Form v. Change: Gay Marriage, Thomism, Capitalism, and Evolution

I’ve had a modest insight: the dividing line that I’ve been trying to articulate between Thomists and myself surrounding gay marriage can actually be pretty succinctly stated: Thomists take clues from the nature of form to guide them in how an issue ought to be navigated, and I’m arguing that we should take clues from the nature of change.

Whether it’s woman’s “end” or the penis’s, both appeal to aspects of nature that we actually observe, but one leads to an argument for heterosexual conformity (follow the given, or an ideal derived from the given, or a Golden Mean), while the other appeals to allowances for nature’s dicing of diversity (variant expression along a continuum).

The Thomist position is grounded in hubris (one can know the right thing to do; one size fits all); mine is grounded in epistemic humility (we don’t really know how the contingent inner logic of a variant might actually benefit the organism in its contingent environment, and thus how the future might play out if we take a hands-off or “let it be” approach to its expression).

Both of us are reasoning from how we take nature to be most essentially (form v. evolutionary change), and are deriving, from our particular emphasis, an ought (generally follow the Golden Mean vs. generally allow for the Invisible Hand of evolution).

In practice, of course, both form and change come under consideration whenever we try to navigate a situation. Just like we, in a mixed economy, leave capitalism to itself unless it’s obviously running over a cliff (such as with the banking crisis), so we do the same with evolutionary diversity (pedophilia as a sexual variation along the human continuum of sexual preference is a “Big No,” gay marriage is a “Tolerable Yes” that we can be presumptively neutral about; let the experiment take place, as with marijuana legalization, and see how it plays out).

Or at least I think gay marriage should be a yes.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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19 Responses to Form v. Change: Gay Marriage, Thomism, Capitalism, and Evolution

  1. andrewclunn says:

    So basically, “If it’s not hurting anybody, leave it be,” which seems fairly laissez-faire. Of course then you realize that perhaps there are long range consequences. Take environmental protections for example. Acid rain is hurting people, so is ozone depletion, so you pass laws, totally fits. What about carbon emissions though? To have any chance of stopping the long term consequences, you need to take action long before anyone is clearly being harmed by it. The same could be said for genetic modification of crops, or nuclear power.

    I’m not saying I support strict controls on those (you know me better than that), but the lien of thinking that you’re going down in this post will lead you to a much more libertarian place than I know you really are. So before writing off the Thomist position entirely, reflect on whether their opposition to a thing might not be based on the thing itself, or ignorant of how things change, but motivated by an understanding of how they change, and really coming from an attempt to fend off long term consequences of that change.

    • Santi Tafarella says:

      Yes, I agree with you, Andrew, that it’s generally the conservative v. liberal disposition toward change generally that underlies debate between Thomistic form v. evolution.

  2. Alan says:

    As I have noted elsewhere, my issue with Natural Law Theory is how they misrepresent what is ‘natural’ for humans. Your embrace of ‘change’, however, is problematic as most alternatives to the norm are hazardous. Diversity, on the other hand, is essential for a robust species, and constructive change is necessary to avoid stagnation.

  3. Anonymous says:

    I wonder why you think evolution contradicts Thomism when no expert in Thomism thinks that.

    • Santi Tafarella says:

      Because Thomists bracket evolution away from metaphysics. Reality testing doesn’t get in. It’s a way of blinkering oneself. They focus on form, not on change.

      • Alan says:

        Vernacular dystrophy. They seem to deliberately choose their words to be archaic, confounding and ambiguous towards evolution as to minimize argument with creation supporters who sometimes ignore the hint. Most of the Thomist fans at Feser’s blog are adamant evolutionists.

      • Anonymous says:

        On the contrary, Thomist metaphysics do not bracket evolution away from anything. They see no contradiction in evolution regarding the basic premise of act/potency regarding change. How odd to say they don’t consider change when that is the actual starting point and solution to the Parmenides vs Heraclitus to A-T philosophy. They hold that things have actual forms that can change as there natural potentials are actualized.

        Do you subscribe to Heraclitian philosophy then? There is only change and each moment everything in existence goes out of existence to be replaced with something entirely new?

        But really this response seems more like a complaint than an explanation of where you see the contradiction and Thomists don’t.

  4. Anonymous says:

    Regarding the terminology. No doubt, technical terminology of any specialized branch of study is difficult to outsiders, especially for a branch that is presently out of favor with the mainstream.

    However, metaphysics is more fundamental than physics and provides the framework for science. Science on the other hand uses metaphysical principles, observation and experiment to check current theories against current knowledge. It makes sense for metaphysics to examine new scientific theories to see if they conform to metaphysical principles, but it doesn’t make sense to pronounce any particular winners from the latest scientific theories as long they all conform to the basic principles.

