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The sexual revolution devours its children

This is from edwardfeser.blogspot.com which you can find here.  This blog is written by Edward Feser who is a Christian philosopher who I have been recently introduced to who I think provides effective clear, sobering, and direct responses to the advance of secular culture.


In two recent posts, we looked at philosopher Alex Byrne’s criticisms of claims made by some transgender activists to the effect that sex is not binary and that it is socially constructed.  Byrne is by no means the only philosopher alarmed at the increasingly bizarre claims being made by such activists – and the shrillness with which they are making them.  Kathleen Stock worries that such ideas will cause harm to women.  Daniel A. Kaufman warns that they threaten nothing less than the end of civil rights.  Nor are these philosophers conservatives who are hostile to the sexual revolution.  They are progressives concerned about extremism and anti-intellectualism in their own ranks.  And as if to prove the critics’ point, some of the activists have in response tried to get the critics fired and otherwise to silence them.

[Correction: Dan Kaufman kindly responds to this post in the combox below, and offers the following clarification: “I do believe in both the rightness and the viability of the modern liberal project, a la Locke and Mill [but] I do not consider myself a progressive of any sort.”]

The identificationist extreme

Kaufman gives the label “identificationism” to the thesis that a person is whatever he takes himself to be, which underlies claims like the ones criticized by Byrne.  To understand the absurd implications Kaufman takes this thesis to have, consider the following example.  (The details of the example are mine, not Kaufman’s.)  Suppose Pat is biologically male, having male chromosomes, male sex organs, and so forth.  The traditional or commonsense view of sex would be that Pat is a man, full stop.  Suppose that Chris, meanwhile, is biologically female, having female chromosomes and female sex organs.  The traditional or commonsense view would be that Chris is a woman, full stop.  And suppose also that Chris is sexually attracted only to other women.  Then common sense would say that Chris is a lesbian – since, as Kaufman writes, “until about five minutes ago, everyone knew what a lesbian is, namely a homosexual woman.

But now suppose that Pat “self-identifies” as a woman, but also as a woman who is sexually attracted only to other women.  Then Pat too, despite being what common sense would regard as a man, is also a lesbian!  Suppose also that Chris is in no way sexually attracted to “lesbians” like Pat, and indeed finds distasteful the idea of being romantically or sexually involved with them (given that they have male sexual organs, etc.).  Then, according to the identificationist transgender activists criticized by Kaufman, Chris is guilty of “bigotry” against Pat.  On the activists’ view, for Chris to refuse to treat people like Pat the way she would treat any other lesbian is a kind of unjust discrimination.

In effect, these activists are claiming that it is wrong for Chris (who, common sense says, is a woman) not to be sexually and romantically attracted to people like Pat (who, common sense says, is a man).  But this sort of claim, Kaufman points out, “used to be the exclusive province of religious fundamentalists and other assorted social conservatives and reactionaries”!  In short, the identificationist transgender activists are in Kaufman’s view undermining the whole point of the gay liberation movement, which was to validate preferences like Chris’s.

Moreover, Kaufman says, identificationists never explain why there is something “bigoted” about Chris’s set of preferences but not about Pat’s set of preferences.  They simply arbitrarily insist that Pat’s are unobjectionable and must be affirmed and that Chris’s are bad and must be condemned.

Stock worries that identificationism threatens to strip concepts like “woman” and “female” of any clear meaning, and that this will undermine efforts to deal with the unique problems faced by women.  She writes:
[Women] face… a heightened vulnerability to rape, sexual assault, voyeurism and exhibitionism; to sexual harassment; to domestic violence; to certain cancers; to anorexia and self-harm; and so on. If self-declared trans women are included in statistics, understanding will be hampered. A male’s self-identification into the category of “female” or “women” doesn’t automatically bring on susceptibility to these harms; nor does a female’s self-identification out of those categories lessen it. In a sexist world which often disadvantages females, as such, we need good data.

Furthermore, Stock argues, allowing anyone who self-identifies as a woman into areas traditionally reserved for women (changing rooms, women’s prisons, etc.) is bound to increase the incidence of violence against women.  Like Kaufman, Stock is also concerned that identificationism makes the concept “lesbian” so fluid that the self-understanding of those traditionally classified as lesbians, as well as their “special protections as a discriminated-against minority” and their “access to special sources of charity funding,” will be threatened.

In short, just as Kaufman worries that identificationism threatens the gay rights movement, Stock worries that it threatens feminism.  Kaufman argues that it also threatens racial equality.  For racial and ethnic differences are, he argues, no less plausibly socially constructed than sex differences.  Hence if identificationism entails that a person can make himself a man or a woman simply by self-identifying as such, then it no less plausibly entails that he can make himself a member of a certain race or ethnic group simply by self-identifying as such.

Philosopher Rebecca Tuvel made a similar claim last year – and faceda storm of outrage from some of her fellow left-wingers – and, of course, Rachel Dolezal famously faced similar outrage for claiming to be a black woman.  But Kaufman argues that if one grants the identificationist premises, there can be no rational justification for the outrage.  He writes:
Dolezal’s efforts to “self-identify” as black may have backfired, but I would suggest that this is only because she came to the identificationist party a bit too early.  Another such effort, five or ten years from now, done offensively, rather than defensively, in the manner of contemporary gender activism (i.e. by way of accusing critics of bigotry and “violence” and demanding their silencing and worse), might very well succeed.

If it does, he says, this will be “the last nail in the coffin of the traditional conception of civil rights,” because the notions of race and ethnicity, like the notion of sex, will have been evacuated of any clear meaning.

The liberal middle ground
Like Byrne, Kaufman and Stock do not challenge the claim thatgender (as opposed to sex) is socially constructed, and thus do not object to a more moderate transgender position.  Again, they also want to uphold the standard liberal positions on feminism, gay liberation, and the sexual revolution in general.  The difference between their moderate liberal position and the identificationist extremism they reject, Kaufman says, is that identificationism rests on a “hubristic deformation of the modern conception of the self.”  He writes:
The reasonable version of this conception entails a rejection of the pre-modern idea that a person is defined entirely in terms of his or her position in a social framework that is governed by a normatively thick conception of natural law, in favor of the notion that (to a substantial degree) who we are is a matter of our internal consciousness and thus, is determined by us.  It was an idea whose ultimate aim was to ground the moral and political autonomy of the individual necessary for life in a modern, democratic polis.

But identificationism goes beyond this to:
a complete rejection of material or social reality… maintaining that the individual is entirely self-made; that who and what I am is a matter of my own consciousness and will alone, irrespective of nature or social consensus. The result is an incoherent, unstable ground.

Kaufman sees in this extreme position an echo of Descartes’ substance dualism, Locke’s “continuity of consciousness” account of personhood, and Kant’s “noumenal self” – all of which essentially make the body, and materiality in general, something external to the self.  If you take yourself to be only contingently related to your body and to materiality in general, then it can seem plausible to hold that your genitalia, chromosomes, etc. are irrelevant to making you what you are, and that you can define yourself entirely independently of them.

The moderate position Kaufman favors, by contrast, “[does] not deny that the relevant material realities exist, but rather, that they have any legitimate moral or political valence in a modern, democratic society.”  Kaufman, Stock, and other critics of identificationism want to affirm that biology is partially constitutive of a person in a way that rules out the extreme thesis that you can make yourself male or female simply by self-identifying as such, but without abandoning gay liberation, feminism, moderate transgender activism, and the sexual revolution in general.

Now, the 64 dollar question is whether this middle ground liberal position between identificationism on the one hand, and “a normatively thick conception of natural law” on the other, is stable.  And the fuzziness in Kaufman’s characterization of it does not lend confidence.  Kaufman says that a person should not be “definedentirely” in terms of his position within a social framework governed by natural law, that what we are is determined by our consciousness of ourselves only “to a substantial degree,” that we should be wary of a “complete rejection” of our material nature, and that we are therefore not “entirely self-made.”  

That indicates that what a person is is at least partially determined by what Kaufman calls “material realities” – by biological facts of the kind the natural law tradition puts heavy emphasis on and the identificationist position ignores entirely.  Kaufman wants to let in enough biology to rule out the latter position but not enough to let in the former.  But exactly where do we draw the line, and why there?  Kaufman does not tell us.

Of course, no one can do everything in one article.  But the question is not some quibble over details.  It is a challenge to the very possibility of a middle ground liberal position.  If there is no principled or non-arbitrary way to draw the line, then either we have to go the whole hog for identificationism or we have to reconsider the possibility that the natural law position was right all along.

