Charles Darwin vs. Thomas Aquinas: What Follows from Our Nature?

At his blog recently, Thomist philosopher Edward Feser wrote the following: “For Aquinas, what is good for us is necessarily good for us because it follows from our nature. As such, even God couldn’t change it, any more than he could make two and two equal to five.”

Yet what is “our nature,” and what is “good for us”? Here’s what Aquinas never knew: evolution.

But Walt Whitman knew it, and here’s what he wrote: “As the greatest lessons of Nature through the universe are perhaps the lessons of variety and freedom, the same present the greatest lessons also in New World politics and progress.” That’s the first sentence of Whitman’s “Democratic Vistas” (1867), written eight years after Charles Darwin wrote The Origin of Species (1859).

In other words, before there are Thomistic essences to be taken account of (“penises are for vaginas”; “women’s bodies are for reproduction”; “breasts are for infant feeding”), evolution tells us that, for the human animal, there is hijacking of purposes; cleverness; a variety of gambits; vistas reached where humans can see beyond Nature’s courses and inertias, and bypass them. Whitman’s “variety and freedom” translates in contemporary culture to things such as contraception, gender equality, and gay marriage.

Aquinas couldn’t have reasoned in a contemporary manner about these things because he didn’t know Darwin. That means Aquinas didn’t know what sort of animal he was even writing about. He knew none of our evolutionary history. He could no more talk sensibly about gender or homosexuality than he could about the nature of the stars. He was that far in the dark.

Something Aquinas didn’t know (for example) is that the large and modular human brain is often in conflict with itself; it doesn’t hold together in a single vision, or to one purpose. The reason for this is that different parts of the brain evolved in different contexts for different purposes. The brain has been generated by contingent history. If God exists, then God, through evolution, didn’t make the components of the human brain for pulling all in the same direction. There is competition within. So God made us impulse players; imaginative exploiters of the contingent moment; gamblers into the future, not just respecters of the past. We are nomads as well as settlers. We are evolution accelerators. If we have a central nature, that’s it. The hawk’s superpower is its eye; the human’s superpower is her clever hijacking of essences in the service of a larger vision; a grander evolutionary survival strategy. We see moves along the competitive chessboard of life that no other animal can even imagine, and we can choose.

So for Edward Feser to reason about human nature without taking full account of what we’ve learned about the brain after Darwin is problematic. To speak of essences in medieval terms, prior to submitting to the full deliverances of evolution and science as to what we are (and it’s a complicated picture) is folly. At one point in Edward Feser’s blog post, for instance, he speaks of the popes, scripture, and tradition as reasons for not budging on key issues surrounding sex and gender. But arguments from authority should not be the starting places for intellectual reasoning. In the 21st century, evolution should be that starting point. Evolution is, as the philosopher Daniel Dennett so aptly puts it, “a universal acid.” The Thomistic tradition Edward Feser appeals to, therefore, came into existence long before Darwin, and for it to retain any serious attention from the educated, it ought to be re-imagined in the light of Darwin. Real essences should be sought, not fake or outdated essences, and our real essence is the power to hijack other essences–other “givens” in Nature–to fresh purposes.

In final pushback to the Thomistic notion of what human nature is (the animal that rationally submits its will to God and the prior essences that God has established), I’d like to point to Sartre’s famous counter-slogan to the classical ontological-theological tradition: “existence precedes essence.” I’d also like to point to a quote from Matthew Arnold (1822-1888). Arnold’s quote comes from his “The Study of Poetry” (1888): “Our religion has materialized itself in the fact, and now the fact is failing it. But for poetry the idea is everything; the rest is a world of illusion, or divine illusion. Poetry attaches its emotion to the idea; the idea is the fact. The strongest part of our religion today is its unconscious poetry.”

Arnold’s quote most obviously suggests that religion needs to attend to the deliverances of science, and not be so literalist in its reading of ancient texts. It’s okay for Adam and Eve and Jesus, for instance, not to have existed. As with the story of the Buddha,  the biblical stories are powerful spurs to thought whether they really happened or not.

But Arnold’s quote is also rich with a larger implication: There is an alternative to obeying the Book and discovering what religious tradition takes to be Nature’s “essences.” Once we’ve unshackled our minds from authority, we can re-conceptualize ourselves as the poetic animal. Our imaginations and ideas can be less illusory than the rest of the world. Here’s Arnold again: “[F]or poetry the idea is everything; the rest is a world of illusion, or divine illusion.” In other words, we can hijack the world to our purposes. We can be less concerned with the classical reality vs. appearance distinction, and focus more on playing with appearances; on fashioning imaginative tools for working with appearances. We can make reality into a hippie happening, for our evolutionary superpower is to transform what is into things interesting, strange, novel, surprising, different.

If that’s a nervy prospect, one can always tip-toe back into the shadows where religion and superstition pitch their tents in essentialist terms, providing ready-made answers for frightened and sleepy travellers. But I prefer Darwin, Whitman, and Man Ray to Aquinas, fundamentalism, and Feser.

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If God is Rational, Whence the Holocaust and Competing Goods (Such as the Pursuit of Beauty over Ethics)?

Thomist philosopher Edward Feser prefers intellectualism (reason leading the will) to voluntarism (the will leading reason). He thinks that neither desire nor imagination should lead our wills, and claims that God, as the supremely rational being, ought to be our example: “[W]hat God wills and does is always rational or intelligible through and through,” whereas “an extreme voluntarist conception of God would regard him primarily as a Supreme Will,…On this sort of view, what God wills and does is not ultimately intelligible even in itself, for he is in no sense bound by rationality. He simply wills what he wills, arbitrarily or whimsically, and there is ultimately no sense to be made of it.”

