Category Archives: Psychology

New Edge interview with Joshua Greene

A few weeks ago I wrote a post on morality entitled, How I live as a moral relativist. The term “moral relativist” sounds scary and gets a bad reputation sometimes, but those concepts are an accurate description of the world as far as I can tell.

I intend on writing more on that in the future, but for now, here is a new interview with moral philosopher and scientist, Joshua Greene. Greene is the guy who pioneered the neuroscience of morality – investigating how people’s brains work when they make decisions about moral problems. There’s some good stuff here on how morality probably evolved, and how our moral intuitions are incredibly quirky and inconsistent (try your hand at answering the questions he poses). This latter fact is a problem for moral realism, which asserts that there are definite answers to moral problems. Given moral realism, inconsistencies such as the ones Greene mentions in his interview shouldn’t exist.


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It’s all in the brain

How to live with introvertsA lot of my friends have been sharing these how to live with introverts/extroverts posts lately. The idea is that certain people’s brains just work a certain way, and so you might as well try and get along with them. For example, introverts need alone-time, and extroverts who are jonesing for a conversation should be respectful of others’ needs for solitude.

This is good advice, but the ramifications are broader than presented. The logic that “people’s brains operate a certain way and so you have to work with them” actually applies to everyone, all the time – from the introverts in your life, to the assholes at work, to the criminals on the street. No matter who a person is, their thoughts and actions are a result of their brain at that particular moment.

The upshot is we need to not think that anger and indignation are the answer when people aren’t acting as we think they should. If you think introverts deserve extra consideration for having brains that “just work that way,” extend that consideration to everyone else. Because it’s true – everyone’s brain is doing what it does. We can’t change what people have done in the past, but we can work with them to create new possibilities for future actions.


Filed under Morality, Psychology

Standing at a crossroads

It was only last month that the verdict was handed down in the Steubenville rape case, in which two boys raped a girl while she was unconscious, and seemingly an entire school community played a part in publicly shaming and harassing her via social media. The case was notable for its demonstration of rape culture, as well as the cruelty and insensitivity of mass numbers of people.

Rehtaeh Parsons

Rehtaeh Parsons

This week, a disturbingly similar case was reported in Canada. 15-year-old Rehtaeh (ruh-TAY-uh) Parsons was allegedly gang-raped by four boys at a party. The boys took pictures, and distributed them in their school and community. Rehtaeh was then relentlessly bullied and harassed via social media. 17 months later, at the age of 17, Rehtaeh hung herself.

It’s hard to know how to contextualize or understand these tragedies. Teenage suicides due to bullying have reached seemingly epidemic levels in the past few years, and the details of each case are always appalling. According to Rehtaeh’s mother, one of Rehtaeh’s rapists was giving a “thumbs-up with a big smile” in the picture of him raping her. Somehow the circulation of this picture resulted in Rehtaeh being harassed. As a classmate explains in the article above, students at her school were “putting the blame on Rehtaeh.” I don’t know what on earth they were blaming her for, but apparently her faults were enough to justify unrelenting harassment, in the form of boys asking her to have sex with them since she “had sex with their friends,” and girls texting Rehtaeh just to call her a slut. The mind boggles at the level of cruelty and insensitivity. Is there not a point at which even a callous person has a moment of conscience, and declares “this has gone on long enough – I won’t be party to it any longer”? Sadly, we know from cases like this that if those moments of conscience do come, they are too few and far between.

The next question then is what can we do about it.

To begin with, a great deal of educating needs to be done on the subject of rape. Many people frankly do not know much about rape – what it is, who it is perpetrated by, what emotional scars it leaves. The popular discourse is full of comments from people who think that if you penetrate a woman’s vagina with your finger it isn’t rape, or that if a person is drunk it isn’t rape, or that as long as she didn’t say “no” (regardless of whether she had the chance) it isn’t rape. A high school English teacher, Abby Norman, writes about the time she discovered this moral confusion among her own students. Her class was discussing the Steubenville rape case:

I realized then that some of my kids were genuinely confused. “How can she be raped?” they asked, “She wasn’t awake to say no.”

