Skip to content

Relieving PreacherMike of a Hosting Burden

29 March 2011

I’ve transposed a discussion from Mike Cope’s blog to here as a courtesy to Mike, who has been very patient with us.  If you want to read the background for this post, click here.  What follows is a reply to Q and JTB.


Q, I’ll try to unpack a little more.  But I want to stay in the thought-experiment or conceptual domain for a little while longer to get some things nailed down before proceeding, in the interest of avoiding a barren argument.

I should say right away that this tete-a-tete has already helped me clarify my own thinking, and I see at least a few of the exposed vitals:  things that I supposed were self-evident are in question.  So that’s a salutary effect already.


Some thoughts, off the cuff:

Biologists often enjoy the luxury of dealing with discrete variables, variables that have either THIS value or THAT value (or perhaps THAT value over there).  In the case of what I am calling material sexuality, the options tend to be either XX or XY, with the occasional excursions to the triploid permutations of X and Y; maybe there are other possibilities of which qb is not aware.  In any case, the possibilities are constrained by discrete mathematics, and the difference between rejecting and not rejecting the null hypothesis in the discrete domain can often be boiled down to a statement like, “either THIS or THAT, but not somewhere in between.”  That is a very convenient domain in which to define essences; we can call an attribute essential if there is precisely zero chance of finding its alternative in a population of beings, and any attribute whose probability of occurring is nonzero is therefore deemed non-essential.  (I am using “essential” in a pretty strict sense, I think, that coincides with the way JTB has been using it: not the moral sense of “must have it,” but in the more neutral sense of “doesn’t make sense without it.”)

If we focus our attention, now, on the question of certain organs, which has been a rhetorical tactic here (and an effective one, at that), pretty clearly we can establish that having a [organ] is essential to being a [sex], and if that [organ] is replaced by its alternative, the value of [sex] toggles accordingly.  It is in the nature of some biological variables to yield to this analytical framework.  And any attribute variable [X] that, when toggled, does not toggle the classification variable [a] is deemed a non-essential attribute to class [a].  The underlying science may be unbelievably difficult, but the framework for defining essentiality is pretty simple; either it is, or it is not, and one occurrence of “not” is enough to force us to abandon essentiality.

In my work, I seldom if ever have the luxury of working with discrete variables like that.  More often, I am working with continua, or at least with discrete variables that have so many possible values they might as well be continua.  (Anywhere there’s an analog-to-digital converter, the latter is the case; with a dial thermometer, the former is the case.)  I take it that what Q and JTB have labeled “trends” are the statistically significant differences between central tendencies of these continua or quasi-continua…but with the caveat that no such variable can ever be thought of as essential, precisely because it involves a variance of some kind.  That is the idealized domain that I simply cannot grasp, and of course it means that, strictly speaking, wherever an attribute variable lies on a [quasi-]continuum, we cannot by definition speak of essentiality.

In the spiritual domain, which you will recall I have presupposed as a domain that (properly defined) is orthogonal to the material domain, our attribute variables are almost NEVER discrete.  That means, of course, that we have defined away any practical use of the concept of essentiality; we showed that in the previous paragraph.  I take that to be the conceptual unpacking of JTB’s critique of trans-anatomical “essence.”


“Spiritual” attributes:  what are they?  It is here that qb begins to appeal to scripture for help.  Given the rather privileged position I have assigned (!) to the spiritual domain – it is on hierarchical par with the material and interacts with it, but cannot be reduced to it – I look to ethical codes for some guidance, and further, I permit considerations of “holy” spirit to enter into the picture.  The language I find has to do with matters of character:  patience, loyalty, self-control, and the like.  And having adopted the further presupposition that we are created beings in some meaningful sense (that is, whether we emerged from the primordial soup over epochs upon epochs of evolutionary design or were cobbled together in a nanosecond from celestial dust, we are the purposeful project of a creator God), I naturally suppose that God’s purposes are served by granting us attributes, even an array of attributes, that are in the service of those purposes.  Thus, testosterone and progesterone in the material domain, and…well, what?  Character-like attributes in the spiritual?

But these spiritual attributes are, as we saw, variables that cannot be well quantified in discrete terms.  The whole notion of spiritual growth, as in Peter’s epistles, presupposes that the variables lie on a [quasi-]continuum.  So if we are forced to adopt a strictly discrete standard for essentiality, it clearly follows that none of these attributes can be deemed “essential.”

I also think it’s possible that God pursues his purposes by granting an arrangement of material attributes that roughly coincide with an arrangement of spiritual attributes such that they reinforce one another in matters that he deems critical, primarily those matters that contribute to what Dallas Willard and Richard Foster have framed as our irreducibly aesthetic _telos_: “an all-inclusive community of loving persons, with God at the heart of this community as its prime sustainer and most glorious inhabitant.”  We were created for good, and his purpose is to refashion us into the good.  In creating us, then, I suppose that God has stacked the odds in his own favor.  (No time or inclination to chase the rabbit into the brambles of theodicy.)

I do not know what to make of individuality in this regard except to note that, contra Richard Beck, an individual is at least in part definable in terms of his or her capacity to exert an independent will, no less than having possession of an independent body.  I take “will” to reside primarily in the spiritual domain, interacting with the material and capable of succumbing to it, but not reducible to it.  Perhaps it’s fairer to say that Dr. Beck, as a self-proclaimed “weak volitionist,” at least permits this much latitude into freedom, and I’m happy to work with whatever crumbs of moral liberty he allows to float off the table.

Returning now to the [quasi-]continua of the spiritual domain…it seems to me that if we recognize that not all variables of interest are discrete like those biological ones, we have to speak of essentiality in terms of approximations and thresholds.  Obviously, we are going to be arbitrary to some degree.  But it seems that the kinds of variables we’re dealing with simply defy any discrete tests that could be applied to, say, the presence or absence of a [organ].

By now, it should be clear that we are doomed either to (a) a semantic argument about what constitutes essentiality or (b) a trivial argument about presuppositions that we don’t share.  Or maybe not.  I certainly don’t say that in a desire to cut things off; but, like JTB and Q, it’s probably better not to waste time on pursuits that are highly likely to be barren.



3 Comments leave one →
  1. Geezer permalink
    29 March 2011 7:04 pm

    Well that is something I’d like to let distill for a while.

  2. 29 March 2011 8:06 pm

    Occam’s razor, always, Occam’s razor.

    Try this link for something that re-invigorated a sense of male-female romance in this old dude:

    • 18 April 2011 11:50 am

      Ockham’s Razor…good idea, think I’ll use it. In this morning’s Tax Day post, in fact. Thanks for the tip! qb

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: