How Evolution Can Help Us Think About Gay Marriage

Adam Smith, Charles Darwin, and gay marriage. The wisdom we take from evolution is the same that a good economist takes from the Invisible Hand: absent really good reasons, let things be. Don’t be hubristic; don’t interfere too much with markets or an individual’s inherited characteristics. Make room for people’s sirens (their inner calls); for expressions of novelty and experiment.

Our temperaments, our sexual preferences, our energy levels, etc. all have important biological components; they all occur along inherited continuums. Twin studies attest to this. Let them be.

If we live in a society that values the individual and freedom, then we’ll have a bias against hastily putting the kibosh on biologically inherited behavioral variation; we’ll be reluctant to force individuals into conformity absent very, very good reasons to do so.

This reluctance is grounded in our knowledge of how evolution works (by variant gambits). It’s not because we imagine ourselves helping evolution along or taking moral cues from evolution. It’s just deriving wisdom from the way things are and the way they change, Grasshopper.

Plato against the individual. If we don’t value individuals qua individuals or freedom qua freedom, then we won’t care what biology and evolution tell us about variation. The facts on the ground won’t matter. We’ll run roughshod over individuals on our way to achieving our version of an ideal society (as Plato did in the imagining of his perfect republic).

But once we say we value individuals and freedom, our quest for the ideal society relaxes a bit. We see the individual’s autonomy as a competing good with our utopian schemes, and we want to be informed by biology in making decisions that impact people with variant behaviors.

Biology and evolution help us to see the individual; to wisely and compassionately recall that, just as we don’t want our own biologically influenced and contingent siren calls of conscience, reason, or passion blocked by social coercion, so we shouldn’t want to block these calls in others absent very compelling social reasons for doing so.

Evolution and private v. public. No “is” needs to dictate your personal bucket list of “oughts.” Given that evolution plays every gambit–cooperative to selfish, etc.–what generalization could you make from it in any case?

As a contingent and variant creature, you may surmise that your own inner logic and private sirens are calling you away from any Golden Mean or evolutionary strategy adhered to by the herd.

That’s you on the private level.

But on the social level, in the weighing of competing goods, we should use biology and evolution to inform public policy.

How so? By letting evolution function as a source of wisdom. It reminds us that individual siren calls exist along a continuum, and they frequently have a significant biological basis. This ought to bring us to greater empathy in our decision making.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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47 Responses to How Evolution Can Help Us Think About Gay Marriage

  1. Anonymous says:

    If tomorrow, science found a gene that influenced people to behave like a mass murderer (and that thesis is out there), I think you would still say mass murder was wrong. If an “alcoholic” gene was found, I think you would still advise the person with that gene to modify his behavior so he doesn’t drink himself to death (that is if you really cared about that person).

    So regardless of what we consider the basis of behaviors, whether learned, inherited or chosen, society suggests, expects and demands a certain range of behaviors from humans. Is society making impossible demands of people if they have inherited the “mass murderer” gene to refrain from murder? No, because we know that people can chose their behavior…. unlike animals.

    Isn’t this the real crux of your argument?
    “to wisely and compassionately recall that, just as we don’t want our own biologically influenced and contingent siren calls of conscience, reason, or passion blocked by social coercion, so we shouldn’t want to block these calls in others ”

    All of my siblings took up smoking in early adulthood and hostilely resisted anyone telling them they should quit. They were pretty much addicted, so it really didn’t matter whether they learned it or where born that way. They liked it. One of their favorite arguments was “well you do bad things too, so don’t judge me and I won’t judge you.”

    If tomorrow science finally admitted that sexual orientation was not biological, would you abandon your defense? I think you would still use the sibling defense.

  2. Alan says:

    Ever so rose colored your glasses.

    ‘The wisdom we take from evolution is the same that a good economist takes from the Invisible Hand’

    As Adam Smith pointed out, a business man who makes a bad decision goes bankrupt. As Darwin explained, a life form trying a less competitive variation faces extinction. Homo Erectus are extinct, why should we strive for more? Most new businesses fail. Most significant mutations in biology cannot survive.

    Far, far more than any other animal, humans depend upon a vibrant, competitive society to thrive. Humans are not even close to viable as individuals, and true freedom is reserved for individuals. Social humans share a responsibility to support and preserve their society.

    I will suggest that a more productive lesson to take from Darwin is that species require diversity to be resilient. From Smith, that an economy needs diversity to be robust.

    We can also learn from the poets and experience that passion motivates and that the motivated are far more productive.

  3. Santi Tafarella says:


    You wrote: “Is society making impossible demands of people if they have inherited the ‘mass murderer’ gene to refrain from murder? No, because we know that people can chose their behavior…. unlike animals.”

    No, no, no. That’s not why society restrains a mass murderer or pedophile. That’s not it at all. It does so because it is re-balancing competing goods. You have the good of freedom v. the good of social order and no harm–and in these two cases, it’s not even a close call. If we agree that it’s a good to let people do whatever they want so long as others can flourish and society remains functional, then the murderer and pedophile are off the charts in unbalancing these competing goods (their freedom and desires are engaged in with indifference to the victimization and wreckage that they cause).

    The murderer and pedophile may be quite tragic victims of their genetically inherited temperaments (they can’t stop themselves). But we can, and do. We are the hive that disciplines what we regard as the dysfunctional or bad bee that doesn’t serve our collective purposes.

    But the knowledge that, say, 70% of these behaviors is attributable to genetic inheritance, influences how we deal with disciplining and incarcerating them. If a pedophile, for example, consents to castration, perhaps we can put him back on the street with weekly parole officer check-ins.

    And perhaps someday there will be a genetic therapy fix for psychopathy (1 in 20 males in American prisons is a clinical psychopath), bringing down the number of mass murderers to near zero.

    A more interesting question is what to do with a willful hive that threatens or harms its neighboring hives? Who polices that? Well, I guess that’s why we have a huge amount of troops squared off with North Korea. We don’t care that they have a choice not to be led by psychopathic dynamics. We just do our best to keep them surrounded until the dynamic changes.

    Same with willful government that acts above the law. What we hope to do is have divisions of powers within governments and society to counter attempts at non-democratic and rogue seizures of power (legislative, executive, and judicial branches of government are separated; freedom of the press; independence of states; a Bill of Rights; strong and autonomous local communities, etc.). Checks and balances are akin to the weighing of competing goods. One can reason out the best balances of contending interests from there.

    With regard to homosexual marriage, if we know that genes play a role, that strengthens our determination to let, out of empathy, the practice go forward (as heterosexuals, we know the siren call of biology, and how powerful that is). You have not established that consenting homosexuality causes any harm to society. What goods need balancing here, and what would compel the restriction on the good of letting individuals choose?

    40,000 children live with married gay and lesbian couples in California. Overturn gay marriage, and you disrupt their lives and family identity. That’s harm. What balances that out, that we should do it?

  4. Anonymous says:

    “The murderer and pedophile may be quite tragic victims of their genetically inherited temperaments (they can’t stop themselves). But we can, and do. We are the hive that disciplines what we regard as the dysfunctional or bad bee that doesn’t serve our collective purposes.”

    I see. So you are saying that people cannot choose to act or not act on their impulses. Once we know what their genetic makeup is, then society should incarcerate them, castrate them, restrict their activity etc if society considers the inevitable action bad. That is an interesting position. I think its called eugenics.

    • Santi Tafarella says:

      You’re speaking from your anxiety about what an agnostic or atheist position must come to–systematic eugenics, a bad end.

      You’re not making two important distinctions. The first is public-private. On the private side, one needn’t treat one’s biologically hardwired siren calls (such as one’s sexual orientation) as something one must follow. One is free to choose. Some choose to resist their siren calls. That’s the private choice of a free individual (to be gay and decide to go into a celibate Buddhist priesthood, for example).

      But on the public side, society takes seriously information from biology, and shows COMPASSION for the individual based on what we learn. If society learns that sexual orientation is hardwired, and gay and lesbian sex does no substantial harm to society, then it should be left to the individual to be privately determined what to do about his or her siren call. 10% of gays and lesbians won’t act on their impulses, but the society might reasonably presume based on data that 90% will, and set public policy on that reality (and compassion for that reality: biological siren calls are hard to resist).

