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One would think that such a title could only be given to an attempt at humor, for how could such a question ever be taken seriously? But, though humor may well be the highest form of human discourse, I’m not attempting it today. Today, I am using the following absurd line of reasoning as a springboard into a steam of thought: If “man is made in God’s image,” and that image (i.e., form) is one that defecates, then why wouldn’t God defecate as well?

The perhaps tasteless title of this essay is meant as a portal into a labyrinth of questions and contemplations about the nature of the divine and its relationship to both the physical universe and to human beings. Given that one large swathe of humanity has anthropomorphized our gods since at least the days of Homer and Hesiod, it seems reasonable to ask: Just exactly how anthropomorphic are they? The Greek (and other Indo-European) gods, for instance, were not so transcendent that they didn’t squabble and feud, engage in petty jealousies and vendettas, and in general act very much as ordinary humans do, albeit with a bit more bite to their bark. Yahweh, the direct prototype of our own Judeo-Christian-Islamic God, was prone to fits of anger and, certainly in the case of Job, enjoyed playing cruel mind-games to test the loyalty of his followers.

If we are “made in God’s image,” and that image includes some traits that go beyond the mere superficial appearance, then where, exactly, is the line drawn? And if at some place that someone would be willing to point to, why there?

This isn’t meant, as it may appear at first glance, to denigrate religious beliefs, or trivialize the concept that forms the core of this particular inquiry (i.e., the posited self-similarity of deity and human being). I have indeed argued so robustly against dogmatic atheism (see A Dialogue on Religion, Dogma, Imagination, and Conceptualization) that the person arguing the opposite point of view became quite upset with me, and, prior to that, made a similar argument in “Is Religion A Force For Good?”. I have also previously posited my own theory about the human “resemblance” to god in terms of a particular conceptualization of “consciousness,” which may be in part (in one of its forms) understandable as mutating and proliferating packets of information competing for reproductive success (see The Nature-Mind-Machine Matrix). (More broadly, this particular conceptualization of consciousness identifies it as the underlying fabric of the almost infinitely complex and subtle systemicness of nature.)

To be clear, I neither praise nor condemn religion per se. I praise imaginative, disciplined, compassionate wonder, and condemn dogmatic, divisive, destructive false certainty. It doesn’t matter to me whether the former takes the form of religion, nor whether the latter takes the form of secular ideology (or atheism itself). We see the defects of dogma in realms far removed from religion, and too often too close to home. Not only do we see it in a nationalistic American ideology which can justify any degree of violence toward any number or type of “other,” but also among those who claim to oppose this error. There are too many on the Left as well as the Right who have turned their ideology into just another blind dogma, and rally to it as just one more incarnation of the tribalistic impulse against which progressivism should most staunchly stand.

Returning to the title question, if god and humans share a form, why wouldn’t gods defecate? And if gods don’t defecate, what does it mean that “man is made in (their) image”? Isn’t it a bit bizarre to think that God merely has some human-like form or appearance, without anything beneath the image? One would think that God would be more, rather than less, “substantial” than a human being, more than an empty image, more than a mere shell of the organic replica, more than a facade encasing nothing.

Ironically, it is less the facade which is similar, than the processes which that facade encompasses. Humans are less the physical image of God than the functional image of God, an echo of an echo of the fabric of “consciousness” that forms the coherent universe, creating new echos of its own (see The Nature-Mind-Machine Matrix). By embracing this step away from the literal and toward the literary, we open up the beautiful imagery and insight of all the world’s religions, reaping their allegorical wisdom without becoming entangled in their thorny vines of blind dogma and irrational reductionism.

Before I answer the title question, I must be explicit about what I mean by “deities.” In this context, deities are our representations of the natural superordinate systemic layers of manifested consciousness that comprise our universe. The god or gods imagined to be the creator of life on Earth is our representation of the process of evolution, a process which preceded, produced, and is the prototype of our own human consciousness. Our imagery representing the complex dynamical systems of which the universe is comprised, always more complex and subtler than our minds can grasp, are the deities that populate that universe, that we fruitfully imagine and conceptualize not just in terms of our reductionist sciences, but also in our metaphors and stories and awe-inspired incarnations, allowing our minds to grasp aspects of that wonderful sublime systemic complexity in ways that elude mathematical models and cause-and-effect paradigms. For the purpose of this conversation, let’s focus not on the imagery we use, but on the systems it represents.

