Sunday, March 27, 2011

Induction and Reduction of “Sex is Metaphysical”

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The goal of this essay is to very nearly reach the Objectivist principle that sex is metaphysical, which is the essential part of Ayn Rand’s theory of sex. Keep in mind that by “metaphysical,” I mean “that which pertains to reality, to the nature of things, to existence,” so I’m reaching the idea that sex has some important relationship with us and the reality around us.

At the outset, I’ll note that we’re dealing with sex as philosophy is concerned with it, as a normative issue that philosophy can offer guidance on, as opposed to the technical, complicated facts about sex studied in the fields of anatomy, biology, physiology, medical care, etc.

In this case, we’re presupposing basic issues like free will and ones we’ve already covered, like egoism. We’re also presupposing that we have some knowledge about rational people having sex, and will deal with non-rational people later on after understanding why rational people do it. Just like with the induction of egoism, we can’t inter-mingle good and bad examples of sex at the outset and try to distinguish those two. It’s true for irrational people too that “sex is metaphysical,” but it would be very difficult to understand how it applies to irrational people until you’ve first learned of how it applies to rational people.

Here’s a bad, rationalistic argument for sex being metaphysical:

Sex involves emotions; emotions involve value-judgments; value-judgments have a source ultimately on your view of the universe, your metaphysical view. Therefore, sex is metaphysical. The premises are true, but this chain of premises doesn’t just belong to sex, but to any value. You could put whatever you’d like for “value” in this case, and there would be nothing there that distinguishes sex from any given value in the way the argument is presented.

So, to reach this principle, we’re going to use both the method of induction and reduction at the same time, rather than in separate essays. We’re going to work inductively from observations, raise concerns when we get stuck, progress even higher, and then at some point ascend to metaphysics, after which we will reduce the overarching principle to the point where we initially ascended, completing both the reduction and induction at once.

Sex is an Intense, Pleasurable Experience

This is a widely known induction, and everyone who knows anything about sex knows that it is a pleasure, an enjoyable thing. But not just an enjoyable or pleasurable thing: it’s an intense, violent, forceful pleasure—at its best, the pleasure of it becomes all that you can focus on.

To reach this induction, we could experience a range of pleasures in connection with their value, and the higher the pleasure, the higher the value, which means relying again on what Mill called “concomitant variation.”

Here’s an example list:

1. Finding a new set of batteries for your dead T.V. remote control.

2. Finding a decent meal.

3. Ordering a great, delicious meal.

4. Talking to a helpful stranger.

5. Talking to a kind, good friend.

6. You notice what is wrong with a philosophy.

7. You create a philosophy that changes people’s lives for the better.

8. You have sex with your partner.

This list isn’t in any necessary order, and it may vary for different people, but sex is clearly on the top of the list. It’s the jackpot or goldmine of pleasurable intensity.

Sex is an End-In-Itself

This is another easy induction about sex, though not everyone agrees with it. Of course, people know that sex can be a means to reproduction and a family life, and we know from scientific study that that’s the biological goal of sex. But it’s also well-known that sex can be an activity done for its own sake, just for the enjoyment inherent in having sex. There’s a whole sex-toy industry designed specifically to enhance the pleasure of sex, and a condom or contraceptive industry designed to prevent us from accidentally making the woman involved pregnant. And the people who understand this best may be the religious groups who are against sex when it isn’t being done for the sake of procreation, but merely for pleasure.

So, we know that sex is an intense pleasure, and that it’s an end-in-itself, not necessarily a means to any other end (like becoming pregnant, exercising, or passing the time). What’s the nature of sexual pleasure? What is the importance of sexual pleasure, its underlying value? This is one of the questions we’re going to advance to by working through these inductions.

Sex is a Certain Kind of Generalized Experience

What’s the nature of sexual pleasure? To answer that, we’ll need to contrast sex with other pleasures, and even with the varieties of pain. We especially need that contrast with other pleasures.

Here, we have an opportunity to use the genus method: Pleasurable experiences have causes. We could also use the genus, “Experiences (positive or negative) have causes,” though this could take a lot longer to cover.

