Final (possibly) thoughts on the ‘gay marriage’ debacle

Executive summary: show me the arguments. Why should marriage law take the shape proposed by the ‘Marriage (Definition of Marriage) Amendment Bill’ (rather than various other forms which it could take)?

The public discussion over the revision of NZ marriage law has been a complete farce, a situation which all sides should be saddened by. That so many people have effectively been bullied into staying silent on the issue, and that those who have spoken have so seldom offered coherent argumentation, should be matters of serious concern. Of course, a common reaction to this will be mockery and derision, perhaps in conjunction with a supercilious tone – but that constitutes rather little by way of response, and I’m cynical enough to not particularly care.

My own view on the matter, as most of you will be aware, is that marriage is properly restricted to couples involving partners of the opposite sex. I realise the issue is divisive (understatement) and highly personal for some of my friends, and I think my natural temperament is reasonably conciliatory, so I don’t post these kinds of comments lightly. It is a complex mix of personal experience, political and religious factors which lead me to saying something on the topic. Hear me out if you are able. Unfortunately the parliamentary select committee chose not to listen to my oral submission on the issue, so this is my alternative drop in the bucket of public debate. There are lots of things I could blog on, but this one seems popular at the moment, and it seems lots more people read this kind of post than most others.

Firstly, it may seem to you that my own personal ethical and/or religious views should have no impact on the shaping of public institutions. For all its apparent reasonableness, this however is an absurd position which cannot be applied equally across the board – I think it commits the proponent to a kind of self-referential incoherence. These institutions will be shaped by ethical considerations of some kind, often motivated by one’s bigger picture Weltanschauung (religion?) and I believe it is in everyone’s best interest that the public square is open to debate on them and not constrained ‘a priori’ by a small set of “allowable” viewpoints. If your substantive ethical view (e.g. one aligned with secular humanism) is allowed, why not mine? It may be felt that any reasons I give below are just a sham to cover my inherently irrational religious beliefs or emotive medieval prejudices; in response I would suggest that a similar ‘psychologising’ move is quite possible for supporters of the Bill, though actually hardly even necessary given the paucity of arguments being offered from that side. [It may be claimed that while religion claims esoteric private knowledge, secular humanism is just based on rational inference from publicly available information. This is to misunderstand the nature of both Christianity and secular humanism, but if you want to discuss this more you are very welcome.]

Perhaps the main hindrance to the debate is the widespread belief that the ideals of ‘progressivism’ (as narrowly construed by the cultural elite of today) are in some sense the default position. They don’t really need to be argued for, for they are obviously true to any educated person. That the precise boundaries of the ideal are so malleable just shows how advanced the concepts are. Some might call this “the new indoctrination”. What results is the sometimes brutal attempted subjugation of any alternative viewpoint, with the characterisation of traditionalist or conservative opponents as uneducated reactionary bigots clinging on to a last vestige of societal privilege rather than showing us as we prefer to be seen – as everyone’s favourite underdog rebels, caped crusaders for truth, goodness, beauty, and a flourishing society.

Well, … in fact I probably won’t be wearing a cape anytime soon, and I have few illusions about my own motives and character; I know they are mixed and muddied. “So shut up then”, you say perhaps. But in a messed-up world there are still a few things worth standing up for, and the integrity of the base unit of society seems like one of them to me. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t oppose all ‘progressive’ thinking by any means, but I urge the need for alternative voices, and alternative conceptions of how debates should be framed, to be heard. I am well aware of the phenomenon of religious hypocrisy (Jesus spoke about it, and it hasn’t changed much since then), but keeping one finger on the pulse of my own life and my feet on the ground, I aim for now to continue to speak into the cacophony of the public square because others no less sullied or imperfect than I are already speaking, and a lot of what they are saying is in need of correction. Actually, it’d be cool if you could join me; just engage your brain, check your beliefs, and open your mouth (or type something and post it online).

Now, to revise (in case you missed the memo) – why would anyone support the standard view of heterosexual marriage, to the exclusion of other forms?

See here [link] for more in-depth argumentation along the lines which I offer. What is given below is a revised form of what I’ve published elsewhere, as I got lazy.

