Saturday, April 12, 2014

Marriage and Materialism

It has recently occurred to me that one of the main reasons that "gay marriage" has garnered so much public support is the widespread acceptance of materialism.  Before I go any farther with this, though, let me get a few things out of the way.
  • When I say materialism, I do not mean consumerism.
  • I find materialism entirely unconvincing, in part because only a spirit can be convinced or deceived.  To claim that we are bodies deceived into thinking that we have minds has always struck me as the most complete nonsense; it would make more sense to think we are souls deceived into thinking we have bodies, though I don't agree with that, either.  The point of this post is not the strengths and weaknesses of materialism, though, so I will leave it at that.
  • Acceptance of "gay marriage" is not determined by whether or not materialism is embraced.  The Soviets were materialists, but they remained basically sexually conservative.  Many Protestant clergy accept "gay marriage", but they presumably reject materialism. 
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A good argument could be made that Americans (and Europeans) are, if anything, more superstitious now than at any time in the recent past, and that might seem to be at odds with them increasingly embracing materialism.  Not really, at least in this case.

Take, for instance, the fascination with "paranormal investigations". Even though they use the word "spirit", they have a very corporeal idea of what a spirit is:  to "explain" survival of the soul after death, they use conservation of energy; they look for spirits using electromagnetic field detectors; they try to explain why some places are haunted in terms of their vague understanding of the electrical properties of quartz and water.  They try to explain ghosts as phenomena of natural science, even though their "science" is merely pseudoscience.

Likewise, zombies and vampires are wildly popular, but they are almost always shown as people who didn't really die (though it may have looked like they did), but rather sufferers of some viral infection.  Science fiction/fantasy is not much better -- that genre consistently misreads "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic" to mean "Anything we can imagine magic might do can be done by a sufficiently advanced technology," and they proceed to make a weird mishmash of superstition and pseudoscience that fails to make any sense.  For example, in the Star Trek universe all humans are apparently atheists -- at least that was the story while Gene Roddenberry was still alive -- but (to name a few) the "prophets" or "wormhole aliens" from Deep Space Nine were functionally gods, as were the members of the Q Continuum.  At least they were more powerful than most or all of the Greek and Norse gods.  These beings may involve exotic materials, maybe materials that involve other dimensions (a la string theory), but it is always stated or assumed that material explanations (of some sort) are entirely sufficient.

In contrast, consider the objects of mathematics:  numbers, geometric shapes, etc.  Although we may have 1 apple, 2 apples, 3 apples, or whatever, certainly the numbers 1, 2, 3, ... do not exist physically, yet it is hard to shake the feeling that they somehow have an existence independent of us and that we discover them rather than invent them.  Not everyone agrees on this point; some think that mathematics does not describe a kind of non-physical reality, but that it only tells us something about how the way the human mind works.  To me, at least, that is very unconvincing; surely a civilization of intelligent aliens would know about the natural numbers (and all the integers, and the rational numbers, and the real numbers, ...) and Euclidean geometry (and hyperbolic geometry, and spherical geometry, ...).  The aliens would know that the ratio of the circumference of a Euclidean circle to its diameter is a constant, and that the value of that constant is an irrational number that is approximately 3.14159265.

It should be pointed out that just because we know the integers and the operations of addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division does not mean that we know everything there is to know about them, nor does it mean that we cannot make wrong guesses about them.  Gödel's incompleteness theorems show that there are truths about the integers which we cannot prove axiomatically.  It is not yet known whether or not the Twin Primes Conjecture is true, though significant progress has been made on that question recently.  The Polya Conjecture has been shown to be wrong, as has the Mertens Conjecture.  The key thing is that if a conjecture can be proved to be true, like Fermat's Last Theorem was, then it is true everywhere, at every time, and for everyone; if it is proved to be false, it is false everywhere, at every time, and for everyone.

Those who claim that the Natural Law exists (I am one of them) insist that the Natural Law is something similar:  like mathematics, it exists independently of human opinion or knowledge.  In some ways, medicine might be an even closer analogy, because medicine is about humans (as the Natural Law is), is more contentious, and rarely if ever has the full rigor of mathematics (what does?).  Yet again, truth is not just a matter of opinion.  Even when it was believed that tobacco could cure cancer, it was still a health hazard.

It is silly to insist that serious materialists would be unable to use adjectives or verbs, but materialist philosophy taken seriously will impact how language is understood -- particularly the subjunctive mood.  "People should not smoke tobacco" would have to mean something like "Smoking tobacco leads to health problems, which most people and societies wish to avoid."  Even that formulation is a bit iffy, since "smoking tobacco" is an abstraction, and "people" and "societies" are universals.  A materialist might still be willing to use them (it is hardly possible not to), but he would consider the universals to be merely nominal -- just a name we impose for convenience, not a reality in itself -- that comes in handy for fuzzy thinking.

I think no reasonable person could insist that this is always wrong.  For example, it has become clear that there is no sharp distinction between a comet and an asteroid, or between an asteroid and a planet, or between a planet and a brown dwarf, or between a brown dwarf and a star.  It is very useful to have such words to narrow down what we are talking about, but no matter how we define these categories, there will be objects (not necessarily in our own solar system) that straddle the boundaries.  These words are names that we impose on nature, not ideas that we discover in nature.

Likewise, it would not be reasonable to insist that there is a universal ideal of American football that is discovered.  At any given time, there are several different sets of rules for American football -- at the high school level, the college level, and the NFL, for example -- and the details of the rules change from year to year.  It is probably a safe bet that no other society within the observable universe plays football with exactly the same rules set by the NCAA for the 2013 season.

My contention is that a materialist worldview has been widely absorbed by the public.  This would explain why some people clearly have so much trouble understanding that there are some parts of reality the government cannot change by passing a law or issuing a ruling from the bench.  The government can pass a law making it illegal to smoke tobacco, but if the government passes a law that the smoking of tobacco cures cancer, that law will have no effect.  In 1897, a bill was proposed in Indiana to establish by legislation based on a claim by Edwin Goodwin that he had discovered a way to square the circle (a known impossibility); the bill would also have had the effect of establishing one (or more!) different values of π from the one established by mathematics.  The bill did not pass, but even if it had, it would have changed nothing; as it is, it only made Indiana the butt of jokes.

The real disagreement, then, is over whether marriage is something with a fixed substance, or not; is it something like football, where we can change the rules as we please, or is it something like math, where we can't?   If many people today believe that all universals are merely nominal and that all laws -- of math and physics as well as the Congress -- express only the culture currently in power, it will be nearly impossible for them to understand, let alone persuade, supporters of traditional marriage -- and vice versa.

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