Sometimes people discuss the case for or against God, hoping to prove or disprove His existence.
That’s not my goal. Deities – and magic of all kinds – are often defined as being beyond the realm of evidence or proof. You either believe or you don’t.
As far as our scientific discoveries are concerned, there’s no reason to believe in God. We’ve never encountered data that would require the presence of a deity to be explained.
But then again, as far as our scientific discoveries are concerned, there’s no reason to believe in free will. We’ve never encountered data that would suggest that the workings of our brains are caused by anything other than the predictable movement of salt atoms inside of us. And, personally? I’m totally willing to believe in free will, based solely on how my existence feels.
So I can’t fault anyone for believing in God. Or gods. Witchcraft, ghosts, or aliens – sure, I do think some of these beliefs are a bit more outlandish than my belief in free will, but it’s all a matter of degree.
Instead, I’d like to discuss the legal case against God.
That’s why I’m vegan – I don’t believe animals should be killed or caged just for me to have a tastier meal. As a heterotroph, I obviously have to hurt somebody every time I eat, but I’d rather hurt a carrot than a cow.
And it’s why I’m an environmentalist. Although climate change would open up a variety of new ecological niches, presumably benefiting many lifeforms (including some that don’t even exist yet!), many of our world’s current denizens would suffer. Many current species would go extinct.
And, because I’m pro-life, I’m also pro-choice. I believe that parents can do best when they’re allowed to choose when & with whom they’ll have children. I believe that fooling around with people is often fun, and can be deeply emotionally fulfilling, and that people should be able to partake in consensual pleasure without the fear of lifelong repercussions. I believe that human women are living creatures and should have autonomy over their bodies.
I vastly prefer contraception to abortion. It would be marvelous to live in a world where safe, effective contraception was freely available to everyone who wanted it!
When my spouse and I were hoping to have children, we declined genetic testing during each pregnancy. Given our immense privilege, we could afford to love and raise whomever arrived in our family. But not everyone believes that they can. Some people feel that they’ll be unable to care for children with dramatic healthcare needs. (Inevitably, when we allow people choice, some people will base their choices on rationales that I don’t agree with.)
Following the Supreme Court’s misguided decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, many states have criminalized abortion. In Washington state, legislation provides “to unborn children the equal protection of the laws of this state,” and in Iowa, legal personhood begins “from the moment of conception.” Under such laws, abortion constitutes murder.
And worse. As Madeleine Schwartz documents in her excellent 2020 essay “Criminalizing a Constitutional Right,”even before the Dobbs decision, many women were already being charged with murder or neglect if they happened to have a miscarriage or stillbirth.
In the vast majority of cases, though, a miscarriage is not the mother’s fault.
Most often, the culprit is God.
Under these laws, state prosecutors ought to bring their murder charges against God.
After conception, each embryo passes through several developmental checkpoints. A wide range of genetic or chromosomal abnormalities could cause a fetus or embryo to fail to pass these checkpoints. At that point, the pregnancy is terminated. The unborn child is aborted by – or, if you agree with the sort of legal language that the Dobbs decision unleashed, murdered by – God.
A miscarriage is often an emotionally wrenching experience for aspiring mothers. The emotional aftermath of miscarriage is typically much worse than that of abortion. The outcome is the same – the pregnancy is terminated – but when God aborts a pregnancy with miscarriage, a perhaps desperately wanted unborn child is lost.
Miscarriage is frequent, too.
It’s hard to know the exact frequencies, because in addition to the general culture of shame and disparagement with which the medical community has long regarded women’s bodies, miscarriage is particularly hidden. Miscarriage is so common that women are advised not to announce their pregnancies until their second or third trimesters, but this means that their support networks of friends, family, and colleagues might not even know why a person feels devastated.
But a good estimate is that about fifty percent of conceptions will fail to pass all the necessary genetic and chromosomal checkpoints.
Which means that – insofar as we believe that legal personhood begins at conception – about fifty percent of all people are murdered by God before they are born. God is a ruthless eugenicist, dispassionately evaluating the DNA of each unborn child and quelling the development of half.
From Schwartz’s essay, you’ll learn of numerous women who were imprisoned – and lost their jobs, their homes, their families – because they were suspected of harming their own unborn children. (And this was all before the Dobbs decision.)
For the cases that Schwartz chooses to discuss, most of the women were very poor. If we as a nation had chosen to spend money to give all women access to high-quality nutrition and prenatal medical care, some of these fetuses may have survived their pregnancies and had the opportunity to become living, breathing, impoverished babies. In which case I’d argue that the people who intentionally withhold free access to nutrition and prenatal care – the Republican governors and legislators – are accessories to murder.
But before we punish any of them, we should start with God.
In the mid-1800s, Claude Bernard – the “father of experimental physiology” – began a series of experiments to create carnivorous rabbits.
Don’t worry: Bernard wasn’t cultivating predatory beasts like the angry rabbit in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. At first he was simply starving animals until their acidic urine indicated that they’d begun to consume their own flesh as fuel. Deprived of calories, any animal will metabolize its own muscle.
But Bernard went further. As he describes in An Introduction to the Study of Experimental Medicine (translated by Henry Copley Greene), Bernard felt that:
“A carnivorous rabbit had to be experimentally produced by feeding it with meat …”
“I had rabbits fed on cold boiled beef (which they eat very nicely when they are given nothing else). My expectation was again verified …”
“To complete my experiment, I made an autopsy on my animals, to see if meat was digested in the same way in rabbits as in carnivora. I found, in fact, all the phenomena of an excellent digestion in their intestinal reactions …”
This was a strange experiment. Claude Bernard did make a novel discovery, but I don’t think the gains were commensurate with the cost.
Bernard, however, was proud of his willingness to inflict pain for the sake of science. He had a reputation for live dissections of unanesthetized dogs; his spouse called him a monster, divorced him, and created France’s first animal welfare organization.
By all outward appearances, Bernard was unperturbed. He told his friends and colleagues that he’d only married that woman for her money, anyway, which he’d needed to build his first laboratory. By the time she left, she was of no further use to him. And he was disinterested in her “fashionable” morality.
In An Introduction to the Study of Experimental Medicine, Bernard writes that,
“A physiologist is not a man of fashion, he is a man of science, absorbed by the scientific idea which he pursues: he no longer hears the cry of animals, he no longer sees the blood that flows, he sees only his ideas and perceives only organisms concealing problems which he intends to solve.”
Claude Bernard tortured animals, disdained Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, and loathed the introduction of statistics into biological research. Still, the conclusion of Bernard’s rabbit experiment is correct.
Herbivores can digest meat.
And this transition – an herbivore switching to a meat-based diet – is far more common than its opposite. Plants are much more difficult to eat!
Most species that we think of as herbivores will occasionally eat meat. Cows consume chickens, mice, dead rabbits (especially if the cows are mineral deficient, such as the experimental herds intentionally fed a low-phosphorous diet in the 1990s). Squirrels raid nests to eat baby birds. Pandas will eat roadkill if they can’t find enough bamboo.
After all, another animal’s body provides the full compliment of nutrients that an animal needs – it’s much easier to live as a mere meat refurbisher than to create your own animal body from scratch!
“Remarkably, our results suggest that many carnivorous animals alive today may trace this diet through a continuous series of carnivorous ancestors stretching back for >800 million years.”
Their data don’t actually support this claim. Roman-Palaclos, Scholl, and Wiens categorized the diets (herbivorous, carnivorous, or omnivorous) of a wide range of animal species and found that a statistical model in which the first multicellular animals consumed other heterotrophs would be mathematically parsimonious. Historically, it would take fewer genetic changes to produce our world if herbivory had evolved independently many times over.
But evolution tends to be quite rapid when organisms encounter an empty ecological niche, which is why we see sudden increases in diversity during periods following mass extinctions (like the “Cambrian explosion”) and when animals reach new islands. And we know that multicellular life arose multiple times – at the very least, happening independently in both plants and animals.
The earliest multicellular animals were probably simple aggregates of cells that failed to separate after dividing. Even after genes could cause intentional multicellular development, these early animals were probably blobby things that pursued the same diets as their single-celled precursors.
All told, many of the assumptions made by Roman-Palaclos, Scholl, and Wiens seem dubious at best.
And yet. It probably would have been easier for earliest animals to eat other heterotrophs than to eat autotrophs. Single-celled protists already liked to eat the autotrophs, so most autotrophs had defenses. The autotrophs might be toxic; their tasty molecules were hidden behind indigestible cell walls. If the first multicellular animal gobbled these up, it would’ve gotten such a bellyache!
Except, right. The first multicellular animal didn’t have a belly.
It would’ve gotten such a lysosome-ache!!
