November 15, 2019

Some weeks back, I posted a short piece on act and potency, “Criticising the Idea of Potential and Actuality in Natural Law Philosophy” in which I quoted extensively from a book I am presently editing by Gunther Laird.

Recently, I have received a response on this (“Response To A Tippling Philosopher On Act and Potency”) from Harrison Jennings at Quaestiones Disputatae.

Whilst Jennings admits that conceptual nominalism is incompatible with Thomistic philosophy, which I assert in my post, it is not the thrust of his criticism:

Pearce is certainly correct that conceptual nominalism, as he understands it, is incompatible with Thomistic philosophy generally and the act/potency distinction specifically. However, since Pearce does not argue for conceptual nominalism here (although he does direct us to a different post where he does provide some such arguments), we will leave this objection alone for the time being. Suffice it to say that the Thomist (or those generally sympathetic with Thomism) will of course already reject conceptual nominalism, and so will not be too impressed with an argument from conceptual nominalism against the act/potency distinction.

I did not argue for it there because I have done that in so many other posts here that it would have been simple repetition and was actually unnecessary for the point of the piece, unnecessarily adding to its length.

My main point in the piece was to undercut the differentiation that Thomists have between actuality and potentiality, such that something (X) could be potentially A or B; I say, under causal determinism (adequate or otherwise), X will only ever be A, and so there is no potential (in reality) to be B. The only thing that allows for that potentiality is from human theorising given an incomplete knowledge of all of the variables.

I talk about this in terms of a simple coin toss (there is a potential to be heads or tails, but knowing every single variable, it will predictably always be, say, heads in causal circumstance Y), and in terms of Laird’s example of a butterfly:

This butterfly could be of this particular colouration or that particular colouration, it could be of this size, or that size. We line up all the theoretical futures that this butterfly could have given that we don’t know the initial conditions with our limited human minds. However, if we knew every single condition down to every single wave function of the world, then we could predict with surety what the outcome would be.

Jennings replies:

Pearce’s argument confuses epistemological possibility (or bare “logical possibility”) with ontologicalpotential. Pearce’s argument makes use of the former, while it is the latter which is the understanding of potentia appealed to in the Thomistic act/potency thesis.

Let’s take his example of tossing a coin. Pearce argues that there is not really a “potential” for the coin to turn up either heads or tells, since the outcome is already causally determined. Let’s say, for the sake of the argument, that this is correct. It still does not follow that the coin does not really have an intrinsic, ontological potentia for its determined outcome. Indeed, it must have this potentia, if the outcome is to happen at all. Suppose the coin is causally determined to turn up heads. We still must say that the coin has the intrinsic potentia to turn up heads; otherwise it wouldn’t be able to turn up heads at all. Even if we were to suppose that the coin lacks any other potential (i.e. cannot possibly have any other outcome), it still must have at least that onepotentia, the potentia for its determined outcome. This is so merely by virtue of the fact that, at the present moment (before we toss the coin), the coin has not actually landed heads up yet.

Here, to me, we have the ungrounded assertion, in my opinion, of any kind of meaningful account, ontologically, of “intrinsic potentia”. It sounds lovely, but it is, to me, a mere assertion that this object, a coin, has some real, ontic property attached to it of turning up heads in causal circumstance (CC) Y. Somewhere, in some realm, this particular coin has the property of H in Y. And if it is subsequently flipped again, it has T(ails) in Z. And it also has the same potential to be at a 1-degree slant on the horizontal plane. Indeed, I can name any potential (possibly infinite) property it will have in the future and this will be its intrinsic potential. All that this means, however, is that “intrinsic potential” just means “future property”. “I have the power to do this” becomes “I will inexorably do this”.

Meh. With all due respect.

I’m not sure this contains any real usefulness, certainly in terms of the Thomistic framework. It’s potential is its future, which is necessarily so.

He continues:

Or take the example of the caterpillar. Even if the caterpillar’s future butterfly coloration is causally determined, it still must have the potentia for that coloration; otherwise that coloration would be impossible. Even given a deterministic account, we must appeal to a real distinction between actus and potentia. If the caterpillar is a caterpillar at t1 and a butterfly at t2, then at t1 it is actually a caterpillar and potentially a butterfly. At t1 it has the potentia for its future coloration, but it does not yet have this coloration actually. Its potentia for its future coloration must be actualized before it becomes actual. And even if this actualization is predetermined such that it must happen and no other outcome can happen, all that this means is that the caterpillar only has onepotentia, and no others. But it still must have at least that potentia. Its potentia is still a real feature of its being, and is still really distinct from actus.

Necessity entails possibility. If something must be the case, then necessarily it also can be the case. And potentia is that whereby a thing can be or become something. If causal determinism entails that a particular caterpillar must become a butterfly, it also entails that that caterpillar can become a butterfly, and hence that that caterpillar has the potentia to become a butterfly.

Here, it looks like we will have to get into definitional talk as he seems to want to make a hash of modal language. The Oxford Dictionary says of potential (n):

1. Latent qualities or abilities that may be developed and lead to future success or usefulness.

1.1 (often potential for/to do somethingThe possibility of something happening or of someone doing something in the future.

Words requiring emphasis: may, possibility.

Jennings would be synonymising “possible” with “necessary”, such that to say something has a potential to be something (heads or tails) means the same as to say it is necessarily heads, because its potential is necessarily heads. You are stripping modal language of its modality. Jennings states, “If something must be the case, then necessarily it also can be the case” but I don’t buy this. You would never say of anything “X can be Y” and strip X of all other possibilities. Bob can be funny means that very often, or at least some of the time, he is not funny. It doesn’t mean that he is funny literally every moment of his life bar none. And reversing this, as Jennings looks to do, is merely meaningless. If Bob is literally funny every single moment of his life, then to say he can be funny is to equivocate on, or more accurately misuse, the word “can” in its modal form.

To say 2+2=4 is not to say 2+2 can equal 4 (given regular maths understanding). It means it does equal 4. Always. And forever. It doesn’t have “an ability” to, but “an ability” not to; it means it necessarily is or does.

It becomes even more interesting when you look at the universe in terms of how most modern physicists do: as a 4-dimensional block universe. Jennings’ use of potential requires, it seems, an A-Theory understanding of time, in a linear past (gone), present (fact), future (yet to be [potential?]). These days, however, most philosophers and scientists do not adhere to the A-Theory of time – indeed, only 15.5% of philosophers do, correlating unsurprisingly with the proportion who are theistic, give or take. On the other hand, when harmonising special and general relativity, in a block universe, the whole thing is factual. There is no potential. There just is:

So if the future and past are already encoded into the block universe we inhabit – how does that account for our human experience of life, of our inexorable movement through time?

From this block time perspective, time, as we experience in the block universe, is an illusion. “It’s not a real, fundamental property of nature,” says Cortês. The ticking of time, our experience of time passing, is only because we are stuck inside the block universe, moving forward along the dimension of time. “The fact that we experience moving forward in the block but not outside it comes from the fact that the block picture treats time just as another spatial dimension, and we can step outside of it. Time is not pervasive.”