      Think of dieting. On the private side, one can diet and resist urges–and maybe prove victorious over hardwired impulses to give in to food temptations. On the public side, data tells us that over 95% of people who attempt to diet fail, and that if we’re going to set public policy, we would do better to focus on urging industries to put less sugar in products; to take away the pervasive triggers to eating and addictions to eating. Dealing with the obesity epidemic as public policy is different from how the individual might choose to fight it in her private life.

      But if society determines that the behavior cannot be tolerated (such as with the psychopathic mass murderer or pedophile), then biological information can assist us in a compassionate response to those possessed of such temperaments or urges. There are pedophiles, for example, who, after being incarcerated, might voluntarily accept hormone therapy and the removal of genitals as condition for release. And if scientists ever discover the genes for psychopathy, we certainly might consider seriously ways of getting those genes out of the human population (either by gene therapy for adults, or alerting parents of the genes present in a fetus prenatally).

      As for the second distinction, that would be autonomous power (which can quickly turn tyrannical) vs. power structured with checks and balances. I wrote above (not far from the quote you highlighted):

      “What we hope to do is have divisions of powers within governments and society to counter attempts at non-democratic and rogue seizures of power (legislative, executive, and judicial branches of government are separated; freedom of the press; independence of states; a Bill of Rights; strong and autonomous local communities, etc.). Checks and balances are akin to the weighing of competing goods. One can reason out the best balances of contending interests from there.”

      In a democracy, divisions of powers substitute for broad moral prohibitions directed at a king (as in, say, a monarchical form of government where the king is restrained only by his fear of God).

  5. Anonymous says:

    Sorry, my original question was (something like this) ” If we conclusively proved that genetics were not responsible for a person’s behavior, you would not change your opinion of what behavior is bad and should be proscribed, would you?” My point being, that “love the sinner, but hate the sin” is not exactly original and I wonder who would disagree. The real question is what is good, what is bad and what is neither? Not whether we should have empathy for people or not.

    I was a somewhat distracted when you suggested that we should sterilize or kill people that possessed certain genetic traits. If you have time, please tell me if you agree with my first conclusion above.

    • Santi Tafarella says:

      Yes, I think it would change the competing goods equation if genes were not responsible for sexual orientation. If gay and lesbian behavior is absent a biological component (an urgent siren call that is hard to resist), and you think there are some genuine harms to society in homosexual behavior, you could make a case that they should forgo the option for the greater social good.

      A trivial or frivolous desire might not be sufficient to override some genuine harms. I reject, however, both the notion that gay and lesbian desire is not hard wired, and the idea that gay and lesbian desire causes harm to society.

      Think of the wedding cake controversy (for instance). The competing social good equation shifts (between right of access v. conscience) if there only one cake shop within, say, a 500 mile radius. But if there are other bakeries, the desire that the cake be made at THAT bakery takes on the quality of a trivial harm in contrast to a significant harm to individual conscience.

  6. Anonymous says:

    I have to admit I was not expecting this response.

    So if a gay person told you that he/she personally chose to follow the gay lifestyle and could have just as easily chosen a straight lifestyle, then it would come down to whether the lifestyle was right or wrong?

  7. Anonymous says:

    Or maybe I didn’t really understand your response.

    Let me try this.

    My assertion is that you consider certain actions to be wrong regardless of genetic, or environmental factors that motivate the individual to do the action we consider wrong. The murderer may be genetically wired to murder, and we may understand that and have sympathy for him and his condition, but the action is still wrong and we need to prevent the wrong action. Therefore, the murderer’s background (siren call or strong urge that is hard to resist) is not relevant to the morality of the murderous act. Do you agree?

    • Santi Tafarella says:

      Hi Anon,

      I’m uncomfortable with “right and wrong” because I smell the whiff around it of transcendental metaphysics (which I regard as uncertain at best and largely question begging at worst). I don’t think politics needs metaphysics, just a democratic debate over competing goods. I think it’s enough to say that, in a democracy, there are competing goods we weigh in any situation.

      So a murderer’s genetic profile and environmental influences ARE relevant to how we might sentence a murderer, but not in determining right and wrong from a metaphysical standpoint. If a murderer has retardation (for instance), I’d say no death penalty for him. If an alcoholic kills a family while driving drunk, it’s outlandish, I’d like to string him up. But I might, as a jury member, not support the death penalty given the narrative I discover behind his addiction. But notice that these responses require no metaphysical commitments, only the weighing of competing social goods (freedom to do whatever you want v. the harm it causes to fellow citizens).

      What I’m waiting for from the anti-gay marriage people (as will the Supreme Court Justices) is some pragmatic argument surrounding the competing goods at stake for allowing civil gay marriage in a democracy, and the compelling state interest in preventing this. One of the things to be weighed in the balance of gay marriage is the biology of sexual orientation.

      Of course, if one doesn’t want to live in a democracy, and wants instead to make metaphysics paramount over democracy (contra Lincoln, a land governed “of, by, and for the metaphysician”), then you’re basically talking about the marriage of church and state.

      And that’s a form of marriage I don’t support. : )

  8. Anonymous says:

    Thanks. I got it and I think we are on the same page.

    We both think that certain behaviors are wrong regardless of how strongly a person feels the urge. (Sorry to use “wrong”, but your topic is about what we should and shouldn’t do which implies morality and that some things are right and others are wrong).

    I hold that people have control over their own behavior and so there can be such a thing as justice.

    You seem to say above that society can have no expectation that people have the capacity to control their own behavior. This passage in particular:

    “But if society determines that the behavior cannot be tolerated (such as with the psychopathic mass murderer or pedophile), then biological information can assist us in a compassionate response to those possessed of such temperaments or urges. There are pedophiles, for example, who, after being incarcerated, might voluntarily accept hormone therapy and the removal of genitals as condition for release. And if scientists ever discover the genes for psychopathy, we certainly might consider seriously ways of getting those genes out of the human population (either by gene therapy for adults, or alerting parents of the genes present in a fetus prenatally).”

    Have you seen “The Imitation Game”? Society determined that it couldn’t tolerate Alan Turing’s behavior either. Your solution seems very eugenic to me.

    • Santi Tafarella says:


      I haven’t seen The Imitation game yet. With regard to eugenics, I think it’s fair you bring this up against my position, but my question is: are these parents part of our tribe or not (our circle of empathy)? Competitive eugenics is scary, compassionate eugenics is not. In other words, I wouldn’t wish on someone in my tribe a psychopathic child, and when humans reach the ability to know with a moral certainty that a fetus with x and y genes (say) has a 90% chance of being psychopathic, it’s not wrong, in my view, to give parents the option of aborting that fetus in the first trimester. I wouldn’t wish such a fate on any couple anywhere. I would give them the option to decide what they want to do with the knowledge. We have amniocentesis today to give parents a similar option with certain genetic diseases. Do you oppose these tests?

      As for our moral intuitions as a species, I think we’ll mostly be okay if our tribal inclinations are toward what I’ll call my version of the Ten Commandments. We should have: (1) a sense of empathy; (2) a sense of disapproval when we see cruelty or humiliation directed at someone in our tribe; (3) a sense of justice (everybody contributes, no freeloading, no trampling others’ human rights, etc.); (4) a preference for nonzero-sum games; (5) a willingness to adjudicate competing goods (when a nonzero result is not an option); (6) a commitment to individual freedom (live and let live) and democracy as “goods”; (7) a willingness to live with balances of power; (8) a willingness to tolerate, absent significant broader harm to society, the conscience and beliefs of those beyond one’s private and local assemblies, though you think they’re irrational; (9) some general tolerance for capitalism and free trade; and (10) some concern for the environment.

      In other words, we care about morality ultimately because it assists us in flourishing–and the “us” here is defined by our individual and tribal flourishing. We all care passionately that we go on living and thriving as individuals and as a tribe (from the continuum of our family to our global family). Fortunately, our evolution as a social species helps us with all ten of these “commandments”–but it also hurts us (because our pro-social impulses often only extend to those we conceptualize as part of our tribe–and we often lack the will or imagination to go far beyond our family, class, religion, region, and nation).

      So I think the above challenges to realizing these are three: (1) absolutism (“My tribe wants something other than democracy and interacting with the rest of the world”); (2) imaginatively increasing the circle of empathy; and (3) keeping the global economy growing (hence the need for ecologically sustainable capitalism and free trade in some form).

