Friday, July 29, 2011

John Locke's Biological Naturalism

Leo Strauss and many of those influenced by Strauss have assumed that John Locke's political philosophy rejected the rule of nature in favor of the rule of convention. They have concluded from this that Lockean liberal thought generally has no ground in nature and thus prepares the way for modern relativism and nihilism. This reading of Locke is mistaken because it fails to recognize that in criticizing the Platonic naturalism of eternal essences, Locke is defending a biologically empirical science of natural history that points back to Aristotle and ahead to Darwin.

In Natural Right and History, Strauss insists that Locke's political philosophy is a revolutionary break with the philosophic tradition of classic natural right.

Through the shift of emphasis from natural duties or obligations to natural rights, the individual, the ego, had become the center and origin of the moral world, since man--as distinguished from man's end--had become that center or origin. . . . The world in which human creativity seems to reign supreme is, in fact, the world which has replaced the rule of nature by the rule of convention. From now on, nature furnishes only the worthless materials as in themselves; the forms are supplied by man, by man's free creation. For there are no natural forms, no intelligible "essences": "the abstract ideas" are "the inventions and creatures of the understanding, made by it for its own use." Understanding and science stand in the same relation to "the given" in which human labor, called forth to its supreme effort by money, stands to the raw materials. There are, therefore, no natural principles of understanding: all knowledge is acquired; all knowledge depends on labor and is labor. (pp. 248-49)


Against this claim that Locke denies "the rule of nature," we might notice Locke's constant appeals to "the principles of human nature," which include the natural desires for survival, reproduction, social life, and knowledge, as expressing the natural pursuit of happiness as the ultimate end of human action (FT, 88-97; ST, 10, 67). "The highest perfection of intellectual nature lies in a careful and constant pursuit of true and solid happiness" (ECHU, 2.21.52).

In recognizing this Lockean appeal to human nature and the nature of human happiness, I agree with Tom West and with Peter Myers in his book Our Only Star and Compass: Locke and the Struggle for Political Rationality (Rowman and Littlefield, 1998).

Strauss assumes that in criticizing reasoning about "essences," Locke is rejecting the reality of "natural forms" altogether. But Strauss fails to see how this Lockean skepticism about Platonic essentialism is grounded on an empirical science of biological natural history that goes back to Aristotle, which was to be fulfilled by Darwinian evolutionary science.

In the Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Locke rejects those scholastic proponents of reasoning about eternally fixed essences, because they "suppose their words to stand also for the reality of things," and because they understand natural science to consist in "the bare contemplation of . . . abstract Ideas" (3.2.5; 4.12.9). By contrast, Locke argues, "to define names right, natural history is to be enquired into; and their properties are, with care and examination, to be found out" (3.11.24).  Rather than studying human understanding through the logical analysis of mental abstractions, Locke relies on "this historical, plain method" of reasoning from observational experience of what actually happens (Intro., 2).

Rather than deductive reasoning from supposedly eternal and fixed "essences," Locke thus appeals to natural history as the way to understand "the nature of things themselves" through experience and observation. Such knowledge does not permit demonstration and certainty, but it does provide probabilistic knowledge. We can thus know "the regular proceedings of causes and effects in the ordinary course of nature," and this we call "an argument from the nature of things themselves" (4.16.6). Nature is so highly variable and contingent that we cannot reliably discover the unchanging essences sought by the scholastics. But we can discover with some probability the regular patterns in the natural world. "I would not here be thought to forget, much less to deny, that nature in the production of things, makes several of them alike: there is nothing more obvious, especially in the races of animals and all things propagated by seed" (3.3.13).

This reference to the natural order of the living world of plants and animals is significant because it manifests Locke's biological understanding. Locke was a medical doctor and medical researcher. In his personal library, he had more medical books than books of philosophy. He was an associate of Thomas Sydenham, the most prominent medical doctor and researcher of his time, who promoted medicine as an empirical science of natural history. Similarly, Locke's philosophical science of human nature was an empirical, probabilistic science that looked for recurrent patterns in the variable phenomena of human thought and action, a science of life that could be traced back to Aristotle and that was carried forward by Darwin.

That Locke is drawing from the Aristotelian biological tradition of understanding species is evident when one notices the passages in the Essay that are almost direct quotations from Aristotle's biological writings.  For example, Locke's comments on how "we shall find everywhere that the several species are linked together, and differ but in almost insensible degrees" (3.6.12; 4.16.2) echo passages in Aristotle's Part of Animals (681a10-15).  Like Locke, Aristotle is criticizing the Platonic tradition of essentialism in defending a biological concept of species rooted in an empirical science of natural history.

Some related posts can be found here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Does Gay Marriage Perform the Functions of Marriage?

The "Sunday Styles" section of yesterday's New York Times has a collection of articles on how gays are responding to the legalization of gay marriage in New York State. The recurrent theme is how gay marriage might satisfy the same social needs that are satisfied by heterosexual marriage.

For example, one article by Lisa Belkin is entitled "For the Sake of the Children." Gay men and lesbians want to legalize their marriages as a way of securing their attachment to their children. One mother is quoted as saying, "We feel like we're marrying the kids."

But is this really true? Is the legalization of gay marriage warranted because it performs the same functions as heterosexual marriage?

On his blog, Empedocles denies this in two recent posts on the function of marriage and on answering the arguments for gay marriage.

He argues that the evolutionary function of marriage is to solve the problems that arise from heterosexual intercourse--particularly, the need for producing and rearing children. Since the function of marriage as a social institution is to solve this problem, and since gay marriage would not serve this function, it is just for government to legalize heterosexual marriage but not gay marriage. This does not violate the "equal protection" clause of the United States Constitution, because equal treatment allows for discrimination against those people who lack the qualifications relevant to performing a social function, and gays cannot perform the function of producing and rearing children.

For me, this argument raises three sets of questions.

(1) Do gay marriages perform the function of producing and rearing children? For some gays, the primary purpose of gay marriage is to support the bond between gay parents and their children. Are they wrong about this? If they are, does this imply that gay parenting should be illegal, because gay parenting cannot properly perform the social function of producing and rearing children?

(2) Do childless marriages perform the function of securing conjugal bonding? Many gay marriages will be childless. But, of course, many heterosexual marriages are childless. If Empedocles is right about marriage having only one function--producing and rearing children--then any childless marriage is not really a marriage. Is there any socially relevant difference between a childless heterosexual marriage and a childless gay marriage?

Is conjugal bonding a distinct function of marriage? If so, does that mean that reinforcing the exclusive sexual bond of the marriage partners allows marriage to solve the social problems associated with sexual mating? Has evolution produced conjugal bonding as a natural desire distinct from parental care?

(3) Does marriage require governmental licensing? Empedocles seems to assume that the social institution of marriage cannot function without a system of governmental licensing by which the government acts as the "describer" in specifying what counts as a marriage. But then he also speaks of how "social stigma" is often the most effective means for holding partners to their marriage vows and their parental duties. If so, does that mean that marriage as a social institution depends mostly on the social norms of civil society rather than the laws of the state? Throughout most of human history, marriage has been enforced by social practices without governmental licensing. Does this suggest the possibility of "privatizing" marriage, so that the norms of marriage would be determined by families, churches, and other social institutions without the necessity of getting a license from government?

Some posts on "Darwinian marriage" can be found here, here, and here.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Cicero, Aquinas, and Intelligent Design Anthropomorphism

Darwinian natural right is the natural fulfillment of Thomistic natural law, because it shows how natural law can be truly natural in so far as it is rooted in evolved human nature, without any necessity for appealing to theistic faith, and thus Darwinian natural right escapes the incoherence of Thomistic natural law.

Thomas Aquinas's natural law teaching suffers from a fundamental incoherence. On the one hand, Aquinas distinguishes natural law from divine law, just as he distinguishes what we can know by natural reason from what we can know only by divine revelation. Although divine law can reinforce natural law for those who are religious believers, natural law can stand on its own natural ground, because it is comprehensible to human beings by their natural experience of their natural inclinations and natural reason, regardless of whether they are religious believers. On the other hand, however, Aquinas embeds his teaching on natural law within a Christian theological teaching in a way that suggests that natural law depends on divine law. But in that case, it seems that natural law is not truly natural. Even the term natural law suggests this by suggesting that there must be a divine lawgiver. Consequently, Leo Strauss and his students have criticized Thomistic natural law as a betrayal of classic natural right.

The Darwinian account of the natural moral sense fulfills Thomistic natural law by grounding it in evolved human nature without any necessity for a theistic cosmology. In doing that, the Darwinian account follows in a tradition of Socratic/Ciceronian skepticism about the theistic cosmology of intelligent design, a tradition that stretches from Cicero's De Natura Deorum to Hume's Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion.