But if God is as Edward Feser supposes–supremely rational and intelligible–then my questions become three:

  • Does the Holocaust fit best under intellectualism or voluntarism? In other words, in deciding between competing goods, was God being rational to prefer Hitler’s free will to the suffering of six million Jews?
  • Does God have the right answer for Antigone and Creon in terms of prioritizing and choosing between their competing goods? (For Antigone, it was to bury her brother vs. the State’s command that she not do so; for King Creon, as Head of State, it was to punish Antigone for insolence vs. give her mercy.)
  • If one devotes oneself to masturbation or art (private pleasures), rather than helping, say, gays and lesbians organize for equality and justice, is one being irrational?

It just seems to me that, clearly, if God exists, she is not Hegel, providing a direction to history through its Sturm und Drang. Instead, she appears to have set up the cosmos for whimsy and chaos; for the play of multiplicity, contingency, and competing goods, not for the business of working out a winner-take-all competition between the obviously good vs. the obviously evil.

The rational response then, would look to be to take our cue from God and be multiple ourselves; to not try to hold the impulses of our evolved brains and bodies in a single vision, but to be nomadic, unsettled, ironic and humorous (ala Monty Python’s “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life”). By all appearances, life really is “absurd, and death’s the final word,” and God thinks more like Proust (a novelist) than Aquinas (a theologian).

So it seems that God made the cosmos for whimsy, and has strewn the evidence for Her whimsy everywhere. Look, for instance, into the night sky. Astronomers tell us the moon itself is the ancient debris of a cataclysmic collision between two planets, Earth and Theia (in Greek myth, Theia is the mother of Selene, goddess of the moon). God, it appears, is speaking loud and clear, pointing at the moon like Dogen. Are we listening and looking?

If you think God is supremely rational, behold the Holocaust, behold the moon.

 

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Whatever Works: Pierce’s Abduction, Darwin’s Evolution, Entropy, Bayes’ Rule, and Rorty’s Pragmatism

I’ve recently been struck by the similarity between Charles Sanders Pierce’s notion of abduction (reasoning to the best hypothesis; “may the best hypothesis win”), Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution (survival of the fittest; “may the best organism win”), entropy (what time turns to shit; “may the most probable arrangement win”), Bayes’ Rule (what’s probable; “may the most probable theory win”); and Richard Rorty’s pragmatism (in this contingent moment, what’s useful; “may the best tool win”).

When reasoning, we often ignore abduction, evolution, entropy, probability, and contingency. Instead, we tend to practice confirmation bias. We look at the hits in favor of our beliefs, and ignore the misses. We imagine that our way of thinking is best, and ought to be universal, without really considering the competing alternatives or the history that brought us to our conclusions in the first place. We don’t think in terms of probabilities, but certainties, and we don’t historicize. We try to reason as if we are taking a “view from nowhere” (Thomas Nagel); as if we’re out of history.

We’re also not ironic about what we believe, but passionate.

Not so evolution. Evolution is about history. It is content to dice diversity and is indifferent to what wins or loses. We are earnest while evolution is ironic. Thus, my way of thinking and being (“My way works!”) is always going to come into competition with evolution’s other ways of thinking and being (“Whatever works!”). If your way is not the very, very best at what it claims to do, evolution, like entropy, will, impartially and slowly, but surely, undo it and put something else in its place.

I thus see evolution as history and nature’s way of doing Pierce’s abduction, arriving at the best working “hypotheses” for each contingent environment. It is oddly democratic; justice with a blindfold. The votes get counted. All of them. It is the entropy that wears down systems that are no longer useful, and it replaces them with more robust systems. Evolution swarms monomania, breaking it up. “The fox knows many things, the hedgehog one big thing.” Evolution is the fox of all foxes. Natural selection reveals the things that have the chops for survival; for what works best in any given ecosystem (biological, cultural, or intellectual).

So ask yourself: do my ideas and practices rise to the top in the 21st century?

Pretend you’re a Thomist, for example. With regard to Thomism, your answer is obviously no. In an open and competitive (as opposed to a protectionist) philosophical environment, Thomism fares poorly. Few professional philosophers today buy it, and for the past 400 years no genius philosopher has championed it. It’s why Thomism has gone from being the Google of the 15th century to a penny stock today. It still has a niche among intellectuals, but a narrow one.

So in the 21st century ecosystem of ideas and practices, where are yours? How do they fare as tools in the light of abduction, evolution, entropy, probability, and contingency?

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What Does It Mean To Be An Agnostic?

I’m an agnostic, which for me means the following: I take it that there is only one way the cosmos actually is, and I don’t know what that one way is. There are a gazillion logically possible ways it could be, but that one needle in the haystack eludes me. I therefore can work with appearances and probabilities, and say a multitude of interesting things about both, but I cannot lay claims to certainty.

Catholicism down to its last detail, for example, has a tiny probability of being true, and I can notice things and make observations about it without saying, “I’ve got the final word on this subject.” Or perhaps we live in a multiverse, or the simulation of a computer. It may be that mind and matter came into existence simultaneously. I don’t know.

What I actually can know are two things. First, I can interact with appearances and make observations, noticing relations and guessing at probabilities. Second, I can appreciate that it takes variety to make an interesting world, and not just work with my confirmation biases. I can talk to diverse groups of people to keep me on my toes.

So thank goodness there are Thomists, hedonists, leftists, materialists, Randians, and Hindus in the world. Things would be less interesting, not more so, without them. Each has a niche and notices different things about existence, and somebody has to be committed to perspectives different from my own–and long for the promises that accompany them. Without variety in belief, there would be threads of existence that would never get explored. It’s part of the gambit of evolution to give people different temperaments, proclivities (to be selfish or cooperative), interests, and beliefs (which are always related to actions).