Can the center hold?
Here’s one way to see the problem.  It is notoriously difficult to characterize biological features except in functional terms.  You cannot adequately characterize the eye without making reference to the function of seeing, or the heart without making reference to the function of pumping blood.  This is as true of sexual features as of any others.  For example, male genitalia serve the function of getting male gametes together with female gametes.  It is also true of some psychological features no less than of physiological ones.  For example, hunger and thirst have the function of getting us to eat and drink, so that we will have the nutrients and hydration needed to sustain ourselves.

Claims about biological function are not undermined by examples of organisms that fail to perform the function well or at all.  The existence of blind people doesn’t undermine the claim that the function of eyes is to allow us to see.  Nor does it show that the eyes of blind people have a different function than those of people with sight.  The eyes of blind people and of people with sight have exactly the same function.  It’s just that blind people can’t perform that function, for whatever reason (e.g. damage to the eye or to the optic nerve).  Similarly, the existence of people who suffer from pica – the compulsion to eat things that have no nutritional value (dirt, stones, metal, etc.) – does not cast any doubt on the claim that hunger has the function of getting us to take in nutrients by eating.  Nor does it show that hunger has a different function in people who suffer from pica than it does in other people.  Hunger has exactly the same biological function in everyone.  It’s just that, because of a psychological abnormality, people who suffer from pica do not perform that function as well.
Now, according to the natural law tradition associated with thinkers like Aquinas (and which Kaufman rejects as the opposite extreme from identificationism), intersexuality, homosexuality, and the like are analogous to blindness, pica, and other dysfunctions.  For example, on the natural law view, having physiological sex characteristics that are not unambiguously male or female is like having eyes or optic nerves that are damaged.  It in no way shows that sexual organs do not have the biological function of getting the gametes of the opposite sexes together, and neither does it show that the sexual organs of intersex people have a different function from those of other people.  Rather, their sexual organs have exactly the same function as that of everyone else.  It’s just that, due to genetic defect, physiological abnormality, etc., they are not capable of performing that function well or at all.

Similarly, on the natural law view, sexual desire has the biological function of getting us to mate with people of the opposite sex, and the existence of people with sexual desires that are partly or wholly homosexual does not show otherwise.  Nor does it show that the function of sexual desire in people with same-sex attraction is different from the function it has in other people.  Rather, the function of sexual desire is the same in everyone.  It’s just that in people with desires that are partly or wholly homosexual, that function is not performed as well.  According to the natural law view, same-sex attraction is comparable to pica.  

Thus does Aristotle explicitly draw this comparison in his discussion of disordered pleasures in the Nicomachean Ethics (at 1148b 15 – 19a 20).  Thus does Plato – his own homosexual inclinations notwithstanding – argue in The Laws that sexual relations are natural only when procreation is possible (at 839a), so that sexual pleasure is natural when indulged between men and women but unnatural in the context of same-sex sexual activity (636c).  Despite the prevalence of homosexuality in Greek culture, the Greeks didn’t see homosexuality as a kind of identity or basic orientation, any more than blindness or pica entails a kind of identity or orientation.  They saw it merely as the having of certain desires, the goodness or badness of which needed to be evaluated the way any other desire is evaluated.  Some of them judged such desires acceptable, whereas others (like Aristotle and the later Plato) did not.  The medieval natural law tradition that built on Plato and Aristotle inherited both this approach to understanding same-sex desire, and the negative evaluation of it.  Like the Greeks, they didn’t see the question of homosexuality as a matter of either affirming or condemning a class of people, but merely of affirming or condemning a certain kind of desire.

The implication of this view is that no one is really homosexual if being homosexual is interpreted as a kind of natural state or basic orientation.  According to the natural law analysis, being attracted to people of the same sex is not like being sighted or having a natural inclination to eat and drink, but more like being blind or suffering from pica.  The blind person no less than everyone else is naturallyoriented toward seeing, the person suffering from pica no less than everyone else is naturally oriented toward eating what will provide nutrition, and people with homosexual desires no less than everyone else are naturally oriented toward having sexual relations with people of the opposite sex.  It’s just that physiological dysfunction frustrates the realization of the natural end in the case of blind people, and psychological dysfunction frustrates the realization of the natural end in the case of people exhibiting pica and in people with homosexual desires.  On the natural law analysis, everyone is naturally oriented toward sight, eating nutritional food, and heterosexual sexual relations.
Now, the point of this exposition is to make concrete the difficulty facing the middle ground liberal position of Kaufman, Stock, et al.  They would, of course, disagree with the natural law analysis of homosexuality.  The problem is that it is hard to see how they can do so in a principled way given their rejection of identificationism.  Again, Kaufman rejects identificationism on the grounds that it entirely divorces our “material” or biological attributes from the self.  In Kaufman’s view, one’s biological features can make it the case that one simply is, as a matter of objective fact, a male, and that’s that.  The fact that one might not feel like a male is in Kaufman’s view irrelevant to the biological facts.  Hence he rejects talk of “’girl-penises,’ sex not being bimodal and the like.”  

But in that case, why should we not also say that every person is naturally heterosexual, whether all people feel that way or not?  Why does biology trump one’s self-conception in the case of a male who thinks of himself as really being female, but not in the case of a male who thinks of himself as really being homosexual?  If we say that the former is as a matter of fact male, even if he thinks of himself as female, why shouldn’t we say that the latter is as a matter of factmade for sex with females, even if he thinks of himself as made for sex with males?  Or, if we say that the latter is correct to take his natural orientation to be toward sex with other males, biology notwithstanding, then why shouldn’t we say that the former is correct to hold that he is really a female, biology notwithstanding?

It seems, then, that the identificationist is on to something.  The movement for gay rights effectively severed a person’s self-identifiedsexual orientation from biology, and the identificationist is pointing out that if we are going to do that, then to be consistent we will have to sever one’s self-identified sex from biology.  If appeals to biological function cut no ice in the one case, neither do they cut any ice in the other.

There are three ways that Kaufman, Stock, et al. might try to respond to this, though none seems very promising.  The first would be to dismiss talk of biological function as a mere teleological façon de parler that has no deep philosophical implications.  Now, just on general philosophy of biology grounds, I don’t think this sort of move can work.  I would argue that the notion of biological function is both ineliminable and irreducible.  That is to say, we can’t make sense of the biological facts without it, and we can’t analyze it in non-teleological terms.  

But put that to one side for present purposes.  The trouble for defenders of the liberal middle ground position is that to make this strategy work, they not only need to get rid of the notion of biological function, but to do so in a way that doesn’t give the game away to identificationism.  And I don’t think that is possible.  As I noted in my posts on Byrne, it is very difficult to spell out the biological difference between male and female in non-teleological terms.  Hence, if Kaufman, Stock, et al. were to chuck out function talk altogether so as to avoid having to accept the natural law view that homosexual desire is dysfunctional, then they would also undermine the case for saying that there is an objective biological difference between male and female.

A second strategy would be to accept the notion of biological function but deny that consistency requires treating claims about sex and sexual orientation as on a par.  On this strategy, we could say that there is an objective matter of biological fact about whether someone is male or female, but no objective matter of fact about whether sexual desire has the function of getting us to mate with people of the opposite sex.  The trouble with this move is that it seems both ad hoc and biologically implausible.  What criteria for biological function could one draw up that would make it plausible to say that eyes are for seeing and hunger for getting us to eat, but that sexual desire isnot for getting us to mate with the opposite sex?  Why would one even try to look for such gerrymandered criteria if it weren’t for thead hoc purpose of trying to avoid both identificationism and natural law theory?

A third strategy for the middle ground liberal position would be to argue that sexual orientation is more like gender than it is like sex.  Again, Kaufman, Stock, et al. have no beef with the transgender activist who says that gender is self-made.  Like Byrne, they object only to the claim that sex is self-made.  With sex, biology determines that you are either male or female, but with gender things are more fluid.  Someone who is biologically male might well identify as a woman.  Now, Kaufman, Stock, et al. might argue that a similar distinction might be made where sexual orientation is concerned.  They might allow that as a matter of biological fact sexual desire is naturally heterosexual, but then argue that sexual orientation is like gender in being fluid and socially constructed.  

But this strategy won’t work either, because to allow that sexual desire has, as a matter of biological fact, a heterosexual function, would be to imply that homosexual desire is biologicallydysfunctional.  And if you are going to say that, then it is hard to see why you wouldn’t also have to say that for a biological male to think of himself as a woman is also dysfunctional.  But once you do that, then it is hard to see how you can maintain a sharp distinction between the biology of sex on the one hand, and gender and sexual orientation on the other, without lapsing into the precisely the radical Cartesian/Lockean/Kantian divide between persons and their biology that Kaufman wants to avoid. 