One can see what's at issue here by noticing the one place in the Summa Theologica where Aquinas refers to Cicero's De Natura Deorum. Aquinas is arguing that we must see the world as governed by God when he writes:

Certain ancient philosophers denied the government of the world, saying that all things happened by chance. But such an opinion can be refuted as impossible in two ways. First, by observation of things themselves. For we observe that in nature things happen always or nearly always for the best, which would not be the case unless some sort of providence directed nature towards good as an end, which is to govern. Wherefore, the unfailing order we observe in things is a sign of their being governed. For instance, if we enter a well-ordered house, we gather therefrom the intention of him that put it in order, as Tullius says (De Nat. Deorum ii), quoting Aristotle. Secondly, this is clear form a consideration of divine goodness. . . . (I, qu. 103, a. 1)


Although Aquinas refers to Cicero hundreds of times in his writings, he refers to the De Natura Deorum only three times, and this is the only reference to the book in the Summa Theologica. That's surprising. Since this book is one of the most important statements on ancient theological cosmology, one might think that Aquinas would need to consider this book as he lays out his own theological cosmology. We might explain this, however, by noting that this book contains the most explicit and rigorous attacks on theological cosmology as based on intelligent design reasoning. Aquinas never defends his own theological cosmology against these attacks.

The radical character of the skeptical attack on religion in Cicero's book is indicated by the fact that Hume followed the style and substance of Cicero's book in his own Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, which was published after Hume's death because of his fear of persecution. Hume's skepticism about natural theology and the intelligent design argument was continued by Darwin in defending his theory of natural evolution against the theory of special creation.

In the passage above, Aquinas is referring to a defense of Stoic intelligent-design cosmology in Cicero's book coming from Balbus (2.15-17, 87, 95). Remarkably, Aquinas is silent about the vigorous refutation of Balbus's reasoning coming from Cotta, a Roman priest who is also an Academic skeptic. Moreover, Aquinas never responds to Cotta's criticisms of the sort of intelligent-design reasoning that Aquinas himself adopts.

Aquinas restates Balbus's claim that the only alternative to explaining the world as intelligently designed by God is to say that everything happens by chance. But Cotta insists that there's another possibility--that we can explain nature's order as a product of nature itself in which things emerge by the spontaneous order of natural processes without any need to assume a divinely intelligent mind at work. "But not all things, Balbus, that have fixed and regular courses are to be accredited to a god rather than to nature" (3.24).

Furthermore, Cotta indicates, Balbus's intelligent-design reasoning assumes a ridiculous anthropomorphic analogy by which we assume that the whole world is an artifact that implies the existence of a divine artist. Aquinas refers to Balbus's house analogy, which Cotta ridicules:

He says, "If we saw a beautiful house, we should infer that it was built for its masters, and not for mice; so therefore we must regard the world to be the house of the gods." Assuredly, I should so regard it, if I thought it had been built like a house, and not constructed by nature, as I shall show that it was.


Cotta challenges Balbus to prove that we must explain the world as analogous to a human artifact. Like Balbus, Aquinas assumes the plausibility of this analogy without proof. When Aquinas sets out his proofs for the existence of God, one of the objections he considers is: "For all natural things can be reduced to one principle, which is nature; and all voluntary things can be reduced to one principle, which is human reason or will. Therefore, there is no need to suppose God's existence." Aquinas replies: "Since nature works for a determinate end under the direction of a higher agent, whatever is done by nature must needs be traced back to God, as to its first cause" (I, q. 2, a. 3, ad 2). Thus, Aquinas assumes that our natural experience with human agency can be anthropomorphically projected onto the world as the work of a "higher agent." 

Aquinas makes it clear that natural theology depends on the plausibility of this anthropomorphic analogy of intentional artifice: "In all things moved by reason, the order of reason that moves them is evident, although the things themselves are without reason.  For an arrow through the movement of the archer goes straight towards the target, as though it were endowed with reason to direct its course.  The same may be seen in the movements of clocks and all engines put together by the art of man.  Now as artificial things are in comparison to human art, so are all natural things in comparison to the divine art" (ST, I-II, q. 13, a. 2, ad 3).

Cotta indicates the many problems with this anthropomorphism of intelligent-design cosmology. We know by natural experience how human minds work in executing human intelligent design. But we know nothing about how divine minds could work to create the world. Human minds are always embodied. But it's ridiculous to think that the gods have human bodies, with the mortality and other limitations that come with embodiment. We might say that the gods are disembodied minds. But then it's inconceivable how a mind could have any knowledge without bodily senses.

It's not clear that Aquinas ever responds to such criticisms. Of course, his response might be that our understanding of the Divine Mind requires faith in divine revelation, and "faith and science are not about the same thing," because "the reasons employed by holy men to prove things that are of faith are not demonstrations" (II-II, q. 1, a. 5). But if that's his response, that only confirms Cotta's complaint that intelligent-design cosmology is not based on rational proof but on religious belief.

The ancient Christian writer Lactantius observed: "Cicero was aware that the objects of men's worship were false. For after saying a number of things tending to subvert religion, he adds nevertheless that these matters ought not to be discussed in public, lest such discussion destroy the established religion of the nation" (Divine Institutions, 2.32).

Does this explain Aquinas's reticence--that it was not good to publicly discuss the flaws in intelligent design cosmology, because this might subvert religious and political order?

Cicero has Cotta indicate in De Natura Deorum that Plato and other philosophers had developed intelligent-design cosmology as a noble lie to support popular morality and political order, a noble lie that the philosophers knew to be a lie (1.30, 77). In his Academica, Cicero has Varro argue that when Socrates turned away from cosmology to the study of the human things, this suggested that cosmology has nothing to do with the human good (1.15). Similarly, Cotta suggests that natural right has nothing to do with the cosmos or the gods, because it depends on human social life and on a naturally instinctive conscience by which human beings judge what is right and wrong for human life (3.38, 85).

Darwin deepened this understanding by showing how the "conscience or moral sense" could be explained as arising from the naturally evolved spontaneous order of human instincts, human customs, and human judgments.

And yet Darwin recognized that religious belief could be important for reinforcing this natural moral sense. He also recognized that the natural human desire for ultimate explanation leaves us with a fundamental choice between nature and God as the unexplained ground of all explanation, and thus he left open the unresolved conflict between reason and revelation.

Recent research in the evolutionary psychology of morality confirms and deepens each of these points concerning the evolved instinctive basis of morality, religious understanding, and intellectual understanding.

A good article on Cicero, Aquinas, and natural law is Adam Seagrave's "Cicero, Aquinas, and Contemporary Issues in Natural Law Theory" (THE REVIEW OF METAPHYSICS, vol. 62, March, 2009, pp. 491-523). Seagrave's argues--correctly, I think--that one can see how Thomistic natural law need not depend upon Christian beliefs if one sees it as a continuation of Ciceronian natural law, which was based on an Aristotelian understanding of human nature. Seagrave does not say enough, however, about the crucial issue of Stoic theological cosmology. He points to "the Stoic cosmology which serves as the foundation for the natural law, a cosmology which had been discredited by Cicero himself in his DE NATURA DEORUM and has been widely discarded since Cicero's time." But Seagrave does not reflect on the point that Aquinas embraced a Christian version of the Stoic cosmology. Nor does Seagrave reflect on the possibility that the Darwinian rejection of an anthropomorphic moral cosmology fulfills Cicero's suggestion that natural law need not depend on such a cosmology.

Some previous posts on related topics can be found here, here, here, and here.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Are Honeybees Created in God's Image?

In commenting on my previous post on Alvin Plantinga's evolutionary argument against naturalism, "Empedocles" pointed out that the honeybee waggle dance is a dramatic example of how evolution by natural selection favors adaptive behavior that tracks the truth about the world.

This suggests that we can account for the natural evolution of reliable cognitive faculties without assuming a theistic explanation of human mental capacity as a product of divine creation in the image of God.

Plantinga implicitly concedes this point when he acknowledges that natural evolution tends to produce "accurate indicators." But then he insists that this has nothing to do with "true beliefs." He offers no evidence, however, for this assertion that the evolution of "accurate indicators" has nothing to do with the evolution of "true beliefs" in animals with complex nervous systems (like human beings).

Even without attributing any conscious beliefs to honeybees, the remarkable accuracy of their waggle dance illustrates how natural evolution--even without divine guidance--can produce animal cognition and communication that shows an accurate representation of the world as related to the needs of the animal.

Or would Plantinga argue that this can only be explained as the work of God--that the cognitive abilities of honeybees show that they have been created to some degree in the image of God?

The waggle dance of honeybees can be seen in a YouTube video.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Plantinga's Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism

One of the primary doctrines of traditional theism is that God created human beings in His image. And if God is pure Mind, that suggests that it is primarily in the human mind that we see that divine image.

That's Thomas Aquinas's teaching. "Since human beings are said to be in the image of God in virtue of their having a nature that includes an intellect, such a nature is most in the image of God in virtue of being most able to imitate God" (ST, I, q. 93, a. 4). "Only in rational creatures is there found a likeness of God which counts as an image. . . . As far as a likeness of the divine nature is concerned, rational creatures seem somehow to attain a representation of that type in virtue of imitating God not only in this, that he is and lives, but especially in this, that he understands" (I, q. 93, a. 6).

One of the best arguments for theism is that this theistic doctrine of the human mind as created by God in His image provides the necessary support for the validity of human thought, including the validity of modern science. If we embrace Naturalism--the view that nothing exists except Nature, and so there is no God or nothing like God--we are caught in self-contradiction: if human thought originated not from a divine Mind but from the irrational causes of Nature, then we cannot trust our minds as reliable, and thus we cannot trust our belief in Naturalism. Naturalism destroys itself by destroying the rationality of believing in Naturalism, or anything else. Insofar as science--including evolutionary science--depends on the validity of human thought, and insofar as theism is the indispensable support for trusting in the validity of human thought, science is not only compatible with theism, science depends upon theism.

