Saturday, November 23, 2002

My body is opaque to the soul

Those who've been following the on-and-off dialogue between Telford Work and me may have noticed that my last post directed at him did not get answered. This is not because he hasn't wanted to, but because he's been so busy. (I think if I want prompt responses I'll have to wait till he gets tenure!) This week he's at a theology convention in the Great Frozen North, but before he left he told me he was planning to respond along the lines of a chapter by Nancey Murphy in a multivolume theology textbook he uses, and I was welcome to check it out.

I didn't expect to find this thing even in L.A.'s vast library system, and indeed I didn't. But I found another book by Murphy and some collaborators, called Whatever Happened to the Soul? Scientific and Theological Portraits of Human Nature. This looks at scientific work related to the mind, such as Darwinism, genetics and neuroscience, and attempts to reconcile it with the Christian view of the soul. I've only started the first chapter, but Murphy sets out the endgame:
The goal of the book is to demonstrate the possibility of an account of human nature that satisfies the demands of these many disciplines -- to show that the portraits sketched from these various disciplinary perspectives may all in fact be of the same "person." Each chapter in its own way points toward a view of the person that we call "non-reductive physicalism." "Physicalism" signals our agreement with the scientists and philosophers who hold it is not necessary to postulate a second metaphysical entity, the soul or mind, to account for human capacities and distinctiveness. "Non-reductive" indicates our rejection of contemporary philosophical views that say the person is "nothing but" a body...So the difficult issue is to explain how we can claim that we are our bodies, yet without denying the "higher" capacities that we think of as being essential for our humanness: rationality, emotion, morality, free will, and, most important, the capacity to be in relationship with God.

This isn't exactly what I asked -- my original argument with Telford was about the origin of evil. But there's enough of an overlap in the subject matter that I think the book could be productive. Minute Particulars has also been exploring this subject here and here, so look out for future posts as I read the book.

I already have one question though. Murphy starts out with a quick review of historic Western thinking about the soul, which is very interesting, but she evidently expects her readers to already know more than I do. So what the frick is the difference between an eternal soul and an immortal soul? This was apparently Augustine's idea, but she never explains what it means.
Mamma mia

Looking over last night's post, I get the feeling it was one of those very long posts that was also too short. I hit on three or four rather large subjects without really explaining them, and I think I was a bit too flippant in places.

My "quick-and-dirty abortion test" was meant to be somewhat facetious -- there are, of course, more reasons than that why someone would have a certain opinion about abortion. But I do think this is one important reason why the two sides tend to talk past each other. I expect that today, after the sexual revolution, problems with men have swung more toward irresponsibility/abandonment than a guy wanting a woman to become a Stepford wife. That's been true in my own experience with men, I have to say. This does not mean that the Stepford-wife fear was all made up, though, which a lot of anti-feminists seem to imply. For women who, as I said, deviate from the mean in certain ways -- being more intelligent, ambitious, aggressive, less nurturant, and so on -- I can imagine life as a suburban housewife must seem pretty deadening.

I should also say that one way that I deviate from the mean is my lack of desire to have children. I was thinking about this after the last time I saw Telford, because as we were talking and walking around the church he was carrying his baby with him. I treated the baby as if he were a backpack, but sometimes people we encountered would stop and dote on him, and I'd think, oh yeah, that's kind of the normal thing to do with a baby.

I don't know if I'm going to feel this way forever. I have never been married nor come very close to getting married, so maybe this is an emotional realm I just haven't been to yet. But one reason the article rubbed me the wrong way was its unspoken assumption that all women, or nearly all of them, want children. A quarter of women in the West will never have them, we're told ominously. But do they want to? And even if they do, how strongly?

I realize there was a book earlier this year alleging that feminism had convinced a lot of women to put off childbearing for careers, only to discover in their 30s that their fertility declined. But there have been some issues with the data, and even apart from that, I wonder how widespread the problem actually is. Only a fairly elite group of women have a "career" as opposed to just working, and in my experience only the hyperambitious really put off childbearing for that long for that reason. The unnamed TV journalist Shanahan cites regrets putting off childbearing for her career; but clearly this is an ambitious woman. If she'd had kids and slowed her career, would she be pining for her lost shot at being an ABC broadcaster?

