are not self evidently true).

  • John Yoo Wu

    To say we just make up morality is cutting corners given all the great research on intrinsic morality. I haven’t read the relevant pop sci book but I’m not posting blog entries about morality essentials. The relevant pop sci book might be The Moral Animal.

    Cheers!

  • dylan

    It’s much simpler than all that. I recommend that we ban marriage altogether to level the playing field. The world would be much more fun if everyone were single, anyway.

  • http://jacobrussellsbarkingdog.blogspot.com Jacob Russell

    Wonderful post, Sean… and a good discussion in comments to follow. One of the reasons I love Cosmic Variance.

  • http://thras.blogspot.com Thras

    Very nice. I’ll take you up on your challenge and argue contra gay-marriage, if you don’t mind.

    I’ll start with a physics argument for tolerance: First assume that everyone is sphere…

    Okay, okay. You’ve all heard the joke. But it’s an important point. If we assume that every group is the same, then saying that we are tolerant is very easy. Of course, if people act differently than us, we can be as intolerant of that as we want. The Native Americans on the reservation nearby here drink too much because of their lousy culture, right? So I can be as intolerant as I want of their beliefs, huh?

    In fact, biological differences among groups exist, and real tolerance is being able to say that “Nature has made that person or that group different from me because of sex, genes, and simple accident. I do not judge them for it.”

    Now, on to gay marriage.

    Gay marriage is bad for straights, bad for gay men, and possibly good for gay women. The first group is 97% of the population. The second group is 3% of the male population. And numbers for the third group vary quite a bit, but exclusively gay women seem to be about half as numerous as exclusively gay men.

    Why is homosexual marriage bad for straights? I’ll get to that in a minute.

    Why is it bad for gay men? Because it’s based a biological mating pattern that occurs frequently among heterosexuals and infrequently among gay men. Ask the heterosexual swingers down the street what the rest of the community thinks about them. Marriage isn’t designed for people who live their lives promiscuously; it actually makes their lives harder. One reason marriage exists to punish the promiscuous individuals in society. As a single man, I get a lot of dates, but I pay more in taxes, I get less respect at work or from my peers, etc., etc.

    The biological pattern of male homosexuality is not best served by marriage. To put it more starkly, being for gay marriage is saying that you hate how gay men live their lives. Frankly that strikes me as ugly and intolerant. It’s intolerance arrived at through ignorance, and is as common as ever, I find, even in our ultra-”tolerant” age.

    However, gay marriage has its benefits for gay men: the biggest being health insurance benefits. AIDS drugs are expensive, and a lot of gay men need them. Guarantee health insurance benefits to gay civil union partners, and whatever support for gay marriage that exists among gay men will dry up (not that there is that much). They won’t need to make the devil’s bargain to get what they need to live.

    Gay women, on the other hand, while being half as numerous as gay men, are far more politically orientated. Their mating patterns show extreme amounts fidelity as compared to gay men or heterosexuals. They also tend to be much more child and family orientated. Some sort of marriage may well make sense for them.

    Gay marriage hurts heterosexuals because — for young men — it cheapens the institution. Weddings are already gay enough without them being gay too.

    And take god and good out of the picture, make marriage a ‘lifestyle choice,’ and there are behavioral ramifications. Are these behavioral ramifications bad? Single people, single males especially, seem to leave more unhappy lives than their counterparts, and as a body have undesirable social consequences. So I think that fewer marriages is a bad thing indeed.

    What is my proposal then? Wait 40 years and it will be an academic question. Exclusive homosexuality, is extremely rare in mammals (for obvious evolutionary reasons). The cause is either genetic or pathogenic. Regardless, there will be a technical way to “fix” it within the next few decades. At that point, because of the type of people who tend to have babies, the frequency of homosexuals in the populations will drop down from 2-3% of the population to background noise levels. This may be a bad thing for society as a whole. We will lose a great deal of our art and social heterogeneity. But homosexuality is an unhappy condition, and not one I wish on any individual. Nor will many parents, I suspect.

  • Lawrence B. Crowell

    H.M. Amir al-Mumenin … King of the Yemen. on Oct 19th, 2008 at 8:33 pm
    The following is a true story.

    Some time ago a man was arrested in Bangkok for vandalizing public property. He contested the case on the grounds that what he was doing did not in fact harm public property or anything or anyone else.

    —————-

    Last summer here somebody was breaking into the animal shelter and abusing the female dogs. Last month this individual was caught in the act “raping” a female dog, in its cage at the shelter. Maybe “off-center” sexuality might be be best to stop before goats, sheep and dogs.

    As for gay marriage, the solution is simple. Get government out of the whole marriage business. The only thing the government should set up are contractual guidlines between people in cohabitation. The idea that government is involved at all is somewhat recent, beginning with the roundheads or puritans. Before then the King, Duke or margrave of an area could have cared less about who married whom, that was the business of the priest. Maybe marriage should return to being a purely religious or ritualistic process recognized by a church or related organization.

    Lawrence B. Crowell

  • http://quantummechanicsdemystified.blogspot.com/ David McMahon

    The materialistic religious belief, followed by many scientists, is empty and false. But anyway, how does physics lead to advocacy of gay marriage? Now let me say I am not against civil gay marriage as a matter of principle. I could care less. If two men or two women want to get married that is their business and I don’t care. But yes, what on earth does this have to do with “natural law”?

  • http://quantummechanicsdemystified.blogspot.com/ David McMahon

    Saying that morality is a “human construct” is a bit naive, as are most purely materialistic philosophies. The materialist claims a human being is nothing but a bunch of atoms and chemical reactions, but in reality we know this isn’t so. One consequence of this is that most of us inherently know that murder is wrong. On one level, murder is bad for the survival of the group. A human society cannot function if murder is sanctioned as “OK”. So its kind of a Darwinian survival thing.

    But the fact is, it goes beyond that. Those of us who are mentally healthy know that murder is wrong not only for the reasons that it makes survival of the species risky, but the fact is it is plain wrong. There simply are many things that we know are true that fall outside of the bounds of science.

    Gay marriage is “Icky” to many people from a gut level perspective, and the fact is this isn’t necessarily just prejudice in operation. Darwinian natural selection involves REPRODUCTION. A small band of humans living on the African plains a hundred thousand years ago would not do very well if many of them were GAY OR LESBIAN. Gays and lesbians do not reproduce and in a situation like that would be detrimental to the group at large. So its not surprising that many or most people would find it ICKY on a gut level. There is probably a built in “ICKY” factor that is based on the biological drive to reproduce.

    That being said, the fact is gay and lesbian people do exist. And in modern society it doesn’t make sense to put prohibitions on them. From a government perspective that is. Gay marriage is fine, but I think its up to individual churches. The government should not prohibit it, but that doesn’t mean any church has to go along. I really don’t care if gay people get married, but I understand why many people are uncomfortable with it.

  • Zarquon

    the materialist claims a human being is nothing but a bunch of atoms and chemical reactions

    No, they don’t.

  • http://lablemminglounge.blogspot.com Lab Lemming

    Thras:
    I derived the physics-based explanation for Christian homophobia 15 years ago on usenet. The repost is on my blog, here:
    http://lablemminglounge.blogspot.com/2007/03/sexual-sin-and-christians-repost.html

  • Morris

    Is morality the only and appropriate criteria for a rational opinion on gay marriage? Consider the role that marriage has had historically on inheritance and on protection of children/mothers. It seems to me that these are logically connected to legal and monetary support issues to do with children. What does gay marriage have to do with this? Perhaps the legal/social support strategy of marriage (for all) should be reconsidered in view of modern economic conditions.

  • http://atdotde.blogspot.com Robert

    Let me play the devils advocate here to make the argument a bit sharper: Sean, you propose that when looked at with a more rational attitude there is no reason left to worry about gay marriage and thus there is no reason left not to allow it.

    But let’s look with a similar attitude at the concept of marriage: It’s really a huge collection of tax (and similar health insurance etc) benefits which are given to the happy couple. So why should the community (or state) sponsor couples? When you leave out all reasons in terms of tradition an culture etc (as you suggest) then it’s really just that in western societies the birth rate has dropped alarmingly and it’s in the states good interest to (financially) encourage having kids. And it does this in this roundabout way of giving tax benefits to married couples.

    This does not work at 100% efficiency (to say the least) but for biological reasons it even less likely to work in case of gay couples and therefore there is a good reason not to extend the tax benefits to them.

    As I said, I don’t belief this argument myself but maybe it’s a bit less straw-mannish than yours.

  • good grief

    writing as a gay man, let me just add that much of this comment thread…

    oh, who the hell cares what I think?

  • Blake

    As a gay atheist / skeptic who enjoys few things more than physics, I absolutely love this blog. I do have to say though that I am surprised at the number of breathtakingly ignorant and outright rampantly idiotic opinions expressed in several of the above comments. One can only presume that if your readers are mostly scientists, than the extreme compartmentalization of rationality to highly confined sections the human mind is a truly remarkable and highly developed ability indeed for certain individuals. The worst comments being from Thras (to whom I direct a hearty fuck you – homosexuality is no more an unhappy condition than having blond hair and perhaps if you’d actually met and talked to a real gay person at some point in your life, you’d know how imbecilic the majority of your opinions on said demographic really are) and H.M. Amir al-Mumenin-whomeverthehell who (astoundingly) places gay people far higher on his list of “ickyness” and “untreated mental illness” than he does for nighttime lamp-post fuckers. Wow, that’s some sharp thinkin’ there dude!

    Anyway, the posts nearer the top of the list are more interesting and worthy of consideration. Joe (#3) in particular has a very good point that:

    “If morality is simply the result of “individual human beings examining their own desires, and communicating with other human beings to formulate rules of common consent,” then why can’t a group of human beings meet together and agree that homosexuality is wrong? And if they do, on what grounds can you claim that *your* morality is more right than theirs?”

    and I would argue therefore, that Sean’s original premise be modified to the following “The codification of moral rules does not come from examining the world or thinking about logical necessities; it comes from individual human beings examining their own desires, and communicating with other human beings to formulate rules of common consent, and should be generally guided by a desire to both minimize human suffering and maximize human happiness, liberty and well being.

    Keep up the good work guys, I love reading about all the stuff you post at CV.

  • Blake

    lol, looks like the gay dudes got to the conversation a little late, but at the same time!

  • Jason Dick

    applmak,

    Very well reasoned. I would agree with you wholeheartedly, based on your understanding of my initial comment, but I must admit I misrepresented my original idea. I didn’t mean to imply that this variation on natural selection would be based solely on survival and procreation as Darwin’s original idea is. This is because I believe for a human society to last for a long time, there are more complex factors than simply survival and sex involved, and I assumed that future readers would think the same thing and come to the same conclusions. The variation of natural selection that I introduced would need to reflect the more complex animal’s behavior: taking into account, say, the desire of the individual to be in the society or the happiness of the individual. If we assume that this new law is in effect now and has been over the course of human existence, then we could examine the societies that exist currently, and ask whether or not they now condone behavior like rape. I would argue that lasting cultures forbid such behavior, and actively work to prevent it. Only the cultures that promote certain Good principles would last under the conditions of the Law. That is a way of defining Natural Laws, without being too relativistic nor absolute.

    It remains the case, however, that while the natural laws will link our specific choices of moral laws with their outcomes, it is still we who decide which outcomes we prefer.

    masonk,

    I’m with #3. You make the case for moral relativism powerfully. But the case for moral relativism is not the case for homosexual marriage. (If anything, it’s the case for a ballot referendum.)

    To make your case for homosexual marriage you are first forced to discover your own absolute guiding principle, which seems to be “live and let live”. E.g.: “Most reasonable people… would be willing to allow for almost all kinds of personal behaviors that didn’t affect other people.”

    But this statement, when subjected to scrutiny, marks you as a man with a clear notion in his head of what is right and wrong, and a man with a full set of justifications for your beliefs. Well, to play that game, you have to be a moral objectivist.

    Actually he’s specifically making the case that it is the belief in absolute morality that makes some think that it is permissible to discriminate against homosexuals. The point remains that if you strip away the notion of absolute morality, there simply isn’t any reason to discriminate against homosexuality except, “I think it’s icky.” If you could come up with another reason why homosexuals should be discriminated against as we discriminate against, say, those who kill other humans indiscriminately, you’re welcome to it. But I have to agree with Sean: there just doesn’t appear to be any such argument for homosexuality that has any validity, and so it should be no surprise that those of us who recognize that morality isn’t an absolute tend to side on supporting equal rights for homosexuals.

  • ObsessiveMathsFreak

    As a European, I must say that in my opinion the US is, objectively, a more rural and conservative nation than just about any other western country. These debates about abortion, stem cells, homosexuality, religion, etc, etc have been settled for some time in just about every western European country, and are on the way to being settled in others.

