Sunday, February 27, 2005

The ME Project's Contained Kenosis

I finally managed to access a copy of Nancey Murphy and George F.R. Ellis's On the Moral Nature of the Universe. A fellow from Metanexus that I met last weekend at the AAAS Annual Meeting in Woodley Park recommended it to me after I told him about the paper I'm preparing for Communio (working title: The Kenotic Flow of Time).

The book unfortunately typifies the narcissism and shoddy scholarship into which the "science-religion dialogue" has degenerated (to put it briefly, religion is shy of challenging science's monopoly on objective reality). Though the Murphy-Ellis (ME) project begins with a brilliant connection, it quickly goes awry.

Murphy and Ellis attempt to ground ethics in a kenosis that they see reflected in the universe. Good enough so far. The term kenosis means "self-emptying" and its quintessential usage is in St. Paul's letter to the Philipians (2:5-8):

Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped,but emptied [ekenosen] himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross. (RSV)

For further discussion of the word, here's a Catholic Encyclopedia article on the subject and another resource on kenosis. (Both I found through google.)

In their introduction ME write:

God appeears to work in concert with nature, never overriding or violating the very processes that God has created. This account of the character of divine action as refusal to do violence to creation, whatever the cost to God, has direct implications for human morality; it implies a "kenotic" or self-renunciatory ethic, according to which one must renounce self-interest for the sake of the other, no matter what the cost to oneself. (xv, emphasis in original)

Pehaps you can see the problem already. (I mean the problem aside from the avoidance of the masculine pronoun to refer to Almighty God, who names himself our Father.) Their very definition of kenosis is a stunted, quasi-deistic version of "self-emptying." Self-containment instead of self-giving; Confuscius'

"Do not unto others and you would not have them do to you"

instead of Jesus Christ's Golden Rule,

"Do unto others as you would have them do unto you";

hands off, instead of hands helping.

Moreover ME's definition makes no mention of the Incarnation, which St. Paul manifestly holds up as the primary way that Christ emptied himself. In fact the index reveals only one reference to the Incarnation in the entire book, and that in a long Yoder quotation used merely to bolster Jesus' authority for giving moral laws as divine (p. 183). Check out the Catholic Encyclopedia article and you'll see that in defining kenosis both Catholics and Protestants historically focus on the Incarnation.

The intellectual perspective of the book is similarly truncated and narrow. Granted I've only quickly thumbed through the book, but I haven't found a single reference (they're all in footnotes) from before 1940. For heaven's sake, it's been two thousand years since God took on human flesh and walked the earth: surely the perspectives on Christ of Christians before the 20th century carry some weight. Or can the past teach us nothing? Is our age the summit and summation of all that is good in human history?

This impoverishment is similar to the current social-justice idea that peace consists of a superficial "absence of war" instead of an integral justice before God and communion with His creation—what Jews mean by shalom and in English we call "the peace of Christ."

Perhaps the biographies of the authors illuminate the origins of the book's perspective. Nancey Murphy is Professor of Christian Philosophy at Fuller Theological Seminary and an ordained minister in the Church of the Brethren. George F.R. Ellis is a professor of Applied Mathematics at the University of Capetown and a Quaker. Quakers are famous as pacifists. I don't know much of the Brethren, except what's on their webpage, which at first glance seems to emphasize a very this-worldly, social justice form of Christianity. I mean no derogation to either denomination by these observations, but simply to point out that ME seem to focus on a small slice of the Christian message that is apparently prominent in the theologies of their respective denominations—to the exclusion of vast, untapped oceans of Christian belief. In some sense I suppose ME, like all of us moderns, are trapped in a culture that, as Daniel Boorstin observes, merely reflects us back to ourselves, like a hall of mirrors . It's just a shame that we cannot empty ourselves of our self-involvement to look beyond the walls of our own egos and possibly glimpse Infinite Truth.

Daniel J. Boorstin, The Image : A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America (Vintage; Rei edition, 1992).

Nancey Murphy and George F.R. Ellis, On the Moral Nature of the Universe (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1996).

For an excellent historical treatment of perspectives on Jesus, please see

Jaroslav Pelikan, Jesus through the Centuries: His Place in the History of Culture (New Haven, Ct: Yale University Press, 1999).

(Pelikan is also author of an excellent history of the Christianity.)