Evolution is ironic, but with regard to our individual beliefs, we rarely are. And that makes for a lively world. And the Internet connects us in unprecedented ways, so we can talk to one another.

But as an agnostic, when someone comes under the spell of a belief, most especially a metaphysical belief, and says, “I now see the one reality behind the appearances,” I’m inclined to hear occultism and wishful thinking. How did that person get the spiritual or intellectual Horton ears denied to me, and then manage to pull out the one genuine signal from all the cosmic noise, attaining the ultimate truth? How did they get utterly beneath the appearance of things to arrive at the spookiest and most wondrous place of all, the absolute Ground of Being? Why do they think they’ve achieved so stupendous a feat? Hmm.

So to me it’s occultism. I doubt that the true believers have Horton ears, nor do I think it at all likely that they have the final truth, but I still want to hear what they have to say. There’s something true out there, but I don’t think anybody knows what that one truth is, and if they do know, well, how do they think they know? In all likelihood, if they’ve got it, they’ve stumbled on the needle-in-the-haystack truth, but might lose or diminish it in the next sentence that expresses their thoughts.

And yet they might be expressing something useful and interesting. And until the truth comes along, that will do.

So better, I think, to acknowledge our existential situation (we’re limited beings in a vast and ancient cosmos), and work with that as best we can. We should maintain some humility in assertion, and keep Galileo’s telescope pointing into the sky, hoping for more clues. That seems to me the best we can do when we’re not possessed by the fever and urgency to be certain.

And yet, paradoxically, if you’re not certain, or you never feel the urgency to arrive at certainty, you might not have the energy to work out lines of thought, and the life paths that accompany them, to their logical conclusions. If you’re agnostic and ironic about everything, you might not discover the value of a path that might have held up admirably under pressure, and actually been quite useful (if not completely corresponding to the absolute truth).

So I don’t know if it’s a good thing to be an agnostic all the time. But that’s the sort of person I mostly am. I’m happy to tell others to pursue “whatever works,” but most everything on offer looks like a dead end to me (“nothing works”). And the more a person expresses certitude–atheist or theist, left or right–the more I think, “Confidence game.”

There is a scene from the horror flick, Jacob’s Ladder (1990), that has long haunted me. A man is fleeing his demons, and he has tried every means of warding them off that he can think of. He wears crosses around his neck, garlic, Shivas, etc, and as he continues to be chased he finally stops running and says, “Nothing works.”

That, I think, is what it means to be an agnostic. It’s a way of putting an end to the running. It’s having a deep and abiding suspicion that, whatever one does to quell the suffering, emptiness, and anxiety that accompanies human existence, nothing on offer really works all that well. It’s being content to let others try their experiments, and you’re interested in observing their outcomes, but as for you, you keep your own options open and your bullshit detector set pretty high.

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Thomas Aquinas on Exterminating Heretics

In the Summa, Thomas Aquinas says that you can reason with someone who holds a different doctrine from yours so long as that person is open and searching. On the other hand, if the person persists in his view, and does not come around to the Orthodox position, it becomes a sin of willfulness on his part, and Aquinas is quite clear what is to happen in that instance (SMT SS Q[11] A[3] Body Para. 1/2):

I answer that, With regard to heretics two points must be observed: one, on their own side; the other, on the side of the Church. On their own side there is the sin, whereby they deserve not only to be separated from the Church by excommunication, but also to be severed from the world by death. For it is a much graver matter to corrupt the faith which quickens the soul, than to forge money, which supports temporal life. Wherefore if forgers of money and other evil-doers are forthwith condemned to death by the secular authority, much more reason is there for heretics, as soon as they are convicted of heresy, to be not only excommunicated but even put to death. On the part of the Church, however, there is mercy which looks to the conversion of the wanderer, wherefore she condemns not at once, but “after the first and second admonition,” as the Apostle directs: after that, if he is yet stubborn, the Church no longer hoping for his conversion, looks to the salvation of others, by excommunicating him and separating him from the Church, and furthermore delivers him to the secular tribunal to be exterminated thereby from the world by death.

Aquinas’s use of the word “exterminated” here is particularly chilly. Thank goodness we live in a secular age with the separation of Church and State.

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The Principle of Sufficient Reason and the Holocaust

Here’s the problem concerning the principle of sufficient reason. If one posits that God has a good and sufficient reason for having allowed the Holocaust, the follow-up question obviously becomes, “Well, what is it?” Any particular answer proves woefully inadequate, ludicrous to contemplate, or even just plain morally abominable. Sometimes it even leads to a reductio ad absurdum. And when this is pointed out, the response simply shifts to something else, which on inspection is equally inadequate or grotesque.

So talking about God’s morally sufficient reason for allowing the Holocaust is akin to speaking to the ontological mystery (the mystery of being) itself. It’s incomprehensible. You can’t reach it. But with regard to the Holocaust, maybe you can’t reach this sufficient reason because it doesn’t actually exist. And if there is no morally sufficient reason for God permitting the Holocaust to happen, and the Holocaust nevertheless happened, then the theistic project itself collapses, for God is supposed to be all good and powerful.

That’s why it’s important to ask, “What was God’s morally sufficient reason for the Holocaust?” If you can’t think of any, what’s left of theism? Silence perhaps, like Thomas Aquinas adopted at the end of his life, or simple fideism? Belief in God after the Holocaust, it appears, requires a leap of faith that deliberately runs contrary to human reason.

Is there really any other theistic alternative? A command theory of God (whatever is, is right, so stop asking questions)? I don’t think so.