    I think this has to do with two things. Firstly, the US is still a very rural nation. This may be difficult for the very many cosmopolitan Americans to accept, but one only has to look at a map to see why this should be so.

    Secondly, and more importantly, the reason Europe has accepted liberalisation and secularisation on so many of these issues is because the alternatives have been tried, and have been found wanting. Wanting in quite fundamental ways in some cases. Everyone, especially Americans, like to trot out the example of the Nazis, but while they might be the most extreme example of an intolerant society in Europe they are by no means whatsoever the only example.

    Franco’s Spain, Catholic Ireland, British class society, Communist states, etc, etc. The list is as long as your arm. European societies have tried fascism, communism, theocracy, racism, colonialism, (marketism?), anarchy, oppression and intolerance of all kinds. In every case, the method has been found wanting.

    Collectively, Europe has now embarked on a long trial of tolerance, openness, democracy, the rule of law and personal rights. Over sixty years, not one of these measures has been found wanting after being introduced. A more free, open and tolerant society is a better one. This has been proven to be the case across an entire continent, and beyond. To paraphrase Randall Monroe in contemporary language; “Change. It works, bitches.”

    No other western nation seems to have struggled with modernisation quite like the US. Ultimately, I think this is because the US as a country, has never really been tested in this regard. Americans have never been burned, and so continue to play with fires that are best quenched.

  • masonk

    he’s specifically making the case that it is the belief in absolute morality that makes some think that it is permissible to discriminate against homosexuals.

    He’s making the case, and I’m making the case that it’s a belief in a different set of absolutes that gives him certitude about his own moral commitments.

    if you strip away the notion of absolute morality, there simply isn’t any reason to discriminate against homosexuality except, “I think it’s icky.”

    And the other thing that goes away when you strip away the notion of absolute morality is a commitment to needing reasons for your moral choices, which is another way of saying the point I was making above. Everything you are arguing has relevance only is propositions (1), (2), and (3) from above hold, but you do not prove that they hold, or make a case for why they even might be true.

  • http://collateraltales.blogspot.com/ Jay

    @Blake: Well put. A fresh breeze after prolonged spells of damp, airless nuttiness.

    ^_^J.

    p.s. though I wouldn’t mistake ’em for scientists, mind.

  • applmak

    Blake: I think the King of Yemen was posting tongue-in-cheek. I like to think so.

    Jason Dick: Agreed (Go Free Will!), but I still think that my arguments make a strong case for the existence of natural laws.

    ObsessiveMathsFreak: Culturally, I think that Europeans tend to be more liberal than Americans. However, I think that the recent development in Italy’s near-fascist government, Britain’s anti-terrorism, and many Western European country’s response to increased immigration shows that the debate may not be as settled there as you would like. Americans are interesting for their willingness to quickly adopt new technologies. The sudden appearance of anti-Science, anti-Rationality, and anti-Liberalism is merely a consequence of a segment of the population getting left behind during our constant transitioning. They are scared of the future that might excite you or me, and it’s our responsibility to show them why the next few decades are going to be full of awesome.

    masonk: Yes: Anyone who argues are morals is not a moral relativist! I wonder, though, if there is some other definition of relativity here that wouldn’t help to explain the difference between the moralities of a Christian fundamentalist and our favorite atheist physicist?

  • andyo

    I don’t think moral relativism is at all true. I don’t think there’s moral absolutism either. How about moral progressivism? We can have an objective frame of reference for morality, based on happiness and suffering. How do we discover what brings suffering and happines? By studying reality. That’s where science comes along. Morality progresses for the good, as long as knowledge progresses.

    Homosexuality is a good example. We know now that the bible on gay people is horribly wrong. It is not an abomination. Furthermore, we know from biology that it’s actually perfectly natural. Even more so, many other species exhibit it as well. How, knowing that, anyone can still say that there’s something wrong with homosexuality is then just a matter of either ignorance or faith. As long as we preserve the knowledge, morality can only go forward. It is not relative.

  • RationalZen

    I personally think that homosexuality is wrong. I believe it’s as wrong as adultery or any other sexual sin, or moral infraction if that suits you better.

    I also oppose gay marriage from a government perspective, however, from a government perspective I oppose heterosexual marriage as well.

    Marriage is an emotional, religious institution. The government shouldn’t care whether or not I’m married, but that’s just me. Being married is nice though come tax season (though not come retirement season), so I understand why a committed homosexual couple would push for “equal rights”.

  • andyo

    RationalZen,

    Why do you think it’s wrong? On what could you possibly base that assumption other than (excuse me) ignorance or faith? I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt and say it’s probably faith. (Or maybe claiming ignorance would be better?)

    I do agree with you somewhat on marriage. Let churches marry, and at the same time, let marriage mean nothing legally. Let the government do civil unions which carry on the same rights “married” couples have now. And let everybody marry who they want. Then everybody’s happy. Let churches discriminate as they do with other things, but don’t take it to the government to discriminate.

  • andyo

    Of ocurse, I meant, “And let everybody unite with whom they want”, not “marry.”

  • Gabriel Perdue

    “Physics, as it is currently practiced, is a paradigm for a naturalistic way of understanding the world. And that’s a worldview that has consequences stretching far beyond the search for the Higgs boson.”

    Sean, let me first say I really enjoyed your graduate GR course back when we were both at the U of Chicago. I would like to strongly disagree with the passage I have quoted though.

    Physics is not a belief system or naturalistic paradigm. It is a scientific discipline based on the premise of the falsifiable hypothesis. Whenever we discuss a scientific issue in the public sphere, for example, evolution, the typical media response is to present a “fair and balanced” discussion. The evolutionist gets equal time on stage with the creationist, and nothing either says is challenged by the moderator. The uniformed viewer will typically make a decision based on what he thinks about the presenters of the argument, and not the truth value of the argument.

    The only rational underpinning for this sort of behavior is exactly the belief that science is not based on objective reality, but rather that it is a point of view. We have to be very careful about encouraging that sort of thinking.

    Gay marraige, to my knowledge, does not involve anything we can prove with mathematical rigor. There are no falsifiable hypotheses to work with, no cotnrols for our experiments, and very few reproducible results. This is not to say that we can’t discuss the issue in the framework of sociology and public health. We can and, indeed, have a responsibility to do so. But all of those issues should be clearly separate from the jurisdiction of the natural sciences.

    I think it is wonderful that thinking about physics has helped to shape your views about society. However, I would urge you to be careful about linking physics to points of view. What makes science special is that it is not just a point of view. It represents humanity’s best efforts to produce an objective evaluation of physical reality. When we link it to one side or another in a purely political debate about human behaviors, I think we may produce some unintended and unwanted consequences.

  • http://quantummechanicsdemystified.blogspot.com/ David McMahon

    Hi Obsessive Maths Freak,
    Why is being a rural nation a bad thing? You are automatically equating rural with backwards-which isn’t necessarily the case. You are also assuming that urban people have more liberal views, which is also not necessarily the case. I used to live in Orange County, California and the areas I lived in were very Republican and Conservative. In the US you can often follow the money for that viewpoint.

    Living in an urban area is not necessarily superior. I do live in an urban area now, but have horses I keep in a neighboring rural area and I see that in many ways the rural area is actually a far superior place to live. Being packed in like sardines into a large city is actually not good at all, but with so many people on the planet that’s the way it is.

    The problem in the United States is not the % of rural versus urban, its the education system. Combine that with our trashy and shallow and all pervasive entertainment culture. Many people in the US, whether they are from the heart of Los Angeles or a tiny town in Kentucky are simply lacking in basic science knowledge and way of thinking, but probably know all about Britney Spears and Oprah.

    I also think some of your comments are arrogant, and lots of people over here see Europeans as arrogant. You mention that Europe has tried Democracy for the last 60 years and boy its working. Newsflash: The US brought democracy into the modern era. Aside from the UK, there wasn’t much democracy in Europe until the end of WW 2. Democracy was basically imposed on Germany, Italy, and Austria by the US and Britain. I do give Germany credit, its come a very long way in a historically short time period.

    The United States has struggled with lots of issues of tolerance, coming out of a tradition of slavery and racism. But so has Europe. Didn’t Europe invent all those things? The US had those problems because Europeans moved over here and created the US.

    And as recently as 1945, Germans were not the nicest folks around. And I recall the problems in Serbia/Bosnia not too long ago indicating xenophobia has been alive and well among Europeans into the modern era. There are still problems in the US for sure, but things have come a very long way. Things are far better for women today and we are on the verge of possibly electing an African American as President. Gay marriage may be controversial, but 40 years ago there is no way it would have even been discussed. These things show that the US is actually pretty progressive. And frankly I can’t imagine that all Europeans are completely supportive of gay marriage either.

  • Count Iblis

    David McMahon:

    The materialist claims a human being is nothing but a bunch of atoms and chemical reactions, but in reality we know this isn’t so.

    Do you have a proof of your claim that human beings cannot be understood as a collection of atoms that obey the Schrödinger equation?

  • RationalZen

    andyo:

    RationalZen,

    Why do you think it’s wrong? On what could you possibly base that assumption other than (excuse me) ignorance or faith? I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt and say it’s probably faith. (Or maybe claiming ignorance would be better?)

    It’s based on ignorance, obviously. It just seems odd to me that any species would select their reproductive organs for exclusive use in any manner that guarantees extinction.

    If homosexuality is nothing more than an emotional bond like friendship, than it’s ok. If it’s a sexual act that defines it, then it’s obviously perverse.

    My opinion is based solely on the notion of wanting to further the species, a.k.a. ignorance.

  • Count Iblis

    David McMahon:

    Those of us who are mentally healthy know that murder is wrong not only for the reasons that it makes survival of the species risky, but the fact is it is plain wrong. There simply are many things that we know are true that fall outside of the bounds of science.

    Your brain is a neural network. If we were to simulate your brain using thousands of supercomputers and simulate you being asked a queston about whether murder is morally right or wrong, then that computer simulation would yield a certain asnwer.

    So, how come this is “outside of the bounds of science”?

  • applmak

    Count Iblis: No, actually neural networks are attempts to model the brain. There is no evidence to show that they are equivalent. So far, brains can do quite a bit more than neural nets, like “choose”, which has yet to be modeled generally.

  • http://thafam.net incognegro

    Gay marriage is a matter of faith and should remain such. If gay people want to get married then they should either start their own churches or join a church that will marry them under the authority of their particular Deity.

    As for the legal status of domestic partners, there certainly ought to be laws that provide the same kind of benefits to same-sex partners as hetero ones. But that is strictly a legal matter and not a matter of faith.

    Forcing churches to marry same-sex couples is the same kind of mixing of church and state that creationists and the far-right press upon the rest of Americans. We can’t have it both ways. Either separate church and state or not.

  • Bronwyn

    As the daughter of two women who were just finally able to legally marry this past June here in California, and a lesbian myself, I just wanted to say thank you for this.

    Very much.

  • Count Iblis

    applmak, ok, but then one can still say that that the brain consists of atoms.

  • masonk

    @applmak: Yes, there’s a distinction to be made between the two positions, and the distinction is between reason and faith. Something like this:

    We, the scientists, think reason is superior to faith, and that reason dictates a particular set of morals, which, by virtue of reason’s privileged position in our ontology of the world, are a superior set of morals. Therefore we think gay marriage should be legal.

    Scientists that try to argue that “morals are relative, therefore you should do X” are trying to hide the fact that science is the religion of reason by resorting to a logical fallacy. (Which is ironic, no?) Everything Sean and all of his supporters in 1-50 are saying is true only by virtue of reason’s privileged place in their world view. But none of them are willing to acknowledge it. Shedding light on the assumptions that underlie any line of reasoning is the job of a philosopher, not a scientist, I guess.

    It is not a distinction between one side which is absolutist, and the other side which is relativist. Both sides are absolutist.

  • http://www.allysonbeatrice.com/blog Allyson

    Thanks for this, Sean.

    Means a thing.

  • applmak

    masonk: I don’t believe that reason and faith are in as much of competition as your statements would indicate. Faith could be considered to be belief in the assumptions underlying a particular worldview, which reason extends to everyday life. I rather like the image of these two powerful tools working together to make life possible, rather than a constant friction between them. Don’t you?