      With regard to absolutism, the problem is ideology, nationalism, religion, and irresponsible businesses that care solely about shareholder profits and the vanquishing of all impediments to their domination. These don’t have to be a problem (people can walk and chew gum at the same time; they can be members of a political party and a competitive business team, as well as citizens of a nation, of heaven, and of the global human community). But where absolutism becomes a problem, ideology, nationalism, religion, and businesses that care only about profits are invariably the sources. There’s no balancing of competing goods; no vulnerable listening and dialogue (if there is communication at all, it’s in the form of proclamation or propaganda).

      With regard to the circle of empathy, it contains the people you treat as worthy of consideration in making decisions; as not “in the way”; as part of your largest conception of your tribe. Ideally, we should include all humans in this, as well as some of the higher animals (primates, elephants, dolphins, etc.).

      With regard to ecologically sustainable economic growth, the more prosperous people are, the more generous and open they tend to be. The fewer zero-sum games we have to play means less hunkering down with suspicion in narrow tribes.

      For more reflection, this article from The Atlantic by Robert Wright is good:

  9. Anonymous says:

    Well thank you Mr Hitler. Eugenics feel so much better when you tell me you’re going to kill me compassionately rather than competitively.

    The thing is, that if you were around in the early 1900’s all the “smart” people were into eugenics because it was scientifically based, you know. No one would have said “Oh my God! You’re doing the same thing the Nazi’s did!” since it was before eugenics played out. I see now that you want to put lipstick on that old pig again and hope no one notices.

    I see no scientific evidence that behavior is genetically determined, so I think eugenics is junk science. I think its pretty sad to hear anyone defending it as a good thing and claim it is compassionate.

    It is parents duty to socialize their children primarily and the duty of society to support the parents bonding with their children as a family and with each other as husband and wife. This is the primary means by which all of us learn to be morally responsible humans.

    So good behavior is taught and enforced. People have the choice to follow a moral path or not, they are not victims of their genetics. If not, then the idea of justice is irrational.

    • Santi Tafarella says:

      You never gave your point of view on amniocentesis, which is telling because it would mean you have to take the issue seriously (as opposed to being silly, calling me Hitler).

      I’m worried about the consequences of the genome revolution (in progress), and I’m not so naive as to think it can be stopped. We’re at a Promethean moment in human history where scientists will be able to direct human evolution. It’s going to start with genetic solutions to diseases like diabetes, and proceed from there, ultimately culminating in selecting for embryos that are front-loaded with desirable temperamental traits and genes associated with high intelligence, etc.

      My solution would be a treaty among all nations to use the technology together and deploy it under a cautious rubric of international law to everyone who wants it. If I were Obama, I’d be contacting the leader of China and working on this because genetic-knowledge proliferation is going to be the new atomic bomb, and if nations decide their very survival entails chasing this technology (or the rich decide to do it independent of the rest of us, producing super-babies destined for Harvard), then you’re looking at dystopian scenarios (the divergence of the human species into the enhanced and non-enhanced).

      You can get wound up with name-calling, but it’s just blue pipe smoke sent up as a way of not facing the issue directly. This is why I say that the circle of empathy had better encompass everybody going forward–and include everybody. Otherwise we face a Darwinian genetic technology arms race between tribes.

      This past week, the Chinese genetically modified human embryos, and there’s a conversation about this in the link below.

  10. Anonymous says:

    Actually if you follow my posts you will see that I am trying to make the point that behavior is a willed action rather than written in DNA. I disagree with your premise that “biologically inherited behavioral variation” is the cause for our “siren calls” and that we have no control over them even if they were.

    I don’t really understand why you drifted into talking about North Korea, public/private theories, world genetic treaties or a wide range of things, so I’ve generally ignored the non-relevant stuff and tried to keep focused.

    But I lost my focus when you started defending eugenics and called it compassionate. Please don’t change the subject. I’d like to hear how killing humans is compassionate.

    • Santi Tafarella says:

      What then are the causes of one’s siren calls if not biology and (ultimately) physics?

      In terms of free will, I don’t think we have anything of the sort of contra-causal free will that you perhaps suppose. I think our brains are modular, governed by often contending impulses, and that sometimes–or even characteristically in some people–one part of the brain predominates over the other. And so a person who has a hyper-religiosity personality type may find in herself (when she introspects) a powerful will to override her sexual siren coming from the same brain. She imagines herself, in the narrative of herself, quite self righteous–and this very thought motivates her still more to hold down her sexual siren–but, as Blake, says, “Those who restrain desire do so because theirs is weak enough to be restrained.” So one part of the modular brain dominating another part is hardly evidence of free will (let alone contra-causal free will).

      I like something the novelist Don DeLillo writes in his novel White Noise:

      “Who knows what I want to do? Who knows what anyone wants to do? How can you be sure about something like that? Isn’t it all a question of brain chemistry, signals going back and forth, electrical energy in the cortex? How do you know whether something is really what you want to do or just some kind of nerve impulse in the brain? Some minor little activity takes place somewhere in this unimportant place in one of the brain hemispheres and suddenly I want to go to Montana or I don’t want to go to Montana.”

      I would add to DeLillo’s notion of desire driven by brain chemistry the notion of imagination driven by brain chemistry as well (another part of our modular brain): the illusion of free will is caused by our ability to imagine logically possible futures, and to imagine how we might choose one of those futures over the others. We then notice in ourselves a desire to choose one of those imagined futures. We follow that desire. But at no point in the process have we actually violated the deterministic cosmos; the swerve of atoms. We just imagine that we have.

      We therefore confuse the tight coupling of imagination, desire, and action with free will. Our lives, in other words, run on a huge correlation-causation fallacy. Imagination, desire, and action seem to be in a causal relation to one another absent chemistry, but they aren’t. They’re only coincident. We make a narrative of them. We think we’re pushing the world around–making it break our way, in accordance with our purposes. We think we’re disturbing the universe, collapsing the wave function of logically possible worlds down to our single world–the world of our choosing. Actually, we’re just being puppeted by the swerve of atoms as we dream (as we run tapes in our heads of mental images of the future) and act on the desires that come to us. In short, we’ve got going a great narrative of ourselves as existential actors because we can imagine alternative futures. But that’s all it is. A story. In terms of the actual causal processes at work, we’ve got them completely backwards.

      And in the biggest picture, I think we have to think about the multiverse. I think there’s little doubt that either our our universe is infinite in an inflationary sense, and probably in the quantum sense as well (splitting in each moment into different possible futures). I think it’s plausible that we live in a big bang cosmos that got its laws and physical constants from a random quantum flux of the larger multiverse. From all the logically possible ways that our known cosmos could have banged at the big bang, it banged in just one way. It’s how the cookie crumbled.

      So each new big bang cosmos produced by the multiverse is a fresh swerve of atoms blasting forth to cool and impact one another in a novel, yet determinate, manner. Lucretius intuited it well two millennia ago:

      For myriad atoms sped such myriad ways

      from the All forever, pounded, pushed, propelled

      by weight of their own, launched and speeding along,

      joining all possible ways, trying all forms,

      whatever their meeting in congress could create,

      that it’s no wonder if they all tumbled

      into such patterns and entered on such orbits

      as those that govern our cosmos and its changes. (V 187-194)

      And, again, we aren’t in any way disrupting these material atoms in their determinate courses. Each of us consists of some of those atoms, and we’re all along for the ride. There is no such thing as contra-causal free will (minds disrupting the course of causally determined atoms).

      That’s my thesis. And yours is what?

      (This response is perhaps best made a separate post, so I’ll do that if you want to reply there instead of here. It’s up to you.)

  11. Anonymous says:

    If I were a secret Nazi and someone accused me of being one, I would say it was a silly suggestion and change the subject…..hmmm 🙂 OK.

    • Santi Tafarella says:

      You asked about “how killing humans is compassionate,” and of course this distorts the borderline issue of whether a fetus in the first four months of gestation can be tested for its genetic make-up, and if found to have profound diseases, aborted. It’s also about whether scientists can work with fertilized human eggs in research, and ultimately implanting a specific fertilized egg into a woman, discarding the ones that don’t have the desired or ideal traits (however that gets specified). I’m not advocating infanticide or the murder of children or adults, I’m thinking about the sorts of existential decisions that the genomic revolution will be presenting to us all in the very near future (perhaps fifty years out, and maybe sooner). You didn’t say what you thought about amniocentesis, which suggests to me that you don’t particularly want to think directly about your own position. I think of amniocentesis as a compassionate option for parents (especially for women who get pregnant after age 35), and that the fetus at that stage knows no consciousness or pain if aborted.