This leads to fundamental questions that cosmologists today are addressing in their theories describing the nature of our Universe. If our Universe is like this block universe, then everything – past and future – has happened and our experience of time is just a mathematical artefact arising from the equations describing the Universe. [source]

In other words, to uphold Thomism, the Thomist has to disprove or counter the block universe (theory), and of course there are detractors, it’s just that I never see Thomists getting involved here. I could be wrong.

But to get back to the potential/actual discussion, it remains to be seen as to what use this is to the Thomist. If all things (given causal determinism, of course, that they would anyway reject) – including brain states and thus resulting behaviours – have “intrinsic potentiae”, then where does this get the Thomist? If we are denying alternative potentiae in saying that all things have actuality and the future actuality is necessarily dependent on previous actualities, then surely the whole Thomistic framework, as an endeavour of moral philosophy, is rendered impotent?


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October 18, 2019

As some of you may know, I am presently editing a book by Gunther Laird calls The Unnecessary Science. Natural Law philosophy, about which I have talked a great deal recently, owes an awful lot to Aristotle, Aquinas and other thinkers from a bygone era. One of the cornerstones of this essentialist worldview is the pair of ideas of potentiality and actuality:

The concept of potentiality, in this context, generally refers to any “possibility” that a thing can be said to have. Aristotle did not consider all possibilities the same, and emphasized the importance of those that become real of their own accord when conditions are right and nothing stops them.[3] Actuality, in contrast to potentiality, is the motion, change or activity that represents an exercise or fulfillment of a possibility, when a possibility becomes real in the fullest sense.[4]

These concepts, in modified forms, remained very important into the Middle Ages, influencing the development of medieval theology in several ways. Going further into modern times, while the understanding of nature, and according to some interpretations deity, implied by the dichotomy lost importance, the terminology has found new uses, developing indirectly from the old….

In contrast, the position of Western Medieval (or Catholic) Christianity, can be found for example in the philosophy of Thomas Aquinas, who relied on Aristotle’s concept of entelechy, when he defined God as actus puruspure act, actuality unmixed with potentiality. The existence of a truly distinct essence of God which is not actuality, is not generally accepted in Catholic Theology.

Laird expands on this idea:

What did Aristotle provide in response? The theory of actuality and potentiality. He believed that Parmenides was simply wrong to hold that the only alternative to “being” was “non-being.” Potentiality was another alternative, and one that could ground a much more workable metaphysical framework. Return again to our caterpillar: He exists as a hungry little worm-like creature, or, in other words, he is actually a caterpillar. Parmenides could see no way he could possibly be a butterfly, but Aristotle held that there was something that could influence our little friend despite not existing in the same sense at the same moment. Namely, the fact that the caterpillar was potentially a butterfly. For Aristotle, the ways anything potentially could be—caterpillars, coffee, rubber balls, whatever—occupy sort of a middle ground between existence and non-existence, which is how he could claim that existing things could change without asserting that change could come from non-existence or non-being.[1]

Now, for Aristotle, there was no such thing as an “infinite” number of potentialities. Any actual thing—that is to say, anything that exists in some way or another—is potentially a certain number of ways and not others. So Mr. Caterpillar is potentially a butterfly, or, if he’s unlucky, potentially a meal for a hungry bird. But he is not potentially a dog or a rock or a philosopher. No matter what you do to him or how many leaves you feed him, when he makes his little chrysalis, a dog or a rock will never pop out, and he will never do any sort of philosophy, unless maybe if you ask Franz Kafka. The same applies to any other object in our experience. A cup of coffee might be actually hot and bitter, but it is potentially cool (if you leave it out for a while) and potentially sweet (if you put a lot of sugar into it). It is not potentially blood or radioactive fuel, because nothing you do to it will ever make it capable of conveying nutrients or powering a reactor. A red rubber ball (to use Feser’s favorite example) might be potentially blue (if you paint it) or squishy (if you hold it over a flame), but it has no potential to bounce to the moon or follow someone around by itself.[2]

[1] FP, 18-19, SM, 32-33, TLS, 53-54.

[2] Ibid.

He goes on to discuss this in more depth before saying:

Thomists claim we can’t have an “explanatory regress”—that is to say, we can’t just explain the laws of physics by referring to an even deeper law, which would require a deeper law, and so on, ad infinitum. For the purposes of argument and the interests of saving time, let’s say they’re right. So, given what we have discussed about the laws of physics potentially being different, thinkers like Aristotle, or more specifically, his successors (since everything we know about the laws of physics would only be discovered centuries later) would say they involve certain potentialities being actualized. What could possibly actualize those? It would have to be something that was “purely actual,” something with no potentialities at all. This “purely actual” thing would have to be eternal. It would never have come into existence, but would simply exist eternally and necessarily, since coming into being involves a potentiality being actualized (for instance, a butterfly comes into being because the nutrients in leaves actualize that potentiality in a caterpillar). It also couldn’t be changed at all, and would be entirely unchangeable, because change involves actualizing potentials, and anything with potentials wouldn’t be purely actual. It would also be omnipotent, because if it actualizes the laws of physics it must be able to exert control over them—like a flame or an electric coil exerts control over the temperature of a pot of coffee (or, more literally, the person who starts the fire or turns on the stove, since that actor would be actualizing the potential of the flammable materials or the electric coil). If such a being could control the laws of physics, it must be able to do just about anything—send a meteor to destroy a city by changing the laws of gravity for a bit, raining fire from the sky by momentarily changing the chemical circumstances under which flame is produced, and so on.[1]

[1]TLS, 96-97, FP, 30-33. Again, this isn’t exactly the argument Feser uses, but a very simplified one to illustrate his general line of reasoning. We’ll come back to this in much more depth when we discuss miracles in chapter 2.

There is much more I could quote and go on to quote, pertaining to these ideas. The differentiation between potentiality and actuality here appears to be a subtle ploy in order to shoehorn God into the equation. I did, however, want to bring up this point that perhaps invalidates the whole differentiation and categorisation of these two ideas.

First of all, I am a conceptual nominalist, as I have set out umpteen times, and this arguably eliminates such metaphysical contortions anyway by saying such mental categorisations are products entirely of the mind and have no ontic existence independent of the conceiving minds in question. Indeed, such nominalism, in my opinion, destroys the foundation upon which natural law, essentialism and Thomistic philosophy and theology is built.

But let’s ignore that minor digression.

I want to look at potentiality and relate it to a deterministic or adequately deterministic framework. I would argue that such frameworks equally eliminate the idea of potentiality; or, at least, make potential synonymous with “the future”.

Let’s talk about this caterpillar. The caterpillar, it is of a particular species and genus. It has a genetic blueprint. In other words, it will only turn into a certain type of butterfly. Given the environment it is actually born into and given the conditions of the food it eats and the chrysalis it makes, it will invariably turn out in a particular way, with a particular colouration and of a particular science. When we talk about potential, I think we are smuggling in a very human conception about what could be in a very general sense.

This butterfly could be of this particular colouration or that particular colouration, it could be of this size, or that size. We line up all the theoretical futures that this butterfly could have given that we don’t know the initial conditions with our limited human minds. However, if we knew every single condition down to every single wave function of the world, then we could predict with surety what the outcome would be.

