Sunday, June 22, 2008

Sex on the Brain

Work's been keeping me from writing anything here, though I have been thinking of things to write. I thought you might be interested in a couple interesting articles on sex I've run across.

The first is about a study that exposed men to sexually suggestive stimuli and then measured their impatience.

“It seems that sexual appetite causes a greater urgency to consume anything rewarding,” the authors suggest. Thus, the activation of sexual desire appears to spill over into other brain systems involved in reward-seeking behaviors, even the cognitive desire for money.

“After they touched a bra, men are more likely to be content with a smaller immediate monetary reward,” writes Bram Van den Bergh, one of the study’s authors. “Prior exposure to sexy stimuli may influence the choice between chocolate cake or fruit for dessert.”

Rather unsurprisingly, all of men's appetites are primed by related mechanisms, which bears out the traditional wisdom that exercising the virtue of continence in one area, say food, builds that virtue in others, say sex. Of course, this relation is why advertisers use sex to sell products not even remotely related to sex. It also helps explain why our sex-soaked society finds it so difficult to make decisions requiring a delay in gratification.

The second revealed some surprising results about the sexual arousal patterns of women. The study found that whereas men are aroused by images solely of the sex to which they are attracted (e.g., heterosexual men by images of women), women are aroused by images of both sexes (e.g., heterosexual women are aroused by images of women as well as images of men).

One important detail to note is the questionable methodology of the study

To rule out the possibility that the differences between men's and women's genital sexual arousal patterns might be due to the different ways that genital arousal is measured in men and women, the Northwestern researchers identified a subset of subjects: postoperative transsexuals who began life as men but had surgery to construct artificial vaginas.

In a sense, those transsexuals have the brains of men but the genitals of women. Their psychological and genital arousal patterns matched those of men -- those who like men were more aroused by male stimuli and those who like women were more aroused by the female stimuli -- even though their genital arousal was measured in the same way women's was.

It may be that I'm just poorly informed about the basis of "sex-change" operations, but this methodology assumes without warrant that these operations truly give their subjects "the genitals of women." The assumption would seem to be an instance of assuming a human construct is equivalent to nature (or that nature is but a construct).

And yet despite the flawed methodology, the study is suggestive (and not merely in a lurid way). For one thing it seems to reflect the greater plasticity of female sexuality elsewhere observed. Take as an example Caitlyn Flanagan's restrospective on young women at college:

The other thing that the girls tended to do was to fall head over heels in love with one another. The 1907 Barnard yearbook observed that crushes were “an epidemic peculiar to college girls,” marked by “a lump in the throat, a feeling of heat in the face and an inability to speak.” While romantic friendships between women were an accepted aspect of life in the 19th century, Peril’s reporting on the nature of those relationships is eye-opening. An 1898 advice book called What a Young Woman Ought to Know describes the irritating behavior of girls who imposed their ardor on the world:

They go about with their arms around each other, they loll against each other, and sit with clasped hands by the hour. They fondle and kiss until beholders are fairly nauseated.

In 1928, one besotted “smasher” at a Texas college formalized her feelings in a yearbook entry: “Roommate, darling, how I love you.”

These women in that innocent age weren't actual lesbians, or even manifestations of the LUG (lesbian until graduation) phenomenon that wasn't unusual during my tenure at Columbia, and for that fact better examples of the relative plasticity of female sexuality than the latter.

Another suggested insight is the objectivity beauty of the the female form. One needn't go so far as to call it an eternal form, but there's something about it that goes beyond mere conditioning or habituation (a friend once claimed—I think wrongly—that if our mothers were green spheres, we'd grow up to be attracted to green spheres). I've heard that even the great apes readily recognize human females as female, whereas we humans have trouble distinguishing ape females from males (though perhaps the latter is only a sign of human insensibility). The question this raises is whether the attraction to the (human) female form is merely "hardwired" into primates' neural circuitry or has deeper roots, perhaps as deep as the very materiality of our existence.

Certainly angels are examples of intelligent creatures who aren't sexual beings, but also examples of intelligent creatures without bodies at all. But we might ask: in what manner and to what extent is (attraction to) the female form necessary to a species of embodied intelligent beings?

Bram Van den Bergh, Siegfried DeWitte, and Luk Warlop, "Bikinis Instigate Generalized Impatience in Intertemporal Choice" (2007).

Meredith L. Chivers, Gerulf Rieger, Elizabeth Latty, J. Michael Bailey, "A Sex Difference in the Specificity of Sexual Arousal," Psychological Science 15: 11 (November 2004), 736-744.

