Saturday, December 12, 2015

An Atheist Reviews The Last Superstition: A Refutation Of The New Atheism (Chapter 4 Scholastic Aptitude - Part 2: Natural Law)

Natural law

I really suspect, at some level, that religion for many people today exists primarily as a means to justify their desire to control other people's sex lives and social interactions. It seems as if all the previous chapters and arguments were really just to lay the foundation for natural law ethics, whose proponents are totally obsessed with sex, as is the Catholic Church historically (and many religions in general). But first, Feser scoffs at Richard Dawkins' molestation incident when he was a boy and the "truly creepy vibes" he gets from a possible secular education standard which might be led by Dawkins' totally normal yet "blasphemous" views on sex that say, in part, "Enjoy your own sex life (as long as it damages no one else)". Oh my! How "creepy" of Dawkins to advocate for guilt-free consensual sex! The horror! No. The truly "creepy" views on sex are of course best exemplified by Feser's Catholic Church, given its obsession with chastity, homosexuality, and its massive pedophilia scandal. But anyway, to the heart of it:

The "nature" of a thing, from an Aristotelian point of view, is, as we've seen, the form or essence it instantiates. Hence, once again to hail in my triangle example, it is of the essence, nature, or form or a triangle to have three perfectly straight lines. 
When it comes to biological organs, we have things whose natures or essences more obviously involve certain final causes or purposes. So, for example, the function of final cause of the eyeball is to enable us to see. But suppose someone's eyeballs are defective in some way making his vision blurry. In that case, to wear sunglasses isn't contrary to the natural function of eyeballs; rather, it quite obviously restores to the eyeballs their ability to carry out their natural function. 
...whether homosexuality has a genetic basis the question is largely irrelevant. For it is quite obvious that the existence of a genetic basis for some trait does not by itself prove anything whether it is "natural" in the relevant sense. To take just one of many possible examples, that there is a genetic basis for clubfoot doesn't show that having clubfeet is "natural." Quite obviously it is unnatural, certainly from an Artistotelian sense of failure to perfectly conform to the essence or nature of a thing. And no one who has a clubfoot would...find it convincing that the existence of a genetic basis for his affliction shows that it is something he should "embrace" and "celebrate." Nor would it be plausible to suggest that God "made him that way," any more than God "makes" people to be born blind, deaf, armless, legless, prone to alcoholism, or autistic. God obviously allows these things, for whatever reason; but it doesn't follow that He positively wills them, and it certainly doesn't follow that they are "natural." So, by the same token, the possibility of a genetic basis for homosexual desire doesn't by itself show that such desire is natural...Even if it is established beyond a reasonable doubt that there is such a basis, with respect to the question of naturalness of homosexuality, this would prove exactly zip. (133-134)

Whew. Couple of thoughts. Why wouldn't a genetic basis for something be natural? If failure to perfectly conform to the essence or nature of a thing makes it unnatural, then almost everything we do and have is unnatural. The whole problem once again is trying to argue what you can do for triangles, for humans. Triangles are simple shapes defined a certain way. Humans are much more complicated and irregular to be compared in such a way. What is the perfect form, essence, or nature of a human being? David Hasselhoff? Brad Pitt? Michaelangelo's David? Joseph Smith? The Islamic prophet Mohammad? Or is it Jesus? He was supposedly celibate. Does that mean all sex is unnatural? No Catholic says that, but it would seem to conclude from the concept. Of course, I reject the whole conception of "natural" in this sense and many of us do too. "Natural" means of nature; it means existing in or caused by nature; not made or caused by humankind. There's a simple logical argument to show how god cannot merely allow natural defects, he must cause it, and whatever he causes he must positively will since god cannot cause something he doesn't will:

(1) God (an omnipotent, omniscience, omni-benevolent being) exists.
(2) Natural evil exists.*
(3) God is the creator and designer of the physical universe, including the laws that govern it.
(4) Genetic defects, and the evil they cause, are a direct byproduct of the laws that govern our universe.

Any genetic defect like a clubfoot would be (2), and no traditional theist denies (1) or (3). To deny (4) requires the theist to argue that the cause of genetic defects is something other than god. Since it isn't man-made (hence it wouldn't be natural) it must be some other thing, but the only candidates would be demons or evil spirits. (This is literally how some theists reason, mind you.) But here's the thing, if demons are the cause of genetic defects, the theist has a problem. It's the very existence of natural disasters and genetic defects that shaped the path to our evolution. Genetic mutations, after all, are a necessary component of the evolutionary process. So how could something necessary to our evolution be caused by demons? It would make our evolution contingent on the input of demons, and impossible under god's plan without them, which makes no sense. But of course, the theist can always appeal to mystery, and that's exactly what Feser does.