If I was to say I’m going to toss a coin, we might both agree that it could potentially flip as a head or as a tail. However, if I was to understand every single initial condition and every single variable at play, on the flip of that coin in that particular instantiation of a coin flip, then actually (pun intended), I would know what the outcome of the coin flip would be. There would literally be no potential head or potential tail but there would be an actual future coin flip of head (for example). I keep coming back to this idea that any contextualized thing really doesn’t have the potentiality to be anything other than the exact thing it will be deterministically caused to become, taking into account the causal circumstance it finds itself in.

Thus to talk about “Pure Act” and other notions that depend upon this differentiation of potentiality and actuality is somewhat meaningless.

Of course, we could get onto a debate about causal determinism and the influence of quantum indeterminacy, if indeed it exists. But given this, my criticism would obtain.

 

 


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August 29, 2019

The Perverted Faculty Argument (PFA) is a strand of Thomistic (Thomas Aquinas) thinking that is intertwined with Natural Law Theory (NLT)  of which I have been blogging lately. I was challenged by Vincent Torley recently to, if I was going to attack the PFA (as I have done here and here), attack the best form of the argument. The claim was that Timothy Hsiao’s defence was the best. It can be found here.

I also recently posted a piece concerning Hsiao’s formulation of the Perverted Faculty Argument (PFA). I initially posted Ficino’s notes on this and he did a great job at showing some pretty terminal weaknesses with it. My first post on this formulation was only be concerned with Premise (1) and found it to be wanting. This post looks at Premise (2).

Here is his version of the PFA:

(1) For any x that is a K, if x is good, then x is a good K.

(2) If x is a good K, then x is good by being as Ks ought to be.

(3) Therefore, if x is a good human action, then x is good by being as human actions ought to be. (From 1–2)

(4) Human actions ought to be aimed at human goods that are proper to them.

(5) Human goods are that which fulfills human faculties.

(6) Therefore, human actions ought to be aimed at that which fulfills the human faculties that are proper to them. (From 4, 5)

(7) Therefore, if x is a good human action, then x is good by aiming at that which fulfills the human faculties that are proper to it. (From 3–6)

Let’s quickly concentrate on the opening brace of premises:

(1) For any x that is a K, if x is good, then x is a good K.

(2) If x is a good K, then x is good by being as Ks ought to be.

Hsiao’s Defence

Hsiao spends some short time defending premises (1) and (2), including:

All examples of goodness follow this basic model. We cannot say that something is good or bad unless we first know what its function is. To borrow an example from Geach, I cannot know what a good hygrometer is if I do not know what hygrometers are for. Ascriptions of goodness and badness only make sense when considered in relation to how something ought to be by nature. As Geach puts it, there is “no such thing as being just good or bad, there is only being a good or bad so-and-so.”7 When we say that something is good, what we are really saying is that it is a good member of some kind K with function F.

This looks to be a case of seeing humans in this truly functional and arguably instrumental manner. Things are only good for that which they are used for. He continues:

Some have objected to this by pointing out that something that is a good member of its essential kind can nevertheless still be bad. For example, a bomb that kills thousands of people may be good as far as bombs are concerned, but surely it is still bad, even if properly fulfills its function as a bomb. Hence, goodness cannot be defined in terms of proper functioning. But this objection, far from undermining the Aristotelian conception of goodness, actually affirms it. Since goodness is relative to a particular kind or function, something that is good for one kind of thing may be bad for another kind of thing. Indeed, the very reason why we say that a bomb is bad is because it is bad for the kind “human being.” But something that is bad for us—say, a lack of oxygen—may be good for something else (for example, certain kinds of bacteria). So long as we keep this crucial point in mind, there is no difficulty in saying that one and the same thing can be both good and bad when considered under different descriptions. In this way, the Aristotelian conception of goodness aligns nicely with our intuitions.

This is really interesting because it opens up a whole can of worms in terms of natural law. Indeed, it looks to show it meaningful goodness has some kind of evaluative hierarchy. If you can say a bomb is a good bomb is bad for human being, then this hides an awful lot of moral philosophising. Was the nuclear bomb on Hiroshima definitely bad, end of? Could you not employ some kind of moral consequentialism, as was, in order to argue that a greater good came from it (or any other bomb ever used, ironically using Just War Theory – justified by Aquinas himself). Things get complex here. And you could employ this multiplicity of goods in terms of humans – a homosexual male may be frustrating reproductive ends, but he could be “good for one kind of thing” even if he “may be bad for another kind of thing”! How do these pluralistic goods get evaluated comparatively?

This “crucial point” to which he refers is woefully under-explained and -justified.

Conditionals and Hypotheticals

Here we have a moral ought. But, and I have argued this for years, oughts are thoroughly problematic. Oughts depend on complete conditional sentences – those with a protasis and an apodosis. These are if…then clauses. A statement like “I ought to put oil in my car engine” appears to make sense because it hides an unspoken protasis: “If I want my engine to run well [, then…]”. However, we can change this up by stating, “If I am testing to see how engines fail without oil…” then I might have an antithetical apodosis of “…then I ought not put oil in my car engine.”

In other words, oughts are entirely contextual and depend on the conceived function in the mind of the agent making the claim (in the shape of the protasis (if clause). This links back to issues with the first premise in the sense of being mind-dependent.

I can use a pencil or chair to do whatever I want it to. I might also want my chair to do certain things: have a drinks holder, be uncomfortable to my enemy, allow me to sit with my arm around my partner, and so on. These functions are subjective, agent-dependent. Yes, we might agree on certain basic functions as a group of people for pragmatic, communicative reasons. But these might also change over time, geography and culture or people. A chair could be:

Image result for chairImage result for chairImage result for chairImage result for definition chairImage result for drinks holder chairImage result for kneeling back chairImage result for what is a chairImage result for what is a chair

Image result for backless chair#

…and so on.

Naturalistic Fallacy

A squirrel ought not be a certain way, and its only “functional” aspects (if you really want to argue about function) should really be seen in terms of evolution – for survival to reproductive age, and for reproduction. But this ends up looking like the naturalistic fallacy – things are good because nature has made them this way. Ducks “rape”, and this makes evolutionary sense in their context. Does it make it good?

In the same way, a high-status male human, such as a king, with a huge harem of concubines, makes sense in evolutionary terms (the selfish gene etc.) but is difficult to argue for under ordinary morality and, one would assume, natural law.

But even were a squirrel or human to have intrinsic prescribed oughts, then how do we know what these oughts were? And would they not actually be extrinsically defined and derived anyway? Do we look at evolution and guess as to what the functional aspects of humans and squirrels are and then define the oughts from these natural phenomena (thus guessing God’s intentions in designing it so)? Or do we look at the Bible or some other revelation and then interpret that in terms of some kind of natural paradigm? In which case, the Bible appears to be where the morality is defined or derived and the natural law aspect is somewhat post hoc rationalised.