    Count Iblis: Again, “atoms” only exist as much as we have defined the relationships between them and other things. Science does not actually tackle the real substance of an object, merely its interconnections with other objects. An atheist believe that these relationship are all there are. A theist accepts that the objects have more substance to them than can be explained by their relationships (aka “intrinsic value”). So something things like brains and things like atoms might have purely scientific properties to one person, but further significance to another.

    incognegro, et al: I don’t quite accept the general assumption underlying several of the arguments in these comments. Their reasoning concludes like this: People who are gay should set up their own institutions independent of the existing ones. I think that misses the desire of all people to be accepted by their greater community and have a place therein. A parallel system might make their issues easier for YOU to deal with, but I don’t think it would satisfy those looking for acceptance.

  • http://www.dorianallworthy.com daisy rose

    “For our present purposes, the most important consequence is this: notions of “right” and “wrong” are not located out there in the world, waiting to be discovered, in the same sense that a new kind of elementary particle (or even a new law of physics) is located out there in the world. Right and wrong aren’t parts of the fundamental description of reality. That description has to do with wave functions and Hamiltonian dynamics, not with ethical principles. That is what the world is made of, at a deep level. Everything else — morality, love, aesthetics — is up to us.”

    Only a hypocrite holds one responsible for whom or what they love – any love what so ever that is in ones nature is natural and beautiful.

    That being said let whom ever will marry – marry – Matrimony -Patrimony – Lawsuits.

  • http://dienekes.blogspot.com Dienekes

    A government stamp on a relationship is, in itself, worth nothing. A relationship is no more loving or good if it is recognized by the state.

    The real reasons for people wanting to extend marriage to homosexual couples are twofold:

    First, marriage is a socially endorsed sexual relationship between people. Same sex couples want to achieve the cause (social endorsement, acceptance) by achieving the effect (marriage). But, non-acceptance of same sex marriage is caused by the strong evolved ickiness factor, and this won’t go away if the effect is achieved.

    Second, marriage is associated with certain benefits and privileges, which may be different in different societies. It is thus up to the proponents of same sex marriage to convince the decision makers (i.e. everybody in a democracy) that they should enjoy these privileges. Moreover, it is naive to think that achievement of these benefits is an issue of “fairness”. For example, if marriage has tax advantages, then extending them to same sex couples will benefit them at the expense of non-married people.

  • Josh

    Word. I’ve always been afraid of moral relativism, but when you look at it the right way, as Sean did, I think it’s a powerful and liberating proposal that does not mean that we have to think that everyone is on equal moral footing…

  • http://orbum.net/mark Mark R

    Wow. Now you’ve done it. Turn over a stone, and look at that wild squiggling going on under there.

    I love your a priori take on morality tied to notions of natural law. It’s fascinating hearing it coming from a particle physicist’s perspective. It’s a very strong argument.

    The difference between morality and ethics is subtle. I tend to use ethics in discourse since it’s more reason-friendly. Maybe ethics would be analogous to Einstein’s classical universe. Or perhaps that would be giving ethics too much sway with a sense of natural-ness. It’s hard to say. Physical laws are, or are not, something. They allow some sort of broader functioning. If not boundaries, that at least, possibly signposts, of a sort.

    I wish scientists were more willing to look at the a priori within their disciplines, despite the trepidation #44 Gabriel Perdue seem to experience from such thoughts.

    Usually when we look at the foundations we have, we learn a lot. I feel it is important that we look at our foundations from time to time. In fact, I would argue that we must, if we can proceed ethically.

    There are some very smart people here. Intelligence is many things. Personally, I’m very fond of simple answers. It is peculiar how the aesthetic of simplicity rings of truth.

    One of the great truths that I think we can agree upon, is that we all exist, in our own crazy awareness, whatever that might be. There is something profoundly phenomenal about that. I think we often forget to appreciate just how varied and incredible the universe can be.

    We’re not talking just about gays, lesbians and straight people. Or the wild degrees of bisexuality in each. We’re talking about people. Real people, with their own uniquely challenging and eventful lives. Any time we start segregating, laying down walls, some things will get cut. And that makes all of us, a little less human.

    If my collection of particles zipping about as my will can be called human, that is.

    Fear is a strange and powerful force. Especially when it hits us at home.

  • NeatoPrsn

    Cultural relativism doesn’t quite hold. (Don’t take this as an argument against homosexuality even though I know that’s what the discussion has been about but the basis that it’s not wrong has been under the assumption there is no moral truth)

    Breaking promises is constitutively wrong. By making an obligation you have agreed to someone else that you will fulfill it.

    Consider this, could society function if people were not required to fulfill the obligations that they created (ie. promises)? We couldn’t rightly say that murder is wrong and so on, I know you can think of many problems this would entail. From this, a basis for society to function together is that we hold to our word and that is what a promise is. By definition a promise is to uphold an obligation and by breaking that promise we are going against the constitutive quality of promise-making. Thus breaking promises is constitutively wrong.

    The question of morality being what is right and wrong we now have breaking promises is wrong. Now before you jump the gun, are there times you can reason your way into a lie? Maybe to save a persons life? Well, saving someones life is a good thing but lying to do so is still wrong but you’re just reasoning why you have to do something wrong to attain a good result, this is really just dependent on whether you believe the consequence or the action is what makes an act moral and you can get into some utilitarian ideals there if you’d like.

    Cultural relativism being based on the principle that there are no moral truths, I find through constitutive rules that there is a minimal morality by definition of the meanings of certain words. Another would be stealing is wrong (we agree we have our own personal-property and to take someone elses personal-property is stealing so by definition stealing is wrong as it is against the constitutive rule of owning property)

  • NeatoPrsn

    I might have forgotten to say that (basis of the whole theory):

    You have a duty to abide by the constitutive rules of the institutions of which you participate in. This is in line with promise-making as by participating in an institution (US. citizen, playing a game) you agree to follow the rules given.

  • Mark B.

    Nice post, Sean. This is a good start on the atheistic/scientistic “sacred” book you were looking for a while back. You just need to make it longer, and with more parables. :)

  • http://orbum.net/mark Mark R

    Neato, I think Sean was going way more foundational than concepts on the scale of theories of justice can deal with. It’s like trying to thread a needle with a backhoe.

    The leviathan is too big, or rather bizarrely and abstractly arbitrary, when you’re constrained to thinking about the connection of morality to the fundamental nature of existence as we currently know it through science’s goggles.

    He has a strong point, if we want to let the scientists out of their cages. Honestly, I don’t know if that’s such a good idea, unless they’re willing to devote similar obsessions to more proper philosophical issues.

    Utility, as I’m sure you’re aware, is not the only measure of ethics. And we have this whole messiness of “promises” that are inherent to the fact we are born somewhere, at some time.

    Messy, messy. It’s all very messy. But if we really look at it, I think that the rightness of allowing people to be, is correct. You can bring in extreme arguments into just about anything, and cause more mess. When there is no harm, people should be allowed to be. Regardless of social contracts. In fact, this is a bit of a re-negotiation of the social contract, if we go back up to the scale of the abstract leviathan, instead of physics.

    Sometimes the leviathan needs to learn a little bit more about the humanity that comprises it.

  • Modal

    Computer science has long studied belief, choice and commitment when contemplating rational agency. See http://portal.acm.org/citation.cfm?id=77757

    I have always viewed my marriage as a choice and commitment. Thus I have and intentional relationship with another person. We hold each others wants and needs above any others, accept for our children to whom we have made another choice and commitment.

    I want that intention publicly acknowledged because I want to be sure that no other has made the same kind of choice and commitment to my wife as I have. It would be irrational for me to hold that intention if another has already a competing intention. By publicly announcing my intentions, it would be irrational for another man to have the same exclusionary intentions toward my wife.

    Thus, my marriage represents mutual beliefs, and mutual goals that I and my wife hold. It also represents mutual beliefs between our married unit and the society we live in. I do not believe that our marriage is sanctioned by other entity. I do not believe that there is a need for such.

    If two men can hold the same intention toward each other, I see no reason that it should not be publicly acknowledged. A civil union confers the tax benefits of such a union, but does not really represent the commitment meant by marriage.

  • http://www.forcesopposed.com Bobby

    There is a third reason. A union that does not by design produce children, should not be given the same tax and property treatment as one that produces them. There is also a revenue stream to think about. A more affluent segment of the population would suddenly have to pay a lot less taxes, without bearing the children that the conventional marriages provide to America.

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  • andyo

    RationalZen on Oct 20th, 2008 at 11:39 am

    It’s based on ignorance, obviously. It just seems odd to me that any species would select their reproductive organs for exclusive use in any manner that guarantees extinction.

    If homosexuality is nothing more than an emotional bond like friendship, than it’s ok. If it’s a sexual act that defines it, then it’s obviously perverse.

    My opinion is based solely on the notion of wanting to further the species, a.k.a. ignorance.

    Well, at least thanks for being honest. The thing is that it is known that homosexuality doesn’t hinder the species. There are many examples in other species, notably in bonobos, and those species have been doing quite well (and getting to the brink of extinction. And while it may not be conclusively known how it helps, there are hypotheses on how that could happen. May help with social bonding, for instance. There are also hypotheses that say how it could just be a byproduct something else, but that’s not detrimental either.

    The thing is that even if it were detrimental, if we took that very simplistic view, then what would you say about people from other detrimental genetic conditions, that would far worse have hindered our evolution? Would you be willing to vote on “YES” for an amendment barring people with Huntington’s from getting married by the state? Even if homosexuality was a genetic “defect” (which most if not all evidence says it isn’t), what exactly makes sexual acts “perverse” in your opinion, that they need careful scrutiny and discrimination as opposed to other genetic “defects”?

    The point is that (at least if you are a California voter) you can’t be just claiming ignorance, because this issue is just too important not to be informed about it. You’d be denying basic rights to a group of people based on what you don’t know. Ignorance is not bliss when it affects others.

  • andyo

    Bobby on Oct 20th, 2008 at 8:59 pm

    There is a third reason. A union that does not by design produce children, should not be given the same tax and property treatment as one that produces them. There is also a revenue stream to think about. A more affluent segment of the population would suddenly have to pay a lot less taxes, without bearing the children that the conventional marriages provide to America.

    Not letting gays marry is not the solution. That’s not a real problem anyway. Heterosexual couples can choose not to have children just as much as homosexuals can choose to have them. People who have children also get tax breaks, even if you’re married and not have children, you don’t get those. If there’s something wrong with that system, then let’s fix the system, not discriminate blatantly against a group of people.

    Geez, for such a supposed enlightened crowd, some of you really go off on invented tangents and convoluted excuses (excepting the rather refreshing honesty of RationalZen above) for such a simple issue. You think homosexuality is wrong.

  • perkage

    Sean, If I take an excerpt from this blog and play a little mad-lib with it I get,

    I don’t need to live in a world where ‘same-sex marriage’ was wrong because the universe tells me so — I feel that ‘same-sex marriage’ is wrong myself, and fortunately many other people agree with me. So I and these other like-minded people sit down to work out among ourselves what rules we want to live by, and we decide that ‘same-sex marriage’ is bad and should be stopped.

    I am religious and I do oppose same-sex marriage, but I also see that it is hard to argue against same-sex marriage in our ever increasing ‘liberal, free thinking and scientific’ culture from a religious stand point. But there are plenty of arguments against same-sex marriage besides the religious ones.

    Maybe, the ‘liberal, free thinking, scientists’ of our day are a bit off track on certain issues only because they don’t get along with the ‘religious right’. What do you think would happen if religion didn’t exist, …. would same-sex marriage already be accepted? What else would be different? Or perhaps maybe it wouldn’t be accepted and maybe Hitler would be a hero.

  • Blake

    Oh andyo you just don’t get it do you? For those among us with room temperature IQ’s like “Bobbeh” here, your observation of gross irrationality in his argument is utterly irrelevant. You see for him, it doesn’t matter that the heterosexual couple can’t or won’t have children. Unlike teh evil Gheys, they still deserve marriage rights in spite of failing to meet his criteria of requisite procreation because they posses what Christians refer to as “the magical wonderful peen-’gina coupling matrix” that Jesus blessed them with. You see, every time a vadge gets impregnated, Jesus gives one more false vacua stable physical constant parameters AND an angel gets its wings! And this is why marriage should be allowed for straight people who can’t have children, but should always be banned for gay people….or at least that is what essentially the Christian’s arguments on this issue that I have seen so far basically amount to. nutters.

  • http://quantummechanicsdemystified.blogspot.com/ David McMahon

    Andyo,
    Hmmmm, I don’t know how bonobos could be said to be doing very well while being on the brink of extinction at the same time. Maybe bonobos expend too much energy on sexual activity, homosexual and otherwise.

    I think its obvious homosexuality would harm a species if it was a dominant trait, because there would be no reproduction. But that isn’t really relevant, the fact is gay people do exist regardless of whether it harms a species from a Darwinian perspective or what the cause is. And I don’t have any problem with them getting married.