Homosexuality is as natural as clubfeet, or left-handedness, or nearsightedness. And even if pedophilia is natural in this same sense, us rationalists know there is a huge difference between sex among legal-age consenting adults and sex with children who are not old enough to consent to sexual activity. Feser seems to make a case for an emotivist position that our emotional reactions to things should be a rational basis for them being wrong. But we all react differently to different things and some of us are sociopaths who don't react at all, and so emotional reaction isn't the best way to ground a moral system for a society. One interesting aspect of natural law theory that makes it similar to the ethical naturalism that I hold to, is that rightness and wrongness are contingent on various behaviors conducive to a species' well being. If for example, humans were cold-blooded and laid eggs instead of having live births, our morality would have to be conducive to the well being of this nature.

Feser says, "a good human being is one who successfully carries out the characteristic activities of human life, as determined by the final causes or natural ends of the various faculties that are ours by virtue of our nature or essence." (137) He later asks, "why should we choose to do what is good for us in this Aristotelian sense?" and comes to the first principle in natural law: good is to be done and pursued, and evil is to be avoided. And what is good? It's "acting in a way that is conducive to the fulfillment of the end or purposes inherent in human nature". (138) He adds that if you're rational, you will see the truth of this. But, there is a problem looming ahead. It's David Hume's famous is/ought problem, or naturalistic fallacy. No amount of knowledge about what is the case can tell you about what ought to be the case. Basically, you cannot derive an ought from an is. Feser, never a fan of Hume, thinks the problem is resolved with formal and final causes.

Like everything else, human beings have a formal cause - their form, essence, or nature - and this formal cause entails certain final causes for their various capacities. So, for example, our nature or essence is to be rational animals, and reason or intellect has its final cause the attainment of truth. Hence the attainment of truth is good for us, just as gathering acorns is good for the squirrel. These are just objective facts; for the sense of "good" in question here is a completely objective one, connoting, not some subjective preference we happen to have for a thing, but rather the conformity of a thing to a nature or essence as a kind of paradigm (the way that, again, a "good" triangle is just one which has perfectly straight sides, or a "good" squirrel is one that isn't missing its tail.)(139)


All of this falls apart if we deny that anything has a final cause or that there are forms, essences, or natures in the Aristotelian sense...

Or does it? I fully reject that there are forms, essences, or natures in the Aristotelian sense, and I think Hume's is/ought dilemma is over-rated. Every single ought is due to an is. To believe that a god exists and commanded you to do X, is an is statement. To claim we were created for a purpose, is an is statement. Feser, I think, acknowledges this, and the is statement that he believes is that god created us with a purpose and nature in mind. But if reality is fully natural, as I see it, I don't see a huge problem. Under naturalism, our nature or essence isn't to be rational animals, our nature or essence (if you want to call it that) is that we are rational animals. There is no purpose or teleology. Our ability to be rational came about through the unguided natural-selection of evolution most likely because the ability to attain the truth benefited our ancestor's well being and that gave them a reproductive advantage. In the same exact way then, "the attainment of truth is good for us, just as gathering acorns is good for the squirrel." There is no need to posit any aspect from A-T metaphysics to reach the objective conclusion that rationality is good for us.

So then Feser turns to sexual morality and homosexuality, which you might say is the climax of this chapter (pun intended). Religions in general are obsessed with sex, especially the Catholic Church. That's one reason why so many young Catholics lapse. And the obsession with homosexuality is another peculiarity. It's no surprise that there are so many gay priests. But of course, it is us critics of natural law who are the real ones "obsessed with sex," Feser says. Yeah, right. Anyway, predictably Feser tells us what the purpose or natural end of sex is: procreation. And to "emphasize pleasure is to put the cart before the horse. Procreation (and nutrition in the case of eating) 'wears the trousers,' as it were; pleasure has its place, but it is secondary." (142) From a purely biological perspective here, natural law is not totally crazy. In nature, we desire sex so that we're more likely to reproduce, because in the end we're biological machines that evolved to propagate our DNA. Survival and reproduction are the name of the game. But, I of course deny final causes. I deny that there is anything truly teleological about nature. Sure, our sexual desires are with the goal of sex in mind, because that ensures the survival of the species. But we are among the many species of animals that have sex for fun. One of our primate cousins is bonobos, and they have sex all the time for fun, including homosexual sex. No one would say that they're sinning or acting in a way not in accord with their nature. Having sex for fun is a part of their nature - just as it is for us.

