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Two Important Arguments from Both 'Sides' of the Gun Debate
The argument over guns is a complex topic, but we ought not to dismiss arguments because they do not square with our gut feelings – regardless of whether we want more or less guns, more or less laws.
Like any subject that weaves its way round corpses, gun control discussions easily ignite the worst parts of us. Whether it’s descent into name-calling, insults, ad hominems and similar lazy, childish tactics, or a dismissal of anyone other than those on “our” side, attempts at objectivity are often scarce. However, many of us, including myself, are in the advantageous position of ignorance: it is advantageous, since it means we have no excuse not to encounter and contemplate the best arguments on both “sides” of the debate.
To that end, I want to highlight two potent arguments I’ve encountered from two individuals who, more than likely, would disagree to large extents on gun control in the US.
I say “sides” because I’m very hesitant to portray sides in debates: important discussions are often more complicated than such a binary placement asserts. No one wants more innocent people dead; no one wants more children firing off guns in their home, killing family members. The difference depends on specific items of policy. These arguments highlight precisely this and, I hope, will show that indeed the “other side” do not comprise a set of evil, irrational individuals (there might be a few, but we’d be bad thinkers to assert that everyone who wants less gun control is a crazy, sky-shooting cowboy).
Argument 1.1: Guns Undermine Liberty
I’ve previously argued that individual liberty only has meaning if one is allowed to, basically, willingly destroy one’s own body. That means, as long as you are not harming non-consenting others, you should be free to smoke, drink, even amputate your limbs – and, indeed, kill yourself. All of these come with caveats, of course: we might be ignorant to the extent such self-destruction might really have (on others). However, the larger point is not the encouragement for adult citizens to slowly destroy their bodies but the recognition that this civil society respects your autonomy, your personhood, to the point that, if you wish to harm yourself, such respect remains.
Freedom of speech similarly applies: we should be able to express even the most offensive of speech, without worry that mere offence is sufficient reason to stifle us (there might be other, better reasons to prevent it, based on legitimate concerns of harm). Under the guise of PC or “public morality”, citizens are prevented from writing, acting, or expressing themselves, undermining the freedom not only of these artists, but of the audience too, in that their freedom to decide to be an audience is already prevented.
When the State starts deciding what is and isn’t good for you, when it begins acting upon paternalistic grounds, then we ought to start worrying. Freedom only means something when we’re free to act stupidly (again, all with caveats), when we’re free to express ourselves.
Guns, however, change this dynamic entirely.
In the New York Times, Firmin DeBrabander argues that individual liberty is completely undermined by allowing citizens to wield guns.
“Guns pose a monumental challenge to freedom, and particular, the liberty that is the hallmark of any democracy worthy of the name — that is, freedom of speech. Guns do communicate, after all, but in a way that is contrary to free speech aspirations: for, guns chasten speech.”
Those who long for a gun on every citizen would encourage an enforced “polite” society “precisely because guns would compel everyone to tamp down eccentric behavior, and refrain from actions that might seem threatening.” We would “walk gingerly — not make any sudden, unexpected moves — and watch what we say, how we act, whom we might offend.” A person who brandished a weapon would already be communicating that the conversation is over: there can be no discussion with such a person at all. The fullstop is in the barrel and he’s willing to show you, if you decide to challenge him.
Free speech and expression can only exist with the knowledge that non-violence will be the response. But guns, by definition, would change that. DeBrabander asks us to imagine what would have happened had the non-armed Zuccoti Park protestors carried weapons when the police stormed.
Argument 1.2: Guns Poison Power
Against such powerful points, gun control advocates assert that by undermining our ability to arm, we allow complete government despotism a greater chance of reality. By being armed, we can stand up to a regime of control. But this encourages an extreme individualism, not a coherent community – since we are not asking for a select group of trained individuals to be the only and trusted bearers of arms, but everyone. This is a distrust of community, since gun control advocates are saying as soon as we allow one group guns (army, police, etc.), the rest of us open up to servility under their armed hands, pulled by the strings of their master (the government).
Citing Foucault, DeBrabander points out that “nothing suits power so well as extreme individualism”. After all, this makes it easier to take control, since instead of a large opposing group, you have many disparate, self-regarding opponents. Thus, instead of aiding liberty against a powerful state, it aids a powerful state in taking more liberty.
