Tuesday, April 23, 2013

(First Revision) Identifying as Gay: a Philosophical Reflection


Homosexuality is most likely not a choice in any real sense of the word.  We don’t choose our feelings towards things.  My distaste for licorice, appreciation of fine bourbon, aversion towards extreme cold, sensitivity to pinching, love of Beethoven and 90’s rock/alternative music, the smell of iris’s, love of my parents and friends cannot rationally be considered choices.  Along these lines it seems straightforward that someone’s sexual desire and love for another person cannot be considered a choice. 

Further it would be extremely detrimental to attempt a denial or suppression of feelings.  If I were to try to deny the heat of my morning coffee or suppress the feelings of the scalding water I will certainly suffer injury.  The same is true for the suppression and denial of emotional feelings[i].

Clearly we have no choice in feeling feelings.  They just happened to us.  Where we do have a choice is in our actions.  I may choose not to act on any of my desires or attempt to resist the temptation of desire.  I may also choose to suppress my feelings at a cost to my overall well being.  Where choice becomes of the utmost interest to us in this particular treatment, is our choice in how we choose to identify with our feelings and desires.

Sexual desire is a peculiar desire.  We will often hear philosophers make food analogies when referring to sexual desire (I am no exception).  Hunger and lasciviousness certainly share a similar intensity and strength.  One marked difference is that the satisfaction of hunger is necessary for life and the satisfaction of lasciviousness feels like life may be nothing without it.  One has almost nothing to do with how we identify with ourselves and with others while the other is centered upon how we self identify and even defines many of our relations to others. 

Perhaps it is important to differentiate between the carnal desire for sex and the more complex desire for companionship.  The desire for sex and the desire for companionship don’t appear to be any different for the heterosexual or the homosexual individual and it seems crude to assume that based on a stereotype of oversexed men (either homosexual or heterosexual) that being female or male changes this in any meaningful way.  In other words the desire for sex and companionship seem to be universal to all humans.  With that said we will try to focus on sexual desire here.

Let’s take a question often posed to homosexuals after they come out publicly: “When did you know you were gay?”  When I put myself on the receiving end of that query I’m shocked at how out of place and odd it sounds.  “When did you know you were straight?”  To be honest I can’t remember, but I know I had my first crush in the first grade but had made my best friend in kindergarten.  Perhaps it’s just my poor memory (I also don’t remember learning how to throw or hit a baseball), but I think my general lack of any real self reflective modality at such an age makes me a poor judge of when or what may have triggered my heterosexuality. 

Merely because I can’t remember when or how I came to know of a general attraction to the opposite sex doesn't count as proof for the claim that my sexuality is in any way biological, it is just an example of that classic fallacy of begging the question.  I would even argue that any show of attraction to the opposite sex before puberty is clear evidence of the opposite.  It isn’t until puberty that real sexual desire grows in us.  It should not be viewed as just a correlation that at the moment in our lives when we are most susceptible to the influences of society and culture (during our pre-pubescent life) we show the first inclinations of our sexuality.  Sexuality in this case is clearly not a choice in that at such an age we have no control or ability to limit those strong influences around us.  Some individuals are never able to overcome the heavy influence of peers, culture or society.  This is reflected in how we identify ourselves throughout the rest of lives as well.  Some will continuously rebel, others conform and many will do a little of both.   

The biggest struggle a homosexual, especially a male homosexual[ii], faces is usually when and how to begin identifying as gay[iii].  ‘Coming out’ is a when someone has chosen that they are ready to identify as gay, lesbian, bi-sexual, pan-sexual, polyamourous, transgender, transvestite etc.  The choice is that this individual is now ready for society to see them as someone with a particular sexual orientation. 

It is important to notice the social aspect of identity here as well.  Sometimes we think that who I am is contained somewhere within ourselves; our thoughts, feelings, desires, likes, dislikes and the other subjective aspects of the inner experience of our life.  This is only part of the story.  A great deal of who we are is tied into how others perceive us.  The part we are aware of, the part we are unaware of, our attempt to influence how others perceive us; all of these are integral aspects of our identity.