Addendum (2005-03-08)

Just read a profile of Ellis in the January-February Science & Spirit. He's lived a generous life, having risked himself to expose "the pattern of unsolved assassinations of anti-apartheid activists" in his native South Africa. Details like this reveal that Ellis is actually better than his book.

Saturday, February 26, 2005

Course Correction: New M.O.

After re-examining my last post, I realized that (1) it's too long, because (2) I quote far too much. This has got to be boring for everyone out there in Web-land. What I need to do is summarize the long academic passages, perhaps quoting few pointed phrases or sentences. So my plan is to distill the last post and represent it. And to do the same with some of the longer preceding posts. Stay tuned....

Friday, February 25, 2005

Natural Law—Origins

Below I've excerpted further selections from the excellent Hittinger book I mentioned. I hope to clarify some of the ambiguities of discussion and tie natural moral law (i.e., applied to humans) to natural law in general, this forum's proper subject. To clear the air, anyone who argues about law using anything outside the positive (human-decreed) law relies on presuppositions that can be called "natural law" in a broad sense:

There are no theological claims completely separate from propositions about what is good for human beings and about the moral norms regulating the choice of these goods. And though sometimes camouflaged, there are no secular claims completely separate from propositions about the ultimate ground of authority. (xv)
Parties discussing natural law position themselves in a conceptual space spanned by three points or foci.
How can we begin to situate such a protean family of doctrines as "natural law"? Yves Simon has usefully proposed that the theories and ideologies of natural law seek to discover or assert the "prior premises" of human law. Simon further suggests that the answers to "what is prior" to human law tend to coalesce around three foci: order in nature, order in the human mind, and order in the divine mind..... We can appreciate why the first two foci have such appeal in our time.... (xvi)
The natural law tradition began in the confluence of two very independent streams of thought, represented by Athens and Jerusalem:
One may doubt that the narrowing of natural law inquiry to the first two foci has made it easier to reach consensus about what is prior to human law. What should not be in doubt is that the term "natural law" historically arose in reference to the third of Simon's foci—order in the divine mind. It is well known that for the ancient Greeks physis and nomos are opposites. In a remarkable essay, "The Concept of Natural Law in Greek Thought," Helmut Koestler has shown that the term "law of nature" occurs fewer than six times in the Greek literature of the pre-Christian era. In the work of the Jewish philosopher and exegete Philo of Alexandria (c. 20 B.C.–A.D. 50), however, more than thirty occurrences of the term can be found. As a term that meant something more than a comical union of opposites, or a merely metaphorical extension of concepts that properly reside elsewhere, natural law emerged as pasrt of the repertoire of moral and legal thought once the Greek logos-metaphysics was appropriated by the biblical theology of a creating and lawgiving God. Order in things and in the human mind are now laws, but the effect of a law that is not positive law. (xviii-xix)
Aquinas gives two reasons natural law is called "natural":
  1. we partake of the law by the natural power of reason, and
  2. by mode of promulgation the law is instilled in us "so as to be known naturally" (xxi-xxii)
In the modern age Catholics have made common cause with Protestants against Kant's dualism and moral autonomism to the point that the Pope (VS 41) has employed an originally Protestant term:
...the term "theonomy" seems to have been coined orginally by nineteenth-century Protestants theologians (mostly Lutheran) who want to overcome Kant's dichotomy of autonomy and heteronomy. That dichotomy, of course, expressed a complete anthropocentric setting of ethics. Either human practical reason acts according to a merely conditional maxim drawn from instinct, or practical reason acts according to an unconditional maxim grasped a priori by the mind. Protestant theologians of the era well understood that, on this view, obedience to divine law of any kind would prove heteronomous [i.e., extrinsic, non-natural]. Hence, they proposed a third term, theonomie to make clear that the human drama of autonomy versus heteronomy is relative to God's law as revealed in Scripture. (xli-xlii)
Hittinger includes an illuminating discussion of the problems with the special commission report submitted to Pope Paul VI (1967) on the topic of artificial contraception. The report foundered on an unwitting reliance on the modern notion of nature and natural law.
...the authors of the report set up a dichotomy between what we have been calling the first two foci of natural law, order in nature and order in the [human] mind. If the natural law is order in nature, then man is prevented from exercising his own natural gift of prudence. Given this opposition—nature or prudence—the latter would seem higher than the former.... The authors of the report mean by prudence the liberty of intelligent choice about the so-called gifts of nature without a prior precept. The concrete norms are entirely the work of the human mind.... Hence, the traditional concept of participation in a higher order is not so subtly transposed into a deism in which God supplies the material, but man supplies the concrete norms. From this perspective, it follows that binding law can emerge only after the fact of human dominion. As in various state-of-nature scenarios of the Enlightenment [secular subsitutes for Genesis, cf. p.14], we have here a Genesis 2 without a norm.
When Hittinger calls "gifts of nature without a prior precept" is what Wallace means by "nature as matter," that is, nature as lacking instrinsic order or reference outside of man's domination (ala Francis Bacon). We'll return to deism in a future discussion. My purpose in this post has been merely to clarify the terms of discussion and tie them in to the physical law of nature you and I have been discussing in this forum. I've only scratched the surface of Hittinger's introduction. I hope to review his discussion of natural law in the American context, especially the parallels between Scott v Sandford (1857) and Planned Parenthood v Casey (1992).