The first division of the first genus is: specialized, delimited pleasures which are a means to an end, as opposed to generalized pleasures that we experience as ends-in-themselves.

A division within “specialized pleasure”: Physical pleasure and psychological pleasure, sensations and emotions. Most things that we gain pleasure from are a mixture of both the physical and psychological elements—eating a candy bar is a mostly physical pleasure, but playing a game with a friend is a mostly psychological pleasure. Specialized pleasures are related to some specific thing, but that thing can have a psychological meaning.

The second division, within “generalized pleasure” is: Physical pleasures and psychological pleasures, like before. But are there any physical pleasures or dominantly physical pleasures that are generalized? There are not any that I could think of, only specialized pleasures. What about dominantly psychological? A really good example would be art. Art certainly has a physical, sensory component to it, but the esthetic pleasure and enjoyment of art comes from its psychological component.

How about sex? It’s an end-in-itself, but is it either a specialized or a generalized pleasure? Is it dominantly psychological or physical? Entirely one or the other?

Let’s form a hypothesis: Sex is only physical. What evidence exists for this kind of claim? The case of animals is one kind of evidence, as they observably don’t use sex as a way to experience joy, or at least in the way that we do. And it’s clear that physical sensation is an essential part of sex, not a tangential point. Without parts of bodies brushing against each other, there’s no sexual ecstasy. Just from this, one could conclude that sex has no psychological meaning, and that it’s just about nerve endings, and exciting them until the sex reaches a climax.

Well, what’s wrong with this hypothesis? It’s right to the extent that there’s a major physical aspect to sex, and that can’t be ignored. But there are psychological factors involved that change the pleasure for human beings, even if the physical sensations are the same and even if these factors wouldn’t interest other animals. The kind of partner matters quite a bit in human sex: fat or in-shape or malnourished, ugly or handsome/pretty, stupid or intelligent, passive or aggressive, etc. So does the setting or background: the time of day, the mood of the place, whether other people are nearby or within earshot, music preference, or if the sex follows a creative or romantic action, or after an argument or fighting (which is widely known as “angry sex”). All of these factors change the nature of the pleasure involved, and they aren’t tangential, either.

The conclusion we’ve reached from the above is that sex is a combination of both the mind and the body. It’s both the strongest physical sensation, and the most exalted emotional, psychological response. It’s a pleasure aimed at the whole person, body and mind, and is neither dominantly one element nor the other. Both elements are essential. Sex is a generalized pleasure, an intense pleasure, that is directed towards the whole person as an end-in-himself, body and mind.

What we have to ask now is: “What value does sex embody? What is the object of awareness in sex—what are you focusing on?”

Sex is a Self-Celebration, a Positive Self-Focus on You and Your View of Reality

To answer the above question, we need three contrasts.

1. Work: like sex, work is a major value. Objectivism holds that it’s the greatest, specialized value. Contrasting sexual pleasure with the pleasure from creative work will further explain why it belongs to the “generalized pleasure” category, as against the “specialized pleasure” category.

2. Art: Determining how sex relates to art can help us determine what values are being focused on in these two cases.

3. The opposite of sex: Its antonym, its equivalent if we had created a category of “painful experiences” alongside of pleasurable ones. The most intense, generalized painful experience.

1. Creative work: Let’s take Ayn Rand as an example. She was a professional writer of high-caliber, with a great intellect, and she immensely enjoyed her job. Would she have felt the same pleasure of mind and body in writing, as anyone else does while making love? She loved doing her job, but writing is still work. She enjoyed her work, but the process of creating them was strenuous mental activity for hours practically every day until the assignment was accomplished—in the case of her novels, it would take years of such actions to complete just one. And whatever enjoyment she got out of the writing was a tangential issue: the focus was on the work. She might have felt that the world is a great place where she can accomplish things, and that she’s great and capable of such things, but in the context of work, that would be a side-issue.

