Archive for the ‘biology’ Category

Anthropological Musings on the Painfully Hot Ghost Chili

Last Wednesday, the Hub and I ventured over to Inman Square’s East Coast Grill for their legendary Hell Night. For four days out of the year, the talented chefs at East Coast prepare a menu to tantalize and terrify the taste buds. Habenero-infused vodka, Chile Chimichurri steaks, oysters drenched in hot sauce, and a dozen other spicy options ranging from one to nine chili peppers grace the menu. The star of the night, however, is the pasta from hell. This pasta, made from the world’s hottest ghost chilies, has been featured on the craze foodie hit Man vs. Food, where even the daring Adam Richman could only take about two bites. This pasta is hot. And I ordered it.

You are required to sign a waver before you dig in, which is all part of the fun. But after the first bite, the most excruciating pain sets in, the kind of pain that sends tears down your cheek as you dig your high heel into your calf to distract your dendrites from the horror taking place in your mouth. Now, don’t get me wrong. I live for spicy food. I eat sriracha on everything. I nibble on raw jalapenos while I cook spicy Mexican food. I have successfully taken an adolescent dare to drink an entire bottle of Tabasco. And by the time reached the half-way mark on my pasta from hell, I was doubled over in pain and had to stop. But I took it home, and the next night suffered through the rest (armed, of course, with a full bottle of antacids for the heart burn that came later that night).

When I recovered, I started wondering why in the world I freely and intentionally chose to do something so painful, not just once, but two nights in a row. Everydaythomist that I am, I toyed with the question of whether my actions constituted daring, one of the vices against fortitude that inclines the appetite toward danger in ways contrary to reason.

Turns out, scientists are doing research on this very question. A few months ago, the NYTimes featured an article on the pleasure and pain of chili peppers based on the research from Dr. Paul Rozin at the University of Pennsylvania:

[Rozin]has evidence for what he calls benign masochism. For example, he tested chili eaters by gradually increasing the pain, or, as the pros call it, the pungency, of the food, right up to the point at which the subjects said they just could not go further. When asked after the test what level of heat they liked the best, they chose the highest level they could stand, “just below the level of unbearable pain.” As Delbert McClinton sings (about a different line of research), “It felt so good to hurt so bad.”

Rozin disagrees with theories that argue for an evolutionary advantage to eating hot peppers, say, for example, by arguing that they lower blood pressure or provide some other such advantage in health. In fact, Rozin thinks there actually is not an evolutionary advantage at all to such acts:

No one knows for sure why humans would find pleasure in pain, but Dr. Rozin suggests that there’s a thrill, similar to the fun of riding a roller coaster. “Humans and only humans get to enjoy events that are innately negative, that produce emotions or feelings that we are programmed to avoid when we come to realize that they are actually not threats,” he said. “Mind over body. My body thinks I’m in trouble, but I know I’m not.” And it says, hand me another jalapeño.

One of the key observations here is that no other mammal likes hot peppers. And from this observation, Rozin and others draw an interesting conclusion: the human taste for painfully hot peppers says something important about what it means to be human:

[A]s Paul Bloom, a Yale psychologist, puts it, “Philosophers have often looked for the defining feature of humans — language, rationality, culture and so on. I’d stick with this: Man is the only animal that likes Tabasco sauce.”

That’s from Dr. Bloom’s new book, “How Pleasure Works: The New Science of Why We Like What We Like,” in which he addresses the general nature of human pleasure, and some very specific, complicated pleasures. Some, like eating painfully spicy food, are accidental, at least in their specificity. A complicated mind is adaptive, but love of chilies is an accident.

And that is what I celebrate behind my respirator as my son and I dice habaneros, accidental pleasures. A taste for chilies has no deep meaning, no evolutionary value. It’s just a taste for chilies. I might add, though, that since it takes such a complicated brain and weird self-awareness to enjoy something that is inherently not enjoyable, only the animal with the biggest brain and the most intricate mind can do it.

Take heart, chili heads. It’s not dumb to eat the fire, it’s a sign of high intelligence.