Well there you have it! The girl was out cold – clearly anything you do to her couldn’t be considered an assault!

Norman continues…

These words out of a full fledged adult would have made me furious. I did get a good few minutes in response on victim blaming and why it is so terrible. But out of the face of a kid who still has baby fat, those words just made me sick. My students are still young enough, that mostly they just spout what they have learned, and they have learned that absent a no, the yes is implied.

Clearly, our teenagers need to be having these conversations now.

And they are done a disservice by adults who minimize the consequences of rape, as many news organizations did in their coverage of Steubenville, or who perpetuate the myth that rape is committed only by evil criminals who will stop at nothing. Most rapists are their victims’ friends, boyfriends, neighbors, or classmates – people they know and trust. Most rapes are committed by people who could have acted better, had they been taught more about compassion and less about entitlement. We know that telling rapists not to rape works. So let’s do that, and not accept any attempts to distort the issue.

There is also the need to take bullying more seriously. From the description of Rehtaeh’s case, it sounds like there was no small number of students making hell for her over the fact that she was raped. You mean to tell me that her school knew nothing? They were able to do nothing? Throw an assembly! Sit the entire school down for a talk! There couldn’t have been a more important teachable moment than the time when an entire community gangs up on a child. Let no one repeat the lie that sticks and stones may break our bones, but words can never hurt us. The results are in on that experiment, and it is hogwash. How many more children have to take their lives, or come close to it, before adults decide that we are not going to let this happen?

The hard-to-face truth about the bullies and the rapists that we’ve seen in the international media is this: they’re normal teenagers. They aren’t monsters, or psychological outliers. They’re the kids we knew growing up – our neighbors, our friends, and our classmates. They are a manifestation of human possibilities. Here’s Amy Norman again:

It is a strange thing about looking into the face of a 15-year-old, to really see who they are. You still see the small child that their mother sees. You see the man or woman they will be before they graduate. They are babies whose innocence you want desperately to protect. They are old enough to know better, even if no one has taught them.

So we have to teach them.

Adolescence is a formative time in a young person’s life – every teenager will make decisions about what paths to take. We need to do a better job of pointing the way.

Image source: Youtube

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What is love?

Here is a Valentine’s Day post for those interested in the science of love.

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Theists thinking like materialists

Ophelia Benson has highlighted a wonderful comment on The Internet. The commenter, Sastra, has an insightful idea that ties in nicely with some of the discussions that have been going on here recently.

We’ve been talking on this blog about abstract things like beauty and morality – whether they are objective or not, and what it would mean to say that they are. What would it mean to say that moral rules exist?

I have written, in brief, that such things are not objective. Beauty differs according to who you ask, as does morality. People naively intuit that there are such things as “moral rules,” but these rules are not binding, and therefore amount to no more than strong preferences (and I intend on writing more about this soon).

Yet theists, especially, seem to be unable or unwilling to grasp this. Sastra spoke about this as it relates to the concept of love:

Supernaturalists seem to have a lot of trouble trying to make sense of abstractions and levels of experience: they want to take everything literally, as irreducible substances. Love is only real to them if it’s a thing, a sort of spiritual-substance which is made of neither matter nor energy because it is the immaterial essence of love. Ironically, that makes them super-materialists — spinning material into finer and finer substances until like only comes from like. Love is derived from love. Otherwise, it can only have the same properties that were there in its origin.

Despite their claims to be so comfortable with “higher levels” of reality, supernaturalists are concrete thinkers. They can only make sense of immaterial abstractions by turning them into spirit-things in a spirit-world.

This hits the nail right on the head. For all their alleged theological sophistication, supernaturalists (or theists) show an inability to think in abstract terms. Love is not a concrete thing, it is an interaction between two concrete things – my brain and yours. There is no “essence of love” floating about in some spiritual realm. Even if there were, this wouldn’t explain anything about love.  How does the essence of love make its way into my brain, and how does it make me want to spend time with my girlfriend? Couldn’t the photons of light that bounce off of her visage and into my retina, and the atoms of her hand touching mine, do the same? To say that I am touching Love Itself is to create a double-dipping explanation.