With this definition of “deity” in mind, and for no good reason other than to let the question continue to act as an enzyme on our mind, we can answer the title question. On one level, deities both do and don’t “defecate,” because deities both are and aren’t like human beings. Lacking a literal human body with a literal human digestive system, they do not engage in an identical process of waste discharge that humans do. But, being systems in the fractal organization of nature, of which we are a self-similar set of sub-strata, they engage in analogs of our process of defecation. Natural systems are open systems, parts of larger systems, a tangle of overlapping and encompassing processes in which the outputs of one form the in-puts for another. Just as human (more generally, animal) feces provides food and fertilizer for other organisms, so too does the Earth itself take in enormous meals of energy from the Sun, and emit into space that which passed through its systemic processes.

On another level, it might be argued that the universe is by definition a closed system, and that therefore it can emit no waste that is taken up by larger or external systems. So, while deities may defecate, one might argue that the deity, the monotheistic God, doesn’t.

Of course, these “answers” to the title question aren’t really what matter (nor are they particularly meaningful; any “answer” that followed similar thought processes would be just as accurate and useful); the attitude and habit of looking at the world and universe from a variety of different and novel angles are. Asking the question is what matters, even though the question itself is superficially trivial and ridiculous, because we pry open our understandings not by staying locked into the familiar and normal, but by finding unfamiliar and uncharted mental paths down which to wander and wonder.

At core, the title question is a whimsical version of a more basic and familiar question: Where is the line between the spiritual and material, the sacred and mundane? I think that the highest forms of spirituality erase that line, and instead see everything as divine, nothing as mundane. All lives are a glorious story, all of nature an expression of that ubiquitous consciousness that we cast as God or gods or animistic spirits or the Tao…. All of our tools for exploring it, including both our robust and far-reaching imaginations and our more anchored, disciplined processes of applying reason to evidence, can and should articulate into one single enterprise.

The more we, as individuals and in groups, can gravitate toward this realization, toward a disciplined commitment to reason and imagination and compassion and humility all in service to human welfare, and, even if only by extension, therefore to the welfare of this wonderful planet on which we live, the more surely we will move forward into the far brighter future we are capable of creating together.

The obstacles to this are enormous and ubiquitous, within each of us and throughout our national and regional societies. Here in America, a political and cultural force that has long festered has taken one of its most concentrated forms in opposition to this vision of who we are and who and what we can be, clinging instead to a divisive and regressive set of dogmatic convictions, and, by doing so, struggling to drag us all down against those of us struggling to lift us all up. It is an old story with a new veneer, humanity being humanity’s own worst enemy, inflicting on ourselves a tragedy born only of small minds, hardened hearts, and shriveled imaginations.

But there is another force among us more insidious than this movement of organized ignorance and belligerence which inflicts such suffering on us, that is an unwitting partner to it, more similar than different when examined closely: It is non-engagement, indifference, a recoiling from the challenge of confronting the obstacles to our collective welfare, whether in terror or despair or just due to a lack of will. Those who simply live their own lives and let the currents of human history sweep them along are complicit in the suffering and injustice inflicted by those more explicitly motivated by ultra-individualistic and ultra-nationalistic (and anti-intellectual, racist, xenophobic, homophobic, and just generally hateful and destructive) ideologies, because in both cases it is a case of people rejecting our shared purpose, our shared humanity, our interdependence and shared responsibility to one another.

So, just as “all roads lead to Rome,” all questions (even “Do Deities Defecate?”) lead to one answer: We are challenged, individually and collectively, to exercise our imaginations, our reason, our compassion, our humility, and our will in disciplined and dedicated service to humanity, in service to this wonderful Consciousness of which we are a part, living with minds and hearts and hands reaching ever farther into the essence of what is in order to cultivate in that fertile soil the endlessly wonderful garden of human existence.

And may the deities continue to defecate on it….

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Everyone who advocates any political or social position, and who claims to do so because it serves interests other than merely their own, acknowledges, either implicitly or explicitly, that we are in a shared enterprise. Some think the public interest is best served by an absolutist commitment to “less government,” and some by doing the analysis and making the determination, in each instance, in the light of the specific relevant facts. But regardless of what we value, what we believe, what we insist upon, if we are valuing it, believing it, and insisting upon it in a public forum in an attempt to persuade others that it is the right thing to value, believe, or insist upon, then we believe that we have some shared fate, and some common interest in governing and organizing ourselves wisely. That is the human enterprise.

First, let’s dispense with the artificial distinction above between “governing” and “organizing” ourselves. Those who believe that churches and community organizations and voluntary associations of various kinds are useful, but that government is an impediment to our individual and/or collective welfare (the latter simply being an aggregation of our individual welfare, according to some set of values held by the individual advocating a particular position), are in effect saying that they favor one form of government over another. If government were eliminated or reduced, but voluntary organizations were left to fill the void, then the latter would become governments, and would be subject to many of the same issues, debates, and concerns that current governments are subject to. So, the debate is always over what form and function of government we advocate.

