Thursday, June 19, 2014

Reductionism in History

In my article 'Neuroscience and the Reductionist Temptation', I point out that throughout the history of the modern world, a recurring temptation among scientists and psychologists has been to posit reductionist explanations for of what it means to be human.

For example, in the early twentieth century Freud had some remarkable insights about the unconscious, but Freudianism becomes reductionist precisely when these insights are taken to be an all-purpose explanation covering all of human behavior. There is more to being human than simply the unconscious.

B.F. Skinner
In the mid twentieth century, B.F. Skinner had some insights into the role our environment plays in conditioning human behavior. Skinner and his followers went wrong when they assumed (or acted as if) all human behavior could be explained in terms of environmental factors (a theory known as behaviorism). There is more to being human than simply behavior.

Throughout the twentieth century to the present, the Christian counselor Jay Adams had some insights about the role confrontation can play in a counseling context. Where he and his followers went wrong was when they assumed this was the only way counseling should operate (a view known as “neuthetic counseling”, which I discuss here.) There is more to inner healing than the neo-behaviorism of the rigid neuthetic paradigm.

In the scientific realm, the temptation of reductionism has been equally pervasive. In the seventeenth-century, new machine metaphors began to emerge for describing the world: the world began to be seen as a giant clock and God as the great watch-maker. Descartes compared the coming of the swallows in spring to clocks, while early English anatomists like William Harvey (1578–1657) described the heart as a pump (a metaphor that Descartes extended to both the brain and the human nervous system). All of this was well and fine until the “Enlightenment” period came along and men began to take these metaphors a little too seriously, assuming that all of reality could be explained in purely mechanistic terms.

When Isaac Newton (1642-1727) succeeded in explaining the laws of motion by which the universe operated, a number of thinkers assumed that all of reality could be explained by these laws and that Newton’s discoveries had somehow eliminated the need for the supernatural or human free will. (J.R. Lucas discusses this in his book The Freedom of the Will.)

The temptation of reductionism is now apparent in the realm of brain plasticity. The reason reductionism is so tempting is because brain plasticity touches almost every aspect of how we behave as human beings, as David Brooks showed in his fascinating book The Social Animal. The science of brain plasticity really does explain a lot, but there are non-material aspects of being human that it does not, and cannot, ever touch upon.

Read entire article HERE.

Our Disembodied Selves

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Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Scripture and the Intended Sense

Most Christians who hold a high view of the Bible would agree that Scripture, in the original manuscripts and when interpreted according to the intended sense, speaks truly in all that it affirms. Where fundamentalists and sceptics alike usually go wrong is in failing to properly think through the implications of “the intended sense.” If we are to get at the intended meaning of Scripture, we must ask whether any of the various Biblical writers were claiming the kind of technical precision that both fundamentalists and enlightenment modernists have come to associate with “truth.” If I am reading a legal document, any slight anomaly can count as error because the author is claiming, either implicitly or explicitly, a high degree of precision. But if you tell me that my neighbor is middle aged when he is really 38, I would be a fool to accuse you of falsehood. There is a qualitative difference in what counts as error in a legal brief or in a poem, in a letter or in a casual remark, in a road sign or a theological treatise. It follows that veracity and falsehood cannot be predicted to a text independently of careful considerations about authorial intent. Scripture is completely trustworthy in so far as it makes good on its claims, and these claims cannot be divorced from the intent of the original authors to communicate certain truths to their original audience. (See John Frame’s excellent discussion of this in Doctrine of the Word of God and also the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy.)

This being the case, when presented with what seems to be a mistake in the Bible, what we really need to ask is whether the author intended the kind of technical precision that fundamentalism (in its crude populist variety) has come to expect from Scripture. What we must guard against is having a model of Biblical inerrancy that claims more for a text (and from another perspective less) than what the authors themselves intended.

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Monday, June 16, 2014

Holiness and Will-Power

Saint Seraphim
I was delighted to see today that the Colson Center recently re-ran my article 'Is Will-Power Good or Bad?' In that article I pointed out that one of the many admirable aspects of Eastern Orthodox Christianity is that they have never lost the high premium that the Biblical writers place on the connection between holiness and human effort.

