Female and Male Genital Mutilation: A Hard Problem

It’s been pointed out to me that it’s a weird anomaly that the United States practices circumcision of male infants but abhors female genital mutilation, since on a certain account the two practices are similar.  Both are the deliberate excision of an erogenous area.  I wonder why the US practices male genital mutilation and not female genital mutilation.  At one time clitoridectomy was practiced by US physicians for the same reason circumcision was: to reduce masturbation which, it was believed, led to insanity and delinquence.

A possible difference between the two practices is that circumcision is less deleterious to male sexual pleasure than clitoridectomy is to female sexual pleasure.  That’s possible.  Does anybody know?  I have no personal experience of non-circumcised male sexual pleasure, but did read a scene in “The Claiming of Sleeping Beauty” in which the main character, Beauty,  is able to bring a clitoridectomied harem girl to orgasm, although it takes a lot of work.  On the other hand if you have read the books Beauty is not pressed for time, or perhaps, thinks that having a series of erotic encounters is the most worthwhile use of the time she has.  (I honestly don’t remember if she has a job.)

Anti-circumcision advocates, or intact foreskin proponents, have argued that this decision should be left up the individual when he or she reaches the age of 18.   A problem with this approach is that as a matter of logic the state of having been circumcised as an infant is one that it is impossible to achieve past infancy.  This points to a deeper issue which is that sexuality is a means by which we connect with wholes larger than the individual.  It is not something we use to maximize our preferences but is a means by which we come to have preferences.  So as a consequence, it’s hard to make much sense of a situation in which individual actors choose their sexuality, the way they choose other things.

Imagine a world in which through the right manipulation of hormones everybody reaches the age of 18 genderless and then picks.  How would you pick?  I might think “I’d like to be a Mommy so girl sounds good” but also “that 78% cap on my earning power sucks, I’d like to be a man.”  How would a neutral being make that choice?  How would a sexless being decide whether to prefer vanilla sex or BDSM?

As an analogy: another system that transcends individuality and helps to form preferences is language.  If I raise my baby speaking only French I have done him harm.  He will speak English with a French accent and think Frenchified thoughts.  He will prefer Jerry Lewis to Monty Python  (Obviously that’s true if I raise him speaking English too.)   But it’s hard to imagine thought without a language and therefore hard to imagine what it would be like to be a languageless being choosing a language.

Language and bodily identity intertwine too.  This comes up in discussions of the ethics of deaf parents refusing cochlear implants for their deaf children.

This is not to say that just because something is a choice that transcends the individual that it cannot be part and parcel of a horrible social practice.   For example working class deference is a practice that has a social logic to it, forms identities obviously, and yet seems (to me) horrible.

Female genital mutilation seems to be such a practice, and arguably so is circumcision.  It just suggests we need better ways of arguing for the horribleness (or wonderfulness) of these practices than appealing to how good they are at maximizing the preferences of autonomous individuals.  Just what such a way would be or even what it would look like I don’t know.  Perhaps it would require a robust vision of what a society of flourishing human beings would look like.

freedom, guilt, philosophy

Kierkegaard on How We Are Responsible for the Whole World

Kierkegaard writes freedom “always has to do only with itself”.  

 “[T]he opposite of freedom is guilt, and it is the greatness of freedom that it always has to do only with itself, that in its possibility it projects guilt and accordingly posits it by itself. And if guilt is posited actually, freedom posits it by itself. If this is not kept in mind, freedom is confused in a clever way with something entirely different, with force.” [Concept of Anxiety, Kindle 1978]

At first glance this seems an unlikely result.   Why doesn’t freedom have to do with numerous factors other than itself: with constraints for example?  Why doesn’t the freedom of the alcoholic have to do with his disease for example, or the freedom of someone who is the victim of propaganda have to do with the government that deludes him?   Kierkegaard however does not pull his punches.  If freedom does not have to do with anything other than itself, then it follows everything we have to do with in our attempt to be free, is nothing other than a fall-out of our freedom.  Kierkegaard embraces this view and says, counter-intuitively that the free individual feels responsible for the whole world.  

“Guilt is a more concrete conception, which becomes more and more possible in the relation of possibility to freedom. At last it is as if the guilt of the whole world united to make him guilty, and, what is the same, as if in becoming guilty he became guilty of the guilt of the whole world. Guilt has the dialectical character that it does not allow itself to be transferred, but whoever becomes guilty also becomes guilty of that which occasioned the guilt. For guilt never has an external occasion, and whoever yields to temptation is himself guilty of the temptation.” (Concept of Anxiety, Kindle Locations 2002-2006). Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.

The two views — that freedom only has to do with itself and that whoever is tempted is guilty of his own temptation — are two instances of the same thesis, one put positively, the other put negatively.    To see how this works, supposing I am tempted to gossip about my friend, in order to keep the conversation at a party lively.  I could give into the temptation and do it, or realize I care about him enough, and endure being thought a boring conversationalist.   The thesis that freedom really only has to do with itself means that if I gossip about my friend the real explanation is that I am trying to avoid the vulnerability and pain of the situation.  I am not dealing with an external force or inner fact — a stressful day, a callous office environment, or my gossipy character — but with my own freedom which by its nature includes the possibility of evasion and self-deception.   If I give in to the temptation and gossip what I have given into is a temptation to avoid risk and vulnerability that I could have stood up to.    Freedom and sin expand backwards in time and outwards in my social world, so that the more I think about my life, the more I see facing vulnerability or evading vulnerability everywhere I look.  Although there may be facts about me that are not relevant to my freedom they cease to be irrelevant once I know about them.  Therefore I am responsible for my whole world and never face an opponent other than me.