    I think you misunderstand Bobby’s comment. A union that doesn’t produce children definitely should not be given the same tax breaks. Do you have children? Do you know how expensive they are?

    That being said, a gay couple could of course adopt children or have children through other means (surrogate, or maybe one partner has kids from a previous heterosexual relationship). In that case it would only be fair to give them the same tax breaks.

    Actually the one idea the republicans have had that I find appealing is a flat tax. Everyone just pays 17% income tax on whatever they make and that’s the end of it. No tax breaks for anything, children, mortgage, or whatever.

  • andyo

    Whoops, as you can see in my other post, I was starting to make a parenthetical comment on that bonobos aren’t exactly the staple of evolutionary success, but that is probably because of us, not evolution of their species per se.

  • andyo

    Dang, there’s got to be a preview system here. My aforementioned comment was cut off by the next sentence, I meant.

  • andyo

    David,

    I don’t think I misunderstood Bobby’s comment. The “by design” bit pretty much gave it away. In any case, as I said, not letting gays marry is not a solution to such a problem, if it even exists. As it is, couples and even single people with children do get tax breaks. If you don’t have children, you don’t get that. If it is enough or not, doesn’t have to do anything with anyone being homosexual. If it needs to be fixed, then let the tax system be fixed on that account.

  • Jimbo

    There’s many reasons to support gay marriages, and only ONE reason to oppose it: lawyers.
    The `refined divorce rate’ between heterosexual couples is ~ 20 per 1,000 women, ca. 2002. One could dig into the demographics to scale this by the number of marriages, but assuming the gay divorce rate would be on par, then clearly lawyers will be licking their chops for this bill to pass, and more incoming law students will no doubt want to specialize in it.
    Divorce litigation may explode several years after it becomes law, and one can only speculate about the additional burdens it will place on an already inefficient court system.
    Do we really want more lawyers ?

  • Jack Jones

    The entire gay marriage debate is mostly disingenuous in that most people who are in favor of gay marriage do not also support other types of marriages. And the fact is that the logic one uses to promote gay marriages could just as easily apply to other marriages. Sure you can say that we are just chipping away, but really, that is not how gay marriage is being sold to the general public.

  • NeatoPrsn

    Mark,
    As I mentioned this wasn’t a point against homosexual couples. Just that the foundation the argument is built off of “no culture is better than another” is fundamentally flawed and I don’t think should be used as the basis for the claim. Anyways, you are correct though it just leads to more trouble if we only debate that.

    To the others quoting Natural Law, I wonder how one can rationally follow that genitalia should only be used for reproduction because one of it’s uses is reproduction and so not be used in a homosexual way as it doesn’t promote reproduction. Do you also support stripping the tax benefits of those that are impotent or infertile? If we’re looking at this strictly from a reproduction stand point a woman who can not bare a child enjoying intercourse with a man is as against the natural order as a man who can not bare a child enjoying intercourse with a man. That seems rubbish to me.

    This is the same point andyo made so I give credit to him.

    As to statistics of homosexual men being more promiscuous. Marriage in it’s creation was a tool to stop heterosexual men from this type of behavior and so why would it not have the same effect on many homosexual men as well? Marriage should only help not hinder the issue.

    Regardless, I could care less if a church institutes gay marriage. I would much rather the government grant civil unions to both heterosexual or homosexual couples and leave the term “marriage” to the church until they figure out that it’s time to change another rule to allow more people.

  • sonic

    If the majority of people would prefer to call marriage a union between a man and a woman, why shouldn’t they?
    Certainly we can see that there is a difference between a union between a man and a woman as opposed to a union between a man and a man or a woman and a woman.
    Think children.
    Why shouldn’t society recognize that there is a difference?

  • andyo

    Why shouldn’t society recognize that there is a difference?

    You clearly don’t know what this is about. If the government decided to stop “marrying” people altogether, and perform civil unions instead, with all the benefits that “marriages” carry, as long as they don’t discriminate homosexuals, I’m sure most of us will be happy. Let churches do their silly marriage ceremonies, let whatever pointy-hatted personality do his (it has to be a HE, doesn’t it?) mumbling and whatnot. But keep it AWAY from law and ANY other government benefits. The term “marriage” is not what this is about, it’s about the government benefits (not only taxes) that come with it.

  • Lawrence B. Crowell

    Hmmm …, if you read the Gospels you will find that Jesus had nothing at all to say about homosexuals.

    L. C.

  • http://telescoper.wordpress.com Peter Coles

    There are some “interesting” viewpoints here…

    I am confused about the whole gay marriage thing anyway, largely because one of the attractions of being gay is precisely that you can reject such absurd institutional distractions. Perhaps society feels less threatened by gay people as long as they conform to heterosexual norms by living in a facsimile of a straight marriage. The prime motivation of many advocates of same-sex marriage or civil partnerships seems to be that gay people are currently denied the tax breaks and pension benefits given to heterosexual couples. That may be true, but (a) it shows what a materialistic world we are living in and (b) continues to discriminate against those who choose to live alone or in non-exclusive relationships. Surely the only rational response to this situation is to remove the perks from those who already benefit unfairly rather than giving them to a few others?

    And then there’s the business about the “perversity” of gay sex. I note the argument that any sex that isn’t done solely for the purpose of procreation is perverse. Well that applies also to any heterosexual (or solitary) act that doesn’t have that aim either. Come to think of it why not take the argument further and say that listening to music and reading books are also perverse? They don’t fulfill any “natural” purpose, either. How many things do you do each day that you could honestly describe as natural? So I think the alleged perversity of gay sex is a red herring. Or maybe a pink one.

    Attempting to justify your prejudices by reference to some ill-conceived notion of what is “natural” is just a step on the road to fascism. Humans are social animals who live in complex societies and in which different people take different roles. It is true that societies need to reproduce to survive but that doesn’t mean every individual within them has to. We need physicists (perhaps), but not everyone has to be one and I’m not convinced the world would be all that wonderful if it only had physicists in it.

    Finally, the only persuasive argument I’ve ever heard in favour of there being an intelligent Creator is the way men’s bodies are designed specifically to make gay sex so pleasurable. One can argue that the various bits and pieces that have to fit into each other to produce babies could have evolved that way by natural selection, but I think the Supreme Being must have had a brainwave when he decided to make willies and bums just the right size for each other.

  • applmak

    Jack Jones: I’m married. Marriage is (can be) great! It’s not for everyone. Gay marriage is a Good Thing. I’m sorry to be your counterexample.

    bobby666 & Lawrence B Crowell: As a Lutheran, we are taught that one of Jesus’ goals on Earth was to heal splits between divided people. He did this by, say, curing leprosy. However, even given this clear support to gay people and their struggles to be accepted, there are many who would take such a goal to mean that gay people need to be ‘cured’ in order to rejoin ‘normal’ society. So, sadly, the religious view isn’t clear when dealing with homosexuality.

    Peter Coles: There’s a common viewpoint among young-ish couples thinking about marriage where they suddenly ask themselves, “Why do we need all this pomp, etc? We should elope to Vegas!” And it’s certainly in fashion among many different kinds of educated people to decry the problems of marriage and its history of evil. [andyo: I would like to point out, though, that there are two main parts to marriage: one, public expression of love; and two, legal status. Without either of those parts, it's not a true marriage, as they are both critical to the success of the relationship. Anywho...] I would venture a hypothesis that the couples that eschew marriage come in both homosexual and heterosexual varieties, and aren’t really the people we are talking about here. We’re talking about gay people who WANT to be married. Which, as found on these comments, there’s obviously some interest in.

  • andyo

    applmak,

    While I can’t speak for a gay person, I’m sure most of them aren’t going for the religious, or even the “public expression of love”, part. They can get that without getting married. The prime injustice is that they can’t get the same rights from the government that married couples share. Like I said, I’m pretty sure most woule even be happy if the government stopped discriminating even if they took out “marriage” and replaced it with “civil union”. Marriages can be performed by individual churches, but without any legal advantages WHATSOEVER. You know, the state/church separation everyone talks about but that so few people really believe in.

    I’m sorry, but marriage as you see it is not how everybody sees it. I don’t even think most gay people are that religious or have a lot of respect for the word “sacred” (which is a good thing in my mind, I’m pretty sure we also disagree there). The point is that as it is now, not letting gay people marry is just unfair, unethical and just plain discriminatory. If the churches want to discriminate, then by all means, it’s still wrong, but they’re free to do it. When they demand that the government also do it, that’s stepping over the line big time.

  • http://orbum.net/mark Mark R

    Neato, I appreciate the opportunity of being able to bounce off the image of the leviathan you conjured.

    It is an apt metaphor, I think, for this issue.

    For all its benefits, the leviathan can also be a terribly crushing weight upon some people. Thank goodness for ethics, so to speak.

    Peter, I swear you are far too humanistic to be a scientist. I love your further insight about marriage (or civil unions) being materialistic if they are just about the money and legal benefits/rights.

    I imagine that some people will enter marriage with materialistic intentions, whether they are gay or straight, or somewhere in between. Of course, that isn’t a very “sacred” reason.

    Even more enter into marriage because they “want a family” — this abstract desire of having children or progeny. In that sense, the “sacredness” is more about the perpetuation of the genes, or the imaginations of being a mommy or a daddy, than it is about the sacredness of your relationship to another person. Or a pregnancy accident… with obligations…

    Interestingly, if gay people want to get married, those factors doesn’t come into play nearly as often. Since gay people don’t reproduce, their choice of a lifetime mate is not influenced by many external factors from the relationship. It’s about two people, and their intimate connection. And there is something sacred in that, if sacredness exists.

    I suppose you could say that sacredness is imbued within an “institution” of marriage. But I’m not really sure how you can link institutions to a spiritual sacredness. Usually those are power plays, or sociological tradition. It’s not always easy telling the difference.

    Perhaps that makes me an advocate of chaos. Or, the Devil’s Advocate.

    I suppose that’s better than child molester or rapist. I’d probably rather be a mild deviant than a Devil’s Advocate, though.

    The trouble is, I’m not any of them.

  • hmmm

    “What do you think would happen if religion didn’t exist, …. maybe Hitler would be a hero.”

    YOU need religion to see that Hitler = bad. But for the rest of us, Hitler = bad. Period.

    There is no need to look for the authorization of religion to feel empathy for another human. Religion comes BELOW people. Get it? The whole reason why religion was the source of so much misery for so many people all through history was precisely because religion got priority over people.

  • Otis

    Here is why “gay marriage” is a very bad idea. It is because of the way gay marriage came to be legalized both in Massachusetts and in California. In both states, their supreme courts ruled, in the words of Sean, “that same-sex couples had a right to marry under the equal protection clause” of their respective state constitutions. Thus, marriage became a constitutional right for people who have a protected type of behavior. Not only that, gay marriage became legally and socially equivalent to traditional heterosexual marriage. There can be no legal discrimination between the two.

    Now for the unintended consequences. The state of Massachusetts ordered that Catholic charities must not discriminate between same sex or opposite sex couples when adopting out children. The same sex couple cannot be denied their place in the queue. If a same sex couple is next in the queue, they get the child. No consideration can be given as to whether it would be better for a child to grow up with two daddies or with a mommy and a daddy. It is no longer a matter of a gay couple being the last best hope for a child, as many have argued for gay adoption. Notice that Catholic charities did adopt out children to gay couples. The issue was that gay couples were not being treated equally with heterosexual couples.

    Now this is where Natural Law sneaks in behind and bites Sean when he is not looking. In order to maintain his position, he must argue that a son or daughter being raised by two daddies or two mommies is as good for the child as if he or she were raised by a mommy and a daddy. That argument would be absurd, and has been roundly rejected by scientific studies. This is not to say that children cannot survive or even thrive with same sex parents; experience has shown that they are able. Children are often, despite long odds, able to rise above bad situations. But, in general, when given a choice, a mother and father would be much better for a child. That is Natural Law. And that is why “gay marriage” as constitutionally equivalent to traditional marriage is a very bad idea. If California’s Proposition 8 fails, California’s children would be harmed by that bad idea.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/sean/ Sean

    A son or daughter being raised by two daddies or two mommies is as good for the child as if he or she were raised by a mommy and a daddy. So that’s not really an unintended consequence.

  • RationalZen

    andyo:

    Well, at least thanks for being honest. The thing is that it is known that homosexuality doesn’t hinder the species. There are many examples in other species, notably in bonobos, and those species have been doing quite well (and getting to the brink of extinction. And while it may not be conclusively known how it helps, there are hypotheses on how that could happen. May help with social bonding, for instance. There are also hypotheses that say how it could just be a byproduct something else, but that’s not detrimental either.