I assume that we can all agree, that in any conflict of ideologies, generally speaking, we are acting on the assumption that some are more useful than others. The logically possible alternatives are that conflicting ideologies are not actually incompatible, or, if they are incompatible, that the public interest is unaffected by the choice between them, in both of which cases there should be no conflict. The existence of conflict demonstrates the belief that some ideologies, some positions, better serve the public interest than others.

I further assume that we can all agree that the purpose of our political process, of our public debate over which ideas to implement, is based on conflicting beliefs over which ideas best serve the public interest. We should all acknowledge that we are engaged in a process the purpose of which is to select those ideas which best serve the public interest, however it is defined.

There are really, implicitly, two interrelated debates taking place under that one rubric: What is “the public interest,” and how is it best served? In other words, there is a debate over how to define the goal, and over the means for achieving it. We routinely conflate these two debates, arguing over means to differently conceived goals without debating the relative merits of the goals themselves, because we are in conflict over policies which, by their nature, are based on particular resolutions of both aspects of this contested terrain.

The first thing we need to do, in service to the human enterprise that we all implicitly acknowledge we are in, is to engage explicitly in the debate over what defines “the public interest,” without leaping to the debate about how it’s best served. This pre-empts the error of various idolatries, including “Constitutional Idolatry” (the treatment of adherence to a particular reductionist interpretation of the U.S. Constitution as the necessary and sufficient justification for all policy positions), by requiring attention to the end that is being served, rather than merely advocacy of a particular means for serving it. It requires, in other words, that the argument be made, rather than merely the dogma invoked.

Having to “make the case” is an essential procedural cornerstone of engaging in the human enterprise most effectively. We resolve legal disputes by “making the case” in court, which looks for adherence to a particular set of procedures and rules to best ensure the accuracy and reliability of the information presented. We resolve scientific and academic disputes by “making the case” in peer-reviewed journals, which look for adherence to a particular methodology which maximizes the reliability of data and of the analysis applied to it. We need to learn how to submit political disputes to the same discipline, to a methodology which maximizes reliability of information and of the analysis applied. The starting point for developing such a discipline is the requirement that political positions prevail to the extent that the case for them prevails in a court-like or academy-like procedural crucible, rather than to the extent that they manage to exploit unexamined emotional responses and predispositions (the same predecessor to modern legal and scientific procedures which gave us throwing witches into lakes to determine guilt or innocence, and basing knowledge of nature’s subtleties almost exclusively on popular superstitions).

When we subject the fundamental political conflict over how to define “the public interest” to this constraint, we discover that one set of positions is based on a refusal to make the case, rather than on how well the case was made. The Tea Party and its fellow travelers, invoking the “Constitutional Idolatry” mentioned above, claim that we have an authoritative document that tells us exactly how to pursue the public interest, without requiring any consideration of what the public interest being pursued is. It jumps to advocacy of a methodology for pursuing the public interest (i.e., adherence to a particular interpretation of the Constitution), assuming that the public interest is thus served. It may be, but the case needs to be made, explicitly, to determine if the argument should prevail under a sound methodology applied to political disputes.

Currently, there isn’t really any debate over what the public interest is. There is, rather, a conflict between those who think we should pursue it, and those who think we shouldn’t, the latter, essentially, arguing that the public interest is best served by being disregarded. This latter group is rooted, for instance, in a belief in the justice of inequity, that what each has is what each deserves, and that any attempt to “redistribute” wealth, or to refine property rights in ways which result in the redistribution of wealth, is an injustice against those from whom it is redistributed.

But this position is detached from reality. It doesn’t recognize that current property rights are a legal and political artifact, no more inherent to nature than alternative sets of property rights, and are a particular kind of distribution, not the absence of one. Modifications in these laws are less “redistributions” than “alternative distributions.” All that distinguishes them from the current system of distribution of wealth is that they are more or less efficient (contributing more or less robustly to the production of wealth), more or less fair (distributing wealth and opportunity with less regard for the chances of birth), and more or less sustainable (establishing a stable pattern of rights and responsibilities).

This position that defends strictly defined and inviolate private property rights is detached from history, in which the distribution of wealth extant today is rooted in violence and exploitation, and that the distribution of opportunity today is affected by that historical legacy. It is detached from empathy, in which the injustice of being born into poverty and suffering its effects is a social problem to be addressed rather than someone else’s problem to be disregarded. It us detached from pragmatism and economics, in which our current extreme economic inequality diminishes economic robustness and social mobility, decreasing both aggregate wealth and increasing persistent, long-term social costs imposed on all of us. But most of all, it is detached from consideration of what “the public interest” means, because the economically, socially, and morally dysfunctional commitment to current inequities can only be defended in blindness, for only as long one refuses to face the question of what “the public interest” means. It crumbles under scrutiny as soon as that question is addressed.