      I’m also thinking about gene therapy for adults, such as a direct genetic treatment for psychopathy.

      And I don’t think you’re grappling with the potential “arms race” surrounding this technology going forward–with China getting out ahead of other countries early on. If you listen to the radio broadcast I linked to, you’ll find it’s not an abstract concern.

      Also, given what we know about evolution, if you say no to ever disrupting the progress of a fertilized egg over the course of its nine months of development, you should think about the fact that every mammal on Earth has the potential for becoming a sentient being over the next 30 million years if not interfered with. I do hope, therefore, that you’re vegetarian and active in fights for species preservation, for you could otherwise be interfering with the progress of a species headed for a conscious existence akin to our own.

  12. Anonymous says:

    Does this mean that you define animals as humans and humans as animals? If you believe they are the same thing due to evolution, then so must be plants and dirt. Vegetarianism and geophagism would be every bit as morally wrong as eating animals.

    I think you want to avoid taking moral responsibility for the logical consequences for your positions.

    • Santi Tafarella says:

      The further out your time horizon, the less likely it is that you’ll predict accurately the consequences of your actions. Obviously, if we wipe out a bunch of species now, we might well make way, 30 million years from now, for a species to emerge with intelligence that wouldn’t have otherwise (just as the clearing of the dinosaurs 60 million years ago made way for us).

      We don’t know.

      It’s your fussiness and hubris that I dispute and parody in the vegetarian observation. You seem quite confident that it’s good beyond any context for a 35 year old woman not to get an amniocentesis. You don’t know how that’s going to play out for the adult woman either way. You can only make an educated guess, but you raise it to the status of a universal moral prohibition (apparently)–and perhaps would make it illegal for her even to obtain the information and make a decision to abort before the fetus became sentient.

      As for being an animal, yes we are animals. No, that doesn’t mean that I don’t make a distinction between an animal consciousness akin in key ways to my own and an animal or plant lacking such consciousness. Solidarity and empathy directed toward human and animal awareness, and the capacity for feeling pain, seems to me the relevant boundaries for moral reasoning: the circle of moral concern.

  13. Anonymous says:

    Nazis were empathetic to a certain class of humans because they were considered optimum human beings. Defective/lesser humans needed to be removed from the gene pool since they imposed inconvenience to the superior humans. This is eugenics and it is your position. You just disagree over the class of humans to be included in the preferred class.

    So I’m interested in how you ‘ve come to this moral position.

    You claim that perhaps animal species may evolve into humans so we should treat animals like humans. But according to evolution, plants evolved into animals and per your reasoning a plant today could evolve eventually into a human also. Therefore, we shouldn’t eat plants. I’m not trying to be fussy or hubristic I’m honestly trying to understand your position.

    Will amniocentesis be used to detect the “gay gene” so gays can be aborted? Perhaps it will be used to detect “inferior races” like your own heritage was once deemed. Or will it be used to detect some disease so it can be cured? Measurements are not bad in themselves, but what is done with the info could be good or bad.

    But maybe you’ve decided that there is really no such thing as truth or reason in the first place. Maybe you think you can use these concepts as tools against opponents that disagree with you. Truth and reason are constraints to those who hold them, but not to those who don’t. I believe this is an unreasonable position, but of course I would, wouldn’t I?

    If my interlocutor holds this position or I suspect that he does, then I don’t see any point in discussing any other topic. Is that your position?

  14. Santi Tafarella says:


    You ask how I’ve come to my moral position. I ground liberal eugenics (if you call getting an amniocentesis accompanied by the termination of a pregnancy, eugenics) via the same moral reflections I outline here:

    That is: (1) God isn’t talking, so I’m without guidance; bereft; (2) I’m in a cosmos characterized by the existence of suffering and death; (3) I see that there are other beings in the same bad situation that I am; and (4) because I’m an evolved social animal, I feel empathy for them, and can have solidarity with them insofar as we both want to go on living in such circumstances.

    This is why the circle of empathy needs to be as wide as possible. In this case, I feel empathy for the middle-aged parents who want the highest prospects they can manage for a healthy baby, and given that the fetus feels no pain or awareness in the first several months of a pregnancy, I think it’s reasonable to give them private space for action (either to abort or go through with the pregnancy despite knowledge of profound genetic defects). The competing good here only comes into play after the fetus approaches the last trimester of a pregnancy. I’m content to let the scientific consensus determine exactly when a fetus clearly is wired up sufficiently to feel pain.

  15. Santi Tafarella says:


    You also raised the Nazi/Hitler issue again, and the short answer is: this is an arms race that you’re frightened to run. We’ve got to get to genomic (atomic) Bomb before Hitler does, not because we’re Hitler. You would have lost WWII by the logic you are promulgating on this matter because the genie of the technology is already beyond the boundaries of the United States and the other democracies. If we don’t figure out what’s in the human genome (where the intelligence genes are, etc.), China or Russia may have research programs that will make these breakthroughs first. For all we know right now, as we speak, China–an authoritarian country with nuclear weapons protecting its borders–may well have a Manhattan-style project already going on this. The danger of genomic knowledge proliferation is real here, and you’re fretting over the limits of amniocentesis. You’re talking in ways akin to an old regulatory agency from the 1950s talking about the Internet. You are so far behind the ball here that you don’t even know you’re behind the ball.

    You perhaps have the luxury of imagining that God will bail you out of our collective existential situation, but there is a race that has already started, as we speak, on the way to general artificial intelligence and genomics that is very dangerous to the future of humanity. We can manage these issues, but only if we can face them directly. We are heading for a future where the germ line of the human species–our own evolution–will be in somebody’s hands–and the question is whose.

    So you’re in conservative/traditionalist pundit mode: critique the direction of the culture from the luxury box of The National Review or First Things, washing your hands of the whole matter. It’s a smug position, and you can feel pure, but it’s akin to the advocacy of pacifism in the run-up to WWII. If you won’t enter the fight, what are you going to do to stop Hitler from going anywhere he wants? Write a letter to the editor of a Berlin newspaper?

    You’ve lost your nerve, Anon, and you’re calling it metaphysics.

    • Anonymous says:

      Sorry. I’m kind of an older guy and I’ve been in the workforce for a while and met a whole bunch of people.

      It’s kind of a guilty pleasure of mine to find out their latest conspiracy theory and see if I can one up them. World Trade Center, Illuminati, etc.

      Let me ask you if you’ve noticed this one coming up more and more recently. Jews are in control of the world’s banking system and are plotting all sorts of mayhem. This seems to be on both sides of the political spectrum from what I see.

  16. Santi Tafarella says:


    As to my commitment to reason, yes I have that. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t care whether God exists or what scientists say about the dangers of global warming, I’d just believe the easiest thing about these things, the most hopeful and escapist thing about them. But I care about the truth.

    What I don’t care for is smug presumption and confidence that is absent sufficient warrant. Critical thinking entails not just critical thinking about the nature of identity, but about change, language, and our own embeddedness in the very systems we’re trying to explain (and abstract ourselves and other things from). The tools of critical thinking–Occam’s razor, Aristotle’s laws of logic, etc.–I am completely devoted to these (go team!)–but I also think they need to turn back upon the user–exposing limitations to confidence.

    So I’m amazed at the traditional metaphysician’s temperamental comfort with metaphysical arguments that function as proofs (to her or him) akin to mathematics. It’s as if Freud never happened; as if historicism never happened; as if positivism and Wittgenstein never happened. There is not proper caution and humility at work.

    So I want things grounded to things that more closely track experience. I want experiment and science. I want historicism, psychology, structuralism, and critiques of our existential limits. I want the use of language–from how metaphors are being used, to how language functions in a world of change–kept in play when reasoning. These make for sensible cautions when deploying metaphysical arguments today. Indeed, I think it’s unreasonable not to do this.

    Why, for example, do metaphysical arguments stop and start exactly where they do? That’s not just a logical question, but a question about the nature of language, culture, psychology, and society. It’s a fair question; it’s not a question that can be permanently bracketed.

    So I think it’s the height of arrogance to blow-off or bracket the general deliverances of 400 years of the Enlightenment free-for-all (from evolution, to historicism, to Freud, to structuralism, to Wittgenstein’s analysis of language games, to neo-positivism, etc.). The tools of reason must turn on themselves to lend humility to our reflections. This doesn’t upend reason, it keeps it from entering into tracks of self-delusion.

