Nature / nurture

The distinction between nature and nurture seems as impossible to justify as it is to let go. It rarely holds up in controversial cases but we keep appealing to it anyway. 

Nature-nurture suggests something of the old distinction between nature and art, though Aristotle divided them primarily so that  what we knew about art could illumine things that arose from nature. We, however, don’t want art to illumine nature but to be sharply contrasted to it out of a determinist account of nature that makes it the irresistible or “hard-wired” in opposition to the social or chosen area of causes under our control. The older distinction between nature and art didn’t see nature in this determinist way nor did it see free choices – even for God – as entirely independent from the determined or necessary. 

In the face of what we want to say about nature (as opposed to nurture) Aristotle and his tradition would have just spoken of a hexis or a disposition differing from other dispositions by its relative fixity. Latin Aristotelianism called this a habitus, which is within calling distance of the English habit, though a habitus includes any stable disposition to some activity, e.g. rocks have the habitus of falling, falcons of flying, drunks to drinking, extroverts to positive feelings, etc. The stability of the habit is its relevant note and not the principle of the habit in nature or nurture. Oddly, this stability seems to be what we’re driving at in the “nature-nurture” distinction, though it would be clearer and more exact for us to stop trying end the trial of nature v. nurture and just speak of a habitus. What we call a sexual orientation, for example, is clearly a habitus while the question of its principle in nature or nurture is probably both unanswerable and not-universal. In general, any habitus could also be our identity

But if all we can agree on is that something is a habitus this leaves it an open question whether it is good or bad, which is, one supposes, what we really want to talk about in the first place.

Gender as Principle vs. Criterion for Gender

In disputes over sex and gender we get confused by wanting to resolve a principle to an observable criterion or fact, even when attempts to do this belie the whole process. We want man or woman, male or female to consist in some anatomical or genetic part in all cases and get puzzled by the often very rare exceptions to whatever rule we come up with. 

A principle, however, is defined by its order to an outcome and not to its success at attaining it, and male and female are principles of the common good of the human species according to its continued existence. The supposed discovery of “other sexes” would have to mean a new sort of principle of this continued genetic existence, but of course this isn’t what anyone has meant by new genders. What we mean is that when we look to outcomes of the principles in search of criteria for a sex we don’t always find them. What new principle of generation comes to be in an XXY male or XXXX female? If chromosomal and gonadal sex aren’t aligned, how do we get another principle of familial formation or new generations? 

Whenever we turn away from principles and towards the outcomes of principles we have to accept imperfection in concrete cases or definitions that work more or less depending on context. There is a process from any principle to its outcome and it is irrational to expect any material process never to fail, since a material process must at some point fail. Depending on just how actual we take the principle of human existence we might end up seeing only a few persons as male and female, and then for only a very short period of their lives. Women, for example, can only reproduce for a few decades of their lives and for a few days in their cycle, and at any rate are only actually reproducing for a small percentage of the time, so there is only a comparatively brief time when the principle of femininity is in full actuality. Nothing about this picture changes much if we include temporary or permanent infertility, whether by choice, accident, genetic bad luck, or anything else. 

More to the point, when we say there are more sexes than one, what exactly is counting as a sex? What do we have 50% more of when we go from noticing there are XX and XY humans to noticing there are XXY ones too? Nothing gets added to our original reason for dividing the group into two, a division that was made eons before we knew about chromosomes at all, and which we presupposed in our understanding of XX and XY in the first place. 


Two faces of the sinful will in Augustine

In Book II of Confessions Augustine describes the sinner as energetic and defiant. The point of his pear tree narrative is that sin is a desire for transgression and a defiant assertion of one’s autonomy in the face of restriction and morality. The sinner loves freedom and the infinity of his will. 

In Book VIII sin becomes the state of the crippled and palsied will. Augustine knows good things but finds himself unable to choose them. He finds his sin grotesque and wants to be released from it, but his mental and moral lassitude make him unable to enjoy either his vices or their cure. He can see a better life but can’t choose it. In light of this Augustine’s fundamental experience of grace is the empowerment of will allowing him to love what he disliked only moments ago – an account of grace that will come to be called victorious delectation. 

The two accounts of sin parallel to the account of the fall, which starts in the desire to become God only to quickly transform into an immediate shame at finding one’s desires beyond his control.  

It’s not easy to see both of these states as two faces of the same sinful will. 

Hypotheses about exemplar causes

One and the same reality is the act both of the agent and the subject of change; to the subject it is the end which will become the form of the subject, to the agent it is the exemplar.

The desire for an end belongs not to the agent but the subject, since desire belongs to potency and agents as such are in act. If agents as such are actual, however, how is the exemplar its act? Exemplarity is an immanence presupposed to transitive action, and so where this eminence belongs to the agent himself the agent has knowledge and where it doesn’t the agent works in virtue of this.