St. Thomas Aquinas, ST I-II, 90.4 ad 1.

Russell Hittinger, The First Grace: Rediscovering the Natural Law in a Post-Christian World (Wilmington, Delaware: ISI Books, 2002).

Helmut Koestler, "The Concept of Natural Law in Greek Thought" in Religions in Antiquity, ed. Jacob Neusner (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1968), 534–35.

Thursday, February 24, 2005

Starless Galaxy

Just ran across this surprising article linked from Slashdot Science: Astronomers find star-less galaxy The invisible galaxy could only be "seen" using radio waves Astronomers have discovered an object that appears to be an invisible galaxy made almost entirely of dark matter. A precious (political) item from The Thing Is about a conservative state legislator who introduces sarcastic bills to embarrass liberals: David Freddoso : How to Confuse a Liberal

A strong pro-lifer, Duprey has now introduced a bill by the title, “An Act to Protect Homosexuals from Discrimination.” The bill extends legal protection of the right to life of any unborn child that has the so-called “gay gene,” the mythical genetic component that some liberals claim causes people to be sexually attracted to the same sex.

Role of Judges in Natural Moral Law

I've started reading a book I just picked up last weekend, The First Grace by Russell Hittinger. I'm still in the introduction, but it is excellent so far. Some interesting ideas on the relationship of natural and positive law:

In a surprisingly direct and sophisticated way, Thomas contented that, constitutionally, the judgement of judges ought to be regulated by the written law. For as it bears upon the entire political community, natural law is best made effective if human law is not generated on a case-by-case basis. (xxxvi)
That's another problem with judicial activism. Even if the decisions are for the good (which they usually aren't), they are unjust (i.e., disordered) in principle. There has been some debate about the optimal outcome should we get some non-activist justices on the Supreme Court. I have been of two minds. On the one hand, prudentially we want the decision on abortion to go back to the states (that way the blue states can continue to kill themselves, cf. "Super-Natural Selection"), but on the other hand, to strictly enforce the natural law the Court should ban abortion throughout the country in one stroke (see for example Robert A. Connor's "Justice Scalia and Yogi Berra: A Matter of Interpretation"). The explanation Hittinger gives of St. Thomas's position is a happy surprise to me:
...obedience to the natural law might require a judge to render no judgement according to an unjust positive law, but he may never subvert the order of authority by imposing law ultra vires. Usurpation of positive law is a violation of the natural law. (xxxvi)
There are noteworthy points in the introduction more in line with the theme of this blog. To these I turn next.

Russell Hittinger, The First Grace: Rediscovering the Natural Law in a Post-Christian World (Wilmington, Delaware: ISI Books, 2002).

Wednesday, February 23, 2005

"Super-Natural Selection"