    So, given the poor track record of metaphysicians, I’m inclined to believe more what physicists rather than metaphysicians say about the ultimate nature of cause and effect; I’m inclined to think that motive in reasoning (where one starts and stops an argument, and why) has more to do with how people land on gay marriage than whether a natural law argument moves efficiently from its first premises to its conclusions. That’s not being unreasonable, that’s keeping one’s eyes on the ball. That’s not being Oedipus (plucking out one’s eyes).

    A simple example of how straightforward logic grounded in a seemingly reasonable starting data point can lead to a wrong conclusion: in the 19th century, Kelvin thought he had refuted Darwin by calculating how long, given the size of the sun, it would take to spend its fuel. His conclusion was about 20 million years–not enough time for evolution (Darwin guessed two hundred million years). Kelvin, of course, didn’t know about nuclear reactions, and his reasoning absent evidence was plausible, but absent ongoing discovery it could never be more than that.

    Darwin went on positing evolution after Kelvin worked out his figures. It wasn’t that Darwin was unreasonable and Kelvin reasonable, it was that both of them put forward a gambit based on incomplete knowledge.

    So what you’re confused about is how anyone could resist arrival at your metaphysical premises and conclusions with the confidence that you have absent bad faith of some sort. You think you’ve got reason on your side, when what you’ve really got is a contemporary Kelvin (Edward Feser). You’re not giving proper attention to the gambit that all human reasoning ultimately entails.

    You imagine yourself, as a Thomist/Aristotelian, the owner of the Flag of Reason, when what you’ve got in your hand is just another flag; another gambit.

    • Anonymous says:

      “The tools of critical thinking–Occam’s razor, Aristotle’s laws of logic, etc.–I am completely devoted to these (go team!)–but I also think they need to turn back upon the user–exposing limitations to confidence.”

      Do you mean that you are devoted to them as long as they produce the ends you desire. If they don’t produce those ends, then we can page through a catalog of philosophies that contradict logic and/or themselves until we find one that allows the ends we seek.

      “So I want things grounded to things that more closely track experience. I want experiment and science. I want historicism, psychology, structuralism, and critiques of our existential limits. I want the use of language–from how metaphors are being used, to how language functions in a world of change–kept in play when reasoning. These make for sensible cautions when deploying metaphysical arguments today. Indeed, I think it’s unreasonable not to do this.”

      I’d be interested in how you think any of these would cause us to abandon reason.

      I’m afraid that all of the “-isms” you mention also rely on the adherents to believe in truth and reason. Wouldn’t they all crumble when the first person asked them “why I should believe it?” otherwise?

      “Why, for example, do metaphysical arguments stop and start exactly where they do? That’s not just a logical question, but a question about the nature of language, culture, psychology, and society. It’s a fair question; it’s not a question that can be permanently bracketed.”

      I don’t see anything illogical in your question. “Is it further to Buffalo or by car?” is an illogical question.

      I think metaphysics starts with the question “Why?”. So what exactly is your complaint about metaphysical arguments and where they start and stop? Is the complaint that people expect them to make sense?

  17. Anonymous says:

    I see, so your answer to my fundamental question is “No…you don’t believe there are such things as objective truth or reason.” It’s apparent by your lack response.

    In this case, you permit yourself to claim that you are empathetic while advocating killing people with diseases. You widen the circle of human empathy by killing them off. I understand this now.

    I also understand the rant about some sort of “Red Scare”. You assume I am a conservative, must hate commies and so can easily be distracted from noticing your own moral monstrosity by shouting loudly about China and Russia threats. This seems to be a reasonable strategy which tells me that you are conflicted about your proposed beliefs and what you really hold.

    On to your other thread then.

    • Santi Tafarella says:

      I’m not sure how you drew the conclusion that I don’t believe in truth or reason from what I actually wrote.

      From my perspective, what you take to be solid metaphysical truth is speculation that does not take sufficient account of the presence of enigma in human existence.

      Louis Renou puts it nicely: “The enigma played a large role in the development of speculation: it is the condensed, pocket aspect of general mystery.”

      You’ve tidied up the cosmos a bit too thoroughly, and I don’t think this is in accord with reason.

      As to moral monstrosity, would it have been a moral monstrosity to be a pacifist on the eve of WWII? How is that not similarly the case with the genomic revolution? You have clean hands (so you imagine), but you’ve essentially absented yourself from the field of seriousness if you pretend that there won’t be a race between nations to develop this technology–and that we’ll have to think about how to navigate this. I don’t regard the Chinese as Maoists of the 60s variety, but I’m not turning my gaze from the fact that the country is deeply authoritarian and has global power ambitions. It also has a recent history of deploying genetic tests for analysis of how kindergartners should be tracked through the school system. China is not squeamish about the deployment of the emerging technology. You can’t just disengage and grouse about the genomic revolution from the sidelines–or pretend that computer superintelligence isn’t also a looming issue. That’s not acknowledging humanity’s actual existential situation.

  18. Anonymous says:

    “I’m not sure how you drew the conclusion that I don’t believe in truth or reason from what I actually wrote.”

    I drew the conclusion because the you didn’t address the the question I asked. The question was whether we had a mutual basis for discussion based on reaching the truth through reason.

    I asked the question, because you started to defend eugenics, but then started calling it “compassionate eugenics”. If one holds the belief that truth is only in how language is used ala Rorty, then it would be pointless for me to go down a certain path. The discussion should then focus on he reasonableness of this point of view. Is it consistent with reductive or eliminative materialism? Are these views reasonable? and so on.

    But there are those who have reached the conclusion that reason itself is an illusion, so there would be no point in appealing to reason. A different discussion would be in order.

    If one believes there is really no such thing as truth or reason, then that person could excuse himself mentally for not telling the truth, or doing damage to reason. If this is the person’s position, would he admit to it? Or would he deny it, since it may serve his greater perceived good to lie.

    How am I to proceed to rationally discuss the morality of things when one of the parties can’t agree there are really things, or rationality? I’d rather get to the root of the issue rather than discuss how China and Russia are morally bad.

    BTW, this particular answer doesn’t help the situation.

  19. Dude says:

    Why are Pedophiles and Mass Murderers being discussed in the same breath as Homosexuals? Talk about a stretch.I MHO

  20. Santi Tafarella says:


    No moral reasoning can be completely lacking in question begging. We don’t have an unclouded vision of the “is” from which to move with perfect confidence to the “ought.” This isn’t me being unreasonable, it’s just part of what it means to be human. We’re not residing outside of the system we’re trying to explain and react to. St Paul himself says we see through a glass darkly.

    So, in the ultimate sense, I can’t tell you with confidence why an evolved animal should be nice–except to say that we’ve evolved cooperative behaviors as part of our evolutionary strategy, and most of us would be quite unhappy not to live in social relationships of some form. We’re not sharks, content to swim alone, but bonobos. From this, we can reason about bonobo (human) flourishing and what makes for happiness.

    So if you and I can agree that (for example) torture is a bad thing and democracy and individual freedom are good things, we can reason from there together. But unlike you, I doubt we can get to a place where we can agree on the ontological status of torture, democracy, or freedom in the grand scheme of things. It’s just too murky and uncertain how to ground such things.

    Moral reasoning does not occur in a vacuum in any event. Even if you give, for example, “no torture” ontological status as a good, you’ve still got to face contexts for decision. Same with eugenics. If you see bad (Hitler-like) people in another country racing to develop the technology, are you going to say we shouldn’t try to get there first (say, discover the genes for intelligence that would raise average human intelligence by two standard deviations)?

    It’s like doping in bicycle racing. Once one rider starts doing it, the rest feel pressure to do it just to keep up. I’m not saying the dynamic is good, but it’s the existential situation the competitive bikers end up in. Think of Arjuna talking to Krishna in the Baghavad Gita. Arjuna is so flummoxed by the battle taking shape, that he decides to check out entirely: “I will not participate.” But this non-action, in this context, is a cop out (Krishna tells Arjuna). Arjuna is already deep in the game just by virtue of the fact of existing at this moment, in this context.

    Likewise, this is why I say that Obama and the Chinese have got to figure out how to agree to what’s next on this level–and how to control proliferation and monitor one another’s programs. It has to be dealt with with eyes wide open. If it becomes a free-for-all, your moralizing and purist position grounded in ontology will simply repeat the mistake of Arjuna. Your hands will be clean (at least to you)–but your perspective will be irrelevant to how things actually shake out.