If marriage is important, an understanding implicit in State recognition, we need to be clear about what it is. Those who believe that all relationship types should be equal in the eyes of the law ought to promote not same-sex marriage, but rather the abolition or privatization of marriage. Some will say that the current move is just a first step to a wider reinvention of the institution, while it is also claimed that the proposed shift could only strengthen marriage in NZ – but these cannot both be true. I suggest that marriage is rationally limited to male-female pairs, and that no compelling alternative view of marriage is on offer in the public debate.

Marriage is a pre-political institution that arises across the world in a range of slightly different forms as a result of the biological realities involved in producing children. In NZ it is shaped by norms of monogamy, fidelity, and love, as a result of the universal intrinsic link to children and our culture’s belief in the equality of the partners. Only a pair from the opposite sex can share life together fully (socially, economically, physically) in a union that can result in children. A quote from Bertrand Russell is used to good effect in this [link] recent document from UK Catholic bishops: ‘But for children, there would be no need of any institution concerned with sex …. It is through children alone that sexual relations become of importance to society, and worthy to be taken cognizance of by a legal institution.’ Extending marriage fails to recognise why the institution currently has the form it does. In jettisoning the biological family unit as its basis, along with biblical statements which reinforce the relevant norms for many in NZ, we are left floating in a relativistic soup.

The primary public good of marriage is families, including children; it is a good for children to be raised by their biological parents where possible and the State may appropriately choose to provide benefits to the kind of union where that can occur. But there are ancillary goods too, which helps to explain the legitimate inclusion of many couples without children. It is a good to have models of the kind of union that in many cases produces the primary good. It is good for society for members of the opposite sex to share life together fully, with commitment. The government is not interested in the fertility of individual couples but does have an interest in promoting opposite-sex parenting as the ideal. Not recognising the value and form of this institution shaped around children’s wellbeing would be a failure by the State.

The proposed amendment continues to discriminate against a number of relationship forms; 15 kinds of couple are listed in Schedule 2 of the Bill, and multi-partner relationships are similarly off the cards. Yet, having divorced marriage from both biology and biblical norms, justifying the particularly contours seems left to tradition or accidents of history – I think poor bases for law. 

Objections & Replies:

”Marriage has nothing to do with kids!”
– I contend that the norms associated in our culture with marriage exist to a large extent due to the link with children. Since things like love & fidelity are talked about in the revised context of ‘gay marriage’, I take it that most proponents of the Bill want to retain the general shape of the institution and just extend it to more couples. The difficulty is that the institution has the basic shape it does for a reason, namely (in the first instance) children. Another reason, I would argue, is sourced in the biblical/Christian tradition (there is of course marriage, or something like it, in various other cultures, but what we talk about in ours is associated with romantic love, an idea which has a distinctly Western & Christian history to it in this country). I don’t think you can expect to stick the same name on something which is quite different (marriage turned into merely two people romantically attached who want to have this relationship situation recognised) whilst retaining the general shape.

Of course, some will say to themselves “lol, he thinks marriage is all about having kids – how unbearably old-fashioned”, but it’s not my claim that there are not ancillary goods to marriage, and the question remains: what do you think marriage is about, and given your view, why should the government get involved at all? If you don’t believe in government involvement in marriage, you don’t believe in gay marriage.

“Okay, sure, marriage can be linked to kids (if the couple wants), but gay couples can have kids and some heteros can’t – surely you’re just discriminating on what is now, thanks to Science, a completely arbitrary basis?”
– If the government’s interest in marriage is primarily due to the connection to children and stable families, then it is justified in limiting what it regards as ‘marriage’ to relationship forms which bear an intrinsic connection to children, i.e. heterosexual unions. Some hetero couples will not want to or be able to have children, but they still participate in a kind of union which is by its nature oriented towards children. It is not in the government’s interest to discriminate based on a couple’s desires or issues of reproductive health (thus rejection of childless hetero couples would be unjust). It is however in society’s interest to promote the norms associated with marriage, and a good way it can do that is to recognise committed heterosexual unions with the unique term for this situation which has arisen in our culture, namely ‘marriage’. A legitimate question for the government in deciding what to recognise as ‘marriage’ is whether a particular kind of union is associated with the primary societal function of marriage. If a kind of union is not associated with the determined function and does not reinforce the norms which are a result of that function, it is only fair that it not be deemed a member of the class defined in terms of that function.