As I suggested in my posts on Byrne, the reason that identificationists take the extreme position they do is that they perceive that the distinction between sex and gender is not in fact a sharp one.  The more robust the biological distinction between the sexes is, the less plausibly fluid gender is.  The more fluid the distinction between the genders is, the less plausibly robust the biological distinction between the sexes.  Hence if you are going to insist on fluid gender differences, you are going to have to deny robust biological sex differences.  The identificationist transgender activists can plausibly say to Kaufman: “We are not the ones positing a radical Cartesian divide between persons and their biology; you are!  It is precisely because we see persons and their biology as continuous that we conclude that, since gender is socially constructed, so too must the biology of sex be socially constructed.”  

If this is right, then the identificationist is not, after all, committed to a kind of Cartesian divide in human nature, but rather to a kind of biological anti-realism or social constructivism.  The natural law tradition, meanwhile, is committed to a robust realism about human biology.  So, who are the ones positing a radical Cartesian/Lockean/Kantian divide in human nature, then?  Defenders of the middle ground liberal position like Kaufman, Stock, and Byrne, that’s who!
The natural law diagnosis

So, again, it is hard to see how to find a principled or non-arbitrarymiddle ground between identificationism on the one hand and the natural law position on the other.  If one rejects the identificationist position as incoherent or biologically unsound, then it seems that one will have to reconsider the possibility that the natural law tradition was correct after all.  Or, if in the name of the sexual revolution one rejects the natural law position, then it seems that one will have to go the whole hog for identificationism.  If this is correct, then in one respect the identificationists are being perfectly logical.
In another respect, of course, they are not – namely, insofar as they present their position in a shrill and ad hominem way that is destructive of fruitful philosophical debate and free speech.  Kaufman is right to complain and worry about that, and to his credit he has repeatedly insisted that tactics like flinging epithets and shouting down opposition have no place in philosophy.

What is the explanation of the shrillness and illiberalism of many identificationists?  The natural law tradition suggests an answer. In Books VIII and IX of The Republic, Plato was famously critical of democracy, which he took to be the worst form of polity next to tyranny.  Indeed, he thought it had a tendency to degenerate into tyranny.  What he objected to in democracy was not primarily its procedural elements, but rather the egalitarian character type that it fostered.  On Plato’s account, the egalitarian tendency is to give every desire and way of life equal respect, and this entails a leveling down of standards.  The egalitarian becomes increasingly unwilling even to consider the possibility that some desires or ways of life are worse than others.  The very idea becomes intolerable to him.  Since he is unwilling to subject his appetites to the evaluation of dispassionate reason, he gradually comes to be ruled by them.  And sexual desire, because it is uniquely unruly and concerns the most intense of pleasures, tends especially to dominate him.

As each citizen becomes less and less willing to allow social norms or legal restraints to limit the indulgence of his desires, an egalitarian society tends to degenerate into a war of competing subjectivities.  What happens eventually is that the more ruthless and cunning of these appetitive personalities figure out ways to impose their wills on the others, and that is when democracy starts to give way to tyranny.  The tyrannical character type is, on Plato’s account, essentially an extreme version of the lawless and appetite-driven character type produced by egalitarian societies, and he is especially prone to be dominated by lust.

Plato’s analysis suggests, then, that the more someone of an egalitarian personality type is dominated by his sexual desires, the less capable he is going to be of a dispassionate and objective evaluation of those desires, and the more ruthlessly willful he is likely to be in pursuing them.  An egalitarian society given to the indulgence of ever more exotic sexual tastes is, if Plato is right, also bound to be a society in which those tastes are championed in an increasingly intolerant way.
Aquinas makes some complementary points in his account of what he calls the “daughters of lust” in Summa Theologiae II-II.153.5 (of which I offered an exposition in an earlier post).  Sexual indulgence that is excessive or involves acts that are unnatural or that is disordered in some other way has a tendency in Aquinas’s view to lead to what he calls “blindness of mind.”  The intensity of sexual pleasure can make it difficult to think logically and dispassionately about matters of sex even in the best circumstances.  And when repeated indulgence has habituated a person to sexual activity that is disordered, he is likelynot to want to think dispassionately about it, and to be increasingly incapable of doing so.  The very idea of there being an objective standard by reference to which his indulgence is disordered becomes intolerable to him, and he becomes increasingly willful in his indulgence and hostile to anything that might block it.

Aquinas’s account, like Plato’s, would thus lead us to expect that the more indiscriminate people become about matters of sex, the less willing they will be to discuss such matters in a calm and rational way, and the less capable they will be of doing so.  No doubt some would be inclined to respond by simply shouting “Bigot!” at Plato and Aquinas and ignoring their arguments.  Which, of course, only confirms their diagnosis. 

You can find this post here.

Byrne on why sex is binary

This is from edwardfeser.blogspot.com which you can find here.  This blog is written by Edward Feser who is a Christian philosopher who I have been recently introduced to who I think provides effective clear, sobering, and direct responses to the advance of secular culture.


At Arc Digital, philosopher Alex Byrne defends the proposition that there are only two sexes, while suggesting that this has no implications one way or the other for transsexuality, gender dysphoria, and related issues. Let’s consider both claims.

Byrne argues that it is a mistake to suppose that one’s sex isfundamentally a matter of what chromosomes one has or even what sorts of genitals one has.  Hence it is also a mistake to point to examples such as individuals who have male chromosomes but female external genitalia, or people who have only an X chromosome or XXY chromosomes, as evidence against the thesis that sex is binary.  In fact, Byrne suggests, chromosomes and genitalia are reflections of a deeper distinction, and the nature of that distinction is not captured by a mere description of the chromosomes and genitalia:


To be chromosomally female is to have the sex chromosomes typical of (human) females; to be genitally female is to have the genitalia typical of (human) females, and so on.  But what is it to be, simply, female or male?

Byrne’s answer is that the sexes are defined in terms of the gametes they produce:

Specifically, females produce large gametes (reproductive cells), and males produce small ones. (Since there are no species with a third intermediate gamete size, there are only two sexes.) A glance at the huge variety of females and males across the animal and vegetable kingdoms will confirm that there is nothing else the sexes can be. For instance, the equation female=XX is confused for a fundamental reason having nothing to do with human chromosomal variation: females of numerous species either have different sex chromosomes (as in birds) or else no sex chromosomes at all (as in some reptiles). The XX/XY system is merely the mechanism by which placental mammals like humans typically become female and male; other animals and plants use different means to achieve the same end result.

End quote.  Byrne does not make use of Aristotelian-Scholastic metaphysical notions in order to make his point, but it is illuminating to do so.  Scholastics distinguish between the essence of a thing and its properties (or “proper accidents”).  A thing’s properties flow orfollow from its essence, but are not to be identified with its essence. For example, the essence of a human being is to be a rational animal, and a capacity for language is a property that flows or follows from this essence.  It is a kind of byproduct of being a rational animal insofar as it will always manifest in a mature and healthy specimen.

Of course, some individual human beings are deficient in or lacking this capacity, but that is because the “flow” is, as it were, being blocked (by immaturity, brain damage, dementia, etc.).  It does not follow from such cases that the capacity for language is not a true property of human beings, but rather merely that an immature or damaged human being will not manifest all of his properties. Similarly, the exercise even of rationality itself can be impaired or blocked by genetic defect, brain damage, aging, etc.  For the Scholastic, this does not mean that some human beings are not rational animals, but rather that they are rational animals whose actual exercise of their rationality is being frustrated.

Now, what Byrne is proposing can be interpreted as the thesis that the essence of being either male or female involves having the capacity to produce either smaller or larger gametes, respectively. And having certain chromosomes and having genitalia of a certain type are properties which flow or follow from having one or the other essence.  In particular, having XY chromosomes, a penis, testicles, etc. are properties of human males, and having XX chromosomes, a vagina, ovaries, etc. are properties of human females.  As with other properties, the manifestation of these can be distorted or blocked due to immaturity, defect, damage, etc.

Again, Byrne doesn’t use such language, but he at least implicitly gestures at something like the essence/properties distinction insofar as he notes that:

There is a complication. Females and males might not produce gametes for a variety of reasons. A baby boy is male, despite the fact that sperm production is far in his future (or even if he dies in infancy), and a post-menopausal woman does not cease to be female simply because she no longer produces viable eggs.