Heterosexuals are lucky in that they do not have to make any conscious decision to proclaim their sexuality to society.  Heterosexuality is the default sexuality.  It is such a standard that in order to feel true to themselves someone of a differing sexuality must take efforts not to be associated as heterosexual.  So we need to address a central question:  “What makes someone homosexual?” or to put it another way, “Who is homosexual and who isn’t?”

Imagine a room of 20 random individuals of different sexes, ethnicities and body types.  Now imagine they are all naked, tattoo-less, without piercings and standing quietly.  It would not be possible to tell their sexual preference.  While they may identify as any assortment of sexualities no one would be able to identify it when they are bare and presented without any socially identifiable marks.  There exist no objective markers for sexuality.  This is important to illustrate the problem with trying to assign sexual identity to someone. 
To further muddy the water let us consider the claim that your actions make you gay. One action that would seem an obvious indication of gayness or homosexuality would be sexual intercourse with someone of the same sex.  This however is not at all conclusive.  For example a woman may have sex with another woman but she may also have sex with men or have had sex with men.  In fact, there have been studies that indicate that most gay men have had sex with women.  We have all probably heard stories of men who have been married for years and have children (this proves they had sex with their wives) and then come out of the closet as gay.  One may respond, “how can you be gay if you’ve had sex with women?  Doesn’t that make you bi-sexual?”  The answer is that it’s not up to society to label their sexuality, it’s the job of society to recognize it. The individual labels themselves.

Another good example involves incarcerated individuals.  A man in prison may engage either willingly or not, in homosexual activity.  The fact that they participated in the act doesn’t warrant a label of gay or bi-sexual.  How they then choose to identify themselves is the proper and only rational standard.  The concept that so long as you’re the penetrator and not the penetrated you can still reasonably call yourself straight is as illegitimate as claiming that a man who enjoys musical theatre and loves Bette Midler and Judy Garland must be called gay.

The final, possibly the most telling example would be involves virgins.  We have no problem with a young man or woman identifying as straight while still a virgin (and I mean virgin in the strictest sense).  So why is there doubt cast on the sexual identity of someone who identifies as gay or lesbian while still virginal?  Clearly the act of having sex with someone is a poor guide for such a claim.  The virgin is well justified in identifying as any sexuality that they choose, despite never having had sex.  In fact an argument could be made (I will not make that argument in this paper) that the virgin is better justified claiming sexual neutrality until they have had some experience with sex.  Virginity also brings us to the problem of sexual desire.  A virgin may desire sexual congress and perhaps out of curiosity this desire may sway between a desire for the same or opposite sex.  Would we insist then that this virgin accept the label bi-sexual?  Does the same swaying desire or curiosity based desires of this or other nature dictate sexuality?  It seems absurd to claim.

The above examples illustrate the main thesis of this paper: Sexual identity is a matter of how one chooses to be perceived by society.  This previously married man will more often than not identify as gay and not as bi-sexual.  Bi-sexuality we will see turns out to be the most telling of the sexualities and the genesis of this thesis.



[i] There are many psychological theories with just this premise as the basis for their approach to therapy.
[ii] The reason I emphasize the difficulty for the male homosexual is that society, as accepting as it is in places, is far less accepting of male homosexuality than female homosexuality.  This seems self-evident and since it is not central to my thesis I leave it’s debate for another time if needed.
[iii] I use gay here to signify the notion of ‘gay’ in popular culture, not the traditional meaning of happy.  In no way should this use of the term signify a derogatory attitude towards homosexuals.  There is a cultural significance attached to this word that cannot be ignored.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Dark matter goes the way of the Luminiferous Aether

There is now an estimated 3x1022 stars in the known universe. For those of you who are keeping track that’s an increase of 200 sextillion star systems. This has hit all the major news outlets with just about everyone emphasizing that the increased estimate implies more potential life sustaining planets may exist. Not a single article mentioned the most important aspect of this discovery.

More important than the possibility of other potential Earths is the idea that the mystery of the theoretical Dark Matter has also been solved. So what is this hypothetical Dark Matter and why does it make a difference?

Astronomers have had trouble accounting for observed gravitational effects in many galaxies. These galaxies behave gravitationally as if there is more matter present than we can see. The movements of stars and galaxies, as well as the light from stars around galaxies are all effected by the gravitational pull of matter. Scientists use a collection of formulas based on Newton Laws and Einstein’s theories of gravity to determine how the stars should be behaving and how much they should distort the light coming from behind them.