The contrast between your experience of sex with the experience of someone performing at work has to strike your attention as different, even if the expert’s job required full use of their mind and body, like a sports player, a chef, or a policeman. Both the sex and the performance of a given job may require both the mind and body, but sex isn’t about remembering dozens of different factors related to the job, and it isn’t about focusing externally on creating an achievement, like a new non-fiction book, a new cake, or a crime bust.

Sex is about experiencing a moment of ecstasy as an end in itself, whereas one’s work is a means towards other ends. In work, your focus is yourself insofar as you’re a specialized performer of some task, whereas in sex, the focus is yourself as a total. In work, the enjoyment and appreciation of yourself is a side-issue, but the focus on yourself in sex is the essential, primary concern. Sex is about you as a total person in the complete world; an expert acts in a specifically defined field of the world. This is one of our first indications that sex is metaphysical: you don’t have sex as a specialized actor (like an expert), but as a total person, and you’re related in some way to the total world, as opposed to a delimited, specialized aspect of it, like in one’s career.

2. Art: Like sex, it’s an end-in-itself. Rand refers to it as “man’s metaphysical mirror,” and claims in her theory of art that works of art involve the artists’ metaphysical value judgments (what he finds important about reality), and we’re trying to show that sex is metaphysical. There are more similarities between art and sex: both have crucial, fundamental values that are essential to the experience, and the response in both art and sex is incredibly personal, not social. Even still, there’s a difference in the pleasure of producing art and sex. Your body and mind may be involved in art, but they’re not the focal point of your attention—such a focus on yourself would distract you from creating the art, or contemplating a completed work. There’s a significant difference in where the focus is directed when you’re painting an artwork, contemplating one, admiring a sculpture, watching a movie, all in contrast to having sex.

When contemplating an artwork, your focus is external, just like with work. The difference is that you’re not trying to improve on what was given to you or what you started with, you’re not achieving anything; rather, you’re entering an artist’s recreation of the world, whether you love it or not. Either way, you’re merely reacting to a work that is outside of yourself and that is taking hold of your attention. If you’re reading Orwell's “1984,” you’re in its fictional world while you read, and that’s all there is to you. If someone were to ask you, “what are you right now?” you would reply, “I’m the person reading this book, observing its events, etc.” Your response does mean something about yourself, but you’re not the focus of art. In sex, you’re the focus, it’s all about self-awareness. You’re the fundamental object of the experience.

We could ask here: what’s the role of a partner, if sex is self-focused?

A rational person chooses a partner because she represents the sum of his fundamental values: otherwise, love wouldn’t be his emotional response to her. The woman has to be a mirror of him essentially, what Aristotle called an “alter ego,” another self, and she must see that same point about him, and feel the same way about him. To use an Objectivist term for this phenomena, a rational person and his partner need each other to be “psychologically visible” of the other, they both have a need to be seen for who and what they are on the inside, and a proper couple fulfills this need for one another. When a couple is psychologically visible, what they see and respond to is their own essential self, as reflected back by their partner—one person displays important, fundamental values of character that both parties share, while the other takes it in, understands it, and appreciates it. For a rational person, if the partner is indifferent or ignorant of his essence, or esteems something as essential other than what he believes to be essential, then the sex becomes irrelevant to them.

There’s an excellent example of this principle displayed by Gail Wynand and a young love of his in The Fountainhead:
Sitting at her feet, his face raised to her, he allowed his soul to be heard. “My darling, anything you wish, anything I am, anything I can ever be...That's what I want to offer you - not the things I'll get for you, but the thing in me that will make me able to get them. That thing - a man can't renounce it - but I want to renounce it so that it will be yours - so that it will be in your service - only for you." The girl smiled and asked: "Do you think I'm prettier than Maggie Kelly?"

He got up. He said nothing and walked out of the house. He never saw that girl again.
The reason why Wynand’s sexual attraction to the girl stopped is because she didn’t see him psychologically, she didn’t respond to him as a total person, in the way that he saw himself.