In more recent evolution, herbivorous mammals often developed pretty major adaptations to accompany their diet. For instance, herbivores typically have more complicated teeth than carnivores – by chewing their food, herbivores can rupture a plant’s cell walls to access the nutrients inside. And instead of stealing a full compliment of essential amino acids and vitamins from another animal, an herbivore has to synthesize these inside its body. Biosynthesis of Vitamin B12 is pretty tricky – my cells certainly can’t do it. Can yours?
A human whose body contained only human cells could barely digest anything, and certainly not plants. Indeed, most human babies begin life this way – as wholly human. Newborns seem to have very few bacteria inside their bodies, and it’s difficult for newborns to digest anything other than milk.
Without the help of the bacteria who build empires inside our bodies, we would be miserable – achy, asthmatic, bloated, and mentally unsound. And also, yes – without their help, we could not eat plants.
How fortunate that we are not alone!
Header image credit: Darryl Leja for the National Human Genome Research Institute’s photostream on flickr.
I think of my body as a single entity; I think of my family as a team.
Here I am, with my hands hovering over a keyboard. My fingers press keys corresponding to the words I want. I think; I am; this I is in control.
Which is very unlike the behaviors of my family. When I use my own hands to put a plate into the dishwasher, I’ll rinse the plate then slot it neatly into the next available position; when I say to my children, “please put your plates into the dishwasher,” things often end up at odd angles. I might rearrange everything before I run the machine.
My children’s behavior is partly under my control – I can ask them to help, and they know that I’ll be less likely to play board games with them later if they don’t – but my children are also quite clearly independent entities. They have their own goals, their own personalities.
And I know that they’re separate from me. I know that my children aren’t mine to command.
If I were to forget, then I’d perceive the world more like a human baby. Or an adult octopus.
In Marigold and Rose, Louise Glück describes the relationship of two infants, one of whom is designated a writer, in ways vaguely reminiscent of the early chapters of Steven Millhauser’s Edwin Mulhouse.
At times, Glück employs the innocent voices of her protagonists to offer blunt social commentary, such as a critique of our capitalist reflex to undervalue caretaking:
It was also around this time that Mother began to talk about going back to work. She told Father that she wanted to contribute to the household.
If you asked the twins (no one did) they would say that Mother contributed by being Mother. Father explained that to Mother this was different because mothers didn’t get paid and apparently people who got paid contributed and people who didn’t get paid were no help at all.
The twins saw right through this.
As I was reading Marigold and Rose, however, I found myself wishing that Glück engaged with the fundamental (and fascinating!) differences between adult and infant consciousness.
Admittedly, it’s hard to understand the inner experiences of creatures who can’t speak to us, as Thomas Nagel ponders in the essay “What Is It like to Be a Bat?” But, honestly, we can’t fully understand the inner experiences of anyone, no matter how many words they use to convey their feelings. In “The Bear’s Kiss,” Leslie Jamison writes that:
When we love animals, we love creatures whose conception of love we’ll never fully understand. We love creatures whose love for us will always be different from our love for them.
But isn’t this, you might wonder, the state of loving other people as well? Aren’t we always flinging our desire at the opacity of another person, and receiving care we cannot fully comprehend?
So we try our best. With our romantic partners, our friends, our children, we can ask questions and listen. Each question is a science experiment. Our inquiring words perturb the system; we carefully observe what happens next. What facial expressions flit across our interlocutor’s face? If they answer, what do they say?
Similarly, we’ve used experiments to delve into the inner lives of bats. We observe them carefully, trying our best to comprehend. We’ve learned that their brains are quite large relative to their tiny bodies. Some are intensely social: they huddle near & share food with their friends. The males of several species have very large genitalia (again, relative to their tiny bodies) and delight their partners with oral stimulation. They use echolocation to navigate through unfamiliar or crowded areas, but will flit unthinkingly through their usual haunts – much like the way we shuffle mindlessly toward the kitchen every morning – and crash into unexpected spelunkers. They are very different from us, and not.
Over time, it’s unclear whether we might better understand what it would feel like to be a bat, or what it would feel like to be Thomas Nagel.
Or a human baby.
Or an octopus.
As best we can tell, very young babies perceive their bodies as extending through space. My first child, seeing me across the room, would have perceived her legs as being across the room. Those were the legs that moved her from place to place.
At the time, she was still developing control over her body. Her face would sometimes make expressions like smiles, sometimes like horrible grimaces, cycling through countenances like a 1990s screensaver. And it took a long while before she understood exactly how to move her arm toward something instead of flailing wildly until she happened to hit it.
Later, she spent several days with her hand in front of her face, gazing in awe as the fingers clenched and then extended. Our brains devote so many neurons to the manipulation of our hands! She was figuring them out.
And, at that time, she could control “her” legs – my legs, across the room – almost as well as she could control any other muscle. She activated her legs with a yell, she directed them by bobbling her head in one direction or another. Sometimes her legs did what she wanted, sometimes they didn’t, but that was true of every muscle in her body.
Which an adult octopus would understand. Each tentacle has a mind of its own, a brain with its own distinct personality. The octopus’s central nervous system sometimes commands coordinated action from every tentacle – the way my children’s bodies and mine all scamper toward the door when I suddenly exclaim “We have to get in the car right now or we’re going to be late for school!” – but at other times, each tentacle acts independently.
Human babies and adult octopuses both behave as though their consciousness is decentralized.
In Marigold and Rose, however, the infants think and behave like miniature adults, much like the babies painted by medieval artists. When Marigold watches her mother, she knows that she’s observing an entity separate from herself:
Mother did not spend a lot of time on the blanket; she was energetic and purposeful. This must be why she had twins, Marigold thought, instead of a regular baby. It was known Father had wanted a goldfish. The twins watched from the blanket. It was still safe there; they couldn’t as yet crawl.
In all fairness, I’m not sure how well adult readers would understand the inner monologue of an infant depicted accurately: perhaps the first sentence of this scene would sound something like, my legs were restless & left the blanket; my milk was far away.
But we’d soon reach thoughts that would be difficult to translate into adult understanding. My favorite passages from Jazmina Barrera’s Linea Nigra toy with this incomprehension (as translated by Christina MacSweeney):
For no particular reason, I’ve spent a lot of time trying to understand and translate into Spanish a couple of sentences by Megan O’Rourke: “A mother is beyond any notion of a beginning. That’s what makes her a mother: you cannot start the story.”
I’m getting those lines mixed up with a poem by Katie Schmid called “The Boatman”:
— In the afterlife the first face I see is my mother’s. —
— Every mother is the boatman, having once been the boat. —
I keep trying but the Spanish words won’t say what I mean.
There’s a deep strangeness at the beginning of each of our lives. We were much like cephalopods, once; by the time we reach adulthood (or even childhood!), we have forgotten.
We sailed a parent’s body, a living boat. Later, blinking in the light of the world, our bodies spread throughout the room.
Not everyone attending Stanford comes from a background of wealth and privilege, obviously, but few people arrive there after circumstances like my spouse’s.
Violent trauma; abandonment; food insecurity. For college, she’d turned down Harvard despite their generous offer of significant financial aid: she didn’t have any money to pay for college. Instead, she went to a school that offered a full ride plus a stipend.
Even that wasn’t enough: her father took out credit cards in her name and used them to pay his bills. After collection notices began to arrive at her dormitory mail room, she … well, first she slumped to the floor and cried. Wouldn’t you? But then she used the money from her job at the college bookstore to pay them off.
After college, she won a Fulbright. The Fulbright award comes with a stipend: many young people use this money to travel, to see something of the world while they’re overseas. My spouse used the stipend to pay her bills from dental surgery.
By the time she and I met, she’d made her way to Stanford; her mother, father, and younger sibling were all unhoused.
Her father was in Albany. Luckily, a friend took him in, a man named Paul who had a little pension from working at the post office. Paul’s house was small, the foundation was sinking, and everything rattled with the passing trains, but there were four walls and heat. I’ve never not had four walls and heat. I like to think that I have a good imagination, but I can’t fathom being unhoused in Albany.
The post office pension was something, but Paul decided that he ought to grow marijuana. That would nicely supplement his income. He also decided, despite living on a street where two-thirds of the houses were vacant and boarded up, that he ought to tell his neighbors about this plan to grow marijuana in the attic. Then they’d know to buy from him.
The first time people broke in to steal the marijuana, my spouse’s father got pistol whipped in the face. For weeks afterward, his face ached. After the second time, he found his bedraggled tomato plants abandoned in the middle of the street. This I can imagine: somebody waiting in the car, engine idling, ready to drive away, looking up to say “You idiots, that’s not marijuana!”