In other words, immaturity prevents the manifestation of the relevant properties in a baby boy, whereas aged organs being worn out prevents the manifestation in a post-menopausal woman.

This brings us to another Aristotelian notion that illuminates Byrne’s point, viz. that of intrinsic teleology.  As longtime readers of this blog know, intrinsic teleology is the kind that a thing manifests naturally, just by virtue of being the kind of thing it is.  A stock example would be an acorn’s tendency to grow into an oak, a tendency it has simply qua acorn.  This contrasts with extrinsic teleology, which is the kind a thing possesses only insofar as some end or purpose has been imposed on it from outside.  A stock example would be the time-telling function of a watch, which is not intrinsic to the bits of metal that make up a watch, but has to be imposed by the maker and users of the watch.  (Again, see Scholastic Metaphysics for detailed exposition and defense of this distinction.)

To have an essence involves having certain intrinsic teleological properties.  For example, having the essence of a rational animal entails having faculties that are directed toward or aim at ends such as acquiring knowledge.

Now, Byrne speaks of “the mechanism by which… humans typicallybecome female and male” and says that “other animals and plants use different means to achieve the same end result.”  That is teleological language, and since he is talking about natural kinds rather than artifacts, it is the language of intrinsic teleology, specifically.

Similarly, when Byrne says that “a baby boy is male, despite the fact that sperm production is far in his future (or even if he dies in infancy),” it is natural to read this in teleological terms.  In particular, it is natural to read it as implying that a baby boy’s physiology is naturally directed toward the eventual production of sperm, and is so directed even if this end is never realized (because of the death of the baby).  Furthermore, the claim that “a post-menopausal woman does not cease to be female simply because she no longer produces viable eggs” can also be read in teleological terms.  The idea would be that a woman’s ovaries are directed toward the production of viable eggs, and remain so directed even if age leaves them no longer capable of realizing that end.  (Something similar is true of organs in general.  For example, the eye is forseeing, and it retains that function even if genetic defect, injury, or old age leave it incapable of fulfilling that function well or at all.)

This reading is especially natural in light of these follow-up remarks from Byrne:

In the light of these examples, it is more accurate (albeit not completely accurate) to say that females are the ones who have advanced some distance down the developmental pathway that results in the production of large gametes — ovarian differentiation has occurred, at least to some extent. Similarly, males are the ones who have advanced some distance down the developmental pathway that results in the production of small gametes.

End quote.  Talk of “developmental pathways” is naturally read as teleological.  The development in question is not just in any old direction, after all, but is a development toward the production of the gametes.  The “pathway” has a specific natural destination.

All the same, I presume that Byrne would not want to commit himself to anything like Aristotelian essentialism and teleology.  He may hold, as contemporary philosophers often do, that teleological-sounding talk is a mere façon de parler which can be replaced with a purely efficient-causal description.  But even the hint of an essentialist and teleological metaphysics accounts for why many with “progressive” views about sex are, as Byrne complains, reluctant to acknowledge that sex is binary.

After all, if anything has teleology, gametes do, and it has to do with getting together with the gametes of the opposite sex.  And if, as Byrne’s account suggests, chromosomes and genitalia play a secondary role relative to gametes, it isn’t hard to figure out theirteleology too.  It has to do with facilitating the getting together of the gametes of the opposite sexes.  Hence the extremely well-known suitability of penises to get male gametes into the vicinity of female gametes, etc.

Before you know it, the evolutionary psychologists will show up and start pointing out that psychological drives (like sexual arousal, romantic attraction, and the like) are no less plausibly described in functional terms than genitalia are, and that the psychological functions in question have to do with facilitating the physiological processes by which male gametes get together with female gametes. Add Aristotelian essentialism and teleology to the mix, and the function talk takes on normative significance.  Deviations from the physiological and psychological functions in question take on the status of malfunctions and deformations, no less bad for the organism than other malfunctions and deformations are.  All that’s left at that point is for the natural law theorists to come along and draw out the implications for sexual morality – though the progressive will by that time already have started hyperventilating, in a most unsexy way.

So, the skittishness of some progressives about acknowledging that sex is binary is understandable.  The messier sex can be madenaturally to seem, the easier it will be to resist natural law conclusions.  But again, Byrne holds that to acknowledge that sex is binary should give the progressive nothing to worry about.  Is he right?

Well, if essentialism and intrinsic teleology are rejected, then the moral conclusions the progressive dislikes won’t follow.  (Though only because no moral conclusions about anything at all can survive the abandonment of essentialism and teleology, or so I would argue – butthat is a topic for another time.)  And as I have said, I presume that Byrne would reject them, though this is not a topic he addresses.

The trouble is that it is very difficult at best to reduce or eliminate essentialist and teleological notions in the context of biology.  To be sure, the assertion that they can be reduced or eliminated is extremely common.  But actually pulling this job off is something no one has really done.  For example, attempts to reduce the notion of biological function (e.g. in causal terms or in terms of natural selection) are famously problematic.  Furthermore, as writers likeMarjorie GreneAndre Ariew, and J. Scott Turner have argued, natural selection in any event at most casts doubt on teleology where questions about adaptation are concerned, but leaves untouched the need for teleological descriptions of developmental processes.  It is often thought that resort to computational notions (such as characterizations of the genome as a kind of software or program) provides a handy replacement for teleology.  But as I argued inanother recent paper, the computational descriptions in fact implicitly presuppose something like Aristotelian essentialism and teleology.

Again, Byrne himself describes the phenomena with which he is concerned in terms that suggest teleology.  Even if (as, again, I presume) he would hold that such talk can be cashed out in non-teleological terms, it is another thing actually to show exactly how this could be done.  In particular, one would need to capture everything we know about gametes, chromosomes, genitalia, etc. in a way that makes no implicit reference at all to teleological features. For example, one would have to be able to give a complete description of male gametes without saying anything that implies that they have the end or telos of getting together with female gametes; one would have to be able to give a complete description of genitalia without saying anything that implies that they have the function of getting gametes together with those of the opposite sex; one would have to give a complete description of immature testicles without implying that they aim or are directed toward sperm production years down the line; and so on.

Since, again, it’s very hard to pull off such a consistently non-teleological re-description (where any aspect of biology is concerned, not just sex), it is no surprise that some progressives prefer to muddy the waters where the biological facts are concerned.  If sex is not binary, then the teleology is messier, and if the teleology is messier, then the dreaded conservative moral conclusions are easier to resist.

So, Byrne’s remarks about the biology are plausible, but his remarks about the implications or lack thereof for progressive views about sex, not so much.

Related reading:

Love and sex roundup

You can find this post here.

A note on falsification

This is from edwardfeser.blogspot.com which you can find here.  This blog is written by Edward Feser who is a Christian philosopher who I have been recently introduced to who I think provides effective clear, sobering, and direct responses to the advance of secular culture.


Antony Flew’s famous 1950 article “Theology and Falsification” posed what came to be known as the “falsificationist challenge” to theology.  A claim is falsifiable when it is empirically testable — that is to say, when it makes predictions about what will be observed under such-and-such circumstances such that, if the predictions don’t pan out, the claim is thereby shown to be false.  The idea that a genuinely scientific claim must be falsifiable had already been given currency by Karl Popper.  Flew’s aim was to apply it to a critique of such theological claims as the thesis that God loves us.  No matter what sorts of evil and suffering occur in the world, the theologian does not give up the claim that God loves us.  But then, what, in that case, does the claim actually amount to?  And why should we accept the claim?  Flew’s challenge was to get the theologian to specify exactly what would have to happen in order for the theologian to give up the claim that God loves us, or the claim that God exists.

Now, there are several problems with Flew’s challenge.  Some of them have to do with specifically theological matters, such as the analogical use of the term “good” when applied to God, the role that divine permission of evil plays in the realization of a greater good, and so forth.  Some of the problems have to do with the idea of falsification itself.  As Popper himself emphasized, it is simply an error to suppose that all rationally justifiable claims have to be empirically falsifiable.  Popper intended falsificationism merely as a theory about what makes a claim scientific, and not every rationally acceptable claim is or ought to be a scientific claim.  Hence not every rationally acceptable claim is or ought to be empirically falsifiable.
For example, the thesis of falsificationism itself is, as Popper realized, not empirically falsifiable.  This does not make Popper’s falsificationist theory of science self-refuting, because, again, he does not say in the first place that every claim has to be empirically falsifiable.  Falsificationism is a claim about science but it is not itself a scientific claim, but rather a philosophical claim (what Popper called a claim of “meta-science”).  It is subject to potential criticism — by way of philosophical analysis and argument, say — but not by way of empirical testing, specifically.