    If everyone made the choice to be homosexual at once, I think it would hinder the progression of the species. Render us extinct in one generation right?

    The thing is that even if it were detrimental, if we took that very simplistic view, then what would you say about people from other detrimental genetic conditions, that would far worse have hindered our evolution? Would you be willing to vote on “YES” for an amendment barring people with Huntington’s from getting married by the state? Even if homosexuality was a genetic “defect” (which most if not all evidence says it isn’t), what exactly makes sexual acts “perverse” in your opinion, that they need careful scrutiny and discrimination as opposed to other genetic “defects”?

    What makes it perverse?

    According to the Princeton Right Wing Conspiracy, being perverse is marked by a disposition to oppose and contradict.

    So if sexual organs serve the purpose of procreation, well then using them for the opposite ends would be perverse would it not?

    The point is that (at least if you are a California voter) you can’t be just claiming ignorance, because this issue is just too important not to be informed about it. You’d be denying basic rights to a group of people based on what you don’t know. Ignorance is not bliss when it affects others.

    It’s not ignorance, not in the slightest. Drawing the line on a culturally relative topic like marriage is not ignorant. Even if I come to a different conclusion than you do.

    I wonder if those cultures that rape their women infecting them with Aids believe that we are ignorant for deploring this act?

    The nuts of the conversation for me goes something like this:
    We already limit US Citizen’s right to marry. We have polygamy, incest, age of consent and many other laws that prohibit the marriage between two consenting adults.

    If we believe that a homosexual is not enjoying equal rights because they are two committed, consenting adults in a relationship that are unable to enjoy the rights and privileges of marriage, well we should be consistent.

    According to the national conference of state legislatures, “Twenty-five states prohibit marriages between first cousins. Six states allow first cousin marriage under certain circumstances, and North Carolina allows first cousin marriage but prohibits double-cousin marriage. States generally recognize marriages of first cousins married in a state where such marriages are legal.”

    So should cousins be allowed to marry, should we allow polygamy back into the fold of acceptable marriage? Not every polygamous relationship is akin to Warren Jeffs’.

    Is my argument based on the slippery slope, no. I have already drawn my line in the sand. I don’t however believe that you can rightfully deny the rights to first cousins to marry, or deny a man a second wife if he so desires, if we are going to dress this as an equal rights issue, or lack thereof.

    These gray areas are the exact reason why I believe that the government should be out of the marriage business altogether.

  • http://quantummechanicsdemystified.blogspot.com/ David McMahon

    Actually I disagree that a child raised by two daddies or two mommies is as good as being raised by a mommy and a daddy in the ideal case. A child should have both male and female influences growing up, especially in the younger years. Children can get this from external sources, but its best provided by the home environment.

    That isn’t to say gay/lesbian couples should not have children. A child raised by a gay/lesbian couple that provides a healthy environment is obviously better than a dysfunctional environment provided by a heterosexual couple. I think saying that children in this situation have to rise above a bad circumstance to thrive as Otis says is overstating the case, the first thing a kid needs is a stable, loving environment and gay/lesbian couples certainly can provide that. But all things being equal, a male-female partnership would be better.

    But like I said before I am completely in favor of allowing gay/lesbian couples to adopt children. And of course if one of them has children of their own through whatever means, that is their business as to what kind of home environment they are going to have.

  • RationalZen

    Sean:

    A son or daughter being raised by two daddies or two mommies is as good for the child as if he or she were raised by a mommy and a daddy. So that’s not really an unintended consequence.

    In my opinion this only holds true when the two mommies or two daddies take on separate roles. Not to say they have the gender roles as our society sees them, just that there be a balance.

    Watching stupid shows like the “SuperNanny” or the “Wife Swap”, we can see the inherent danger to the children if you have an imbalance in the parenting roles. If they are both militaristic and strict there are consequences, if both parents are the nurturers with no discipline there are consequences.

    My wife and I have identified our roles perfectly, and I believe that my kid/future kids are on the fast track to super success in life. We’ve divided the roles like this: My wife will teach, nurture, console, discipline, and basically show them how to live their lives.

    I teach them how to respect and listen to their mom and the other women around them.

    It’s a perfect balance ;)

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/julianne Julianne

    My oldest child is rather mama-centric. In the past she’s been sorely disappointed that she didn’t get two moms.

    Practically speaking, lesbian couples are having children and raising them. Is it better for these kids to have some strong, automatic legal protection for their family, or, if something happens to the birth-mom half of the couple, to be at risk of being shipped off to relatives, rather than staying with the person they see as their parent? Yes, gay couples can go through lawyer assisted shenanigins to ensure protection and continuity, but they shouldn’t have to. I can only imagine the bafflement if every single straight father had to formally adopt the children they had with their wives.

    My take on this is that functional healthy marriages are a huge societal boon. If all the work that families do on each other’s behalf (child care, medical care, financial assistance) needed to be taken over by the public sphere, it would be the biggest welfare state the world had ever seen. If you believe in small government, you should make it as easy as possible for people to make these contracts with each other. Right now, gay and lesbian couples do make these contracts, but in a piecemeal fashion (rights of attorney, adoption, visitation rights in the event of illness, wills). What straight couples enjoy is an assumption that these rights are there. This keeps legal authorities from having to be involved in every minor decision regarding a straight couple’s family. For example, my husband went to the emergency room while we were flying back from germany, and I could go to see him by announcing “I’m his wife”. If instead, my long term lesbian partner were in the hospital, I could potentially have problems going in to see her unless I had the proper legal documents with me, and clearance from the hospital’s law department. By denying gay marriage, the state has to be _more_ interventionist in people’s daily lives, not less.

  • http://quantummechanicsdemystified.blogspot.com/ David McMahon

    The case that religion causes misery for people is completely overblown. Sure there have been things done in the “name of Christ” like how the Spanish treated Native Americans, but that would have happened regardless. That was just the European approach to things at the time. Had they not been Catholic the Spanish would have found some other excuse to “conquer” the “new world”.

    In reality, religion provides a lot of good for the vast majority of people. It gives them comfort and community. Its an anchor in their lives.

    Peter wrote: We need physicists (perhaps), but not everyone has to be one and I’m not convinced the world would be all that wonderful if it only had physicists in it.

    WOW that’s an interesting comment. I certainly agree that the world wouldn’t be all that great if it only had physicists in it. Having spent many years in a physics department I can tell you that would really suck if the world was that way. In a practical sense, I think you could argue physicists have outlived their usefulness. Of course I got a degree in it so I guess I wasted my time in school ;)

  • Durleb

    “A son or daughter being raised by two daddies or two mommies is as good for the child as if he or she were raised by a mommy and a daddy. So that’s not really an unintended consequence.”

    That seems like wishful thinking to me. Other variations on family structure like single parenthood through divorce are generally very detrimental for the child.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/sean/ Sean

    I am momentarily dumbfounded by the adduction of “SuperNanny” as evidence for the need for parents of two different genders, so I’ll get back to work now.

  • http://diracseashore.wordpress.com/ Moshe

    My two cents, seems to me that some semantic manipulation would help the cause here. On the one hand the issue of gay marriage is reliably a good polarizing issue to use at election times, for example to fan the flames on the culture wars and increase conservative Christian turnout. On the other hand, I believe there is a clear support for civil unions for gay and lesbian couples, which if constructed the right way are for all intents and purposes identical to marriage, except the religious baggage (and that’s actually not such a bad thing).

  • hmmmm

    Sean: “A son or daughter being raised by two daddies or two mommies is as good for the child as if he or she were raised by a mommy and a daddy.”

    A loving household is probably way more important for a kid than a loving “gay” household or a loving “straight” household, so yes, the distinction is *probably* irrelevant in the real world.

    But I have to say that I am agnostic on this one. Men and women are different. That much I am certain of.

  • http://telescoper.wordpress.com Peter Coles

    “if sexual organs serve the purpose of procreation, well then using them for the opposite ends would be perverse would it not”

    I’m tempted to make a cheap joke by saying that I’m all in favour of sexual organs being used in the opposite ends, but I won’t.

    But if it’s perverse to use your sexual organs for something other than procreation then it’s clearly perverse to use your ears to listen to music or your eyes to read books or your mouth to eat haute cuisine, as these organs weren’t intended to be used those ways either. If you restrict yourself to a life dictated solely by the drab needs of biology then that’s up to you. I happen to think we’ve moved on. If that’s what it is to be a pervert then I’m a pervert and so is anyone who is civilised (even if they’re not gay).

  • Otis

    Biology, Psychology, and everyday experience tell us that males and females are quite different and play different roles in the family. So how is it that it makes no difference whether a child has two daddies instead of a mommy & daddy? It does make a difference. Single parents and same sex parents have to compensate for the lack of an opposite gender partner in the family. I have dealt with many single moms who have had to find father figures for their children, and I have occasionally helped in that role. Many of those moms openly weep over that difficulty. The black community has been devastated by the lack of fathers.

    But some of you seemed to have missed the point. It is not a question of whether same sex couples make good parents, as defined by some set of standards. Many do and studies have shown that they do. The issue is: Should same sex marriages and traditional marriages be legally equivalent when social service agencies adopt out children? Could the agency select a traditional couple over a same sex couple if they think that would be in the child’s best interest? If Prop 8 fails, then the Massachusetts experience indicates the answer would be no. That would be tragic. Common sense would be trampled on by “gay rights.” That is not the way forward.

  • http://lablemminglounge.blogspot.com/ Lab Lemming

    Re 91:
    Bingo.

  • MedallionOfFerret

    Sean stated: “Physics, as it is currently practiced, is a paradigm for a naturalistic way of understanding the world.”

    I only scanned through the comments, and didn’t see any that mentioned Sean’s blatant appropriation to his particular portion of scientific endeavor–physics–of what I have always considered to be the fundamental aspect of science itself. Do not biologists also strive for a naturalistic way of understanding the world? What about geologists? Even (gasp!) psychologists and sociologists?

    Would gay marriage be more appropriately considered a part of physics, or a part of biology/psychology/sociology?

    In my undergraduate days I walked across campus with my biochemistry professor one sunny afternoon. I tried to express to him my joy in biochemistry, because it offered such a fundamental explanation of life. He responded, “Yes, if you believe that life can best be explained at the atomic and molecular level.”

  • Blake

    I’m with Otis, adoption agencies should certainly have the right to create hierarchical lists of ideal adoptive couples in which straight white protestants invariably occupy the very highest echelons of idealized matrimonial and societal perfection and where gay couples fall somewhere between interracial migrant workers and single mulatto alcoholics.

    I have to say that at 100 replies into this post, the apparent intelligence of the average reader here is is shockingly lower than I had anticipated for a particle physics blog.

  • GHT

    If Sean was really against discrimination and unfairness, he would call for an abolition of all special priviliges and benefits bestowed by the government on married people, gay or straight. Many of these benefits, especially the financial ones, come at the expense of the unmarried.

  • andyo

    RationalZen,

    I’m too lazy to blockquote right now, but in short, what you said or implied is this:

    1. Being gay is a choice. We could “all choose” to be gay and be done with the species.

    2. You find homosexuality equivalent, or at least comparable (you actually compared it!) to raping women and infecting them with AIDS!!! Wow.

    (You’re not very rational, and CLEARLY your zen is screwed up.)

    3. You think there’s a slippery slope from homosexuality to incest and poligamy. You say that you don’t make it your argument. Fine. But despite that, you do believe it happens. You say you’re just drawing the line, but the line you’re drawing is on that imaginary, invented slope. The slope isn’t even there, your line is just hanging in empty space.

    There are real arguments to be had against sexual or even romantic relations between blood relatives, or even poligamy (as I’m sure there are arguments for). There is no such argument against homosexuality.

  • http://www.nutcase.org H.M. Amir al-Mumenin al-Mutawakkil ‘Ala Allah Rab ul-Alamin Imam Yahya bin al-Mansur Bi’llah Muhammad Hamidaddin, Imam and Commander of the Faithful, and King of the Yemen.

    Blake sputtered: “places gay people far higher on his list of “ickyness” and “untreated mental illness” than he does for nighttime lamp-post fuckers. ”

    Talk to some real live heterosexuals. You’ll find, if you can get them to speak honestly, that they agree with me.

    “Wow, that’s some sharp thinkin’ there dude!”

    Alas, I can’t say the same in your case; all I see is a collection of unsupported assertions, and not even an attempt at refutation. Which is understandable.

    “the apparent intelligence of the average reader here is is shockingly lower than I had anticipated for a particle physics blog.”