Paul decided to get a guard dog. He found somebody with a pitbull too unruly to handle – the dog had been kicked out of two houses already, for howling, breaking things, biting people. This dog would go berserk around bright lights, and was even worse when he heard the sound of motorcycles. Two years old, but he walked and ran with a limp; the dog must’ve broken a leg when he was a puppy.
Having a guard dog helped. When some guys were working their way down the street, stripping copper pipes out of all the vacant houses, the dog started barking and got the guys arrested. My spouse’s father didn’t get pistol-whipped again.
He talked to my spouse on the phone. “Paul got a dog,” he said.
My spouse knew how much her father loved animals. “Is this really your dog?” she asked.
“No,” her father said, “it’s Paul’s dog.” But also, my spouse could hear a gentle panting; the dog’s head was in her father’s lap.
The next year, toward the end of November, Paul was having sex and died. Very suddenly. Which must have been traumatizing for Paul’s lady friend?
After Paul passed, the dog was very clearly my spouse’s father’s dog.
Unfortunately, the mortgage was in Paul’s name. As were the utilities. Paul’s post office pension had been paying the bills. Which meant that my spouse’s father and the dog were squatting in the vacant house without electricity or heat. December tends to be cold in Albany.
So my spouse and I borrowed a car – we’d spent a few years walking and biking everywhere – and drove out to get her father and the dog. We moved them in with us, thinking that they’d be with us briefly, then found out that you can’t keep a pitbull in Section 8 housing. So then we spent a few months searching for a second apartment that we could afford.
My spouse’s father didn’t have any money. He’d lost his last job – parking cars in a garage – when he had a stroke during working hours. His boss assumed that he’d been drinking and so he was thrown in jail instead of taken to the hospital. He had unmanaged diabetes and cardiovascular troubles and the stroke made things worse, but it took several years before he was approved for disability.
But the dog kept him alive. Got him outside a few times a day – the dog would pull like a little tugboat to get my spouse’s father up the stairs again to their apartment – and would rouse him when my spouse’s father briefly stopped breathing in his sleep. (Which happened often, and always sounded deeply unsettling during the time that he lived with my spouse and me.) The dog seemed to like trying to help. Although, honestly, the dog was pretty traumatized too: he’d howl when he was left alone, and the gunshot sounds of the 4th of July would make him thrash and snap his jaws.
The dog got his full name a few years later, when my spouse showed up at her father’s apartment to tell him she was pregnant.
“Max,” her father said, turning toward the dog with tears brimming in his eyes, “you’re gonna be an uncle. Uncle Max.”
“Nuh uh,” my spouse said, “we are not calling the dog Uncle Max.”
My spouse’s father died when our child was one. The dog came to live with us: his fifth family, then. We called him Uncle Max.
The name helped. He was a sixty-pound, scary-looking pitbull. But there’s something disarming about a dog called “uncle.”
The first week he lived with us, I thought he’d bitten off my child’s fingers. I was fixing lunch and had lost track of what my child was doing. I didn’t realize that she might be in the room with the scary dog.
Suddenly, I heard my child wail. I rushed toward the sound, and my child came staggering toward me, clutching her arm against her belly as though her hand might be bleeding or even missing, but when she finally let me see, there was the slightest little dimple on the soft skin of the back of her hand. She tried to explain what had happened to me in that vaguely incomprehensible way that an 18-month-old explains things:
“I, I …” she said, or perhaps “Eye, eye …” and then, “…put finger Max-y eye.”
So she’d been putting her fingers into the dog’s eyeball and then wailed, chagrined, when he had rather gently told her “No.”
Uncle Max loved running. I rather loathed going running with him, but we went together three times each week. He was fast, despite his limp, and he liked to start at a sprint, bolting from the house with me stumbling along behind him, struggling to hang on to his leash. Then, after about three miles he’d tire and plod along the rest of the way home.
He especially loved bounding through the local university campus, drawing smiles from students as his tongue flopped rakishly through the air: he was as gorgeous and charismatic as an underwear model. When people were watching, he liked to hop up and prance along little stone walls next to the sidewalk. He’d wag his tail and flirt whenever people asked to pet him.
But Uncle Max had memories. He held a lifelong vendetta. He’d seen an ambulance take my spouse’s father away, and then my spouse’s father never came back: just a long lock of faded russet hair that my spouse brought for Uncle Max to sniff.
I was walking Uncle Max one day when an ambulance came by us, forty miles per hour and flashing lights on a quiet street. Uncle Max lunged, trying to bite the ambulance, and nearly pulled me off my feet.
To be perfectly honest, my eyes filled up with tears when I typed this. Uncle Max seemed mostly happy. But that was one goal he never achieved: he never got his revenge, never killed an ambulance.
That’s one type of heroism. Easy to spot. Cinematic. A dog hurling himself into danger to slay the mechanical beast that took his person.
Uncle Max also had the other kind. The quiet heroism. Generally I don’t like David Foster Wallace’s writing, but I love this passage about heroism from The Pale King:
“By which,” [our accounting instructor] said, “I mean true heroism, not heroism as you might know it from films or the tales of childhood. You are now nearly at childhood’s end; you are ready for the truth’s weight, to bear it. The truth is that the heroism of your childhood entertainments was not true valor. It was theater. The grand gesture, the moment of choice, the mortal danger, the external foe, the climactic battle whose outcome resolves all – all designed to appear heroic, to excite and gratify an audience. An audience.”
He made a gesture I can’t describe: “Gentlemen, welcome to the world of reality – there is no audience. No one to applaud, to admire. No one to see you. Do you understand? Here is the truth – actual heroism receives no ovation, entertains no one. No one queues up to see it. No one is interested.”
He paused again and smiled in a way that was not one bit self-mocking. “True heroism is you, alone, in a designated work space. True heroism is minutes, hours, weeks, year upon year of the quiet, precise, judicious exercise of probity and care – with no one there to see or cheer. This is the world. Just you and the job, at your desk.”
This is a sad passage: the author wants to convey the heroism of quietly getting your work done; his own ability to do so had faltered. David Foster Wallace could no longer bear to sit at his desk.
But Uncle Max had children to look after. I think that Uncle Max was in a lot of pain for his last few years. He lived until he was almost fourteen, but by the time he was eight, he stopped being able to run – he still wanted to run, but if we let him, he’d spend the next few days licking his aching, arthritic joints – and as the years went on, he needed to take progressively shorter and shorter walks. Near the end of his life, he was so stiff in the mornings that watching him walk was like a stop-motion film of a taxidermied dead animal.
But each day, after his medication kicked in, he was so happy to see his kids, to play with them or simply sit and be their pillow. He hurt, a lot, but he probably would have kept on going if we’d asked him.
At times, of course, he was infuriating. He felt aggrieved one evening when we rushed off to a dinner party without taking him; he protested by nosing his way into our baking supplies, dragging a package of chocolate chips off a shelf, and devouring them. His heart was racing and his breath was shallow as I drove him to the all-night vet; it took a while to clean all his chocolate-scented vomit.
He’d shriek with a high-pitched, plangent whine whenever he felt like he wasn’t near enough to help; other people in town can walk their dogs to playgrounds and leave them tied just outside the fence, but Uncle Max had lost so many families that he couldn’t believe we’d survive without him. His shrieks sounded like he was in agony; spiritually, perhaps he was.
And he was very loud. Our whole neighborhood knew when he was demanding to go outside or in. Once when we happened to be out of the house for a while on the 4th of July, we returned home to find the kid next door shaking her head ruefully and saying, “I think there’s something wrong with your dog.” He never could handle fireworks.
But he loved his children.
Uncle Max did well. I believe he lived his life with heroism.
I’m proud of that dog.
And I’m proud of my spouse. She took care of her father until the end and then some. For seven years after her father died, my spouse made sure that his dog was safe & warm, well-fed & loved.
Most paths that start like theirs do not lead to here.
“They talked together then. They pondered and wondered.”
And, together, the gods decided to make new creatures to join their conversation. A motivation we well understand – we’ve pored so much effort into the design of chatbots, and even though most language-generating A.I. will be used to inundate the internet with new venues for advertising, sometimes we just want to talk to someone. The first chatbot, ELIZA from the 1960s, rephrased an interlocutor’s statements as questions. But even people who fully understood the inner workings of ELIZA were often comforted when they conversed with her.
The gods made the first people, “human in form, speaking human tongues.”
But the first people displeased the gods. They did not worship their creators correctly. “They held no memory of who had made them.”
And so the gods decided to murder their creations with a flood.
“The face of the earth went black:
a black rain fell all day, all night,
and animals both large and small
began to slink into their homes –
their faces were crushed
by trees and stones –
So the first people were undone.
They were demolished, overthrown.”
Yahweh, too, spoke the world into being. He said, “Let there be light: and there was light.”