Meaningful sex for a rational person means that the mutual focus on each other becomes a way to underscore, highlight, and make real a completely self-directed awareness, the focus of each on himself or herself. Sex, then, is a totally egoistical, selfish experience, and the role of the partner is to make it even more so, and that’s why a rational person needs a partner. (Imagine the ridiculousness and cruelty of someone claiming that they have sex with you only for your sake, that they derive no pleasure or selfish enjoyment from it whatsoever, and that it’s simply selfless charity on their part.) The experience of sex is: I want her. I want her because she’s another me, and I want her to consume the value that is me. It’s an emphasis on self-focus, and the fact of partners doesn’t contradict that point; rather, partners actually enhance the point that sex is a self-focus.

Sex is about the total you, body and mind, experiencing a violent pleasure through both elements as an end-in-itself, and it involves a positive self-awareness of your essential self; not you in some specialized field, but the total you and the world as such. This kind of focus on yourself and the world has to involve your greatest values, because it leads to the most intense pleasure. (Recall the “pleasure list” I made earlier.)

3. The third contrast is the opposite of sex. A generalized, negative focus on yourself, both mind and body. It’s known as a panic attack, and it’s known to be one of the most painful and frightening experiences of human life. It’s a special kind of anxiety, and the person’s dread and fear is intensified for hours beyond that of typical anxiety victims, and the person’s skill or experience or even strength of character doesn’t stop the onset of a panic attack. Physically, panic attack victims experience trembling, heart palpitations, chest pains, nausea, dizziness, difficulty moving, hot (or cold) flashes, shortness of breath, and “derealization,” the perception that typically familiar things are unreal to the person. Psychologically, they experience a sense that they’re losing control of themselves, going crazy, experiencing a heart attack, or even sense that they’re dying, and it can take days to recover from, if not longer.

Regardless of your positive traits, a panic attack makes you feel, “I can’t deal with reality, I’m going crazy, I’m going to die, etc.” Whereas during sex, notwithstanding your mistakes, weaknesses of character or what’s going on outside, you feel, “I’m great, and can deal with the world.” Sex is the experience of self-affirmation, of self-esteem. If you know enough about egoism to remember that you are your highest value, then sex turns into the positive experience of this value. Sex then represents, “by my deepest essential self, I’m great,” whereas a panic attack represents, “by my deepest, essential self, I’m unfit to live, crazy, doomed.”

A panic attack, like sex, is generalized, not specific to a certain field. So in sex, what you’re saying to yourself is, “I am great, great in essence (and as a result, I’m potentially great at anything I attempt to do).” With a panic attack (and anxiety more broadly), the self-condemnation is universal: “I am no good, doomed no matter what I try.”

To determine what other value sex embodies, we’ll need to briefly analyze an induction presented in Atlas Shrugged about sex. In one scene, Rearden is attending some abysmal political meeting, and it’s so morally disgusting to him, that it causes him to lose all desire for Dagny, for whom he had had an unstoppable passion for up until this event. What he feels, in effect, is “yes, I want to celebrate what I am with her, but not now, not in this world that I find disgusting.” The induction to be drawn from this is that a person’s sexual desire can be affected by the world he thinks he’s living in. It’s a generalized perspective, not limited to a particular place or mood you’re in—it’s about your fundamental view of reality. Is reality the kind of place where you can function (even if you’re great), or is it a sewer filled with injustice, where you have no chance to succeed, no matter how great you are? In Objectivism, this view of self-affirmation that we contrasted with panic attacks, and the view of reality as a place where you can succeed (though not necessarily will) are known as “self-esteem” and the “benevolent universe premise,” and they both are necessary for sex. It’s important to note here that these two things have to be put together, and the person has to be convinced of the two ideas, and experience: “I am great, and the world is great; I can succeed and reach my values because of what I’ve made of myself, and because of the way that the world is.”

Here, I could tie in another point that could be reached from egoism. Egoism’s view is that you are the proper beneficiary of your values, and what that means is that you’re the proper consumer of the values that you produce through your choice and actions. We could introduce one last genus or category.

Genus method: Every value has a production element and a consumption element.