American politics are funny, aren't they? Isn't it ironic that the party that believes in Darwinism doesn't subscribe (supposedly) to social Darwinism, but the party that believes in social Darwinism, rejects Darwinism proper? These are generalities of course, but they confirm not only the incongruity of political alliances but also the superficiality of our political discourse. Speaking of political Darwinism... below I'm excerpted a Wall Street Journal article from last year: "The Empty Cradle Will Rock." The actual article contains nine tables of supporting statistical data, but I've included only the most essential textual conclusions. It boils down to this: liberal democrats have the most abortions and their population is hardest hit by this abominable blight. Liberals claim to stand up for the "little guy." That was at least true long, long ago, but has degenerated into platitude. They have hypocritically sold out the voiceless "littlest guy"——the unborn child (not to mention the women victimized by the abortion industry), and have fallen into their own trap. "Step right up, Messrs. Kerry and Edwards, and receive your Darwin Award!" The point I'm trying to make is that nobody can escape the natural law that binds the cosmos. Nature prefers fruitfulness and genuine self-giving. In this age of "planned families," generous people will tend to have more children, and selfish people less. So over time the population will increase in generosity. I came up with this idea in the mid-1990's and call it the Principle of Super-Natural Selection——not because there's anything truly "supernatural" about it, but because it operates above Darwin's Principle of Natural Selection (on the level of what I suppose the neo-Darwinians call "memes").

God always forgives; man sometimes forgives; nature never forgives.[1]
There's no escaping nature.
[1] source unknown
The Empty Cradle Will Rock How abortion is costing the Democrats voters——literally. BY LARRY L. EASTLAND (WSJ, Monday, June 28, 2004 12:01 a.m. EDT) Here's what we know from several generations of social science research about children:
  • • They tend to absorb the values of their parents. •
  • They tend to have the same political views as their family (parents, siblings, immediate relatives) and share common views on political causes. •
  • They tend to develop the same lifestyle as their family....
Democrats have lost 5,848,000 more voters [to abortion] than the Republicans have.... Examining these results through a partisan political lens, the Democrats have given the Republicans a decided advantage in electoral politics, one that grows with each election. Moreover, it is an advantage that they can never regain. Even if abortion were declared illegal today, and every single person complied with the decision, the advantage would continue to grow until the 2020 election, and would stay at that level throughout the voting lifetime of most Americans living today.... By combining party and ideology, an even sharper contrast comes into focus.... Liberal Democrats are having both more abortions——and more abortions as a percentage of their ideological and political group—than either of the other groupings. As liberals and Democrats fervently seek new voters and supporters through events, fund-raisers, direct mail and every other form of communication available, they achieve results minuscule in comparison to the loss of voters they suffer from their own abortion policies. It is a grim irony lost on them, for which they will pay dearly in elections to come.
Similar analysis, but post-mortem of the 2004 election: Baby Gap: How birthrates color the electoral map By Steve Sailer (The American Conservative, December 20, 2004) [Sailer is one of the few journalists today who does solid quantitative analyses.]

Tuesday, February 22, 2005

Unusual Allies

I haven't discussed Intelligent Design here yet, and will have to at some point. From the "News of the unexpected" department, here's an entertaining press release I just ran across:

Intelligent Design is a valid scientific theory!

Raelian Ph.D. scientists are welcoming invitations to talk to students about this alternative theory like it is done in the small town of Dover in York County, Pennsylvania, today at the center of an argument on the origins of mankind.

Las Vegas, February 14th, 2005

Dr. Boisselier, spokesperson of the Raelian Scientist Association issued the following statement today: “Raelians are atheists defending intelligent design and they devote their lives to science and rationality. We believe it should be a matter of policy to train and educate students to be open-minded, to exercise critical thinking and to challenge all theories with scientific rigor. Intelligent Design does not mean creation by a supernatural god. This is a widespread misunderstanding that equates the Intelligent Design (ID) Theory with a supernatural creation.

They're right that ID in itself doesn't necessarily mean creation by a supernatural god. ID is a scientific theory. Only philosophy can carry reason beyond modern science to the existence of an Omnipotent Creator. Still, one has to wonder how these people can seriously posit our creation at the hands of extraterrestrials without wondering who made the extraterrestrials. One cannot regress infinitely.

Monday, February 21, 2005

Truth Over Friendship

C.S. Lewis is a wonderful writer and usually right about what he says. So despite his being an ally in the struggle against modern looonacy, it is not possible to excuse his abuse of "nature." In chapter 1 of The Four Loves, he writes,

If you take nature as teacher she will teach you exactly the lessons you had already decided to learn; this is only another way of saying that nature does not teach. (19)
But nature can only fail to teach if she is purely passivethe "classical modern" or "nature as matter" use of the wordand she is not purely passive. As we have seen, nature possesses an inner activity of her own. Of course, Lewis is here arguing largely with Romantic nature worshippers, like Wordsworth, who profess a love for nature that is really self-involved sentimentality. Fine. But then Lewis writes,
Nature never taught me that there exists a God of glory and of infinite majesty. I had to learn that in other ways. (20)
One might expect that a Christian (and particularly a Protestant) like Mr. Lewis would have in the course of his studies come across this line from St. Paul's letter to the Romans (1:20):

For since the creation of the world [God’s] invisible attributes are clearly seen—his everlasting power and also divinity—being understood by the things that are made.