But there is reason to consider the importance of being armed, as Sam Harris highlights.
Argument 2.0 Guns Can Protect in a Violent World
A popular argument from gun rights advocates it that if you make gun ownership a crime, then only criminals will have guns. This means only “bad” guys would have guns, while good people would by definition be at a disadvantage. There are various responses to this: who decides who’s a “good” or “bad” guy; even in the hands of innocent people, guns can escalate a crime situation unnecessarily; due to the insane nature of attacks, robberies, etc., one will not act like a John McClane but more like a quivering mess, which is the worst mindset to be in when holding a powerful weapon.
Thus, would it not be better to regulate guns more effectively, instead of getting rid of them altogether? Criminals will get hold of guns – indeed, by definition, if guns are outlawed, one becomes a criminal just by acquiring one – and leave non-criminals more vulnerable than ever. I’m not certain outlawing all guns is the solution, because of this. It doesn’t, however, mean we should all be armed, but I don’t know how to square that at the moment.
But Sam Harris goes further and correctly so: He doesn’t wish for a world without guns at all. According to him, people who wish for this do not understand violence or its nature. “A world without guns is one in which the most aggressive men can do more or less anything they want. It is a world in which a man with a knife can rape and murder a woman in the presence of a dozen witnesses, and none will find the courage to intervene.” The Kitty Genovese case comes to mind, where bystanders only watched while a young woman was brutally murdered. Would a gun have helped? Perhaps.
Harris undermines the rebuttal that these situations are sudden, shocking and thus would mean good people shooting recklessly.
“The liberal commentariat seems to have no awareness of what “well-trained” signifies. It happens to include an understanding of what to do and what not to do when the danger of shooting innocent bystanders exists. The fact that bystanders do occasionally get shot, even by police officers, does not prove that putting guns in the hands of good people would be a bad idea. Gun-control advocates seem always to imagine the worst possible scenario: legions of untrained, delusional vigilantes producing their weapons at a pin drop and firing indiscriminately into a crowd.”
Harris here is calling for better and more training; better laws, not all-encompassing and totally restrictive ones.
As many have pointed out, this still doesn’t undermine the data indicating guns increase chances of death – even when kept at home – and so on. The usual retort that risk is everywhere might be boring to hear, but remains true. Yes, guns are “designed” for killing whereas knives are not, but that doesn’t mean you can’t have incidents of knife-attacks. Guns can level the playing field, especially for women - who are often the targets of violent crimes from more powerful opponents. Says Harris: “A world without guns… is one in which the advantages of youth, size, strength, aggression, and sheer numbers are almost always decisive. Who could be nostalgic for such a world?”
I do not know where I stand. However, assuming Harris’ data is correct, that only “good” people acquired guns, were well-trained, regularly checked on by independent bodies (the same way we are tested for drivers, etc.), and such, I see little problem with gun ownership. But, the problem is deciding who should and should not own guns; the undermining of liberty if it is given to all citizens; the danger to free speech and liberty when held by anyone; that even “good” people can become enraged, drunk, etc., and easy access to a gun can escalate a mere drunken brawl to a murder spree.
This is a complex topic, but we ought not to dismiss arguments because they do not square with our gut feelings – regardless of whether we want more or less guns, more or less laws. By outlining two important arguments, we can see that reason does exist. Even if both are wrong, we can show this without recourse to name-calling, Strawmanning and caricature. A debate and discussion must be had, since discussion can aid us in achieving the goal we all want: a world with less violence or, more realistically, one where fewer innocent people die. If guns aid or hinder that goal, we will figure that out by having a proper conversation, not a mud-slinging contest, regardless of which “side” you are on.
Image Credit: Andrija Markovic / Shutterstock
New anthropological research suggests our ancestors enjoyed long slumbers.
- Neanderthal bone fragments discovered in northern Spain mimic hibernating animals like cave bears.
- Thousands of bone fragments, dating back 400,000 years, were discovered in this "pit of bones" 30 years ago.
- The researchers speculate that this physiological function, if true, could prepare us for extended space travel.