I find this a fascinating and largely compelling contribution to philosophical anthropology. Whereas for most animals, pleasure is a function of biology, humans have a lot more flexibility. They can, in many ways, choose what it is that brings them pleasure, even things that go against biology or evolutionary advantage. That is, human beings are masters of their actions largely because they are masters of their pleasure.

This means that for human beings in particular, morality cannot simply be a matter of examining nature and drawing normative conclusions. Human beings are greater than the sum of their biological parts, and the objects from which they draw pleasure cannot be reduced to merely a biochemical neural reaction.

When it comes to chili peppers and roller coasters, the human ability to find pleasure in biologically unpleasant things may not have much moral consequence, but in other areas the question may be more serious. For example, a friend sent me an Atlantic article on porn addiction which also examines the recent prevalence of anal sex. I hesitate to even quote the article on my blog due to how explicit it was, but I do think the following revelation from the author is significant:

Never was this made plainer to me than during a one-night stand with a man I had actually known for quite a while. A polite, educated fellow with a beautiful Lower East Side apartment invited me to a perfunctory dinner right after his long-term girlfriend had left him. We quickly progressed to his bed, and things did not go well. He couldn’t stay aroused. Over the course of the tryst, I trotted out every parlor trick and sexual persona I knew. I was coquettish then submissive, vocal then silent, aggressive then downright commandeering; in a moment of exasperation, he asked if we could have anal sex. I asked why, seeing as how any straight man who has had experience with anal sex knows that it’s a big production and usually has a lot of false starts and abrupt stops. He answered, almost without thought, “Because that’s the only thing that will make you uncomfortable.” This was, perhaps, the greatest moment of sexual honesty I’ve ever experienced—and without hesitation, I complied. This encounter proves an unpleasant fact that does not fit the feminist script on sexuality: pleasure and displeasure wrap around each other like two snakes.

If anal sex is unpleasant, why do it? Human intentionality, that is, human choice, can transform unpleasant actions and unpleasant objects into pleasure. In Dependent Rational Animals, Alistair McIntyre made the somewhat surprising claim that ethics could not be separated from biology. Ghost chilies and anal sex remind us that morality also cannot be reduced to biology. Human intentionality transcends what we are biologically conditioned to do.

Natural law scholars, especially those rooted in the Aristotelian-Thomistic tradition, debate whether natural law should be grounded in a “metaphysical biology” which assumes that the normative “ought” can be drawn from the biological “is.” The more we learn about biology, the more important biology becomes in our moral reflections, and this, I think, is a good thing. Biology reminds us that we are creatures, not just spirits. It reminds us how much we share with our non-human animal cousins. But, while biology can tell us what it means to be “animal” (which humans are), it cannot tell us what it means to be human. In Aristotelian parlance, our human species is derived from our genus (animal) and differentia (rational). And that differentia does a lot to separate us from our non-human animal cousins. It does not totally separate us, but it separates us enough to give us pause as we realize that our animal nature cannot explain the many perplexing questions regarding why we do what we do. Now, if you will excuse me, I need another antacid.


The Challenge of Naturalism

At an ethics colloquium this week, I heard a professor tell a story (which I hope is okay to repeat here since both the storyteller and the subject of the story are anonymous) of a former theology student who had recently written with proud news of an upcoming publication on the topic of liturgy. She went on to tell him that she was flourishing in her job as the campus minister at a Catholic school. She had recently gotten into spiritual direction, which was going okay, despite the fact that she no longer believed in God, and overall, she was very happy with her life and career.