Caitlin Flanagan, "The Age of Innocence," Atlantic Monthly (April 2007).

Sunday, June 01, 2008

Phillip Johnson, Put Down that Kool-Aid!

There are a couple especially noteworthy articles in the May Touchstone. First L.P. Fairfield writes a review of a book on panentheism (not to be confused with pantheism).

"Panentheism" means "God in everything" and conversely, "everything in God." Unlike pure pantheism, it does not merely identify God one-for-one with the sum total of everything in the cosmos. But unlike biblical Christianity, it does not separate God and the universe either.

Well that's one common strain of understanding of the word, but there is also a Christian understanding of it. The Wikipedia article on the subject matches with the understanding of the subject imparted to me by some good theologians:

The Eastern Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox Churches have a doctrine called panentheism to describe the relationship between the Uncreated (God, who is omnipotent, eternal, and constant) and His creation that bears surface similarities with the panentheism described above but maintains a critical distinction.

Most specifically, these Churches teach that God is not the "watchmaker God" of the Western European Enlightenment. Likewise, they teach that God is not the "stage magician God" who only shows up when performing miracles. Instead, the teaching of both these Churches is that God is not merely necessary to have created the universe, but that His active presence is necessary in some way for every bit of creation, from smallest to greatest, to continue to exist at all.

I wish I could do better than an inadequately sourced Wikipedia article, but I'm not an academic theologian by any means. Whatever the definition of the word, suffice it to say that when I talk about panentheism, I do not intend the new-agey meaning described in the review, but the understanding of the Orthodox and Oriental Christian Churches that I've just reviewed for you.

The second article I'd like to mention is surprisingly related. Phillip E. Johnson disputes the "God-in-the-gaps" argument against Intelligent Design (ID) theory:

[The] point [of theistic evolutionists who warn intelligent design theorists against committing what they call the “God of the gaps” fallacy] is that it is futile to rely on “gaps” that the theory of evolution has not yet explained as places where divine acts might be necessary, because those gaps will inevitably be filled as science progresses. Eventually, God will be squeezed out of these spaces, with consequent embarrassment to the cause of religion.

That may be the reason some or even most theistic opponents of ID theory give for their opposition, but there is a more subtle danger. What ID proponents fall into is giving the idea that God can only work in the same mode as natural causes. In reality God's ways of operating far transcend natural causes, including human ways. Whereas humans make new things by pushing around matter that already exists, God creates, that is, He brings something from nothing. The fact that there is a natural order at all is His work. Human making relies on a pre-existing order, but God is responsible for the entire order that pervades his creations, including the possibility of generating further order. As Thomas Aquinas wrote:

Nature is nothing but the plan of some art, namely a divine one, put into things themselves, by which those things move towards a concrete end: as if the man who builds up a ship could give to the pieces of wood that they could move by themselves to produce the form of the ship. (Commentary on Physics II.8, lecture 14, no. 268; h/t Mariano Artigas)

So my objection to ID is not that it exposes religion to embarrassment, but that its proponents leave unchallenged a materialist premise that implicitly denigrates God and overlooks the most obvious evidence of His action.

Of course, this isn't necessarily so. Johnson and other ID proponents could very easily add to their writings something like this caveat: "Of course, even if ID were proven wrong, that wouldn't disprove God's action in creation, because the very order of nature presupposed by science manifests God's action. This order is evident to every man without the mediation of special scientific techniques."

But they don't write that. They insist on giving "scientific" materialists home-field advantage. They answer the atheist charge that God can't exist because he doesn't make (the way humans do) by shouting, "Oh, yes He does!" They leave unchallenged the atheist premise that creating is just like making, and in doing so, they leave their readers to tacitly accept that faulty premise.

In a sense it's like boys arguing about whose father is smarter. One boy asserts, "If your father's smarter than mine, he'll beat him right now in checkers." The second boy, instead of resting secure that his father is a Nobel laureate, instead responds, "My father will too beat your father!" Maybe the second boy's father doesn't think playing, let alone training, in checkers is worthwhile, or maybe he's simply got something better to do at the moment. God's action on nature is farther beyond human action than a Nobel laureate is beyond the neighborhood checkers champion.

It is sad that Johnson and many good people who fight for belief in God get so caught up in the dispute with atheists that they imbibe (or at least allow others to imbibe) the subtle and deadly materialist premises of their interlocutors.

L. P. Fairfield, "Review of Unreasonable Force Panentheism: The Other God Of the Philosophers—From Plato to the Present by John W. Cooper," Touchstone (May 2008), 33-34.

Phillip E. Johnson, "Science Futures," Touchstone (May 2008), 9-10.