Humans have a terrible sense of time. We think in moments, not eons, which accounts for a number of people that still don't believe in evolutionary theory: we simply can't imagine ourselves any differently than we are today.
Thankfully, scientists and researchers have vast imaginations. Their findings often depend on creative problem-solving. Anthropologists are especially adept at this skill, as their job entails imagining a prehistoric world in which humans and our forebears were very different creatures.
A new paper, published in the journal L'Anthropologie, takes a hard look at ancient bone health and arrives at a surprising conclusion: Neanderthals (and possibly early humans) might have endured long, harsh winters by hibernating.
Adaptability is the key to survival. Certain endotherms evolved the ability to depress their metabolism for months at a time; their body temperature and metabolic rate lowered while their breathing and heart rate dropped to nearly imperceptible levels. This handy technique solved a serious resource management problem, as food supplies were notoriously scarce during the frozen months.
While today the wellness industry eschews fat, it has long had an essential evolutionary function: it keeps us alive during times of food scarcity. As autumn months pass, large mammals become hyperphagic (experiencing intense hunger followed by overeating) and store nutrients in fat deposits; smaller animals bury food nearby for when they need a snack. This strategy is critical as hibernating animals can lose over a quarter of their body weight during winter.
For this paper, Antonis Bartsiokas and Juan-Luis Arsuaga, both in the Department of History and Ethnology at Democritus University of Thrace, scoured through remains of a "pit of bones" in northern Spain. In 1976, archaeologists found a 50-foot shaft leading down into a cave in Atapuerca, where thousands of bone fragments have since been discovered. Dating back 400,000 years—some of the fragments may be as old as 600,000 years—researchers believe the bodies were intentionally buried in this cave.
Evidence of ancient human hibernation / human hibernation for space travel | Dr Antonis Bartsiokas
While the fragments have been well studied in the intervening decades, Arsuaga (who led an early excavation in Atapuerca) and Bartsiokas noticed something odd about the bones: they displayed signs of seasonal variations. These proto-humans appear to have experienced annual bone growth disruption, which is indicative of hibernating species.
In fact, the remains of cave bears were also found in this pit, increasing the likelihood that the burial site was reserved for species that shared common features. This could be the result of a dearth of food for bears and Neanderthals alike. The researchers write that modern northerners don't need to sleep for months at a time; an abundance of fish and reindeer didn't exist in Spain, as they do in the Arctic. They write,
"The aridification of Iberia then could not have provided enough fat-rich food for the people of Sima during the harsh winter—making them resort to cave hibernation."
The notion of hibernating humans is appealing, especially to those in cold climates, but some experts don't want to put the cart before the horse. Large mammals don't engage in textbook hibernation; their deep sleep is known as a "torpor." Even then, the demands of human-sized brains could have been too large for extended periods of slumber.
Still, as we continually discover our animalistic origins to better understand how we evolved, the researchers note the potential value of this research.
"The present work provides an innovative approach to the physiological mechanisms of metabolism in early humans that could help determine the life cycle and physiology of extinct human species."
Bartsiokas speculates that this ancient mechanism could be coopted for space travel in the future. If the notion of hibernating humans sounds far-fetched, the idea has been contemplated for years, as NASA began funding research on this topic in 2014. As the saying goes, everything old is new again.
Stay in touch with Derek on Twitter and Facebook. His new book is "Hero's Dose: The Case For Psychedelics in Ritual and Therapy."
It is impossible for science to arrive at ultimate truths, but functional truths are good enough.
- What is truth? This is a very tricky question, trickier than many would like to admit.
- Science does arrive at what we can call functional truth, that is, when it focuses on what something does as opposed to what something is. We know how gravity operates, but not what gravity is, a notion that has changed over time and will probably change again.
- The conclusion is that there are not absolute final truths, only functional truths that are agreed upon by consensus. The essential difference is that scientific truths are agreed upon by factual evidence, while most other truths are based on belief.
Does science tell the truth? The answer to this question is not as simple as it seems, and my 13.8 colleague Adam Frank took a look at it in his article about the complementarity of knowledge. There are many levels of complexity to what truth is or means to a person or a community. Why?
