Thursday, November 2, 2017

I Am a Fluke of The Universe, and So Can You

Sometimes I suspect I'm even weirder than I've always thought (and often been told).

I'm always baffled when people talk about their lives, or Life, having a purpose.  That we were put here for a reason.  And so on.  Evidently to many people that idea feels reassuring.  To me, if I took it seriously, it would be a prison.  As a gay man, for example, I know that I am expected by both my culture and by science to marry and reproduce heterosexually, to carry on the family name.  That's my function, that's my purpose, that's the reason I'm here. In Christianity, and at least in some other religions, my purpose is to serve and glorify God.  I see no reason why I should do any of these things, and luckily I live in a time and place where I don't have to.

Maybe for most people the idea of having a purpose assigned to them feels good because it's a license to do what they want to do anyway.  I suspect that's what it is.  But with the craving for such a purpose there often goes the feeling of emptiness when you don't know what it is, what you should be doing.  The language of intention, of plan, expresses the idea that someone, human or superhuman, either knows or is competent to decide what you should do with your life, and I see no reason to suppose either that there is such a being, or that I am obliged to obey it if it did exist. For one thing, such a person would have purposes, aims, of its own, for which it would use me: I would be a means to an end rather than and end in myself.  Where would it get its aims?  Why should I care if they are carried out?  What is its purpose in the great scheme of things?  Whether the purpose-giver is a god, a parent, or a monarch, these questions are not supposed to be asked.  But they should be asked.

Yet it's obvious to me that many, maybe most people, feel a great need to be told what to do.  This craving would be connected to what Walter Kaufmann called "decidophobia," the fear of making fateful choices, in his book Without Guilt and Justice (Wyden, 1973).

This need, or desire, or craving, is not an artifact of religion, however: it's a cause of religion, and of other ways people try to give authority to the purposes we invent.  Samuel Delany posted today on Facebook:*
I have read--or rather re-read--a wonderful book: The History of My Shoes, and the Evolution of Darwin's Theory, by Kenny Fries. At first it seems to be two books, one of the relation of Charles Darwin, and his supporter, critic, and sometimes editor, Alfred Russell Wallace, who realized that "Nature . . . does not so much select special various species [natural selection] as exterminate the most unfavorable ones [Herbert Spencer's phrase, 'survival of the fittest"] p. 96."
This weaves through a brilliant discussion of adaptability, in terms of that area often called disabilities.

In a passing discussion of the narrator's homosexual desire, we find comments such as: "'In matters of sex,' sexologist Alfred Kinsey observed, 'everything that you can possibly imagine has gone on and much that you cannot imagine.'"

Although the instinct for protection and survival of the species most often explains the desire for procreational sex, there have been a myriad explanations for homosexual desire. To Western science, homosexuality, both in animals and humans, is an anomaly, an unexpected behavior requiring some some sort of explanation, cause, or rationale. But to many indigenous cultures around the world, homosexuality is a routine and expected occurrence in both humans and animals. Biologist Bruce Bagemihl has shown that a good deal, if not most heterosexual sex in both animals and humans is without procreative intent. Thus, homosexual sex is not so different from most heterosexual sex. Except for the cultural context that labels it so. (p 113)

The book first came out in 2007, but with its discussion of things like ADD, social Darwinism and eugenics, it seems even more relevant than it once was. Before my retirement, from time to time I taught sections of it. Rereading the whole of it from end to end today, I wish now that I had devoted entire terms to it.
I haven't read Fries's book (and I can't tell where the quotations from it begin and end here), but it sounds interesting and important; it sounds as if his take on these questions might be similar to mine, though it easily might not.  I hope to find out.  If I didn't already have a large backlog of interesting and important books to read, I'd get to it now.  But soon.

Someone else commented under Chip's post:
We are non-reproductive but essential to the larger well-being of the community, just as neuter insects are to a beehive or an ant colony. Darwin's 'sympathy' as a secret to human success = Harry Hay's "subject-subject consciousness".
It's sad and a bit strange to me that people find it so difficult, even terrifying, to stand on their own, as it were.  (Kaufmann again: etymologically "decidophobia" is also a fear of falling.)  "We have a right to be here becuz Evolution." Or becuz Science. Or becuz Nature.  Or becuz Indigenous People.  Whose purpose, and where did they get it from?  It doesn't really matter why there are gay people, why there's gender, or anything else. We are the First Cause for culture, the buck stops here, and there's no need to invoke Evolution, or our genes, or other cultures to justify ourselves.  We don't have to justify ourselves; we're here.  Get used to it.

I don't want to live in an "indigenous" culture; I don't assume that the niche it would assign me would be any less repressive than the ones my own culture tries to impose.  But again: my culture now has freedoms and possibilities that no indigenous culture can offer.  I don't care whether Evolution or Nature planned me, for here I am.  (As I've said before, if I exist, I'm a product of evolution and nature.  It's not really possible to be otherwise.)

In the psychologist Carol Oyama's brilliant book The Ontogeny of Information (Duke, 2000) she shows how biologists have persistently tried to make genes, or DNA, or evolution, into a First Cause, updating the traditional Argument for Design for a scientific age; or into a homunculus that controls and guides organisms.  The efforts keep failing, but they can't seem to stop; they mostly don't even realize they're doing it, which suggests that they're driven by a deep, pre-rational need for a superior being (genes? DNA?) to order and direct them. If there were a designer, or a homunculus with a joystick in my pineal gland, there is no reason to assume that it knows what it's doing any better than I do.

Even when people get rid of gods, we can't seem to stop relying on them, inventing new ones and pretending that they invented us. We are a fluke of the universe, we have no right to be here -- but that's okay, because neither does anyone else: our existence has nothing to do with rights.

*Chip is dyslexic, and he doesn't proofread his Facebook posts, so I've silently corrected obvious slips of spelling etc. here.