There is also the idea, as seen often within moral philosophy, as to the meta-ethical question as from whence morality comes – is it found in an agent in terms of their chracteristics, or in an action, such as with consequentialism? Deontology has morality arguably housed in the mora rule, but this can also be seen in the action to adhere to the moral rule. Or intention. O so on and so forth. The point is that “If x is a good K, then x is good by being as Ks ought to be.” hides an awful lot of meta-ethical assumptions.

Where we saw Premise (1) as thoroughly problematic, we can see that Premise (2) fares no better at all.

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August 27, 2019

The Perverted Faculty Argument (PFA) is a strand of Thomistic (Thomas Aquinas) thinking that is intertwined with Natural Law Theory (NLT)  of which I have been blogging lately. I was challenged by Vincent Torley recently to, if I was going to attack the PFA (as I have done here and here), attack the best form of the argument. The claim was that Timothy Hsiao’s defence was the best. It can be found here.

I also recently posted a piece concerning Hsiao’s formulation of the Perverted Faculty Argument (PFA). I initially posted Ficino’s notes on this and he did a great job at showing some pretty terminal weaknesses with it. I will continue by giving some of my own thoughts, all of which have no doubt previously been discussed in one context or another over many posts. This post will only be concerned with Premise (1)!

Here is his version of the PFA:

(1) For any x that is a K, if x is good, then x is a good K.

(2) If x is a good K, then x is good by being as Ks ought to be.

(3) Therefore, if x is a good human action, then x is good by being as human actions ought to be. (From 1–2)

(4) Human actions ought to be aimed at human goods that are proper to them.

(5) Human goods are that which fulfills human faculties.

(6) Therefore, human actions ought to be aimed at that which fulfills the human faculties that are proper to them. (From 4, 5)

(7) Therefore, if x is a good human action, then x is good by aiming at that which fulfills the human faculties that are proper to it. (From 3–6)

I think the opening premise is fundamentally problematic. Unsurpisingly, if you know me, this will entail ideas of nominalism against ideas of realism. Thomism falls apart under a nominalist or conceptual nominalist account of the world. In simple terms, abstract ideas only exist in the mind of the conceiver. This makes any objective claims about reality really troublesome.

The initial example given by Hsiao is of a pencil – if a pencil is a good pencil it is good at being a pencil. This is far more obvious with something of a simple function. Several things can be said here: first of all, what of something that is not a pencil fulfilling the function of a pencil? Secondly, what of multiple functions of a given thing?

Let’s shift this to a “chair” thing. We would need to agree on what the function of a chair is. Under Thomism, such a function is entailed in the essence of thing. Properties and functions appear to have ontic, objective existence. I would argue this is not true. I will quote at length from my book on the Kalam Cosmological Argument, Did God Create the Universe from Nothing? (UK):

To illustrate this, let’s now look at the “label” of “chair” (in a very cogent way, all words are abstractions that refer to something or another, but nominalists will say that these abstractions, or the relationship between them and the reference points, do not exist, out there, in the ether). This is an abstract concept, I posit, that exists, at most, only in the mind of the conceiver. We, as humans, label the chair abstractly and it only means a chair to those who see it as a chair—i.e. it is subjective. The concept is not itself fixed. My idea of a chair is different to yours, is different to a cat’s and to an alien’s, as well as different to the idea of this object to a human who has never seen or heard of a chair (early humans who had never seen a chair, for example, would not know it to be a chair. It would not exist as a chair, though the matter would exist in that arrangement). I may call a tree stump a chair, but you may not. If I was the last person (or sentient creature) on earth and died and left this chair, it would not be a chair, but an assembly of matter that meant nothing to anything or anyone.[i] The chair, as a label, is a subjective concept existing in each human’s mind who sees it as a chair. A chair only has properties that make it a chair within the intellectual confines of humanity. These consensus-agreed properties are human-derived properties, even if there may be common properties between concrete items—i.e. chairness. The ascription of these properties to another idea is arguable and not objectively true in itself. Now let’s take an animal—a cat. What is this “chair” to it? I imagine a visual sensation of “sleep thing”. To an alien? It looks rather like a “shmagflan” because it has a “planthoingj” on its “fdanygshan”. Labels are conceptual and depend on the conceiving mind, subjectively.

What I mean by this is that I may see that a “hero”, for example, has properties X, Y and Z. You may think a hero has properties X, Y and B. Someone else may think a hero has properties A, B and X. Who is right? No one is right. Those properties exist, in someone, but ascribing that to “heroness” is a subjective pastime with no ontic reality, no objective reality.

This is how dictionaries work. I could make up a word: “bashignogta”. I could even give it a meaning: “the feeling you get when going through a dark tunnel with the tunnel lights flashing past your eyes”. Does this abstract idea not objectively exist, now that I have made it up? Does it float into the ether? Or does it depend on my mind for its existence? I can pass it on from my mind to someone else’s using words, and then it would be conceptually existent in two minds, but it still depends on our minds. What dictionaries do is to codify an agreement in what abstract ideas (words) mean, as agreed merely by consensus (the same applies to spelling conventions—indeed, convention is the perfect word to illustrate the point). But without all the minds existing in that consensus, the words and meanings would not exist. They do not have Platonic or ontic reality.

 Thus the label of “chair” is a result of human evolution and conceptual subjectivity (even if more than one mind agrees).

If you argue that objective ideas do exist, then it is also the case that the range of all possible entities must also exist objectively, even if they don’t exist materially. Without wanting to labour my previous point, a “forqwibllex” is a fork with a bent handle and a button on the end (that has never been created and I have “made-up”). This did not exist before now, either objectively or subjectively. Now it does—have I created it objectively? This is what happens whenever humans make up a label for anything to which they assign function etc. Also, things that other animals use that don’t even have names, but to which they have assigned “mental labels”, for want of better words, must also exist objectively under this logic. For example, the backrubby bit of bark on which a family of sloths scratch their backs on a particular tree exists materially. They have no language, so it has no label as such (it can be argued that abstracts are a function of language). Yet even though it only has properties to a sloth, and not to any other animal, objectivists should claim it must exist objectively. Furthermore, there are items that have multiple abstract properties which create more headaches for the objectivist. A chair, to me, might well be a territory marker to the school cat. Surely the same object cannot embody both objective existences: the table and the marker! Perhaps it can, but it just seems to get into more and more needless complexity.

When did this chair “begin to exist”? Was it when it had three legs being built, when 1/2, 2/3, 4/5, 9/10 of the last leg was constructed? You see, the energy and matter of the chair already existed. So the chair is merely a conceptual construct. More precisely a human one. More precisely still, one that different humans will variously disagree with.

Let’s take the completed chair. When will it become not-a-chair? When I take 7 molecules away? 20? A million? This is sometimes called the paradox of the beard / dune / heap or similar. However, to be more correct, this is an example of the Sorites Paradox, attributed to Eubulides of Miletus. It goes as follows. Imagine a sand dune (heap) of a million grains of sand. Agreeing that a sand dune minus just one grain of sand is still a sand dune (hey, it looks the same, and with no discernible difference, I cannot call it a different category), then we can repeatedly apply this second premise until we have no grains, or even a negative number of grains and we would still have a sand dune. Such labels are arbitrarily and generally assigned so there is no precision with regards to exactly how many grains of sand a dune should have.

