Edward Feser’s Casuistic Word Games and Bigotries
Anthropocentrism and the downfall of medieval Christian apologetics
There are two abundant resources for Christians who want to come across as odious. First, there’s white conservative resentment and backlash culture in the US, which flow into evangelical Christianity. Second, there’s the pedigree of the Catholic church, which fuels Catholic sanctimony and haughtiness.
The neo-Scholastic philosophy professor and apologist, Edward Feser, prefers the latter form of Christian obnoxiousness.
Now, anyone can have an off-putting personality, but that’s not what’s at issue here. I don’t know Feser personally, so I can’t speak to his character. Moreover, judging a stranger on personal grounds is none of my business. But it’s important to realize that Christian apologetics can be inherently egregious, not because of the characters putting forward the Christian arguments, but because of the grotesque content of those arguments.
This grotesqueness is apparent, for example, in Feser’s book, The Last Superstition: A Refutation of the New Atheism. As it happens, the book is written in a snarky, catty style, full of personal attacks against Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, David Hume, and the like. For example, in arguing against homosexuality on the grounds of a natural law theory of morality, Feser interrupts his criticism of Hume’s point about the naturalistic fallacy, saying, “Well, I’m not done kicking Hume yet, not by a long shot.” Note that Feser says not that he’s still kicking Hume’s argument, but that he’s still kicking Hume directly.
That kind of tone may evince an insufferable personality on the author’s part. But what’s more important is that the pompous, condescending style that’s so familiar from the Catholic Church — even when that Church is embroiled in its sex scandals — may follow from the underlying flaws of the Christianity in question. In short, certain types of people are likely drawn to certain worldviews.
Indeed, I hasten to add that the stridency of Dawkins, Sam Harris, and the other erstwhile leaders of new atheism may likewise show the poverty of their scientistic, neoliberal presumptions. The point is that these things go together: who we are, how we write or speak, and what we fundamentally believe. And it’s the latter horridness, the essence of conservative Christian apologetics that concerns me here.
Feser’s Case Against New Atheism
Feser’s case against new atheism runs like this. These atheists have a woefully mistaken view of reason and of nature, he says, yet they take pride in thinking their atheism follows strictly from modern scientific discoveries of the nature of the universe. Modernity itself, says Feser, is a descent from the more viable form of reasoning, which was that of the ancient Greek philosophers and which was supplemented by medieval Christian thinkers like Augustine and Aquinas.
Those philosophers and theologians had respect for metaphysics and specifically for Aristotle’s view of causality, according to which everything has a final cause or an objective purpose of why it behaves as it does. This is because everything has an essence or a potential which the thing strives to actualize. The good for the thing is thus built into what it fundamentally is according to its type. A type isn’t just a label we apply in our taxonomy, but a blueprint which determines the function of things that belong to that type.
For Plato and Aristotle, all the change in nature, from the wind to the seasons, to the stars to animal behaviour, happens because of a more fundamental and unchanging reality. Plato called this the Good or the One. Aristotle called it the unmoved mover or “God.” Augustine and Aquinas seized on those philosophical analyses and combined them with Christian theology. And Feser defends that neo-Scholastic synthesis.
For Feser, the problem with new atheism is just the problem with what we think of as modernity in general, namely the problem of scientism. We think science alone can answer all our questions, so we substitute physics or biology for metaphysics. Modern science, after all, departed from the Church’s Aristotelian worldview and dispensed with medieval metaphysical conceptions of essence, objective value, and even of God.
The new atheist begins with the scientific picture of nature, finds no God or miracles in that picture, and concludes that we should be atheists. The reason this is problematic, according to Feser, is that the modern picture of reason and of nature is self-refuting and self-destructive.
For example, if we shortchange our experience and intuitions and adhere only to a strict reading of scientific theories, we may be inclined to accept eliminative materialism, according to which there’s no such thing as conscious subjectivity. Science deals with the objective world, so naturally consciousness would fall through the cracks. Likewise, if we deny that morality has an objective, natural basis, we might be inclined to embrace libertinism or the acceptance of gay marriage, in which case our societies might fall apart because of our lack of respect shown to the traditional family structure.
More centrally, since scientific methods don’t discover the existence of God, we’d be led to atheism, whereas Christianity entails that we’d therefore miss out on God’s plan for our salvation.