The opposite of the bad isn't always good: half-truths are more insidious than lies, so the devil mixes good in with the bad. In fact, merely opposing the devil effectively gives him control (remember Custer at the end of Little Big Man). In order to reach the truth, it is not sufficient to reject the excesses of modernity. The conception of nature is one instance in which Mr. Lewis's contrarian strategy has betrayed him.

C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves, (New York: Harcourt, 1988), ch 1, p 12.

Little Big Man, 1970, dir. Arthur Penn, starring Dustin Hoffman [a morally cynical film; not highly recommended]

From a biographical point of view, it is interesting that Lewis published The Abolition of Man in 1943, and The Four Loves in 1960 (from lectures recorded in 1957). In the former, he edges to the limit of his understanding of nature as matter, while in the latter, he seems to have fully reverted to the modern zeitgeist's reductionistic understanding.

Sunday, February 20, 2005

Nothing More Than "Feelings"?

The purpose of this blog is to reflect philosophically on nature and science. But since man is part of nature (in the widest sense of the word), these ideas have human (political) ramifications.

The objective basis of moral norms[1] is lost on most scientists and indeed on the great majority of society’s elite. Ethical norms are founded on nothing more than wishful, idealistic thinking or whimsical assertion of power, according to the dominant view.

In reaction to being passed over for reappointment to the President’s Council on Bioethics, Elizabeth Blackburn publicly denounced Council Chairman Leon Kass for “rejecting science, such as research involving embryonic stem cells, because it feels wrong to him.[2] Dr. Blackburn, who is no doubt a basically good person and worthy contributor to society, fails to realize that similar ‘feelings’ are all that prevent us from licensing practices that we by some unknown grace persist in stigmatizing, such as human vivisection, infanticide, euthanasia, and forced sterilization, even genocide. She is not alone; the vast majority of scientists are similarly uneducated.

The real danger to this ignorance lies in forgetting “who we are.” Our constitutional political order was founded on a clear vision of the transcendent dignity of the human person and his natural rights, that is, rights that flow from his very nature.[3]

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

Widespread ignorance, particularly among the “educated classes,” of the objective basis of human rights undermines the political order that has made the United States of America the great country that it is:

It is in the light of the dignity of the human person—a dignity which must be affirmed for its own sake — that reason grasps the specific moral value of certain goods towards which the person is naturally inclined. And since the human person cannot be reduced to a freedom which is self-designing, but entails a particular spiritual and bodily structure, the primordial moral requirement of loving and respecting the person as an end and never as a mere means also implies, by its very nature, respect for certain fundamental goods, without which one would fall into relativism and arbitrariness.

With relativism, every man becomes a law unto himself and the strong rule over the weak. Justice becomes the advantage of the strong.

[1] I am following the classical usage, in which ethics and morals are synonymous.

[2] “Bioethics and the Distortion of Biomedical Science,” New England Journal of Medicine, (March 18, 2004), 1379. Emphasis added.

[3]U.S. Declaration of Independence. John Paul II, Veritatis Splendor (August 6, 1993), 48.

Saturday, February 19, 2005

The Nature of Nature

Nature is a word of varying meanings, which can best be understood if we consider its various opposites. The Natural is the opposite of the Artificial, the Civil, the Human, the Spiritual, and the Supernatural. (C.S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man, ch 3)
How can we distinguish these varying meanings?

We'll start with David L. Schindler's historical-etymological exposition in "The Problem of Mechanism."

