Morality and contemporary embryology

Before the late 19th- early 20th Century, most of what we knew about human embryology was so limited that we couldn’t rule out an idea like, say, the male sperm swam around or worked on parts of the womb for several months before forming a unique human organism. Even if we imagined that something other than semen formed, we might imagine it as some vague and ill-defined golem that was not quite seed, not quite separate, with any question of its life or humanity as puzzling as trying to classify a platypus or jellyfish. Moments like “quickening” wouldn’t be of much help either, since all it tells us is “something is moving”, and that “something is moving” doesn’t require a life other than the mother, or even life at all.

In such a world most abortions wouldn’t be seen as killing human persons, which is most of all what abortion opponents now object to. And so, as R. Marie Griffith points out, abortion in the 19th Century was at worst a misdemeanor, though it was more often not an object of law at all.

While no scientific finding can definitively establish personhood in something biologically human, the facts of embryology didn’t turn out to be what we would have chosen if we wanted abortion to be an obvious instance of not killing a person. Perhaps a clear, scientific examination of a womb five months after insemination could have found only clumps of easily identifiable mother or father tissue, or blobs of goo with no cell structure. The world isn’t like that, though.

The contemporary problem of abortion is thus as much a problem generated by scientific knowledge as climate change, and in both cases the resolution of the problem is essentially in the moral-political domain with science as ancilla. 




Many of the books in the “decline of the West” genre – which was already old by the time Weaver published Ideas have Consequences in 1948 but which still sells (Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed) – tell a curious narrative of decline over very large time scales. If Nominalism or Hobbesianism were as harmful as claimed, why is the diseased host still alive a half-millenium later?




-As literature, the argument of Euthyphro is that the one who presumes to judge the ways of his fathers has no knowledge of piety.

-For devoted Christians looking at their culture, sanity requires remembering it is a Kingdom under the Prince of the World, where most dance down the wide road to perdition.

-You’re not happy that most are damned, you’re just freed from the burden of assuming some recent policy, court decision, historical trend, influential school or philosopher or whatever sent us down the road to perdition. It’s not the decline of civilization, it’s just the world. 

-As with rape victims, so with cultures – we assume we are responsible for the evil that happened. Both are irrational attempts to gain control of an evil that was mostly decided before we could do anything to add or detract.

-Much engaging social commentary is a fascination with demonic creativity.

-Take heart, the world is just as God described it. To pull the yoke with Christ is easy for anyone who wants to and the overwhelming majority don’t.

-The plan for saving society is what it’s always been: prayer, meditation, fasting, mortification, alms and works of mercy.

-If we were saved for doing more good than bad, almost everyone would be. Relationships don’t work that way, though, but can be destroyed by single acts no matter the antecedent goods. It would be a clueless husband who thought that his giving his wife a house, money, security, etc. meant she couldn’t blame him for a mistress.

-The case against the faith is always convincing and constantly needing to change.


The agent intellect, objection and response.

Thomas’s argument for an agent intellect is:

Sensible things are not intelligible in themselves

The human intellect knows sensible things.

So the human intellect must make things unintelligible in themselves intelligible.

Whatever effects this intelligibility is agent intellect. 

Objection: Here is a parallel argument:

Bodies are not of themselves alive

Some bodies are alive

So something must make what is not in itself alive actually living.

Aristotle gives a version of this argument in De anima I, and Thomas uses a version of it to show that the soul cannot be a body. But there is no need to posit “agent life” as a power within soul. Soul itself suffices to elevate the non-living to the status of living.

Souls ascend by orders of transcendence, like geometric constructions of one, two and three dimensions. An agent cause is not necessary to raise sensible thing to intelligibility any more than an agent is necessary for there to be infinite lines in a surface or infinite possible surfaces in a solid.

Response: If a formal cause as such explained the intelligibility of the sensible then a thing would be intelligible simply by being sensed. This is true in the sense that every human sensible experience is also an intelligible one, but not in the sense that can be intelligible is present in what is sensed. No one saw gravity in an apple before Newton, though billions of persons watched things fall. In this sense formal causality is not sufficient to explain the elevation of the sensible to the intelligible, and since an intrinsic elevating cause doesn’t suffice, we have to appeal to extrinsic elevating cause, i.e. an agent.

The necessity of extrinsic causality arises from the limited power of physical systems to process information. Embodied intelligence couldn’t process all that is intelligible in a sense experience so it needs to be selective, picking, choosing and forming concepts as it goes, usually and perhaps necessarily within the context of language usage.

A disembodied intelligence no longer knows within limited organic systems and so sloughs off the need for extrinsic elevation of what is non-intelligible in itself. This explains Aristotle’s enigmatic claim that a disembodied agent intelligence will be just what it is and nothing more, i.e. it will render all that can be intelligible to it intelligible in fact.

Something suggestive of agent intellection remains in any finite intelligence, since finite intelligence must know by more than one concept and so will never be able to think about all it knows. But there will not be the need now to extrinsically elevate the unintelligible to a higher order.


Being vs. the categorical

The God of the Five Ways acts in the world without those actions being contained by it. While divine activity causes and explains things in sense experience it is not homogeneous with them, since if it were it would be (in an Aristotelian schema) the accident of some substance or (in a Kantian schema) a free and therefore contingent action, but the God of the Five Ways is neither accidental nor contingent. The Five Ways only work if we can conclude to a being for which we have no category, not even a category of which God is the only member.

The Five Ways thus require distinguishing being or the real from the categorical. This happens because a category arises when we start with some number of things – take R and Q – and then consider them both in way where they have no formal difference from each other.  R and Q each are both “letters” or “Roman alphabeticals”, and so considered they have no formal difference. If, however, you consider R and Q both as beings then, while they form a sort of community with other beings (you, my couch, me), this community does not arise from the absence of formal distinction. For R to be a letter requires that it is not formally different from Q, but for R to exist in reality does require that it be formally different from Q, and what we first of all mean by a being is what exists in reality.