So if you’re a theist, where do you go intellectually after the Shoah? After WWII and the Holocaust, Albert Camus thought the first question of philosophy was whether or not to commit suicide. For the religious believer, I think the first question has to be, “What can one believe about God after the Holocaust?”

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Who Is William Blake, Really?

William Blake is a poet, not a metaphysician. When someone writes with aphorism, irony, and wild and flamboyant system building (as Blake and Nietzsche did), they are mocking essentialism; they’re showing that language is infinite; that there are a gazillion ways to describe the world, and they’ve just created a new way to talk about it.

Blake is human evolution “LIVE!” and in action; the infinite imagination on the move. Blake puts on display as provocation and reminder the evolutionary superpower we have been given for redescribing things. We have, as individuals, the power to ignore what outside authorities take to be the essence of things, and to notice something else. Like Adam, we ourselves have the power to name the animals. It is human therefore to reach for the “disordered” and “abnormal”; to gamble in the direction of overgoing what is.

There’s no final language for this process, there’s only Blake (and people like Blake). There’s no pointing to a final essence with a final vocabulary, so to stop at a language like, say, Catholic Thomism is to lack sui generis individuality and imagination. It’s to stop growing.

Catholic Thomism started as a new language; a giddy incorporation of Aristotle into Christianity. What an adventure. But now it has solidified into the cranky rejection of women’s equality for the priesthood and no gay marriage. What a come down. How obviously it has veered into a ditch.

But there is only art. Blake’s Jesus is an artist, not an essentialist. Blake’s Jesus points to the moon, not to essences. The moon is always accompanied by an elipsis, like Walt Whitman’s grass. “What is the grass? The grass is x… and now it’s this, and now it’s that, and now it’s the flag of my disposition, and now it’s the uncut hair of graves, and now it’s…” There are no essences, only descriptions. If you tighten the noose of essences around Blake and Whitman, you lose Blake and Whitman (and tame poetry in general, and the danger that poetry represents to all systems, which are themselves tropes for essences).

This is why Plato didn’t want poets in his Republic. They were dangerous. They didn’t mirror the one truth that Plato thought he had grasped. They didn’t tell the TRUTH; they didn’t fit into the societal structure oriented to the TRUTH.

Poets have always reminded people that talking differently is possible; that the ontological mystery–the mystery of being itself–can’t be grasped in a final vocabulary; that when a poet points and speaks to the ontological mystery, that it must necessarily fail because the ontological mystery cannot be pinned down. (I’m using the Catholic existentialist Gabriel Marcel’s phrase, “ontological mystery,” in case you’re wondering where that phrase is from.)

In any case, this inability to pin down the ontological mystery is like human nature itself. As Sartre said, we are existence before essence. It’s the superpower evolution has given us, to be an open platform. It’s our evolutionary strategy, to not act on instinct, but to creatively re-purpose nature and culture.

All poets thus remind us of the possibilities of the open platform–and hence of the problem with essentialist metaphysics and cultural inertia. Blake and all poets are the children of evolution and revolution.

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What are Sex Organs “For”? Thomism vs. Evolution

We know that evolution high-jacks organs all the time to different purposes depending on context. The first tongue may have had the singular purpose of tasting, then it got used by the cat for cleaning the pelt, then by humans for speech and sex, etc.

So nothing evolution evolves is “settled” in the sense that the way one generation uses an organ is the way the next generation ought to use an organ (think of the penguin’s wing, which started as a tool for flying, then got hijacked by evolutionary imperatives as a tool for swimming).

And now evolution has evolved the human big brain. The human big brain accelerates old-school biological evolution by creatively hi-jacking everything around it. That seems to be what a human brain is: a clever over-comer of natural states and functions by putting them to ends other than those they came into existence for.

So if God says, “I made pain in child-bearing a curse for original sin,” God also seems to say, “I made humans with big brains for figuring out how to get around this issue by injecting epidurals into the spine.”

And if God says, “I made the penis for ejaculating semen into the vagina,” God also seems to be saying, “And I made big brains for figuring out how to bypass traditional reproduction completely, and make use of sex primarily for pleasure, joy, love, and bonding.”

Thomistic ethical premises are grounded in a too-simplified notion of what can be read off of a fact of nature. Evolution doesn’t limit its options in the use of an organ, and so it’s question begging as to why we should either. One can’t appeal to nature and at the same time not notice how evolutionary nature actually works.

I realize this ungrounds ethics from objectivity of the sort we can bring to things like particle physics. But God has not given us a map for this territory (unfortunately). We don’t discover ethics “out there” like we discover electrons “out there.”

It’s why ethics should keep going back to love, not Thomistic essences. If the motive for actions can be linked to the better angels of our nature (love, curiosity, kindness, joy, etc.), that should transcend any claim as to what organs are “for.”

Thus gay marriage would seem to be an obvious example of how the Thomist strains out a gnat (how the sex organs function in reproduction) and swallows the camel (how big brain humans hijack evolution; it’s central to their nature to do so).

But if you’re moving toward love, you’re moving toward God (if God exists). To try to ground moral choices in nature’s nature, as opposed to God’s nature (love), is to run into problems with evolutionary hijacking. If you know evolution hijacks, then you can’t say what an organ is “for” in a universal context.

Let love rule.

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What Love Is (A Definition)

What is love?

I’d basically put it among the very broad family of “the better angels of our nature,” and in the genus of “seeking connection, harmony, and cooperation in a non-zero sum way.” As to the species of this genus, I’d call love “an emotion that draws us into a larger circle of inclusion over exclusion; a willingness to take risks of inclusion, even at risk to ourselves.”