The agent is not a desire for exemplarity as though it were a potency actualized by it, which is why exemplarity to divine agents. Nevertheless, finite agents take the species of their action from the outside and so their exemplars have a sort of exteriority to the agent.

The exemplar is the measure of an agent’s action and has all the actuality in its order and so is maximal in perfection. Effects that are better or worse in relation to their exemplar.

There is exemplarity properly only so far as there is agency. Human beings are not the agent causes of being and so do not have exemplarity for it.

Bultmann’s lightbulb

Bultmann famously wondered how anyone could believe in the resurrection of Jesus in a world with electric light bulbs. The light bulb was a synecdoche of course, presumably for trains, microwaves, food preservatives, and modern historical methods.

To be sure, no one thinks that historical methods have the same confirmability as trains or microwaves – hypothetical constructions of light bulbs fail in far more confirmable ways than our hypothetical reconstructions of history. Bultmann’s point is probably that if methodological naturalism has so many technological and scientific successes it would be crazy to deny it historical ones, so historical naturalism it is. No resurrections.

One response to this is to note that the leger of scientific benefits can only be evaluated after we decide the question whether communism or socialism is scientific, and to my mind this means simply admitting that it is. More to the point though, technology starts from a given that is essentially plastic and moves to a telos that exists by will whereas neither the givens nor telos of history fit this description. The evidence base of some historical fact can vary but the end itself can’t whereas among technologies there are as many possible ends as possible things we could want. Again, the invariance of the past is like the invariance of a nature or a mathematical abstraction but it reduces to sensation and not to intellectual insight or theoretical construction. At the end of the day the video camera outside the tomb or inside the upper room (or whatever) shows what happened and everything else is psychologizing about history and not history as such.

So the success of naturalism in technological or even theoretical domains is disanalogous at crucial points to the historical domain. In history things bottom out not in what we want or even what we can coherently conceptualize as a causal story but simply in what happened. History attempts to recover the concrete invariability of a sensed fact as opposed to either the concrete as willed into being or the abstract as conceptually understood or reconstructed by argument. Because methods are nothing but methods to ends, these essentially different ends demand essentially different methods.

Manipulation vs. expression in intelligence

Following vocal prompts from a GPS is a different experience from following someone giving you directions, since when I fail with GPS I never experience it as letting anyone down. I’m not apologizing either before or after the thing vocalizes it’s “recalculating.” To use David Braine’s distinction, the GPS manipulates the tools of thought without expressing thought. To express is to be in one’s expression, which is why the failure to follow someone expressing himself in directions involves letting him down.

This this manipulation of words without the expressing oneself in words is what I want in artificial intelligence, as it’s all upsides to have someone impeccably show you the way somewhere while being unable to be offended by your incompetence or even notice it. Mutatis mutandis, I want a program to finish writing Beethoven’s 10th symphony without any of the messy emotional attachments, mixed motives, or hidden motivations that an artist who finished it would have; and as a disagreeable and perhaps mildly autistic introvert I want a machine to check out my groceries without demanding I interact with unknown humans.

None of this is what want in human expression, as I don’t want just the product or outcome but the product as a person’s. A machine that could cook like my wife would be a great boon to the world, but nothing we take from machines is taken as a gift. Expression is not merely the exteriorization of the self but exteriorization ordered to interpersonal communion, which is based on an economy of gift, debt, right, justice and ultimately love.

“Good without God”

The claim that man cannot be good without God usually makes God the ontological foundation of obligation or the enforcer of moral law, and the denial of the claim consists in arguing that the law needs no such foundation. If we take it like this Christianity criticises both claims since it takes any moral law, especially one divinely founded and enforced, as more of a fundamental human problem. The gospel certainly doesn’t consist in the proclamation of a moral law full stop, and it is absurd to the point of contradiction to think that the good news Christ came to announce to Israel was one a divinely grounded and enforced moral code. Israel already had the perfect form of such a code for a thousand years – its problem was its inability to keep it. Another moral code (Now with new foundation! New enforcement!) wasn’t just bringing coals to Newcastle but to throw them on a burning home. Paul generalizes the problem to the whole world since we’re all born with the moral law in us before it is clarified by Torah, and by the time our choices, bad luck and perverse social structures efface the law from our heart we take it as pointless to proclaim it to us again. As Paul would note later, the law both written in Torah and human nature is good in itself but in our present circumstances it condemns us.

The Christian sees man’s moral need for God as insufficiently in God’s grounding a moral code and formally and ultimately in God’s empowerment of the soul to follow and enjoy the code that God establishes and proclaims. As the Psalm puts it: I will run after you, O LORD, when you have enlarged my heart.