Maybe if I don't have kids, one day I'll regret it. I don't know. There are a lot of things I could regret about my life later. But I do resent the implication that I or any other childless woman am so weak-minded that feminist brainwashing has overcome my naturally strong desire to reproduce. Real life is more complicated, more varied, than that.
In praise of deviant women

Eve Tushnet links to a story by an Australian Catholic woman who has nine children. She goes into a screed in the middle against feminism and the Pill, and stuffs a paragraph with extraordinary statistics:
After 30 years and more of militant feminism, almost a quarter of women in the West never marry or have children, one in three pregnancies ends in abortion, and there has been an alarming rise in depressive illness and breast cancer. High divorce rates and the sexualisation of society, meanwhile, are having terrible effects on children. Despite the availability of the pill, there are more teenage pregnancies than ever.

Let's take the last claim first, since that one I know is wrong. The idea that teenagers are getting pregnant and having kids more than ever before has to be one of the most persistent myths of our age. I was discussing this on a message board a while ago and found some great CDC links that showed birth data by age going all the way back to 1960, but since then the CDC rearranged their website and seem annoyingly short on historical data. (The best they have now is a record of births, which is all raw numbers and no rates.) But basically what it indicated was that teen births have dropped steadily the whole time. The birth rate isn't the same as the pregnancy rate, and pregnancy data from before 1970 seems unavailable, but the latest American teen pregnancy data shows we are not at an all-time high with that either.

I am speaking of America, of course, and not the whole West. But I am also looking at Francis Fukuyama's The Great Disruption (a very interesting book, even if you don't agree with all of it), which points out that the whole Western world has followed the same pattern in the last 40 years: a dropping birth rate, and rising illegitimacy rate.

Teens have followed this general trend. While the overall teen birth rate has dropped, the unmarried birth rate has almost tripled. As I blogged some time ago, Western society has been extending childhood in the last century, creating the category of "teenager" as someone who's past puberty but not considered capable of taking on adult responsibility. If there seemed to be no teen pregnancy problem before, it was because the idea of 18-year-olds having families didn't seem so scary then.

Some conservatives have gone ahead and boldly promoted teen marriage, but this is not something society as a whole (or conservatives as a whole) are comfortable with. And there's another problem. One age category where fertility has gone up in the last 40 years is for girls under 15. So while I generally agree that a lot of older teens are kept in an artificial childhood for too long, you'd have a hard time explaining why a 13-year-old should get hitched.

All this is not to deny that there's a problem, but I think the reason why the myth persists that teen pregnancy is something new is that people are uncomfortable with the trade-offs societies have traditionally made with teen libidos, especially with regard to girls. Whether marrying them off, keeping them under lock and key, infibulating them or whatever, people's options have never been wonderful.

Anyway, the other statistics Shanahan cites are problematic mostly in the correlation-causation question. I don't know if it's really true that a quarter of all women in the West will never marry or have kids -- certainly that's not true in America, but in some parts of Europe cohabitation has displaced marriage to a large extent (the cohab rate for twentysomethings in Sweden is 44%, according to Fukuyama) and birth rates over there are very low. I don't know on what she bases the rise of "depressive illness," but mental illness stats are heavily swayed by the reporting and diagnosis rate (especially since it can be quite subjective to decide when someone is clinically depressed and when they're just down). The breast-cancer rate I assume she mentions because of the theory that the increase in breast cancer came because having fewer children means having more periods, which increases the risk of cell mutation and thus cancer. Even if that's true, that strikes me as not a very good reason to have a boatload of kids; and as the article I linked to points out, it could be just as well accomplished by being permanently on the Pill without doing the 28-day rotation.

But there's the larger question: did "militant feminism" cause all this? It's interesting to contrast this with Fukuyama's thesis. Fukuyama is also a conservative who takes a rather cautious view of both feminism and the Pill, but he doesn't think they appeared in a vacuum. In his view, there was a larger shift in the modern age that a) reduced the need and the economic incentives for having a lot of kids and b) turned paid labor from mainly physical to mainly mental, thereby removing men's advantage at it. That, combined with the Pill, meant women no longer had their traditional biological restrictions. This implies that while social forces allowed women to do certain things, it never forced them to.