    But it’s *not* a physics blog….Sean emphasized that from the outset. And I think we’ve completed the proof of the following statement: “Being a physicist has absolutely zero causal correlation with liberal political views.” Which sort of agrees with Sean’s claims about natural law. Though it simultaneously refutes the [totally bizarre and self-contradictory] main claim of his post……

    Finally, assuming that anyone who disagrees with you must be of lower IQ is not exactly evidence of a high IQ, no?

  • andyo

    Hey, King,

    How can you seriously expect a refutation of what you posted? Half the people probably thought you were joking. Ever heard of Poe’s Law?

    I’m a heterosexual male, and last time I checked I was real and live. You suffer from what many religious suffer which is that you think people deeply inside are really like you.

  • Jack Jones

    applmak said:

    Jack Jones: I’m married. Marriage is (can be) great! It’s not for everyone. Gay marriage is a Good Thing. I’m sorry to be your counterexample.

    What are you talking about!?!? I think you need to reread post 76…or improve your reading comprehension. My point is that gay marriage is being pushed as an “Equality For All” movement—if you doubt this, read the signs supporting Prop 8 in CA. However, the reality is that most who support gay marriage are not *truly* about equality for all. For example, gay marriage is advocated while polygamy is ignored and marginalized. Still, it so happens that most of the reasons used to advocate for gay marriage could apply equally well to other types of marriages. This movement is NOT about equality for all. For some people is it, but for the majority of people advocating for gay marriage, it is not.

    I honestly don’t have a clue how your response relates at all to what I wrote.

  • http://orbum.net/mark Mark R

    What is “sacred” about marriage, anyway? I’m curious.

    Is it best for kids, of either gender, to be raised by a male and a female who represent the archetypal male and female, whatever those archetypes are? What is the benefit? What might be a detriment? Are those archetypes absolute, and should males and females each be forced to strictly follow those archetypes as well, for the children’s benefit? Should the children be moved, or their marriages dissolved if they do not strictly follow the archetypes of male and female?

    Is it best for children to be raised by a male and a female who love each other very much, and can share that love with the children? Is this perfectly ideal situation realistic? If it is realistic, how is it that love and caring between any two people, despite physical gender anomalies, is inferior?

    If love between the parents is the important thing, how much more likely is love to actually exist between two people when they married each other purely for love of each other, and not for any notion, strictly, of some ideal family with kids situation that they envisioned, or because they had to get married because of pregnancy, etc….

    What is the rational justification for drawing the line of marriage as an agreement between a man and a woman, sanctioned by a society? I would like a rational response that is well thought out, not some sloppy blatherings.

    I think it was the Zen-associated person who mentioned balance. I’m assuming that’s one of those “cosmic” balance things, of two forces that are opposite, or work together, or whatever else you’d like to manufacture that might wriggle its way into appearing reasonable. Is it the penis and the vagina that create the opposing forces of balance that are important? Or is it the archetype of male and female? Some mish-mash of both? Perhaps the archetype is, instead, the balance between dominance and submission? Male being dominant, of course, and female being submissive. I’m not really sure. But I am pretty sure that in Zen you work to incorporate them both within your own essence, as one, which is you.

    Actually, in the interest of fairness, it seems only right that the societal benefits of marriage should be eliminated if they can’t be extended to all people. To even address the radical extremes of reasoning; personally, I can’t imagine being married to more than one person at a time. I’d loose my sanity. But if some people want to, why not? Let there be something like a primary spouse, and the rest dependents, much like children. Work something out with the money. There are many societies that function perfectly well where there are several parents for the children. The children get even more attention, I’d imagine.

    And that, I think, is what you’ll find important for children, more than trying to zero-in their skulls on some non-existent archetype of absolute gender definitions — it’s the attention, love and interaction with the children that is important. It’s listening to them, and engaging with them. It’s showing them that they are safe and loved. It’s helping them to become the best person that they can be. It’s discovering this, alongside them. The qualifications are not measured in stereotypical archetypes — they qualification are measured in the heart and mind.

    It seems that is something we might all benefit from.

  • Jimbo

    As of comment #37 this ridiculous SW continues to obliterate left hand text, so that any continuity between comments is destroyed.
    Can NO ONE do anything about this ridiculous situation ??

  • Blake

    For some reason, I find that unlettered fools such as HM Amir, frequently flatter themselves with assumptions that their superstitious wackloonery is somehow actually deserving of refutation. I confess that I am at a loss to explain the delusions that these unfortunate kooks seem to so often suffer from, but it goes without saying that no reasoned, sensible person would waste a nanosecond of their time refuting convictions of such obvious pig-ignorance.

  • RationalZen

    andyo:

    RationalZen,

    I’m too lazy to blockquote right now, but in short, what you said or implied is this:

    1. Being gay is a choice. We could “all choose” to be gay and be done with the species.

    Actually I did not say that at all. Blockquoting would have helped you understand a little better.

    I said that hypothetically if we all made that choice (as obviously we are not all homosexual by birth currently), we would be extinct in one generation. If you disagree with that you, Sarah Palin and Jenny McCarthy all have a lot in common.

    2. You find homosexuality equivalent, or at least comparable (you actually compared it!) to raping women and infecting them with AIDS!!! Wow.

    (You’re not very rational, and CLEARLY your zen is screwed up.)

    Again, I didn’t actually say that at all.

    What I was stating was that some things are acceptable in one culture but deplorable in others.

    3. You think there’s a slippery slope from homosexuality to incest and poligamy. You say that you don’t make it your argument. Fine. But despite that, you do believe it happens. You say you’re just drawing the line, but the line you’re drawing is on that imaginary, invented slope. The slope isn’t even there, your line is just hanging in empty space.

    Close, but not quite.

    What I said was that if you base your argument in favor of gay marriage on it being equal rights that a slippery slope is created. Which is true.

    If marriage between two adults is going to be lumped as one of our unalienable rights, then so be it. A consequence of that will be repealing incestral and polygamy laws.

    If as a society we are okay with polygamy laws, incestral laws and the like that are limiting marriage between two consenting adults for whatever reason there may be, then we are okay with limiting marriage to people that fit in some bucket. Now it’s up to society to figure out what that bucket looks like, which is exactly what is happening. To fault someone for having a different color bucket is just dumb.

    Then I clarified that I’m not against gay marriage because of the slippery slope, I have stated more than once that I’m against marriage as a government institution in general.

    There are real arguments to be had against sexual or even romantic relations between blood relatives, or even poligamy (as I’m sure there are arguments for). There is no such argument against homosexuality.

    The argument against blood relatives reproducing does in fact apply to homosexuals. With homosexual sexual relationships the extinction vortex is just more accelerated.

    Any argument against polygamy can also be applied to homosexuality, and currently is. Simply saying the argument doesn’t exist, well relative to you is true. Relative to reality is not.

  • Lawrence B. Crowell

    Homosexual behavior is observed in a wide range of animals. This also holds for transgender or gender reverse role playing. There are maybe a number of evolutionary reasons for this, such as these behaviors can be a sneeker strategy by beta males to get access to females. I am less sure about female homosexuality, or lesbianism. However, this behavior appears fairly persistent and if there are genetic or epigenetic bases for this it is clearly not completely selected against.

    Gayness, it’s out there whether you like it or not.

    Lawrence B. Crowell

  • andyo

    RationalZen,

    andyo (me)): [you said or implied...] 1. Being gay is a choice. We could “all choose” to be gay and be done with the species.

    RZ (you): Actually I did not say that at all. Blockquoting would have helped you understand a little better.

    OK, so NOW I will blockquote. Emphasis mine.

    RZ (post #88): If everyone made the choice to be homosexual at once, I think it would hinder the progression of the species. Render us extinct in one generation right?

    andyo: 2. You find homosexuality equivalent, or at least comparable (you actually compared it!) to raping women and infecting them with AIDS!!! Wow.

    Again, I didn’t actually say that at all.

    What I was stating was that some things are acceptable in one culture but deplorable in others.

    RZ (#88): It’s not ignorance, not in the slightest. Drawing the line on a culturally relative topic like marriage is not ignorant. Even if I come to a different conclusion than you do.

    I wonder if those cultures that rape their women infecting them with Aids believe that we are ignorant for deploring this act?

    How is this not comparing our deploring of raping women and infecting them with AIDS with your deploring of homosexuality? You are basically saying that my accusing you of ignorance is the same as those cultures accusing us of ignorance. You’ll deny it, because it’s such a preposterous and ridiculously horrible thing to have said, so maybe we should ask the others what they got out of it, shall we?

    RZ (110):What I said was that if you base your argument in favor of gay marriage on it being equal rights that a slippery slope is created. Which is true.

    So there’s no slippery slope, except when it is created. Well done. In fairness, you probably thought I meant that there’s a slope for homosexuals to go on into polygamy and incest, (which is so ridiculous I never thought it could even cross your mind, my fault for not being clearer). The slope I meant is the one you just created. It is imaginary. It doesn’t exist.

    The argument against blood relatives reproducing does in fact apply to homosexuals. With homosexual sexual relationships the extinction vortex is just more accelerated.

    That’s not the argument against blood relatives having relations. It has to do with the suffering of the offspring, not the extinction of the species. The extinction of the species could never happen (as you contradictorily pointed out) because most of us aren’t incestuous. Besides, homosexuality has no reason to be detrimental to evolution. As has been pointed out by me and others, there are hypotheses where it even could help, but what is known is that it doesn’t hinder the species.

    Any argument against polygamy can also be applied to homosexuality, and currently is. Simply saying the argument doesn’t exist, well relative to you is true. Relative to reality is not.

    Arguments such as? If you say something exists, you better be able to put up.

  • joulesm

    Going from gay marriage to incest and polygamy is NOT a slippery slope. If you are straight and I am gay, you are allowed to marry your true love and I am not. But we are both UNABLE to marry our siblings and more than one person. HUGE difference.

    Prohibiting gay marriage is closer to sexism. Why can’t I marry a female when all the men in the world are allowed to? Just because I’m a woman?? That’s sexism.

  • applmak

    I don’t think that accepting gay marriage is equivalent to accepting all forms of committed relationships. Perhaps in some theoretical sense, but we’re arguing policy here. From Wikipedia’s article on Polygamy:

    According to the Ethnographic Atlas Codebook, of the 1231 societies noted, 186 were monogamous. 453 had occasional polygyny, 588 had more frequent polygyny, and 4 had polyandry.[5]At the same time, even within societies which allow polygyny, the actual practice of polygyny occurs relatively rarely. There are exceptions: in Senegal, for example, nearly 47 percent of marriages are multiple.[6] To take on more than one wife often requires considerable resources: this may put polygamy beyond the means of the vast majority of people within those societies. Such appears the case in many traditional Islamic societies, and in Imperial China. Within polygynous societies, multiple wives often become a status symbol denoting wealth and power. Similarly, within societies that formally prohibit polygamy, social opinion may look favorably on persons maintaining mistresses or engaging in serial monogamy.

    So when we’re talking about polygamy, we’re mostly talking about 1 man, many women. Note the few sentences about “status symbol”. The article imples that polygamy has historically been used to increase your social status. Should women be thought of as social status increasers? I don’t think so. This is a totally different world than marriage. In fact, polygamy has more to do with having more than one car per person in a household, and less to do with love or marriage.

    Now that we’ve drawn a clear line between polygamy and gay marriage, let’s not continue discussing it, and stay on topic. Please?

  • andyo

    joulesm,

    I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the most homophobic groups are those within patriarchal religions. They’re the ones who started this prop. 8 shenanigans too. You are pretty much right.

  • http://quantummechanicsdemystified.blogspot.com/ David McMahon

    “Homosexual behavior is observed in a wide range of animals. This also holds for transgender or gender reverse role playing. There are maybe a number of evolutionary reasons for this, such as these behaviors can be a sneeker strategy by beta males to get access to females. I am less sure about female homosexuality, or lesbianism. However, this behavior appears fairly persistent and if there are genetic or epigenetic bases for this it is clearly not completely selected against.”

    There isn’t necessarily an evolutionary explanation for each and every trait. I would guess that many characteristics of organisms simply hitch a ride because organisms that have those characteristics are carrying some other trait that is really for survival.

    “I’m assuming that’s one of those “cosmic” balance things, of two forces that are opposite, or work together, or whatever else you’d like to manufacture that might wriggle its way into appearing reasonable. Is it the penis and the vagina that create the opposing forces of balance that are important?”

    The penis and vagina came about through evolution. They don’t have anything to do with cosmic balance, it just happened to be a way of reproduction that worked.

    As far as polygamy, I think it was just an excuse used by powerful men to be able to have sex with a variety of women while still being “married”. In tribal societies it probably had something to do with control of resources but for the Mormons I think it started off as an excuse to get laid a lot.