This problem is also exemplified in the species problem which, like many other problems involving time continua (defining legal adulthood etc.), accepts the idea that human categorisation and labelling is arbitrary and subjective. The species problem states that in a constant state of evolving change, there is, in objective reality, no such thing as a species since to derive a species one must arbitrarily cut off the chain of time at the beginning and the end of a “species’” evolution in a totally subjective manner. For example, a late Australopithecus fossilised skull could just as easily be labelled an early Homo skull. An Australopithecus couple don’t suddenly give birth to a Homo species one day. These changes take millions of years and there isn’t one single point of time where the change is exacted. There is a marvellous piece of text that you can see, a large paragraph[ii] which starts off in the colour red and gradually turns blue down the paragraph leaving the reader with the question, “at which point does the writing turn blue?” Of course, there is arguably no definite and objectively definable answer—or at least any answer is by its nature arbitrary and subjective (depending, indeed, on how you define “blue”).

So, after all that, what has begun to exist? A causally inert abstract concept.

What this means is that there is no objective agreement as to what a thing actually is or its function. We might agree, by consensus, amongst humans, as to what a chair is. But even in doing so, this does not assume we will agree on whether a particular one is a good one in fulfilling its function.

This problem is also twofold. Firstly, some might agree a thing is a chair because it looks like a chair but people might disagree on its function. Imagine a tiny chair, the size of a marble. We may or may not agree on it being a chair largely on account of agreeing or not over its function. It might look like a perfectly formed chair, and so some will argue it as a chair, but not have the function of any other chair for a human. This would, again, take consensus.

Okay, let’s assume we agree on a tree stump being a chair. Let’s assume a given group of people come to a consensus that it qualifies in every way (aesthetics, form, function) as to being a chair. Now we have a second problem. What happens when a cat or small boy decides to sleep well on it, laying down? It is now arguably a good bed, under Thomism, and not a good chair. It has various functions depending on who is using it and who is evaluating that use.

This causes terminal problems for such essentialism (what is its true essence?), but is perfectly explicable under conceptual nominalism – it is whatever it is to the conceiver, and to anyone else whom the conceiver can convince by good, convincing (rational?) argument.

I may use a blunt, broken pencil to somehow save my life. That is now a good pencil, to me! But it’s crap at writing.

As soon as you start drawing absolutist lines in the sand, things fall apart like a house of cards. It’s why context makes mockery of moral (think biblical) absolutism.

(1) For any x that is a K, if x is good, then x is a good K.

In conclusion, premise (1) is fundamentally flawed, primarily in terms of its attempt to be objective (in even claiming that there are, objectively, Ks!).

[The second part to this can be found here.]

[i] Wittgenstein, in his later thought, would have claimed meaning in a word from its use. This of course hints at no objective overarching meaning for groups of things, but meaning derived from each individual usage of language in each context. If anything, this plays into the point I am making. Things only have meaning to the conceiver, thus don’t ‘exist’ objectively outside the mind of the conceiver, as abstract ideas.

[ii] This text is variously available online. I picked it up from:
http://www.christianforums.com/t7536666/#post56778897  (Accessed 09/12/2015)

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August 24, 2019

The Perverted Faculty Argument (PFA) is a strand of Thomistic (Thomas Aquinas) thinking that is intertwined with Natural Law Theory (NLT)  of which I have been blogging lately. I was challenged by Vincent Torley recently to, if I was going to attack the PFA (as I have done here and here), attack the best form of the argument. The claim was that Hsiao’s defence was the best. It can be found here.

Hsiao introduces the argument as follows:

There is an old argument rooted in the classical natural law tradition that says that the “perverse” or “unnatural” use of a human faculty is immoral. This short essay offers a derivation, overview, and brief defense of this “perverted faculty” argument (PFA). I shall argue that the PFA is entailed by some commonsense theses about the nature of goodness.

I take as my starting point a claim famously defended by Peter Geach in his paper “Good and Evil.”1 Geach argued the meaning of “good” and “bad” depends on something’s nature or function. In other words, we cannot know whether something is good or bad without first understanding its nature or function. This account of goodness does not originate from Geach, but dates back to Aristotle and has recently been the subject of renewed attention amongst recent philosophers.2 The contention of this paper is that the Aristotelian thesis entails the PFA, or at least something very much like it.3

If I am right, then advocates of eudaimonistic ethics should take the PFA a lot more seriously.

The Argument

The PFA can be derived as follows:
(1) For any x that is a K, if x is good, then x is a good K.
(2) If x is a good K, then x is good by being as Ks ought to be.
(3) Therefore, if x is a good human action, then x is good by being as
human actions ought to be. (From 1–2)
(4) Human actions ought to be aimed at human goods that are proper to
them.
(5) Human goods are that which fulfills human faculties.
(6) Therefore, human actions ought to be aimed at that which fulfills
the human faculties that are proper to them. (From 4, 5)
(7) Therefore, if x is a good human action, then x is good by aiming at
that which fulfills the human faculties that are proper to it. (From
3–6)
Although the PFA is best known for its implications in applied ethics, my focus will be mainly on whether the PFA can be derived from an Aristotelean conception of goodness, and not so much its practical applications. Others have addressed its significance for specific moral issues elsewhere.4

In this piece, I will lay out Ficino’s initial thoughts on the paper. He, a regular commenter and contributor here, has something of a deep interest in Thomistic thinking and critiquing it. His notes are as follows. I hope to make my own comments on it in due course. There will be talk of sex and sexuality – don’t be prudish!

1. One organ can be an instrument for more than one faculty (e.g. Aristotle talks about this in De Anima), and Ari says nature is economical. I see no reason to accept e.g. the following of Hsiao”s: “An act that, for example, involves the use of the faculty of procreation must respect its function by directing its use toward a goal that is fitting for the end of procreation” (p. 212). This assumes that every use of our naughty bits is an actualization of the faculty of reproduction. I don’t think he’s given reason to accept this. It’s not obvious that, say, a woman stroking her clitoris and experiencing pleasure and relaxation is directing her faculty of reproduction at all.

2. Our higher natural faculties, spirit/emotion and intellect, as Hsiao acknowledges, can override lower ones in directing use of organs: e.g. your hands instead of your mouth when you are speaking American Sign Language. You use your hands for an end toward which they are not intended (speech) and restrain your mouth from serving one of its natural faculties to achieve a natural end for humans (speech).

3. He doesn’t consider activities that are ends in themselves vs those that serve ends, and higher ends of higher parts of soul trumping lower ones, e.g. intercourse to serve a relationship of love AND done so as to achieve the natural end (cf. Politics VIII.5-6) of limiting family size together trump the end of pumping out another kid.

4. Hsiao equivocates on terms like “ought.” cf. p. 212 “That is, the term “ought” in the fourth premise should be understood as expressing both a teleological and moral ought.” I think his attempts to support this cobbling together amount to assertion more than demonstrating that his “ought” is legitimately derived from his “is.”