Instead, argues Feser, we ought to widen our view of reason and look more carefully at Western metaphysics which leads ultimately to Christian theism (via Aristotle and Aquinas, for example). Modern scientism turns out to be a dead end, so religious conservatives have the upper hand.
The Gall of Neo-Scholastics
Before I show why this is all wrong, it’s worth noting the obnoxiousness of Thomism, in view of the historical context. The Catholic Church waged war against paganism and persecuted philosophers, which is to say free thinkers. It’s only because of the incompleteness and the futility of the Church’s attempt at totalitarian control over Christendom, that Catholic thinkers were forced to attempt to reconcile their scriptures with the surviving ancient ideas and methods.
By way of analogy, although the Church persecuted Gnostics as heretics, the heresy never really disappeared, but made its way into the New Testament via Paul’s epistles and the Gospel of John, and popped up in different forms even late into Christian history such as in the case of Catharism. Following Eric Voegelin, Feser argues elsewhere that modernity itself is an outgrowth of the Gnostic “heresy,” construing Marxism and wokester critical race theory as Gnostic.
Similarly, despite the Church’s attempt to lock down a catholicized form of ancient Greco-Roman philosophy, the pure reasoning broke out in all its naturalistic glory in the Italian Renaissance. The Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment were philosophical in the ancient platonic sense, rather than scientistic, precisely because they weren’t tied to social convention or dogma. They were expressions of the love of knowledge, not directly of social control.
By contrast, however ingenious they might have been, Augustine and Aquinas had a conflict of interest as members of the Church hierarchy. They were theologians and Church apologists or propagandists, not pure philosophers. They had the power of the Church to protect and to fear, lest they be accused of heresy and hounded or burned at the stake.
Thus, it’s rich for a Catholic like Feser to say that the truth lay all along in pre-Christian Western philosophy, when Feser belongs to the very institution that sought to destroy the pagan world, that made pagan religion illegal, coopted pagan traditions by subterfuge, and conquered pagan peoples. Rather than deferring to ancient philosophy with humility, Feser means to bash new atheism for being insufficiently rational, where the model of rationality is supposedly a Christianized form of ancient Greek philosophy.
Let’s see whether Feser’s dismissive attitude is merited.
Science Against Anthropocentrism
The first problem for Feser is that, indeed, science itself cast doubt on Christian dogmas — and not just on minor matters of empirical detail. The relevant history includes the Copernican Revolution, the shift from Ptolemaic heliocentrism to a geocentric model in cosmology. This wasn’t just a question of whether certain passages in the Bible were thereby shown to be mistaken.
The implication of that purely scientific advance was that anthropocentrism itself is wrongheaded. Anthropocentrism is the bias we have in favour of human nature. We’re so used to dealing with other people, because we evolved to live in society, that we’re liable to presume our nature is fundamental to all of reality. We presume, as it were, that the whole universe has a human face, that all of existence derives from something like us because we’re metaphysically central.
Yet the Earth isn’t central, so neither, perhaps, are we. That suggests the world isn’t made for us and that although we usually deem ourselves to be subjectively crucial, the universe itself may be indifferent to us.
Similarly, when early modern scientists saw through their telescopes that the planets weren’t gods, and when Isaac Newton showed that the force of gravity on Earth is the same one that rules outer space, scientists realized that Giordano Bruno was right, that the lights in the night sky are other stars like the Sun, perhaps orbited by planets like those in our solar system. So the universe was infinite with no absolute up or down, center or periphery.
And when Charles Darwin showed how species can evolve by natural selection, he showed that species are continuous, not separated by “essences” or metaphysically distinct purposes. The purposes that animals pursue are biological functions, which means they’re tendencies of animals to follow their genetic and neural programming. Typically, that means animals try to survive and to flourish by exercising their physical and mental capacities.
People are different from animals in important ways, but not in all ways. Biologically, we’re mammals, and we did evolve from animal species. As anomalous as our civilizations and cultures seem to be, fundamentally we’re just animals trying to survive and to flourish, like all the animals we’ve enslaved, extinguished, or eaten for dinner.
The upshot of these scientific advances was that we saw the rise of cosmicist humility at the expense of traditional anthropocentrism. Contrary to Feser’s claim that Christianity is challenged only by scientistic and otherwise prejudiced philosophy, not by science or reason more broadly, the Scientific Revolution was obviously a major blow to Christian theism. You could no longer take for granted Christianity’s theological narrative, because that plank of anthropocentrism had been demolished.