Conservatives like Shanahan, or certain evolutionary psychologists like Robert Wright, can't really understand why women would go along with what should be against their nature, so they tend to assume women have been conned. Shanahan says:
The contraceptive pill was first marketed 30 years ago as a glossy package of fertility control and sexual freedom. But, like a series of boxes one inside the other, women (and not a few men) have begun to find that at the end there is nothing but an empty box. The feminist obsession with ‘career’, not motherhood, as the central element of women’s self-definition made fertility the enemy. Babies can really wreck your career. They consume your life and your heart...

The irony is that, despite the pill being pushed as an instrument for the liberation of women, its greatest beneficiaries are men. If anything encourages an abrogation of responsibility and an unwillingness to form lasting relationships, it’s the pill. But feminists aren’t going to admit that part of the trick. Instead they try to convince women that they can do it alone. Who needs a husband? Buy a turkey-baster, demand ‘the right’ to IVF — or frozen eggs.

Buried in the second sentence of the second paragraph is what to my mind is the key to the whole thing. The underlying assumption behind this and a lot of other writings of this sort is that there is a single conflict between men and women: he wants sex, she wants commitment. There's a lot of truth to that, of course. But it completely glosses over the possibility that women can also want freedom.

I was thinking when I was writing about abortion a while ago that you could probably do a quick-and-dirty test to predict what a woman's view of abortion would be. What do you fear more from a man: that he'll be irresponsible and abandon you, or that he'll control you and take over your life?

Most women fear both, but traditional gender relations tended to thrive on the former, while a great deal of Second Wave feminism was founded on the latter. The abortion debate crystallizes this nicely: the pro-choice side fulminates against invading and controlling women's bodies, while the pro-life side fears enabling sexual irresponsibility.

I think there's another factor that divides feminists from tradtionalists and ev-psych theorists, which is what you might call "deviation from the mean." Arguments based on the essential nature of woman -- whether it's based on Darwin or Eve -- tend to describe a prototype, an average. Yet women all deviate to various degrees. One accidental experience that helped me understand the older women in my family, and why they're feminists, was the 1960 movie Where the Boys Are. That film featured three college friends, each of whom has a "problem" in landing a husband: one's too tall, one's too athletic, and one's too intelligent. Since some women in my clan go 3-for-3 on that score, and most go at least 2-for-3, it's not surprising they hated that era.

The trouble with essentializing women is that it tries to squeeze such deviations into the norm, and that norm is often defined by how women are different from men. So if women naturally have a closer bond with their children than men, children become their only acceptable business. If they are less aggressive, than all aggressive occupations are unfeminine. And so on.

To my mind, feminism was the rebellion of abnormal women. And since I am a woman who is rather outside the mean in several ways, I sympathize. I think this becomes a problem only when you want to make the deviant into the norm, or deny that a norm exists. So that women like Shanahan -- who, historically speaking, is very normal -- start feeling like there's something funny about them.

I think the world's big enough for women who want nine kids and women who want none. Let's just stop trying to figure out who's a "real woman," OK?

Wednesday, November 20, 2002

A Christmas memory

Long ago, when my mother was pregnant with me, my family visited Ghana, in west Africa. While there they collected a whole lot of ethnic knickknacks that I grew up with around the house, including a drum, a mirror, and a lot of little statues.

One of the most interesting knickknacks was a creche. It had no background or manger or anything; it was just a set of little freestanding statues, maybe five inches tall, of Mary, Joseph, baby Jesus in a sort of bassinet, the three kings, an angel, a shepherd, a few sheep, and a ram with enormous horns (or maybe it was a goat -- clearly the African breeds are different). Everyone looked very African, so it provided quite a contrast to the creches I saw everywhere else.

We used to arrange the creche on the mantelpiece, but after a while we changed the fireplace and had no mantelpiece, so we tried a few other places. One year my mother and I set it up on an end table. We didn't pay attention to the fact that there was another African statue that was already there (since it was always there, we sort of didn't see it). The other statue was of a squatting man, who would have been about 10 inches tall standing up. In contrast to the robed creche figures, he wore almost nothing, and his face was decorated with marks (representing paint? scars?)