5. He tries to stitch deontology into his eudaimonistic ethics, e.g. p. 213 “There is a difference  between failing to realize a goal toward which you are already aiming, and failing to aim toward a goal that you should be attempting to pursue,.”  or p. 214 “It is wrong to misuse our faculties.” Eudaimonistic ethics would come at an issue from whether you harm or care for your soul, rather than from what rule you are obligated to follow. Hsiao’s analysis seems to blend these in a confused and perhaps sophistical way.

Thanks to Ficino for these intitial thoughts. More to follow!

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August 18, 2019

I have recently been posting quite a bit on Natural Law Theory due to the fact I am presently editing a book on the subject by another author.

Natural Law Theory, in a nutshell:

NLT states that behaviours that are rationally chosen by an agent that do not fit the remit of the final cause of the agent or part of the agent (i.e., a body part) are morally bad. In the same way a kettle that doesn’t work well to boil water is a bad kettle, if the supposed final cause or purpose of a penis is to urinate and procreate, then any behaviour that falls outside of the remit of excretion or reproduction (procreation) is morally bad.

The term that Edward Feser, natural law theorist, uses is “frustrate” such that if the activity frustrates the final cause, then it is morally bad. In the case of sex, where the final cause is reproduction, wearing a condom “frustrates” reproduction. Having sex exclusively for enjoyment (i.e., wearing a condom) is therefore morally wrong. This is different to saying enjoying sex is morally wrong, since it is actually at least neutral if having sex for the primary purpose of reproducing.

Sheila C. made some great, succinct comments on the topic on the various pieces:

I brought up gastric bypasses the other day. Isn’t that deliberately making digestion work less well- frustrating the end of nutrition while continuing to eat?

The Catholics responded that the negative side effects would adequately punish anyone who used the surgery to be gluttonous.

But doesn’t that reveal that natural law has nothing to do with anything? The gut sense Catholics have is that it’s all okay *provided you aren’t having any fun.*

And

Here’s another one: why do Catholics get their pets neutered? Natural law is supposed to be for everyone

And

None of these arguments seem to address homosexuality. When a woman has sex with her wife, they may both foresee that conception won’t result, but they’re not deliberately frustrating anything. Through no fault of their own, neither of them produce any sperm.

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August 16, 2019

Natural Law Theory, in a nutshell:

NLT states that behaviours that are rationally chosen by an agent that do not fit the remit of the final cause of the agent or part of the agent (i.e., a body part) are morally bad. In the same way a kettle that doesn’t work well to boil water is a bad kettle, if the supposed final cause or purpose of a penis is to urinate and procreate, then any behaviour that falls outside of the remit of excretion or reproduction (procreation) is morally bad.

The term that Edward Feser, natural law theorist, uses is “frustrate” such that if the activity frustrates the final cause, then it is morally bad. In the case of sex, where the final cause is reproduction, wearing a condom “frustrates” reproduction. Having sex exclusively for enjoyment (i.e., wearing a condom) is therefore morally wrong. This is different to saying enjoying sex is morally wrong, since it is actually at least neutral if having sex for the primary purpose of reproducing.

Here is a claim from Edward Feser:

“Where some faculty F is natural to a rational agent A and by nature exists for the sake of some end E (and exists in A precisely so that A might pursue E), then it is metaphysically impossible for it to be good for A to use F in a manner contrary to E” (Feser, Edward. Neo-Scholastic Essays. South Bend, Indiana: St. Augustine’s Press, 2015. Page 398)

To which LastManOnEarth stated:

This argument has an unstated assumption that a rational agent must act to achieve End E at all times. If E is not obligatory at all times then the agent is justified in frustrating E via F at times when E is not required, or else the restriction isn’t really about E but rather about F.

Furthermore, the argument is only concerned with acts of commission with facility F, further demonstrating that the argument is about F, not E. Abstaining from F frustrates E just as surely as misusing F.

Finally, the argument restricts it’s focus to a single F, yet any E worth discussing depends on the use (or abstinence) of multiple facilities F. Any coherent system of ethics that valued achieving natural Ends would need to account for all the myriad Facilities involved. Focusing on a single F while ignoring the entirety of E betrays the underlying intent of the argument.

Natural Law does not take the idea of Natural Ends seriously, and neither should we.

And Jayman, a Christian commenter, replied:

This argument has an unstated assumption that a rational agent must act to achieve End E at all times. If E is not obligatory at all times then the agent is justified in frustrating E via F at times when E is not required, or else the restriction isn’t really about E but rather about F.

The NLer rejects the claim that you must act to achieve E at all times because he notes the distinction between abstaining from using F and using F in a manner contrary to E. You need an additional premise to connect (1) E is not obligatory at all times and (2) the agent is justified in frustrating E via F at times when E is not required.

Furthermore, the argument is only concerned with acts of commission with facility F, further demonstrating that the argument is about F, not E. Abstaining from F frustrates E just as surely as misusing F.

F and E cannot be easily separated. What makes a faculty this faculty and not that faculty is its power to bring about this end instead of that end. The PFA is about both F and E. NLT does not value achieving natural ends by any means necessary. You’re falling prey to either-or thinking and the-ends-justify-the-means thinking. Plus, you keep speaking of “facilities” instead of “faculties”.

Finally, the argument restricts it’s focus to a single F, yet any E worth discussing depends on the use (or abstinence) of multiple facilities F.

The basic principle is kept simple with the use of one F and E. It’s not as if the PFA is denying people have multiple faculties.

I’m not sure that Jayman is right here. I would see the final cause of a human agent as the successful completion of all the things that parts of the agent have as final causes. Let’s, for the sake of ease, boil all of these down to three things: sex, eating and breathing. These are the final causes of the sex organs, the digestive system, and the breathing system.

Now, if we breathed all the time, what would happen? We would survive (unless underwater or eating). Essentially, though, this process is one that should happen at all times. If we ate at all times, we would become obese and cut our life expectancy. In other words, we should do it to the optimal amount. But, if you are going to argue that eating all of the time (in other words, eating has the final cause of nutrition for survival, and that is what we are morally obliged to do under NLT) is not demanded under NLT, then surely you must say that it should be done to the optimal amount for longevity. That is to say that all agents should be eating to the scientifically advised/proven degree (by diet and amount) to promote life or longevity. If Edward Feser eats even a little badly of a night –  too much cheese/wine/sweet stuff – then he is actively frustrating the final cause of effective nutrition.

This is morally bad in terms of his digestive system.

Sex is an interesting one since it has no, let’s argue for simplicity, health effect for the life of the agent per se (I’m sure there is data to suggest there is an optimal amount of sex for longevity). But, in the same way that it is morally good to refrain from stabbing or shooting people on a daily basis, one can argue this in reverse for sex. We literally should be having sex as much as possible for the moral good it brings about – life. Again, to simplify, let’s keep this within marital partners so as not to get onto other NLT subjects of debate.

I would agree with LastManOnEarth in saying that not having sex, intentionally, is synonymous with having sex with a condom. The intentions are identical – I don’t want to undergo a process whereby the end result is pregnancy. I don’t see that Jayman is correct in saying: “The NLer rejects the claim that you must act to achieve E at all times because he notes the distinction between abstaining from using F and using F in a manner contrary to E. You need an additional premise to connect (1) E is not obligatory at all times and (2) the agent is justified in frustrating E via F at times when E is not required.”