Feser then makes the case for marriage, a topic traditional Catholics spend far too much time obsessing over. Marriage "exists for the purpose of generating and nourishing offspring not only biologically but culturally. Everything else is subordinate to this in the sense that it wouldn't exist without, and loses its point without, the overall procreative end." (144) I disagree. Marriage is a man-made institution and serves many purposes. One purpose is to legally and socially solidify a bond between a man and a woman. Another purpose has been to bond two families or unite two kingdoms. Another purpose is to sexually own another person, which is almost always the woman. Yet another purpose is for a family to make money, by selling their daughter in marriage. And of course, in modern times, marriage is often seen as the legal means to obtain new rights between two consenting adults in a relationship. Whatever biology "wants" us to do is irrelevant to what we want to do, since there are no formal or final causes in the A-T sense, nor is there any teleology in nature. Many things we desire have a natural foundation, but that doesn't necessarily make them into normative behaviors. I personally don't believe in marriage and I don't like kids. Sexual activity for me is purely about pleasure, and nothing else. I'm aware of how many religious people disagree with this and that's one of the things that motivates me in counter-apologetics. Utterly refuting their religious worldview is another source of pleasure. I was an apatheist after all, until I caught wind of the damage that religion and religious fundamentalism does.

Regarding the act of sex itself, Feser says, "If we consider the structure of the sexual organs and the sexual act as a process beginning with arousal and ending in orgasm, it is clear that its biological function, its final cause, is to get semen into the vagina. That is why the penis and vagina are shaped the way they are". (144) Actually, as I mentioned in my review of chapter 2, we have evidence the human penis evolved its shape to scoop out other men's semen from the vagina (called the semen displacement hypothesis). This means non-monogamy literally shaped our evolution and further confirms our nature as primates who have sex for fun, and not always monogamously. But since I reject A-T metaphysics and all notions of teleology in nature, I don't think that what is necessarily has any sway over what ought to be. In the modern world, billions of people have sex for fun and outside of marriage and are perfectly healthy and contribute to healthy societies. Given our growing population currently at 7.3 billion, it might actually be harmful if we only had sex with reproduction in mind, as Feser's traditional Catholic views would have it. Now when it comes to successful child rearing, there is evidence that a two parent family usually works best. The epidemic of absent fathers in recent decades has devastated many communities, especially the African-American community here in the US. It may not merely be a coincidence that out-of-wedlock births are the highest in the African-American community and the incarceration rate is the highest. There definitely is an argument to be made that when children are involved, having a stable two parent home is recommended. Those two parents don't have to be of the opposite gender however. The bottom line is that not all sex, or relationships, or marriages need to exist with procreation in mind. Marriage has no intrinsic purpose; it's a fully man-made institution. But most rationally, it is centered around the obtainment of legal rights between consenting adults.

Feser then makes several arguments against abortion. Among them, he says it's a "particularly violent interference with nature's purposes." (146) I suppose that would mean circumcision is too, huh Feser? Foreskin serves a natural purpose and an end on the A-T view, and circumcision is a "particularly violent interference" with that purpose. Therefore to be consistent, I cannot see how any person subscribing to A-T metaphysics can support circumcision. Every animal we kill and eat is also a "particularly violent interference with nature's purposes." Therefore to be consistent, I cannot see how any person subscribing to A-T metaphysics can support meat eating and factory farming. (I know of course A-T metaphysicians have their arguments for why this is not the case, but I will address that another time.) I'm pro-choice. A fetus is not an independent person because it cannot survive on its own outside the womb, or detached from a human being. It is also not sentient and is non-conscious. These are two factors relevant to the morality involved with killing human life, of which abortion is a part of. Non-conscious is different from unconscious. If we are unconscious we still posses our cognitive properties even if we are not currently using them, like if we are sleeping, for example. If we are non-conscious we posses no mental properties. Fetuses, especially in the first trimester (when 90 percent of abortions occur in the US), do not posses any mental properties.

All sexual acts must culminate with a penis ejaculating into a vagina on natural law theory according to Feser, even that of sterile couples. Whatever happens before that is OK, so long as it ends with ejaculation into a vagina. (So I guess that means if a man has gay sex before he ejaculates into a vagina, then that gay sex was OK?) The natural law theory on sex is so out of line with mainstream views on sex, even among Christians, that there is no wonder why few Catholics give a shit about it. It just cannot be taken seriously. But other people do, and that's why I have to address it. Can you really imagine being married to someone with Feser's extreme conservative views on sexual regulation? I wouldn't be surprised if he was a religious hypocrite and his sex life didn't live up to the rigid standards he wants you to live by.

