Contentious Pretentious Musings: Is marriage a social construct?

My online pen pal Oscar at Pretentious Musings has decided to take me to task about this argument against same-sex marriage I’ve been boasting about for quite some time. Good, I need a challenge from a worthy interlocutor because it’s been getting pretty lonely and pathetic just rambling into the great cyber wilderness of the Internet all by myself.

So. Here. We. Go.

Given that Pownens originally presented this argument as “non-Biblical”, I am going to approach this from a completely secular standpoint. Insofar as we accept this, the argument is problematic in that it attributes a normative standard to a social construct. Basically, Pownens is claiming that marriage ‘ought’ to be this way, when there is no ought to begin with.

Frankly, Oscar’s paragraph confuses me. I’ve never made a prescriptive claim to what marriage “ought” to be in any way. From whence I have scoured in my posts, I haven’t found any argument like “most of the world believes that marriage is between one man and woman” or “marriage has always been practiced as between one man and woman”; therefore marriage ought to be only between one man and woman. Neither has Alan Keyes. Nor am I applying my ethical preferences as a standard by which to yea or nay same-sex marriage. Instead, we have attempted to give an account, which is descriptive and not prescriptive, of what marriage is in reference to a moral debate, not what the institution ought to be. To do so is not an error in logical inference but the basis of rational moral discourse. After all, to claim “murder is wrong” requires an understanding of what murder is. Similarly, to imply there is marriage inequality, as same-sex marriage advocates do, requires an understanding of what marriage is. If anything, I’m making claims about what law ought to be based on what I purport marriage is. It’s no different than a feminist advocating for how law ought to recognize sexual consent predicated on what she thinks rape is. Ought is already assumed and used in such contexts. So, the indictment that I’m trying to fallaciously stem the is-ought gap in the manner Oscar surmises is off-kilter.

In fact, I reject the Humean skepticism that seems to influence Oscar’s objection, as I don’t hold that “matters of fact” are only derived of “impressions” from the senses. In other words, I don’t think the only facts are empirical ones as Hume did. Anyway, the rabbit hole here becomes too deep too quickly for this post, but as I hope the above paragraph successfully suggests, this alleged sacred distinction is not so nearly stark and rigid as both Hume and Oscar maintain.

Given Oscar’s background in philosophy, I’m a little befuddled about how he inferred claims about how marriage ought to be from phrases like “ontological impossibility” and comparisons to non-existent objects such as married bachelors, all of which are at least it part of the vernacular of metaphysics, which, to put it broadly, studies what is said to exist or what is and what is not.

I also find it interesting that Oscar evens opens this dialogue with this move. If he is correct that marriage is a merely social and cultural fabrication, then if any group is “attribut(ing) a normative standard to a social construct,” it’s the people who are pushing rather aggressively to redefine it on the basis it’s unfair to gay couples. Are they not arguing that marriage “‘ought’ to be this way” — namely that same-sex couples ought to be allowed to marry because of equal protection under the law — “when there is no ought to begin with”? So, if my argument dies by Oscar’s hand, then their case too must suffer the same fate. From his “completely secular standpoint,” this reasoning taken to its logical peak pushes all political debate on the issue off the ledge to the rocks below, as no reasoning on either side is justifiable. Pragmatically speaking, this will not do.

Therefore, I must challenge Oscar on his bare assertion that marriage is a social construct, as this claim is really where our conflict lies. His contention hardly seems evidently true, and he offers no reason as to why anyone should accept it. Plus, here’s a reason to doubt it: If marriage is a product of culture, a social construct, it’s likely we should have observed a greater variety of “marriages,” as Oscar understands them, across time and civilization than what we have. Obvious artifacts of culture like language, cuisine, art, religion have differed and changed from time and place. Even morality, although which is an objective feature of the world, has at least had a somewhat misleading facade of fluidity, as people’s ethical convictions have evolved throughout history, giving a false appearance of relativity. Yet, marriage has seemingly stayed remarkably static and universal in cultures for millennia. Sure, there have been various forms of polygamy, polyandry and arranged unions, but they all are rooted in human sexual complementarity. If marriage is purely created by culture, why haven’t we seen a host of diverse arrangements, wholly truncated from procreation, considered as marriage before now? Perhaps, it’s because marriage is actually founded in something more objective and is not actualized ex nihilo by society, as Oscar so opines.