Yahweh, too, made creatures after his own image: humans who could talk. He conversed with his creations. When he was alone, he called out to his creations, “Where art thou?”
And Yahweh, too, grew disappointed. He “saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.”
“And he said, I will destroy man whom I have created from the face of the earth; both man and beast, and the creeping thing, and the fowls of the air; for it repenteth me that I have made them.”
Of the creatures who could speak, only Noah and his family would be spared; Yahweh had judged Noah to be the best of his (terrible!) generation. Noah was instructed to build a boat. After it was built, the rains began to fall.
“Fifteen cubits upward did the waters prevail; and the mountains were covered. And all flesh died that moved upon the earth, both of fowl, and of cattle, and of beast, and of every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth, and every man.”
Noah watched his god murder everyone he had known. And Noah was traumatized. Noah planted a vineyard, fermented the grapes, and drank himself to sleep at night. Otherwise the dreams would come.
While Noah lay insensate, his son crept into his tent.
This scene is based upon an old Babylonian folktale. A son believes that his father has sired too many children, and so the son, fearing that his inheritance will shrink further as it is divided between ever more heirs, castrates his father. No new children will stake claims upon the father’s holdings. But when the father wakes in his bloodied bed, he curses his son: “You have done this evil to preserve your inheritance, so you will inherit nothing!”
“And Noah awoke from his wine, and knew what his younger son had done unto him.”
Noah yanked away the son’s inheritance, and more: his son’s heirs would not only fail to inherit the lands, they would become slaves.
Noah’s curse was the beginning of human inequality. When self-professed Christians living in the American regime of abduction & torture (roughly 1600 to 1900, although the era by no means ended crisply) wanted to offer a biblical justification for their abhorrent practices, they claimed that the people whom they’d abducted & tortured were descended from Noah’s cursed son.
Yahweh had claimed that he would not murder the people with another flood, but the humans felt that Yahweh had broken promises before. The people did not believe themselves to be safe. In the first flood, even mountains were covered. (Fifteen cubits would make for a very small mountain – about as tall as a two-story house – but most ancient myths were created over centuries, so we needn’t quibble over a little math.)
To be safe, the people would have to create their own high ground. An even higher ground. They would build a tower into the sky. Not from hubris, but from fear, “lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.”
High above the earth, they would be safe from divine violence.
Without the power to wrench away their lives, Yahweh’s power over them would wane.
This was unacceptable. And so Yahweh inflicted upon them the very calamity that they feared. He “scattered them abroad from thence upon the face of all the earth.”
And Yahweh ensured that his creations could not attempt again to build their own high ground, their own realm of safety away from his violence. He had noticed that his creations “have all one language” and so “nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do.” To maintain their subservience, he said “let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech.”
Yahweh spoke this curse in the Edenic language. Yahweh cursed his creations to make them weaker. And yet, he made them better. Before, they were all of one mind. There was a single culture, a single mode of thought for all, a single set of words to describe the world.
After Babel, there were many.
A cursing, a blessing: our diversity of languages is both.
In the scientific telling, our diversity of languages – a blessing – came from separation. In the beginning, all humans lived within a small region of the globe. Fossils representing the first four million years of human evolution have been found only in east Africa. Only in the last two hundred thousand years did small populations of human ancestors begin to live elsewhere: in Europe, Asia, and the Polynesian Islands.
The mass migrations of Homo sapiens that led directly to our diversity of languages did not begin until about forty thousand years ago.
This was long before anyone told stories like the Popul Vuh or Genesis, which are rooted in agricultural traditions. But this was when our languages were “confounded,” when our ancestors developed a diversity of ways to think of and describe the world.
Yet our separation also wrought a curse. After our ancestors dispersed, creating millions of ways to speak, they also began to foster select pockets of disease. Each isolated community experienced their own zoogenic epidemics; time and time again, their civilizations nearly collapsed, but survivors gained immunity.
Local immunity. After centuries in which influenza had spread through European communities, this virus could typically kill only the very young and old. But when European travelers brought influenza to the Americas, the virus obliterated immunologically naive communities. Upwards of ninety percent of people died. Imagine: a pandemic 300 times more deadly than Covid-19. Influenza was (and still is!) a nightmarish virus.
Our separation also led to our diversity of appearances. And these small differences – lighter or darker skin; straighter or curlier hair; broader or pointier noses – were enough to spur hatred and bigotry.
Guided by these trivial differences in appearance, our ancestors made real Noah’s curse of inequality. Those who happened to have more ancestral exposure to disease and more ancestral access to nutritious foodstuffs were able to conquer their fellow humans. People were enslaved. Resources were plundered. Our diversity of languages has dwindled. Is dwindling now.
Separation – which let our ancestors develop distinct languages, distinct ways of seeing and speaking about the world – also led to hierarchy.
In the fantasy novel Babel, R. F. Kuang reimagines history to consider opposition to Noah’s curse. How might we topple the hierarchies? How might we create a world in which all children are born equal and free?
Babel is a lovely book, but it’s vision is pessimistic and bleak. Babel is subtitled The Necessity of Violence: An Arcane History of the Oxford Translators’ Revolution. This is the protagonists’ conclusion: violence is their only option. Only violence will stop the empire.
Like gods, they will murder and destroy.
Yet even in Babel – with its anticolonial, anticapitalist leanings – the heroes oppress. In their moral framework, only human life has value. Our species can speak. The other creatures – who either have no verbal language, or whose spoken words we’ve failed to comprehend – are ours to enslave, kill, and devour.
In the film The Matrix, only violence can set people free.** With a plethora of armaments, the heroes assault government offices and murder the hapless rule-followers who stand in their way.
Everything Everywhere All at Once reimagines The Matrix without its preponderance of violence. Everything Everywhere All at Once is based upon a similar premise – the world that we experience is an illusion, and huge quantities of information exist just outside our perception – but asks what it would mean to find a peaceful way to set things right.
Hugs instead of handguns: could such a revolution ever succeed?
Midway through the film, Everything Everywhere All at Once re-enacts Genesis 22. The hero is handed a knife and commanded by a father figure to sacrifice her child for reasons that she cannot understand. But where Abraham would have said yes – abetting the sort of god who preferred Abel’s sacrifice to Cain’s, celebrating the first murder and thereby setting into motion a long chain of suffering – in Everything Everywhere All at Once the hero rejects violence and sets her child free.
In Soren Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling, the knight of infinite resignation should have been described as more heroic than the knight of faith – to know that there is suffering, to confront a mystery that your mind cannot possibly comprehend, and to reject the demands of a murderous authority.
For a 1963 psychology experiment conducted at Yale University, Stanley Milgram tested how often people would attempt murder when commanded by an authority figure. 40 men were tested; 26 made the same choice as Abraham. “Take now thy son … and offer him there for a burnt offering.”
Abraham raised a knife to slay his son.
Abraham lived within a world of hierarchies and violence. A world of gods who have no respect for the fruits of the ground, preferring instead slain creatures and the fat thereof.
In Babel, the heroes seek to overturn that world, but cannot imagine any means other than by perpetuating its violence.
In Everything Everywhere All at Once, the heroes consider love.
** Also, a friend recently shared with me their belief that The Matrix would be a better film if Trinity’s prophecy — that she’d love the hero who saved human-kind — meant Trinity learning to love herself before assuming the savior’s mantle. But there’s no way the Wachowski sisters could have made a movie like that in 1999, given their (very reasonable!) reluctance to publicly display their real identities.
Image of a person chatting with ELIZA by Kevin Trotman on flickr.
Painting of the Tower of Babel by Pieter Bruegel, 1563.
As best we know, every particle in our universe follows the exact same physical laws.
These laws are not “deterministic.” We wouldn’t know what would happen next even if we could somehow measure everything about the state of our universe right now. But the unpredictable parts of each particle’s motion – due to each particle possessing a probabilistic mix of perhaps contradictory properties, which sounds strange in metaphorical languages (like English, Spanish, Mandarin, etc.) but not when expressed in mathematics – are totally outside of our control.
As best we know, humans shouldn’t have free will. Our future behaviors will unfold from the present positions and momenta of all the particles in our brains and bodies and the environments around us. Our thoughts will result from cascades of salt atoms crossing neuronal membranes. These salt atoms – like all other particles – are simply following physical laws that are, ahem, totally outside our control.
As best we know, we can make no choices.
As best we know, it’s still totally reasonable for the collections of particles inside our brains and bodies to experience an emergent phenomenon like consciousness. The particles inside of us collaboratively form neurons which collaboratively form minds. These minds can feel. But these minds still follow physical laws.
We can experience choices, not make them.