Based on these calculations astronomers have concluded there should be more matter in every galaxy observed. Astronomers and physicists then go on to propose hypothetical “dark matter”, called ‘dark’ because it must be there and we just can’t see because it does not produce or reflect light (like black holes). For a collection of possible explanations and candidates for dark matter visit this website: http://map.gsfc.nasa.gov/universe/uni_matter.html .

This new estimate tells us that there is about 60% more matter in the form of red dwarf stars than previously thought. Dark matter estimates are on the order of 85% of the universe. If the known matter of the universe is increased then the unknown amount that is attributed to dark matter must decrease significantly. How much this unknown amount will decrease by is a huge question. Making this new recalculation more difficult is the doubt that will be placed on the estimates of the total number of other stars and massive objects in the universe.

When making an estimate on order of 1020+ any small discrepancy is multiplied tremendously. To be fair it doesn’t eliminate the existence of dark matter but it will make theoretical physicists rethink the possibilities of dark matter and its prevalence. This isn’t the first time physicists have made this kind of mistake.

Before Einstein’s theory of special relativity it was assumed that space was filled with the ‘luminiferous aether’, a hypothetical medium through which light could propagate. What dark matter shares with the ether is a phenomenon in science where theorists invent whatever is necessary to provide a solution for missing knowledge. The question still remains how scientists can still make these errors.

The reason this kind of mistake can happen is that astronomers aren’t necessarily counting every star in a galaxy when they are calculating gravitational forces for example. Instead, an estimate is made based on closer galaxies. Red dwarf stars are dim long lasting stars whose presence is generally estimated in galaxies far away. Based on these estimates gravitation observations are made and matter seems to be missing. Missing matter, or gravitation anomalies can’t exists, so a space-filling matter must be posited to solve the mystery.

There will always be gaps in our knowledge of the universe, mainly because we are so isolated and our attempts to understand the rest of the universe relies heavily on estimates based on what is close to us and what is close to us is no closer that the distance it takes light to travel in a year (5.9 trillion miles). The more we can do to dispel these dark theories the more we can say we have actually knowledge of the universe. Next lets try to get rid of all this ‘dark energy’ nonsense.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Bourbon versus Scotch

Bourbon versus Scotch

This blog is dedicated to philosophy so it may appear odd to have an entry about tasting the difference between Kentucky bourbon and a 12 year old single malt scotch. First let’s explore the philosophical implications of such an experience.

Philosophers have been debating the importance of physical experiences, or sensations since the beginning. Epicurus is said to have commented that it is best to have water and bread everyday of ones life so that when presented with cheese it will appear a feast. Now Epicurus while father of hedonism, ended up a hermit who reveled in simplicity, while later followers of his philosophy took it mean living in the extremes of pleasure. Moderation has dominated the content of most ethical talk of sensations and pleasure over the years, allowing for people to enjoy life and its sensual pleasures so long as not to overindulge in any one aspect of sensual delights. In keeping with this, expanding ones breadth of sensual experience will allow for a greater range of moderate sensual appreciation and a deeper enjoyment of life.

That being said, I have always been jealous of those who can enjoy a good whisky, wine or cognac. So in an attempt to be able to appreciate the joys of such spirits I have decided to embark on a spiritual culinary journey whereas I attempt to develop a taste for whisky.

Whisky is made from the distillation of a cooked fermented mash of grains. A grain or combination of grains is mixed with water and yeast, similar to the mash created to brew beer, and let to ferment; a process wherein the yeast eats the sugar in the grain and as a byproduct releases alcohol. The mash is boiled and the alcohol is distilled and collected. Distilling is the process by which the alcohol vapor is separated from the mash and cooled through copper tubing and collected as a clear, odorless and tasteless spirit. The clear liquid is not whisky until its aged in a barrel, typically an American white oak barrel.

Let’s talk about the difference between Bourbon and Scotch. First we will look at bourbon. A bourbon mash is made from 51% corn and a combination of other grains such as rye, wheat and barley. Water from the bluegrass region of Kentucky contains little or no iron, rather it is hard water that is limestone rich. The only way a whisky can be called bourbon is if it is distilled and aged in Bourbon county Kentucky. To be called bourbon the whisky must also be aged in a charred American white oak barrel. These barrels are only used once and then they are sold to distilleries that make other whiskies such as scotch.