Moreover, there’s also an ontological bugaboo Oscar has overlooked. And, it’s fairly straightforward to show what it is by going backwards. Let me explain: According to him, marriage, as a social construct, is determined by cultural whim; culture is a product of societies; societies can’t exist without people; people come from families; families spring forth from fertile loins, i.e. the union of a man and a woman, which, ipso facto, is what we social conservatives call a marriage. Summarily, men and women have long entered into what are clearly marital relationships way before there was culture to acknowledge such unions as marriage. And I’m not talking about fornicatin’. I mean forming households. The fact is domesticity predates civilization, society and civil law and is a necessary precursor to it all. Society doesn’t decide what is marriage; it just recognizes what has been here the whole time: the comprehensive union of a man and woman and its implicit reproductive potential.

Of course, Oscar and those in favor and actively invested in marital redefinition will not be convinced that the aforementioned first relationships are marriages (ah, the bigotry). They will extol Oscar’s reasoning and will cheer him as their champion. They are probably smitten over his swift dismissal of my argument. Some have probably even come to same conclusion that Oscar has and have drank the Kool-Aid without realizing the poison contained within it.

I had a philosophy professor who once said something along the lines, “Every solution to a problem in philosophy has a cost.” Oscar was able to diffuse my argument seemingly with ease because he didn’t directly address it. By denying that marriage has an essence derived from objective features of the world, Oscar did not question the validity or attack a premise. Instead, intentional or not, he assaulted the presupposition that there is any rational discourse to be had on this issue, a radical tactic which undermines any topic for debate. It’s probably the best compliment he could give me with his sudden overturning of the game board and all its pieces. I actually take it as evidence for the veracity of my position. Platitudes aside, however, if he’s correct that marriage is a social construct forged from subjectivity, same-sex marriage proponents have as much logical ground to stand on as me, which is none. Oscar has scorched it all. Their morally-charged appeals to the 14th Amendment are as “problematic” as my analytic analysis of marriage. It’s not a victory; it’s mutually assured destruction.

At the very best, the implications are more favorable to my side of the battlefield. If marriage “is merely a reflection of what society wants,” there should be a reliable means to divine what people desire in this regard. Surely, the oligarchical fiats of federal judges overriding democratically ratified state amendments voted in by public referendum isn’t such a measure. Truly, the most accurate method to ascertain what society wants marriage to be is to have its people, “bigots” and all, to decide for themselves and put those recent pro-same-sex marriage polls to the test. Wouldn’t you agree, Oscar?

Fun like always,

Modus Pownens


David Hume’s Double-Edge Sword

I’m currently in the process of writing a paper on Scottish philosopher David Hume and his empiricism.  As you can probably guess as a theist, I and “Le Bon David” don’t actually agree on much.  Well, I actually take that back.  His Problem of Induction is fascinating and the is/ought gap is very influential on my thinking in ethics.  Even though I’m trying to refute his epistemology, I can’t help but admire the genius of this man.  It would be incredible just to be able to see him debate Immanuel Kant.  Don’t worry, fellow theists.  Despite of my awe, I will still destroy him without remorse!  Muah-hah-hah!

The "jovial skeptic" himself

Needless to write, I’ve been doing quite a bit of thinking about him lately, and I think I’ve come to a little problem for Davey and his atheists (hey, that would make a pretty good four-piece alternative band title).  This is inspired from his famed Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion.  One of his objections to the argument from design is a fallacy of composition — taking the parts of something and making a conclusion about the whole from them.  Hume, rightfully I might point out, argues the argument from design is guilty of such an incorrect inference.  That, looking at objects in nature, noticing their complexity seems to requires a designer, and then concluding the entire universe needs one too because it isn’t exactly very simple either.  Hume goes on to write we don’t have experience (as an empiricist, Hume loves experience) on how universes are made, and therefore have no basis to make inferences about how ours is made.

If atheists are reading this, they’re all probably nodding their heads in agreement in between eating popcorn and polishing their busts of Hume, but here is where their grins might disappear.

If we follow Hume’s logic to its conclusion, doesn’t that mean we can infer nothing about the universe?  I’m well aware Hume was an immense skeptic and didn’t believe we could gain knowledge of the physical world.  This seems completely detrimental to the scientific method.

Lets apply this to the theory of evolution.  According to it, natural selection is an unguided process, and therefore the universe is unguided or undesigned.  How is this any different from his criticism of the teleological argument?  It’s taking the parts and making a conclusion about the whole.

I see an inconsistency with many atheists who wield Hume’s empiricism as if it was some legendary sword.  Sure, it damages the theism, but it also slashes at the science many atheists hold so dear.  In fact, Hume’s reasoning is such a culprit in more than one instance.  It astonishes me that they fail to recognize this reflexivity.  They eagerly gobble up one  application of his ideas like it’s Thanksgiving and refuse to acknowledge the stomach ache afterwards from over-eating.