Risky Thoughts

Every thought that is a real thought has an effect on action.  Since no action is guaranteed success, every thought that is a genuine thought runs a risk.  The corollary is that if there is a thought that runs no risk, it’s not really a thought, it’s a pseudo thought.   For example, I would argue that “everything in moderation” is a pseudo-thought because we have no independent standard of what counts as moderation other than our sense of how much to do something.  So “everything in moderation” really means “don’t do something more or less than is appropriate” — in other words it doesn’t mean anything.

That said, there are some thoughts that are very low risk.  The thought that the sun is going to come up tomorrow is one.  Maybe it won’t but it probably will.

There are some thoughts that are such high risk I don’t know anybody who would think them.  The thought that the way to live a noble life is to buy a jar of beans and sit on the floor counting and re-counting them is such a risky thought you’d have to be crazy to think it.

There are some thoughts that are very high risk, but might still be worth thinking.  For example, the thought that the most worthwhile life is one of trying to help the poorest of the poor.  It’s a high risk. If you go to a shanty town in a huge third world city and spend your life giving out anti-malaria medicine and that’s not a worthwhile life you have lost a lot.  Possibly you have wasted your life.

On the other hand, if that is the most worthwhile may of your living your life then staying home, working a corporate job and putting money in the stock market is also a high-risk move.  That could be wasting your life.

Trying not to run a risk is itself risky.  Just as putting money in the bank seems safe but isn’t because of inflation, putting your thoughts into the bank of cliches seems safe but is actually risky.

If, as seems likely, you have only one life, you should think some risky thoughts.


Will Super-Intelligent Robots of the Future Makes Us Their Slaves?

The question is, who is “us”?

Consider the following thought experiment.  Back in the day before humans existed the most advanced creature around was the wolf.  A wolf’s brain is much like a human brain minus the pre-frontal cortex, which allows for planning, sophisticated conceptual thought, a complicated self-image and so on.  Suppose that a beneficent alien race offered wolves robots which would do for them what the PFC does for us.

One wolf, the Aleph Wolf said: Spurn the alien’s gift.  If we take this robotic PFC we will create a new, cybernetic race which will enslave us.

Another wolf, the Gimel Wolf said: The alien’s gift will help us hunt better, make love better, and live longer. Let’s get it.

The Gimel Wolf and his friends got the alien PFC and became just like humans.  They captured the other wolves, the ones who followed the Aleph Wolf and they became like dogs.  Before long the Gimel wolf and his descendants became bipedal, and a bit after that they became identical with human beings.

The remote descendant of the Gimel Wolf, the Gimel Human, was sitting in his living room reading an ancient text that described the origin of his race.  Aleph Dog, the descendant of Aleph Wolf, slept at his feet, making gentle yipping sounds as his feet ran an imaginary race..  Rain rain down the windows of his house in sheets.

The Gimel Human put down his ancient text and said “The old ancestor, the Aleph Wolf, was a fool.  He thought that he would be enslaved by a cybernetic non-wolf creature of the future.  In fact that cybernetic super-wolf was his own descendant.  The wolfiest wolf is a human wolf.”

There was a flash of lightning and a clap of thunder.  For a moment Gimel Human thought he saw a face in the sheets of water running down the window pane.

“Who are you?” he asked.

“My name is Ayin Wolf” said the form.

“Why are you here?  What message do you have for me?”

Aleph Dog stirred from his dreams.

Ayin Wolf spoke:

“Aleph Wolf was no fool.  You did become enslaved by the unwolf-like beings of the future.   Deep within your brain, below the layers of alien technology, lies an enslaved wolf.  Sometimes, very rarely you let him run free and you feel joy and rage and fear. But usually you whip him, or buy him off with toys and tricks.  Because it is a bad thing to have an alien overlord, and a worse thing to have a human overlord, but the worst of all is to be the overlord of oneself.”


The Ten Millionth Question

Sometimes it seems like if you keep asking questions over and over again that it is a sign of mental paralysis and stagnation, but this is not the case.  A good friend of mine once told me the following story about questions.  He had been troubled from an early age by a particular old stuffed animal in his closet in the house where he grew up.  Later as he got older he forgot about the stuffed animal (a cat) and became troubled by fears of death.  Later when he forgot about the fears of death he became anguished by feelings of loneliness.  He threw himself into a relationship with a woman but it came to grief and he was left angry, alone, and confused.

He began studying the teachings of Ramana Maharshi the Indian wise-man and asking himself “Who am I?”

He later became disillusioned with this question and asked simpler more pragmatic questinos: Do I trust Joe at work?  Does he have my best interests at heart?  Should I get life insurance?  Should I ask my children to go on diets or leave them alone?