The Human Enterprise requires that we address both the question of what defines “the public interest,” and what means (i.e., public policies) best serve it. And it requires that we do so according to a methodology that maximizes the reliabilitiy of information and analyses employed, and minimizes the role of prejudice (i.e., emotional predispositions). It’s time for all of us to engage in that enterprise together.

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For those who don’t get the title pun, we sometimes imagine that science (i.e., the social institution based on the modern scientific method) is in a class by itself, definitively removed from the sloppy human efforts to understand our world and universe that preceded its invention. But, unsurprisingly, it is a very human enterprise. Our efforts to conceptualize the wonders and complexities around us have always been sloppy and imperfect. The development of scientific methodology represents a major advance in disciplining that process, but not transcendence of inevitable human messiness. Thus, while we have somewhat cleaned up our processes of conceptualization in the modern era, there is still no such thing as immaculate conception.

Cute, huh? But, wait. There’s more. The fact that science is messy doesn’t mean it’s irrelevant. Our vision of the world that has emanated from this slight refinement of our messy observational and interpretive processes is very real and significant. We do indeed have a deeper, sharper, and more reliable understanding of causal relationships, both in general and particular. And, when it comes to discerning verifiable facts and systemic dynamics, a scientific perspective is superior to any alternative. We know, for instance, that the sun rises and sets because the Earth rotates, rather than, for instance, because it is drawn by a chariot across the sky. We understand lightening as the electrical, meteorological phenomenon that it is, rather than as a bolt hurled by a god. And we understand human biological conception as involving the fertilization of a female egg by a male sperm, always. No exceptions. There’s no such thing as immaculate conception.

Scientific misconduct, such as the recent example involving a Harvard psychology professor’s research on primate cognition (, proves that there is, in the first sense described above, no such thing as immaculate conception: We are still firmly within the realm of a messy human process, polluted by political and pecuniary motivations and pressures, made marginally less reliable by the irreducible residue of unreliability inherent to human behavior. But it doesn’t undermine what science has more generally proven over the course of centuries, the cumulative refinement in understanding of the systems which encompass us: Despite our lack of immaculate conception, there is still no such thing as immaculate conception.

There are those who, for unscientific dogmatic reasons of their own, want to refute widespread and generalized findings of science by reference to specific instances of the human messiness of science. Global warming deniers, for instance, certain that they can credibly claim that global warming is still a question in legitimate dispute, point to the emails exchanged among particular researchers referring to specific instances bringing into question specific pieces of data. But climate science is decades all, involving thousands of researchers spread out all over the world, and an accumulation of data that is truly extraordinary and overwhelmingly consistent in the systemic trends it reveals. No specific instances of individual malfeasance (even if that were the case, which it wasn’t in this instance) would disprove the cumulative weight of that collective scientific enterprise. There is no vast scientific conspiracy to pull the wool over right-wing radicals’ eyes.

Some don’t wait for specific instances of malfeasance to refute inconvenient findings of science. They rely instead on an organized ignorance of what science is, and what it isn’t. When I was a high school teacher, the christian fundamentalist parents of one of my students objected to my using genetic diffusion and innovation (i.e., evolution) in a comparison to cultural  diffusion and innovation in world geography class  (I had offered to let their son excuse himself from class if the topic ever came up again). In an email from the father, he referred me to a website that offered a million dollars to anyone who could prove that the theory of evolution was true. I tried to explain to him that it is the nature of scientific theories that they can never be “proven” true; they merely keep getting stronger due to accumulating supportive evidence, an absence of definitively refutational evidence, and a general scarcity of even mildly incompatible evidence. But, to someone with a dogmatic belief that they want to defend against science, all they need is a construction of reality which isolates the entire corpus of mildly inconsistent evidence, combining that with the inability of their opponents to prove what is not amenable to proof, and they have their own immaculate conception, cleansed of the systematic application of reason which stands against it.

It’s appropriate that this post about science, acknowledging its contamination by motivated human behaviors but recognizing that that contamination doesn’t discredit the overarching enterprise, follows my post about religion (“Is Religion A Force For Good?” ), in which I broke religion down to its constituent elements, identifying its beneficial and detrimental aspects, and drawing attention to the fact that the latter are not peculiar to religions, but rather are elements found in other forms of human cognition as well. No matter what lens we are using to understand the world in any given moment, it is more a matter of how we use that lens than what the lens is. And the best lens of all is composed of the best elements of each, synthesized into a coherent whole, and utilized with integrity and humility.

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