When I was a college freshman, I first learned this argument from reading C. S. Lewis's book Miracles, and it impressed me as one of the most powerful arguments for theism. 25 years later, as a college professor, I heard Alvin Plantinga present a more sophisticated version of the same argument when he gave a seminar presentation at my university on his paper "Naturalism Defeated."

I agree with Lewis and Plantinga that theistic religion and evolutionary science are compatible, because while science requires a methodological naturalism, it does not require the metaphysical naturalism that denies theism. I also agree with them that the theistic belief in the divine creation of the human mind can support our confidence in scientific reasoning, including evolutionary reasoning. But I disagree with their claim that evolutionary science is self-contradictory or incoherent without theism.

Plantinga has presented his argument in various writings, including the paper "Naturalism Defeated." A short summary of the argument is in the Introduction to Naturalism Defeated?: Essays on Plantinga's Evolutionary Argument against Naturalism, edited by James Beilby (Cornell University Press, 2002), which includes critiques of the argument by various authors and Plantinga's reply to the critiques. One of the best critiques in this volume is Evan Fales, "Darwin's Doubt, Calvin's Calvary." Plantinga's argument also comes up in his debate with Daniel Dennett in their recent book Science and Religion: Are They Compatible? (Oxford University Press, 2011).

Without going into all the technical details that are so dear to the hearts of analytic philosophers, here's the core of the argument in four steps.

(1) If we understand naturalism as the belief that there is no God--no supernatural Mind outside of Nature that created Nature--and if the naturalist is also a Darwinian who believes that evolutionary science explains the origins of all life, including human life, then the Darwinian naturalist must believe that the mental faculties of human beings originated through evolution by natural selection favoring those random mutations that were adaptive for survival and reproduction.

(2) Natural selection rewards adaptive behavior and punishes maladaptive behavior. But natural selection does not care about the truth or falsity of an animal's beliefs. If beliefs produce adaptive behavior, they will be rewarded by natural selection regardless of whether the beliefs are true or false. Therefore, the evolution of adaptive behavior in our prehistoric ancestors did not guarantee or make it probable that our cognitive faculties would be reliable in generating mostly true beliefs.

(3) From this it follows that the Darwinian naturalist has no good reason to trust his cognitive faculties as reliable. But then it follows that the Darwinian naturalist has no good reason to feel confident that his belief in naturalism is true. Consequently, Darwinian naturalism is self-defeating in that it contradicts itself.

(4) Darwinian science--and science generally--can escape this self-defeating position by rejecting naturalism and accepting theism, because theism believes that our human minds were created by God in His image such that we can understand the intelligible world He has created, and therefore we can be confident in the reliability of our divinely created cognitive faculties. This is compatible with evolutionary science, because we can assume that God has guided the evolutionary process, perhaps by causing those random mutations that He foresaw as facilitating the evolution of the human mind in its capacity for correctly understanding the world. This is also necessary for evolutionary science because it supports our confidence in the validity of human reason and escapes the incoherence of naturalism.

Like Lewis, Plantinga is a theistic evolutionist. He accepts the truth of Darwinian evolutionary science, because he believes that God could have used the evolutionary process to carry out his creative plan, which required miraculous acts by God to guide the evolutionary process towards human beings as having minds manifesting the intellectual image of God.

Dennett and other critics of Plantinga have objected that science requires naturalism, because in all scientific inquiry, the scientist must assume that everything can be explained by natural regularities or laws that are never broken by miraculous events. Otherwise, every regularity or law of science would have to be stated with the qualification unless God performs a miracle and suspends His laws. Such arbitrariness in the order of nature would make natural science impossible. Indeed, the very idea of nature as the stable order of the universe would be denied by the thought that everything is the momentary product of God's arbitrary will.

Plantinga's response is to argue that natural science requires methodological naturalism, but not metaphysical naturalism. Metaphysical naturalism denies that there is any divine reality beyond nature, and that's the naturalism that renders evolutionary science self-defeating. But methodological naturalism is the assumption that we can explain everything in purely natural terms without invoking anything supernatural. The theist can accept this, because the theist assumes that God has created the order of nature and that He will not interrupt that order arbitrarily. Although miracles are possible, the natural scientist does not normally have to be open to miraculous events in the practice of science. This combination of methodological naturalism and theistic belief in the miraculous power of God is what Plantinga calls "Augustinian science"--the sort of science that Augustine would endorse.

While I agree that theism and evolution can be compatible, I don't agree that theism is absolutely necessary for evolutionary science, because I don't agree that combining Darwinism with metaphysical naturalism creates an incoherent position.

The weak link in Plantinga's argument for metaphysical naturalism as self-defeating is step 2, where he assumes that adaptive behavior is completely unrelated to true belief. The evidence of evolutionary history suggests that evolution produces cognitive faculties that are reliable but fallible. The mental abilities of animals, including human beings, are fallible because evolution produces adaptations that are good enough but not perfect, and this results in the mental fallibility that is familiar to us.

But despite this fallibility, the mental faculties cannot be absolutely unreliable. Even Plantinga concedes (in his debate with Dennett) that in the evolution of animals, "adaptive behavior requires accurate indicators" (70). So, for example, a frog must have sensory equipment that allows him to accurately detect flies so that he can catch them with his tongue. Similarly, the immune system of the human body must accurately indicate the presence of foreign bodies and then accurately devise responses to destroy the invaders. But then Plantinga argues that these accurate indicators don't require true beliefs. It's not clear that the frog has any beliefs. And the human being is probably not even aware of what the immune system is doing exactly.

What this shows, of course, is that much of an animal's adaptive behavior through mental activity does not require conscious reasoning at all. But for those animals who do develop some capacity for conscious reasoning--and most preeminently human beings--the accuracy of this conscious reasoning will be important for adaptation. As Evan Fales argues in response to Plantinga, the highest mental capacities of human beings are so biologically expensive in terms of the investment of energy they consume that it is implausible that evolution would have produced them unless they improved the ability of human beings to track the truth about themselves and their environment. Again, this is going to be fallible, but it's implausible that human beings could be naturally evolved for being in a state of complete and perpetual delusion.

And yet that's exactly what Plantinga asks us to imagine--that we could have been naturally evolved for a state of complete and perpetual delusion. Having taken this step of radical Cartesian skepticism, he then tells us that the only escape from such skepticism is to assume that God would never allow this to happen. But as always is the case for the Cartesian skeptic, this all depends on imagining scenarios that are utterly implausible and unsupported by even a shred of evidence.

Only those who find Cartesian skepticism plausible will find Plantinga's argument plausible.  Indeed, Plantinga's argument originated with Descartes.

For example, consider this possibility for human evolution suggested by Plantinga:

So suppose Paul is a prehistoric hominid; a hungry tiger approaches. Fleeing is perhaps the most appropriate behavior: . . . this behavior could be produced by a large number of different belief-desire pairs. . . .

Perhaps Paul very much likes the idea of being eaten, but when he sees a tiger, always runs off looking for a better prospect, because he thinks it unlikely that the tiger he sees will eat him. This will get his body parts in the right place so far as survival is concerned, without involving much by way of true belief. . . . Or perhaps he thinks the tiger is a large, friendly, cuddly pussycat and wants to pet it, but he also believes that the best way to pet it is to run away from it. . . . or perhaps he thinks the tiger is a regularly recurring illusion, and, hoping to keep his weight down, has formed the resolution to run a mile at top speed whenever presented with such an illusion; or perhaps he thinks he is about to take part in a sixteen-hundred-meter race, wants to win, and believes the appearance of the tiger is the starting signal; or perhaps . . . . Clearly there are any number of belief-cum-desire systems that equally fit a given bit of behavior.


Well, yes, these weird stories are all logically possible, as the philosophers like to say. But they are also utterly implausible, because there is no evidence that anything like this could have happened in human evolution. Plantinga's claim that there is no clear connection between adaptive behavior and true beliefs in evolutionary history depends on fantasies of his imagination unsupported by evidence. He has to do that, because if he actually looked at the evidence of human evolutionary history bearing upon the emergence of human mental faculties, he would be faced with evidence for the evolution of human cognitive capacities for exploring the world that are generally reliable, even if fallible.

He would also see evidence that human beings can use their fallible mental capacities to correct their mistakes. After all, the very capacity to recognize our fallibility presupposes our skill for reliable reasoning about ourselves and our world. There are good reasons to believe that this can be explained as an outcome of a natural evolutionary process in which divine intervention was not necessary.

Some related posts can be found here, here, here, and here.

One might also consider here the evidence that Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel's painting of "The Creation of Adam" reflects Michelangelo's knowledge of the neuroanatomy of the brain.

Does this support Plantinga's argument? Or does it suggest that what we see as the "image of God" in the human brain is a purely natural product?

Monday, July 11, 2011

Thomistic Nihilism, Greek Naturalism, and the Problem of Natural Right

The problem of natural right is the problem of whether nature has a intelligible order that can be known by human beings and followed as a guide for their lives.