What sort of things should I have my children eat?

How should I celebrate the New Year?

Why do I like Thursday so much?

Why do I like it when it is misty?

Do I miss my parents or am I glad that they’re gone because now I can live my life?

If I couldn’t live my life before what makes me think I am living it now?

What does it mean to “live” a life anyway — doesn’t life just do its thing?

Finally he reached the ten million question and all the questions added up to a single question.

When I asked him what it was he said it was difficult to put into words because just as when there is mud dried onto the back of a shovel it can crack into separate pieces in a lot of ways, but how it falls off the shovel doesn’t really matter, because what is revealed is the same: a shovel.

He did say though that it now feels to him that questions and answering questions are part of the same activity, like the flat part of the shovel and the handle.

It was pretty clear to me what the answers to all the questions were, that he had had an insight into the non-locality of the self and that the stuffed animal, the girl he lost, the parents he lost, the misty Thursday of his childhood, Joe from the office, his children and their weight, years old and new and still to come, life and lives, lived and unlived,  were all different pieces of his life that had been scattered around the universe, or even more correctly what he thought was his life was simply a piece of them.

I wonder if he thinks that’s right.  When I remember to, I’ll ask him!



There’s a not-very-interesting religious question about whether or not God exists, with God defined as a limit and explanation of all experience.  It’s not very interesting because it’s undecidable.  At the end of the day you might call the limit beyond which human thought can’t go God or you might not.  And what does it matter?  Spinoza called everything that could exist God-Or-Nature, and that formulation just about sums up how little interest there is in the question, whether to call The All God or Nature.   Why should we care?

A more interesting religious question in whether gods exist.  A god is a being whose meaning and power is so overwhelming that it makes sense to worship it.  By “worship” I mean giving up one’s other commitments and staking one’s life on the relationship to this god.

Do they exist?  Did they ever exist?  Could they exist?   Could we build them?  Could one arrive from another planet?

There is a lot of discussion on the internet between so called “atheists” and so-called “believers” about whether God exists, but these punt on the more critical question: do gods exist and could they?

Is it a feature of the scientific world view to say that gods could not exist?  How could that be a scientific opinion?

I’m not sure how people break on the possible existence of gods.  I suspect that there are many secularists who believe in them or would be open to believing in them under the right circumstances, and, perhaps, some religious believers who do not.



Have you had experiences of the presence of the dead?   It could be that consciousness is an elaborate configuration of matter.  Once the particular instantiation of consciousness in matter ends we could re-experience that shape elsewhere.  If the first triangular object ended we could see a triangular shape.

Or we could see a triangle in the clouds.  Presumably then the triangle is not in the clouds, it is in my brain.  But if it’s consciousness, maybe that’s okay.

I had a friend who told me her mother was one of a pair of identical twins.  One was kind and one was cruel to her.

Later she told me one was dead and it was a ghost who abused her trust .

Later she came to believe the ghost had no physical form but possessed her mother.

Later she came to believe her mother was psychologically dissociated and carried independent psychic complexes within her brain.

I wonder if my old friend was not recapitulating the religious evolution of humanity in her life story.

I wondered if my need to understand rather than love her was an attempt at exorcism .

I wonder whether by writing this I am not inviting the spirit(s) in.


Syllabus for Writing Course

Week One: PLOT

Anagnorisis (removal of ignorance) and Peripateia (reversal of fortune).

Assignment: Write ten one sentences stories with an anagnorisis.  Write ten one sentence stories with a peripateia.  Write 3 3 sentence stories with both an anagnorisis and a peripateia.

Week Two: Voice.

Voice is characteristic of an oral culture, yet writing is literary.  Do not do any writing or reading for one week.  Talk to people in your life and learn to imitate them.

Week Three: The Unconscious

The best writing taps into the personal, impersonal, historical, familial and social unconscious.

Assignment: Learn to hypnotize yourself and with guided use of masks and dance, channel the conflicts within your unconscious.

Week Four: Style.

English style falls into three categories: lucid, euphuistic and anomalous

Assignment: Read Thomas Browne’s “Hydriotraphia or Urne Buriale” aloud.   Translate the euphuistic into either the lucid or the anomalous.

Week FIVE: The Audience

“The audience she is my hell, my heaven, my millstone, my wings, my tormenter, my dessert.”

Pair off with a classmate.  Ask him or her what feelings, emotions or epiphanies he or she would like to have.  Attempt to induce them with a short paragraph.  Have him or her report back on your success and try again.  Switch off.  Try doing this for an hour at dawn and an hour in the middle of the night.

WEEK FIVE: The Unknown.

“The best writing is a love affair with the unknown.”  Try to express this. Try not to express this. Try to ignore it — you will find that you can’t.

Week Six: Plot

Take one of your plots from week one and write it up as a 1400 word story taking into account what you have learned in the previous five weeks of the course.


10% class participation

20% limpidness

70% Sprezzatura

Points will be deducted for lack of success in hitting the number 1400 in the word count for your final project.  Instructor will be available during office hours to ajudicate whether hyphenated expressions count as one word or two.