Wait. . . she no longer believes in God? In America, this is not as rare as you might think. While Europe is becoming increasingly more secularized, and the churches are becoming more and more empty, in the US, something else is happening. Externally, we are a very religious nation with a high percentage of churchgoers (about 47% of Americans attend a weekly religious service as opposed to about 20% in Europe). Nevertheless, there are signs that we are a nation a lot like this professor’s former theology student—involved in the act of religion without the corresponding belief. As Terence Nichols puts it in his very fine book The Sacred Cosmos:

Supernatural realities such as miracles, angels, afterlife, a sacred cosmos, and so on are rarely broached, at least in mainline Protestant denominations (and less and less so in Roman Catholic churches). God has become distant from everyday life. People may still believe in God, got to church, even pray, but without deep conviction. . .(8)

For Nichols, the problem is naturalism, “the belief that nature is all that exists, and that everything can be explained by natural causes and therefore by science. There is no nonmaterial reality, such as God.” The problem, he says, is deep and

. . . originates further back—with the separation of God from nature, a split that began in the late medieval and early modern period. This resulted in the (perceived) separation of god from everyday life that is so characteristic of contemporary secular societies. . .Ancient and medieval Christians lived in a sacred cosmos and saw nature as a window or sacrament that expressed the beauty, majesty, and glory of God. . . Sacraments make God present and invite the believer into a sharing of God’s presence. But for a sacrament to work, there has to be some similarity, some unity. . . If nature is seen sacramentally, rather than as an object to be investigated and used, it also can mediate the presence of God. Seen sacramentally, nature is a sacred cosmos, for whatever mediates God’s presence is sacred (9).

Instead of a sacred cosmos infused with the supernatural, what we have now, according to Nichols, is a universe completely subject to natural laws, where even religion (to quote E.O. Wilson), is subject to the explanations of the natural sciences. This metaphysical naturalism is the greatest challenge Christianity faces in the contemporary world. As Nichols puts it,

For if nature is all that exists, there cannot be any reality that is greater than and independent of nature. Nor can there be any hope of an afterlife, nor any means to really transcend our natural condition. The consoling grace of god, which frees us from sin, addictions, selfishness, hopelessness, and lovelessness, is, for naturalists, a fiction.

Must we then, as Christians, be anti-science in order to avoid the dangers poised by naturalism? Not at all. Christians have long held (rooted especially in the Thomistic tradition) that scientific naturalism is perfectly appropriate for the natural sciences. Science can tell us much of the world—how it originated, how it fits together, where it is headed. The laws of nature that scientists study are laws created by God and hence are very, very good.

But just because a scientist is committed to scientific naturalism, she need not commit herself also to metaphysical naturalism, i.e., the belief that these natural laws are all that exist. More specifically, a Christian evolutionary biologist very committed to the principles of natural selection need not conclude that simply because evolution exist, God does not. As Nichols points out, some of the greatest scientists were also Christian (Galileo, Newton, Descartes, Pascal, Max Plank). The problem is not evolution (or any other natural “law”), but rather, when evolution becomes an all-encompassing philosophy. Science and theology are meant to be complementary, not antagonistic.

No, the solution for Christians, what Christians need to do if they are to survive the naturalist challenge, is not reject science (and hence the “natural”), but rather, they need to recover the supernatural. In a Christianity Today article, Hwa Yung writes on this,

A careful reading of the Bible and the sheer weight of empirical evidence eventually brought me back to a supernatural Christianity. In this, I found myself out of sync with much of Western theology. Here liberals were at least consistent, but not evangelicals. Most liberals denied the supernatural both in the Bible and in the present; evangelicals fought tooth and nail to defend the miraculous in the Bible, but rarely could cope with it in real life.

Now, Yung is writing about the recovery of a more charismatic Pentecostal form of Christianity, which I am not arguing for here, but his basic point is sound. Christians need to recover the idea of the miraculous, the realm beyond science, the invisible, the graced. To describe how this might take place liturgically or in other Christian practices is beyond the scope of one blog post (though I would love to hear your thoughts), but at the very least, Christians can recover the supernatural in conversation. We can admit that knowledge of God is beyond the capacity of reason. The natural world can lead us towards God, but true knowledge is a supernatural gift, elevating the intellect beyond what it is naturally capable of.