We could no longer innocently presume that of course we’re important enough for the Creator to rescue so that we can live forever, that we’re precious because we were made in the Creator’s image, or that the Creator gave us the planet to rule. Now, to defend such presumptions, you’d have to turn to abstruse, archaic Scholastic metaphysics, of all things.
That is, scientific advances deprived conservative Christian theology of its intuitiveness, which in turn compels conservative Christians like Feser to castigate new atheists for paying insufficient attention to the details, rather, of Aquinas’s metaphysical argumentation. It’s no longer a matter of saying that the fool says in his heart there’s no God, since science so widened our view of the universe that educated people aren’t so comfortable trusting their gut to answer all questions. Our intuitions matter to us because they’re part of our animal or our social programming, but we know now that those intuitions probably don’t matter to the rest of the universe.
Indeed, modern cosmology entails that our planet is far older, and that the universe is far larger, than our intuitions can even register. Human intuitions evolved to enable us to cope with earthly matters, not with cosmic ones. The cosmic facts are duly beyond the scope of our naïve, human-centered, social forms of reasoning.
Teleology and the Supreme Intelligence
But let’s turn directly to Aristotelian teleology. Aquinas’s arguments for God are derived from Aristotle, and Feser defends three of Aquinas’s “five ways.” One of those arguments, which arrives at a supreme intelligence behind all the order or regularities in nature is based on Aristotle’s analysis of the types of questions we can ask about causes.
Aristotle says we can ask what something is made of (its matter or material cause), what type of thing it is or its essence (its formal cause), what individuates or makes the thing change (its efficient cause), and lastly what accounts for the thing’s purpose (its final cause). Aristotle thinks everything in nature has an objective purpose, a tendency the thing ought to express because that’s what’s good for the thing in question. Thus, Aristotle thinks values are built into what all things are.
However, Aristotle’s analysis is anthropocentric. In Book 2 of his Physics, Aristotle distinguishes between arts or artifacts and natural things. But in 2.3 when he speaks of final causes, the example he gives is going for a walk for the sake of being healthy.
Of course, we explain the behaviour of intelligent creatures by positing purposes, because those creatures have minds and desires they aim to fulfill. But why think that nonintelligent or nonliving things have objective purposes? Anything can have a subjective purpose if someone chooses to think of the thing that way, but why think a natural object like a rock has an objective purpose?
It turns out that Aristotle lets us see what’s effectively the fallacy of his teleological view of nature. In 2.1 he says, “For the word ‘nature’ is applied to what is according to nature and the natural in the same way as ‘art’ is applied to what is artistic or a work of art.” The commonality he has in mind is that the reality of an artistic or a natural thing requires a potential to be actualized. A mere potentiality is neither an artwork nor a natural compound.
But we can see from the generality of Aristotle’s statement that he presupposes a monistic rather than a dualistic view of the world. Moreover, from the example he gives of a final cause and from the fact that the most familiar or obvious “final causes” are in the psychological and social domains, Aristotle’s naturalism is anthropocentric.
Aristotle wants to apply the same explanatory principles to everything in a proto-scientific, reductionistic way, which is commendable and astonishing since he was writing in the fourth century BCE. (All of ancient Greek and Indian philosophy is equally astonishing for its intellectual superiority to the religious prejudices of the period.) But at least one of the principles Aristotle applies universally, the appeal to final causes projects categories that deal properly only with living things onto the rest of nature.
Any theistic argument that’s based on Aristotle’s teleology, then, begs the question due to this implicit anthropocentricism. We can watch this circularity in action because Aquinas’s fifth way (and Feser’s third) just spells out the anthropocentric implication. The argument is that natural things lack intelligence but act for an end because they have final causes. For example, rocks aim to be low, because they’re dense and heavy. Anything which acts as though it were intelligent but which isn’t so must be directed ultimately by an actual intelligence. That intelligence must be supreme to have organized the entire unintelligent but ordered and apparently designed universe, and that supreme intelligence is God.
This argument begs the question because the theism is implicit in the anthropocentric presumption of Aristotle’s teleology or of his projection of final causes onto everything. The argument assumes everything has a final cause and just points out, in effect, that that assumption is anthropocentric, that it presupposes the existence of some intelligence.