This appears to be nothing more than an assertion, or a rejection without any justification. There might well be some in depth justification of this – I simply haven’t done the reading or heard it.

If, as in my last post, the life outcome trumps other outcomes (enjoyment) then the NLer should be morally obligated to engage in procreative sex over and above personal enjoyment at all times.

In other words, sex for enjoyment frustrates the agent’s final cause of reproduction in exactly the same way as watching a film at the cinema does.

The NLer has to engage in mental contortion to get around this problem. We know, from an evolutionary and biological standpoint, that the final cause of ALL organisms is to survive to reproductive age and reproduce. The final cause for a human is arguably not enjoying oneself in the cinema, or even enjoying oneself in general, as an agent. That is not a primary final cause (though it may be a secondary one that enables, say, living longer to reproductive age in a society). Thus under NLT, I would argue, we are indeed morally obliged to have reproductive sex as much as possible and those who don’t are morally bad. going to the cinema, watching TV, playing a game or going to the beach are all morally wrong because they are intentionally frustrating the agent’s sexual system.

What NLers will do is appeal to a more complex set of outcomes for humans, and more nebulous metrics: Aquinas’ cardinal virtues or a “good and happy life” or similar. This will allow them all those opportunities to be morally bad on different occasions in light of some greater good. There is a tension her between an ascetic who is defined wholly by such righteous behaviour and, well, a normal person And this is the problem – the lack of clarity in defining the final causes unequivocally and discerning what trumps what when these rights and causes intersect. For a theory that seems on first look to have a great simplicity and clarity, like any moral theory, it gets very complex and unwieldy pretty soon.

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August 15, 2019

Yesterday, I posted on the subject of Natural Law Theory (NLT) in the context of the enjoyment of sex. NLT states that behaviours that are rationally chosen by an agent that do not fit the remit of the final cause of the agent or part of the agent (i.e., a body part) are morally bad. In the same way a kettle that doesn’t work well to boil water is a bad kettle, if the supposed final cause or purpose of a penis is to urinate and procreate, then any behaviour that falls outside of the remit of excretion or reproduction (procreation) is morally bad.

The term that Edward Feser, natural law theorist, uses is “frustrate” such that if the activity frustrates the final cause, then it is morally bad. In the case of sex, where the final cause is reproduction, wearing a condom “frustrates” reproduction. Having sex exclusively for enjoyment (i.e., wearing a condom) is therefore morally wrong. This is different to saying enjoying sex is morally wrong, since it is actually at least neutral if having sex for the primary purpose of reproducing.

In the book I am editing (The Unnecessary Science), the author (who blogs as Gunlord500 here) states:

One problem with Feser’s argument here, which other critics have noted, is that Natural Law would seem to condemn heterosexual sex between infertile people, even within marriage, or even in a fertile couple when the woman is pregnant! Feser addresses this as well, saying “[f]oreseeing that a certain sexual act will in fact not result in conception is not the same thing as actively altering the relevant organs [i.e., attaching a condom or diaphragm to one of them] or the nature of the act [same-sex intercourse, masturbation, bestiality, etc.] in a way that would make it impossible for them to lead to conception even if they were in good working order.”[1] That would seem to wrap things up nicely for the Natural Law theorist, but the perceptive reader can see it raises even more problems in the attempt of solving one.

Is “actively altering” the sex act always inherently wrong? There seem to be several scenarios when most people would say it is morally licit. Imagine a loving heterosexual married couple where one partner, through no fault of his or her own, has contracted a venereal disease. Perhaps, through great misfortune and shockingly lax procedure, one of them received a tainted blood transfusion, or an untrained nurse at a hospital took a blood sample with a re-used needle rather than a new, sterile one. Afterwards, the afflicted partner insists they use condoms whenever they have relations, in order to keep the disease from infecting the other. This would obviously also prevent conceiving any children, but since the disease would then pass on to the couple’s offspring, public health demands their nest remains empty. Under the circumstances, then, it would be a hard sell to condemn the couple for using at least one form of contraception, if no others.

Feser might argue that the pair would be morally obligated to remain celibate until the infected partner has been cured, or indefinitely if the disease is non-curable. But this would strike most as both draconian and impractical. If such a couple would be denied the joys of parenthood due to an unfortunate incident they could not foresee nor be blamed for, it seems manifestly unjust to compound their misfortunes by forbidding them to have sex, especially when a simple technological solution would allow them that small pleasure. More likely Feser would allow them an exception based on their intent. They may be “actively altering their relevant organs” with a condom, but since their intent was to protect the healthy partner rather than “frustrate the function” of the act per se, the endeavor wouldn’t be morally wrong.

Unhappily for Feser, this would seem to lessen, if not entirely negate, the moral wrongness of other kinds of non-procreative sex. When a man masturbates, he is not necessarily consciously intending to “frustrate” the end of his sexual faculties. He might be overcome with lust, desperately lonely, or just looking for a little fun, but those sorts of direct intentions would seem to be morally neutral rather than good or bad, using Feser’s definitions of good and bad as facilitating or frustrating a bodily function. The same applies to homosexual behavior. Two men having sex might be lustful, looking for fun, or looking to bond, but not necessarily consciously intending to “frustrate” the function of their faculties, even if they would be able to “foresee their behavior would not lead to conception.” If it is licit for a couple to “actively alter the sex act/relevant organs” if their intentions are praiseworthy, it ought to be licit for a couple to do the same if their intentions are merely neutral. The only time non-procreative sex would be truly “bad” in Feser’s sense would be if it were undertaken for the explicit purpose of contraception—a man using a condom or having same-sex intercourse for no other purpose than to prove he could, or a man masturbating even when given the opportunity for sex with a willing and eager partner. Those are apparently the only situations which fulfill Feser’s criteria for moral wrongness, “[using one’s sexual faculties] for the sake of actively frustrating the realization of [their ends].”[2] Given the rarity of such situations, a blanket condemnation of non-procreative sex in general seems unsustainable.

Or does it? Feser believes that “[a]n act can in fact actively frustrate the end whether or not one has such frustration consciously in view, just as an act can in fact be free of such active frustration whether or not avoiding such frustration is consciously in view.”[3] But even with this consideration, Feser’s argument remains unconvincing. First off, it would seem to disregard the importance of intent in moral action. It is fairly uncontroversial that an act can be morally better or worse due to its intention. If you run a man over with your car because you hate him, you’ve obviously committed an evil act, but if you run him over accidentally, you’re less culpable, and if you run him over because he himself is doing evil (carrying out a mass shooting, say), you have actually done good. If we can agree on that, we can agree that gays and lonely straights are not committing quite as much evil as Feser might have it, so long as their intents are mere pleasure rather than spitefully frustrating final causality for the sake of it.

[1] Ibid, 400.

[2]NSE, 399.

[3] Edward Feser, “Foundations of Sexual Morality,” Edward Feser, February 7, 2017, comment at February 10, 2017, 9:40 AM, last accessed March 25, 2018, http://edwardfeser.blogspot.com/2017/02/foundations-of-sexual-morality.html

I think the last paragraph (and indeed, the author continues on from here) demands some discussion because I wonder whether having sex for enjoyment only (wearing a condom) only frustrates the final cause in the short term. In this way, there is no intention from either agent to frustrate the ability to reproduce in either agent, such as intentionally dismembering oneself would.