Life, from the first cell to us, always asks as its first question, “What’s in, what’s out?” Every living thing has a border, a skin. It’s a bit like Thomas Aquinas’ essentialism: “What’s this like, what’s this not like? What makes this unique from everything else in the cosmos?”

The positive emotions and joys of the distinguishing intellect prompts the Thomistic will, but then love prompts us back towards bringing what we’ve established as “out,” in (or back in).

So once we have gotten very precise, and made our fine distinctions, and put up our walls of who (and what) is in and out, what then can we reintegrate into the circle of good, beauty, inclusion, kindness, and joy?

Ram Das used to keep a photo of Caspar Weinberger (Reagan’s defense secretary) on his puja table alongside Christ, Krishna, and Buddha. Each morning he would light a candle to all of them. It was a reminder of the spiritual work he still needed to do. It’s easy to love the lovable, but those you find hard to love, that’s the work. Putting an image of your enemy on a puja table is an imaginative attempt at reorienting to love; of risking incorporation.

It’s the evolutionary strategy of the hippie bonobo, not the go-it-alone shark.

That’s what love is.

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Thomistic Essentialism and Sex in the Real World

Virtually every healthy human adult on the planet has a sex life of some sort, and the effect of Thomistic sexual ideology (use sex organs for procreation only), were it to be seriously followed everywhere, would be the generation of larger families. There’s a reason that those promoting a deceleration of population growth globally see problems with the Catholic Church’s stance on condom distribution in poorer countries (for example).

I don’t necessarily agree with those promoting population deceleration, but the effect of religious ideologies on the question is clear (most especially in Islam and Christianity).

By 2100 demographers tell us that 90% of the human population will live in cities. Urban mores are simply not very conducive to the sorts of sex restrictions promoted by traditional Thomism. Niche groups of Catholic conservatives might be able to maintain the old time religious values on sex, but it’s largely unattractive (and too difficult) for most.

Perhaps the model for future Catholics will be to study the Hasidic enclaves in New York, for how does one maintain traditional Catholic values in the midst of big cities? The shutting of 50 parishes around NYC this past week suggests it isn’t easy.

Catholicism works best (obviously) for rural societies where women are not equal to men and teens are married off by age 15. The lives of women professionally would be profoundly restricted by adopting Thomistic notions surrounding sex, and the urban future is going to belong to white collar women delaying and controlling their fertility for careers, etc. (The demographics and sociology of this is well covered in Hanna Rosin’s book, The End of Men.)

But it’s also obvious that there needs to be people in the world who believe deeply in an ideology of reproduction and big families. Western countries are trying to strike a balance here. Gays and women (for example) are protected in their rights for the first time in human history, and those who want to raise large families and adhere to old school religious ideologies like Thomism are free to do their thing as well. Let freedom ring.

My own evolving take is that, much as I think it would advance the liberty of gay Catholics to have a religion that let them marry within the Church, there’s also a part of me that says the following: Catholicism has evolved a pretty successful cultural strategy for maintaining its percentage of population at around 15-20% of the globe, and somebody’s going to need to make babies in the West if too many urban professionals largely opt out. So let a thousand evolutionary strategies bloom. The big brain can do its thing in the city centers, science labs, universities, and marketplaces, and religious communities can reify their way of life as the “best and most natural.” In this way, our species benefits from the best of both worlds. Let gays, professional women, and traditionalists bloom. It’s the sort of “rapprochement” that is evolving anyway. Who’s going to stop it? Why would we want to?

And within the Church itself, it may be too much to expect traditionalists to not jump ship if Thomistic essentialism is abandoned or relaxed too much. Conservative Catholicism is at bottom patriarchal and oriented to making large families. It’s attractive to conservatives for these reasons. Conservatives don’t want women priests, gay marriage, divorced people taking communion, teens masturbating without guilt, etc., and they’ll vote with their feet and funds if the Catholic Church ever goes down such a road.

The bottom line here (for me) is that Thomists may be correct that things have “real essences,” but when it comes to the real essence of the human brain and what should be its prerogatives and orientations, the question is by no means straightforward, but complicated, and to acknowledge the degree of complication underlying our own evolutionary strategy (delay fertility for longer goals, etc.) would decelerate the Catholic population. Thomists therefore simplify narratives around the “right use” of the brain, penis, and vagina in a way that doesn’t rock the demographic and traditionalist boat for Catholicism, thereby committing them to a form of fake essentialism on matters of sex.

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Sex, Thomistic Essentialism, and the Demographic Maintenance of the Catholic Church

With regard to sex, Thomism is a question-begging exercise that puts a veneer of essentialist metaphysics over the question, “Why is God upset if humans don’t make use of their sex organs in accord with their primary and essential function?”

The metaphysics on offer to this question is the magician’s left hand distracting you from what is going on in the magician’s right hand.

What’s going on in the magician’s right hand is demographic maintenance. A religion like Catholicism survives by goosing the ideology of big families, and promoting it as dogma. To maintain 15-20% of the global population as Catholic, you’ve got to try to match the fertility rates of competing ideologies, such as Islam, which has a very high birth rate.

So the reason Thomists can’t reason their way out of the pretzel of their metaphysics surrounding sex is because it would cause the demographic decline of Catholicism globally. Thus the whole Thomistic scene is constricted, not by truth (real essentialism), but by demography (and the requisite fake essentialism necessary to support high birth rates among Catholics).

This translates into gay marriage as a threat, masturbation as a threat, gender equality as a threat, working women as a threat, divorce and pornography as a threat, etc.

The very same demographic concerns that got Thomistic sexual philosophizing going in the 14th century (the struggle to maintain population) are playing themselves out as a subtext to the contemporary freak-out over gay marriage and the revisiting of Catholic sexual practices.