Classic natural right such as one sees in the writings of Plato and Aristotle assumes that nature has an autonomous order of its own that can be known and followed by human beings.

Biblical religion assumes, however, that there is no autonomous order of nature, because nature is continually created ex nihilo by God, and thus at any moment, nature can collapse back into nothingness. Strictly speaking, then, nature as understood by the Socratic philosophers--nature as an enduring, self-contained, necessary order of being--does not exist from the view of Biblical religion.

Biblical religion thus creates the possibility of radical nihilism--the idea that nature depends on the mysterious, arbitrary power of God, and so there is no natural standard for human knowledge and action.

I have written about this contrast between Greek naturalism and Biblical nihilism in the chapters on Augustine and Nietzsche in Political Questions: Political Philosophy from Plato to Rawls.

This is, I think, Strauss's point when he says that the Bible has no idea of nature, and it is his worry about Biblical nihilism that motivates his criticism of Thomas Aquinas for making natural law too dependent on Biblical revelation.

I agree with Tom West that Strauss's critique of Aquinas is exaggerated. But I do think Strauss is correct in so far as Aquinas never fully escapes from Biblical nihilism.

As indications of Aquinas's nihilism, consider the following statements:

"Both reason and faith bind us to say that creatures are kept in being by God. . . . All creatures need to be preserved by God. for the being of every creature depends on God, so that not for a moment could it subsist, but would fall into nothingness were it not kept in being by the operation of the Divine power" (I, q. 104, a. 1).

"Some have held that God, in giving existence to creatures, acted from natural necessity. Were this true, God could not annihilate anything, since His nature cannot change. But . . . such an opinion is entirely false, and absolutely contrary to the Catholic faith, which confesses that God created things of His own free-will, according to Psalms 134:6--'Whatsoever the Lord pleased, He hath done.' Therefore that God gives existence to a creature depends on His will; nor does He preserve things in existence otherwise than by continually pouring out existence into them, as we have said. Therefore, just as before things existed, God was free not to give them existence, and not to make them; so after they have been made, He is free not to continue their existence; and thus they would cease to exist; and this would be to annihilate them" (I, q. 104, a. 3).

West tries to get around this theological nihilism through an interpretation of Aquinas's teaching on divine providence. West distinguishes three views of providence (67-68). The first view is that there is no divine providence. The second view is that God's providential power is so great and so arbitrary that there is no natural order at all. The third view is that God's providence is manifest in the eternal and unchanging order of nature and in the sharing of providence with human beings who exercise providence through their intellect. The second view, West argues, is the view taken by the Islamic theologians like al-Ghazali who deny the possibility of a natural order of causality as a blasphemous denial of God's unconstrained power. The second view is also taken by modern political theologians like Carl Schmitt. The third view is Aquinas's, which thus escapes from the nihilism of the second view that Strauss attributes to the Bible.

I agree with West that Aquinas does try hard to adhere to the third view, especially in his account of natural law. But he can never completely escape from Biblical nihilism.

One can see this in those many places in his writing where Aquinas embraces a divine command theory of morality--that the good is whatever God happens to command at any moment. For example, Abraham was justified in faithfully obeying God's command to kill his son Isaac: "Abraham did not sin in being willing to slay his innocent son, because he obeyed God, although considered in itself it was contrary to right human reason" (II-II, q. 154, a. 2, ad 2). Normally, killing innocent people is murder and contrary to natural law. But at any moment God can rightly command murder, because there is no natural law independent of God's arbitrary power.

After examining examples like this of Aquinas's divine command teaching, West explains: "Aquinas thereby draws attention to the unavoidable potential or actual conflict between the commandments of God who acts or seems to act outside the natural order (assuming that God is such a being) and the dictates of human reason. . . . Aquinas enables us to see that there is a choice to be made, theologically, between a willful, mysterious, and ultimately irrational God and a God who always acts in accord with the eternal law of reason" (77).

West leaves us wondering why Aquinas does not always make a clear choice in favor of "a God who always acts in accord with the eternal law of reason." The answer, I think, is that Aquinas cannot make this choice without openly denying Biblical religion.

For me, this is a big issue, because one of the most common objections to my argument for Darwinian natural right is that it fails to recognize that evolved human nature by itself cannot be the ground of moral judgment, because the ultimate ground is God's moral law as the command of his will.

Unfortunately, the proponents of divine-command reasoning fail to see the necessary implication of this teaching, which is nihilism.

Darwinian natural right is the alternative to such nihilism.

Some related posts can be found here, here, and here.

Strauss on the Supremacy of the Philosophic Life: Where's the Proof?

Having summarized Leo Strauss's critique of Thomas Aquinas's natural law teaching and Tom West's replies to that critique, I will offer some assessments of this debate in the light of Darwinian natural right.

But before I do that, I want to raise a question about an unquestioned assumption in this debate. West never asks whether Strauss has proven that the philosophic life is the highest human perfection--a perfection achieved only by a few wise individuals, in contrast to the great majority of human beings who live merely moral lives that are inferior. West assumes without proof that Strauss is right about this, and West's only concern is to try to show that Aquinas agreed with Strauss about this. But to rely on an unproven assertion--to rely on Strauss's authority--is unphilosophic.

Where's the proof?

Where's the demonstration that the life of philosophy or science is the only good life for a human being? If the philosophic life is the life of relentless questioning and inquiry where one accepts nothing as true unless it has been proven to be true based on what we can see and know for ourselves, rather than relying on faith in what others have told us, then it is self-contradictory to choose such a life as the best life without demonstrative proof that it is so.

Although Strauss generally assumes that the philosophic life is superior in dignity to any moral life, I cannot think of any place in Strauss's writing where he carefully lays out a demonstrative proof that the philosophic life is the only truly good life for a human being. If I am mistaken, and Strauss has provided the proof, then I would be happy to have this pointed out by those who know Strauss better than I do.

Considering the writings of Plato and Aristotle, I can only think of one place where one might think the proof for the supremacy of the philosophic life has been provided--the end of Book 10 of Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics. But as I have indicated in some previous posts, Aristotle's arguments there are remarkably dubious. They are so dubious--particularly, when one considers them in the context of the whole of the Ethics--that the careful reader might conclude that Aristotle does not take them seriously, that he is actually mocking the Platonic arguments for the supremacy of philosophy. As I have suggested previously, I think this points to the books on friendship in the Ethics as the true peak of the book, where Aristotle indicates that the happiest life is a life that embraces a wide range of moral and intellectual goods.

For Strauss's reasoning on the supremacy of philosophy, one good place to start is his lecture on "Reason and Revelation," which he delivered in 1948 at Hartford Theological Seminary, and which was unpublished until it was published in Heinrich Meier's Leo Strauss and the Theological-Political Problem (Cambridge University Press, 2006). Although it was not published during Strauss's lifetime, it contains language and formulations that appear in his published writings, beginning with Natural Right and History.

Consider the following passage from this lecture:

This view of the relation of philosophy to life, i.e. to society, presupposes that philosophy is essentially the preserve of the very few individuals who are by nature fit for philosophy. The radical distinction between the wise and the vulgar is essential to the original concept of philosophy. The idea that philosophy as such could become the element of human life is wholly alien to all pre-modern thought. Plato demands that the philosophers should become kings; he does not demand that philosophy should become the ruler: in his perfect polity, only 2 or 3 individuals have any access whatever to philosophy; the large majority is guided by noble lies. The quest for knowledge implies that in all cases where sufficient evidence is lacking, assent must be withheld or judgment must be suspended. Now, it is impossible to withhold assent or to suspend judgment in matters of extreme urgency which require immediate decision: one cannot suspend judgment in matters of life and death. The philosophic enterprise that stands or falls by the possibility of suspense of judgment, requires therefore that all matters of life and death be settled in advance. All matters of life and death can be reduced to the question of how one ought to live. The philosophic enterprise presupposes that the question of how one ought to live be settled in advance. It is settled by the pre-philosophic proof of the thesis that the right way of life, the one thing needful, is the life devoted to philosophy and to nothing else. The pre-philosophic proof is later on confirmed, within philosophy, by an analysis of human nature. However this may be, according to its original meaning, philosophy is the right way of life, the happiness of man. All other human pursuits are accordingly considered fundamentally defective, or forms of human misery, however splendid. The moral life as moral life is not the philosophic life: for the philosopher, morality is nothing but the condition or the by-product of philosophizing, and not something valuable in itself. Philosophy is not only trans-social and trans-religious, but trans-moral as well. Philosophy asserts that man has ultimately no choice but that between philosophy and despair disguised by delusion; only through philosophy is man enabled to look reality in its stern face without losing his humanity. The claim of philosophy is no less radical than that raised on behalf of revelation. (146-47)


So, first, there must be a "pre-philosophic proof" that the philosophic life is the only right way of life; then, secondly, this proof is confirmed by "an analysis of human nature." But as far as I can tell, Strauss never provides this "pre-philosophic proof" or the "analysis of human nature" that would confirm it.

"However this may be" is a strange expression in this passage, suggesting that Strauss is inclined to assume the supremacy of philosophy without proving it.