Take, for example, the aforementioned kettle. Someone breaks into my house and shoots me with a gun. I pick up the kettle and use it to block the bullet, which ricochets off the kettle, damaging the button. The kettle was used in a way that now renders it a bad kettle. The kettle was used in a way that actively frustrated its final cause (you could add a layer of complexity by saying I knew, in the split second, what would happen and decided to save my life by intentionally damaging the kettle). However, in the long run, I fix the button easily and can use the kettle again to intentionally and soundly bring about its final cause.

Here, you could say that saving my life trumped the (for the sake of argument) moral negativity of using the item in frustrating its final cause.

The difference with the sex scenario is that sex brings about life and therefore (NLT proponents would say) has a high moral value, and frustrating it for the sake of enjoyment, I imagine, is not a morally good trumping.

But to use a condom is only to frustrate the final cause in that single instantiation of sex, not with any permanence. Should this be taken into account?

At the end of the day, God does this every time, as an OmniGod, he allows (indeed, designed into the system) fertilised embryos to fail to implant or naturally abort, to the tune of billions of human “lives” over time already. This frustration of the final cause must be trumped by a greater good every single time, though one wonders what this might be. It also shows how, in that context, NLT is itself trumped by some kind of consequentialism.

Of course, I fundamentally see NLT failing on a whole bunch of other criteria outside of this (it doesn’t even get past the barriers that conceptual nominalism poses, and ideas of subjectivity (see the RELATED POSTS below).

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August 13, 2019

I am presently editing a book with the working title “The Unnecessary Science” that is a robust critique of Thomism, Natural Law and Christian thinkers such as Edward Feser. I (and fellow contributor Ficino) have written a number of times about Natural Law Theory (NLT) – see “Related Posts” below. It has reminded me of how problematic NLT is and I wanted to touch again, here, on NLT and sex.

Just to remind people, NLT states that behaviours that are rationally chosen by an agent that do not fit the remit of the final cause of the agent or part of the agent (i.e., a body part) are morally bad. In the same way a kettle that doesn’t work well to boil water is a bad kettle, if the supposed final cause or purpose of a penis is to urinate and procreate, then any behaviour that falls outside of the remit of excretion or reproduction (procreation) is morally bad. I am simplifying matters here for expediency.

I think this has some really interesting ramifications. If I was to debate Edward Feser (a major modern proponent of this theory), I will be seriously tempted to ask him, “So, you have six children? I presume you have had sex only within the range of 6 to 60 times (assuming your wife and yourself are reproductively fertile)?”

What is at stake here for such believers is that masturbation, contraception and sex exclusively for enjoyment are morally bad. These believers have to adhere to the behaviour of abstinence outside of procreation of the sole purpose of giving birth to a child.

Of course, I wouldn’t ask such an impertinent question in a public debate, I don’t think. But it is interesting to wonder whether such believers really do adhere to their own moral proclamations.

In evolutionary terms, sex is enjoyable precisely because, for genes to have their genesis in other organisms and therefore continue their existence, a sexually reproductive organism such as a human needs to have sex as often as possible. Enjoyment means a greater chance of procreation. If sex was truly horrible, we would be less inclined to have it and would have less chance of passing on our genes.

Aware that enjoyment appears functional (in terms of evolution) for passing on our genes, proponents of NLT will argue that enjoyment is either not functional (some kind of random collateral?), or functional as a not-quite-final cause for the final cause of procreation (or, arguably, gene transference).

There is an interesting question as to why God would have made sex enjoyable given the moral paradigm. If it was to increase the chance of procreation then there is a tension here between the mechanism (the enjoyment if sex in promoting the desire to have sex) and the final cause with regard to moral behaviour. If it is morally bad to have sex outside of the purview of procreation then God has designed into the system of sexual reproduction a seriously effective temptation to be morally bad.

God appears to be saying, “Sex is enjoyable because I want you to desire to have sex in order that you fulfil the purpose of procreation. But if you do this enjoyable thing without the intention of procreation then you are morally bad [even though there appears to be no real negative consequences, prima facie, of doing so].” Or, “I am going to seriously tempt you and then punish you for being tempted!”

Arguably, a man and a woman (for purposes of simplicity since I don’t want to talk about homosexuality and NLT here) having sex within marriage is actually really positive for their relationship. Building up sexual pressure within both the partners is unhealthy for a sustainable relationship unless there is an easy and healthy way to have 50-odd kids.

Given that the initial process of sexual reproduction is so enjoyable, should this mean that people should be trying to have children as much as possible? The old idea that, tapped into by Monty Python, Catholics should have as many children as possible and that every sperm is sacred is kind of entailed in this.

Of course, we could enter the rabbit hole of population problems that come about from such a problem. We could no doubt come up with some optimal number of children human couples should have in terms of sustainability of the human race and the planet as a whole. This would again act as a constraint against the fact that sex is generally enjoyable. God has again designed into the system a tension concerning sex and procreation.

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August 10, 2019

I have talked several times before about the Netflix show, The Good Place. It’s a great show that popularises philosophy and packages it for the mass market. This can only be a good thing, in my eyes.

As the show comes to an end, the shows creator talks about the evolution of the idea for the show:

“I pitched this show as an investigation of what it meant to be a good person and found over the course of working on it with the writers and the actors and the entire crew that that’s an even more complicated question than I thought it was,” Schur said. “I thought in the beginning that the show could, if given the chance, describe what it meant to be a good person. That was my hope. And that didn’t mean do this and not that, it meant, ‘Here’s what a good person looks like in the world. Here’s how a person can feel like he or she led a good life.'”

But Schur’s intentions for the show shifted as he and the writers studied the work of philosophers who have expounded on what it means to be good. “What we found as we discussed it and wrote it and executed it is some very, very smart people over the last 3,000 years have had a lot of opinions about that question,” he said.

So the show’s true message evolved. It became: “We’re going to give you a bunch of options, and by the way, there are plenty more that we didn’t describe, but what’s important is that you try one of them,” Schur said. “That was sort of my internal shift over the course of making the show, a sort of newfound belief that the important thing wasn’t actually — and it’s counterintuitive to say this — being good. The important thing was that you’re trying. Because it feels like the huge problem, from my point of view, is that not enough people are trying. And trying means failing. Everyone fails all the time, even the people with the best intentions will fail. It doesn’t matter whether you follow this theory that or that theory or this belief or whatever — you’re going to fail a lot. We all fail all the time at this. And so, this is a long-winded saying: At the beginning, I pitched it as ‘what it means to be a good person,’ and at the end, I think I would describe this as a show that makes the argument that we all ought to try harder than we are, and as long as you’re trying, you’re on the right path.”

If you haven’t watched it, definitely check it out.

Morality is a massively complex field about which I have written a huge amount. If you have seen my recent pieces on conceptual nominalism with regard to rights (qua morality), you can guess where my feelings lie.

H/T C Peterson.


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