    Like the computer in the 1980s movie War Games, you think the winning move is not to play. It feels good, but that’s only if both parties have figured this out at the same time (as when the computer plays itself).

  21. Anonymous says:

    As I mentioned, I consider it pointless to try to reason about the morality of things if my interlocutor does not believe in reason nor things nor morality.

    You assert that all “moral reasoning” is inherently fallacious.
    First, please be aware that there are more logical fallacies than “begging the question” and your assertion of a fallacy in this case does not fall into that category. Here is a list to help you identify what you really think the fallacy is and better communicate

    Of course I disagree with your assertion and I have principled reasons to disagree, but you have provided no argument for me to contend with, only an assertion.
    I assert that your philosophy requires that you reject the possibility of reason reaching truth whether moral or otherwise. I base my assertion on the observation of the philosophers you favor, the (unreasonable) arguments you provide and the way you conduct your dialog.

    You want to use “science” as a means to justify your conclusions. However, the basic assumption of science is that scientific conclusions cannot violate reason. Therefore, the very tool you want to use for your demonstration destroys your position as contra science. This is cognitive dissonance.

    I’m really interested in why you prefer this state of affairs. Does it mean that you prefer irrationality if the only other choice you can come up with is belief in God?

  22. Santi Tafarella says:


    Your reasoning is analogous to this: “Given that life on Mars exists, we should…”

    Hold it, kemosabe. First you’ve got to establish that life on Mars exists. You’re doing the same with your God-reasoning. “Given that God exists,…”–but we don’t know whether there is life on Mars–and we don’t know whether God exists. These questions are uncertain given our current state of knowledge.

    Treating them as certain is the unreasonable position.

    For example, a first cause of the sort that Aristotle posits is not anything like the deity conceived by Christians. So already, there’s a definitional problem of moving from Aristotle’s philosophical deity to the theological deity of contemporary Christians. For Christians, God is a personal being, both all powerful and all good.

    But to be confident that such a being exists, one would have to have at least a plausible explanation for God’s moral purposes in allowing the Holocaust–and I bet you don’t have that.

    The Holocaust is sufficient to establish that if God exists, we don’t have a clue as to her purposes–or what she would want us to be doing. The old sacred books are inconsistent on the problem of evil–and none of the proposed explanations for evil are adequate to account for God’s purposes in the Holocaust.

    So if you think this is an unfair conclusion, simply answer this two-part question: Did God allow (or want!) the Holocaust to happen so as to achieve her good purposes–and if so, what were those purposes?

    The Holocaust focuses the mind, and renders difficult any subsequent philosophical reasoning that starts confidently with, “A good, all powerful, and moral God exists; therefore, we should…”

    It won’t do to call God’s purposes a mystery, and move merrily and confidently along with your syllogisms. That’s question begging.

  23. Santi Tafarella says:

    As to science, atheists and agnostics have long maintained that we trust scientific reasoning because it is self-correcting and therefore not reliant on our brains working perfectly in the apprehension of the truth. We don’t need God to ground reason to think that science works. We have other good reasons. And yet you keep insisting I oppose reason–as if I reject Aristotle’s three laws of logic out-of-hand. Of course, I don’t.

    But I’m also not so naive as to believe that there are not difficult paradoxes lurking in the premises that metaphysicians frequently start with. These paradoxes, accompanied by an absence of evidence, make them problematic for drawing confident conclusions. For example, Nagarjuna, the famous Buddhist philosopher, uses logic to deconstruct essentialism. Is Nagarjuna right or is Thomas Aquinas right? I think there are sufficient ambiguities in where we start and stop such ultimate arguments that doubt is reasonable.

    I like this exchange from The Blue Cliff Record:

    Emperor Wu of Liang asked the great master Bodhidharma, “What is the first principle of the holy teaching?” Bodhidharma said, “Vast emptiness, nothing holy.” The Emperor asked, “Who stands before me?” Bodhidharma said, “I don’t know.”

    Bodhidharma might be wrong about the ultimate ecological nature of existence (interconnection and flux, and therefore empty), but if so, it’s not clear why. And Thomas might be correct that beings have real essences consisting of actuality and potency–though I think this idea papers over the paradoxes in being that Buddhists like Nagarjuna–and quantum physicists today–deconstruct.

    The reasonable conclusion, therefore, seems to be humility, not confidence. And yet we still have to move about in the world, and so rather than starting with God, we can reason from the human being (her flourishing, her evolutionary strategy–a combination of cooperation and competition, etc.). You want a world with “rocks in place” (to quote Thoreau). The world isn’t available to us like that. We have to navigate the fog. That’s the highest use of reason–to navigate the actual fog you find yourself in–and not deny it by gestures of confidence (“We’re not in fog, God definitely exists, we can treat metaphysics like math, we know what God wants us to do…”).

    That’s not the start for good reasoning, it’s plucking out one’s eyes.

  24. Anonymous says:

    But I didn’t assert that God exists in my post. I asked why you prefer to profess irrationality and if it had to do with you feeling trapped into to belief in God if you profess rationality otherwise.

    I have to conclude that the speculation was correct from the response you delivered. I wonder why you equate the defense of reason with defense of God.

    I did assert that as far as I can tell that your philosophy ultimately rejects reason as a means to reach the truth (even if it claims that truth exists).

    “As to science, atheists and agnostics have long maintained that we trust scientific reasoning because it is self-correcting”
    This is incorrect. The assertion is that the study of science is self-correcting, not that reason is self-correcting. Science assumes the rules of logic apply always and everywhere and are axiomatic. Science uses the rules of logic in it’s investigation and indeed it is logic and reason that does the correction to scientific conclusions.

    You want to make my defense of the rational thought process into a defense of God. I want to reach agreement with you that the only way humans can exchange information is via reasonable discussion.

    Bodhidharma may have the answers, but I want to hear the argument and see if it makes sense. It sounds to me that your argument is “People disagree about things. Therefore nothing can be certain. Therefore, I anything I decide is as good as anything else”.
    It’s like a teacher saying “There were a wide range of answers to the history test, so it couldn’t be determined what the correct answer was. So A’s for everyone except of course those who insist they got the “right” answer”.

  25. Santi Tafarella says:


    A readily accessible book that includes a translation of Nagarjuna’s arguments, as well as commentary on the arguments, can be found in “Nagarjuna’s Seventy Stanzas,” by David Ross Komito et. al. These stanzas deconstruct essentialism–and they do so solely by appeals to logic (eliminating contradictions, etc.). I personally find Nagarjuna’s arguments excellent–and fitting to an era concerned with ecology and systems thinking–but professional philosophers are obviously divided on the success of them, so I’m not confident that I’ve got something figured out where specialist opinion is sharply divided. I’d like to hear Feser’s response to Nagarjuna’s seventy stanzas (should he ever get into a Buddhist phase of study in his career). Anyway, to draw a definite conclusion between Aquinas and Nagarjuna would be to have more confidence in my independent cognitive capacities than I think is reasonable.

    So of course I believe, as you do, that you can’t have a reasonable discussion that tramples on Aristotle’s three laws of logic, but I also recognize that we’re historical and psychologically driven creatures with brains that don’t work perfectly, and that we’re embedded in the system we’re trying to explain. It’s not unreasonable, therefore, to be cautious about how confident one can be about conclusions–and to maintain an open mind to new evidence, arguments, and specialists that are sharply divided.

  26. Anonymous says:

    “So of course I believe, as you do, that you can’t have a reasonable discussion that tramples on Aristotle’s three laws of logic, but ”

    You see, this is what I’m talking about. You profess a “reason but” position.

    You’ve invited me to a game where you agree to play by a set of rules but the fine print says “the rules apply except when I change them”.

    You want to play the “science game” until you discover to play it consistently leads you to a place you don’t want to go. Then suddenly we’re playing the “Buddhist game” rules that destroy the “science game” rules. Sorry, I don’t want to play that game, but I’m interested in why you do.

    “I also recognize that we’re historical and psychologically driven creatures with brains that don’t work perfectly, and that we’re embedded in the system we’re trying to explain. It’s not unreasonable, therefore, to be cautious about how confident one can be about conclusions–and to maintain an open mind to new evidence, arguments, and specialists that are sharply divided.”

    I simply don’t believe you. You’ve clearly demonstrated that you believe Thomist conclusions are wrong very confidently and without caution. So I agree with you in part that your stance is psychologically driven since I see passion and angst whenever you even tangentially have to consider that it may be reasonable that Aquinas’s God may exist. Better to keep a “get out of reason free” card handy just in case.