You can ask what a rock’s purpose is and you can posit that what rocks tend to do is what they should do, confusing normality with rightness, but that doesn’t make this a sensible judgment. Just because something’s ordered doesn’t mean it conforms to the human order. We work in terms of designs and purposes because we’re intelligent creators. To assume that everything in nature works in the same way is to assume that we’re of central importance to everything that exists, and that’s the old intuition that modern science dispelled.
Neo-Scholastic Metaphysics as a Pretentious Word Game
The other two arguments Feser defends are for an Unmoved Mover and for a First Cause. Feser is at pains to point out that Aquinas’s arguments are meant to be metaphysical demonstrations, not empirical theories, contrary to atheists such as Richard Dawkins who try to refute Aquinas by pitting his proofs against modern cosmology. But while this is accurate as a reminder about Aquinas’s method, this doesn’t help the Thomist’s case for theism.
As it was practiced by medieval theologians, metaphysics was a vain, dogmatic word game. Aquinas doesn’t discover through reason that God exists; rather, he sets up his abstruse assumptions and distinctions to entail that God exists as a matter of mere armchair logic.
The more abstract the use of logic, the less trustworthy the argument is as a demonstration of anything real beyond the confines of human cognitive biases. The more analytical and definitional the reasoning, the more the conclusion reflects only the structure of the human brain or the ethos of people living in a particular time and place.
We can reason our way to concluding that something exists, but to do that we have to include an implicitly or explicitly empirical premise in the argument. For example, suppose I want to prove that my wallet is still in the drawer. I can deduce as much by pointing out that that’s where I left it and that, as far as I know, no one else has opened the drawer in the meantime. Assuming the natural order precludes a miraculous disappearance, I can infer that the wallet is still where I left it. Thus, without having to check, I can think about my mental model of the environment and make probabilistic inferences based on my memories.
But now suppose I introduce abstract Scholastic fictions like “essence,” “accident,” “potentiality,” “orders of being,” and the like. Those abstract, armchair categories may tell us more about how we like to think than about how the world works. To assume otherwise is to beg the question by way of assuming anthropocentrism.
Indeed, that’s what Aquinas’s principle of causality does. Like Leibniz with his principle of sufficient reason, Aquinas assumes that what doesn’t bring itself into existence must have a cause. Feser points out that even atheists “implicitly take it [this principle] for granted whenever they trumpet this or that finding of science.” But here Feser misses the difference between science or science-centered philosophy and rationalistic metaphysics.
Scientists and modern philosophers subscribe to methodological naturalism, which means, indeed, that they expect to find no miracles in nature. They look for causes because they assume there are probably causes to be found. But that assumption is pragmatic, not metaphysical. Scientists don’t assume the causes are metaphysically necessary because science isn’t as dogmatic as medieval Christian theology.
What makes Aquinas’s principle of causality metaphysical is that Aquinas thinks the human expectation of causes and reasons necessarily applies to all reality. That very assumption is the anthropocentrism that scientific discoveries undermined.
We need no longer presume our intuitions of how the world should be necessarily match up with the rest of the universe. We no longer cover our intuitions and biases with metaphysical pomp. On the contrary, we late-modernists are skeptical about our prejudices and social norms, which is why we want scientists to gather data to tether our beliefs to the objective, possibly inhuman facts.
The Unmoved Mover
Let’s just run through Aquinas’s and Feser’s two other theistic word games to see where the tricks are played. The first of these “metaphysical demonstrations” proceeds like this: there are two kinds of causality, accidental and essential. The former holds between things (known in the Scholastic jargon as “accidents”) that have independent abilities to continue the causal series. Feser’s example is the relation between parents and descendants. The parents don’t have to be alive for their offspring to grow up and be able to produce another generation. This kind of causality happens across time, and the cause needn’t be operating directly on the effect for the effect to continue the series.
Essentially ordered series are those in which one cause dominates, the others being mere extensions or instruments of that essence of the series. Aquinas draws his example from Aristotle, of someone moving a ball with a stick. The stick and the ball can’t move themselves, and as soon as you remove the person, the motion stops.