Our present moral muddle about the criteria for human actions (Duty? Consequences? Human flourishing?) occludes the deeper problem that even after we find the criteria we won’t be able to follow it, and we might even take comfort in our disagreement about moral foundations since it hides our moral ugliness behind a supposed scholarly riddle, i.e. “as soon as we solve this trolley problem our inherent human goodness and moral strength will more than suffice to make everyone do the good!” Faced with the moral vision of myself, imagining my ignorance is more pleasant than admitting my wickedness.

So the present terms of the debate over whether man can be good without God are largely moot: even if our moral code made no reference to God we would need God to be good, because our need for him is not principally in his justification of a law we can follow fine by ourselves but his strengthening of the heart to enjoy the moral law which, in fact, both arises from his action and is ordered to union with him. Again, even if (and I take this as per impossibile) a secular, evolutionary psychology morality were made perfect in every jot and tittle, the primary role it would play in divine providence would be for God to make persons recognize we are insufficient in ourselves and that our sufficiency is in God.

God’s moral perfection

I’ve argued before that the argument from evil seems to presuppose a garbled and incoherent view of God as revealed by Christ: on the one hand we assume a divine “moral perfection” that consists in love of human beings while on the other hand we forget Christ’s manifestation of God’s love in history and his Church. This abstraction is not just incoherent but fatal since God’s “moral perfection” need not involve merciful, fatherly love for human beings. When a lower being is passes away for the good of a higher, whether a plant killed for the sake of an animal or an animal killed for the sake of a man, then things are simply as they should be, as this involves the same principle as allowing a lower level of development of some organism or artwork becoming the organism or artefact in its perfect form. Why take God’s wiping out a city as any more morally out-of-joint than an embryo developing into a boy into an adult? God’s moral perfections therefore aren’t necessarily anything we ought to expect will lead to human happiness.

To simplify: we understand our moral obligations to those natures we transcend, e.g. plants, and while we at least share a remote genus with plants God transcends any created thing to a far greater degree, leading us to expect God is morally obliged to provide care for us even thinner than our moral obligations to plants or inanimate matter. Such an obligation more than allows for wiping out city-sized populations of persons just as the city itself more than allowed for the felling of the trees it took to clear space for the persons and build their dwellings.

In fact, though, God infinitely transcends even the highest created nature, which diminishes his moral obligations ex parte creatures to zero. If we need our relation to God to rest on his obligations to us the only rational thing to do is deny any relation to him at all.

Or is it that a being with no obligations at all is visualized as a monster? To say that God would be justified in anything seems to many (Hart comes to mind) as collapsing God into a contradictory nature identifying good and evil. I think this criticism doesn’t appreciate our ambivalence to limits, which both constitute our being and restrict us in a manner we continually try to transcend by both sinning and grace. There is something terrifying in an all powerful being with no limits, but it is precisely this that also makes God alone proportionate to the will and thus capable of constituting human happiness.

The Trinitarian Aporias

Objections to the coherence of the Trinity will either play the whole God against any of the persons, or one person being the whole of God against another person. Conceptually, this is to play the whole against the part or one part against another. 

The first aporia is 

God is a trinity of persons

No person of the trinity is a trinity of persons

So no person of the trinity is God. 

But this conflates virtual distinction with actual distinction, just as if we said

A door is both entrance and exit

An entrance is not both entrance and exit.

So the door is not an entrance.

To play the persons against each other, we’d say

The Son is the whole of God. (cf. the Gloria)

The Holy Spirit is not the Son.

The Holy Spirit is not God.

But this is like saying

The whole image of the duck-rabbit is a duck

A duck is not a rabbit

So the whole image of the duck rabbit is not a rabbit.

But the first two premises are true – the second self-evidently but the first since no part of the duck rabbit is not a duck. Any image of the kind (say, old lady/ young lady) is wholly either image since if any part were not wholly of each it would ruin the point of the image.

Punishment and dignity

The Catechism criticizes capital punishment as against human dignity. They are in one sense correct since punishment as such is contrary to human dignity at least in this sense: When one does something bad they enter a state of deserving a proportionate pain or loss, and this state as such is contrary to dignity, which is nothing but the state of deserving something good.

Of course, as soon as one suffers his proportionate pain or loss the state of punishment ends and the impediment to dignity is removed, meaning punishment also plays a role in restoring dignity. So punishment is medicinal at least when its completion takes someone out of the state of deserving evil. This is a narrower account of the corrective value of punishment than is usually assumed in liberal societies, as our “correctional facilities” or “reformatories” at least verbally seem to be committed not just to the paying of a pain debt but the transformation of the soul from vice to virtue. We are scandalized by repeat offenders and take them as proof that the prison system “isn’t working” – we even take a law’s inability to stop crimes as proof that the law isn’t working. While laws certainly play a role in making people virtuous, one minimal but essential part of this is simply that they inflict pain and loss, irrespective of what additional moral advance that they might contribute to. One who commits evil needs pain and loss to reëstablish his dignity irrespective of what he does with it once reëstablished, or even if the loss he deserves is the loss of his life.

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