First, "truth" itself is hard to define or even to identify. How do you know for sure that someone is telling you the truth? Do you always tell the truth? In groups, what may be considered true to a culture with a given set of moral values may not be true in another. Examples are easy to come by: the death penalty, abortion rights, animal rights, environmentalism, the ethics of owning weapons, etc.
At the level of human relations, truth is very convoluted. Living in an age where fake news has taken center stage only corroborates this obvious fact. However, not knowing how to differentiate between what is true and what is not leads to fear, insecurity, and ultimately, to what could be called worldview servitude — the subservient adherence to a worldview proposed by someone in power. The results, as the history of the 20th century has shown extensively, can be catastrophic.
Proclamations of final or absolute truths, even in science, shouldn't be trusted.
The goal of science, at least on paper, is to arrive at the truth without recourse to any belief or moral system. Science aims to go beyond the human mess so as to be value-free. The premise here is that Nature doesn't have a moral dimension, and that the goal of science is to describe Nature the best possible way, to arrive at something we could call the "absolute truth." The approach is a typical heir to the Enlightenment notion that it is possible to take human complications out of the equation and have an absolute objective view of the world. However, this is a tall order.
It is tempting to believe that science is the best pathway to truth because, to a spectacular extent, science does triumph at many levels. You trust driving your car because the laws of mechanics and thermodynamics work. NASA scientists and engineers just managed to have the Ingenuity Mars Helicopter — the first man-made device to fly over another planet — hover above the Martian surface all by itself.
We can use the laws of physics to describe the results of countless experiments to amazing levels of accuracy, from the magnetic properties of materials to the position of your car in traffic using GPS locators. In this restricted sense, science does tell the truth. It may not be the absolute truth about Nature, but it's certainly a kind of pragmatic, functional truth at which the scientific community arrives by consensus based on the shared testing of hypotheses and results.
What is truth?
Credit: Sergey Nivens / 242235342
But at a deeper level of scrutiny, the meaning of truth becomes intangible, and we must agree with the pre-Socratic philosopher Democritus who declared, around 400 years BCE, that "truth is in the depths." (Incidentally, Democritus predicted the existence of the atom, something that certainly exists in the depths.)
A look at a dictionary reinforces this view. "Truth: the quality of being true." Now, that's a very circular definition. How do we know what is true? A second definition: "Truth: a fact or belief that is accepted as true." Acceptance is key here. A belief may be accepted to be true, as is the case with religious faith. There is no need for evidence to justify a belief. But note that a fact as well can be accepted as true, even if belief and facts are very different things. This illustrates how the scientific community arrives at a consensus of what is true by acceptance. Sufficient factual evidence supports that a statement is true. (Note that what defines sufficient factual evidence is also accepted by consensus.) At least until we learn more.
Take the example of gravity. We know that an object in free fall will hit the ground, and we can calculate when it does using Galileo's law of free fall (in the absence of friction). This is an example of "functional truth." If you drop one million rocks from the same height, the same law will apply every time, corroborating the factual acceptance of a functional truth, that all objects fall to the ground at the same rate irrespective of their mass (in the absence of friction).
But what if we ask, "What is gravity?" That's an ontological question about what gravity is and not what it does. And here things get trickier. To Galileo, it was an acceleration downward; to Newton a force between two or more massive bodies inversely proportional to the square of the distance between them; to Einstein the curvature of spacetime due to the presence of mass and/or energy. Does Einstein have the final word? Probably not.
Is there an ultimate scientific truth?
Final or absolute scientific truths assume that what we know of Nature can be final, that human knowledge can make absolute proclamations. But we know that this can't really work, for the very nature of scientific knowledge is that it is incomplete and contingent on the accuracy and depth with which we measure Nature with our instruments. The more accuracy and depth our measurements gain, the more they are able to expose the cracks in our current theories, as I illustrated last week with the muon magnetic moment experiments.
So, we must agree with Democritus, that truth is indeed in the depths and that proclamations of final or absolute truths, even in science, shouldn't be trusted. Fortunately, for all practical purposes — flying airplanes or spaceships, measuring the properties of a particle, the rates of chemical reactions, the efficacy of vaccines, or the blood flow in your brain — functional truths do well enough.
Using urinals, psychological collages, and animated furniture to shock us into reality.