The argument, then, is that in the case of the second kind of causality, the explanation can’t go on forever but must end in the positing of a primary essence or an “unmoved mover.” The instruments have their power to move derivatively or transitively, from the essence. So the question is about the location or identity of the most real essence. The person’s hand that holds the stick is moved by the arm, which is moved by the brain, which is moved by its chemical components, and so on. But Aquinas says this kind of causal explanation can’t be infinite, because, by definition, an instrument or derivative effect is nothing without the “essence” or primary mover.
However, there are at least two problems with the distinction between “accidentally” and “essentially” ordered causal series. First, this isn’t a kind of causality so much as it’s the mereological relation, the one between wholes and parts. Aquinas assumes the deeper levels of reality have greater “causal” power. Yet the higher levels may instead emerge and generate irreducible efficacy. Thus, there may be no need to descend to chemistry to explain how someone moves a ball by holding a stick.
The person emerges from the interaction of her trillions of atoms at a psychological or social level that can be explained in its own terms and indeed that can’t be explained at the microscopic level. No computer is powerful enough to generalize, based on micro-observations of protons and electrons, about why a person decides to move the ball as she does. There’s no concept of “person” or of “ball” that’s definable in terms of the lower-level vocabulary of chemistry, so that higher-level question wouldn’t even arise. That’s why the special sciences are needed and why genuine explanations — as opposed to word games — have a practical aspect.
Feser will say Aquinas is doing metaphysics, not science, but that’s to say Aquinas is writing fiction, not nonfiction, because Scholastic metaphysics was a word game that was barely tethered to reality. Regardless of what label you wish to apply, the relation between wholes and parts takes you not to “essences” or to “movers” — which are only medieval abstractions — but to the constituents of matter which no one can identify just from the armchair.
This takes us to the second problem, which is that the constituents end up working according to quantum theory which makes nonsense of our intuitions about causality. Rather than positing an all-powerful unmoved mover or “essence” that manipulates the higher levels of reality as so many instruments, scientists posit the subatomic constituents of matter, and experiments reveal that those constituents don’t behave like the material constructs at the higher levels. The subatomic constituents have properties of both particles and waves, and Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle says that matter at that level is inherently unstable and disordered, with virtual particles popping in and out of existence for no intuitive reason, with no cause.
A third, more decisive problem with this argument is that in so far as the argument depends on the distinction between “essence” and “instrument” or “extension,” the argument begs the question because that distinction is — you guessed it! — anthropocentric. An instrument is an artifact designed by a mind. So are there essences or forms that manipulate instruments, other than minds and their tools? Not obviously.
There are objective relations between wholes and parts in the nonliving world, but not such that the parts depend on more essential members. “Essential” in this case is an equivocal term since it can mean more real but also primary in the sense of being the controller. In that latter sense, we’d say the head is more essential than a finger. But who says a rock necessarily has an essence in that anthropocentric sense? Where’s the head of the rock? Well, if you play the Scholastic word game and speak of the rock as an “instrument” of some underlying “essence,” you end up positing an immaterial intelligence at the root of being. But the real world needn’t conform to our cognitive games.
The First Cause
The last argument is that many things in nature don’t bring themselves into being since their essence is distinct from their existence, which is to say that what they are doesn’t entail their reality; the concept of a rock doesn’t include the guarantee that rocks exist, since a rock’s properties don’t bring actual rocks into being. Given the principle of causality, these contingent things must have some external cause, and that cause must likewise have a still prior cause or else the cause must be the very first one, in which case its essence must be the same as its existence.
This foundational cause would be being itself, something which exists necessarily or that brings itself into being. The primary cause wouldn’t be a type of being, like a rock, a tree, or a squirrel, which are directed to particular ends; rather, the metaphysical foundation’s nature would be all about existence in general, as it were.
Aquinas says the only alternative would be that the universe arises from nothing, but he assumes nothing comes from nothing, so that would lead to absurdity since we observe there’s currently something rather than nothing. Feser puts the argument thusly: “When we consider that the essence of everything within the universe is distinct from its existence, so that each of these things must be caused by something outside itself, we can see that the same thing must be true of the universe as a whole. And in that case, the universe must have a cause outside itself.”
This switching of levels to the universe as a whole leads Feser to respond to the standard objection that the argument commits the fallacy of composition. Feser maintains the move isn’t always fallacious, since sometimes a whole has the same properties as its parts.
But there’s another problem, which is just an application of what I’ve already said: the Scholastic anthropocentrism responsible for presuming that the universe is always a whole with parts is no longer intuitive. Judging matters from our armchairs, we see a complex world so we might presume it was always thus if we assumed, in turn, that we’re all-important in the scheme of being.