We can also admit that simply because knowledge of God is a gift, and one which we do not experience fully in this life (see 1 John 3:2 and 1 Corinthians 13:12 for when we can expect full knowledge), we can still do theology. In other words, we can still speculate about God, and even do so “scientifically.” Thomas Aquinas tells us

Sacred doctrine is a science. We must bear in mind that there are two kinds of sciences. There are some which proceed from a principle known by the natural light of intelligence, such as arithmetic and geometry and the like. There are some which proceed from principles known by the light of a higher science: thus the science of perspective proceeds from principles established by geometry, and music from principles established by arithmetic. So it is that sacred doctrine is a science because it proceeds from principles established by the light of a higher science, namely, the science of God and the blessed. Hence, just as the musician accepts on authority the principles taught him by the mathematician, so sacred science is established on principles revealed by God (I, Q. 1, art. 2).

For Aquinas, the object of this science is God, and its principles are the articles of faith (things like the Incarnation and the Trinity). Sacred Scripture is important, but is of itself neither the object nor the principle of theology:

Such are the Trinity of Persons in Almighty God [The Leonine Edition reads: The Three Persons, the omnipotence of God, etc.], the mystery of Christ’s Incarnation, and the like: and these are distinct articles of faith. On the other hand certain things in Holy Writ are proposed to our belief, not chiefly on their own account, but for the manifestation of those mentioned above: for instance, that Abraham had two sons, that a dead man rose again at the touch of Eliseus’ bones, and the like, which are related in Holy Writ for the purpose of manifesting the Divine mystery or the Incarnation of Christ: and such things should not form distinct articles (II-II, Q. 1, art. 6).

And in the end, although theology is a matter of disputation (I, Q. 1, art. 8), it ultimately does not get us knowledge of God, but only a certain knowledge of God’s effects, and how those effect pertain to our salvation:

Although we cannot know in what consists the essence of God, nevertheless in this science we make use of His effects, either of nature or of grace, in place of a definition, in regard to whatever is treated of in this science concerning God; even as in some philosophical sciences we demonstrate something about a cause from its effect, by taking the effect in place of a definition of the cause.

Ultimately, the point of theology is not to render God understandable or to possess God, but rather, to seek a mysterious God in love. And when we talk of God (or do theology), it should be this gifted love that we communicate, especially to our friends in the natural sciences. We do not have to make Christianity “natural” in order to speak to scientists. We need rather to speak confidently, humbly, and reverently about the supernatural, and listen to what the sciences have to say about the natural. Maybe, with a little grace, we can actually get a conversation going in which the scientist learns a little about grace and eternal life, and the Christian learns a little about the world.

And this brings us back to naturalism. In terms of religion, naturalism pushes us to make all matters of faith matters of natural science. The Bible becomes an anthropological and sociological document, sacraments become merely rituals, God becomes an idea, and the afterlife becomes a naiveté. Christianity becomes a voluntary association that anybody can “do,” like the girl in the opening story of this post, rather than a graced invitation into a relationship with God. Terence Nichols expresses well the appropriate Christian response:

The greatest gifts of grace are faith, hope, and the love of God (1 Cor. 13) which, Paul tells us, is poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit that is given to us (Rom. 5:5). It is this love that allows us to love others, even enemies, and that characterizes the converted Christian life. Such a love is beyond our natural abilities. . . Christianity is not about rules and laws, guilt and fear of punishment, or extrinsic rewards. It is about grace: the experience of God’s transforming love and power in our lives that elevates and perfects our natural abilities and allows us to do more that we thought possible. In this sense, the life of every fully converted Christian moves beyond naturalism. It is god’s grace that makes the Christian practice of everyday life possible. And it is this same power of grace that one day will bring us to the resurrection, the ultimate transformation of nature, and to eternal life with God (226-27).

Why be altruistic? Because it makes you happy.

One of the nice things about Aristotelian virtue ethics over a deontological or utilitarian moral theory is that morality is considered something natural to human beings, something intrinsic rather than extrinsically imposed. The virtue of temperance towards food, for example, is not something unnatural to human beings, meaning that in order to be temperate, one would have to overcome one’s human inclinations towards food, but is rather the natural way in which human beings are supposed to relate to food—not eating too much or too little, eating a variety of foods, eating at the right time in the right place, etc. Virtue then, rather than being contrary to inclination, can be considered the perfection of inclination.