Single malt scotch is made from a mash of 100% malted barley. Malted barley is barley that has begun to germinate before it is combined with water and yeast in the mash. For a whisky to be called scotch it must be distilled and aged in Scotland. The key to the flavor of scotch is that the malted barley is smoked by a peat fire. Of course local water is the other key ingredient in the flavor of the scotch. Distilleries often remain in the same location because of the water source used in the whisky. Most scotch whiskies are aged in used charred bourbon barrels made of American white oak. A cooper will often re-fire the used bourbon barrels for use in scotch aging. A scotch whisky can use the older barrels because the scotch is aged longer and require the subtle notes that can be gained from the repeated expansion and contraction of the barrels season after season.

To the taste test. I have an ounce of Maker’s Mark Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whisky, 90 proof, over a large ice cube and ounce of The Speyside Single Highland Malt Scotch Whisky aged 12 years, 86 proof, over a large ice cube. To set the mood I set my Pandora to the Frank Sinatra station and sipped each drink following it with a palate cleanser of ice water (I know ice water is an inadequate palate cleanser but I did also take a moment in between each sip to reflect on the flavors).

How do they taste? Well, at first taste, right after poured over a large ice cube, I preferred the sweeter taste of the scotch to the bourbon. However, after the ice began to melt the bourbon’s stronger flavor better offset the kick of the spirit underlying both drinks. It may have been Summertime playing on the radio but something about that American born bourbon sat well with me in the end.

Bourbon is a truly American drink and that may have affected my opinion in this particular tasting but I have yet to really gain a taste for whisky. Made from mostly corn, that most truly American grain, and only made in Kentucky there is a certain national pride associated with bourbon that I’m sure resides in every Scotsman as relating to scotch.

In short this not over by far as I have an entire bottle of Scotch to begin to enjoy and most of a bottle of Bourbon to finish. Cheers!

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

I'm Quoted in a Recent Trade Magazine

I am quoted in the August 2010 issue of QSR Magazine on the topic of business ethics. It's and interesting article and well put together. The main point is that acting morally is necessary for a business especially in these trying times. It focus's on the quick service food industry but many of the points are valid across all industries. You can find the article here: http://www.qsrmagazine.com/articles/what_matters_most/144/foundation-1.phtml and by clicking the title to this blog entry. Feel free to continue the discussion in the comments.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Scientific Revolution in the Age of Information

We can safely say that the greatest technological innovation of the past 30 years is the proliferation of the internet. I will qualify ‘greatest’ as influencial, far reaching, across genres, changing more other industries than any other innovation since the personal computer (Mac’s included). The most shocking part of this innovation is that its influence is disproportional to the leap in technology necessary for it to happen. To be blunt, no leap was necessary.

The innovations that led to the widespread internet use we see today were not leaps and bounds ahead of the technology of yesterday (i.e. early 80’s and 70’s). In fact the internet has been around almost as long as digital computing. The internet originated as a tool to share information quickly. The technology necessary to make it possible has been around; however the main innovations have been software improvements. This isn’t to say that hardware innovations trump software innovations in the hierarchy of technological development, but they certainly get overlooked in comparison.

Yes, cheap high-speed internet and the infrastructure necessary have improved significantly, however those technologies are modest improvement over cable TV technology. The receiver is now your cable modem instead of your cable box and the signal is not a digital moving picture, it’s a wide variety of digital data coming into your home, which probably includes your digital moving pictures in a package deal offered by your provider to further entice you into the realm of speedy internet access.

The true innovation in the internet is the manufacturing not of physical products like cable modems, computers, browser software, online shopping and gaming. The manufacture of a market for internet/high-speed internet and the transition from that initial luxury or business market to a household necessity is the real innovation of the internet. How that happened is an inquiry for another time. How the internet has effected what we have come to expect of science is of interest in this inquiry.

Let’s get up to speed first. The history of scientific revolutions has been elucidated in every popular physicist’s best seller. From Brian Greene and Stephen Hawkins to even Albert Einstein we can get a view of which discoveries and theories have really re-written the physics and history books. In short there were a few major developments that changed everything. Thomas Kuhn in The Structures of Scientific Revolutions focuses on what he calls the major paradigm shifts in science. For my purposes we will focus on the discipline of Physics often considered the hardest of the ‘Hard Sciences’.