The same goes for concepts like beauty and life, even fire and wetness. These words describe a process or an interaction between substances – they are not substances themselves. To say otherwise is to be mired in essentialist thinking.

And thus we return to objectivity. Beauty, being the name I give to a pattern of colors and lines that I find pleasing, cannot be an objective property of a thing because it is dependent on my brain. While it is objectively true that my brain has this reaction to this stimulus, that does not guarantee that your brain will do the same. Nor should I feel the need to force such a reaction on you.

Moral rules stem very much from the desire to force such a reaction on others. I feel that you must not have sex before marriage, therefore you must not! But unlike gravity, there is nothing binding about these laws. So in what sense can they be said to exist? In what sense are they a “thing?”

If you argue with the theist long enough, you will find out that they are not a thing. “Morally wrong” simply means “God told us not to do it, and he will punish us if we do.” This is a concern, to be sure, but it’s also far less than what we were promised. Moral rules are not out there in the universe. They don’t exist, like gravity or paintings exist. They’re just some wants, as expressed by a deity. And “wants,” or things that are “dependent on the mind,” are the definition of subjective.

So I see the phenomenon described by Sastra – that supernaturalists ironically think in very concrete terms – as stemming from two things. Either they are unable to think in the more complicated terms of processes and interactions (rather than concrete “things”), or they resist doing so because it would force them to hold a more accurate view of the universe, in which God isn’t necessary, and the idea of him cannot be used to control others.

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Clarifications on casual sex

In my previous post, I made the argument that there is nothing inherently harmful about casual sex, and I linked to a scientific study that supported my claim. The other day, a friend responded to my post, and levelled two criticisms against what I’d written. The criticisms were, I think, based on misunderstanding. But – knowing that others may have similar criticisms – I’d like to share with you the response I wrote my friend. This will clarify a few details, and hopefully address some objections.

The study I cited in my last post found no differences in psychological well-being between young adults who engaged in casual sex and those who had sex with a committed partner. In alleged contradiction of that study (though not really, as I will explain), my friend cited another study, which found that women were more likely than men to have negative feelings following a one-night stand. For example, many women (though still a minority) reporting feeling “used” after a one-night stand, or felt that they had let themselves down.

Based on this, my friend argued it was false to claim that “casual sex isn’t harmful.” Rather, it is more accurate to say that casual sex can be harmful. Secondarily, my friend criticized me for having a “my way is the only way because it works for me” attitude toward this topic. Here is how I responded:

To understand what I’m saying about casual sex, you have to think a bit more carefully about causality.

Imagine two people who decide to have casual sex because they want to and they believe sex is generally a good thing, and they both are able to go about it in a mature, responsible, and safe way. Let’s say these two enjoy themselves and suffer no ill consequences.

Now imagine two people who decide to have sex because they want to and they believe sex is generally a good thing, but they aren’t open about what this sex means to each of them. Let’s say that to the man the sex is completely casual, and he wants it just because it’s pleasurable, meanwhile the woman wants that too but she’s under the impression that sex is leading toward a more sustained interest in the other person. To her it’s a little less than casual.

So imagine that the two have sex, and the sex itself is good enough, but afterwards the woman feels disappointed when she finds out that the man was just looking for a casual experience. She maybe feels a little used, even though that wasn’t the man’s intention. And let’s say the man is generally happy with the experience, but a little upset that the woman isn’t happy about it, as well as a little frustrated that she was expecting more when that wasn’t something they agreed to.

Now if one couple had casual sex that matched their expectations and was happy about it, and another couple had casual sex that didn’t match their expectations and wasn’t happy about it, exactly what caused the problem – the sex, or the lack of communication beforehand?

You can see that it was the latter.