I agree that "an analysis of human nature" can show that there is a range of natural human desires that constitute the natural goods of life, which would include goods such as family life, social ranking, politics, property, friendship, religious understanding, and intellectual understanding. These generic human goods include philosophy or science as devoted to intellectual understanding. But while the philosophic life is certainly a good life for those inclined to it by nature, there is no good reason to say that this is the only truly good life for human beings, that any life other than the philosophic life is a life of "despair disguised by delusion."

The generic standard for a good human life is that it should include all or most of these human goods to some degree. But the ranking of goods--so that one good is stressed more than the others--depends upon the temperament and circumstances of individuals. The philosophic life is best for only a few people--as Strauss recognizes. The philosophic life is best for Socrates, but not necessarily for those who lack Socratic inclinations. Of course, someone who would live a life without any intellectual understanding at all--someone utterly ignorant and lacking in any curiosity about the world--would be living a less than fully satisfying life. But while some desire for knowledge is an element of any minimally good life, there is no reason to say that those few people who live a purely Socratic life of relentless questioning and inquiry are the only happy human beings.

As I have suggested in some previous posts, one of the primary arguments for liberalism is that a liberal society allows human beings to pursue the full range of generic human goods, with individuals free to adopt those ways of life that are suited to their individual and social circumstances.

West quotes Strauss (in a letter to Karl Lowith) as saying: "A man like Churchill proves that the possibility of magnanimity exists today exactly as it did in the fifth century B.C."

But according to Strauss, the life of the great-souled man is a merely moral life that is not a truly good life because it is not a philosophic life. According to Strauss, the life of Churchill manifests "human misery, however splendid" or "despair disguised by delusion."

Where's the demonstrative proof of this strange assertion?

Elsewhere in "Reason and Revelation," Strauss offers a few hints as to what he might take as proof. But he never lays out the necessary evidence and arguments.

He asserts "man's desire to know as his highest natural desire" (149). But he never explains exactly why we should be persuaded that the other natural desires don't count as part of a good human life.

He says that knowledge of the good is the necessary precondition for finding the good (149-50). But to say that we need some knowledge to pursue the good for us does not prove that pursuing knowledge for its own sake is the only good.

He says "if we understand by God the most perfect being that is a person, there are no gods but the philosophers" (163). But does he really mean this--that philosophers are gods?

Strauss notes that theologians like to use Pascal's claim that the "misery of man without God" is shown by the craving for distraction and the mood of boredom. Strauss seems to accept this as a reason for rejecting all lives other than philosophy:

these and similar phenomena reveal indeed the problematic character of all ordinary human pursuits of happiness which are not the pursuit of the happiness of contemplation. The philosopher as philosopher never craves distraction (although he needs relaxation from time to time), and he is never bored. Theological psychology is such a psychology of non-philosophic man, of the vulgar, as is not guided by the understanding of the natural aim of man which is contemplation. (163)


Does the proof depend on evidence of boredom? Are philosophers never bored, while everyone else is always bored?

According to Strauss, the proof for the supremacy of the philosophic life depends crucially on the reason-revelation debate--on whether philosophy can refute revelation, or whether revelation can refute philosophy. If this debate remains inconclusive, then "that philosophy is the highest possibility of man" is only a "hypothesis" and thus "a blind decision" (175-76).

What kind of a "decision" is this? Isn't this a moral decision, because it's a decision about how one ought to live, about what constitutes a good life? But if so, then the choice to live a philosophic life is a moral choice. If it's a moral choice, then how can the Straussian philosopher denigrate morality as lacking any dignity?

Some related posts can be found here, here, here, here, and here.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

The Straussian Critique--and Defense--of Thomas Aquinas (4): West's Replies, 5-8

(5) For Strauss, the most fundamental way in which Aquinas takes the side of revelation against reason is that he presents natural reason as pointing beyond itself to the supernatural end of eternal redemption.

Thomas apparently agrees with Strauss that the natural end of human beings is twofold--moral perfection and intellectual perfection--but that intellectual perfection (the philosophic life) is higher in dignity than moral perfection, and, in fact, the intellectual perfection of the philosopher does not even require moral virtue. In his chapter on "The Origin of the Idea of Natural Right" in Natural Right and History, Strauss explains:

Nature was discovered when man embarked on the quest for the first things in the light of the fundamental distinctions between hearsay and seeing with one's own eyes, on the one hand, and between things made by man and things not made by man, on the other. . . . The artificial things are seen to owe their being to human contrivance or to forethought. If one suspends one's judgment regarding the truth of the sacred accounts of the first things, one does not know whether the things that are not man-made owe their being to forethought of any kind, i.e., whether the first things originate all other things by way of forethought, or otherwise. Thus one realizes the possibility that the first things originate all other things in a manner fundamentally different from all origination by way of forethought. The assertion that all visible things have been produced by thinking beings or that there are any superhuman thinking beings requires henceforth a demonstration: a demonstration that starts from what all can see now. (88-89)


In his footnote to this passage, Strauss cites "Plato, Laws 888a-889c, 891c1-9, 892c2-7, 966d6-967e1. Aristotle Metaphysics 989b29-990a5, 1000a9-20, 1042a3ff.; De caelo 298b13-24. Thomas Aquinas Summa theologica i. qu. 2, a. 3."

The citation of Aquinas is to his famous five ways for proving the existence of God based on reasoning from effects to causes and arguing that to explain the visible effects in the natural world, we need to infer a Divine Mind as the invisible first cause. By including citations of Plato and Aristotle, Strauss suggests that Aquinas's natural theology as based on the idea that the universe is intelligently designed can be traced back to Plato and Aristotle. In fact, book 10 of Plato's Laws is the first full statement of intelligent design theory.

Strauss then writes:

In brief, then, it can be said that the discovery of nature is identical with the actualization of a human possibility which, at least according to its own interpretation, is trans-historical, trans-social, trans-moral, and trans-religious. (89)


The footnote to this passage quotes a remark from Arthur North Whitehead, and then it cites "Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica i. 2. qu. 58, a. 4-5, and qu. 104, a. 1; ii. 2, qu. 19, a. 7, and qu. 45, a. 3 (on the relation of philosophy to morality and religion)."

West correctly points out (85) that these passages from Aquinas cited here by Strauss seem to be in full agreement with Strauss concerning the "trans-moral" and "trans-religious" character of philosophic wisdom. Speaking of the Decalogue, Aquinas says that "some are moral precepts, which the reason itself dictates when it is quickened by faith; such as that God is to be loved and worshipped" (I-II, q. 104, a. 1, ad 3). This implies that natural reason by itself, if it is not "quickened by faith," does not teach the moral precepts of loving and worshipping God. Moreover, Aquinas explains: "Wisdom . . . is considered by us [religious believers] in one way, and in another way by philosophers. For, seeing that our life is ordained to the enjoyment of God, and is directed thereto, according to a participation of the Divine Nature, conferred on us through grace, wisdom, as we look at it, is considered not only as being cognizant of God, as it is with philosophers, but also as directing human conduct; since this is directed not only by the human law, but also by the Divine law, as Augustine shows" (II-II, q. 19, a. 7). So as a member of the Catholic community of believers, Aquinas must speak of natural wisdom as directed to supernatural ends--the loving and worshipping of God--in contrast to the purely philosophic view of wisdom as "trans-moral" and "trans-religious."

While Strauss criticizes Aquinas for asserting that natural reason points beyond itself to supernatural religious beliefs, West indicates how passages in Aquinas's writing that are cited by Strauss himself imply that Aquinas is only pretending to believe this because his rhetorical situation makes it impossible for him to deny it.

Strauss observes:

If we take Socrates as the representative of the quest for natural right, we may illustrate the relation of that quest to authority as follows: in a community governed by divine laws, it is strictly forbidden to subject these laws to genuine discussion, i.e., to critical examination, in the presence of young men. . . . This is not to deny that, once the idea of natural right has emerged and become a matter of course, it can easily be adjusted to the belief in the existence of divinely revealed law. (NRH, 85


West suggests that this was Aquinas's situation--living in a "community governed by divine laws" that could not be openly questioned without persecution. Therefore, he might have felt the need to disguise himself as "a philosopher dressed up in priestly robes," because this was the only way that he could defend natural right as "adjusted to the belief in the existence of divinely revealed law" (87).

(6) Strauss's sixth objection is that the term "natural law" is self-contradictory, because "nature" as it was originally discovered in ancient Greece was opposed to "law." Turning "natural right" into "natural law" implies that nature's order has been legislated by a divine lawmaker, which turns natural right into a divine positive law.

West replies to this objection by arguing that Aquinas indicates that natural law is a law only metaphorically. Natural law participates in eternal law, which is the unchanging and eternal order of Divine Reason that constitutes the order of nature. The rational creature "has a share of the Eternal Reason, whereby it has a natural inclination to its proper act and end: and this participation of the eternal law in the rational creature is called the natural law" (I-II, q. 91, a. 1-2). Strictly speaking, law implies some oral or written command, and we can speak of the eternal law as spoken by God or written in the Book of Life, but this would be only metaphorical (I, q. 24, a. 1; I-II, q. 91, a. 1, ad 2). Natural law as known by natural reason does not require belief in a divine lawgiver, because by natural reason, we come to know natural law as natural human instincts or inclinations that we can apprehend rationally and formulate as natural precepts of action. The God of natural law is nature's God.