Claims of mathematics and logic are like this too.  We can analyze and argue about them philosophically, but they are not plausibly subject to empirical refutation, specifically.  And metaphysical claims are like that as well.  With at least the most general sorts of metaphysical claims (e.g. about the nature of causality as such, or substance as such, or what have you), it is a sheer category mistake to suppose that they do, or ought to, entail specific empirical predictions.  The reason is that the claims are too general for that.  They are claims about (among other things) what any possible empirically observable phenomena must necessarily presuppose (and any possible non-empirical realities too, if there are any).  Naturally, then, they are not going to be undermined by any specific empirical observation.  By no means does that make them immune from rational evaluation.  They can still be analyzed, and argued for or against, by way of philosophical analysis and argumentation.  But as with claims of meta-science, or claims of mathematics and logic, so too with claims of metaphysics, it is a mistake to suppose that they stand or fall with empirical falsifiability.


Now, the fundamental claims and arguments of theology — for example, the most important arguments for the existence and attributes of God (such as Aquinas’s arguments, or Leibniz’s arguments) — are a species of metaphysical claim.  Hence it is simply a category mistake to demand of them, as Flew did, that they be empirically falsifiable.  To dismiss theology on falsificationist grounds, one would, to be consistent, also have to dismiss mathematics, logic, meta-science, and metaphysics in general.  Which would be, not only absurd, but self-defeating, since the claim that only scientific claims are rationally justifiable is itself not a scientific claim but a metaphysical claim, and any argument for this claim would presuppose standards of logic.


There is also the problem that, as philosophers of science had already begun to see at the time Flew wrote, it turns out that even scientific claims are not as crisply falsifiable as Popper initially thought.  Indeed, the problem was known even before Popper’s time, and famously raised by Pierre Duhem.  A scientific theory is always tested in conjunction with various assumptions about background conditions obtaining at the time an experiment is performed, assumptions about the experimental set-up itself, and auxiliary scientific hypotheses about the phenomena being studied.  If the outcome of an experiment is not as predicted, one could give up the theory being tested, but one might also consider giving up one or more of the auxiliary hypotheses instead, or check to see if the background conditions or experimental set-up were really as one had supposed.  That does not mean that scientific theories are not empirically falsifiable after all, but it does mean that falsifying a theory is a much messier and more tentative affair than readers of pop science and pop philosophy books might suppose.


Then there are claims that are empirical and not metaphysical in the strictest sense, but still so extremely general that any possible natural science would have to take them for granted — in which case they are really presuppositions of natural science rather than propositions of natural science.  For example, the proposition that change occurs is like this.  We know from experience that change occurs, but it is not something falsifiable by experience, because any possible experience by which we might test it itself presupposes that change occurs.  In particular, in order to test a proposition via observation or experiment, you need to see whether or not your current experience is followed by the predicted experience, which involves one experience succeeding another, which entails change.  Natural science itself, then, which involves attempting to falsify theories (even if it involves more than this) presupposes something which cannot be falsified.


Necessary presuppositions of natural science like the one just described are the subject matter of that branch of philosophy known as the philosophy of nature (which, though more fundamental than natural science, is less fundamental than metaphysics as Thomists understand “metaphysics,” and is thus something of a middle-ground discipline between them).  For example, the Aristotelian theory of actuality and potentiality (which is the core of the Aristotelian philosophy of nature) is grounded in an analysis of what change must involve, where the existence of change is presupposed by natural science.  Hence the theory of actuality and potentiality is grounded in what is presupposed by natural science.  That is why even natural science cannot overthrow it.  But the characteristically Aristotelian argument for God’s existence — the argument from change to the existence of an unchanging changer of things (or, more precisely, of a purely actual actualizer of things) is grounded in the theory of actuality and potentiality, and thus in what natural science itself must take for granted.  And thus it too cannot be overturned even by natural science.  This “empirical unfalsifiability” is no more a weakness of the Aristotelian argument for God’s existence than the “empirical unfalsifiability” of the existence of change, including the existence of experience itself, is a weakness.  It makes the arguments in question (if they are otherwise unproblematic) more rationally secure than empirical science, not less.


Lazy shouts of “unfalisfiability!” against theological claims just ignore all this complexity — the distinctions that have to be drawn between empirical claims on the one hand and claims of mathematics, logic, and metaphysics on the other; between extremely general empirical claims and more specific ones; between philosophy of nature (which studies the philosophical presuppositions of natural science) and natural science itself; and between the testing of a thesis and the testing of the auxiliary assumptions we generally take for granted but conjoin with the thesis when drawing predictions from it.


So, falsificationism is a rather feeble instrument to wield against theology.  And in fact, atheist philosophers have known this for decades, even if New Atheist combox commandos are still catching up.


All the same, where we are evaluating a specific empirical claim — rather than a claim of mathematics, logic, or metaphysics, or an extremely general empirical claim like “change occurs” — falsifiability is an important consideration, even if not as decisive as Popper supposed.  Take an extremely specific and straightforward empirical claim, e.g. the claim that a large, yellowish triangular shape will suddenly appear in the center of my field of vision within the next few seconds.  If no such shape actually appears in the next few seconds, it would be pretty hard to deny that the claim has been falsified.  For example, I couldn’t say “Maybe the shape was there in the room, but I didn’t see it because it was behind a bookshelf.”  I intentionally phrased the claim so that it was about what I would experience, not about what would be in the room, so appealing to the idea that some physical object stood in the way of my seeing it won’t help avoid falsification.  Nor would it help to say “Maybe it will appear an hour from now, or tomorrow,” since the claim referred specifically to the next few seconds.


Of course, that’s not a very interesting empirical claim.  Most interesting empirical claims are far less specific than that, even though they are nowhere near as general as the claim that change occurs.  There is, needless to say, a large range of cases, some of which are more toward the general end of things, some of them more toward the specific, and the latter are easier to falsify than the former.  But even if the more general ones aren’t as crisply falsifiable as a more simplistic application of the Popperian model would imply, they are still far from unfalsifiable.


For example, take the claim that heavy smoking over a long period of time has a strong tendency to cause cancer.  Obviously this is not falsified by the fact that some heavy smokers never develop cancer, because the claim has been phrased in a way that takes account of that.  It speaks only of a strong tendency, and even a strong tendency needn’t always be realized.  But neither is the claim made vacuous by that qualification.  If it turned out that only five percent of people who smoke heavily over the course of many years ended up getting cancer, we could reasonably say that the claim had been falsified.  Whereas if it turned out that sixty percent of those who smoke heavily over the course of many years end up getting cancer, we would say that the claim had survived falsification, even though sixty percent is well short of one hundred percent.  Indeed, even if the percentage were much lower than that — suppose it were forty percent, for example — it would not necessarily follow that the claim had been falsified.


Nor need there be anything like even that strong a link between two phenomena for us reasonably to posit a causal correlation.  Take an example often discussed in philosophy of science, viz. the relationship between syphilis and paresis.  If syphilis is untreated, it can lead to paresis, though this is rare.  But it would be absurd, not to mention medically irresponsible, to conclude that the claim of a causal correlation between syphilis and paresis is falsified by the fact that actually developing paresis is rare.  All the same, if there were on record only one or two cases, out of millions, of paresis following upon syphilis, it would — especially if no mechanism by which the one might lead to the other were proposed — be hard in that case to resist the conclusion that the claim of a causal correlation had been falsified.


So, an empirical claim concerning a causal link between two phenomena can be substantive rather than vacuous, and also empirically very well-supported, even if there are many cases in which the one phenomenon is not in fact followed by the other.  Considerations about falsifiability, properly understood, do not undermine the point.  Indeed, someone who resists such a claim might himself be subject to criticism on the grounds that he has made his position unfalsifiable.


For example, suppose a heavy smoker said, in reply to those who implored him to cut back: “Oh come on, lots of people smoke heavily and don’t get cancer!  So how can you maintain your claim that there is a causal link, in the face of all that evidence?  Don’t you know that a serious scientific claim should be falsifiable?”  In fact, of course, it is the heavy smoker in question who is more plausibly accused of being insufficiently respectful of falsifiability.  For there is a very strong link between heavy smoking and cancer, even if the former doesn’t always lead to the latter.  And the empirical evidence for that link is so strong that it is those who deny it who are refusing to let their position be falsified by the evidence.