Of course, these are hypothetical scenarios that I made up, but they jibe with reality. When something negative results from sex there is always a reason, a specific mechanism by which the negative thing happened. It may be a miscommunication, or a lack of trust, or religion-induced guilt, or a disease that was contracted, but you’ll never hear of people who have safe and responsible sex because they want to and who were communicative with each other about their expectations, and yet still didn’t enjoy it because the very act of genital contact is harmful.

That’s what it means to say that casual sex is harmful. It means that genital contact itself is harmful, regardless of your feelings about it. And that’s not true.

So I’m not telling anyone to “do things my way.” I’m telling everyone that the claim made by some that sex without a contract is inherently harmful is a lie. If I were to counsel the unhappy woman from the scenario above, I wouldn’t tell her to “have sex and enjoy it.” For pete’s sake! I would explore with her the possibility that her expectations about casual sex aren’t really realistic, and that if she’s looking for sex that exists on the road to a more serious relationship, then she needs to be more careful in choosing when and with whom she has it. (And none of this has anything to do with what I want; the point is that there are things she can do to get what she wants.)

On the other hand, the response of many clergy to this woman would be to say that what she did was wrong, period, and that she needs to stop doing it if she wants to earn the respect of others, or be a good person, or go to heaven, or protect herself from emotional harm.

How’s that for guidance?

Religious authorities will avoid looking this deeply into the specific causes of harm, because they are bound by their dogma to denounce premarital sex. No matter what the evidence shows, they cannot admit that it’s possible to enjoy “sex without a contract” in a completely healthy and fulfilling way, because to do so would mean that their religious teachings were wrong. And so they have focused their energies and admonitions on the act of sex itself – genital contact and orgasms – instead of on anything that actually matters, like respect for the person you have sex with, honesty about expectations, safety, and shared pleasure. To focus on anything other than this isn’t guidance, it’s ignorance – and we shouldn’t stand for it. Casual sex isn’t harmful. But there are safer and more fulfilling ways of going about it than others.

Let’s talk about that.

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Study shows casual sex isn’t psychologically harmful, despite contrary claims by the religious

Remember when I got into a bit of a debate with UMC minister Gregory Neal? He was making the argument that there is something harmful about premarital sex (in order to justify his disapproval of it). He had nothing but anecdotal evidence to support his claims.

I feel like I should have harped on this more at the time, but anecdotal evidence is bad. Really bad. Everybody has anecdotal evidence to support their personal biases. Anti-gay pastors will share with you anecdotal evidence for why gay people are immoral or harmful to themselves and society. Misogynistic preachers will share with you experience that has taught them not to listen to women. Take one man, who believes in a God who cares who you have sex with, who believes in a long tradition of condemning those who have sex outside of marriage, and who has been taught that marital sex is better than non… and what are the chances that he isn’t going to “see” support for his preconceptions in his experience?

The chances are bad. That’s why our personal experiences may be convincing to us, but they shouldn’t therefore be convincing to everyone else. And that’s also why it’s incredibly irresponsible, and unethical, to make people feel guilty and bad about what they consensually do for pleasure when all you have to support your claim is your own biases and preconceptions.

At the time I was debating Reverend Neal, I made an attempt to find scientific studies that bore on the issue of premarital sex and risk. I found some correlational studies, but nothing from which causation could be inferred. In short, there was no evidence that Neal was right, and that premarital sex was in any way harmful to a person or a relationship.

Well, now I can do one better. Thanks to a citation in a recent blog post by Greta Christina, I can share with you a study that shows that casual sex is not psychologically harmful.

Of course, everyone except certain religious people already knew this. When was the last time you heard an atheist find fault with someone for having sex without a contract? The fact is – and we have scientific evidence to back this up – there’s no reason why you shouldn’t. Sex is good, and pleasurable, and people enjoy having it. What you should do is be safe about it, be responsible, and be honest with your partner(s). What you shouldn’t do is listen to people who get their information from a 2,000 year old book.

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