An op-ed by Nicholas Kristoff in this weekend’s NYTimes illustrates this point nicely on the topic of altruism. Drawing off the work of Jonathan Haidt, Kristoff writes,

Happiness is tied to volunteering and to giving blood, and people with religious faith tend to be happier than those without. A solid marriage is linked to happiness, as is participation in social networks. And one study found that people who focus on achieving wealth and career advancement are less happy than those who focus on good works, religion or spirituality, or friends and family.

“Human beings are in some ways like bees,” Professor Haidt said. “We evolved to live in intensely social groups, and we don’t do as well when freed from hives.” . . .

. . . Professor Haidt notes that one thing that can make a lasting difference to your contentment is to work with others on a cause larger than yourself.
I see that all the time. I interview people who were busy but reluctantly undertook some good cause because (sigh!) it was the right thing to do. Then they found that this “sacrifice” became a huge source of fulfillment and satisfaction.

Brain scans by neuroscientists confirm that altruism carries its own rewards. A team including Dr. Jorge Moll of the National Institutes of Health found that when a research subject was encouraged to think of giving money to a charity, parts of the brain lit up that are normally associated with selfish pleasures like eating or sex.
The implication is that we are hard-wired to be altruistic. To put it another way, it’s difficult for humans to be truly selfless, for generosity feels so good.

Unlike a deontological theory which says that we should give of our resources because we have an obligation to, or a utilitarian theory which says that we should give of our resources to maximize overall utility or societal contentment, it seems that empirical evidence is supporting the virtue perspective that we should give of our resources because we are inclined to do so. More specifically, human beings are created to share what they have, and doing so leads to their own happiness, in addition to the happiness of others.

How Should Christians Make Sense of the Theory of Evolution?

In John Paul II’s message to the Pontifical Academy of Science on Evolution in 1996, he finely summed up the Roman Catholic Church’s stance on evolution, reaffirming the statement made by his predecessor Pius XII in 1950 that “there was no opposition between evolution and the doctrine of the faith about man and his vocation.” The conflict among theologians over evolution according to the pope was not whether Darwinian theories were compatible with Christianity, but rather “the true role of philosophy and, beyond it, of theology.” Some, like Cardinal Christoph Schoenborn in this NYTimes Op-ed, claim that John Paul II’s support for evolutionary theories are overblown. Pope Benedict XVI said in his 2005 inaugural mass that “We are not some causal and meaningless product of evolution. Each of us is the result of a thought of God. Each of us is willed, each of us is loved, each of us is necessary.” But this should not be taken as a Catholic hostility to the theory of evolution, per se. For both John Paul II and Benedict XVI, science and religion are ultimately compatible, each with different questions, tools, and spheres of influence, but at certain points, mutually enlightening.

Evolution is a materialist theory, meaning that it is a theory concerned with matter. It explains the reorganization of matter over time. As an empirical theory, it is based on observations and measurements. The job of the natural sciences is to explain such natural phenomenon like the differences between the species or the biological development of organisms over time.

But there are other disciplines that study phenomena that are not natural, not concerned with matter, and not empirically observable. For example, the soul, according to Christian theology is immaterial. Thus, it cannot be explained by a materialistic theory like evolution. Rather, the question of the soul is a metaphysical question. Metaphysics simply means “beyond or above physics.” Whereas physics and the other natural sciences are concerned with nature, that is, observable and measurable phenomena, metaphysics is concerned with that which cannot be observed, with those deep and abiding questions of why. Why are we here? What is our purpose? What is the soul?

It is concerning the question of human evolution, particularly when it comes to humans having an immortal soul, where evolutionary theories and theology really seem to conflict. It seems directly contrary to the Biblical account of creation to say that human are the process of natural selection. Moreover, it seems repulsive to the idea of human dignity rooted in the belief that human beings are created in the image of God to say that human beings and monkeys descended from a common ape-like ancestor. How can human beings bear the divine image if one accepts that they are descended from an animal?