As best we know, we should experience our lives only passively, as though watching extremely immersive television shows. At times our minds would feel as though they had made choices, but that would just be a plot device. Cinematographic trickery! The choices are actually made by the positions and momentums of particles inside of us, which always result from their positions and momentums a moment before, and so on.
The math all works out.
So, for people who understand the math and the underlying physics, there’s a choice to be made (or perhaps I should say, “the person will passively feel as though they have made a choice”): should they believe in the laws of physics, or should they believe in free will?
Free will certainly feels real. But the sun also feels like it revolves around our planet. Our feelings have been wrong before.
InExistential Physics, Sabine Hossenfelder professes not to believe in free will. But Hossenfelder’s disbelief feels unconvincing. For instance, in describing how we can react to immoral behavior without referencing free will, Hossenfelder writes that:
“We evaluate which actions are most likely to improve our lives in the future.”
This is nonsense, of course. Without free will, there is nothing to evaluate– “evaluate” is an active verb that implies choice. Without free will, we would have no way to“improve our lives,” because this phrasing also implies action and choice. If the entire course of the future depends solely on the current positions and momenta of particles, then our lives will simply happen. The future isn’t predetermined – the mathematics of quantum mechanics injects randomness into the future – but we have no way to influence it. The future course of our lives is not up to us.
The particles will act as they must. Our minds will only watch.
As best we know, the laws of physics tell us that each and every moment in which we feel like an active participant in our lives is simply an illusion.
Personally, I believe the laws of physics are wrong. So does Hossenfelder, most of the time. In her day to day life, she contemplates cognitive biases – for example, the “sunk cost fallacy,” that makes it easy for people to continue making a bad choice so that they don’t feel bad about the bad choices they’ve already made, like when Hossenfelder further delays enrolling in a frequent flier program because she has already missed out on some benefits – and in her better moments, Hossenfelder chooses to overcome them. Hossenfelder also believes that she chose to study physics (and she believes that more people would make a similar choice if introductory physics were taught with a different mathematically formulation).
Hossenfelder discusses the ways that poverty and childhood trauma caninfluence the choices that we make as adults – some decisions feel easier than others because we are always sailing through a headwind of our past experiences – but in every passage of the book, Hossenfelder conveys her belief in free will.
And for good reason! We do have free will. Everyone agrees – even people who, for professional reasons, claim that free will can’t exist.
Honestly, there’d be no other way to live. Human brains couldn’t fathom existence without choice.
So, where does that leave us?
Either our belief in free will is wrong, or our current understanding of physics is wrong. As Hossenfelder meticulously explains, the two belief systems are incompatible.
Personally, I think our current understanding of physics is wrong. And I felt surprised that Hossenfelder never even mentions a major assumption that underlies her work. Occasionally, her chapters will include descriptions of theories that she doesn’t favor (usually followed by a curt dismissal), but the entire text of Existential Physics ignores the most glaring flaw in Hossenfelder’s arguments.
For instance, Hossenfelder writes that “We are all ultimately made of particles, and these particles follow computable equations.” And maybe this is true! But we have no evidence to suggest that it is.
All computation is digital. We can perform digital calculations at various levels of precision – for instance, if we’re trying to predict the behavior of a marble inside a pinball machine, we might measure the marble’s position down to the nearest inch, or tenth of an inch, or hundredth of an inch – but computation can never handle infinite precision. You can’t write the exact square root of two in decimal notation. You can’t write down the exact solution for the behavior of particles in any system with three or more – we can perform excellent calculations for the electronic structure of a hydrogen atom floating in an otherwise empty universe, but for atoms like helium, or for anything more complicated, we couldn’t come up with exact solutions even if we found empty universes for them to exist inside.
Possibly, our universe is digital, too. The mathematics of contemporary physics works best if we believe that our universe exists on a lattice of positions spaced approximately a Planck length apart: this would be a bit like a digital picture, where you can zoom in so far that eventually you’ll see that a red pixel can be either here or there but not anywhere in between.
Many of Hossenfelder’s claims presuppose that our universe is digital. In a digital universe, the amount of information in any particular volume of space would be finite. Decimal mathematics could correctly express everything. We could solve three-body problems, and the chaotic glitches** caused by rounding errors in our computations would be mirrored by chaotic glitches caused by rounding errors in the universe itself!
Wouldn’t that be grand!
But the only “evidence” we have so far that our universe might be digitized – pixelated, voxelated – is that it makes computation easier. That’s not compelling evidence.
It is testable. Consider a hydrogen atom held at a specific location with its electron in an excited orbital. When its electron collapses back to the ground state, the atom emits a photon that zooms off in a random direction. We might then kick the hydrogen’s electron back into an excited state, let it relax to the ground state again, and send another photon zooming off in another random direction. Again and again, photons zoom away!
If physical space were continuous, then the photons produced by this experiment could hit every possible location on detectors placed at any distance away – the probability distribution for photon collisions would be smooth over a sphere. But if physical space were digital, then photons could fly off in straight paths starting only at lattice points adjacent to the hydrogen atom (after accounting for the superposition of possible hydrogen positions). A graph of the probability distribution of photon strikes over a large sphere would show dark regions where photons couldn’t reach – locations where a photon’s path would’ve needed to pass between two lattice points to get there.
As best we know, the spacing between lattice points – if our universe were digital – would be ten to the minus thirty-fifth meters, which is like taking a yardstick and slicing it into a billion pieces, then slicing that piece into a billion pieces, and slicing that into a billion pieces, and slicing that into a billion, until you’ve taken just one billionth part four times over. This is very tiny! Which means that we wouldn’t notice a dark region unless our detector was very far away, and we would have to repeat this experiment with many photons to reveal it.
But – unlike several theories in contemporary physics – this is testable. It’s just an excruciating engineering problem.
Until we test this, though, Hossenfelder’s ardent claims – such as her claim that we can’t have free will – are a matter of belief. Although Hossenfelder doesn’t address this in her text, her worldview presupposes a digitized universe. There simply isn’t any evidence for this.
Until then, I’m perfectly content believing in free will. Even if my belief presupposes that our universe is continuous and is therefore not computable. I mean, computers are fun and all. But the way they work might not mirror our world. Even if that would make the math look prettier.
** Note: often, numerical approximations of a solution will approach the real answer. If we were working on a problem that involved the number pi, we might treat pi as being equal to 3.14 and we’d get an answer, and then we could go through the math again while setting pi equal to 3.14159, and we’d often get an answer that was very similar and slightly more accurate. But certain systems exist at the cusp of very different behaviors – for example, if we were studying a neuron that was close to the threshold of either firing or not, small changes in our understanding of the present would lead to large changes in our predictions for the future. Sometimes rounding errors don’t matter much; sometimes they do.
Most Americans believe themselves to be middle class – about 70% of the population. And most people – again, about 70% – believe that they have above-average intelligence. They’re right, of course: most people probably define “average intelligence” as “slightly less intelligent than me,” instead of as a statistical concept.
We are the norms against which we measure the world. To me, my body is normal; my brain is normal; my beliefs are normal. As are yours, to you!
In sexual parlance, kinks are behaviors outside the norm, but what we do is normalized to ourselves. Kink is a horizon, ever receding as we approach.
Some types of touch or activities might never feel enticing to you, just as some don’t feel particularly enticing to me, but as we live and grow, we encompass more within the boundaries of our norms. Until very recently in this country, all homosexuality was considered kinky, and only through numerous acts of bravery – people making their identities known despite living in a culture bent on rejecting them – did the general populace realize that these desires are widespread and normal.
Which is not to say that your increased awareness of the desires held by others, and your ability to recognize shared humanity with the people who hold them, will make the same desires whelm inside ofyou. I don’t have to want to wield a whip to recognize the sexual ecstasy gleaming from Bartolomeo Manfredi’s painting Cupid Chastised.
Good sex is sex that is good, as in ethically or morally commendable, and good, as in pleasurable.
As to the ethical: good sex is consensual, does no harm, and impacts people’s lives in positive ways.
As to the pleasurable: good sex is hot! Erotic, sexy, stimulating, sensual. It satisfies desire and leads to physical and emotional enjoyment for all partners involved, orgasms all around.
In both senses, sex should do good and feel good. In both senses, sex is good.
This intertwining of the ethical and the pleasurable reflects an ancient and enduring belief that the good life, the life worth living, is a moral one that brings satisfaction to the person living that life. To do good feels good.
Consensual, happy, body-positive, desire-affirming sexuality is a force for moral good. Pleasurable in and of itself, good sex also shields us from advertising, which is designed to sway us toward behaviors that, in aggregate, could cause the collapse of civilization as we know it.
Commercial advertising often subverts a pent-up desire for sexual novelty. The thrill of new acquisitions can replicate or replace the psychological thrill of discovering shared pleasure with someone new.