I don't know who the man was supposed to be, but once we set up the creche and stepped back, the effect was striking. He loomed like a giant behind the nativity scene.

"There's an African god, watching," my mother suggested.

"Yeah," I said, "wondering who this interloper is."

So we left it the way it was. And had, I am sure, the strangest creche in town.

Tuesday, November 19, 2002

For that which longer nurseth the disease

On Saturday evening I went out to dinner with a friend from San Francisco who had unexpectedly turned up, along with his sister and another friend of his. The sister was a medical resident who had recently done a stint in a hospital in South Africa, where she was overwhelmed by the magnitude of AIDS.

Her comments about it echoed what I've heard elsewhere: the culture in South Africa is totally unable to deal with HIV. The life expectancy of many young Africans is already so short, thanks to violence, malaria, and tuberculosis, that "dying of AIDS in 15 years is like dying of smoking in 50 years is for us." And there was, she said, a strange schizophrenic attitude toward sex, a mix of prudery and promiscuity. A typical woman would refuse to use condoms with here philandering husband because then he would think she was cheating, meaning he would leave and his income would go with him, and she and her children would starve.

Westerners, of course, have long imagined Africans to be sexually looser than themselves. I expect this is because of a) lack of clothing, b) widespread polygamy, and c) racist belief that black people are more animalistic (thus justifying slavery and so on). But while you can't make sweeping generalizations about a place as diverse in Africa, it does seem that a lot of cultures there have a morbid fear of female sexual desire. The widespread practice of female genital mutilation in the north has gotten a fair amount of attention, but the south has its own version, dry sex. Although dry sex doesn't have the grotesque mutilation angle that FGM does, it actually seems more sexually deadening. I can't pull up the cite now, but I recall reading about a woman who interviewed hundreds of mutilated women in Sudan and found that most of them actually did enjoy sex; they didn't feel much in their genitals but could feel everywhere else, and sometimes developed a favorite spot that could get them off (rather like some paralyzed people do). That makes sense to me, since libido is hardly located in one place. But dry sex essentially guarantees that it's always going to hurt, and you can't enjoy the peripherals because you risk getting turned on.

Anyway, the other problem the resident faced in South Africa was general mistrust of Western medicine. This was understandable because they associated it with an abusive regime. But I also suspect that adopting Western medicine entails a massive shift in worldview. I don't know much about South Africa specifically, but I have heard that Bantu belief systems place a heavy emphasis on witchcraft. Most small-scale misfortunes like disease are attributed to the workings of some human enemy. In fact, I seem to recall that people are still accused of and sometimes killed for witchcraft in South Africa.

As we learned in the Western world, going from a witchcraft-based view of misfortune to a scientific one is quite a wrench, and it can take a while. It's interesting that in America, even though many people say they don't rust Western medicine and practice "alternative" medicine, nearly everybody accepts the basic precepts of Western medicine. Some people disagree that HIV causes AIDS for instance, but almost nobody disputes the fact that viruses exist, or that they cause illness. The belief that viruses are life-forms with their own agenda, and multiply and spread with total indifference to what kind of person they infect, is quite different from the concept that disease can be willed into you by another person.

The hardest thing about such paradigm shifts -- if I may use that nasty academic phrase -- is that they involve giving up the illusion of how to control things. This is as true of the sexual-relations aspect of the problem as it is of the medical problem. The idea that you can control women's desires by mutilating or drying out their genitals isn't just cruel, it's deluded. So is the idea that a faithful woman will never ask you to use a condom. These are, like witchcraft, superstitions -- by performing a certain ritual or obeying a certain taboo, you can control the uncontrollable.

We Westerners have our delusions of control about all kinds of things, God knows, so I'm not trying to be condescending here. Every culture has its own, but in different ways. The resident also said that not all of southern Africa was this pathological -- in Malawi, where she traveled briefly, there were billboards everywhere of the President warning people against dangerous behaviors. In South Africa, though, the delusions are killing huge numbers of people as we speak.

Monday, November 18, 2002

Down for maintenance

Sorry for the lack of posts, but I've been feeling under the weather. I'll rest up and read, which may give me something interesting to blog about later.