    So for example, any scientific theory that contradicts the scientific method would seem metaphysically wrong to a Thomist. On the other hand, the Big-Bang theory contradicts the Steady State theory, but neither contradict Thomist metaphysics.

    • Santi Tafarella says:

      Anonymous and Alan:

      I’m playing catch-up here. Sorry for the late reply. Always appreciate your thoughts.

      As to Heraclitus, I’m trying to suggest a middle way between Thomists and Heraclitus (and Darwin). I don’t think you’ve addressed my central claim: Thomists stop their reasoning about the good use of the penis (for example) at form. Reproduction only. It halts without reflection on evolutionary change, and how behavior exploits form to purposes other than the form’s most essential usage. A foot, for example, is not just for locomotion along the ground. It can be used in sex, it can be ornamented, it can be kissed as a symbol of submission, it can peddle a bike, it can hold a flag between the toes and wave it, etc.

      I’m interested in WHY the Thomist starts and stops his reasoning at the places that he does. The Thomist (it seems) always conveniently spits out an answer sympatico with Church doctrine–suggesting psychological stopping points, not necessary ones. I don’t think Thomists are sufficiently cautious about their own embeddedness, downplaying psychology and historicism in how they’ve arrived at a corpus of fixed conclusions. They’re too adamant that their metaphysical conclusions can float free of reality testing.

      Thus when Anonymous says Thomists have change all worked out, and have thought it through, I see it as a papering over and settling of issues prematurely.

  5. Anonymous says:

    Perhaps your definition of form differs from the Thomist.

    Long before there was a church, Aristotle posited the philosophical doctrine of form. This was to allow philosophers to overcome the radical skepticism implied by constant change. If things are constantly changing then we can have zero knowledge of what they ever are. Since we too would be constantly changing, there would be no real “us” either. The theory of forms/natures allows us to account for why we think we have knowledge of things, because while actual “things” are naturally changing, they change within a range dictated by their natural potential yet still remain essentially the same thing. I think that’s why we are amused when a magician appears to change a handkerchief into a dove… we know that it didn’t really happen.

    Evolution also does not turn handkerchiefs into doves. The DNA from 2 partners are different and can combine in various combinations and so if we know the DNA content, we can predict the range of genetic outcomes of the offspring. The offspring only has the natural potential provided by the parents. So according to both A-T and evolution 2 horseflies can not give birth to a horse.

    Is this not what you would call reality testing? That we can observe that we really exist as the same entity throughout our lives as do other things? That things don’t randomly change into completely other things or nothing at all?

    Please tell me the details of your middle way. I’m confused because you seem to be saying that humans can naturally alter their nature because it is their nature to alter their nature. This is a contradiction in terms. The A-T definition says if something can naturally change, it must have that potential, in which case it is already part of the nature. So latent potentiality can be actualized, but that is part of the nature of the entity already and the nature doesn’t change, only the actualized part thereof. What do natures or forms mean to you? Do they even exist?

    Humans as a whole are generally considered to have a nature or form. Body parts severed from the person disintegrate into their component parts so they must not have a form of their own. You seem to imply that body parts have natures all their own or none at all….its hard to tell. And BTW, you know well it is dishonest to state that Thomists insist that sex is for reproduction only.

    “I’m interested in WHY the Thomist starts and stops his reasoning at the places that he does. The Thomist (it seems) always conveniently spits out an answer sympatico with Church doctrine–suggesting psychological stopping points, not necessary ones.”

    Please take a moment and consider if this is a projection on your part. Why would a philosophy necessarily have to be wrong if the reasoning ended up coinciding with Church doctrine? Especially if the philosophy started 250 years before the Church even started.

    • Alan says:

      I’m paraphrasing here without digging up my notes, but the Thomist Natural Law position is basically that it is a perversion for a man to ejaculate anywhere but into an unprotected human vagina. Under that guideline, it seems to me a very weak protest to claim that: ‘it is dishonest to state that Thomists insist that sex is for reproduction only.’

      That Thomistic proscription tells me that they hold sex is for far less than reproduction, but that fertilization alone is sufficient for Natural Law sex to be appropriate. A position I hold to be destructive towards humanity, and in stark contrast to human form as currently understood by way of post Darwin biology. Most of my argument would have been clear to Aristotle as well. It can take two humans less than five minutes to fertilize a human egg, but it takes twenty years and a functional community to raise that child. The social bonding reinforced through sex is far more critical to successful procreation of humanity than fertilization.

