Buried in the (correct) thread for discussing meta-questions about that gargantuan thread on natural law, Joshua Zelinsky of Religion, Sets, and Politics raised a meta-question about whether he should find natural law plausible enough to raise to the level where he cares about investigating the hypothesis. He wrote:
The following is not a critique of natural law but rather a meta-level heuristic concern about it. It seems pretty clear that once one buys into a general Catholic (or a high church Anglican) sort of approach that natural law makes sense. However, other religions with extremely similar baselines have adopted similar premises but don’t have “natural law” systems. This isn’t strictly speaking true- for example in Judaism the Maimonidean tradition does have some similar ideas, and in certain aspects of Islamic philosophy one gets not too dissimilar ideas. But, if the idea really does rest on very basic notions of teleology that are common enough that they are shared by all the major Abrahamic religions, one has to wonder why similar arguments have evolved among them. Why for example does the Ba’hai philosophy have no similar notion? (Note that while the term “natural law” is used also in the Enlightenment philosophers to talk about rights they are a) heavily influenced by their European upbringing and b) generally using the term in a very different manner other than essential agreement that some form of natural law exists).
This ties in with a general heuristic that seems worthwhile. Does a given idea arise independently in multiple cultures? For example, Aristotelian logic looks a lot like Indian logic (although Indian logic arose much later so there is an argument that the Indians may have been influenced by Western logic). Thus, this suggests that Aristotle’s basic ideas about logic are potentially culturally independent. Obviously, such arguments have their limits- multiple cultures came up with a geocentric model of the solar system but hat’s because the naive evidence really does look that way. Moreover, as humanity has advanced, communication between cultures is easier. In an effectively global culture, it is much harder for ideas to arise separately. But despite this, it should be a slight alarm bell that natural law, which by its nature claims to arise at a near universal level in fact only comes out of a single set of theological traditions.
We’re not using the strict rules of the last thread, because I think this points to a more general epistemological question: how suspicious should you be of a culturally-isolated idea? Both Leibniz and Newton discovered the calculus, because “what’s true is what’s there to be interacted with.” If we’d shot either of them, the math would have still turned up.
So, was Aristotle or Aquinas indispensable? Should truths that require singular insight be taken with a much bigger grain of salt? I’m still mulling this over, and I’m pretty sure I’m going to be returning to it next week at length when I review Gregory Wolfe’s Beauty Will Save the World, so I’d like to hear your thoughts now.
On the factual matter: Does natural law crop up in other traditions?
On the epistemological: What do you make of your answer to the above?
Exactly how many forms do things have? I have the form “human”, but do I also have the forms “male”, “white person”, “doctor”, “person sitting in a motel in Alabama”, “person whose first name contains a prime number of letters”, and “thing made of mass”? If not, what’s the distinction? If so, how does one figure out which forms are more important than others?
On the very remote chance that there’s anyone here who is familiar both with Aristotelian forms and with the idea of cluster-structures in thingspace, does the latter totally remove the need for the former, do they address different questions, or what?
Hie thee hence if you think you can be of help!