We begin with Aristotle and what is left of his writings on Physics, from which we retain the name of the discipline to this day. Aristotle was the first to apply logical formulations to the natural world. The key assumption of Aristotle and scientists for centuries after his writing, was the idea that logical analysis, thinking about the problems and nature of the universe we could solve the mysteries of nature. The idea that all we need is our minds, a great deal of concentration and the tools of logic and rationality we will be able to provide all the answers. To say that this ‘worked’ or was ‘useful’ for almost 2050 years would be generous. To say it was influential would be an understatement.

Physics didn’t really begin to move forward until Isaac Newton published the most influential book in physics since Aristotle; The Principia: Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy (1722). Yes the Principia uses mathematics, logic, reasoning to figure out the laws of Nature. The key and most important distinction is that Newton relied heavily on observation to make those laws. The observation that heavy objects didn’t fall faster than lighter ones was just the start. Interestingly enough this was also based on the logical paradox that heavier objects must fall faster. If a heavy object were tied to a lighter object by a small string, the lighter object, wanting to fall slower, would tug on the string holding back the heavy object, which wants to return to its original state at a faster speed, thus slowing down the heavier object. This paradox prompted experimentation which then led to the invention of calculus to accurately describe the falling bodies and the birth of all physics as we know it today.

Why did take 2 millennia for someone to finally place primacy on experimentation? One can only guess the various instabilities in the cultures of the western world didn’t allow academic pursuit of knowledge to flourish. Before we go blaming religion, namely Christianity, keep in mind that the ancient texts of western civilization were saved, copied and translated by monks dedicated to keeping the knowledge of antiquity alive, while conquering forces from around the globe were busy sacking cities and burning those cities cultural centers. In fact, in that regard the science of politics also has a major world altering revolution in the birth of modern democracy and the de-legitimatization of monarchic rule shortly after Newton publishes this groundbreaking book. Here we should note that this is over 200 years after the printing press was invented and at the end of the Renaissance of Europe when society was relatively stable (compared with the Middle Ages and late antiquity after the fall of Rome) and had rediscovered the wealth of knowledge of the Ancient people of the Mediterranean. In short it took another 2000 years for a large population of people to be able to devote time, effort and money to the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake.

Many circumstances had to align for this pivotal scientific revolution. This revolution is about as big as it gets and I have ignored many smaller revolutions. The implications of Newton’s Principia are farther reaching than any other development in any other area of science since. The precision and universality of the laws that result have been the standard for ‘hard science’ ever since. This standard is so hard to achieve that it may be the main reason for a lack of overarching scientific revolution today. The next revolution was Albert Einstein’s Special and General Theories of Relativity.

Following the Industrial Revolution scientific knowledge exploded into the 20th century. Advances in all areas of science were made at an incredible speed. With the beginning of the Nobel Prizes in 1895 fame was introduced into Academia. An argument can be made that the honor did more to legitimize the pursuit of scientific knowledge than anything else in modern times; Albert Einstein being the other contender for most important figure in valuing and popularizing scientific pursuit in the minds of the public.

The most unique aspect of Einstein’s revolutionary theories was that they didn’t destroy the previous very effective and accurate Newtonian Laws. Special and General Relativity added to the knowledge in a revolutionary way. Applying Einstein’s theories to Newtonian Laws made for mind boggling accurate predictions. Newton’s laws still explained the universe and described the movement of the natural processes very well however Einstein now provided what every scientist and philosopher is looking for; the answer to the question why? Why is Newton’s Universal Law of Gravity true? General Relativity provides such an answer: It’s the nature and structure of space/time that makes all objects ‘fall’ towards each other.

What makes this revolutions stick out during this time period is its simplicity and elegance. The exponential expansion of knowledge at this time still has its effects in today’s world. This period of scientific revolution, marked most notably by Special and General Relativity, has not even been approached in the past 100 years. Our base of knowledge has not been expanded upon much in the realm of physics. Yes there have been amazing developments in quantum mechanics 50 years ago and string theory for the past 20-30 years, however nothing as far reaching to constitute a revolution in the sciences has happened since Einstein. What of the role of the greatest technological innovation in 30 years on scientific revolution?

