Monday, February 01, 2010

Of G-Spots and God

Last month King's College, London, made news with the announcement that "...there is no evidence for the existence of the G-spot — supposedly a cluster of internal nerve endings — outside the imagination of women influenced by magazines and sex therapists."

The existence of the G-spot has been debated for decades; the King's College study was no surprise for many doctors. "“I think this study proves the difference between popular science and biological or anatomical science,” said Gedis Grudzinskas, consultant gynaecologist at London Bridge hospital." The issue is the type of evidence used- on one side, the G-spot deniers, to whom the only acceptable evidence is that obtained with a scalpel and camera: “This is by far the biggest study ever carried out and it shows fairly conclusively that the idea of a G-spot is subjective.” Those who believe the G-spot exists have the evidence of their own senses- they can feel their own or have found their partner's G-spots. Listen to their arguments:

"It is rather irresponsible to claim the existence of an entity that has never really been proven..." "The plural of anecdote is not data." "And you're basically telling people that they aren't experiencing what they're experiencing -- just because it isn't how you experience it." "Personal experience is not, by itself, enough reason to believe something is true." "I don't want to stigmatise at all but I think the Protestant, liberal, Anglo-Saxon character means you are very pragmatic. There has to be a cause for everything, a gene for everything,...I think it's totalitarian." "To be reasonably certain that what our experience tells us is probably true, we need to rely on rigorous testing of hypotheses."

Does that sound familiar to you? It should; some of those quotes are not from the G-spot debate, they're from the debate between those who have had personal experiences with the Divine, and atheists who argue that any such experiences are (at best) misunderstood psychological phenomena. Can you tell which are which?

Interesting, isn't it? There are atheists who dismiss the "personal experience" evidence of God out of hand, yet believe in, or believe they possess, a G-spot; there are theists who deny the existence of the G-spot... and yet the only convincing evidence for either is equally subjective. But both are convinced of the objectivity of their conclusions, regarding subjective testimony as mere anecdotes, or that science is inadequate in these matters. And neither one of them appreciate being told their experiences may have felt "real", but prove nothing. The only real difference I can see between them is that I know of people who have had profound religious experiences, but convinced themselves later that it "must" have been the result of some epiphenomenological stimulus of the limbic brain; I'm unaware of any women who have had earth-shattering orgasms through G-spot stimulation who later convinced themselves that there's no such thing as a G-spot.

Quotes 1 and 5 are from the recent G-spot debate: Timesonline and (hat tip to Ravenstone's Reflections for the Guardian story) Quotes 2, 4, and 6 are from Greta Christina's Blog , "Atheist Meme of the Day: Personal Experience /= Data" Quote 3 is also from Greta, but about sexuality, not God, in another discussion on Facebook, which I had trouble linking to- why don't you friend her? She's always a good read.


Fox said...

That deserves a standing ovation! Pun intended or not, that is up to you. ;)

Strange Attractor said...

I have associated the G-spot with the divine before, but never in this context. Very interesting comparison.

ms. kitty said...

Great post, Joel!

Desmond Ravenstone said...

Another similarity is the variability of human experience. Just as women (and men) have different experiences of sexual stimulation, arousal and orgasm, so each of us have different experiences of the Divine -- and different ways of interpreting them, defining the Divine, and so forth.

And thanks for the link, Joel!

Joel Monka said...

Desmond- quite right about the different experiences; I have often said that in a very real sense, there are six billion religions.

Steve Caldwell said...

Joel -- the problem with "personal experience" evidence for god or gods is how do we evaluate the conflicting "evidence"?

Person #1 may feel a strong sense of the divine as a theistic "old man in the sky."

Person #2 may feel a strong sense of the divine through awe and wonder that this person experiences in nature.

Person #3 may feel a strong sense of the divine that compels this person to engage in acts of violence towards others.

Person #4 may experience the divine as a goddess.

Person #5 may feel no sense of the divine and may question if this belief in the divine makes any sense at all from a cost/benefit point of view.

So ... how do we sort out these "personal experience" variations?

Do any of these personal experiences say anything about a shared reality that we can all experience (assuming that a "shared reality" exists -- that depends on how "post-modern" we want to go here)?

Beyond the "gee ... there may be some variation in neural anatomy and/or environmental factors that affect how we perceive things" conclusion, I'm not really sure what other conclusions one can draw here.