Many – not all, but many – humans feel lifelong desire for new romantic, erotic, or sexual experiences, but traditional American culture does not celebrate ethical polyamory – open commitment to lifelong adventurousness, perhaps in conjunction with nested stability to raise a family – and polyamory is scary, both for the adventurer and especially for the partner(s) who fear being left behind.
And so, instead of having sex, we’re encouraged to fulfill our need for adventure by buying things.
In advertising, everything is the way you wish it was. I don’t care that it won’t be like that when I actually get the product being advertised – because in between seeing the commercial and owning the thing, I’m happy, and that’s all I want.
We know the product is going to stink. We know that.
But we are happy in that moment between the commercial and the purchase, and I think spending your life trying to dupe innocent people out of hard-won earnings to buy useless, low quality, misrepresented items and services is an excellent use of your energy.
Considering this speech, Puschak writes that:
Seinfeld strikes at the essence of advertising, which may be a creative and clever craft, but is exploitative at heart. … They manipulate us in gross ways to generate desire, to make us feel need where it doesn’t exist.
By design, advertising aims to make you feel worse. But it also offers an escape: successful advertising lays the kindling for joy, if you are willing to spend money. And so, Puschak writes:
Seinfeldsuggests that there’s something to cherish in the perverted relationship we have with advertising: the small period of joy between the purchase and getting the crappy product.
“A brief moment of happiness is pretty good,” Seinfeld says. “I also think that just focusing on making money and buying stupid things is a good way of life. I believe materialism gets a bad rap … If your things don’t make you happy, you’re not getting the right things.”
Advertising (and by extension, capitalism) only offers us a superficial happiness, and maybe that’s not the most we could hope for, but it’s not bad, either. Superficial joys are still joys, after all. They’re “pretty good” and pretty good is good enough.
Buying new things will not bring you lasting pleasure. Presumably, most people know this. And advertising is not designed to convince you otherwise. Instead, successful advertising aims to accentuate the interstitial joy: that brief nigh-erotic thrill of acquiring something new.
Indeed, even within the realm of sexuality, the physical sensations we receive from new bodies pressed against our own will resemble physical sensations that we’ve already known. Our minds reside within relatively uncomplicated meat-machines; the physical sensations from most sexual encounters won’t be better than what you could accomplish on your own, masturbating. The greatest difference is in the moments of anticipation and expectation – the mental thrills we share.
Indeed, in Bad Sex, Nona Willis Aronowitz portrays the dull absence of thrill that we reap when we objectify other people (a habit so pervasive in our patriarchal, misogynistic culture that even Aronowitz herself slips into it, like when she describes her partner’s “whirlwind hookup with a young blond French girl”).
Aronowitz hires a sex worker to give her an erotic massage:
Considering the circumstances, I was relaxed and turned on. He took his time “massaging” me, which really meant stroking my butt and breasts and, eventually, between my legs. His pussy-rubbing skills were legitimately advanced, and it was clear he was paying close attention, responding to every little moan I made and every time I pressed into his hand a bit more.
And yet I didn’t come. I knew from the beginning I maybe wouldn’t. My clitoris refused to cooperate, even when he understood (bless his heart) that his bare hand wasn’t working and he employed a few vibrators – including the all-powerful Hitachi Magic Wand.
His methods were all fine and arousal inducing, but it felt empty, mechanical. The only time my brain fizzed with true excitement was when my arm grazed his hard-on.
Without the emotional thrill of connection – an exquisite moment of anticipation like Seinfeld’s brief happiness “in between seeing the commercial and owning the thing” – Aronowitz couldn’t enjoy herself. Even though the physical sensations were impeccable. In “I’ll Read What She’s Reading,” Toni Bentley’s essay about participating in Clayton Cubitt’s “Hysterical Literature” video project (in which women have orgasms while reading aloud on camera), Bentley writes that:
I told Katie [who would be ensconced beneath a desk and controlling the vibrator for Bentley] that I was a Hitachi virgin—I never really understood the point of vibrators, particularly if there was an able-bodied man around—so she offered to touch the side of my knee with the wand for a moment before filming as a preview.
Good thing she did that. Jesus. I mean Holy Mary Mother of God. Thus I was relieved in five seconds of my concern about not being able to climax, and I quickly had the opposite problem: How would I last long enough to do justice to [a passage from Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady]?
Bentley’s situation was erotic: a sultry mélange of exhibitionism, literature, self-control, submission, and physical sensation. Whereas Aronowitz had only the physical sensation, and it wasn’t enough. She’d purchased a service; she wanted a person. (“Most of the time,” she writes, “a hot one-night stand simply requires being a decent human being.”)
During her erotic massage, Aronowitz didn’t get to linger in “that moment in between the commercial and the purchase” – she understood the pre-arranged boundaries of their encounter, which would not include shared pleasure or mutually-recognized humanity. There was nothing to anticipate. Expecting physical pleasure could have brought her ecstasy; having physical pleasure didn’t.
Puschak writes that perhaps the momentary thrill of consumerism is enough. Even if capitalism, in repurposing our desires for sexual discovery, “only offers a superficial happiness,” maybe that’s fine. “Superficial joys are still joys, after all.”
And these joys are sometimes more accessible. You can do capitalism all on your own. Earn some money and feel the thrill of buying things. You don’t get to form human connections, but you also don’t have to form human connections with anybody.
In a world of isolated individuals, I might agree. But we are not alone: there are eight billion of us sharing this planet together. We are inherently connected; the choices we make as individuals affect each other.
Let’s say you wanted to grab a snack right now. Ten thousand years ago, you might’ve walked a few feet into the forest, stuck your hand into a log, and yanked out a handful of tasty termites. Boom. Problem solved. Snack acquired.
These days, you might walk a few feet into the kitchen and grab a banana. Same problem (hunger), same solution (food).
The difference between the two is that the availability of the banana today is shaped entirely by human-made, technological processes that have added unimaginable complexity to the simple act of grabbing a snack. And these processes generate long-term consequences we hadn’t considered.
Our hankering for a snack in the twenty-first century is identical to what it was ten thousand years ago, but our complex cognition allows us to engage in activities (e.g., oil and gas extraction, mechanized farming, soil depletion) on a massive scale, which is transforming this planet into an uninhabitable shithole. Our kitchens are full of foods that come from a global agricultural-industrial complex that is fundamentally problematic to the survival of the human species.
When we seek to sate an instinctual desire for sexual novelty by constantly acquiring new things – robot vacuums and snazzy telephones and single-season clothes – we are making our whole planet less livable.
For human civilization to survive, we’ll have to dampen our lust for consumerism. But we’ll still feel full of all this desire, all this need for novelty. Which is why many people continue to seek out new pornography over the course of their lives, instead of discovering the one ideal fantasy, memory, photography, film or story that excites them perfectly and then having it accompany them ever after in their moments of solitary sexuality. We shouldn’t let Disney movies deceive us into seeking a single destination, a fade-out moment of “happily ever after” – our happiness often depends on continued adventure. As we live, we continue journeying.
To many of the humans who lived before us, a banana would have seemed so weird! It doesn’t look or taste like anything that grew in Africa, Europe, or Asia.
To us, a banana is a normal snack.
If you and your partner(s) grant yourselves permission to (cautiously, safely, consensually!) adventure, then more of the world is normalized. Toys, lighting, & music; outfits, role-play, & scenes; groups, activities, & settings: the horizon of kink will keep receding.
And in the process, we might quiet the urges that compel us to wreck our planet. As we journey – reclaiming our desires from advertising – with luck, we’ll feel less need for commercial stuff. We’ll be able to, like Seinfeld, “know the product is going to stink” … but, even better, maybe we won’t even buy it!
When we open our lives to other joys, we can more easily resist capitalist compulsions and perhaps, perhaps, do the right thing regarding climate change. We need to buy fewer things. We also need to still be happy.
If people who earnestly believe in ghosts decide to host a séance, they’re no more likely to conjure an apparition than if non-believers host a similar ceremony simply as a lark.
A ring of candles, a drop of blood, earnest believe: none of these will summon spirits. And so the rest of us – the unwitting public who might find ourselves endangered if hungry ghosts were unleashed upon the world – need not fear any gathering of believers. The force of their belief can’t hurt us.
But inflation is a ghost who can be summoned by belief.
Inflation can only be summoned by belief.
And inflation hungers. But this ghost will not pursue us equally. Rather, inflation is like a spirit of vengeance, aggrieved by inequality. Inflation gobbles fortunes while forgiving debts.
Corporate executives – people with the power to set prices – have contributed most to inflation’s summoning. Their belief, within the financial séance, has mattered more. And, as they tend to be more wealthy than the average person, they have the most to fear.