Listen to the words of Saint John (Maximovitch) of Shanghai and San Francisco (1896–1966). In a sermon about Saint Seraphim, the Holy Russian Orthodox hierarch was moved to remark that “Holiness is the fruit of a man’s efforts and the gift of the Holy Spirit. Holiness is reached by him who wears a cross and wages warfare in the name of Christ against the obstacles to holiness, to becoming akin to Christ. These obstacles are sins, sinful habits, firmly rooted in the soul. Struggle against them is the major work of a Christian…”

You can read more about why will-power can play an important role in sanctification by visiting my article 'Is Will-Power Good or Bad?'.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Modesty and Sexual Fulfilment

The 718-page monograph The Social Organization of Sexuality: sexual practices in the United States has a curious fact buried deep within it. This comprehensive study into the sexual habits of Americans, conducted by secular researchers, discovered that there seems to be a connection between being religious and having an enjoyable sex life.

This book was written in 1992 by social scientists Robert T Michael, John H Gagnon, and Edward O Laumann, after initiating a comprehensive study into the sexual habits of Americans. The study involved a staff of 220 interviewers, stationed at the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago, who interviewed 3,432 respondents about all aspects of their sex lives.

The University of Chicago Chronicle explained that “The study involved 90-minute, face-to-face interviews with 3,432 randomly selected Americans ages 18 to 59. Of those selected, 80 percent, an extremely high percentage for response to any survey, agreed to disclose the facts of their sexual lives.”

Although the researchers only interviewed Americans, it is likely that their findings are generally applicable to the entire Western world. Much of what the study uncovered was predictable, while some things came as a surprise. The greatest shock of all concerned the relationship between religious belief and sexual pleasure.

Using objectively verifiable criteria—such as sexual responsiveness and frequency of orgasm—the study found that the people who have the most sex, the best sex and are the happiest about their sex lives are monogamous, married, religious people.

While it may come as no surprise to find a direct correlation between marriage and sexual pleasure, what did cause a number of raised eyebrows was the connection between sexual pleasure and religion (specifically, Christianity). Summarizing their findings on page 115 of The Social Organization of Sexuality, the researchers wrote:
“women without religious affiliation were the least likely to report always having an orgasm with their primary partner – only one in five…. Protestant women who reported always having an orgasm was the highest, at nearly one-third. In general, having a religious affiliation was associated with higher rates or orgasm for women (27 percent of both Catholic and Type I Protestants reported always having an orgasm with their primary partner.)”
The authors were forced to conclude: “religion may be independently associated with rates of female orgasm.

Just for the record, this was not a study commissioned or financed by the religious right or by a church. It grew out of a 1987 proposal to gather reliable data on adult sexuality to help better understand the spread of AIDS. Conservative members of Congress opposed using tax-payer money to fund the study, thus forcing it to be financed by private benefactors. No one expected that among its conclusions would be the fact that men and women who are religious, and who conform to traditional sexual ethics, are the most sexually fulfilled.
The same year that The Social Organization of Sexuality was published, Edward Laumann joined with other authors to produce Sex in America: A Definitive Survey. This was a more popular book explaining the findings of the Chicago study in terms accessible to a non-specialist audience. Commenting on the role of religion, the authors reiterated, “The women with no religious affiliation were somewhat less likely to report that they always had an orgasm, while the conservative Protestant women had the highest rates….” The authors went on to comment specifically on how these findings undermine traditional stereotypes:
“The association for women between religious affiliation and orgasm may seem surprising because conservative religious women are so often portrayed as sexually repressed.…And despite the popular image of the straitlaced conservative Protestants, there is at least circumstantial evidence that the image may be a myth at least as it pertains to sexual intercourse.”
The Chicago study confirms what researchers have found in previous less methodologically rigorous studies. For example, research conducted by Redbook Magazine in 1970 also discovered a strong correlation between religion and sexual pleasure. Redbook gave 18,349 women a professionally prepared questionnaire about their sexual experiences. The results were written up by Robert K. Levin and co-authored by William H Masters and Virginia E Johnson for Redbook 145 in an article titled ‘Sexual Pleasure: the Surprising Preferences in 100,000 Women.’ The survey discovered that “sexual satisfaction is related significantly to religious belief. With notable consistency, the greater the intensity of a woman’s religious convictions, the likelier she is to be highly satisfied with the sexual pleasures of marriage.”
The Redbook survey found that 75% of women who described themselves as ‘strongly religious’ were the most likely to regard their sex lives as ‘good’ or ‘very good’, as opposed to only  68% of those who identified as ‘moderately religious.’ This same study also discovered that the least religious women were the least satisfied with the quality and quantity of their intercourse. Reflecting on this trend, Robert J Levin commented, “This tendency exists among women of all ages. No matter what the age group…the pattern remains the same: Strongly religious women are the most likely to describe their marital sex as ‘very good’.”
While the Redbook study discovered a correlation between religion and enhanced sexual satisfaction for women of all ages, it found that “strongly religious women (over 25) seem to be more responsive…[and] she is more likely than the nonreligious woman to be orgasmic almost every time she engages in sex.” In other words, it seems that the more religious a woman is, the greater time she has in bed.