(7) To Strauss's seventh objection--that Christian humility and self-denial deprive us of the proud spiritedness required for healthy politics--West replies that Aquinas actually defends the magnanimous pride and moral vengeance that support natural spiritedness. Aquinas defends magnanimity as a virtue that is compatible with humility, because while magnanimity is truly a virtue for the man who is truly great in comparison with other men, humility is a also a virtue when considering the great man's subordination to God (II-II, q. 129; q. 161, a. 1; q. 162, a. 3, ad 1).

In support of Aquinas, West quotes "a famous remark of Churchill illustrating precisely how magnanimity (which involves believing in one's complete superiority to one's fellow human beings) is perfectly compatible with humility toward God and the cosmos: 'We are all worms. But I do believe that I am a glow-worm" (57).

West also notes Aquinas's defends "vengeance" (vindicatio)--the natural disposition to see wrongdoers punished (I-II, q. 107, a. 2, ad 2; II-II, q. 108). In doing this, Aquinas has to overcome the apparent teaching of the New Testament--particularly, in the Sermon on the Mount--enjoining universal love, including love of our enemies. Christ's command not to resist evil does not hold in circumstances where it is right to kill our enemies (II-II, q. 40, a. 1).

Aquinas thus recognizes a right to resist evil that can become a right to revolution (II-II, q. 42, a. 2, ad 3).

Aquinas undercuts the selflessness of Christ's teaching of universal love by teaching that we must love ourselves first and then extend our love outward to those closest to us, so that we love some neighbors more than others (II-II, q. 26, a. 4-8, 13; q. 44, a. 8). Thus, Aquinas can teach that "we do not offend God except by doing something contrary to our own good" (Summa Contra Gentiles, bk. 3, ch. 122). Aquinas thus corrects the New Testament teaching of universal love and selflessness to conform to the natural desires of the human animal as inclined to love oneself and to love others as extensions of oneself. Here Aquinas follows Aristotle's biological account of animal sociality as rooted in friendship or affiliation (philia).

(8) It is hard for West to defend Aquinas against the Machiavellian charge that Christianity promotes "pious cruelty." After all, Aquinas clearly teaches that heretics can be rightly punished with death, and thus he endorses the Inquisition, which was carried out by his own religious order--the Dominicans (II-II, q. 11, a. 3). He also declares that the Church can punish rulers who become apostates by declaring that they have no authority over their subjects (II-II, q. 12, a. 2).

Here, however, Aquinas directly contradicts his teaching that human law is to be guided by natural law rather than divine law. The contradiction even appears within the same article: "lack of faith, in itself, is not inconsistent with dominion, since dominion is introduced by the right of nations, which is human right; whereas the distinction between the faithful and the unfaithful is according to divine right, through which human right is not destroyed" (II-II, q. 12, a. 2). "But if divine right does not destroy human right," West observes, "it is logically impossible for a deviation from divine right (apostasy) to destroy the human right of a magistrate to govern" (92).

Such an obvious contradiction, West suggests, must be deliberate, and it must be deliberately designed to alert the careful reader that the surface teaching is not Aquinas's true belief. Aquinas would have been instructed in such a technique of secret writing by his reading of Maimonides' Guide of the Perplexed.

As I have indicated in a previous post, Shadia Drury regards Aquinas's support for the Inquisition as a clear example of how he betrayed natural law. But for West, this so clearly contradicts his teaching on natural law that it must have been intended to suggest a secret teaching contrary to what appears on the surface. Needless to say, Shadia is not likely to be persuaded by such a typically Straussian move.

STRAUSS'S RHETORICAL STRATEGY IN ATTACKING AQUINAS
But then we might wonder whether Strauss himself here is engaging in some secret writing. If it is so easy for West to defend Aquinas against Strauss's criticisms--often using passages in Aquinas's writings that are cited by Strauss himself--then may be Strauss knows that his criticisms are not warranted.

As West indicates, Strauss opens Natural Right and History by noting that the only people in his day who are defending natural right are "the Catholic and non-Catholic disciples of Thomas Aquinas" or "the modern followers of Thomas Aquinas," and he indicates that they are not in full agreement with Aquinas himself, because they reject the comprehensive natural science of Aristotle and Aquinas (NRH, 7-8). This suggests the possibility that in attacking Thomas Aquinas, Strauss is actually attacking the modern followers of Aquinas (people like Jacques Maritain or Etienne Gilson). For example, it might be that Strauss saw a tendency to dogmatism in the Neo-Thomist proponents of natural law that he wanted to criticize, even though he knew that Thomas himself was not so dogmatic.

Saturday, July 09, 2011

The Straussian Critique--and Defense--of Thomas Aquinas (3): West's Replies, 1-4

Here I will begin summarizing Tom West's replies to Strauss's eight objections to Aquinas's natural law teaching. I will begin with the first four. In some later posts, I will offer my assessments of the issues in this debate.

(1) Contrary to Strauss's claim that Aquinas takes the side of revelation against reason and thus denies the classic teaching of natural right, West argues that Aquinas understands the conflict between reason and revelation, and that he adapts the teaching of classic natural right to the circumstances of medieval Christianity.

From the very beginning of the section of the Summa Theologica on faith, Aquinas draws a sharp contrast between faith as belief in things unseen and reason or science as demonstrative knowledge of things seen (II-II, q. 1, aa. 4-5). This corresponds closely to Strauss's account of the reason-revelation debate. Scientific knowledge comes from what human beings can see and know by natural reason and natural experience. By contrast, matters of faith depend on the authority of scripture, on what we hear from others rather than what we can see for ourselves.

Aquinas declares: "The reasons employed by holy men to prove things that are of faith are not demonstrations; they are either persuasive arguments showing that what is proposed to our faith is not impossible, or else they are proofs drawn from the principles of faith, i.e., from the authority of sacred scripture" (II-II, q. 1, a. 5, ad 2).

That Aquinas understands natural law as depending on human reason but not divine revelation should be clear from the famous passage in which he lays out the levels of the natural inclinations of human beings that are naturally apprehended by reason as being good (I-II, q. 94, a. 2). In this passage, there are no Biblical citations or appeals to divine revelation. There are four kinds of natural inclinations--self-preservation, the sexual generation and rearing of offspring, living in society, and knowing the truth about God. The natural inclination to know the truth about God supports the natural law precept to "shun ignorance." Even here there is no reference to revelation, thus suggesting that this could be the purely philosophic quest to ascend to the first causes of all things through natural reason alone, which would move towards "the highest cause of the whole universe, namely God" (I, q. 1, a. 6). As guided by natural law, human beings answer the question of what God is by natural reason alone.

West sees Aquinas as arguing that God creates two independent paths to guide human beings--natural law as the path of human nature and natural reason and divine law as the path of divine revelation and supernatural faith. By separating these two paths, Aquinas can separate human law and government from the authority of the Church. Human law is derived only from natural law, not divine law. Human law is concerned with religion only in so far as religion promotes the moral order of society (I-II, q. 91, a. 3; q. 98, a. 1; q. 99, a. 3). Priests serve the common good of the people by praying to God for the people, but princes serve the common good by governing the people (I-II, q. 95, a. 4). The clergy have the authority to interfere in secular politics only to prevent tyrants from commanding their subjects to perform idolatrous rituals (I-II, q. 96, a. 4; II-II, q. 60, a. 6, ad 3). Thus, Aquinas argues for a qualified separation of church and state.

It might seem that the natural law is a positive divine law in so far as the natural law is said to be part of the eternal law of God. But West argues that Aquinas identifies the eternal law as the unchanging mind of God--the reason or principle of divine providence--as manifest in the eternal order of nature. Consequently, human beings obey divine providence by obeying the order of nature (I-II, q. 93, a. 5).

West asks (p. 87): "Was Aquinas living 'in a community governed by divine law,' merely pretending to believe in that law, when in fact he was adjusting natural right 'to the belief in the existence of divinely revealed law'? Was he pretending to be a political theologian while in fact being a political philosopher? Was the great saint nothing more than a philosopher dressed up in priestly robes?" West suggests the answer in each case is yes. One must consider the possibility that "in the end Aquinas covertly but firmly took the side of reason over revelation" (86).

To see this, however, we must see that Aquinas is engaging in secret writing--that the exoteric teaching for most readers who see only the surface of the writing differs from the esoteric teaching for the few readers who see beneath the surface. Following the lead of Strauss's Persecution and the Art of Writing, West argues that Aquinas had to worry about being persecuted for his Aristotelianism, which was a fact of life at the University of Paris, and he had learned from Moses Maimonides the importance of secret writing in such circumstances.

In fact, Aquinas says in the Prologue to the Summa Theologica that this is book for instructing beginners who need "milk to drink, not meat." Moreover, he argues--like Maimonides--that sacred scripture uses metaphorical language to hide the truth from vulgar readers while revealing it to the few thoughtful readers (ST I, q. 1, a. 9; q. 68, a. 3; I-II, q. 98, a. 3, ad 2; II-II, q. 40, a. 3).