More could be said, but in fact these reflections on falsification are intended merely as a preamble to an application of the idea to a domain very different from the examples considered so far — namely, an example concerning politics and current events.  I’ll get to that in another post.

You can find this post here.

Putting nature on the rack

This is from edwardfeser.blogspot.com which you can find here.  This blog is written by Edward Feser who is a Christian philosopher who I have been recently introduced to who I think provides effective clear, sobering, and direct responses to the advance of secular culture.


What was it that distinguished the modern scientific method inaugurated by Bacon, Galileo, Descartes, and Co. from the science of the medievals?  One common answer is that the moderns required empirical evidence, whereas the medievals contented themselves with appeals to the authority of Aristotle.  The famous story about Galileo’s Scholastic critics’ refusing to look through his telescope is supposed to illustrate this difference in attitudes.


The problem with this answer, of course, is that it is false.  For one thing, the telescope story is (like so many other things everyone “knows” about the Scholastics and about the Galileo affair) a legend.  For another, part of the reason Galileo’s position was resisted was precisely because there were a number of respects in which it appeared to conflict with the empirical evidence.  (For example, the Copernican theory predicted that Venus should sometimes appear six times larger than it does at other times, but at first the empirical evidence seemed not to confirm this, until telescopes were developed which could detect the difference; the predicted stellar parallax did not receive empirical confirmation for a long time; and so forth.)

Then there is the fact that the medievals were simply by no means hostile to the idea that empirical evidence is the foundation of knowledge; on the contrary, it was a standard Scholastic slogan that “there is nothing in the intellect that was not first in the senses.”  Indeed, Bacon regarded his Scholastic predecessors as if anything too quick to believe the evidence of the senses.  The first of the “Idols of the Mind” that he famously critiques, namely the “Idols of the Tribe,” included a tendency to take the deliverances of sensory experience for granted.  The senses could, in Bacon’s view, too readily be deceived, and needed to be corrected by carefully controlling the conditions of observation and developing scientific instruments.  And in general, the early moderns regarded much of what the senses tell us about the natural world — such as what they tell us about secondary qualities like color and temperature — to be false.
So, it is simply not the case that the difference between the medievals and the early moderns was that the latter were more inclined to trust empirical evidence.  On the contrary, there is a sense in which that is precisely the reverse of the truth.


Where empirical evidence is concerned, the real difference might, to oversimplify, be put as follows.  Both the medievals and the early moderns regarded sensory experience as a crucial witness to the truth about the natural world.  But whereas the medievals regarded it as a more or less friendly witness, the moderns regarded it as a more or less hostile witness.  You can, from both sorts of witness, derive the truth.  But the methods will be different.


Hence, a friendly witness can more or less be asked directly for the information you want.  That doesn’t mean he might not sometimes need to be prodded to answer.  Even if he is honest, he might be shy, or reluctant to divulge something embarrassing, or just not very articulate.  It also doesn’t mean that everything he says can be taken at face value.  He may be forgetful, or confused, or just mistaken now and again.  A hostile witness, by contrast, though he has the information you want, cannot with confidence be asked directly.  Even if he is articulate, has a crystal clear memory, etc., he may simply refuse to answer, or may persistently beat around the bush, or may flat-out lie, seriously and repeatedly.  Thus, he may have to be tricked into giving you the information you want, like the Jack Nicholson character in A Few Good Men.  Or you may be tempted to threaten or beat it out of him, like one of the cops in L.A. Confidential would.  So, you might say that whereas the medieval Aristotelian scientist has a conversation with nature, the early modern Baconian scientist waterboards nature.  Hence the notorious Baconian talk about putting nature to the rack, torturing her for her secrets, etc.


Of course, this is melodramatic.  And to be fair, Bacon himself seems not to have put things quite the way commonly attributed to him (i.e. the stuff about torture and the rack).  All the same, the medievals and moderns do disagree about the degree to which the world of ordinary experience and the world that science reveals — what Wilfrid Sellars called “the manifest image” and “the scientific image” — correspond.  For the Aristotelian, philosophy and science are largely in harmony with common sense and ordinary experience.  To be sure, they get at much deeper levels of reality, and they correct common sense and ordinary experience around the edges, but they don’t overthrow common sense and ordinary experience wholesale.  For the moderns, by contrast, philosophy and science are likely radically to conflict with common sense and ordinary experience, and may indeed end up overthrowing them wholesale.


(This is not a difference concerning whether to accept the results of modern science, by the way.  It is a difference about how to interpret those results.  For example, it is a difference over whether to regard modern science as giving us a correct but merely partial description of nature — a description which needs to be supplemented by and embedded within an Aristotelian metaphysics and philosophy of nature — or whether to regard modern science instead as an exhaustive description of nature, and a complete metaphysics in its own right.)


The early moderns’ attitude of treating nature as a hostile witness — of thinking that the truth about nature is largely contrary to what ordinary experience would indicate — is one of the sources of the modern tendency to suppose that “things are never what they seem,” that traditional ideas are typically mere prejudices, that authorities and official stories of every kind need to be “unmasked,” and so forth.  Michael Levin has called this the “skim milk fallacy,” and I’ve often noted some of its social and moral consequences (e.g. here, here and here).  But these are merely byproducts of a much deeper metaphysical and epistemological revolution.

Liberalism and Islam

This is from edwardfeser.blogspot.com which you can find here.  This blog is written by Edward Feser who is a Christian philosopher who I have been recently introduced to who I think provides effective clear, sobering, and direct responses to the advance of secular culture.

Here is a portion of recent piece of his which I thought was rather edifying:

Note: What follows is pretty long, especially if you think of it as a blog post.  So think of it instead as an article.  The topic does not, in any event, lend itself to brevity.  Nor do I think it ideal to break up the flow of the argument by dividing the piece into multiple posts.  So here it is in one lump.  It is something of a companion piece to my recent post about whether Christians and Muslims worship the same God.  Critics of that post will, I think, better understand it in light of this one.


In an article in The New Criterion over a decade ago, the late political scientist Kenneth Minogue noted a developing tendency in contemporary progressivism toward “Christophobia,” a movement beyond mere disbelief in Christian doctrine toward outright hostility.  The years since have hardly made Minogue’s observation less timely.  The New Atheism, the first stirrings of which Minogue cited in the article, came to full prominence (and acquired the “New Atheism” label) later in the decade in which he wrote.  The Obama administration’s attempt to impose its contraception mandate on Catholic institutions evinces a disdain for rights of conscience that would have horrified earlier generations of liberals.  Opponents of “same-sex marriage” have in recent years found themselves subject to loss of employment, cyber-mobbing, and even death threats — all in the name of progressivism.  If contempt for Christian moral teaching still hides behind a mask of liberal neutrality, Hillary Clinton let that mask slip further still when she recently insisted that “deep-seated cultural codes, religious beliefs and structural biases have to be changed” in order to accommodate easy access to abortion.  Not all liberals approve of these developments, of course.  But demographic trends indicate that a Christophobic brand of progressivism may have little difficulty finding new recruits.
Now, how do contemporary liberals view Islam?  How would one expect them to, given their principles, and given the principles and practice of Islam?  Consider that, like Christianity, Islamic moral teaching unequivocally condemns homosexual behavior, extramarital sex, and the sexual revolution in general.  Feminism has, to put it mildly, had little effect on Islam, which is traditionally highly patriarchal.  In Islam, men can have multiple wives, but wives cannot have multiple husbands.  Men can marry non-Muslim women, but women cannot marry non-Muslim men.  The authority of husbands over wives goes far beyond anything feminists objected to in 1950s America.  Rules governing divorce, custody of children, inheritance, and legal testimony all strongly favor men.  In many modern Muslim countries, the implementation of this patriarchal system takes forms which modern Western women would find unimaginably repressive.  Women are expected to cover their bodies in public to a greater or lesser extent, the burqa being the most extreme case.  In Saudi Arabia, women are forbidden to drive, to go out in public without a chaperone, or to interact with men to whom they are not related.  In some Muslim countries, husbands have a right to discipline their wives with beatings.  In some, female genital mutilation is widely practiced.  “Honor killings” of women thought to have brought shame upon their families often occur not only in Muslim countries, but in Western countries with large Muslim populations.  Of course, not all Muslims approve of all of this.  Nor or is it by any means the whole story about women in Islamic society, and Muslims emphasize the way Islam improved the situation of women compared to pre-Islamic Arabia.   The point, though, is that it is far from being a marginal part of the story. ”

You can read the rest here.