Once we drop that presumption and look at the data which support the Big Bang theory, we’re led to think the universe once was unthinkably small, perhaps a singularity or a subatomic particle that popped into existence for peculiar quantum mechanical reasons. So that initial state wouldn’t have been a whole with parts in the intuitive sense.
In short, the universe as we find it may have evolved from prior stages which didn’t work as ours does now. That would entail the wrongheadedness of the anthropocentrism that’s so crucial to Thomistic and to Aristotelian arguments, the technical jargon of those philosophies notwithstanding.
Feser will insist that theoretical physics is speculative at this point and is thus no match for the “metaphysical necessity” of Aquinas’s proofs. (Indeed, Feser speaks of scientific models of the Big Bang as “speculations of physicists desperate to keep the divine foot out of the door the Big Bang seems to have opened.”)
Alas for Feser, there are cheap kinds of necessity, namely those that are evoked as in the playing of games. In chess, for example, there are rules which prohibit certain moves by necessity. But that necessity applies only to the game board, not to the world beyond the game. Similarly, if you invent a fictional world, you can control everything that happens in it so that you, the author become the lawgiver.
Again, the kind of rationalistic metaphysics in question is more like that game-playing than like science or science-centered philosophy. For example, why not define “law” as just the social kind that includes moral imperatives and the legal prohibitions, in which case the laws of nature would entail a law-giver who would be God? You could call this a “proof” even though the armchair demonstration would be a game based on the arbitrary definition of key words.
The question is whether natural “laws” really are the same as social laws, whether natural things are in fact artifacts made or regulated by an intelligent creator. We can declare that they’re the same, based on loaded reasoning, but then we’d have to trust that that metaphysical kind of reasoning necessarily applies to nature. And again, that’s the very trust that science and modernity in general (individualism, secular humanism, capitalism, democracy) have undermined.
That’s why Thomists like Feser are hostile towards modernity (and thus why Feser counters new atheistic snideness with his rude personal attacks), because as rational as they like to think their religious beliefs are, their Christianity is based, rather, on faith. Scientific discoveries shook that faith by showing the folly of our anthropocentric bias. Christians’ religious faith is no longer intuitive, self-evidently justified, or the default way of thinking, so the “Neo-Scholastic” rummages through the medieval word games to attempt to fool Christians into believing they still have the moral high ground. But just because someone knows how to write condescendingly doesn’t mean he has any real or merited authority.
Natural Law and Conservative Morality
The same gamesmanship is found in Feser’s and Aquinas’s twisting of the “natural law” theory of morality to suit conservative Christian morality. Feser argues, for example, against homosexuality on the grounds that the final cause or purpose of sex and of sexual pleasure is reproduction, and our purpose as people is to understand what’s naturally beneficial and to will ourselves to pursue those ends.
In Feser’s words, the “classical metaphysical picture [i.e. Aristotelian teleology] entails a conception of morality traditionally known as natural law theory.” And “Since the final cause of human sexual capacities is procreation, what is good for human beings in the use of those capacities is to use them only in a way consistent with this final cause or purpose. This is a necessary truth; for the good for us is defined by our nature and the final causes of its various elements.” Regardless of what other reasons we may have for sex, “every sexual act has as its natural culmination, its proximate final cause, ejaculation into the vagina.”
Moreover, for evolutionary reasons, this biological purpose has made for a natural division of labour. Women have the onerous obligation to carry the infants to term, which in the past — because of the lack of reliable birth control — prevented women from pursuing careers that call for extensive education and training. Babies and children, in turn, are biologically helpless and need to be raised by adults. Men are thus inclined to provide for women and children and to be jealous of their male competitors, which makes for a biological basis of heterosexual marriage.
As Feser says, “The teleology or final causality of sex thus pushes inevitably in the direction of at least some variation on the institution of marriage, and marriage exists for the purpose of generating and nourishing offspring.”
For these reasons, says Feser, gay marriage is immoral, as is abortion. ‘The $64 question in recent years, of course, is: “Does natural law theory entail that homosexuals can’t marry?” And the answer is that they can marry. But of course, what that means, as a matter of conceptual necessity, is that they can marry someone of the opposite sex. What they can’t do is marry each other.” And “It should be obvious that abortion is automatically ruled out as well, since it constitutes a particularly violent interference with nature’s purposes.”