Unlike the 14th century, it’s not global population experiencing downward pressure, but Catholic population. Thomists imagine that they’re doing metaphysics in a demographic vacuum divorced from history. They think they’re reasoning their way objectively to the truth, discovering what God wants done surrounding sex (for example). The truth is that their intellect project is driven by the will to replicate an institutional system. Thus in the arguments for keeping sex procreative, the individual will is derogated to the intellect, while the intellect is subtly directed to justifying the dogma of the institution, with the institutional will cunningly concealed.

That will is reproduction.

It’s why Thomism always manages to find exactly what it’s searching for. As if by magic, the conclusions somehow manage to track seamlessly with the dogmas of the Church. If they didn’t, this would happen globally:

http://www.nytimes.com/2014/10/31/nyregion/as-archdiocese-prepares-to-reorganize-churches-parishioners-hope-theirs-will-be-saved.html?ref=nyregion&_r=0

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Love, Thomism, Jews, and Gay Marriage

Love is what you bring into your circle of concern. You value it for your own happiness and the happiness of the other. It’s what you’ve found a way to work with rather than wall yourself off from, marginalize, and demonize–and this thereby evokes the better angels of your nature. It creates a virtuous cycle of ever greater peace, cooperation, and tolerance in the world.

Pope Francis tried to move recently in the direction of love with gays, attempting to “welcome” them into fellowship, and to recognize their “gifts,” and this received vigorous resistance from those focused, not on love, but on fear of God’s anger at humans not using the essential forms of their sex organs in accordance with their primary function (procreation).

But Francis was trying to avoid Thomas Aquinas’s error with the Jews, which proved a devastating and historic failure of love. Aquinas could not work with Jews as insiders within Christendom, but determined to treat them as outsiders and outside of God’s circle of grace. He referred to Jews specifically as “outsiders” and advised the Countess of Flanders in a 1271 letter to continue an exclusionary policy towards them: “[I]t is good that Jews throughout your province are compelled to wear a sign distinguishing them from Christians. The reply to this is plain: that, according to a statute of the general Council, Jews of each sex in all Christian provinces, and all the time, should be distinguished from other people by some clothing.”

This custom of course blocked assimilation of Jews in Europe. It was a historic “love fail” in the heart of Christian Europe. The Jews’ fellowship and gifts were pushed away by Christians, and the cycle of the worse angels of human nature came to the fore and proceeded from thence.

Distinctions were being made that blocked the workings of love.

Thus when we focus on something other than the circle of love in formulating our ethics, we run the risk of failing to reality test, and of failing to respond with a sense of proportion.

So it is with gay marriage. There is the danger among contemporary Thomists of straining out the gnat to swallow the camel; of making distinctions that block the working of love. By focusing on essentialism as opposed to love, one risks evoking the worse angels of human nature with regard to a whole class of people.

This is potentially a far worse sin than any that married gays or lesbians might (supposedly) commit in the bedroom.

In Aquinas’ letter to the Countess of Flanders is also this sentence: “This [wearing of an identifying marker] is also mandated to them [the Jews] by their own law, namely that they make for themselves fringes on the four corners of their cloaks, through which they are distinguished from others.”

In other words, Thomas justified his callousness and “love-fail” toward Jews by basically saying, “Hey, they have distinguishing manners of dress anyway, so it’s okay to force on them an insignia of our own dominance and control.”

The force of Thomas’ recommendation to the Countess of Flanders is thus not weakened by the additional sentence, but actually illustrates the question-begging entailed in Thomas’s advice. If Jews are already distinguishable by dress, why heighten distinctions even more?

Clearly, the purpose of Christians marking Jews off with a yellow star was to assure that if Jews wanted to ever pass as non-Jews they would be breaking the law. Thomas was boxing Jews in. If the Jewish community, or individual Jews, were to ever seek greater assimilation with Christians, or dress like Christians, the required yellow star would prevent them from doing so. They could never be permitted to pass as part of the “in group.”

This is why the opposition to Pope Francis’s desire to “welcome” gays and acknowledge their “gifts” within the Catholic Church is so noxious. Wherever religion is drawing us away from an expanding circle of love, something is wrong. The very controversy reveals a heart of darkness lurking in the contemporary Catholic Church. Gay equality and marriage is not about trying to sacrifice truth or the right not to associate to one group’s civil rights. People have to come toward each other from both directions, and with a sense of respect, dignity, and equality. Nobody should be forced. Respect for conscience dictates that people should not be forced.

But somebody also has to go first. Francis, in trying to “welcome” gays and recognize their “gifts,” took a step forward. And gay Catholics who want to marry are saying, “We want some formal structure to the expressions of our relationships and sexual desires.” That’s a step as well.

Working with gay people–dialoguing with them, welcoming them, etc.–is work. It’s the work of love. Imagine how different the history of Europe might have gone had Thomas advocated the assimilation of Jews into Christendom, not via conversion, but simply in fellowship, welcoming them with equality and noticing their gifts?

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What are Sex Organs “For”? Thomism vs. Evolution

We know that evolution high-jacks organs all the time to different purposes depending on context. The first tongue may have had the singular purpose of tasting, then it got used by the cat for cleaning the pelt, then by humans for speech and sex, etc.

So nothing evolution evolves is “settled” in the sense that the way one generation uses an organ is the way the next generation ought to use an organ (think of the penguin’s wing, which started as a tool for flying, then got hijacked by evolutionary imperatives as a tool for swimming).