According to natural law theory, homosexuals cannot marry each other "no more than a person could "marry" a goldfish, or a can of motor oil, or his own left foot. For the metaphysics of underlying natural law theory entails that marriage is, not by human definition, but as an objective metaphysical fact determined by its final cause, inherently procreative, and thus inherently heterosexual." (149) But we have no reason to think teleological final causes exist, and thus no reason to accept A-T metaphysics, and thus no reason to accept natural law theory. Far from being an objective metaphysical fact, marriage is a totally man-made institution, whose definition has changed through the ages, and from culture to culture, sometimes being arranged, sometimes not; sometimes involving children, sometimes not; sometimes involving more than two people, sometimes not; and sometimes involving people of the opposite sex, and sometimes not. There is no objective basis for marriage whatsoever.

Feser laments that it's only been recently that Western culture has rejected the "traditional sexual morality" he espouses that has resulted in our culture's "steep decline and extreme decadence." (151) But steep decline according to who? Traditional Catholics? Religious fundamentalists? Sure. Most moderate-to-liberal theists and secularists? No. I don't count consenting adults having safe sex a sign of our culture's decline. I count the widespread use of contraception an advance. Steven Pinker's book The Better Angels of Our Nature documents the decline of violence since the Middle Ages, especially in the second half of the twentieth century, coinciding with the fall of "traditional sexual morality." Violence is also higher in more religious countries than it is in secular ones. (See also here and here.) And while violence of course is not the only measure of a society, there is no reason to think that recreational sex, gay sex, or abortion in any way has resulted in the absurd notion that Western culture is on the "decline."

Feser also claims that "secularists" (again, a term he never defines) reject A-T metaphysics because it entails traditional sexual morality. (151) This is something I want to write a whole post about. It is possible some "secularists" reject A-T metaphysics because it conflicts with their sexual morality. I'll grant that. But one must be also be willing to grant that it's just as possible that the driving force behind some A-T metaphysicians is their conservative political and sexual leanings, especially when their arguments are as bad as Feser's.** I reject A-T metaphysics for the reasons I outlined in my last two chapter reviews, not because it makes absurd claims on sex. Getting off of the animalistic reproductive cycle that our biology entrenched with in us is definitely a sign of progress.

Finally, let me add a few last points to natural law theory. With the help of some criticism of natural law theory from philosopher Kai Nielsen, and summarized by Taylor Carr, here are some problems additional with the theory:

  1. Natural law theory suffers from many of the same problems of justification that other theories do. For example, humans are naturally non-monogamous, but no natural law theorist would claim that non-monogamy is therefore moral. I think this means that they have to include other notions of ethics to weigh what is, from what ought to be, such as, among other things, consequentialism. In the words of Kai Nielsen, "we poor mortals can have no rational certitude that the precepts claimed to be natural laws are really natural laws." (2005) This seems to make the claim that natural law is "universally cognizable through human reason" false.
  2. Much like the unjustified belief in the soul to claim a requisite for human rights, the natural law theorist must likewise claim that there are teleological final causes and that we exist for a divine purpose—a view science strongly challenges.
  3. Disagreement among natural law theorists claim that it is due to "sin" or to "dark habits." (Nielsen, 2005) Things from natural law theory that conflict with Catholic doctrine are arbitrarily labeled "unnatural." It seems that our own assessments of human nature—a criteria allegedly rejected by natural law theorists, becomes the primary focus of moral assessment.

Natural evil is defined as an evil for which "no non-divine agent can be held morally responsible for its occurrence."
** We have evidence to suggest that our political leanings may be in some sense hardwired into our brains. Brain scans have revealed that the level in which we react to risk, disgust, and fear strongly correlate with our political leanings. The stronger the reactions, the more likely one is to be conservative. Of course, this means that liberal leanings may be hardwired too. Point is, we should focus on the metaphysical arguments and their evidence.
-All quotes from Feser emphasis his.

← Chapter 4 - Part 1
Chapter 4 - Part 3 →

Edit: A theist who agrees with Feser took the time to critique my review and I responded to him. In my response I clarify many parts of my original critique that perhaps I should have worded better and I address many of his misunderstandings of my review. For further elaboration on my review, see A Reply To Steven Jake On The Last Superstition.

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