  • http://quantummechanicsdemystified.blogspot.com/ David McMahon

    “Right and wrong aren’t parts of the fundamental description of reality. That description has to do with wave functions and Hamiltonian dynamics, not with ethical principles. That is what the world is made of, at a deep level.”

    Wave functions and Hamiltonian dynamics exist only in the minds of physics professors. Yes they make good experimental predictions, but they are models of reality that may be superseded by better models tomorrow. Taking them to be what the “world is made of at a deep level” is a bit naive.

    Also I would say that the ethical principles outlined in the Declaration of Independence ARE self-evident truths. Ethical principles do exist without having to have a committee set out what they are. Sure people don’t always live up to them, but real life is more complicated than physics and that doesn’t mean the ethical principles don’t really exist. I would say they are on as solid a ground as abstract principles as “hilbert space” and other concepts in modern physics.

  • http://orbum.net/mark Mark R

    An interesting, at least to me, aside to this is the sex drive itself.

    Most of us like sexual stimulation. Even when no other person is involved. It feels good. And some of us even get very creative.

    There is only one way of experiencing this pleasure that results in a children being born.

    But none of us are limited to experiencing pleasure in just that way, and probably nobody limits themselves so. (ok, a minor standard deviation error)

    This is a universal within the human sphere.

    Love, where you want to be with another person for the rest of your life, is somewhat separate from our sexuality. It’s something more than just sexual stimulation.

    To my mind, that love, whatever it might be, is the sacred part of any marriage. I don’t know if you can have such a thing with 10 wives or husbands. Maybe that’s an argument for another day — a slippery slope.

    But whether or not anything actually sacred exists, that profound sense of finding completeness, familiarity and comfort in another human being, where their well being and happiness matters, down to the core, at least as much as your own, is perhaps one of the most profound and personally altering things we can experience.

    This exists, despite gender. And I believe such a positive force between people ought to be enshrined within a society. We need more such examples, to help us along our way, where self-centeredness rules so strongly.

  • http://telescoper.wordpress.com Peter Coles

    I have been thinking.

    There are two issues. One is that gay people can’t get married. The other is that married heterosexual people get tax breaks, especially if they have kids. The first one has been discussed a lot on here, but the second is neglected. It seems unfair to me because people with children actually benefit more from public services (as their kids use schools, hospitals, when those without children don’t).

    OK this probably doesn’t work in the USA where there are no public services and all the taxes go to the military, but I think my argument works in the UK and Europe pretty well.

    Anyway, I have the perfect solution. Allow gays and lesbians to marry, but change the tax laws so that married people pay more tax, especially if they have children. Anyone can get married if they want to, but nobody would do it for the sake of financial gain.

    Then it will all be fair and everyone will be happy!

    Vote for me!

  • RationalZen

    andyo:

    Please don’t quote me if you’re not going to include it in it’s entirety.

    It’s likely you’re not actually reading the entire thing, hence your complete misunderstanding of what I’m actually saying. That being said, if you’re going to quote me, please don’t cherry pick my statements to emphasize your misguided understanding of my words.

    That being said, my response:
    1)
    You’d have to be an idiot if you didn’t think that an instantaneous change to homosexuality in our world would not require conscious choice. So in my hypothetical, as I stated, it would require a choice.

    I didn’t say that it’s a choice to be gay.

    Can I say it any clearer than that? Hopefully I used simple enough grammar as to eliminate any confusion.

    2)
    Unless you have sever reading comprehension problems, it’s very clear that my usage of rape and aids was referring to an act that WE believe to be deplorable, yet is acceptable to other CULTURES.

    Hence my usage of the words culturally relative, as in relative to one’s culture. In more simple terms, there are other cultures that do things that we as an American culture find deplorable, like dog-fighting or the rest of the infinite set, that is perfectly acceptable in other cultures. Gay marriage falls into that category in my opinion, it’s adversity or acceptance is very relative to one’s culture.

    So you first said, “2. You find homosexuality equivalent, or at least comparable (you actually compared it!) to raping women and infecting them with AIDS!!! Wow.

    Well actually reading what I said it’s obvious that I don’t believe, nor did I allude to the notion, that homosexuality is equivalent to, or even comparable to AIDS.

    I didn’t say they were equivalent.
    So when you asked, “How is this not comparing our deploring of raping women and infecting them with AIDS with your deploring of homosexuality?

    That’s at least closer. I didn’t actually compare them at all, what I did was say that hostility towards gay marriage is culturally relative, and provided a similar example of something that is generally deplorable in the US that is acceptable in other cultures. I guess I could have substituted dog fighting (just ask Mike Vick how we feel about that), arranged marriage, prostitution, or another member of the infinite set of things that are perfectly normal outside of American culture.

    I said they were analogous, I didn’t say they were comparable nor equivalent.

    Hopefully that is more clear.

    3) I must say, I haven’t/likely won’t look up my materials from high school Biology class. That being said I’m pretty sure that at least at that time, perhaps it’s changed, is that the number one danger with inbreeding was a slide in the heterozygosity that would ultimately lead to an extinction of the species. I remember it being like G or F vortex or something like that.

    Feel free and prove me wrong.

    It has to do with the suffering of the offspring, not the extinction of the species. The extinction of the species could never happen (as you contradictorily pointed out) because most of us aren’t incestuous.

    What suffering is there for the offspring, and why do we care. If the majority of us are not incestuous then we shouldn’t really care that a small number choose to be right? Is it not their right as two consenting adults?

    We allow a lot of behaviors that are potentially extremely damaging to the children that we don’t really care to disallow, why do we care about this one in particular then?

    Besides, homosexuality has no reason to be detrimental to evolution. As has been pointed out by me and others, there are hypotheses where it even could help, but what is known is that it doesn’t hinder the species.

    I think that it’s fairly obvious that an entire generation of homosexual people would be pretty detrimental to our species, and render us extinct in one generation. A priori comes to mind.

    Not grasping that point is not understanding the basics of the birds and the bees ;)

    4) Regarding polygamy, I have only heard on argument against it. Tax and legal implications.

    The same basis that many oppose, at least openly perhaps there’s a small “bradley effect” happening.

    I personally don’t agree, but again, I’m not in the camp that thinks the government should have anything to do with marriage, straight or curvy.

  • Aloysius

    Sean et al.,

    You’re right. Reasonable people willing to negotiate in good faith can come together and hammer out an extremely versatile and powerful ethical framework based on principles like rational decision-making in the interests of promoting human happiness and an unwillingness to make rules that don’t serve some empirically-measurable purpose. It’s a great system, and if everyone agreed to live by it we’d by and large be happier and more fulfilled people.

    Unfortunately, as many of the comments in this thread demonstrate, there are lots of people out there who are not reasonable and who will not negotiate in good faith and will never agree to sideline their own personal prejudices even when these prejudices make no real sense and serve no useful function whatever. In short, some people are just jerks.

    It’s not enough for us just to assemble a robust and reasonable set of ethical protocols. We also have to find a way to defend the integrity of these protocols from, well, yahoos and jerks. We have to be willing to actively push our agenda in the public sphere, and actively defend our ethics as being fundamentally better. Because they are and it’s important that we have the guts to say so forcefully. Our way offers flexibility and increases peoples’ freedom to follow their own path. It removes arbitrary and capricious barriers. It allows us to change with the times. And the foundational principles of these protocols are rooted in logical and empirical considerations open to anyone who’s willing to examine them.

    It’s not enough for us pointy-headed intellectuals just to say that yes, these things are self-evident and yes, this is how people ought to live. We must fight for that, and that will require academics to become much more politically engaged.

  • RationalZen

    applmak:

    I stated that using equal rights as your platform for supporting gay marriage, then there becomes a gray area with other laws that prohibit marriage between two consenting adults that love each other.

    There isn’t a clear line that has been drawn there, as it seems that most people that are arguing in favor of gay marriage are taking the stance that gay couples are being denied a right that is granted to straight couples (but not all, just most).

    There are a number of people like me that don’t oppose gay marriage because of some ickiness factor as is being trivialized by some, but believe that there are real consequences that are far reaching if that platform succeeds.

    For me I grew up with friends from homosexual, polygamous and regular families, there isn’t an ickiness factor for any of them, they were all very well adjusted kids. I do believe that there will be many arguments for the same rights that are about to potentially be granted in California, and they will win.

  • http://quantummechanicsdemystified.blogspot.com/ David McMahon

    Peter Coles asserts:

    “OK this probably doesn’t work in the USA where there are no public services”

    NO public services? Hmmm, my city has a fire department, a police department, roads that are well maintained, a clean water supply. Health care could be more accessible and none of these items listed is perfect, but saying there are no public services is ridiculous.

    “all the taxes go to the military”

    The pentagon budget is certainly overblown, but large shares of taxes go to social security, welfare, and medicare. And to scientific research. No, all taxes do not go to the military.

    “The other is that married heterosexual people get tax breaks, especially if they have kids. The first one has been discussed a lot on here, but the second is neglected. It seems unfair to me because people with children actually benefit more from public services (as their kids use schools, hospitals, when those without children don’t).”

    Having married people pay more taxes is probably the most absurd suggestion I’ve seen posted here. Hospitals in the US are not generally a public service, married people with children pay more in health insurance than singles or couples without children. In the US schools are generally paid for by property taxes (which are frankly way too high in a lot of places).

  • applmak

    I really like Mark R’s comments, because, strangely enough, they are the most clear to me. Maybe I’m just poetic by nature. He really takes a LOT of meaning and packs it into just a few sentences. I am jealous of that ability.

    Anywho, RationalZen & andyo, I don’t understand what you are saying. In fact, it’s as if we aren’t even speaking the same language. Our worldviews are so far apart that it would take quite some time to resolve them. Of course, I assume these comments are endless and that we have an infinite amount of time, right?

    For those not in-the-know, like I was, the tax break for adults with dependent minors came about in the Taxpayer Relief Act of 1997. So it’s quite a recent phenomenon. I have no idea why it was considered important then to give parents (both married and single) a tax break.

  • http://quantummechanicsdemystified.blogspot.com/ David McMahon

    Parents are offered the tax break because of the extra expense involved in raising children. In case you don’t know, these expenses are quite huge. So why not give parents some breaks on taxes?

  • http://telescoper.wordpress.com Peter Coles

    I don’t believe in generalisations, but there is now proof that at least one American doesn’t understand the concept of irony.

  • applmak

    Peter Coles: You mean sarcasm, which is hard enough to convincingly convey when you can read the emotional state of another person.

    David McMahon: Your argument goes something like: We the people of the US, whereby it is a good thing for us to encourage our citizens to have children, and whereby economic benefits are a good way to encourage specific behavior, resolve to give American parents a tax break for each of their children. That argument should definitely apply to gay couples seeking children, too. In fact, rather than coming up with an entirely equivalent tax code that applies to them, let’s just call them married and be done with it. :)

  • http://quantummechanicsdemystified.blogspot.com/ David McMahon

    Sure, I would have no problem extending tax breaks to gay people with children.

  • http://telescoper.wordpress.com Peter Coles

    No, I mean irony. Get a dictionary. And don’t split your infinitives.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/julianne Julianne

    Ooooo! Grammar smackdown!

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/sean/ Sean

    But mostly a vocabulary smackdown.

  • andyo

    I’m outta here!

    RationalZen, all right, I’ll just leave it to whoever happens to read your re-rebuttal to see if those things you just said are not the same as those things you did say.

  • Lawrence B. Crowell

    Through history there is little precidence for gay marriage, even within societies which were tolerant of homosexuality. On the other hand the intrusion of government into marriage is pretty recent as well. Consequently the issue of gay marriage is due to a convergence of rather recent ideas. I suspect that gay marriage might be a passing trend. If government were to get out of the business of marriage entirely I suspect that gay marriage might only be something upheld by gay-Churches.

    We should just get government out of marriage, and make it only uphold mutual living contracts between people. If gay couples want to turn things into a marriage that is their business.

    Lawrence B. Crowell

  • Jason Dick

    Lawrence, I don’t buy that government involvement in marriage is just a recent thing. Marriage has always been a contract between two parties (and, sometimes, their families). The government has always had some authority when it comes to contracts, though certainly for a while the Catholic church handled marriage in Europe.

    As for historical precedence for gay marriage, who cares?

    And I also don’t buy that government will ever get out of marriage. There are a large number of rights afforded to married couples, rights people have come to expect.

  • MartianTruth

    All this talk about justifying homosexuality makes me wonder if nobody realizes that Sean et. al. are trying to take all the fun out of doing physics. This is what I found really “icky” about this whole line of thinking!

    Given his proclamation that physics is a naturalistic way of understanding the world, I realized that there was an implication for someone who believes as he does. This implication is a consequence stretching beyond the confines of his attempts to suggest that we live in a relativisticly (sp?) moral universe: he also says we live in a boring universe.