Inflation is a rise in the prices of all goods and services. Wages rise, and so do prices, each increasing ostensibly in response to the other.
Consider an example: if the price of apples increased but all other food prices stayed the same, that would not be inflation. That might reflect a poor apple harvest. Apples would become more expensive relative to other goods.
But if, after this poor apple harvest, grocers raise the prices of apples, then notice that people are actually willing to pay those higher prices, and then decide to raise all their other prices too, just to see, and then workers demand higher wages in order to afford their more expensive groceries, that is inflation.
Inflation is a pressure to keep relative prices the same. Which results from belief – in our example, grocers simply believing that two lemons should cost as much as an apple, even after a poor apple harvest, and workers believing that they should be able to afford an apple with the wages of five minutes’ work, just like they could last year.
This distinction – that inflation occurs because people believe one good should not become more expensive compared to another – is essential to understanding the origins of our current episode of inflation. Which has a lot of roots – disruptions to Chinese manufacturing, shipping snafus, embargoes against Russian energy exports – but the story begins with wages.
In response to the Covid-19 pandemic, many workers realized that they were being unfairly undercompensated. People switched to better-paying jobs. Employers had to offer more money to retain staff. Briefly, it seemed as though workers would become more expensive relative to corporate profits, executive pay, or consumer prices.
Our current episode of inflation can be understood partly as a game of tug-of-war between workers and corporations. Workers insist that they should be valued more than they previously were – in response, their wages increase. Then executives tug back, insisting that workers were already treated well enough – they set prices higher, negating the increase in workers’ buying power.
If a single executive behaved this way, that corporation might suffer. If a can of Coca-Cola cost two dollars while a can of Pepsi cost only one, people might switch to Pepsi. But if many executives coincidentally behave like a cartel, all raising their prices at the same time, then they maintain the séance. Despite needing to pay high wages, their profits rise. So do their personal salaries. They reinforce their belief about the status of workers.
Increased fuel and shipping costs have also contributed to rising prices, but these didn’t cause the inflation we’re experiencing today.
In our economy, fuel is used for almost everything: powering farm equipment, transporting goods across the country, hopscotching components along the supply chain, even commuting to work. As fuel costs rise, all production becomes more expensive.
You might imagine that if prices were raised to reflect the rising cost of fuel, we’d see something like inflation. But it costs just as much to ship ten pounds of cheap trinkets as it does to ship ten pounds of intricate devices; it costs just as much for a janitor to drive to work as for an executive. Boosting every wage to account for increased commuting costs would compress the percentage gap between executive and worker salaries. Raising the price of all goods to account for increased shipping and manufacturing costs would make formerly cheap products become relatively more expensive.
Instead, prices and wages have increased by a percentage of what they were before. Real occurrences in the world – beleaguered workers bargaining for higher salaries, a shipping crunch when people stuck at home bought furnishings online, a war in Ukraine – caused some prices to rise. Belief lifted all the others.
Our current episode of inflation has also been abetted by unhappiness.
Because inflation arises from belief, it always has psychological roots. People with the power to set prices will set them higher if they believe that other people are also setting higher prices. But right now, inflation has also been bolstered by the psychological malaise of consumers.
“And Paul Volcker says, ‘We’ve gotten ourselves into a situation in which people don’t just expect inflation next year to be what it was last year. People expect inflation next year to be what it was last year plus a bit more.”
“ ‘I’ve got to fix this and I got to fix this by hitting the economy on the head with a brick and keep hitting until people understand that no, if they insist on raising their prices, they’ll have no demand for their products.’ ”
In this description, DeLong correctly describes the root cause of inflation as belief. Inflation happens because the people with power to set prices believe that inflation is happening. And DeLong describes a way for inflation to end: convincing those people, the ones who are setting prices, that consumers will stop buying things.
Our current period of inflation began with wages rising – due to the pandemic, people wouldn’t come to work unless they received higher wages. Then executives raised prices. Everyone needs to eat, so consumers have few options if executives raise food prices in concert, but people could choose not to buy a new computer or couch. Raising those prices could have caused a drop in demand, which would have ended the brief kindling of inflation.
But unhappy people are more likely to buy things. I’ve certainly felt this in my own life, spending too much money on stuff I didn’t need when I was feeling crummy.
Incidentally, this is why Facebook (& Instagram, & …) is designed to make users unhappy. The users of Facebook are the product that Facebook sells to advertisers, and an unhappy user is more desirable to advertisers than a happy user. By intentionally cultivating unhappiness in emotionally-addictive ways, Facebook can offer advertisers a premium product: the attention of people who are more likely to buy things as they attempt to fill an empty ache inside.
The lingering malaise of the pandemic and the scary ways that our world has changed have made people more likely to buy things, even when prices should feel “too high” compared to last year. Which means that the concerted price increases set by executives have kept causing inflation instead of reducing demand.
Legal U.S. currency has only a modicum of inherent value, primarily aesthetic. I’ve heard that a high denomination bill can be rolled into a tube and used to snort cocaine in front of potential romantic partners. Some people think that this showy behavior is alluring.
Mostly, though, U.S. currency is considered valuable because we believe it is, together. The value of money is a collective fiction. Like medieval outbreaks of Tarantism, we keep dancing because we fear that we might die if we ever stopped.
Currency intervenes in every exchange. You can’t directly trade a bail of hay for fifteen-minutes’ legal help in the modern world.
Once upon a time, the value of U.S. currency was backed by gold. Like dollar bills, gold has only limited inherent value, primarily aesthetic. Because gold glitters, it was made into jewelry. In the modern world, gold is also a useful catalyst for certain chemical reactions, but during the glory days of gold – to which some disingenuous or ignorant politicians argue that we should return – gold held value because people believed in its value together. Collectively, people believed that a particular weight of it could be traded for a bay of hay, and that a particular weight could be traded for legal help, and this allowed everything in the world to be assessed with the same measure.
The relative value of goods and services is fixed in the short term. Legal help is judged to be just so difficult to produce, so fifteen minutes should be worth the same as a certain amount of hay. Over longer timespans, these relationships can drift: if a team of programmers creates an AI script that provides legal help much more abundantly than human lawyers, each fifteen minutes of legal help should be worth less hay.
But there’s no constraint on how hay should be priced with respect to a currency whose value is created by belief. As long as the relative prices of hay and legal help stay the same, both a bail of hay and fifteen-minutes’ legal help could be priced at a gram of gold, or a tenth of a gram, or a hundredth. In each case, the world functions the same way. Hay can be traded for currency which can be traded for legal help.
But belief still matters. If lots of people harvest hay, then the aesthetic preferences of any one person aren’t important. But if one person buys up all the hay fields, and then that person decides that gold isn’t particularly attractive, that person might demand twice as much gold in exchange for hay. This demand would be temporarily irksome, but if everyone agrees that this hay merchant has good aesthetic taste – maybe gold was never as pretty as we thought! – people will start trading twice as much gold as before for hay, and for legal help, and for labor. The world still works. Gold was only ever a measuring stick. As long as everyone switches together, it doesn’t matter whether the measuring stick is delineated in inches or centimeters. The numbers change – eight inches, twenty centimeters – while the actual size of objects stays the same.
Ah, but wait. The world in motion stays the same: a bail of hay is still worth fifteen-minutes’ legal help. But the static world has changed. A dragon, lounging atop his golden horde, had known that he could trade those mounded coins for seven years of legal help. It was a mighty stash.
Suddenly – and all because an influential merchant decided that he didn’t like the look of gold – the dragon can only buy three years of help. The people’s belief crept in like a thief. The dragon’s great wealth was stolen.
The dragon would obviously feel irate.
Because money has no inherent value, the terms of monetary exchange are set by collective belief. And in recent months, inflation has been summoned by conflicting beliefs: workers claim that they were undervalued, executives claim that they weren’t.
This is the crux of inflation: whether or not relative values should change. Should some things become more expensive, compared to others, or should all things cost more money?
In my opinion, it’s reasonable for workers to become more expensive. Workers were treated unfairly for decades! And it’s reasonable for certain foods to become more expensive – there’s a war in Ukraine!
But some corporate executives disagreed, refusing to believe that workers or food should become more expensive relative to other things. And then, instead of balking, unhappy consumers kept on buying things.
To recap: the beliefs of powerful people caused inflation. Now many of those same powerful people are upset, because inflation attacks their dragonish hordes. If somebody already has a bunch of money – a bank account with ten million dollars of savings – then a world in which all costs and wages suddenly double will see this person become half as wealthy. If somebody else has debt – a credit card bill, a mortgage, unpaid student tuition – then they’ll become half as poor.
Unless inflation goes so far that we entirely unravel our collective fiction – everyone waking from the collective dream that currency holds any value – only wealthy people will be hurt. Inflation hungers after their large, fictitious numbers.