We could realize how to reach this principle from observing how values come to be, and what happens to them after they are achieved: food is grown (produced), and then is eaten (consumed), a scientific theory is created (produced), and then new technology and benefits to humanity result (consumed), etc. Making your character great by your own standards is a major value being produced, and its consumption takes on a special form of pleasure, and is celebrated in order to objectify and make real the value of your own person. The consumption pleasure is love, self-love and/or love of another, pride and/or admiration for the character of another, and the union of these two kinds of love takes the form of romantic love. The value of romantic love is consumed by feeling the pleasure of his own person, and the pleasure of having his view of existence confirmed. The type of celebration for these kind of values being achieved is sex.

So, from these considerations, we could answer the questions we posed earlier: “What value does sex embody? What is the object of awareness in sex—what are you focusing on?”

From what we’ve been inducing above, we could answer that: sex embodies the value of you, you as such and in essence, your body and mind and character. Sex is a self-focus on you, it’s a self-celebration of you and of your view of existence, of your self-esteem and of the benevolent universe premise that you hold.

Sex is Metaphysical

Let’s now leap up to the metaphysical point we were trying to induce: “sex is metaphysical,” and reduce it to where we left off.

“Metaphysical” means pertaining to reality as such, as a whole, not to specific physical laws. To induce that sex is metaphysical, we have to understand how sex relates to reality as a whole.

Self-esteem is your overarching belief that you can cope and effectively deal with reality.

The benevolent universe premise holds that the universe is auspicious to rational values and human action.

These are two metaphysical elements in regard to sex. “I can achieve my values in reality.” “Reality is the kind of place where success is possible.” “I can deal with existence (self-esteem), and existence as a totality can be dealt with (benevolent-universe).” This is why sex is metaphysical: it relates your self-esteem to your benevolent universe, your view of yourself to your view of reality, and vice versa.

“Sex is Metaphysical” Reduction

It’s a celebration of your own efficacy with regard to reality.

The role of self-esteem and the benevolent universe.

You needed to reach the conclusion that it’s a celebration of your efficacy in reality.

How would you reach that?

You have to grasp that it’s a positive, generalized self-focus, as against a negative generalized self-focus.

To reach the point that it’s a positive self-focus, you need to first reach the point that it’s a generalized self-focus: on yourself as a total entity, as opposed to just work in a special field.

To reach that, you need to grasp that it concerns your two elements, your mind and body, physical and psychological components.

To reach that, we notice that something is different about sex as opposed to other elements of human beings; it’s not just say, a chair and your appreciation of it. One thing we grasp directly is the violence of sex, and the other is that it’s not a means to an end. You notice that it’s not always for any practical end (not even to save a relationship), and that raises the question: what leads to this violence of sex, why is it special?

I said that we're going to "very nearly reach" the Objectivist principle that "sex is metaphysical. That's because the complete induction of this principle requires two other metaphysical views of Objectivism: (1) there's only one world, this reality, and (2) a single, integrated being is composed of both mind and body together. These are the necessary preconditions for reaching this principle, and were presupposed in making these inductions. It should be easier to see why religions like Christianity, which disagree with both of these metaphysical views, would have a radically different view of sex and its relation to people and the world around you.

Objection: Sex in the Life of an Irrational Man

If sex is a kind of celebration, why do men who have nothing to celebrate still have sex, instead of being celibate and not bothering with the endeavor? Is Rand wrong here?

Rand’s view is that self-esteem is universal: everyone needs it, like a philosophy. All conceptual beings need it, even irrational men, and when they don’t properly achieve their self-esteem, they simply fake it. The pseudo-self-esteem temporarily halts the damage done by the person’s anxiety, and thus he momentarily frees himself from his self-condemnation and his condemnation of his view of reality. The irrational person’s view of reality becomes a distorted sort of the benevolent universe: “I, as a total, am not that horrible, and the universe won’t crush me, inevitably.” He uses sex not as a celebration, but as a reassurance he desperately needs due to his failure to create a genuine self-esteem.

[Next post: "Induction and Reduction of 'Values as Objective'"]

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