Thomas Aquinas offers us one such solution. Thomas Aquinas adopted Aristotelian biology to explain the biology of the human being. Aristotle thought that human beings were animals, and Aquinas affirmed him on that. According to both, the organizing structure (or form) of the human being was the soul, which was both immaterial and inseparable from the body (unlike Plato who thought the soul was imprisoned in the body). In the Aristotelian view, the human soul had three levels. The most primitive level was the vegetative level that allowed the human being to do plant-like things like grow through cellular division or use energy. The next level of the soul was the animalic level, which allowed the human being to do animal-like things like hunt down food, attack in self-defense, and mate with other human animals. But where humans were distinct from their fellow animal kingdom members was that they had a third level of their soul—the rational part–which allowed them to do things like think, ponder, form communities, create moral codes, resist animal instincts, and wonder about God. Most importantly, it is the rational part of the soul that allows the person to have free will, that is, the ability to act voluntarily and intentionally. The idea of the soul as having multiple levels allowed Aristotle and Aquinas to conceive of the human person as both an animal and more than an animal.

According to Aquinas, it is in the rational part of the soul that we find the image of God. This is an important point to emphasize: for Aquinas, being in the image of God means being able to act (1) voluntarily and (2) with intention or purpose.

So this gets to why the Roman Catholic Church, which is heavily influenced by the theology and philosophy of Aquinas, can accept evolution. It is because the church sees the realm of philosophy and theology to be concerned primarily with the rational dimension of the soul and with the human being as a free and intentional creature, capable of conceiving a realm of reality that is not material, a realm of reality that is concerned with immaterial, or metaphysical phenomena like the true, the good, and the beautiful.

It is not the job of philosophy and theology to explain functioning of the other parts of the soul that control things like cell division and appetite. This is the job of the natural sciences like biology. Theology, since it is based on revelation, cannot explain the exact observable mechanisms of the way the world works or the way God creates. Saying that God created the earth is one thing; explaining how is quite another. Science, on the other hand, cannot explain the deep and inescapable existential questions that arise in human existence. Why are we here? Where are we heading? How do we lead a good life?

There are reductionist tendencies on both sides of the debate. There are some religious folk who say that everything we need to know is in the Bible. This sort of Biblicism (sometimes called fundamentalism) is ultimately self-defeating. The majority of even the most stringent Biblicists or fundamentalists will go to a doctor when they are sick. The Bible talks about healing, so why not turn to the Bible for answers to an illness? Because the Bible does not give us those answers. The Bible does not tell us how to set a broken bone or how to cure strep throat. To think that the Bible provides all the answers is an example of reductionism.

The reductionist tendencies on the scientific side of the debate try and use science to provide all the answers. We said before that religion can provide answers to the deep-seated metaphysical questions that emerge in each of our lives, but scientific reductionists will say that science provides answers to these questions. To the question, “why are we here?” scientific reductionists will say that we are not here for any reason, but are rather the products of chance. To the question, “what happens when we die?” scientific reductionists will say that nothing happens when we die besides the fact that our biological mechanisms cease to function. To the question, “how do we live a good life,” scientific reductionists will say something like “there is no such thing as a good life, only as much subjective pleasure as possible.” But like the religious reductionist position, this scientific reductionism is also ultimately self-defeating. There is no scientific (i.e. empirical) evidence to prove that there is no God or that chance, not God, is the force behind the evolutionary processes. You cannot use the tools of science to examine metaphysical questions like the meaning of life, the nature of God, or the question of final causality.

This is why Darwin’s theories have never been officially condemned by Vatican. Darwin sought to explain a physical question, whereas the church seeks to explain metaphysical questions. Now, metaphysical explanations are partially dependent on physical phenomena, but metaphysics goes beyond what physical theories like evolution can tell us. Theologically, it would be devastating for the acceptance of evolutionary theories if they embraced a view of human beings as wholly material, and indeed, some evolutionists believe this. But Darwin did not, and strictly speaking, evolutionary theories do not contribute to such a view of mankind.