The Naturalness of Our Revolt Against Nature
The crudity of this biological argument for conservatism might be obscured by the talk of “natural law” and “final causes.” Again, the ambiguity of “law” can suggest there’s some inherent value in the biological tendencies in question, which Aristotelian teleology makes explicit. Only with the theory of natural selection, however, do we understand what we’re really talking about here, which is biological functionality or adaptation.
Indeed, the evolutionary function of sex and of sexual pleasure is procreation. That’s to say that the reason sexual pleasure currently exists, for example, is that it facilitated the production of offspring, which when repeated led to many generations of our kind, which in turn led to people today who experience sexual pleasure as a prelude to the same effect, namely sexual reproduction.
The reason evolutionary psychology and social Darwinism are controversial and indeed notorious, though, is that there’s a giant leap of logic in saying that we have a moral obligation to confine ourselves to what’s natural in that sense. For starters, just because our body type has certain traits that functioned well in one environment doesn’t mean they’ll function as well in a later one. That’s why species evolve and why traits take on exaptations or new functions as biproducts of their capacities.
Indeed, it’s obvious from human creativity and from the artificial worlds we tend to build that our species is uniquely free rather than enslaved to our biological predilections. That’s why we invented birth control and abortion: our species is profoundly unnatural, which is precisely to say that we’re persons rather than just animals. Even Christians acknowledge this in their myths when they say that we’re made in God’s image and that we can be “sons of God” who adhere to the rules of God’s kingdom rather than just those of the animal one.
All of which is obvious, and Feser’s response is fallacious. Indeed, he considers this objection by raising the question, “If it’s wrong to go against nature, then isn’t it wrong to wear glasses, ride bicycles, etc., since these aren’t natural but artificial?” And he dismisses the question by saying that glasses fix biological defects and that bicycles extend our natural functions.
Thus, Feser implicitly denies the paradox of our kind, which is that what’s “natural” to us is to go against nature, to replace the wilderness with an artificial world, with villages, cities, civilizations, and cultures. Feser can’t afford to say that our obligation is, rather, to identify what’s natural and to condemn those regularities as such by way of deliberately setting out to improve on nature. That would be the satanic path of usurping God’s role as the universe’s architect.
For that reason, Feser says that “the natural end or purpose of the faculties of intellect and will” is to “allow us to understand the truth about things, including what is good for us given our nature or essence, and to act in light of it…And this becomes moral goodness insofar as we can choose whether or not to fulfill our natures in this way. To choose in line with the final causes or purposes that are ours by nature is morally good; to choose against them is morally bad.”
The reason we should follow what’s biologically natural, says Feser, is that that’s what’s objectively good for us, given Aristotelian teleology. In his words,
But when we add to this the consideration that the good for us is in fact whatever tends to fulfill our nature or essence in the sense of realizing the natural ends or purposes of our various natural capacities, then there can be no doubt as to why someone ought to do what is good in this sense. For you do by nature want to do what you take to be good for you; reason reveals that what is in fact good for you is acting in a way that is conducive to the fulfillment of the ends or purposes inherent in human nature…
Where this goes wrong is that human nature is divided against itself, just as reason is divided against nature in so far as nature is the prehumanized wilderness. The cerebral cortex is often in conflict with the older, more instinctive parts of the brain and with the gut, which sets up the familiar problem of the will. We’re often forced to choose what to do, because we’re not slaves to our lower nature, unlike animals. Moreover, reason sets up mental models of how nature works and that understanding invites us to build an alternative to nature.
Where Feser goes wrong here, then, is in assuming that what’s natural is in fact what’s good for us, such that the intellect would only be fulfilling its function of following the truth by recognizing the utility of our natural tendencies. This is the heart of conservative “morality,” the preference for animality over personhood. In practice, this preference leads to rationalizations of human versions of the animal dominance hierarchy, to monarchies, dictatorships, patriarchal tyranny, and the like.
We’re supposed to do what we naturally tend to do since that’s the direction God gives us. Then we notice the problem of evil and the inhumanity of life in the wild. We figure out that species evolve largely by accidental mutation and by the natural, that is, environmental selection of fit members, the latter being those members that don’t die off because of their ability to survive under changing conditions. We notice, in short, the glaring absence of a benevolent caretaker in the conduct of life across the planet. But the conservative encourages us to suspend our disbelief, to make believe that God never left because he issues his commandments through our biological functions.