”Bow down to progress, hillbilly! Once upon a time, people like you banned inter-racial marriage and did other dastardly things, but that time is gone, (thanks be to Science!)”
– Banning or discouraging inter-racial marriage is inconsistent with the position which I have outlined, which emphasises that the key aspects of marriage are an intrinsic orientation towards children, along with the associated norms. Inter-racial marriages have exactly the same orientation towards children as those between people of the same race (I don’t know how race can be sensibly defined in any case, just in case anyone wondered). People in the past may have offered reasons to reject homosexual unions which also resulted in rejecting inter-racial unions, but I don’t know what those would be, and they’re not the reasons I have offered.

“Don’t throw ur religion @ me, fool!”
– 1) please read my argument, above.

2) I don’t understand why the revised contours of marriage law as offered by proponents of “gay marriage” constitutes the default position. If it does not, I think the shape proposed requires argumentation. Can you oblige plz?

“If you’re not gay, this doesn’t affect you. Leave them/us alone to get married as they/we wish.”
– Marriage is a public institution, and the shape of marriage law is a matter of legitimate public interest.
– One effect of the law will be to facilitate joint adoption by homosexual couples. This is a large issue which I have not discussed, as I am not an expert in it; basically I think the case needs to be made before such a change is brought in, and from what I have read, the social science is ambiguous regarding the overall outcomes of homosexual adoption. The question obviously affects adopted children, which is a constituency I have some interest in.

“Get with the times – this is democracy, bro, you can’t stop it.”
– I don’t expect to stop it, I just think it is appropriate to register protest. If true democracy results in marriage being redefined into an ad hoc and unjustly discriminatory creation of the State, then so be it. But I’d like genuine public debate on the matter first, with the academic defenders of both sides presented. Even go so far as to hold a public referendum if you really want ‘democracy’ – but don’t be too surprised when you lose.

[From a hypothetical Christian]: “You need to quote the Bible and/or to assert its necessity in moral issues. If atheists don’t like that, too bad. There are no good secular arguments concerning the nature of marriage, so don’t even go there.”
– Dealing with this objection to my approach fully would require at least a post on ‘faith & reason’, which I may get around to eventually. But, in general I think that some claims that Christians make are open to assessment by ‘public reason’ – i.e. don’t require accepting specifically Christian precepts. Marriage is not a uniquely Christian concept (though its form as we know it has been influenced by Christian ideas), and I think there are good arguments for retaining something like its current form, without having to refer to the contents of special revelation. When I see people of a ‘presuppositionalist’ bent misrepresenting arguments based on broadly ‘secular’ premisses, I (probably irrationally – the existence of many bad arguments against a position doesn’t show it to be true) feel a little more justified in my conclusion.

Well, there’s plenty more that could be said on all of this, and I’m not really an expert – just an amateur dabbler annoyed by how amateur some of the other dabblers talking about this are; if I saw many others writing about this in a way that I agreed with, I wouldn’t have bothered, but I didn’t, so I did. There are quite a few people studying subjects like law & philosophy who could step up to the plate on things like this, and should be able to do so more competently than I, but each to their own.
If you made it to the end, well done, it’s probably time to get a life. Beyond that, I hope I haven’t infuriated you too much (I’ve probably managed to alienate atheists, agnostics, and evangelical Christians, but followers of other religions should I think be happy enough); let me know sometime, and I’ll happily buy you a coffee to discuss it if you wish (offer limited by my finances, but very much open for now).

why evolutionists shouldn’t be reductionists

An interesting thing I got from reading a phil bio book is that evolutionary explanations are problematic for the reductionist. It may not be a big deal, as I’ll try to explain later, but it is quite interesting (to me anyway).

The science of evolution describes current states of the biological world in terms of evolutionary processes occurring in the past – “no problem for the reductionist there surely”, you cry! “Just a collocation of atoms, sometimes taking on organismal forms in response to the vagaries of chance and necessity; what’s the problem?!”

The issue is that evolutionary explanation is in terms of “function” – evolution is said to select not for the particular arrangements of organic molecules in an organism’s future progeny per se, but rather for a particular function, i.e. a pattern of molecules oriented towards a particular (survival-conducive) goal. The nature of evolutionary explanation is that it deals in functions, in an orientation towards a goal, rather than in mere arrangement of particular atoms. So, there seem to me to be two problematic aspects – firstly the fact that the pattern selected for is replicated in future; the same pattern in different particular molecules. The pattern is ‘multiply realizable’, and I think this means that it cannot be described in terms of constituent parts (but I’m not sure …).  Secondly, the pattern is oriented towards a goal, the survival of the organism. This is more clearly problematic for the reductionist, as “survival of the organism” can be spelled out in a huge variety of possible scenarios when considered in terms of the arrangement of atoms.