The Absolute Truth About Relativism

This is from edwardfeser.blogspot.com which you can find here.  This blog is written by Edward Feser who is a Christian philosopher who I have been recently introduced to who I think provides effective clear, sobering, and direct responses to the advance of secular culture.

Here is a portion of recent piece of his which I thought was rather edifying:

“I don’t write very often about relativism.  Part of the reason is that few if any of the critics I find myself engaging with — for example, fellow analytic philosophers of a secular or progressive bent, or scientifically inclined atheists — take relativism any more seriously than I do.  It just doesn’t come up.  Part of the reason is that many other people have more or less already said what needs to be said about the subject.  It’s been done to death.
It is also possible to overstate the prevalence of relativism outside the ranks of natural scientists, analytic philosophers, theists, and other self-consciously non-relativist thinkers.

As Michael Lynch notes in his book True to Life: Why Truth Matters, remarks that can superficially seem to be expressions of relativism might, on more careful consideration, turn out to have a different significance.  For example, when, during a conversation on some controversial subject, someone says something like “Well, it’s a matter of opinion” or “Who’s to say?”, this may not be intended to imply that there is no objective fact of the matter about which view is correct.  The person may instead have simply decided that the discussion has reached an uncomfortable impasse and would like to change the subject.

On the other hand, many people seem not to understand the difference between the claim that there is no agreement about such-and-such and the claim that there is no objective truth of the matter about such-and-such.  Hence even many people who are primarily concerned to assert the first proposition rather than the second may nevertheless affirm the second one too if pressed.  And in that case they are at least implicitly relativists.  Thus, while Lynch is right that there are probably fewer self-conscious relativists than meets the eye, that is not necessarily because the people in question are all self-consciously non-relativist.  Many people just have confused or inchoate ideas about these things.”

You can read the rest here.

Marriage Inflation

This is from edwardfeser.blogspot.com which you can find here.  This blog is written by Edward Feser who is a Christian philosopher who I have been recently introduced to who I think provides effective clear, sobering, and direct responses to the advance of secular culture.

Here is a portion of recent piece of his which I thought was rather edifying:

Lake Wobegon, where all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average.

Garrison Keillor, A Prairie Home Companion

If you printed a lot of extra money and passed it around so as to make everyone wealthier, the end result would merely be dramatically to decrease the buying power of money.  If you make it easier for college students to get an “A” grade in their courses, the end result will be that “A” grades will come to be regarded as a much less reliable indicator of a student’s true merit.  If you give prizes to everyone who participates in a competition, winning a prize will cease to be a big deal.  In general, where X is perceived to have greater value than Y and you try to raise the value of Y by assimilating it to X, the actual result will instead be simply to lower the value of X to that of Y.

You will also merely relocate rather than eliminate the inequality you were trying to get rid of.  If money loses its value, then people will trade in something else — precious metals, durable goods, or whatever — and a different sort of economic inequality will arise.  If grades can no longer tell you which students are most likely to do well as employees or in graduate school, you’ll find some other way of determining this — writing samples, interviews, letters of recommendation, or whatever — and the hierarchy of student achievement will reassert itself.  If getting a prize ceases to impress, then athletes and others engaged in competitive enterprises will simply find some other way to stand out from the pack.

Egalitarian schemes, in short, often have great inflationary effect but little actual egalitarian effect.  They can amount to mere exercises in mutual make-believe.  You can pretend all you want that all the children in Lake Wobegon are above average.  People who wish it were true may even go along with the pretense.  But of course, it isn’t true, and deep down everybody knows it isn’t true.  Hence even many who do pretend to believe it will act otherwise.  There will be a lot of pious chatter about how special all the children are, but no one will take the chatter very seriously and everyone will in practice treat the children differently according to their actual, differing abilities.”

You can read the rest here.



Aristotle watches Blade Runner

This is from edwardfeser.blogspot.com which you can find here.  This blog is written by Edward Feser who is a Christian philosopher who I have been recently introduced to who I think provides effective clear, sobering, and direct responses to the advance of secular culture.

Here is a portion of recent piece of his which I thought was rather edifying:

“You can never watch Blade Runner too many times, and I’m due for another viewing.  In D. E. Wittkower’s anthology Philip K. Dick and Philosophy, there’s an article by Ross Barham which makes some remarks about the movie’s famous “replicants” and their relationship to human beings which are interesting though, in my view, mistaken.  Barham considers how we might understand the two kinds of creature in light of Aristotle’s four causes, and suggests that this is easier to do with replicants than with human beings.  This is, I think, the reverse of the truth.  But Barham’s reasons are not hard to understand given modern assumptions (which Aristotle would reject) about nature in general and human nature in particular.

Barham suggests that, where replicants are concerned, a four-cause analysis would look something like this: their efficient cause is the Tyrell Corporation and its engineers; their material cause is to be found in the biological and mechanical constituents out of which they are constructed; their formal cause is the human-like pattern on which the Tyrell Corporation designed them; and their final cause is to function as human-like slave laborers.”

You can read the rest here.

Marriage and The Matrix

This is from edwardfeser.blogspot.com which you can find here.  This blog is written by Edward Feser who is a Christian philosopher who I have been recently introduced to who I think provides effective clear, sobering, and direct responses to the advance of secular culture.  Usually when I reblog someone else’s post I only provide a teaser quote here and a link to the full blog post.  This piece is so good I have decided to post the entire thing here (as well as the link of course); it really demonstrates in stark relief just how baseless the arguments are in favor of same sex marriage.  I really cannot say anything that could do the piece justice so I will stop trying.  Here is the blog post in full (and you can find the original post here):

“Suppose a bizarre skeptic seriously proposed — not as a joke, not as dorm room bull session fodder, but seriously — that you, he, and everyone else were part of a computer-generated virtual reality like the one featured in the science-fiction movie The Matrix.  Suppose he easily shot down the arguments you initially thought sufficient to refute him.  He might point out, for instance, that your appeals to what we know from common sense and science have no force, since they are (he insists) just part of the Matrix-generated illusion.  Suppose many of your friends were so impressed by this skeptic’s ability to defend his strange views — and so unimpressed by your increasingly flustered responses — that they came around to his side.  Suppose they got annoyed with you for not doing the same, and started to question your rationality and even your decency.  Your adherence to commonsense realism in the face of the skeptic’s arguments is, they say, just irrational prejudice.
No doubt you would think the world had gone mad, and you’d be right.  But you would still find it difficult to come up with arguments that would convince the skeptic and his followers.  The reason is not that their arguments are rationally and evidentially superior to yours, but on the contrary because they are so subversive of all rationality and evidence — indeed, far more subversive than the skeptic and his followers themselves realize — that you’d have trouble getting your bearings, and getting the skeptics to see that they had lost theirs.  If the skeptic were correct, not even his own arguments would be any good — their apparent soundness could be just another illusion generated by the Matrix, making the whole position self-undermining.  Nor could he justifiably complain about your refusing to agree with him, nor take any delight in your friends’ agreement, since for all he knew both you and they might be Matrix-generated fictions anyway.
So, the skeptic’s position is ultimately incoherent.  But rhetorically he has an advantage.  With every move you try to make, he can simply refuse to concede the assumptions you need in order to make it, leaving you constantly scrambling to find new footing.  He will in the process be undermining his own position too, because his skepticism is so radical it takes down everything, including what he needs in order to make his position intelligible.  But it will be harder to see this at first, because he is playing offense and you are playing defense.  It falsely seems that you are the one making all the controversial assumptions whereas he is assuming nothing.  Hence, while your position is in fact rationally superior, it is the skeptic’s position that will, perversely, appear to be rationally superior.  People bizarrely give him the benefit of the doubt and put the burden of proof on you.


This, I submit, is the situation defenders of traditional sexual morality are in vis-à-vis the proponents of “same-sex marriage.”  The liberal position is a kind of radical skepticism, a calling into question of something that has always been part of common sense, viz. that marriage is inherently heterosexual.  Like belief in the reality of the external world — or in the reality of the past, or the reality of other minds, or the reality of change, or any other part of common sense that philosophical skeptics have challenged — what makes the claim in question hard to justify is not that it is unreasonable, but, on the contrary, that it has always been regarded as a paradigm of reasonableness.  Belief in the external world (or the past, or other minds, or change, etc.) has always been regarded as partially constitutive of rationality.  Hence, when some philosophical skeptic challenges it precisely in the name of rationality, the average person doesn’t know what to make of the challenge.  Disoriented, he responds with arguments that seem superficial, question-begging, dogmatic, or otherwise unimpressive.  Similarly, heterosexuality has always been regarded as constitutive of marriage.  Hence, when someone proposes that there can be such a thing as same-sex marriage, the average person is, in this case too, disoriented, and responds with arguments that appear similarly unimpressive.