But if God speaks through biological functions, he speaks through parasitic wasps that lay eggs inside living hosts, and in general through the trillions of frantic struggles for survival of predators and prey that have occurred in the wild — and we call nature the “wild” place because it’s evidently lawless in being amoral and godless. Indeed, polygamy is common in animals’ sexual relations, as is rape, so by Feser’s Darwinian logic, the conservative’s fixation on monogamous, consensual marriage might be a sinful deviation from a natural norm.
If Feser’s god is the god of nature and of “jungle law,” how is it obvious, then, that we people who stand as autonomous beings, able to decide whether to be perfectly natural or to create an alternative to that horror show, ought to side with the perpetrator of patently amoral evolution?
The Christian Demonization of Humanistic Philosophy
More to the point, it’s obvious that for over ten thousand years, since the dawn of civilization, our species has made the choice for what Feser would have to call satanism or prometheanism. We’ve attempted to be godlike, not just by correcting for some bad apples in nature or by enhancing natural capacities, but by systematically creating an anti-natural, artificial world, an alternative that replaces the wilderness. That’s just a statement of historical fact.
Satanism, the human condemnation of the natural order and the pride in our anti-natural accomplishments is normal for behaviourally modern people. How, then, can the natural law theory condemn this “satanism” without special pleading? Just as the notion that human technology is designed to fix only some defects in nature here and there is belied by the cancer-like growth of technology which swallows up the planet’s resources, so too satanic or rather humanistic pride isn’t a minor part of the human condition, judging from the growth of civilization.
The conservative’s use of “natural law theory” is just another arbitrary, game-like move. According to this move, heterosexuality is natural, which is to say biologically functional, and human reason should adhere to that function because the function is blessed by God as our purpose in life.
Yet our species evidently deems itself godlike and free enough to spend all its time figuring out ways of improving on nature, including by taking control of our reproductive system and our very genome. Instead of conceding, in effect, that our natural purpose is to replace the wilderness with a humanized world and that this system would have been designed by a diabolical agent, as in Gnostic creation myths, conservatives like Feser cherry-pick the natural regularities that suit their prejudices.
Where would homosexuality fit into this “satanic” or secular humanistic saga? Homosexuality would be as unnatural as our other technologies that are meant to improve on nature’s inhuman indifference to the preferences of living things. More precisely, homosexuality would be natural as a genetically determined mutation that doesn’t chemically lead to reproduction, but the liberal cultural affirmation of that mutation would be an exaptation, a social assignment of a humanized function to a natural (real) trait.
In short, gay people are humanized when they’re treated as fully personal (and thus as potentially godlike creators), regardless of the genetic mutation which makes them unfit in strictly evolutionary, animalistic terms. Those terms which dictate the conservative’s savage “morality” are of course dismissed in the truly human endeavor of seeking to improve on the grotesque wilderness as we’ve come to understand it with our intellectual faculties (which are likewise exapted in the case of scientific methods).
With reason, we understand that Feser’s neo-Scholastic gamesmanship is a ploy to save face after modernity’s evisceration of his archaic Christian worldview. So we lump that gambit in with Feser’s ironic, fallacious appeal to Aristotle to preserve his conservative moral prejudices.
That’s the same rational capacity Aquinas hoped would only support Christendom, which spurred his medieval aping of Aristotle’s style of philosophizing. What Aquinas didn’t understand is that philosophy isn’t the same as theology. Philosophy is done in good faith, as a heroic attempt to figure out the truth, regardless of popular opinions or of the social consequences. Theology is done in bad faith, on behalf of a religious organization that disguises its amoral political decisions with propaganda that keeps the masses in the dark, against the philosophical enterprise.
Just as Judaism spread across much of the world through Christianity, modernity is the unleashing of philosophy on the world via science and technology. The faith of philosophy is the pagan, humanistic one which Christians demonized. That secular faith is consistent with condoning homosexuality as just another part of the experiment of human creativity, and with admiring gay people’s courage in struggling against the conservative’s animalism and barely-concealed savagery.
What we learn from Catholics like Edward Feser is that savages can dress up their bigotry and childlike religious convictions with Jesuitical wordplay.