Is this merely an explanatory deficiency of reductionism; is reductionism just a little (!) unwieldy when practiced strictly, so that scientists are forced to use convenient short-hand forms while knowing that deep down, the standard tools of physics are all a scientific purist would need? I don’t think so; if you’re a realist about evolutionary explanations, it seems to me that you are claiming a real role for ‘functions’ in science and the world, and these are not fully analysable in terms of their constituents, so provide a counter-example to reductionism.

Darwin’s tree of life – image from Wikipedia

… [there is more work to do here, including, in the long term, some exploration of what a ‘pattern’ is most plausibly actually constituted by – this will probably involve looking into the philosophy of mathematics & mind; we’ll see whether I get around to it. I also need to tidy up the distinction between reduction of explanations and reduction of things in the world.]

I’m well aware that one can be a non-reductionist materialist, and hold that there are natural laws above the level of mere physics, or such, without asserting the existence of something non-physical; in fact, this is the majority position amongst philosophers of science, as I understand. While I am no fan of reductionism, it is not, in a sense, ‘the real enemy’. However, the rejection of reductionism does open the door I think to interesting non-materialist possibilities and/or non-standard metaphysics. More on this as/if I work it out.

the plural of ‘anecdote’ is not ‘data’ – except when it is (perhaps)

I’ve heard this phrase (“the plural of anecdote is not data”) quite a few times recently in circles of those often-rather-pretentious people who call themselves ‘sceptics’. In one case, as I recall, it was tacked on to a rant against the existence of God, as if it were somehow both relevant and decisive (it was neither).

But it strikes me that a few disciplines in the social sciences really do rely on collected anecdotes in order to achieve data. Maybe the mere act of collecting them en masse means they’re no longer ‘anecdotes’ – not sure.

Questionnaire – image from Wikipedia

Should the Government fund Philosophy departments?

(image from Wikipedia)

The view from the hill of the Areopagus in Athens, a gathering of philosopher-type people, where, amongst other things, St Paul preached (Acts 17)

Yes. Yes it should.

Here are four closely related thoughts as to why this is the case. The humanities in general, and perhaps particularly the relatively ‘abstract’ subjects such philosophy, have many critics. I hope some of them read this post. I act on the assumption that the govt is in the business of funding tertiary education to some extent or other; given this, I argue that philosophy should be part of the mix that is funded.

1) Philosophy can make people uncomfortable. A central role of the university in the New Zealand context is to act as “the critic and conscience of society”. I don’t see many engineering departments striving to meet this requirement, but that doesn’t mean it’s not of value! Focussing purely on ‘practical’ and professional fields, for the sake of best promoting ‘success’, in terms of growing the economy and such is, I suggest, to assume that we already know what is ‘best’; i.e. we have particular goals, and just need to pump more resources into achieving them. A good philosophy department can train people who will help society to regularly re-evaluate where it is heading. It’s important to ensure that we don’t fall into the trap of simply assuming that we’re on the right path; taking into account the systematic thinking of previous eras and analysing what lies behind our own culture’s behaviours can be very helpful and will be necessary if we are to respond well to the challenges of a broken world.

2) Philosophy can complement other subjects. As well as the traditional focal points of philosophy such as ethics, logic, metaphysics and epistemology, there are a host of “philosophy of …” sub-disciplines. Law, science, and mind (basically psychology) were three that I was able to study at undergrad level at uni. In general, critical thought about the foundations of a subject can help to drive progress in it and to ensure consistency within the discipline and with other fields of study. Personally, studying economics while also developing my thinking through philosophy has given me a quite different view of the merits of certain economic theories in their wider social context than that taught or assumed by many staff in the economics department.

3) Philosophy has historically been a source of other disciplines. “Science progresses and improves constantly, and has contributed hugely to our quality of life – but what good has philosophy done?!” is a fairly common sentiment. But what we call science was once “natural philosophy”, and a similar story is true of a range of other subjects. If it wasn’t for philosophy, it is arguable that we wouldn’t have science, maths, economics, or ethics. Perhaps, though, philosophy has outlived its usefulness? For as long as our society needs people thinking deeply about the foundations of the disciplines and endeavours into which most of our energy is going, this will not be the case.