- Dada is a provocative and surreal art movement born out of the madness of World War I.
- Tzara, a key Dada theorist, says Dada seeks "to confuse and upset, to shake and jolt" people from their comfort zones.
- Dada, as all avant-garde art, faces a key problem in how to stay true to its philosophy.
In a world gone mad, what can the few sane people left do? What can someone say when there are no words that seem up to the job? How can anyone hope to express ideas so terrible when doing so will only reduce those ideas?
These are some of the things that inspired the Dada movement, and in its absurd, surreal, and chaotic nonsense, we find the voice of the voiceless.
The origin of Dadaism
Dada was a response to the madness of World War I. Reasonable, intelligent, and sensitive people looked at the blood and mud graveyards of the trenches and wondered how any meaning or goodness could ever be found again. How can someone make sense of a world where millions of young, happy, hopeful men were scythed down in a spray of bullets? How could life go back to normal when returning soldiers, blinded and disfigured from gas, lay homeless in the streets? Out of this awful revulsion, there came one bitter voice, and it said: "Everything is nonsense."
Dada is the art of the nihilist. It smashes accepted wisdom, challenges norms and values, and offends, upsets, and provokes us to re-examine everything.
And so, the Dada movement expressed itself in absurdity. Tzara, the closest you get to a Dadaist philosopher, put it like this: "Like everything in life, Dada is useless. Dada is without pretension, as life should be." Dada rejects all systems, all philosophy, all definite answers, and all truth. It is the living embrace of contradictions and nonsense. It seeks "to confuse and upset people, to shake and jolt". It aims to shout down the "shamefaced sex of comfortable compromise and good manners," when actually "everything happens in a completely idiotic way."
In short, Dada is a response to the world when all the usual methods have broken down. It's the recognition that dinner party conversations, Hollywood blockbusters, and Silicon Valley are not how life actually is. This is a false reality and order, like some kind of veneer.
The Dada response to life is to embrace the personal and passionate madness of it all, where "the intensity of a personality is transposed directly, clearly into the work." It's to recognize the unique position of an artist, who can convey ideas and feelings in a way that goes beyond normal understanding. Art goes straight to the soul, but the intensity of it all can be hard to "enjoy" in the strictest sense.
Where is this Dada?
For instance, Dada is seen in the poems of Hugo Ball who wrote in meaningless foreign-sounding words. It's in Hausmann, who wrote works in disconnected phonemes. It's found in Duchamp's iconoclastic "Fountain" that sought to question what art or an artist really meant. It's in Hans Richter's short film "Ghost before Breakfast," which has an incoherent montage of images, loosely connected by the theme of inanimate objects in revolt. And, it's in Kurt Schwitters' "psychological collages" which present fragments of objects, juxtaposed together.
Dada is intended to shock. It's an artistic jolt asking, or demanding, that the viewers reorient themselves in some way. It is designed to make us feel uncomfortable and does not make for easy appreciation. It's only when we're thrown so drastically outside of our comfort zone in this way that Dada asks us to question how things are. It shakes us out of a conformist stupor to look afresh at things.
The paradox of Dadaism
Of course, like all avant-garde art, Dada needs to address one major problem: how do you stay so provocative, so radical, and so anti-establishment when you also seek success? How can maverick rebels stay so as they get a mortgage and want a good school for their kids? The problem is that young, inventive, and idealistic artists are inevitably sucked into the world of profit and commodity.
As Grayson Perry, a British modern artist, wrote: "What starts as a creative revolt soon becomes co-opted as the latest way to make money," and what was once fresh and challenging "falls away to reveal a predatory capitalist robot." With Dada, how long can someone actually live in a world of nonsense and nihilistic absurdity?
But there will always be new blood to keep movements like Dada going. As the revolutionaries of yesterday become the rich mansion-owners of today, there will be hot, young things to come and take up the mantle. There will always be something to challenge and questions to be asked. So, art movements like Dada will always be in the vanguard.
Dada is the art of the nihilist. It smashes accepted wisdom, challenges norms and values, and offends, upsets, and provokes us to re-examine everything. It's an absurd art form that reflects the reality it perceives — that life is nothing more than a dissonant patchwork of egos floating in an abyss of nothing.