  27. Santi Tafarella says:


    You keep presuming that my reasoning is motivated by a desire for Aquinas’s deity not to exist. That’s only half true. Aquinas’ arguments surrounding natural law, masturbation, obedience to authority qua authority, gays, women, the purpose of sex, patriarchy, Jews, damnation, original sin, etc. are repellent to me. I confess to being thoroughly modern, not medieval. I also think it would be quite awful for the deity of the Quran to exist, so I’m quite motivated in my rejection of Allah as well.

    But I would also love for a kind and personal God to exist. Wouldn’t that be a pleasant surprise if all dogs (and humans) go to heaven?

    Who wouldn’t want that?

    So I very much want Aquinas’ general arguments for a necessary being to hold up. I’m just not confident that they do.

    In terms of the metaphysical issue (in the broadest sense, whether God exists), something is coming into focus for me: philosophers need to hash out the fault lines between Aquinas and Nagarjuna–but I don’t see any books at Amazon that do this. If you know of such a book in which Thomists critique Nagarjuna, please let me know.

    Thomas and Nagarjuna are both brilliant logicians, and I’m interested in figuring out why, exactly, they start and stop their arguments in the places that they do (and thereby come to strikingly opposite conclusions). Because they come from strikingly different cultures and times, that’s also quite interesting to me.

    So I’ll share below (or perhaps in a separate blog post) my specific thoughts about the Aquinas/Nagarjuna tension. Perhaps you’ll have some interesting reflections in response–or a book to point me to.

    • Anonymous says:

      You did a good post on Prof Feser’s book a while back that was a good summary of the first chapter. Can you do the same for Nagarjuna’s logic?

      I have read some of Buddhism, but not a lot. From what I understand, it has similarities to Heraclitean philosophy.

      I think there are philosophies that are internally coherent and those that are internally incoherent. I think eliminative materialism is internally incoherent for example. Parmenidies monism may well have been internally coherent on the other hand.

      I have to reject internally incoherent philosophies. But for internally coherent philosophies, the next question to ask, is how it corresponds to what I and others experience as reality. If Parmenides’ monism is true, then change is an illusion….but we experience change regardless, so it must be wrong.

  28. Santi Tafarella says:

    Okay, I took a crack at articulating the key affinities and differences I see between Nagarjuna and Aquinas. See here:

  29. Anonymous says:

    Thanks for confirming that my presumption was correct.

    I see in your list of complaints against Thomist natural law arguments, you emphasize the sex thing 3 times starting with masturbation, then gays, then the purpose of sex. Can it be that when you found out about masturbation as youngster, that was the turning point? Did you decide then that any God that would call this wrong needed to be rejected? Maybe the other complaints are just thrown in for good measure…..almost as an afterthought.

    It’s tough to be told that something you enjoy is wrong. I can see where a person being told that his actions were wrong, would consider the interlocutor “mean” and have an emotional response.
    Ultimately though, regardless of how we feel about things, we are drawn to seek the truth, even though the light may hurt our eyes. Don’t you agree?

    • Santi Tafarella says:

      Sure, I’m all for the light, and most of us (including me) would go through a great deal of pain and deprivation now if we had reasonable confidence that God exists, is a loving person, and punishes and rewards after death.

      But you haven’t established any of this–nor tried. You can’t even tell me a plausible reason for why a loving God allowed the Holocaust, so what makes you think you’ve got the right answer for why a loving God disallows masturbation? Before you strain out the gnat of masturbation, you need to tell me how you swallow the camel of the Holocaust–and still believe in God.

      So you have a very low opinion of non-believers’ motivations (mine, anyway) if you think we would seriously prefer present material indulgences (sex, drugs, rock-n-roll, etc.) to long-term, tangible gains in an eternal afterlife. Most non-believers routinely put off present pleasures for delayed rewards.

      Your thesis of atheist and agnostic motivation, therefore, is silly, and actually distracts from why women and sex should be brought up in a critique of traditional religion in the first place.

      With regard to sex, there is no rational basis for treating it with forms of hysterical abstinence outside of marriage, and the metaphysical arguments surrounding masturbation prohibition indicate that the traditional religions are human-made things–not things coming from God. Ditto the arguments from metaphysics that keep women from full equality–such as women excluded from the Catholic priesthood.

      With regard to masturbation, Aquinas used his method of metaphysical deduction from first premises to make rape less sinful than masturbation–because rape at least does not interfere with the “proper” target of ejaculation (the womb of a woman). I raise masturbation, therefore, as an obvious example of the sort of reductio ad absurdum that enters Aquinas-style natural law reasoning.

      And we shouldn’t pretend that we’re not reasoning at a time after Freud and Stephen Greenblatt existed. The forms of reasoning pioneered by 20th century thinkers like these ought to be on the table in terms of how we deconstruct contemporary arguments. The milk of modernism has spilled, and it can’t just be ignored. We should be pointing to psychology and history–such as the psychology and history of prudery and sexism–when talking about the arguments from metaphysics surrounding sex and women.

      Psychology and historicism are not the only ways to come at such issues, but they also shouldn’t be bracketed (out of sight, out of mind). Argument from metaphysical premises, after all, can be steered in all sorts of ways (depending on the motivations of the reasoner). So noticing contingencies is not only fair–it’s often telling.

      There was a time, for example, when slavery was seriously entertained as a rational institution on metaphysical grounds (Aristotle’s infamous arguments being instances, and perhaps Aquinas shared them).

      But I, for one, simply cannot imagine why anyone in the 21st century, other than a racist, would feel the need to re-litigate slavery (just to make sure the arguments haven’t been sound all along–you know, in the interest of the truth). We don’t need to do this, and this doesn’t mean we hate the truth. We all know (again, post-Freud, post-Wittgenstein, post-Greenblatt) why the arguments for slavery aren’t sound and go wrong. They’re not sound because metaphysics is not mathematics, and the arguments functioned, in fact, as ritualized ways for intellectuals to reach conclusions they desired in advance. Garbage in, garbage out. It has to do with an unconscious absorption of racist cultural norms taken for natural and rationalized (after the fact) by reason.

      The same thing is going on among fundamentalists and traditionalists today in their overheated reaction to (of all sins in the world) gay and lesbian sex. (The horror!) History, literature, and psychology explore homophobia, and trace its causes, much better than metaphysical arguments. The natural law metaphysics arguments are not about getting at the truth of matters, or about bravely navigating metaphysics with eyes wide open, but about nostalgia, fear, and loathing masked in anxious religious argumentation.

      You know this, and I know it. You know this because you are not a child of the 12th century, but of the 21st century. Our species has left its innocence. You know too much of psychology and history to pretend that arguments for slavery, against women’s equality, and against homosexual equality are just the working out of unalterable logical math backed by a supernatural deity speaking through popes and ancient books.

  30. Anonymous says:

    “So you have a very low opinion of non-believers’ motivations (mine, anyway) if you think we would seriously prefer present material indulgences (sex, drugs, rock-n-roll, etc.) to long-term, tangible gains in an eternal afterlife. ”

    No, I don’t have a low opinion of you. I also don’t have any thesis for atheist or agnostic motivations. We certainly share different opinions and I expect I won’t change your’s. But we have engaged in an interesting dialog and I am curious.

    I don’t think we can have a satisfying discussion for either of us if we can’t exchange ideas. The only way we can exchange our ideas is if we can agree that the basis is rational discussion. Rational discussion means reasoning to truth.

    My thesis is that you want to avoid following reason to truth for some purpose and perhaps even deny there is such a thing as truth. I’m interested in why.

    It seems to me from our discussion that it is true that you don’t trust reason to find truth if it leads some place you don’t want to go. Since it seems there is an unspoken or even unconscious psychological motivation for this, I am trying to understand what the motivation is so we can discuss that. Otherwise, we will be stuck with an irrational discussion.

    The question I asked about masturbation being the turning point wouldn’t have occurred to me at all if I hadn’t read all your posts where you prominently, proudly frequently mention it. In fact it was the first of the 9 things you listed as complaints against natural law with 2 more of the 9 pertaining to sex. I’m not a psychologist, but wouldn’t someone list complaints from the most important to the least and list the most important more frequently? That is my reasoning.

    I understand if you don’t want to talk about masturbation if you consider it shameful.

