Tuesday, January 31, 2012

The Need for a New Synthesis

St. Thomas Aquinas is responsible for the last, greatest synthesis of theology and philosophy, the Summa Theologica. Its importance to Christianity during the previous millennium cannot be understated, since even well into the 19th century the Church prescribed the study of St. Thomas and the body of scholasticism as the bread and butter of Catholic theology, and especially as an antidote as what was called the Modernist heresy.

That synthesis is now nearly eight hundred years old. It was written prior to the most revolutionary five hundred years in the history of humanity, an era when man learned how to hone and focus his observational powers, when he learned that the truths handed down to him do not always stand the test of honest scrutiny, when, in short, he learned the weakness of arguments from authority. Such insights can easily appear dangerous to an institution founded upon principles of faith. While it is a fabrication to say that the Church and science have always and everywhere been mortal enemies, it is only a matter of history that the Church has not always been friendly to science; it is only a couple of decades since the Church, in the person of Pope John Paul II, apologized for its treatment of Galileo, and even the progressive views of that Pope contain numerous admonitions to science, warnings about its limitations, and hints (and outright declarations) of the inherit superiority of theology and the faith. I do not mean to disparage that beloved Pope, who certainly did much to change the Church's public stance on modern science from the curmudgeony condemnations of earlier pontiffs. I simply mean to say that, in general, the Church's policy towards science has been one of - at best - a sense of motherly guidance (if not to say, overbearing interference), and at worst a sense of annoyance, irritation, and fear towards a discipline that offers the possibility of discovering reality through one's own senses rather than through submission to received wisdom.

This somewhat dour picture of antithesis is not without its flaws. For one, modern science grew out of a Catholic culture (even if it was sometimes oppressed by that culture). Many early scientists saw their work (or, at least, went through the trouble of pretending to see their work) as consonant with faith, with belief in a God who orders the universe. And to return once again to the figure of John Paul II, there may very well be a way that the Church has recognized the need for a new synthesis, even if the hierarchy has not yet come to the realization of the full implications of such a synthesis. As late as sixty or seventy years ago, the Church's leadership continued to pronounce its skepticism of evolution, its concerns over the growing pluralism of western society, a fear of the relativism that might result from certain sorts of ecumenical or inter-faith dialogue and interactions, and perhaps above all of the continuing secularization of society that chipped away slowly the last vestiges of the Vatican's then-already-absent secular power. Then came Pope John Paul II. Then came an acknowledgement of the soundness of evolutionary theory (and, indeed, of the validity and importance of broader attempts at a fully scientific cosmology), an acknowledgement that the Church had mishandled its relationship with science, an acknowledgement - if not of the full truth - at least of the dignity and importance of other religions, of a need to dialogue and even cooperate. In his encyclical, Fides et Ratio, the Pope offered the image of faith and reason in full cooperation, even as co-equals, the two wings of a dove.

Yet it is clear that despite whatever good intentions coincided with the late pontiff's hinting at a new synthesis, no full-bodied attempt at reconciling the faith with science has emerged. There are two responses that appear often, but which far from representing synthesis rather represent deformation either of faith or science. On the one hand are those who, so jealous of Theology maintaining her crown, put her in a position of ultimate authority over all the other sciences - despite how ignorant she has often proved on matters of physical sciences, they follow her lead, place all questions under her final judgment, and when the other sciences clamor about such trivialities as evidence, observation, and so forth, Theology's eager servants scoff at what they consider the unbounded pride of the little, sinful creature called man. On the other, the elite enlightened, who view faith and the institutions of religions as (perhaps dignified, perhaps decrepit) relics of a bygone age, who armed with telescopes and computers and particle colliders have come to believe themselves the possessors of the truth - that either God doesn't exist, or even if He does we do not have any evidence (as though God were to appear to them if only they slam protons together hard enough). Lady Theology is for them either that ranting old lady that one smiles sadly at as one walks by, or perhaps a madwoman who needs to be locked away - for the good of humanity. These two images are, of course, caricatures (though it is certainly true that both sides have members for whom these would be perfect portraits), and perhaps the larger portion, both of scientists and the faithful (and, of course, faithful scientists) somehow manage to accept the validity of both disciplines - or manage not to think about the subject at all.

In any case, a synthesis has not emerged. Perhaps it is because the implications of such a synthesis would be so dangerous to the more radical members of both camps. For one, the recognition of the true validity of modern science and the postmodern sciences would mean the Church must reevaluate Her own position vis-a-vis truth. She makes claims of two different types: claims that can falsified empirically and claims that cannot be falsified empirically. But the falsification of the former would imply the potential falsehood of the latter: that is, if the Church's claims about anything observable turn out to be false, this would imply the real possibility that Her claims about the unobservable realities might also be false. This matter is of some relevance to the Galileo case: the Church (or, at least, Her ministers) really did claim that it was a matter of faith that the earth was the immobile center of the universe, and however Her apologists might try to distance themselves from that claim or modify that claim into something more acceptable to modern ears it is clear that this was mistaken - even the Pope has, finally, admitted it! Of course, the Church can maintain the infallibility of its doctrine by retroactively excising from Her teaching anything that has been falsified, but this cannot help but appear to be a semantic game, a post hoc "correcting" of the past to fit the needs of the present. But such a synthesis would cut two ways: scientists already recognize, for the most part (there are exceptions, one being the notable popular scientist Stephen Hawking) that there are limits to scientific methodology. But there nevertheless remains what I would call a truly scientific prejudice: that unless a claim is subject to verification through scientific methodology, it should be viewed, if not as false, at least as a suspicious and perhaps entirely trivial claim. Yet, as another odd piece of this prejudice, it is rarely directed at anything other than specifically religious claims: that is, few individuals of this mindset have complained about our belief in the reign of a king called Nebuchadnezzar, though a few might complain about our belief in a man named Jesus; history is not subject to suspicion, as long as it remains tame. But if the history contains a miracle, this is taken as reason enough to discount it! This prejudice is, of course, utterly unscientific in its origins: a history claiming that a miraculous event took place must be judged on its historical, rather than scientific, validity. This is not to say that there is no reason to not investigate such claims; only that there is no reason to discount the supernatural simply because it is supernatural.