The findings of the Chicago study and Redbook magazine are not alone. A 1940s Stanford University study and another study from the early 90s also discovered that women who attend religious services scored higher when it came to levels of sexual satisfaction.

Why is this? I have suggested four theories for why this is in an article I wrote last year for Salvo Magazine. One of these theories concerns modesty. I suggested that one reason why religious people, on average, are more sexually fulfilled than others may stem from the connection between religiosity and modesty. While many religious people dress just as immodestly as many nonreligious people, religious ones tend at least to be more conscious of their obligations in this area. But what is the connection between modesty and sexual fulfillment? I'll answer first from the female perspective and then the male.

Some women have told me that modesty is important to them, not only because it helps men not to stumble, but also because it helps them place a high value on their own sexuality. They have told me that modest apparel affirms the true importance of a woman's sexual identity, since it proclaims that her body is not a tame, benign, and commonplace thing. Modesty affirms that our bodies in general and our sexuality in particular are special, charged, even enchanted, and too exciting to be put merely to common use. As Kathleen van Schaijik suggested in a 1999 article, "If we revere something, we do not hide it. Neither do we flaunt it in public. We cherish it; we pay it homage; we approach it with dignity; we adorn it with beauty; we take care that it is not misused."

In her book A Return to Modesty, Wendy Shalit argues that modesty is the truly erotic option, since it makes the highest valuation of a woman's sexual identity, affirming the sacredness of sexuality and displaying a commitment to setting it apart and cherishing it. C. S. Lewis put his finger on the same principle in That Hideous Strength: "when a thing is enclosed, the mind does not willingly regard it as common." To dress immodestly is ultimately to reduce our sexuality to something commonplace, trivial, and humdrum.

Precisely for this reason, a modest woman significantly upgrades the significance of what is happening when she undresses in front of her husband. As Havelock Ellis observed (stumbling upon the truth for one of the few times in his life), "without modesty we could not have, nor rightly value at its true worth, that bold and pure candor which is at once the final revelation of love and the seal of its sincerity."

Modesty also upgrades sexuality from the male perspective. The anecdotal evidence clear shows that men whose environment is saturated with immodest women (either because of the company they keep or the images they view) are generally not oversexed, as one might suppose, but just the opposite. In Denmark, where pornography is unrestricted, men are often quoted as saying that sex has become boring.

Cristina Odone observed in The Times that advertisers are finding that sex just does not sell products like it once did. The reason, she suggested, is that the advertisers have made sex so banal that it doesn't entice us any longer. As one 16-year-old was quoted as saying in 2004, "I'm so used to it, it makes me sick."

Frequent exposure to nudity tends to trivialize the human body, emptying it of its implicit eroticism. As someone said to me last year, when a man is exposed to too much flesh, it lowers the healthy excitement he should feel when he looks upon the body of his wife because (yawn) he sees that all the time. It therefore takes a higher sexual charge, sometimes to point of extreme perversion, to match the excitement that might otherwise be available in a normal sexual encounter. Could it be that the rise of libido-enhancing drugs is meeting a need created by the libido-squashing effects of pornography?

Further Reading


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