Moreover, when Aquinas examines sacred doctrines, he always tries to interpret them in such way as to render them rationally comprehensible to natural reason, which suggests that human reason is the standard by which divine revelation is to be judged. In those cases where Aquinas cannot interpret a doctrine as reasonable--as, for example, with the doctrine of original sin or the belief in miracles--he contradicts himself in ways that point to the problem, and he indicates that he must answer "according to the Catholic faith," and thus suggests that he cannot openly question the Church's authority (I-II, q. 81, aa. 1-3; II-II, q. 154, a. 2, ad 2; q. 104, a. 4, ad 2; Summa Contra Gentiles, bk. 3, chs. 100-101).

(2) To Strauss's second objection--that Aquinas's natural law is inflexible and thus leaves no room for prudence--West replies that Aquinas actually allows for flexibility and prudence. In applying general principles to the contingent circumstances of action, practical reason must have a wide latitude for judgment (I-II, q. 94, aa. 4-6). Although Aquinas does say that the general principles of natural law are unchangeable, these general principles are very few, and they seem to be reducible to the vague idea that "good is to be done and promoted, and evil is to be avoided," which seems to correspond to Aristotle's teaching that all human actions aim at the good (I-II, q. 94, a. 2).

Moreover, even with respect to the apparently fixed principles of the Decalogue--such as the prohibitions against lying and stealing--Aquinas allows for variation in exceptional circumstances where public safety or individual need require it (II-II, q. 66, a. 7; q. 110, aa. 1-4). "Necessity knows no law" (I-II, q. 96, a. 6).

West also argues that the flexibility of Aquinas's natural law teaching extends even to divorce and birth control. Aquinas indicates that while divorce in the Old Testament was "against the principle of a sacrament," it was not against nature (I-II, q. 102, a. 5, ad 3). Marriage as a sacrament of the Church is a matter of divine revelation, and this does not allow for divorce. But marriage as rooted in natural inclinations might allow for divorce in exceptional circumstances.

Aquinas teaches that "against the good of man is every emission of semen in such a way that generation cannot follow" (Summa Contra Gentiles, bk. 3, ch. 122). The Catholic Church has interpreted this to prohibit any form of birth control other than "Natural Family Planning" (NFP). But West argues that this does not follow from Aquinas's standard, because no method of birth control is so completely effective that "generation cannot follow." In fact, NFP is actually more effective than most other forms of birth control in preventing conception.

Furthermore, West argues, in the circumstances of the modern Western world, where the death of infants and children has become rare, birth control actually promotes the ends of family life, because it allows parents to insure that they not have more children than they can possibly rear and educate.

West concludes that the Catholic Church's condemnation of artificial birth control cannot be supported by Thomistic natural law.

(3) West denies Strauss's assertion that Aquinas sees a "basic harmony between natural right and civil society." In fact, Aquinas clearly states that there is a disproportion between natural law and civil society. "Human law does not prohibit everything that is forbidden by the natural law." This must be so because

Human law is framed for a number of human beings, the majority of whom are not perfect in virtue. Wherefore human laws do not forbid all vices, form which the virtuous abstain, but only the more grievous vices, from which it is possible for the majority to abstain; and chiefly those that are to the hurt of others, without the prohibition of which human society could not be maintained: thus human law prohibits murder, theft, and such like. (I-II, q. 96, a. 2)


West sees this as pointing towards the modern Hobbesian and Lockean teaching that government should be largely limited to protecting life, liberty, and property.

(4) Contrary to Strauss's claim that Aquinas's doctrine of synderesis or conscience is an unreasonable conclusion from his belief in divine revelation, West argues that conscience for Aquinas is nothing but the human mind's grasping of the natural inclinations as good. First the mind must apprehend these natural inclinations as setting the ends of action, then prudence judges the best means for achieving these ends (I, q. 79; II-II, q. 47, a. 6).

Moreover, it is not true, as Strauss says, that this teaches the universal promulgation of natural law equally to all human beings. Some human beings are more prudent than others, and thus human judgment is fallible (I-II, q. 94, a. 4; II-II, q. 47, a. 5).

Thursday, July 07, 2011

The Straussian Critique--and Defense--of Thomas Aquinas (2): Strauss's Objections

Leo Strauss suggested at least eight objections to Thomas Aquinas's teaching on natural law.

As I set them out here, the first five are summarized in Natural Right and History at the end of the chapter on "Classic Natural Right," pages 163-64. The sixth objection is stated in Strauss's essay on "Natural Law," pages 137-38. The seventh and eighth objections are attributed to Machiavelli, but Strauss seems to endorse them.

(1) The first objection is the most fundamental: Thomas's natural law is not really natural law--that is, a law that is knowable to natural reason alone--because it depends upon belief in divine revelation. Thomas subordinates philosophic reason to religious faith. Instead of promoting the effort to understand things based on what we can observe for ourselves and demonstrate rationally, Thomas assumes that we must submit to the the unquestioned authority of religious texts and religious leaders claiming divine inspiration. He thus takes the side of revelation against reason, and thereby rejects the idea of natural right or natural law as a standard of right and wrong comprehensible to unassisted human reason.

(2) The second objection is that in thus relying on religious dogma, Thomas renders the natural law so inflexible that there is no room for prudence to exercise judgment in deciding what should be done in particular circumstances. "There is a universally valid hierarchy of ends," Strauss believed, "but there are no universally valid rules of action" (NRH, 162). Even if we can rank some objectives as universally higher than other objectives, we must recognize that in exceptional circumstances, objectives that are normally lower in rank than others can become more urgent. So, for example, in times of war or great emergencies, political leaders might have to rank the public safety of their political community as the highest objective. Thomas does not allow for such prudential flexibility, and that's why, Strauss suggested, that Montesquieu broke away from the Thomistic view of natural law to recover some reasonable latitude for statesmanship.

Illustrations of the inflexible absolutism of Thomas's natural law, Strauss claimed,would include the Catholic prohibition of divorce and artificial birth control. Prudence should allow us to see circumstances in which divorce and birth control are reasonable means for achieving the natural goods of life.

(3) A third objection from Strauss is that Thomas's natural law teaching assumes a harmony between natural right and civil society. This ignores the possibility--suggested by Plato--that the naturally best way of life might be philosophy, and the relentless activity of philosophers in questioning the opinions of their fellow citizens might conflict with the requirements of political society.

(4) A fourth objection is that Thomas's reliance on religious faith leads him to assume unreasonably that the natural law is universally promulgated to all human beings by a divinely implanted synderesis or conscience.

(5) Strauss's fifth objection is to Thomas's claim that natural human striving for happiness points beyond itself to a supernatural end. Strauss sees Thomas as agreeing with him that natural reason recognizes that intellectual virtue and moral virtue are the two natural ends of human life, that intellectual virtue is higher in dignity than moral virtue, and that intellectual virtue does not require moral virtue. But then Strauss sees Thomas as trying to overcome this problem by claiming that natural reason actually teaches us that the final end of human life is supernatural--eternal union with God in Heaven--and thus neither philosophic nor moral activity can satisfy human beings. This presumes that natural law must be fulfilled in divine law, which takes us back to what Strauss saw as the fundamental mistake in Thomas's natural law teaching--the denial of natural reason's sufficiency for human beings in order to promote human dependence on supernatural revelation.

(6) Strauss's sixth objection is that while natural right is a coherent idea, natural law is not, because the very term "natural law" is self-contradictory. The original Greek discovery of nature turned on the contrast between "nature" (physis) and "law" or "custom" (nomos). Consequently, the idea of "natural law" is confused, particularly because it suggests the necessity for a divine lawgiver, so that Thomas's natural law is actually divine positive law.

(7) As a seventh objection to Thomas's Christianity, Machiavelli argues that Christian humility and otherworldliness deprives people of the manly pride necessary for a healthy political life. Christians are not inclined to resist political tyranny and defend political liberty because they are taught not to care about the things of this world, and they are taught to love their enemies and thus to offer no resistance to evil. Such humble submissiveness allows evil to triumph. Strauss stated this Machiavellian teaching in a way that suggested he endorsed it.

(8) Similarly, Strauss seemed to accept another Machiavellian criticism of Christianity--the tendency of the Christian church to "pious cruelty," the tendency to a moral fanaticism in punishing those regarded as unbelievers, apostates, or heretics. The brutal violence of the Inquisition illustrated this tendency.

Thus, oddly enough, from this Machiavellian point of view, Christianity appears to promote opposing dispositions--either unreasonable timidity or unreasonable ferocity--both of which are contrary to the teachings of natural right and prudential judgment.

In my next post, I will summarize Tom West's replies to these objections before I offer my assessment of this debate.

Wednesday, July 06, 2011

The Straussian Critique--and Defense--of Thomas Aquinas

Leo Strauss and the Straussians show ambiguity and ambivalence in their understanding of Thomas Aquinas and the Thomistic natural law teaching. On the one hand, one would expect them to be proponents of Thomistic natural law in so far as this belongs to the tradition of "classic natural right" that they generally defend. And yet, on the other hand, the religious dogmatism and otherworldly attitudes of Thomas's Catholic Christianity run contrary to the prudent flexibility and rationalist naturalism that the Straussians see in the classical view of natural right manifest in the writings of Plato and Aristotle.