So while both being and the categorical speak involve unity among multiples, a category prescinds from formal difference while being does not. This observation is retorsive, for the unity just mentioned is not formally different from being, since it is not unity that consists in being the first member of a series (the “one” of “one, two, three”) but in having all that is included in its existence (the “one” of “one nation, under God”).

Being and unity both speak to a real unity in things while allowing for formal difference, and so both are logically and really prior to formal difference. Being – by which we first of all mean existence but include all that is only logically different from it – is therefore a form of forms, or that relative to which even form is indeterminate.

So being and unity are different from the categorical in a way that itself does not make for a category. It’s this that both allows for and is discovered when we show that God exists while not being found in any category.


A spousal theodicy

Theodicy started as the attempt to understand evil in the world relative to God as creator. This is in keeping with earlier accounts of the relation between God and evil, such as Thomas’s, which saw particular evils as part of what was intended by a universal agent cause.

While Scriptural religion clearly sees God as creator and agent cause of creation, it subordinates this role to God as spouse of his chosen he who is your maker is your husband (Isa. 54: 5 cf. Hos. 2: 16 Jer. 31: 32 ; Eze. 16:8)

On this account, evils in this world are necessary as birth pains of the Church, since divine espousal is made in response to a sin making it that in sorrow shall you bring forth (Gen 3:16)In keeping with this the Church is a woman in the sky in the pains of labor (Rev. 12).

Sex ed as health

Three generations of Americans have been taught about sex in health classes. The description reflects a popular belief echoed by the founder of SIECUS (a key player in meeting the demand for sex-ed curricula in schools) that discourse about sexuality needed to shift from the moral to the medical domain, from ethics to health. The health-vs-ethics opposition still pops up, but for the most part the medicalization of sexual teaching has been so complete that no one remembers how it could be anything else.

In medicine the end is typically both concrete and agreed upon by the doctor and patient, and the means is concrete and agreed upon by the doctors.  When you show up at the ER with an arrow in your arm both you and your doctor have a very clear idea of what the goal is, and medicine just is the knowledge of what to do in such circumstances, meaning anyone trained in it should know what should be done. In ethics, universal agreement on either ends or means only comes when they are defined so vaguely that one does not know the first step to take to attain the goal or the means to get there. Sure, in an ethical discussion we can all agree that we should strive to be happy or do the greatest good among available options or do our duty or even seek the best among possible outcomes, but if ethics has any point at all it has to at some point tell us what to do, and to leave it at this doesn’t provide enough information to know what to do.

Teaching sex as health is an attempt to remove it from controversy by treating it as if its goals were concrete and agreed-upon, and the means to reach them did not allow for reasonable disagreements between experts. Even if there are some concrete goals that we all can agree on (knowing how babies are made, avoiding STD’s) this agreement does not give us actionable knowledge on means, and usually ends are themselves not so concrete. We can agree that we should minimize unwanted pregnancies, but this is not an actionable statement, since it says only that we should not want what, in fact, we don’t want.

Even if I wouldn’t fault the sex-ed I took for straying outside generally agreed upon ends, in defining the education as a sort of medicine it had a built-in bias for technological means – for pills, machinery, engineered barriers. While I don’t object to technology in sex as such, to assume that sexual technology is as morally unproblematic as it typically is in medicine is the worst kind of question-begging.

The basic problem is this: ethics deals with human actions as such, but medicine with only a subset of them. Medicine therefore assumes ethics is already decided, while ethics does not and can not. Defining sex as health is therefore to adopt the illusion that we live in a world where both the concrete goals and means of sexual activity are already clear, agreed upon, and no longer controversial. The illusion has its comforts, but it’s self-evidently false.





Free will, mind, and the PSC

Arguendo, you have free will, and it’s exercised when you confront a row of buttons and push one marked “3”.

Question: Are you free to push the button while pushing it?

Yes: The action is one actualization of a power, and powers must exist while being actualized. It’s nonsense to deny my power to do X while I am doing X, so it is nonsense to say I have no power of free choice while I am freely choosing.

No: Freedom is the ability to do otherwise, but while you are doing X it is impossible to be doing otherwise. One cannot simultaneously push a button and not push it.

True, one is able to refrain from doing X while doing so, but this means either

a.) While doing the action, one might cease before it is finished, or

b.) There is a counterfactual truth of non-action when one acts, viz. Although I’m doing this, I might have not. 

But (a) considers the future of the action and so not while it is happening. If (b) is taken as referring to a different past it does the same, but can it be taken as referring to the same moment as the action?

This raises the question of the possibilia simul contradictionis (PSC),or the simultaneous possibility of contradictories. Specifically, what relation does the PSC have to something actual?

The PSC cannot be actualized since no action can make contradictions exist simultaneously. So we have to distinguish the PSC from possibilities that can be brought into existence. The old name for PSC was “logical” possibility, though what’s key to it is that it cannot be actualized whereas there is another sort of possibility that can be actualized. Nevertheless, we’re clearly aware of PSC and so it exists in mind.

This seems to give some light on the initial question. Free will is an action of a being with mind, and so of a being that is aware of PSC even though the PSC as such cannot be realized. In beings that act with minds, the PSC can therefore be a terminus a quo of an action while it cannot be a terminus ad quem.

Free will will thus be understood as an action with a unique principle, namely mind so far as it contains the PSC. So taken we can see the truth of the yes argument – since actions that arise from mind arise from a principle that has the PSC, though the no argument is also true since the PSC as such can never be actualized.


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