Like the skeptic about the external world (or the past, or other minds, or change, etc.) the “same-sex marriage” advocate typically says things he has no right to say consistent with his skeptical arguments.  For example, if “same-sex marriage” is possible, why not incestuous marriage, or group marriage, or marriage to an animal, or marriage to a robot, or marriage to oneself?  A more radical application of the “same-sex marriage” advocate’s key moves can always be deployed by a yet more radical skeptic in order to defend these proposals.  Yet “same-sex marriage” advocates typically deny that they favor such proposals.  If appeal to the natural ends or proper functions of our faculties has no moral significance, then why should anyone care about whether anyone’s arguments — including arguments either for or against “same-sex marriage” — are any good?  The “same-sex marriage” advocate can hardly respond “But finding and endorsing sound arguments is what reason is for!”, since he claims that what our natural faculties and organs are naturally for is irrelevant to how we might legitimately choose to use them.  Indeed, he typically denies that our faculties and organs, or anything else for that matter, are really for anything.  Teleology, he claims, is an illusion.  But then it is an illusion that reason itself is really for anything, including arriving at truth.  In which case the “same-sex marriage” advocate has no business criticizing others for giving “bigoted” or otherwise bad arguments.  (Why shouldn’t someone give bigoted arguments if reason does not have truth as its natural end?  What if someone is just born with an orientation toward giving bigoted arguments?)  If the “same-sex marriage” advocate appeals to current Western majority opinion vis-à-vis homosexuality as a ground for his condemnation of what he labels “bigotry,” then where does he get off criticizing past Western majority opinion vis-à-vis homosexuality, or current non-Western moral opinion vis-à-vis homosexuality?   Etc. etc.


So, the “same-sex marriage” advocate’s position is ultimately incoherent.  Pushed through consistently, it takes down everything, including itself.  But rhetorically it has the same advantages as Matrix-style skepticism.  The “same-sex marriage” advocate is playing offense, and only calling things into doubt — albeit selectively and inconsistently — rather than putting forward any explicit positive position of his own, so that it falsely seems that it is only his opponent who is making controversial assumptions.


Now, no one thinks the average person’s inability to give an impressive response to skepticism about the external world (or about the reality of the past, or other minds, etc.) makes it irrational for him to reject such skepticism.  And as it happens, even most highly educated people have difficulty adequately responding to external world skepticism.  If you ask the average natural scientist, or indeed even the average philosophy professor, to explain to you how to refute Cartesian skepticism, you’re not likely to get an answer that a clever philosopher couldn’t poke many holes in.  You almost have to be a philosopher who specializes in the analysis of radical philosophical skepticism really to get at the heart of what is wrong with it.  The reason is that such skepticism goes so deep in its challenge to our everyday understanding of notions like rationality, perception, reality, etc. that only someone who has thought long and carefully about those very notions is going to be able to understand and respond to the challenge.  The irony is that it turns out, then, that very few people can give a solid, rigorous philosophical defense of what everyone really knows to be true.  But it hardly follows that the commonsense belief in the external world can be rationally held only by those few people.


The same thing is true of the average person’s inability to give an impressive response to the “same-sex marriage” advocate’s challenge.  It is completely unsurprising that this should be the case, just as it is unsurprising that the average person lacks a powerful response to the Matrix-style skeptic.  In fact, as with commonsense realism about the external world, so too with traditional sexual morality, in the nature of the case relatively few people — basically, traditional natural law theorists — are going to be able to set out the complete philosophical defense of what the average person has, traditionally, believed.  But it doesn’t follow that the average person can’t be rational in affirming traditional sexual morality.  (For an exposition and defense of the traditional natural law approach, see “In Defense of the Perverted Faculty Argument,” in Neo-Scholastic Essays.)


Indeed, the parallel with the Matrix scenario is even closer than what I’ve said so far suggests, for the implications of “same-sex marriage” are very radically skeptical.  The reason is this: We cannot make sense of the world’s being intelligible at all, or of the human intellect’s ability to understand it, unless we affirm a classical essentialist and teleological metaphysics.  But applying that metaphysics to the study of human nature entails a classical natural law understanding of ethics.  And that understanding of ethics in turn yields, among other things, a traditional account of sexual morality that rules out “same-sex marriage” in principle.  Hence, to defend “same-sex marriage” you have to reject natural law, which in turn requires rejecting a classical essentialist and teleological metaphysics, which in turn undermines the possibility of making intelligible either the world or the mind’s ability to understand it.  (Needles to say, these are large claims, but I’ve defended them all at length in various places.  For interested readers, the best place to start is, again, with the Neo-Scholastic Essays article.)


Obviously, though, the radically skeptical implications are less direct in the case of “same-sex marriage” than they are in the Matrix scenario, which is why most people don’t see them.  And there is another difference.  There are lots of people who believe in “same-sex marriage,” but very few people who seriously entertain the Matrix hypothesis.  But imagine there was some kind of intense sensory pleasure associated with pretending that you were in the Matrix.  Suppose also that some people just had, for whatever reason — environmental influences, heredity, or whatever — a deep-seated tendency to take pleasure in the idea that they were living in a Matrix-style reality.  Then, I submit, lots of people would insist that we take the Matrix scenario seriously and some would even accuse those who scornfully rejected the idea of being insensitive bigots.  (Compare the points made in a recent post in which I discussed the special kind of irrationality people are prone to where sex is concerned, due to the intense pleasure associated with it.)


So, let’s add to my original scenario this further supposition — that you are not only surrounded by people who take the Matrix theory seriously and scornfully dismiss your arguments against it, but some of them have a deep-seated tendency to take intense sensory pleasure in the idea that they live in the Matrix.  That, I submit, is the situation defenders of traditional sexual morality are in vis-à-vis the proponents of “same-sex marriage.”   Needless to say, it’s a pretty bad situation to be in.


But it’s actually worse even than that.  For suppose our imagined Matrix skeptic and his followers succeeded in intimidating a number of corporations into endorsing and funding their campaign to get the Matrix theory widely accepted, to propagandize for it in movies and television shows, etc.  Suppose mobs of Matrix theorists occasionally threatened to boycott or even burn down bakeries, restaurants, etc. which refused to cater the meetings of Matrix theorists.  Suppose they stopped even listening to the defenders of commonsense realism, but just shouted “Bigot!  Bigot!  Bigot!” in response to any expression of disagreement.  Suppose the Supreme Court of the United States declared that agreement with the Matrix theory is required by the Constitution, and opined that adherence to commonsense realism stems from an irrational animus against Matrix theorists.


In fact, the current position of opponents of “same-sex marriage” is worse even than that.  Consider once again your situation as you try to reason with Matrix theorists and rebut their increasingly aggressive attempts to impose their doctrine via economic and political force.  Suppose that as you look around, you notice that some of your allies are starting to slink away from the field of battle.  One of them says: “Well, you know, we have sometimes been very insulting to believers in the Matrix theory.  Who can blame them for being angry at us?  Maybe we should focus more on correcting our own attitudes and less on changing their minds.”  Another suggests: “Maybe we’ve been talking too much about this debate between the Matrix theory and commonsense realism.  We sound like we’re obsessed with it.  Maybe we should talk about something else instead, like poverty or the environment.”  A third opines: “We can natter on about philosophy all we want, but the bottom line is that scripture says that the world outside our minds is real.  The trouble is that we’ve gotten away from the Bible.  Maybe we should withdraw into our own faith communities and just try to live our biblically-based belief in external reality the best we can.”


Needless to say, all of this is bound only to make things worse.  The Matrix theory advocate will smell blood, regarding these flaccid avowals as tacit admissions that commonsense realism about the external world really has no rational basis but is simply a historically contingent prejudice grounded in religious dogma.  And in your battle with the Matrix theorists you’ll have discovered, as many “same-sex marriage” opponents have, that iron law of politics: that when you try to fight the Evil Party you soon find that most of your allies are card-carrying members of the Stupid Party.


So, things look pretty bad.  But like the defender of our commonsense belief in the external world, the opponent of “same-sex marriage” has at least one reliable ally on his side: reality.  And reality absolutely always wins out in the end.  It always wins at least partially even in the short run — no one ever is or could be a consistent skeptic — and wins completely in the long run.  The trouble is just that the enemies of reality, though doomed, can do a hell of lot of damage in the meantime.”

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