    A logical consequence of his argument (“. . . Laws of Nature [are] silent about what those human beings ‘should’ be doing.”) is that there can be no greater purpose for doing physics than what Mark R. talks about in #118: Physics can only be done for self-stimulating (or more generally self-serving) purposes.

    A few weeks ago, my 8-year old son happened across a book with pictures taken by the Hubble Telescope. (It was the first time he had seen any pictures taken by the HST.) Without any prompting on my part, all I heard for 15 – 20 minutes was nothing but Ah! Ou! Aw! Oh!

    What makes Sean believe that chemicals “should” respond that way to other chemicals!?

    If I should be fortunate to discover something about the universe, Sean’s beliefs would not allow me to truly celebrate my discovery and according to him, I would also be silly to go Ou! and Ah!

    Oh, yes I might have a party. But what would the party be celebrating? If I were to believe there is no absolute meaning and purpose as Sean does, then my party would celebrate nothing more than the fact that I’m capable of finding meaningless in the universe.

    What a horrible and boring “world” to choose to live in!

    I believe the real world is filled with enchantment and wonder and it sounds like Sean can’t see that it is because he thinks that he “should” not rejoice in the fact that it is incredible and amazing. (I wonder: what chemical is telling him not to rejoice?)

    If this universe were incredible, amazing, glorious – if it were enchanted – might that not mean that there was an Enchanter?

    Wouldn’t such an Echanter ensure that the universe would never be boring?

  • Jason Dick

    MartianTruth,

    “Isn’t it enough to see that a garden is beautiful without having to believe that there are fairies at the bottom of it too?” – Douglas Adams

  • ST

    “If I should be fortunate to discover something about the universe, Sean’s beliefs would not allow me to truly celebrate my discovery and according to him, I would also be silly to go Ou! and Ah! ”

    A sense of wonder and curiosity might have been useful tools for survival. Animals are always learning from their ambience in order to react to it better, and curiosity is a useful instrument for it, especially in an animal whose brain is spectacularly well-evolved for this purpose.

    “If I should be fortunate to discover something about the universe, Sean’s beliefs would not allow me to truly celebrate my discovery and according to him, I would also be silly to go Ou! and Ah! ”

    The celebration is about us. I don’t see why that should take away from your enjoyment of it, unless you want the universe to be one way or another. The Universe is what it is.

    If you are planning to connect to the Supreme Being through your discovery, yes, you would be disappointed, but that is your call.

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  • http://astrodyke.blogspot.com The AstroDyke

    Whew! What I have learned from the comments: physicists should not talk about politics, gay couples are incapable of having children, and godless astronomy is no fun. I must re-evaluate my life!

    What I know: fighting Prop 8 costs me 3 hours of research time every Monday evening. My family, and the families of other scientists, will be hurt if Prop 8 passes.

  • blanton

    Hi Sean,

    With Gabriel (#44), I worry about the implication
    you make by conflating four different points:
    (1) natural science has done an admirable job of
    “explaining” (for lack of a better term) many of the
    phenomena we witness; (2) many people suspect,
    therefore, that all phenomena are explainable in
    such terms; (3) another overlapping group of people
    suspect therefore that there is no Natural Law; and
    (4) gay marriage should be legal. I’ll leave aside (4)
    as I don’t have any argument with it for many of
    the reasons cited by previous commenters and
    yourself.

    My main concern is that while the basis for point (1)
    rests in the hard work and peer-reviewed, reproducible
    research of thousands of scientists over hundreds of
    years, and that while point (2) is probably a working
    hypothesis for most of those scientists, point (3) simply
    doesn’t have the same empirical basis and has never
    been subjected to the scientific process. It’s not like
    plate tectonics, or DNA, or the expansion of the Universe,
    in that it has not undergone the level of scrutiny and
    reached the level of scientific consensus that they have.
    At least not in any journals (our primary record of what
    science has achieved) that I have read.

    You might argue that point (3) cannot be subjected to
    that process, to which I would respond that in that case
    you should not imply that scientific consensus excludes
    the existence of Natural Law. It doesn’t really, we
    just have never addressed that question and maybe
    can’t scientifically.

    You might find this nitpicky, but I have a concern with
    your postings (all of which I enjoy), that they on
    occasion somewhat intentionally abuse the authority
    that scientific approaches have gained due to their
    rigor and care, using the success of science as a launching
    point for more speculative arguments.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/sean/ Sean

    I honestly don’t believe “authority” has anything to do with it, or at least it shouldn’t. When I say things, or anyone else says things, they shouldn’t be judged by my authority as a scientist, or my lack of authority in other areas, or the disciplinary authority of science as a whole — they should be judged by the soundness of the reasoning and the relevance of the evidence offered.

    I would never claim that “gay marriage should be legal” has the same kind of status as “gravitation is a manifestation of the curvature of spacetime.” But on the flip side, I’m not going to be reluctant to point out what I think is a common perspective that leads to both conclusions. Science doesn’t exist in an intellectual vacuum — it’s a set of ideas that are intimately connected to ideas in other areas. In the post, I tried to explain why I felt that the same kind of thinking that makes up the modern scientific method also leads one to reject traditional arguments for Natural Law, on which (the more respectable) arguments against same-sex marriage are often based. People are welcome to disagree with those arguments, and present counter-arguments of their own; there’s no reason for notions of authority to get involved.

  • blanton

    Well, I do agree that positions should be evaluated
    on the basis of the relevant arguments. I guess I’m
    simply trying to distinguish those bits of your arguments
    which are scientifically based from those that are based
    on reasoning.

    After all, you state that after the scientific revolution it should
    have become obvious to everyone, because science could
    explain so much, that there was no universal moral
    law. To me, that argument simply sounds like a non sequitor.

    I understand that the working hypothesis that the
    physical laws of nature can explain everything probably
    implies that no such moral law exists. But it is not a
    prediction of that hypothesis that has been subjected
    to rigorous empirical tests.

    I don’t personally hold everything I believe to be true
    up to this standard, of course — certain questions we
    are forced to answer in our lives can’t be addressed
    scientifically. But you say fairly explicitly that your
    conclusion is an inevitable, indeed “obvious,” consequence
    of the scientific worldview — yes, yes, you don’t say it
    is a consequence of scientific work itself, but the
    implication is there, and is what I am complaining about.

    But perhaps that distinction is clear enough to you
    that you don’t see how your audience could confuse
    one with another.

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  • MartianTruth

    Comment to blanton #142

    I’m sure that we could describe in intricate detail how a clock works.

    I’m sure that we can do so without ever making a single reference to the guy who designed the clock or put it together. However, it would be a fallacy to believe that there was not a person who designed or made the clock just because I can explain how a clock works without making reference to either of these people.

    Likewise, just because the scientific method can be used to explain much of our world without reference to a creator, does not mean I can conclusively prove there is not a creator. If someone were to say that the scientific method does so, I would infer that they brought that (dis)belief to their science.

    In other words, one is not being a scientist if he or she says there is not a creator.

  • Jason Dick

    Except, MartianTruth, that’s an entirely backwards stance to take. The only valid, logical stance to take is that there is no such thing, until such time as we discover evidence that points in that direction.

    The reason this is so is simple: there is only one truth, but a near infinite variety of untruths. Finding the truth about reality can be likened to hitting the bullseye on a dartboard. If you’re going to just throw out there the possibility that X is true, without providing any evidence for it, then that’s rather like blindfolding yourself and spinning until you’re dizzy before throwing the dart, and then thinking you’ve got a chance in hell of actually hitting upon the right answer.

    Obviously this is nonsense: the expected result is that in doing so, you’ll miss not only the bullseye, but the entire dartboard. This is why when something is stated without evidence, we can naturally expect that it’s probably quite incorrect.

  • MartianTruth

    Jason

    Imagine you’re driving in West Texas. (It’s pretty bleak out there if you’ve never been!) You notice a row of fence posts paralleling the road. On top of one of those posts you notice a turtle.

    I’m sure that someone, maybe you, could come up with an explanation for how the turle got on top of that fence post all by itself, i.e. an explanation that would exclude anyone putting it on top of the fence. I’m also certain that this explanation would satisfy many people.

    My point is this: what criteria you use to determine whether or not an explanation is satisfactory has nothing to do with your explanation.

    So, to believe that the scientific method in and of itself proves that there is not a creator, or that the results of the method proves there is not a creator, is to bring to the method, to bring to your results, something that is extra to the method and to the science.

    In short, you have brought your prejudice.

    As Freud would say, I see your slip.

  • Jason Dick

    The difference, MartianTruth, is that I know that there exist people who can do this, I know of people who would do this, and I am perfectly aware (at least in a superficial sense) as to precisely how it is done. None of these things is so with a creator god. We have no independent evidence [i]that[/i] any such deity exists. And even if something like a god existed, we have no way of knowing whether or not it [i]would[/i] create a universe, let a lone a universe like our own. And even if we knew these things, we have no clue as to [i]how[/i] it would actually go about doing the creating.

    So no, the analogy isn’t even remotely similar. Instead what we have is a real, measurable, physical process. It is perfectly understandable to expect that this real, measurable, physical process can be explained in some manner. That’s all that science does, and positing a god is the equivalent of giving up on looking for an explanation.

  • MartianTruth

    Jason

    Don’t you see that the opposite side of my coin holds true?

    If all that science does is explain natural processes by using other natural processes, then to automatically reject a God because you can make explanations that satisfy you is the equivalent of automaticallly giving up on an relationship.

    A dog chasing its tail, can’t imply it doesn’t have an owner.

    You can be certain of what is NOT out there to be discovered ONLY if you know everything.

    Are you claiming to be God?

    Another problem is in believing you could find evidence independent of a God if He did exist. If God did exist, by definition everything would be dependent on Him. Consequently, there might not be any evidence independent of His showing Himself to you.

  • Jason Dick

    If all that science does is explain natural processes by using other natural processes, then to automatically reject a God because you can make explanations that satisfy you is the equivalent of automaticallly giving up on an relationship.

    No, it’s not, because the fundamental reason why supernatural causes are excluded is because they cannot, by definition, be explained. All that science is saying here is that everything can, in principle, be explained. Everything. We may not be able to discover all of those explanations. In fact, we almost certainly will not. But to resort to an explanation that is itself unexplainable is meaningless. It’s a retreat from providing an actual explanation.

    So, science is excluding nothing here. All it is saying is that if there is such a thing as a god, then that entity can, in principle, be understood and explained in detail. We may never actually be able to perform the experiments to actually show what this deity is, but we could at least do so in principle. In principle, we could describe what sorts of things this deity was made up of. We could describe the mechanisms by which it performs some “miracle” or another. We could describe how it went about creating the universe. We could understand how it came to exist, and what processes led up to its existence. In principle. Actually determining the particular mechanisms may be beyond us, but it should be doable in a hypothetical sense (if I could only build a gajillion dollar instrument…).

    Resorting to concepts and ideas that cannot ever possibly be explained, even were I to have infinite resources to construct an experiment, are simply meaningless. They are just fluff to fool people into thinking they’ve said something with meaning.

    Another problem is in believing you could find evidence independent of a God if He did exist. If God did exist, by definition everything would be dependent on Him.

    Yeah, so why isn’t the evidence plain and obvious to everybody? Why is it that everything that we learn about science leads us away from the idea of a supernatural god and towards a fully naturalistic existence?

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  • jon

    while i agree with your conclusions, i have to take small umbrance with your philosophy. the position of moral relativism is largely guided by the very feeling of “ickiness” that you decry in reference to homosexuality.

    ::The codification of moral rules does not come from examining the world or thinking about logical necessities; it comes from individual human beings examining their own desires, and communicating with other human beings to formulate rules of common consent.::

    and the sad fact is that for a large number of people, there isn’t much phenomenological difference between contemplating the manson murders and harvey milk’s love life. the same feelings of disgust and discomfort occur in the contemplation of either situation. this feeling of disgust is the basis for the establishment of law.

    now, you speak of the possibility of the “normalization” of the concept of homosexuality. that is well and good, except it implies that the basic foundation of the compromises we call law (the gut reaction of the people) can in some cases be mistaken. and when it is mistaken, you or somebody has the obligation to correct it. now if you are a serious moral relavist, you do not have the framework to correct the general ickiness of the people. there is no absolute framework to give your minority perspective any more value or importance than the majority opinion.

    a moral relativist who thinks that the majority opinion is wrong doesn’t have a lot of options. who are you to “normalize” away the disgust of the masses? they are already normal, you are not.

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Cosmic Variance

Random samplings from a universe of ideas.

About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] cosmicvariance.com .

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