Andrew W. Lo and Mark T. Mueller of MIT have published a very interesting paper: WARNING: Physics Envy May Be Hazardous To Your Wealth!, which deals with financial analysis aspiring to the standards of accuracy available in physics. Perhaps having standards of revolution based on the changes of physics over history leads us to a similar mistake of expectation. It is possible that a truth has been reached that there is no further improvement upon. Here is where the proliferation of the internet can either hinder or help the cause of scientific revolution.

With the easy access to information and the vetting of such information left up to the reader, understanding of all levels, laymen, expert and everywhere in between has been expanded beyond belief. Misinformation and information are everywhere and with simplification comes oversimplification in many cases, so the quality of the information is a bit suspect to be generous. What is really missing and may be a hindrance to future scientific revolutions is the ability to be uninfluenced by the plethora of knowledge. Einstein was operating outside of academia when he wrote his special theory of relativity and operating on the fringes of physics, able to think in imaginative, novel ways he was able to change physics and shape the modern world. Is such novel thought possible in the age of the internet or, even worse, is such thought even recognizable in the sea of ideas that the internet has produced? Has the internet in providing such an accessible medium for the productions and dissemination of knowledge eliminated the possibility of scientific revolution on the scope of Einstein’s influence?

Time will naturally answer these questions. It is my suspicion that revolutions of the scale I have mentioned aren’t extinct, nor have they been replaced by steady technological developments. Using Kuhn’s criteria for scientific revolution being based on a paradigm shift, these steady technological achievements do nothing to change the paradigm; they are just the natural implication of the paradigm shift 100 years ago. We have yet to fully explore all the possible implications of the recent revolutions in science and it may be a full century after those implications are realized before another revolution greets humanity. Technology has yet to reach the limits of the laws of physics as we understand them. When technology does reach that limit, as I suspect it will once nano-technology is fully understood and utilized, the ground will have been laid for the next revolution. Don’t hold you breath though.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Welcome to Philosophy 2.0

Philosophy 2.0 is an attempt to provide a philosophical forum, in the spirit of Socrates and his Academy, for the modern era. This blog is open to any query and is dedicated to philosophical discussion on all levels. I presume it will be mostly my unanswered opinions, in which case be prepared for ramblings on all subjects from physics, social criticism, movie reviews to ethics and politics. So let me introduce myself.

I am an APPA Certified Philosophical Counselor living in New York City. I have a BA in Philosophy from SUNY Stony Brook and a MA in Philosophy from the New School. My main course of study has been ethics, however I have a keen interest in Philosophy of Science from my days as an undergrad studying Physics. I am an Adjunct Professor of Philosophy at Molloy College and I have a small collection of unpublished/unfinished works in fiction, philosophy and poetry. I am currently developing a new strand of philosophical counseling called 'Identity Counseling'. For more information on Identity Counseling or Philosophical Counseling feel free to visit my website: www.MarkMurynec.com.

Why Philosophy?

For those of you who are unfamiliar with philosophy, philosophy (western philosophy that is) originated in Ancient Greece when a group of Athenians thought they needed to distinguish themselves from the prominent and increasingly wealthy Sophists of Greece. Sophists were essentially lecturers, speakers who would give a wonderful rhetorical performance on any subject for a price. The issue some had with these Sophists was one of sincerity. Like modern day Lawyers, Sophists would use reason, rationality, and rhetoric to prove any point or point of view. Philosophers were self professed 'lovers of knowledge' and wanted to distinguish themselves from those who used the same tools; reason, rationality and rhetoric, for purposes other than that of discovering Truth and knowledge.

The most influential point of philosophy in the early years wasn't only the love of the knowledge logic and scientific exploration yielded, but rather self knowledge. Socrates held that the highest knowledge was self knowledge: "Know Thyself" was the cornerstone of his teachings. Based on this goal of self knowledge I feel that everyone could use philosophy to help them know themselves better and improve their lives. The key is learning how to get to know yourself.

One way is through talking to other people. In conversation, dialog, we have the opportunity to learn about others and ourselves. This blog is an attempt to bring that sort of self discovery to the forum of online conversation. Let the philosophizing begin!