4) Philosophy can remind us of the transcendent. It’s a bold claim, but I think that human flourishing requires, at the least, some recognition of a transcendent facet of the universe; if the govt. aims to promote flourishing, it should avoid a minimalist public square which is materialist by default and promote vigorous dialogue around things like values, metaphysics, purpose and rights; in any case, it should be willing to support public institutions that facilitate such discussion.

So – philosophers may seem to be peripheral to a modern technological society governed by a compassionate democracy – but appearances can be deceiving; and sometimes it can take a philosopher to spot what’s really going on.

Potential conflict of interest:
I would like to one day teach philosophy in a research university (probably won’t happen, but it’s something I wouldn’t mind doing), or at least to study it further with the help of some government funding. :/

Ad hoc non hip hop


This is a T-shirt I would wear if I were cooler

I helped a new friend to write lyrics for a rap-battle a day or two ago at a Christian conference (sounds great, huh?), but my contribution was a bit wanting. So anyway, I am so tired after that conference that sleep eludes me, so here goes, some more rhymes with an ‘Apologetics’ type theme – written (as with most posts here) for my own future reference and reminding about concise ways to say things I think or am at least sometimes inclined to think (this poem has a ‘presuppositionalist’ leaning to it, which I am normally not a massive fan of, but felt it was worth exploring here:

you’ve got to calibrate your internal compass by the cross,
’cause the alternative is infernal and a sure way to be lost
this ain’t intuitively true; that’s why we require revelation
but ’tis a claim with plentiful corroboration
yeah, there’s the moral, cosmological and eutaxiological arguments
but king is the historical as He’s the one who started it
the resurrection of Christ is no mere myth-fiction
and to live outside its light is to live in contradiction
it’s to invent meaning in a directionless cosmos
a senseless exercise though it may feel apropos
naming the corruptible and/or dependent as Ultimate;
that’s a sure bet to fail, unlikely to satiate
to make choices based on norms divorced of their Chooser
or to invent your own non-facts, claiming truth to be elusive –
though popular this is to deny basic moral realities
to run into the brick wall: undeniable human frailty
denial of the divine seems to be a forfeiture of reason
replacing purposeful rationality with materialistic evolution;
arguing strenuously that there’s no point to life for all humanity
while retaining contrasting values(!) – seems to border on insanity
true reason hints that we are beings of worth, and purposefully made
the Creator’s Word shows though our main problem, and the price paid

I’ll add more to this later, perhaps. I was tempted to provide footnotes, but none of this is really new to this blog, so feel free to explore further or ask if something is unclear (e.g. Eutaxiological arguments, one of my favourite classes of theistic evidence). 

“But we see Jesus …”

Christianity has a unique answer to the problem of evil; not so much an answer of “why is there evil?” as to “if God exists, what’s God doing about evil?” …

I was reminded of this when reading through the book of Hebrews today in prep for a Bible study training camp thing next week.

From Hebrews 2, vs 8(b) onwards [link]:

In putting everything under him, God left nothing that is not subject to him [Jesus]. Yet at present we do not see everything subject to him. 9But we see Jesus, who was made a little lower than the angels, now crowned with glory and honor because he suffered death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone10In bringing many sons to glory, it was fitting that God, for whom and through whom everything exists, should make the author of their salvation perfect through suffering. 11Both the one who makes men holy and those who are made holy are of the same family. So Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers. [emphasis added]

Stuff is not right, it often doesn’t appear that the universe is under the control of a loving God – but God has responded to evil, and we ought consider the method carefully. We don’t see a perfect world, but we can look to God’s sole heir suffering in the most extreme and important way in our place, forging a new relationship with God for us. Through this we can begin to understand God’s redemptive plan in the presence of evil.

‘Death’ as found in ‘the art of Discworld’. Courtesy of Wikipedia


A second thing I particularly noticed when reading through Hebrews was that God spared Abraham’s son Isaac from being sacrificed. Abraham knew that God had promised him descendants through Isaac, so he trusted (we are told in Hebrews) that the child would be resurrected, but God spared this child that process and in the place of Isaac struck his own Son. People have complained that the episode with Isaac almost being sacrificed was terribly unfair, but in fact God graciously provided (incidentally perhaps this provision is proof that there is something to the concept of supererogation). There is a lot more to think about in that passage in Genesis; it helps to form one of the most striking links between the old and new testaments.