Two Thoughts for 11.01.11

Due to travel and the press of other work, blogging has been light. There will follow a series of relatively short posts about things that have been on my mind. Here is the first.

The May 2011 issue of Scientific American (yes, my magazine reading is backlogged, too) had two interesting articles. The first was a short piece on Bayes’ Rule by Sharon Bertsch McGrayne, author of a book on the subject, The Theory That Would Not Die. The rule (or theorem) has a more complicated definition in probability theory, having to do with linking the uncertainty concerning the likelihood of an event prior to collecting evidence with the uncertainty after trial evidence has been collected. As McGrayne puts it in plain English, “the formula is a simple one-liner: Initial Beliefs + Recent Objective Data = A New and Improved Belief.”

It struck me that this is the way all systems of human knowledge should work, but that in the real world objective data often seems not to have much impact on people’s beliefs.

The second and more interesting article, “The Hidden Organ In Our Eyes,” by Ignacio Provencio, dealt with the discovery that certain special neurons in the eye are responsible for sensing light — not for the purpose of vision but in relation to the circadian cycle — the internal clock by which we adjust to day and night. Thus the eye serves two purposes. This reminded me of something I cited in my Reasonable and Holy (7):
The difficulties with ends-based natural law arguments in this regard, which are advanced against birth control as much as against same-sexuality, in particular those that focus narrowly on the mechanics of sexual intercourse, are well summarized by Gerard J. Hughes in The Westminster Dictionary of Christian Ethics.
It is one thing to say that the natural function of the eye is to see. But even bodily organs can and do serve several functions. And if one asks of the body as a whole what its function is, the answer is much less clear. Even less clear is the answer to questions such as “What is the function of a human life?” or “What is the function of sexuality in a human life?” The way one might try to answer these questions seems quite unlike the way one might try to answer questions about the function(s) of the endocrine glands or the heart in the human body. The notion of “function” at this point becomes much more a matter of moral assessment than a scientific inquiry. (“Natural Law,” 413)
I reflected on this issue in parabolic fashion with the short fable, On the Island of Silence. I am fascinated by the extent to which some people insist that anatomy — or their understanding of the nature of anatomy and biology — must be determinative of moral values. Fidelity is a moral value. Gender isn’t. Those who insist that only heterosexual relationships are capable of moral value are in fact insisting that there is a moral value to “male and female,” and ultimately, therefore, to the Y chromosome.

The fact is that we are more than our bodies. What we do with them is important, but just as the eye is not only for seeing, so too the body is not only for reproduction. Morality does not lie in our chromosomes, but in how we treat each other as complete human beings.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG

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