  6. Anonymous says:

    Hi Alan,
    Maybe you haven’t seen this.

    • Santi Tafarella says:


      I watched it. I’ll give you the quick lowdown (Anonymous can correct me if he thinks I’ve missed an important nuance).

      In this talk, Prof. Feser argues that the ultimate end of sex entails a seamless connection between three things: the unitive, procreative, and prolific.

      Regarding being prolific, Feser argues that the sex drive is so strong and urgent in us because Mother Nature wants us to have lots and lots of babies.

      And large families bind one man to one woman for life. To raise a healthy, rational animal, lifelong monogamy is part of our evolutionary strategy (a phrase Feser did not use, but probably wouldn’t object to in this context).

      So on Feser’s account, these three things–the unitive, procreative, and prolific–belong to our sexual natures prior to civilization. They are natural to us, inseparable from healthy sex, and only formalized socially in marriage.

      Thus what we call “marriage” simply identifies what this seamless unity is. The seamless unity itself is not socially constructed, and therefore (Feser implies this, but does not say so explicitly) the definition of marriage can’t be messed with.

      As for what’s permitted in sex, one can engage in all sorts of unitive pleasures with a spouse so long as one’s sexual creativity ends with ejaculation in a vagina.

      But any frustration of sex’s unitive, procreative, and prolific ends–or any dividing up of this seamless unity–is wrong. No ejaculation without intimacy; intimacy without procreation; being prolific with more than one woman and abandoning responsibility for the children, etc. All of these pervert the ends of sex.

      The prolific part of Feser’s argument seems especially important, for it means that every sex act ought to be aimed at allowing for at least the possibility of pregnancy. No frustrating nature’s “make many babies” ends.

      And this is why Feser’s argument is so problematic: if you can’t decouple these three things, and if large numbers of people took it seriously, population would skyrocket and women’s equality wouldn’t just stall, it would go in fast reverse.

      If, for no other reason, the consequences for global population and women’s equality ought to give one serious pause here.

      • Alan says:

        Thank you for the summary. It sounds like I expected, so is the position I was addressing above.

      • Anonymous says:

        Hi Alan,

        My protest was that only one end was mentioned, reproductive (procreative). Obviously “unitive, procreative, and prolific” are 3 different things.

        It’s OK to disagree with a position, but it’s not OK to deliberately mis-characterize the position.

  7. Santi Tafarella says:


    The questions you’re raising above are bringing us deep into the metaphysical weeds. We would probably have to devote an afternoon over coffee to hash out what you’re asking and actually come to fully understand one another. There are both scientists and meditators (like Zen priests) who have spent their whole careers puzzling over the nature of existence in relation to change, not just philosophers. Perhaps, for instance, you know of Julian Barbour–and Lee Smolin’s reply to him (two physicists wrestling with form/change). I actually wrote a review of one of Smolin’s books on my blog, and–to my delight and surprise–he emailed me from the Perimeter Institute to correct one error. So I’ll link you to that piece. It puzzles over the issue, and perhaps you would have a comment from there (or to bring back to this thread–wherever you choose). I’d be curious as to your Thomistic take. Here’s the link:

    I’ll also take a stab at one thing you ask above: “Is this not what you would call reality testing? That we can observe that we really exist as the same entity throughout our lives as do other things?”

    What in fact are you observing? Are you quite sure this is so–that you’re observing the same entity in each moment? As you’re being there with a thing–or with yourself–isn’t attention shifting in each moment?

    What happens when you just stay with a thing? Really stay until it speaks?

    I would ask you to think about the continuum along which what you are tracking is a stable “you” that exists. I would say that nothing exists, really, as an island apart from everything else, and that identity is not the same from moment to moment. To say something possesses an essence is just a generalization or local approximation for our purposes. In Buddhism, this is called “ignorance”–avidya, “delusion” (believing that you have a permanent self acting autonomously in a world consisting of other independent things, and clinging to that self).

    In reality, I think it is probably the case that, in each moment, nothing would actually have powers or potencies separated from its relation to the whole. Each thing emerges in each moment as a structure out of the unstable cosmic foam (if you will), and from our perception of that structure we can make local probability predictions of how it might shift in the next moment. It is this emergence into the present of what was, only a moment earlier, a mere probability–this local appearance of structure to your sense organs in the now–that you’re then abstracting out of the network, giving an identity, and declaring it “an essence” with independent powers and potencies.

    It’s a convenient illusion. Pragmatically you can work with it. But it shouldn’t be confused with ultimate reality.