And now evolution has evolved the human big brain. The human big brain accelerates old-school biological evolution by creatively hi-jacking everything around it. That seems to be what a human brain is: a clever over-comer of natural states and functions by putting them to ends other than those they came into existence for.

So if God says, “I made pain in child-bearing a curse for original sin,” God also seems to say, “I made humans with big brains for figuring out how to get around this issue by injecting epidurals into the spine.”

And if God says, “I made the penis for ejaculating semen into the vagina,” God also seems to be saying, “And I made big brains for figuring out how to bypass traditional reproduction completely, and make use of sex primarily for pleasure, joy, love, and bonding.”

Thomistic ethical premises are grounded in a too-simplified notion of what can be read off of a fact of nature. Evolution doesn’t limit its options in the use of an organ, and so it’s question begging as to why we should either. One can’t appeal to nature and at the same time not notice how evolutionary nature actually works.

I realize this ungrounds ethics from objectivity of the sort we can bring to things like particle physics. But God has not given us a map for this territory (unfortunately). We don’t discover ethics “out there” like we discover electrons “out there.”

It’s why ethics should keep going back to love, not Thomistic essences. If the motive for actions can be linked to the better angels of our nature (love, curiosity, kindness, joy, etc.), that should transcend any claim as to what organs are “for.”

Thus gay marriage would seem to be an obvious example of how the Thomist strains out a gnat (how the sex organs function in reproduction) and swallows the camel (how big brain humans hijack evolution; it’s central to their nature to do so).

But if you’re moving toward love, you’re moving toward God (if God exists). To try to ground moral choices in nature’s nature, as opposed to God’s nature (love), is to run into problems with evolutionary hijacking. If you know evolution hijacks, then you can’t say what an organ is “for” in a universal context.

Let love rule.

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What’s Really Essential About Us? Do Thomists Get This Right?

If we’re heterosexual, God, nature, and evolution have conspired heavy against us in terms of what our essential function is from the age of 13 forward, which is to procreate.

But we don’t conform to this aspect of our essential nature BECAUSE WE’VE GOT BIG BRAINS, and most of us choose not to marry and raise children until the age of about 27. Our big brains desire education, sexual novelty, and other adventures, such as travel, that override our more primitive biological natures to get on with reproduction. Many of these delays in marriage and reproduction are grounded in our natural desire to seek pleasure, learning, meaning, aesthetic experience, travel, writing, public esteem, mastery of a skill, cinema, play, sports, social scenes, music, dancing, etc.

These are all fun. They’re not driven by discipline and harshness, but a longing for novelty and joy. That’s our essential nature; it’s what it means to be a young and big brained primate. It’s how God made us (if you want to put it this way). Eros, energy, and exploration are at their heights. We’re in the realm of Walt Whitman from the ages of 13 to 27.

What is therefore most essential about us as humans is our big brained creativity, curiosity, and power to drive cultural and technological evolution much, much faster than old-school evolution. This makes for difficulties keeping up. Thomistic essentializing and grousing about “the culture these days” is a tortoise chasing a speeding train.

Hence Thomism can ludicrously propose no sex–none!–and not even self-stimulation, from 13 to 27 (or longer, if you wait till your 30s to marry). It’s completely out of touch with reality, with what we are most essentially; with WHAT God made us and HOW God made us, which is by evolution building parts onto parts, and modules onto modules. Many of these parts and modules pull in different directions, and our big brains choose from among them, as from a menu of options).

So what’s essential here? Nothing. Evolution and God made one thing in the cosmos (it appears) that strongly, strongly transcends instinct and essence, and can drive evolution much quicker than biology: us.

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Thomas Aquinas Says We Are Children of Wrath. Is He Right?

In the fourth book of Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Contra Gentiles, chapter 52, there is quite a dark vision of the world on display. At one point, for example, Aquinas, echoing the apostle Paul, speaks of all humanity as “children of wrath.” God, in other words, is mad at us and is actively allowing our ongoing punishment for original sin (the sin of Adam and Eve).

According to Thomas, there was a time when God supernaturally and actively protected Adam and Eve from corruption, suffering, and death. It was a grace, a gift that God gave his two new creatures. God didn’t have to do it, but he actively, in each moment, did it.

Then they sinned.

From that point forward, God withdrew this grace from even their descendants, placing the whole species “under wrath.” It’s a bleak view of God. It’s a bleak view of humanity.

And in this same chapter, Aquinas asks whether Jesus got infected (as we have) with Adam and Eve’s corruption. He argues not (the Virgin birth, and all).

Thomas also makes reference to intercourse, and discusses whether it is protected from being a sinful act. He says it is, but only if a person has taken certain personal graces from Christ and the Church.

But what if Thomas has started his reasoning about what’s essential about humanity in the wrong place? What if Thomas’s essentialism is FAKE ESSENTIALISM as opposed to REAL ESSENTIALISM (what we really are, and what things really are)?

So much depends on how you start the engine of your syllogisms to running.

If death has always been in the cosmos (long before Adam and Eve hit the scene), and there was in fact no Adam and Eve who lived in Mesopotamia 6,000 years ago (as science clearly tells us), then what’s really essential about us? Really, really essential?

Maybe it’s something quite different from what Aquinas ever imagined. Maybe God’s not mad at us. Maybe God’s not there at all.

Which is worse, to imagine oneself a child of wrath with an escape hatch in salvation through Christ and the Church (however delusional this belief is), or to imagine oneself as a vulnerable primate in a vast and ancient cosmos without design or God?

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Brute Facts and Sufficient Reasons

The most brute fact of all is learning that we will die, which we then cast about for an explanation that will sufficiently account for this fact: “As in, forever? Does someone will this death of mine?”