The term physics, comes from the Greek physis and thus in turn from the verb phyo, which means "to bring forth, produce, put forth; to beget, engender, generate" and so on (Lidell and Scott Lexicon). And physis is rendered into English as "nature," which comes from the Latin "natura," and thus in turn from the verb "nascor" which, like "phyo," is also associated with giving birth. We can see developed in Aristotle the full meaning of these initial etymological considerations.
Dr. Schindler distinguishes
...two fundamentally different ways in which the terms physis (nature) and physics have been understood in the history of Western thought. The first of these is represented in Aristotle, in what may be called the classical Greek view. The second is represented in Descartes, in what may be called the classical modern view....
Since the modern view is more familiar to us, we will explore these in reverse chronological order. The modern (or Cartesian) understanding is "nature as matter," as William A. Wallace calls it his The Modeling of Nature. Lewis speaks of nature in this way in chapter 2 of The Four Loves and in all but the end of The Abolition of Man. Nature as matter, Schindler writes, is devoid of any internal activity and
essentially inert (or as Descartes says, in repose). To put another way, any activity to be ascribed to nature (matter) must now be of an external sort.
As Lewis puts it,
Nature seems to be the spatial and temporal, as distinct from what is less fully so or not so at all. She seems to be the world of quantity, as against the world of quality; of objects as against consciousness; of the bound, as against the wholly or partially autonomous; of that which knows no values as against that which both has and perceives value; of efficient causes (or, in some modern systems, of no causality at all) as against final causes. Now I take it that when we understand a thing analytically and then dominate and use it for our own convenience, we reduce it to the level of 'Nature' in the sense that we suspend our judgements of value about it, ignore its final cause (if any), and treat it in terms of quantity.
Schindler writes that, in contrast,
...nature for Aristotle is not matter: for nature in the full and proper sense for Aristotle is something actual and matter in its basic meaning is not actual—it is what has the capacity for becoming actual. It follows that nature in its full and proper sense must be—not matter—but that—the act or activity—in virtue of which nature, and hence matter, are said to be actual.

Wallace distinguishes Descartes's passive "nature as matter" from Aristotle's active "nature as form":

Unifying form, no less than the underlying matter, is the internal source from which all such activities ultimately spring. Behaviors, actions, and reactions are natural for a substance precisely to the extent that they proceed from within it, and thus from its matter and form as its basic intrinsic constituents. (11, 1.3)

Or as Schindler says,

for Aristotle, proper understanding of nature, of matter as an actual part of nature, requires an understanding of what it means to be in the most fundamental sense (ousia), and this in turn is seen to require understanding of such features as immanence (immanent source of the activity in terms of which something is said to be actual, to grow, to change, to move), form (act of forming), end (act of finalizing), actuality or activity, and completeness or wholeness.
To summarize, we use the word nature in a range of ways, bounded it seems by the usages of Aristotle and Descartes exemplify. Aristotle saw nature as primarily the inner activity of a thing that perfected it and formed it to its ends, while Descartes saw nature as definitionally passive, relegating activity to unnatural imposition from without.

A further distinction is necessary. Schindler describes how Aristotle's nature-matter needs always to be joined to nature-form:

...(a) that matter is a relative concept; it is something which can properly be understood in its actuality, only and always in relation—to nature in a fuller, proper sense; secondly, (b) nature, that in relation to which matter takes its full meaning, is characterized by act or activity which is immanent, formal, final, unifying, and complete or whole. This understanding of physis has often been called organic or organismic. These terms seem to me apt, since they are commonly taken to; be characteristic of organisms i.e., the immanent activity of form and finality, internality of relation among the distinct "parts" of the organism, and consequently a wholeness of the organism which is distinct from the sum of its "parts."
Whereas Descartes's claims are
....(a) that matter is an absolute concept, something apart from, not-relative to, anything "more" like Internal—formal and final—activity; (b) that nature, now absorbed into matter in this way, is whole (in any of its instances) only in the sense of being a collection which is exactly the sum of externally interactive parts.
Thus we come to Descartes's description of the human body-soul composite which is commonly caricatured as "A ghost in a machine." The ghost is inside the machine, but not integrally or organically united to it. Regardless of the faithfulness of this summary, the conclusion is grossly mistaken. As Aristotle says, the soul is the form (or nature) of the body. This truth is the reason that a human body without a soul is not a human being, but a corpse.

With the Cartesian understanding, the human intellect can only be unnatural. Man himself is unnatural to the extent that his intellect guides him, and he is natural to the extent that external forces control him. This reasoning explains why moderns see giving in to their desires (no matter how base, no matter into what a sordid state of unhappiness it draws them) is "natural," while exercising self-control to follow the course that reason says will lead to happiness (in the larger, fuller sense) is "unnatural."