    What’s ultimate reality? Unsayable. But I’ll try to say it: every atom in the cosmos is connected in the network (perhaps akin to a hologram). Our declaration of individual essences are therefore local and verbal approximations of what is, at bottom, a mutually interdependent arising in each moment. It is not individuals that are changing based on their own potencies in each moment (again, this is just an approximate description), it is, rather, the cosmos as a whole.

    I’m suggesting here a relationalist stance that muddies up the notion of essence. Smolin puts it this way (and you can read the fuller reflection if you click over to the link above):

    “When we ask about the essence of matter, or of the world, we are asking what it is intrinsically–what it is in the absence of relationships and interactions. The relationalist stance is that there’s nothing real in the world apart from those properties defined by relationships and interactions.”

    • Anonymous says:

      Hi Santi,

      I read the post and I have to say I agree with Alan’s comments. Science uses physical things to make measurements of physical things. So the tools of measurement themselves are changed in the same manner as the things measured.

  8. Santi Tafarella says:


    Put another way, things are empty of an independent essence. “No flower in the flower” (as the Dalai Lama puts it)–and yet in relation to your perception in the now–your relation to it and your local abstraction of it as not appearing to change–you can say: “That flower is really a flower!”

    But here’s where avidya (ignorance, delusion) begins: “I predict that tomorrow that flower will start to wilt, and so the flower must contain in its being right now the potency for wilting. It will thus be the same flower.” But there’s no such potency for wilting at all in the flower that is present to your eyes in the now. You can’t dig into the flower and find this potency anywhere inherent to itself. The potency actually resides (if it resides at all) in the whole. And you don’t know what the whole will do. Not really. The flower might burn in an evening fire, in which case it never had the potential for wilting at all. It wasn’t the sort of thing that was ever going to wilt. You just didn’t know that. Your attribution of potency to that particular flower was a symptom of ignorance (not having the whole context for that flower’s relation to the cosmos). You abstracted from an average a power in this particular flower. But what you thought you knew was only a probability grounded in past experiences of flowers–of a generalization about flowers you’ve known. But the structure of the flower that has appeared to you now is unique. It appears locally out of the cosmic foam now, and will go you know not whence.

    So you predict that the cosmos as a whole will be in a state in which the flower you see tomorrow will be wilted. But it won’t be the same flower–and it won’t be the same cosmos–and so the power you conveniently attribute to the flower now is actually dispersed throughout the cosmic system (in a non-local, probability wave function).

    The power isn’t in the flower. No flower power. Not really. Only networked probabilities in the now which you infer FROM YOUR PERSPECTIVE; from your past experience. What you’ll actually get tomorrow is a different network. No one steps into the same network twice.

    The idea that the flower today has the power right now, in itself, of being in a state of wilting tomorrow is a convenient way of saying that you have incomplete knowledge. You might find the flower in that state tomorrow–and conveniently call it the same flower (based on seeing flowers wilted in the past). But, as I repeat, a fire might rage three hours from now where the flower is, in which case the flower today never possessed the potential to wilt tomorrow. You just didn’t know that because you didn’t have a full knowledge of where every atom in the cosmos was, in fact, heading (and it wasn’t in the direction of that flower wilting, but of that flower burning). That flower never for an instant could have wilted. It wasn’t that sort of flower. It possessed not that power. It would never reach that state. The potency for wilting was an abstraction from your incomplete knowledge of what the whole was actually on the way to.

    Essences are convenient fictions, useful pragmatically for making a human life. But we shouldn’t confuse our local pointing for the ultimate moon.

  9. Anonymous says:

    Here was your original complaint about why you think evolution contradicts Thomism while Thomists don’t:

    “Because Thomists bracket evolution away from metaphysics. Reality testing doesn’t get in. It’s a way of blinkering oneself. They focus on form, not on change”

    Today, you appear to be saying that no one can really do any “reality testing” in the first place. So why the complaint?

    You hold that there really no such things as forms or natures right? Not just that Thomists focus too much on form and not enough on change, but that the whole idea of forms is wrong from the start. If we think in terms of forms, we are just fooling ourselves. This is the core complaint against Thomism. Please let me know if I got this wrong.

    As you point out, if there really are no forms or natures of things, there are no naturally predictable courses for a thing to take. If we water a flower we cannot predict the outcome…it could do this or that or nothing at all. Maybe it will turn into a handkerchief 🙂

    Of course since we can’t make observations and predictions then science itself must be an illusion, including evolution. Evolution is a scientific theory based on observation of species that share the same traits or nature and how the natures change to different species with different natures.

    But consider this. There can be no essential you either. Your thoughts must also be my thoughts since we are not individuals the whole. In fact you are also Dick Cheney! The horror!!!!

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