In our searching for a sufficient explanation, we immediately discover three grave difficulties to confident investigation:

(1) God is not talking.

(2) If God made us and lets us die for a purpose, it seems to be an opaque one, for we are quite belated, arriving late on the cosmic scene, an evolved primate adrift precariously on an unfriendly planet in a vast ocean of lifeless and empty space.

(3) Being evolved primates of limited intelligence with powerful instinctual desires and aversions–among them, the fear of death and a longing to live forever–we have trouble thinking clearly. (Orwell famously said, “To see what is in front of one’s nose requires a constant effort.” He said this precisely because it is so difficult to eliminate the static of our desires, aversions, biases, etc.)

Add to these difficulties the problem of seemingly senseless suffering, illustrated most vividly in the contemplation of evolution, the Holocaust, and tsunamis that can wash away 100,000 people in a single hour (240,000 people died in the Indian Ocean Christmas tsunami of 2004 alone).

So this is the great brute fact: we die, and we must face this in the presence of other facts: (1) the evolutionary cosmos is vast and old, and will go on quite fine without us; (2) there is great suffering; (3) our cognitive capacities are severely limited; and (4) God is not speaking. We search for a sufficient reason for our life and approaching death, and find the ones on offer deficient.

Maybe there is no ultimate or sufficient reason at all. What then?

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Is God A Brute Fact Or Does God Not Exist?

If God exists, why is there some Being rather than no Being?

Put another way, with regard to the existence of contingent beings (“Why is there something rather than nothing?”), God presumably functions as the necessary and sufficient cause for those contingent beings. But on the principle of sufficient reason, God has no reason for being Herself.

So the answer to the question, “Why is there some Being rather than no Being?” has no answer. If God exists, God is a brute fact.

Thus wherever there are contingent beings, THEN it would appear that a singular, unified, necessary Being must exist to end the infinite regress of causes. There must be a necessary cause of some sort. But that necessary Being itself has no reason to exist prior to the creation of those contingent beings. There could have been no Being rather than that one Being.

Therefore, the existence of God does not square with the principle of sufficient reason. God is either a brute fact without a sufficient cause Herself, or She simply does not exist.

But then what is the necessary cause for contingent beings?

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Could Gay Marriage Drive A Revolution In Thomistic Thought?

At his blog, Thomist philosopher Edward Feser quotes Michael Levin as saying: “What homosexual rights activists really want [from anti-discrimination laws] is not [merely] access to jobs but legitimation of their homosexuality.”

This is a distraction. The motive of activists is not what should be at issue, but what is right and true.

Perhaps Thomists should reevaluate the premises underlying their current opposition to homosexuality. Maybe the reasoning supporting the traditional view is wrong. And scientists increasingly inform these discussions, and need to be consulted.

Feser thinks the approval of gay marriage would require a revolution within Thomistic thought. But maybe that revolution is overdue.

In any case, the issue is far too serious to make it a face-off between liberal and conservative. Creative intellectual work needs to be done on whether a Thomistic case for same sex marriage is feasible and defensible.

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Sexual Prohibitions Require Justification

At his blog, Thomist philosopher Edward Feser recently wrote the following: “Sexual desire is extremely powerful and the demands of sexual morality an especially irksome imposition on the will. Hence the tendency of liberalism is to try as far as possible to eliminate or at least soften and minimize the importance of such demands.”

But who cares what liberals are trying to do in terms of eliminating or softening sexual moral demands?

The questions that should not be lost here are these:

(1) Are the sexual prohibitions placed on people justified (from masturbation, to contraception, to gay marriage)?

(2) Are Thomists begging the question when they essentialize marriage as centered in reproduction, raising children, and promoting family?

(3) Can marriage be redefined under Thomist assumptions in a way that is oriented toward love as the essential core of it? And if it can be, why shouldn’t it be done?

The focus on liberalism and the Church’s inside baseball in Feser’s post distracts from a direct grappling with these questions. If you oppose sex for pleasure and gay marriage, you need to justify those positions, not obscure the issues by gaming the motives and politics surrounding the debate. That’s blue pipe smoke cast over the intellectual chessboard.

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Does The Cosmos Have A Purpose?

I see no evidence that the cosmos has an end to which it is tending. It’s vast and old, violent and evolving. It appears to care not for us. (Auden captured this beautifully in his poem, “Musee des Beaux Arts.”)

Gravity, for example, brings new stars into existence even as others die and explode. The cosmos doesn’t seem to be tending toward any purpose. And we’re late comers to the whole process. Even our star is a late comer. Others stars came and went long before ours even got here. So the cosmos’ end, if it has one, certainly does not appear to be us. The Holocaust doesn’t help the purpose thesis here. (I’m thinking of Camus’ perspective after WWII.)

If God exists, there may be some inscrutable goal and value to which the cosmos is tending, but again, it doesn’t appear to be focused on us, or anything we can understand. Why, for example, did God use three billion years of death and competition to generate life’s current complexity on our planet? Why make such exquisite cellular machines only to have them EAT one another? Why bring into existence whole species and ecosystems, then wipe them out? (There have been numerous mass extinctions in Earth’s history.) It just makes no sense.

If there was evidence that the cosmos was: (1) young, (2) small, (3) revolved around planet Earth, and (4) daily produced inexplicable and miraculous events, one would reasonably conclude that something purposeful and supernatural was up, even with God not talking. And if each animal appeared to be specially created, that would be interesting. But none of this is the case. And God isn’t talking.

Nevertheless, the fact that there is life and mind in the material cosmos at all is stunning, so maybe something purposeful is up after all. I don’t know.

What evidence would you point to that ought to incline one to believe the cosmos tends to some supernatural purpose?

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