Several years ago, Barack Obama used the story of Abraham and Issac as a parable in a speech. I think this parable illustrates the limits of where one can reasonably use "personal experience" evidence:

"We all know the story of Abraham and Isaac. Abraham is ordered by God to offer up his only son, and without argument, he takes Isaac to the mountaintop, binds him to an altar, and raises his knife, prepared to act as God has commanded.

Of course, in the end God sends down an angel to intercede at the very last minute, and Abraham passes God's test of devotion.

But it's fair to say that if any of us leaving this church saw Abraham on a roof of a building raising his knife, we would, at the very least, call the police and expect the Department of Children and Family Services to take Isaac away from Abraham. We would do so because we do not hear what Abraham hears, do not see what Abraham sees, true as those experiences may be. So the best we can do is act in accordance with those things that we all see, and that we all hear, be it common laws or basic reason."

I would suggest that it may be best if we act in accordance with " ... those things that we all see, and that we all hear, be it common laws or basic reason."

We do know that the natural sciences are an imperfect and evolving area of knowledge.

And I suspect that the British g-spot study isn't the final word on the existence of the g-spot. I read that the French scientists are raising questions of British cultural biases affecting their g-spot research.

Joel Monka said...

That is an interesting subject, Steve, but when researched there may be less variation than is commonly supposed.

Let's begin with the words you used- "feel" and "sense". Evidence of that sort is very weak, because if they never rise above a "feeling", we have no way of knowing whether it was a fleeting contact with the divine, an instinct, or some other purely psychological effect. Most of those who have had that sort of experience will agree- if questioned in a non-insulting manner- that's it's entirely possible the effect was not divine in origin. I don't think we can attach much significance to differences in feelings.

Relatively few claim contact with an actual, conscious, sentient personality, the kind we are made in the image of. Of those, a percentage are medically insane. The difference is easy to diagnose- the syndromes that produce that sort of hallucination result in broken thought processes that are obvious even without taking that particular hallucination into consideration.

Of the rest, the vast majority report receiving highly personal gifts or messages; an infusion of strength, physical or mental; the certain knowledge that a loved one will recover, or has been saved, or some such; or just the simple knowledge, when one is miserable, that you are loved. These sorts of contact are very common, and cross all cultures in a remarkably similar manner. Whether the recipient of these contacts interprets the giver as an "old man in the sky." or a goddess may be as simple as who that person felt more nurtured by as an infant. It's difficult to interpret the ineffable.

Another small percentage claim regular contact with the divine, and despite vast cultural disparities, are astonishingly similar- Shamans. Whether it's the original Tunguskan Shamans, or the Native American witch doctors we now call Shamans, or the Mambos and Hounguns of Vodou, or a Charismatic Christian being taken by the Spirit, or a "Whirling Dervish", or a Wiccan High Priestess drawing down the Moon, or even one of the last remaining Shakers, the methods of making contact with the divine are similar, the experiences of being possessed by a divine spirit are similar, and the messages delivered by these entities- be it a Loa or the Spirit of the Trinity- are similar.

It is interesting to note that in no instance that I am aware of- and I have studied the matter- has an otherwise sane, successful, functioning in society person claimed an actual contact with God as an actual being, and claimed that God ordered them to commit acts of violence. The man just convicted for killing an abortionist never claimed that God actually, literally spoke to him and told him to do it- he was operating off of his interpretation of the Bible. The Imam who issued the Fatwa calling for Salmon Rushdie's death never claimed that Allah actually appeared and ordered him to do it; again, he was operating from his interpretation of verse. Ditto for those Imams leading terrorist organizations; all speak of what's written in the Quran; none claim to speak from new revelation directly from Allah. If you have different information, I'd love to have it for my own research.

When looked at in this way, it is not the differences that are astonishing, but the similarities.

Desmond Ravenstone said...

Steve Caldwell:

"I read that the French scientists are raising questions of British cultural biases affecting their g-spot research."

Very true, as I mentioned in my latest blog post.

Similarly, our perceptions and definitions of the Divine, of what is "good" and/or "right", can be shaped by numerous factors. Karen Armstrong in particular has discussed this in her works.

Just as erotic pleasure and connection can be manifest in many ways, so can the spiritual. And which is more important -- quibbling over the differences, or celebrating that we have so many opportunities to enjoy them?