Hume’s arguments overall don’t support theism or atheism.  They undercut them both.  There’s a reason Hume is a called a raging skeptic (well, maybe not a raging one until me, but whatever).  This seems entirely obvious to me, almost too obvious.  I wouldn’t say my reasoning is bulletproof, and I’m more than willing to someone pointing how this might be reconciled.  I’m still learning and totally open to some possible solutions epistemologists have proposed.  I just know Hume’s ideas are echoed in naturalism’s epistemology, and therefore naturalists inherit his problems even if they don’t admit or realize it.

Anyway, let me know what you think.

Modus Pownens

Breaking Beakers and Graduated Cylinders! It’s Time to Pick On Science Nerds!

Did I get your attention?  I’d imagine the title would at least do that if not ruffle a few feathers.  In this following post, I’m going to address and refute an ideology that infests many people’s way of thinking.  It’s quite evident on YouTube, and I’m sure it’s prevalent on blogs throughout the internet.  This monster goes by the name of scientism.

Now let me elucidate a few things.  First, no, I’m not arbitrarily making up words.  You have social scientist Friedrich Hayek and philosopher Karl Popper to take the credit there.  Secondly, scientism and science are not the same thing.  Scientism is the view that natural science is the most authoritative worldview or aspect of human education, and that it is superior to all other interpretations of life[1].  Hopefully, I have made it abundantly clear from earlier post that I’m not one of those theists that demand the burning of science text books.  I’m all for scientific and empirical inquiry.  It’s definitely useful, but it is not the sole harbinger for discovering truth as some people champion it as.

Scientism mirrors a once popular epistemic view in philosophy during the first half of the last century known as logical positivism.  This view claims propositions not open to the senses are meaningless and hold no epistemic worth.  Currently, logical positivism has been long abandoned by philosophers.  Why?  The view had just too many problems within it.  Namely, it’s self-defeating.  The claim “propositions not open to the sense are meaningless…” would be meaningless according to logical positivism.  The truth value of that claim is undetectable by the senses.  But that claim has to be meaningful and true if logical positivism would be viable.  There were other multiple issues that I can’t name, but am aware of existing.  Philosophy of science is not my forte, and critiques of logical positivism such as Willard Van Orman Quine’s “Two Dogmas of Empiricism” are as of now above me.  Therefore, I won’t do you guys or myself a disservice by ignorantly reaching above my station.  As I understand it, and granted, that’s fairly limited, logical positivism died a very long and slow death.  Like the Roman Empire, it fell into decline and gradually got chipped away at by attacks upon it.

The scientism subscribed to by today’s countless laypeople is just a remnant to an extinct philosophy.  The same self-refuting grounding problem still holds.  Scientism can’t justify itself by its own tenants.  Science can’t prove itself.  The conclusion science is the end-all-be-all of truth was not derived, although erroneous, was not derived in a lab with beakers and test tubes.  It’s an epistemic claim and therefore, also a philosophical one.  Yeah, that’s right.  As much scientists like to pound their chests at how science has practical utility while philosophy doesn’t, it ultimately is grounded in philosophy.  Without philosophy, there would be no science.  I didn’t want to do this, but I’m going to go off on a tangential rant here, so bear with me.

I guess what grinds my gears like Peter Griffin from “Family Guy” is the intellectual and pompous arrogance proponents of scientism have.  They say they are advocates of “reason” and “open-mindedness.”  The ironic thing is scientism is such a narrow, close-minded, unreasonable, and damning view.  It’s almost laughable at how they ignorantly spew their sophistry.

You see, if we just limit our knowledge to what science can tell us, we would not only have to rule out science itself, but also ethics, logic, math, metaphysics, epistemology and aesthetics.  Science presupposes logic and math to be true.  It also assumes there is a physical and external world to investigate.  I know that seems obvious because you would appeal to your senses.  But you would be begging the question because you would be using your senses, which is an empirical/scientific methodology.  As Bertrand Russell said something along the lines, it would be no contradiction to think that world was just created ten minutes ago with the appearance of age.  Metaphysically, claims like everything has a cause is assumed to be true by science.  With ethics, if you grant me morality exists, I would argue it is prescriptive in nature.  It prescribes how things ought to be. This is fundamentally disconnected from scientific inquiry.  Science describes how things are.  Although some try, you can’t get a prescriptive fact from a descriptive one or vice-versa.  It’s the equivalent of trying to weigh something with a yardstick.  Honestly, this could be the subject of an entirely different post in its own right, and it will be in the future.

So, I hope I’ve belabored my point, and it’s blatantly obvious that scientism is false and should be discarded.  Don’t get me wrong.  Science is wonderful and useful when kept in context.  It’s one of the many tools in the toolbox.  It should be used, but not for everything.  So kids, remember, science is cool; scientism is not.

[1] Sorell, Tom. Scientism: Philosophy and the Infatuation with Science. Routledge, 1994, p. 1ff.