  31. Santi Tafarella says:


    First, I think I’ve got my head (if not my meditation and yoga practice) around Nagarjuna’s basic ideas–most specifically, non-duality–but in the event I don’t get to writing a post about this in the near future, the consistently best academic writer (in my view) on Buddhism and Nagarjuna is an American who spent many years teaching at a Japanese university: David Loy. Loy, like Feser, is also an excellent stylist with a PhD in philosophy. He’s not hard to read; he writes clearly; he has mastered the Buddhist history and canon of materials thoroughly. He also draws parallels (on occasion) to Christian mystics like Meister Ekhart, so you might like that.

    I’ll recommend three of his books, though it’s hard to pick a bad or weak book of his: “Awareness Bound and Unbound,” “Non-Dual,” and “Lack and Transcendence.” And if you want an extremely interesting critique of Western cultural history from a Buddhist vantage, also locate a copy of “A Buddhist History of the West.” I foisted this book on a professional philosopher who is a friend of mine, but being from China, she couldn’t follow the history fluidly. If I recommend a book to her in the future, it might be “Non-Dual.” But as for you, if you like history and thinking about the direction of the broader global culture, you’ll like the book.

    As for a readily accessible translation of one of Nagarjuna’s basic works, the “Seventy Stanzas,” I recommend David Komito’s book.

    As for masturbation, I think it’s an absurd behavior (primates are hilarious), but not shameful. Having grown up in a family suffused with both practicing Protestants and Catholics, masturbation was taught as a sin–and I was in a circle of Christian friends who even (for a brief time) agreed to “confess” to one another when they had committed this specific sin. In retrospect, confession itself was an absurd and ridiculous behavior. But this is the sort of thing one does when you’re deeply religious at age fifteen. It was all so irrational–the prohibition, the distress at “stumbling,” the guilt, the fear of hell, the forgiveness seeking, the confession. A terrible waste of time and energy.

    In retrospect, freeing the body is freeing the mind. I really do think that sexual liberation is often tied up with mental liberation. It certainly was for me. It’s part of Blake’s binding and loosing of energies.

    I’ve always wanted God to exist. I really am not motivated (consciously) by my not wanting God to exist. It’s hard to no longer be a theist–to be an agnostic. I’d much prefer to be convinced by some form of supernaturalism. It was hard to come out as a teenager; to tell the truth to friends and relatives that Christianity did not hold up to close scrutiny for me. Perhaps this is why I’m animated by gay equality. I see their struggle to come out of the closet as akin to my own as a teen. I’ve run the maze of possibilities, and if I’m hard on theist positions, it’s because I press things to the limit to see if they still hold up to the acid of full scrutiny.

    This could be interpreted as “not wanting something to be true,” but it’s really the opposite. When I started reading Feser’s books a few years back, and visiting Feser’s site, it was with a genuine interest in seeing if maybe, just maybe, I’d missed something on the Catholic side of intellectualism that I’d already dismissed on the Protestant side. Alas, it was like visiting Oz, a little disorienting at first, but once I caught on, beyond Aquinas’ metaphysics of being, I don’t really see much going on that is convincing.

    But Aquinas is obviously an enormously gifted logician, and he is an excellent foil to thinking–as is, I believe, Nagarjuna. A dialogue between these two thinkers would be quite interesting–and I’m surprised, actually, at the paucity of scholars exploring the intersections between them.

    • Anonymous says:

      “As for masturbation, I think it’s an absurd behavior (primates are hilarious), but not shameful.”

      I might have bought that if I hadn’t read all the your posts where you so prominently defend masturbation and if you hadn’t reacted so violently when I asked if this could have been a motivation. If it was just something you considered funny that primates do like flinging feces I wouldn’t expect those who oppose the practice to be accused of favoring slavery or to be told that they think rape is better. It seemed you reacted as if I personally attacked you.

      “I really am not motivated (consciously) by my not wanting God to exist.”
      That’s what I’m thinking also. But I can see that there is a motivation for you not wanting God to exist non the less. Maybe it is an unconscious reaction. I can see it in the ways that you resist to fairly and dispassionately represent the position that he does exist.

      So let me ask you this.
      Will Buddhism allow you to escape the reincarnation cycle if you are attached to this practice?

      • Santi Tafarella says:

        There are Westerners (and intellectual Easterners) who naturalize Buddhism (Sam Harris, Stephen Bachelor, Owen Flanagan, etc.), and I’m one of those–so no, I don’t believe in reincarnation. I believe in Whitman, Nietzsche, Kerouac, Emily Dickinson, William Blake, Thoreau, and Allan Ginsberg–seven people I think inhabited the present at peak moments in admirable ways. What I hope to take from meditation practice is not so much an ontology, but greater awareness of present existence absent grasping into the next moment.

  32. Santi Tafarella says:


    As for truth, it’s been my life passion. I want to know what’s true. I’ve thought about it a lot. And at this point in my life, I think there are three things that are true:

    (1) I am a limited being, embedded in the system I’m trying to explain, which means I cannot be wholly confident that I’ve got a handle on the ultimate truth (though I can speculate). On the plus side, I can get a handle on my phenomenological experience. That’s something.

    (2) The truth is the whole–which means you can’t bracket off small concerns from larger ones and still have the whole truth. If God exists, God’s ultimate truth doesn’t negate my phenomenological truth. Time and space; center and margin; metaphysics and history and psychology–they’re all important. They all go together, and you can’t really order what’s important about them into a hierarchy. What is means from one vantage is ends from another. Perspective is plural.

    Put another way, this moment, as you experience it, is means and ends to the whole cosmos up to now. It’s of central importance now, and also of utility to some future now. Buddhism is in part about waking up to what’s present to you now; to honoring each moment as, in Wallace Stevens’ phrase, the Emperor of Ice Cream (which is an end in itself–yum!–and also melting away). Part of suffering is missing the moment because we are discontent with some aspect of it. We make the discontented moment subservient to a craving, which leads to grasping and holding, which leads to disappointment when it all passes. I think of Blake’s “eternity in an hour.” Along the way to something else, in our obsession with shoring up a boundary, we’ve lost the moments.

    Likewise with truth. The truth is Nietzsche’s mobile army of metaphors; the turning of a diamond that won’t stop spinning. It’s when we try to freeze the diamond of truth in mid-spin and say–“This is the one vantage on the diamond that should be taken as the Truth”–that we start to feel unease. It won’t stay fixed because we’re always leaving something out. Language fails.

    (3) The language fails because truth is akin to a hyperobject (a thing too large to get one’s head wholly around–such as an iceberg or world history). It’s also something ultimately non-dual (think of the first purport of the Tao Te Ching here), and that makes for difficulties because language and evolution are, by their very emergence out of the non-dual, concerned with noun and verb, subject and object, cell wall and environment, what’s in and what’s out, etc. Locally and pragmatically, language and evolutionary boundary-making (I compete here and cooperate there; I don’t care here and empathize there, etc.) are important–you can’t say anything or survive without them. But ultimately, existence is “on the move,” a continuum, an interconnection, an emptiness–and these can’t be put into words; into species categories.

    So no man (nor thing) is really an island. Not ultimately. No thing has self-existence. Being and non-being are dependent on one another; non-dual–which makes for emptiness and mystery. The emptiness within the pot is inseparable from the form of the pot. You can’t have emptiness without the pot, nor the pot without emptiness. Yet we split them up–because we have to for speech. “This clay part here–that’s the pot. This empty part inside the pot, that’s not the pot.” We do the same with ourselves in relation to our environment.

    So what are you going to inhale (intellectually)? What are you going to exhale? What in this moment will you notice and make important–and what will you relax about or make unimportant? Will you see this moment as truth in the sense of it being both end and means–or will you push it away for some other truth out in the future?

    That, to me, is the problem of our relation to truth: given our existential situation, what will we notice; what will we make important? If the ultimate truth alludes us (because of the limitations of language; because the doors of our perception are conditioned by habit, by our evolution, by our cultural zeitgeist, by our desires; by the fact that we are limited beings embedded in the system we’re trying to comprehend), we nevertheless have this moment. Are we accepting it, resisting it, noticing it? What’s our relation to the truth in this moment–this moment of truth?

    I’m not talking about just our relation to an uncertain truth out in the future–something we may have inferred or abstracted incorrectly, by the way–but this moment right now. Means and ends are right now. What room within truth is there for play and the now? What will we make of the Emperor of Ice Cream? That’s the truth too.

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