As usually confused pop-star Sheryl Crow poignantly sings by some unknown grace:

If it makes you "happy" Then why the hell are you so sad?
Ethics (or morality) is the science of happiness. It investigates what we ought to do to find happiness. By modern definition, ethics can only be artificial. Hence, moderns complain about others "imposing their morality" on their "natural" activities, like self-mutilation and polymorphous perversity. Man's nature is rational. It is what separates him from the beasts. Yet by the modern definition, reason is "unnatural" and man can only be "natural" by denying his reason to become a brute. Marx was right: man is alienated. But not so much from his work as from himself.

Benedict Ashley, Theologies of the Body: Humanist and Christian, (Braintree, Mass.: The Pope John Center, 1985).

C.S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man (San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1974), ch.3

David L. Schindler, "The Problem of Mechanism," in Beyond Mechanism: the Universe in Recent Physics and Catholic Thought, ed. David L. Schindler (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1986).

William A. Wallace, The Modeling of Nature: Philosophy of Science and Philosophy of Nature in Synthesis (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1996)

Premises and Conjurations

Hang on, folks! Being my first weblog, take-off's likely to be a bit shakey.

The purpose of this new endeavor is to begin a serious inquiry into the full truth of the natural world.

In the first place, what is "nature"? Words are important.

C.S. Lewis calls natural "a word to conjure with," and it truly is. Just think of the grocery store. NATURAL! is emblazened on the label of almost everything these days. One of my favorite products is "natural" peanut butter. The essential property I require is exclusion of processed sugar (cane sugar or corn syrup). But is "natural" peanut butter truly natural? Even something as elemental as peanuts ground into a uniform paste (I prefer smooth) doesn't spontaneously appear in the virgin forest, even outside of a jar.

On a similar line, for many years I've occasionally visited the "natural" food store (typically a shee-shee establishment whose aisles are plied by self-righteous DINKs) and have noticed a lamentable trend. Long, long ago, it was quite obvious that many of the manufactered food products sold there were cobbled together by a small--or at least somewhat aesthetically challenged—cadre of back-to-nature (that word!) types. The labels were awkwardly printed and unprofessionally packaged, but (even more importantly) the list of ingredients was very, very simple. The products I bought contained no processed sugars, or sucrose or dextrose.

Nowadays, the situation is rather different. These same products are slickly packaged, but even if the packaging remains unchanged, the lists of ingredients have doubled or tripled in length, and now include sugar(!)—albeit ciphered as "dehydrated cane juice" (oh, am I fooled!). The underlying cause (as I read somewhere a while ago) is that the big food manufacturers recognized the trend among consumers to gravitate toward "natural" products so they bought up the small "mom and pop" natural food operations (who, it should be noted, agreed to sell). As when anything is commercialized, the first thing to go is integrity. Quantity (the bottom line) over quality: "How many units are we selling? What dividends are we paying our stockholders?"

I assume the goal of the original proprietors (the "mom and pop") was to supply a product to help people. But when sales figures become the priority, that noble purpose readily flies out the window. Making a product that people will buy becomes the goal: what they desire, instead of what is truly good for them. Often these coincide, but they are not identical. Now before someone calls me an elitist or a snob, please note that people often desire things that are bad for them. Whether or not you think it should be outlawed (a laughable proposal just a few decades ago), everyone admits that smoking is unhealthy, for example. Manufacturers appeal to the desire to appease the consumers' immediate appetites, instead of working for what Tocqueville calls their "self interest, rightly understood."

We Americans are a superficial people. We want everything pre-packaged and ready for immediate use without our having to "waste time" in fine deliberation. Thus the harried professional lacks time to examine the label of, say, that "natural" granola, sweetened by the ubiquitous "high fructose corn syrup" (that ingredient worth a post in itself), instead of with fruit juice or honey that used to fulfill the same function in that granola, or still does in its more expensive, less slickly packaged competitor. He feels good buying a "natural" product, regardless of the truth of that label.

The point is that there is an enormous ambiguity in the meaning of the word "natural," and that nailing down its meaning has an immediate import for your and my lives. I've already written quite a bit here, so I'll save exploration of the particular meanings of "nature" for the next post.


This may be awkward. I want to be thorough about documenting sources, but I also don't want to encumber the reader with the clutter of parenthetical annotations. I hope this is clear enough.

C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves, (New York: Harcourt, 1988), ch 1, p 12.

Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America.