The important issue here is not merely a matter of how to interpret Strauss, but rather the question of whether natural law can resolve what Strauss called "the crisis of liberal democracy." Modern liberal thought has largely rejected the appeal to natural standards--as in natural right or natural law--for judging moral and political life, which tends to promote a relativist or historicist view of life that makes it impossible to defend liberal democracy against its enemies. The threat of totalitarianism in the 20th century deepened this crisis, and in response to this, many serious thinkers in the 1940s and 1950s sought a revival of natural law thinking as possibly providing the natural standards of judgment that were need to defend liberal democracy against totalitarianism. Strauss's writing was seen as part of this intellectual movement. In the Foreword to Strauss's Natural Right and History, Jerome Kerwin described the book as defense of "the traditionalists natural law doctrine" to counter the threat from twentieth-century totalitarianism. But it's not clear that Strauss's defense of "classic natural right" in this book includes a defense of "traditionalist natural law" as associated with Thomas Aquinas.

In the 21st century, the threats from totalitarianism--fascist, Nazi, and communist--don't seem as urgent as they were in earlier decades, although political Islamism sometimes seems to pose a similar threat. But if we now hope for a global political order based on promoting "human rights," we must wonder whether the idea of "human rights" presupposes some notion of a universal human nature that implicitly invokes something like traditional natural law reasoning.

Strauss's critical analysis of Thomistic natural law can help us to decide whether natural law is defensible in the circumstances we face today. A good place to begin in studying that Straussian analysis is a paper by Thomas G. West (of the University of Dallas)--"Thomas Aquinas on Natural Law: A Critique of the 'Straussian' Critique." This long paper (100 pages) was presented at the annual meeting of the American Political Science Association in 2006, and it can be downloaded at the APSA website.

West defends Aquinas against Strauss's criticisms by arguing that Aquinas takes the side of reason against revelation in a way that conforms to Strauss's own position, although Aquinas had to hide this teaching to avoid alienating his Catholic readers. And yet West also argues that Strauss intimates that he understood this, and that Strauss's apparent criticisms of Thomas were actually intended to be criticisms of the distorted Thomism advocated by some of the Thomist philosophers and theologians of Strauss's time.

As I will indicate in a series of posts, I agree with West on most of his points. But I also think that West does not see that Thomas's taking the side of reason over revelation depends upon his biological account of natural law as founded on a biological understanding of human nature as a set of dispositional properties. Moreover, West does not see how this biologically grounded natural law can be supported by modern Darwinian biology in a way that solves what Strauss identified as the fundamental problem for natural right in the modern world--the apparent denial of classic natural right by modern natural science.

I will be referring mostly to Aquinas's Summa Theologica (ST), but also to some of his other writings. All of Aquinas's writings with parallel Latin/English texts can be found at Joseph Kenny's website.

Sunday, July 03, 2011

Strauss, Darwin, and the Reason-Revelation Debate

Darwinian science completes the Greek philosophic substitution of "natural order" or "natural morality" for "divine law" by providing a natural explanation for how the order of the cosmos could arise by natural evolution, within which human morality could arise as an expression of evolved human nature. In this way, Darwinian science took the side of reason against revelation, but without being able to refute the possibility of revelation. Thus does Darwinian science fit into the reason-revelation debate as understood by Leo Strauss.

In his lecture in 1948 on "Reason and Revelation," Strauss indicated that the irreconcilable conflict between revelation and philosophy or science is manifest in the conflict between the Biblical story of Creation and Darwinian evolutionary science.

In "Progress or Return?"--reprinted in The Rebirth of Classical Political Rationalism--Strauss puts this conflict in the context of "the basic question of how to find one's bearings in the cosmos." He explains:

The Greek answer fundamentally is this: we have to discover the first things on the basis of inquiry. We can note two implications of what inquiry means here. In the first place, inquiry implies seeing with one's own eyes as distinguished from hearsay; it means observing for oneself. Secondly, the notion of inquiry presupposes the realization of the fundamental difference between human production and the production of things which are not manmade, so that no conclusion from human production to the production of nonmanmade things is possible except if it is first established by demonstration that the visible universe has been made by thinking beings. This implication, I think, is decisive: it was on the basis of the principles of Greek philosophy that what later became known as demonstrations of the existence of God or gods came into being. This is absolutely necessary, and that is true not only in Aristotle, but in Plato as well, as you see, for example, from the tenth book of the LAWS. An ascent from sense perception and reasoning on sense data, an ascent indeed guided, according to Plato and Aristotle, by certain notions, leads upwards; and everything depends on the solidity of the ascending process, on the demonstration. The quest for the beginning, for the first things, becomes now the philosophic or scientific analysis of the cosmos; the place of the divine law, in the traditional sense of the term, where it is a code traced to a personal God, is replaced by a natural order, which may even be called, as it was later to be called, a natural law--or at any rate, to use a wider term, a natural morality. So the divine law, in the real and strict sense of the term, is only the starting point, the absolutely essential starting point, for Greek philosophy, but it is abandoned in the process. And if it is accepted by Greek philosophy, it is accepted only politically, meaning for the education of the many, and not as something which stands independently. (255-56)


As Strauss indicates here, the proofs for the existence of God by inferring invisible divine causes from visible natural effects were first developed by Plato and Aristotle--particularly, in Book 10 of the Laws, where Plato sketched the reasoning for intelligent design theory or natural theology, the same fundamental reasoning later developed in medieval natural theology and in the contemporary intelligent design theory of Bill Dembski and Michael Behe. Paul first introduced this into Christianity in his Letter to the Romans (1:20), when he declared (under the influence of Greek philosophy): "The invisible things of Him are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made."

Strauss also indicates, however, the essential fallacy in such reasoning--"the fundamental difference between human production and the production of things which are not manmade, so that no conclusion from human production to the production of nonmanmade things is possible except if it is first established by demonstration that the visible universe has been made by thinking beings." Indeed, this anthropomorphic assumption that our experience of human mental agency can be projected onto the cosmos runs through Plato's reasoning in the Laws and the longing of Plato's Socrates for a cosmos ruled by Nous. Dembski shows this same anthropomorphic assumption when he says: "The point of the intelligent design program is to extend design from the realm of human artifacts to the natural sciences." This rhetorical strategy hides the fact that while detecting the design of human artifacts is a matter of common observation and logic, detecting the design of divine artifacts is not, because while the working of human intelligent design is known by natural experience, the working of divine intelligent design is not.

The rational ascent to divine law is the starting point for Greek philosophy, but a starting point that is abandoned in the move from divine law to natural order or natural law. This requires the fulfillment of Greek natural philosophy, which sought to explain the cosmic whole as a product of nature and chance, within which human art could arise through custom and reason(Laws, 888e-89e).

But Greek natural philosophy faced three seemingly insurmountable problems. The first problem was that despite the weaknesses in the intelligent design argument, there did not seem to be any plausible alternative for explaining the apparent design in the natural world. If the irreducible complexity in the universe is not a product of divine design, then how else can we explain it?

The second problem was that a purely naturalistic explanation of the cosmos could not easily explain human moral order without falling into a radical relativism or nihilism. If the cosmos is not the product of a God who is also a moral lawgiver, does this mean that there is no cosmic support for human morality, which is a purely artificial and therefore arbitrary product of human will?

The third problem is that it's unclear whether even the most successful natural philosophy can refute the claims of revelation. If natural philosophy must assume that miracles are impossible--that there are no breaks in the causal regularities of nature--doesn't this beg the question at issue? How does natural philosophy prove the impossibility of miracles?

Darwinian science supports the fulfillment of natural philosophy by solving--at least in principle--the first two problems. But it leaves the third problem unresolved.

Darwinian science solves the first problem by showing how natural order can arise through an evolutionary process of spontaneous order emerging from random variation and selective retention, by which irreducibly complex orders can arise without intentional design.

Darwinian science solves the second problem by showing how moral order can arise through the natural evolution of a human moral sense shaped by social instincts, social learning, language, and deliberate judgment. The human good is not a cosmic good, but it is a natural good in so far as it conforms to human nature.

Darwinian science does not solve the third problem--the reason-revelation debate--because it cannot refute the possibility of miracles--the possibility of miracles in natural history that are not detectable by natural science or the possibility that natural evolution itself is a miracle as arising from laws of nature originally created by nature's God.

Darwinian science can explain the evolutionary psychology of religious belief as prompted by the anthropomorphic fallacy, because it can explain this as an extension of our evolved social disposition for "mind reading" and detecting agency. As cognitive scientists like Jesse Bering and Justin Barrett have shown, we can explain the natural desire for religious understanding as the work of a "hyperactive agency detection device," which was first suggested by Darwin in his evolutionary theory of religion in The Descent of Man.

And yet even this does not resolve the reason-revelation debate, because even if we accept this evolutionary explanation of religious belief, we are free to see religion as either an adaptive illusion (as Bering does) or as an adaptive truth (as Barrett does).

In any case, Darwin made it clear--especially in his AUTOBIOGRAPHY--that in the choice between the life of reason and the life of revelation, he had deliberately chosen the life of reason: "As for myself, I believe that I have acted rightly in steadily following and devoting my life to science."

The continuing importance of Leo Stauss is reflected in the recent NEW YORK TIMES BOOK REVIEW (July 3, 2011), where Harry Jaffa identifies Strauss as "the greatest political philosopher of the 20th century."

Related posts can be found here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.