And yet it was wealthy people’s belief – perhaps real, perhaps purported in bad faith – that summoned inflation in the first place.
When I was a child, my parents gave me a toy walrus to sleep with. While cuddling this walrus, I’d twist my fingers through a small looped tag on its back, until one day I knotted the tag so thoroughly that I cut off my circulation. I screamed; my finger turned blue; my parents rushed in and wanted to cut off the tag.
“No!” I apparently screamed. “The soft tag is the best part!”
I continued to refuse their help until they offered a compromise, merely slicing the loop in half so we could save my throbbing finger and prevent any future calamity.
I continued to sleep with that toy walrus until I was midway through high school. As I fell asleep, my parents would sometimes peer inside my bedroom and see me lying there, eyes closed, breath slow, my fingers gently stroking that soft tag.
Yes, kids with autism are sometimes quite particular about sensory stimulation. But I am not alone! Baby monkeys also love soft fabric.
So do their mothers.
After biologist Margaret Livingstone published a research essay, “Triggers for Mother Love,” animal welfare activists and many other scientists were appalled. In the essay, Livingstone casually discusses traumatic ongoing experiments in which hours-old baby monkeys are removed from their mothers. The babies are then raised in environments where they never glimpse anything that resembles a face, either because they’re kept in solitary confinement and fed by masked technicians or because the babies’ eyes are sutured shut.
After the babies are removed from their mothers, Livingstone offers the mothers soft toys. And the mothers appear to bond with these soft toys. When one particular baby was returned to its mother several hours later, Livingstone writes that:
“The mother looked back and forth between the toy she was holding and the wiggling, squeaking infant, and eventually moved to the back of her enclosure with the toy, leaving the lively infant on the shelf.”
Although I dislike this ongoing research, and don’t believe that it should continue, I find Livingstone’s essay to be generally compassionate.
Livingstone discusses parenting advice from the early twentieth century – too much touch or physical affection will make your child weak! – that probably stunted the emotional development of large numbers of children. Livingstone expresses gratitude that the 1950s-era research of Harry Harlow – the first scientist to explore using soft toys to replace a severed maternal bond – revealed how toxic these recommendations really were.
Harlow’s research may have improved the lives of many human children.
Harlow’s research intentionally inflicted severe trauma on research animals.
To show that the aftereffects of trauma can linger throughout an animal’s life, Harlow used devices that he named “The Rape Rack” and “The Pit of Despair” to harm monkeys (whom he did not name).
Harlow did not justify these acts by denigrating the animals. Indeed, in Voracious Science and Vulnerable Animals, research-scientist-turned-animal-activist John Gluck describes working with Harlow as both a student and then professorial collaborator, and believes that Harlow was notable at the time for his respect for monkeys. But this was not enough. Gluck writes that:
“The accepted all-encompassing single ethical principle was simple: if considerations of risk and significant harm blocked the use of human subjects, using animals as experimental surrogates was automatically justified.”
“Harlow showed that monkeys could be emotionally destroyed when opportunities for maternal and peer attachment were withheld. He argued that affectionate relationships in monkeys were worthy of terms like love.”
“In his work on learning in monkeys … [he offered] abundant evidence that monkeys develop and evaluate hypotheses during attempts to develop a solution.”
“Everything that Harlow learned from his research declared that monkeys are self-conscious, emotionally complex, intentional, and capable of substantial levels of suffering.”
For my own scientific research, I purchased cow’s brains from slaughterhouses. I used antibodies that were made in the bodies of rabbits and mice who lived (poorly) inside industrial facilities. For my spouse’s scientific research, she killed male frogs to take their sperm.
We’re both vegan.
I’d like to believe that we’d find alternative ways to address those same research questions if we were to repeat those projects today. But that’s hypothetical – at the time, we used animals.
And I certainly believe that there are other ways for Livingstone to study, for instance, the developmental ramifications of autistic children rarely making eye contact with the people around them – without blinding baby monkeys. I believe that Livingstone could study the physiological cues for bonding without removing mothers’ babies (especially since Harlow’s work, from the better part of a century ago, already showed how damaging this methodology would be).
Personally, I don’t think the potential gains from these experiments are worth their moral costs.
But also I recognize that, as a person living in the modern world, I’ve benefited from Harlow’s research. I’ve benefited from the research using mice, hamsters, and monkeys that led to the Covid-19 vaccines. I’ve benefited from innumerable experiments that caused harm.
Livingstone’s particular research might not result in any benefits – a lot of scientific research doesn’t – but unfortunately we can’t know in advance what knowledge will be useful and won’t won’t.
And if there’s any benefit, then I will benefit from this, too. It’s very hard to avoid being helped by knowledge that’s out there in the world.
To my mind, this means I have to atone – to find ways to compensate for some of the suffering that’s been afflicted on my behalf – but reparations are never perfect. And no one can force you to recognize a moral debt.
You will have to decide what any of this means to you.
As translated by Edith Grossman, Gabriel García Márquez’s novel Love in the Time of Cholera begins:
It was inevitable: the scent of bitter almonds always reminded him of the fate of unrequited love.
An unhealthy longing. Unidirectional affection is often based on an illusion, with the besotted failing to see the whole complex, contradictory, living person in front of them.
Infatuation can feel overwhelming: the scent of bitter almonds, which about 40% of us can’t detect (early in my research career, a lab director counseled that “You should find some and check, you’ll be safer if you know whether or not you can smell it”) is cyanide, an agent of suicide. A release from the emotions that a person momentarily believes they cannot live with.
Throughout high school and college – bumbling through social situations as an undiagnosed, awkward, empathetic autistic person – I was prone to unrequited love. I could recognize when a classmate was intelligent, friendly, and fun; I understood less about the scaffolding of mutual care that might allow for reciprocal love to grow.
And so I grew adept at expressing unrequited affection: heartfelt handwritten letters; delivering home-cooked meals; offering compassion and care when a person I liked was sick; making fumbling offers to hold hands during an evening we spent jaunting about together.
It wasn’t love, exactly, which between adults needs both trust and the accumulation of shared memories to grow, but it was something. An imagined swirl of possibility that helped me feel hopeful about the future. In Love and the Time of Cholera, a character maintains his unrequited love for fifty-three years before finally building a reciprocal relationship:
Then [the captain] looked at Florentino Ariza, his invincible power, his intrepid love, and he was overwhelmed by the belated suspicion that it is life, more than death, that has no limits.
Unrequited love is unhealthy, and it surrounds us. The world depends on our desire to care, our willingness to occasionally sacrifice our own interests for the benefit of others.
Every consciousness, whether human or animal, loves differently. When we love animals, we love creatures whose conception of love we’ll never fully understand. We love creatures whose love for us will always be different from our love for them.
But isn’t this, you might wonder, the state of loving other people as well? Aren’t we always flinging our desire at the opacity of another person, and receiving care we cannot fully comprehend?
A friend recently contacted me in the middle of the night: he and his spouse just had their first child, and – surprise, surprise! – they weren’t sleeping.
“Right now,” my friend told me, “he’s quiet if he’s nursing, or if we’re walking around with him in the carrier, but other than that, he’ll wake up and yell.”
I tried to think of what cheerful advice I could possibly give. “Sometimes I’d put my kids in the carrier,” I said, “then bounce on an exercise ball while I watched TV, to trick them into thinking we were walking.”
“Hey!” shouted my six-year-old, who was drawing cartoon monsters at my feet. “You tricked us!”
“Yup,” I told her, “and you’ll be glad to know how I did it, in case you’re ever trying to soothe a baby.”
For most of human evolution, most people’s lives were intimately entwined with their whole community. New parents would have watched other people raise children. But in recent years, upper and middle class Americans have segregated themselves by age. After leaving college, many rarely spend time around babies until having their own. And then, wham! After only a few months preparation, there’s a hungry, helpless, needy being who needs care.
Those first few weeks – which hazily become the first few months – are particularly punishing because very young babies can express contentment or angst, but not appreciation. New parents upend everything about their lives to provide for these tiny creatures, and they’re given so little back. In the beginning there are no smiles, no giggles or coos – just a few moments’ absence of yelling.
Upon reflection – thinking about the handwritten letters that my spouse and I have penned in journals for our children, interspersed with bits of their art that we’ve taped to the pages; all the excessively bland meals I’ve cooked; the doting cuddles and care when their stuffy noses made it hard for them to breathe; my continued insistence that we hold hands when crossing busy streets – I realized that unrequited love was perhaps my major preparation.
“I guess it was nice,” I told my friend, “that after all those years, I finally had a relationship where unrequited love was considered healthy.”
Luckily for me, my friend was sleep deprived enough to laugh.