Futzing Around with Final Causes

Paralympic athlete Aimee Mullins

This post is part of a series on Aquinas, Aristotle, and Edward Feser’s explanation of them both.

Back to Feser and Aristotle for a bit.  Later on in The Last Superstition, Feser talks about some of the obvious final causes we can observe.  He’s using this section to defend natural law against the accusation that it’s proponents want us to go back to pre-modern technology and to set up his attack on homosexuality.  I’m not interested in those points, so you can look them up yourselves.  I want to discuss what his theory implies about transhumanism and teleology.  Feser writes:

When we get to biological organisms, we have things whose natures or essences more obviously involve certain final causes or purposes.  So, for example, the function or final cause of eyeballs is to enable us to see.  But suppose someone’s eyeballs are deficient in some way, making his vision blurry.  In that case, to wear eyeglasses isn’t contrary to the natural function of eyeballs; rather, it quite obviously restores to the eyeballs their ability to carry out their natural function.  Bicycles don’t do this, of course, but they do extend, rather than conflict with, the ability of the legs to carry our their natural function of allowing us to move about.

I think of the final causes Feser is describing (seeing, moving) as being hugely subordinate to other goals (perceiving, ability to interact with parts of the world non-adjacent to me).  There’s not automatically a virtue in my current means of achieving those goals.  Without the ability to hear or vocalize, I can still talk if I know ASL.  Oral and signed languages have strengths and weaknesses, but both will serve.  A bicycle might get me places faster, and so might swappable bionic legs.

I assume Feser is only ok with supplementing, not replacing the human body, but (as you might expect) I’m willing to go further.  There might be final causes that aren’t well served by my current form, so I’d like to adapt it.  There is one big difficulty with my position though.

If you believe the human body has an inherent dignity, and that our form directs us to the correct final cause, you can bootstrap yourself from observations about your body to hypotheses about your telos.  If, like me, you see the body as optimized and arbitrary, I have to find a different foundation for my claims about ought; the Aristolelian framework won’t get me all the way there.

That’s my dilemma, and I’m not sure Feser has earned his escape route from it.  To really honor the human body and not want to tinker with the form, I think you need to oppose evolution, or, at the very least, believe God put a very heavy thumb on the scale when it came to criteria for fitness.  The worthiness of our physical form has to come from somewhere, since I don’t think our experience with our meatsuits and our anthropologic data show it as good in itself.

This post is part of a series on Aquinas, Aristotle, and Edward Feser’s explanation of them both.

About Leah Libresco

Leah Anthony Libresco graduated from Yale in 2011. She works as an Editorial Assistant at The American Conservative by day, and by night writes for Patheos about theology, philosophy, and math at www.patheos.com/blogs/unequallyyoked. She was received into the Catholic Church in November 2012."

  • Daniel A. Duran

    Nothing of what Feser says implies that we cannot replace the human bodies with artificial or different parts. What he opposes is something that *limits* or *obstructs* our potentialities. He would say, I take it, that if by ‘trannshumanism’ you understood something that suppresses our latent potentialities then you did not have ‘transhumanism’ as it is usually understood; the improvement of the human body.
    These are off the cuff comments; I’m no expert when it comes to hylephormishm.

  • Joe

    As a transhumanist do you object to the use of steroids or blood doping in the Olympics?

    • leahlibresco

      I object to breaking the agreed upon rules in a sport, but I’m not that invested banning augmentations from Olympic sports. Here’s what I do object to: concussions in football. I don’t think the damage done to your mind and your family, as they watch your descent into TBI-induced quasi-Alzheimer’s can possibly be justified by the aesthetic appeal of football. So, I’m not opposed to chemical enhancements in principle, but I do oppose augments that carry long-term harm, especially to the brain. I don’t know the medicine in detail for all the things people try now, but, to the best of my knowledge, I’m ok with injecting reserves of your own red blood cells.

      • Joe

        I haven’t thought that much about football but I do think MMA is barbaric and beneath human dignity.

  • http://last-conformer.net/ Gilbert

    I don’t think the last paragraph holds because the good need not be the same for everyone. For example, motherhood is a good thing for woman but not for men even if some perverse transhumanist technology should make the latter possible. So what’s good for us already depends on who we are. I see no problem with extending that to hypothetical differently evolved versions of us. If we were naturally three-legged it would be immoral to saw off the third leg and I see no incompatibility with it also being immoral to sew one onto the real us.

    And unless you believe in individual supernatural ensoulments mind and body really should have equal standing in that argument. So it’s an argument not against the dignity of the human body but against human dignity, period.

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