In short, the synthesis would require a great deal of true humility on the part both of those who prize the faith and those who prize science (and, perhaps most of all, from those admirable individuals who truly prize both, and whose leadership in such a synthesis would be essential). Yet I fear that such a synthesis will never appear, because the cost to both sides would be so great - that is, the cost in terms of prestige and social power. Yet, to be honest, such a synthesis would likely be far more costly to the Church than to the institutions of science. Science has on its side the fact that it is a truly democratic process, while the Church remains, for good or for ill, a hierarchy - in fact, it is quite arguable that as science has grown more democratic, the Church has grown more and more a hierarchy.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

An Empirical Critique of Natural Law

Natural law has been the primary scaffolding behind Catholicism’s critique of much in postmodern America. From its condemnation of abortion and homosexuality to its arguments in favor of the existence of God, the Church maintain that there are ethical principles universal to rational man. These principles are not part of a supernatural revelation, but are rather available to anyone with sufficiently developed rational faculties; and although culture might condition how these principles are expressed their content is not culturally dependent. It seems natural to me that if these claims are correct the content of natural law must be a proper object of empirical research, rather than simply a subject of rational speculation. However, despite what in my opinion is an unavoidable conclusion, I have yet to see any Catholics putting forward a truly empirical treatment of Natural Law. It is unclear what this means, but at least one possibility is that the results of such an empirical investigation would be a very messy ordeal for proponents of Natural Law, and that it is easier to propose the universality of certain ethical principles than to demonstrate it. Furthermore, I hypothesize that any attempt to formulate the essential or primary content of Natural Law would either be contradicted by empirical observation or would be so empty and vague as to count as tautological.

First, it is necessary to admit that Natural Law proponents readily accept that different cultures have different ethical norms. For one thing, there is a degree of leeway within the principles of Natural Law; as Chesterton put it (and here I am paraphrasing from memory), “different cultures may disagree about whether one can have one wife or many, but all agree that one cannot simply have sex with whoever they want.” Putting aside the lack of empirical evidence for this statement, I can readily agree with the sentiment that a principle of Natural Law might be less a statement of extremely specific rules, but rather general categories or “first principles” of ethical behavior that might be embedded in different culturally specific rules. Furthermore, these rules might vary in their degree of adherence with the first principles: one culture might take very stringent or strict stances on such a general code as “do not harm your neighbor,” while others might very well be more relaxed in their definition of what counts as “harm.”

But Natural Law proponents also have another rather important distinction between what might be called primary or essential principles of natural law and secondary principles. For example, if we hypothetically counted “do not harm your neighbor” as a primary principle of natural law, we might count “do not steal your neighbor’s property” as a secondary principles: that is, it is a principle stemming from the concept of “do not harm your neighbor,” and it is at least conceivable that a culture might follow principles of “do not harm your neighbor” while not ascribing to “do not steal your neighbor’s property:” in their case, for whatever cultural or historical reasons, they might never have counted the theft of property as particularly harmful (some may even have considered the ability to steal their neighbor’s property as a sign of virtue and strength, such as the Germans that Thomas Aquinas describes in some of his treatment of Natural Law). Natural Law proponents allow for the loss or absence of these secondary principles in human society - that is, circumstances can potentially “erase” these principles from a society. However, primary principles are universal and indelible.

This latter characteristic is the backbone of Natural Law: if we assume that all sufficiently rational creatures have access to a set of universal ethical principles, then we may also assume that, regardless of culture, we have the ability to reach objectively “True” ethical imperatives and prohibitions. Furthermore, we can critique culture from a standard that is outside or beyond culture: that is, our access to universal ethical precepts should allow us to criticize any culture, even our own. This is quite a powerful assumption, and it also carries with it the potential for a very specific kind of abuse not uncommon in history: if a person or peoples have a different set of ethical norms, we may assume that they are either wicked, in the sense of openly disobeying Natural Law, or rationally inferior, in the sense of being not developed enough to recognize it. There are positive elements to this assumption, because it would provide a common ground for any ethical discussion between cultures - more importantly, it suggests that there are universal ways to come to the “right” conclusion about ethics. However, I would argue that history has shown the misuse of Natural Law to be more harmful than its proper use has been beneficial. Genocide, religious war, and slavery have all often been justified by the dehumanization of its victims through arguments based on cultural diversity: more specifically, that the perpetrator or conqueror’s culture and ethical norms are superior to the victim, and that the victim is either hopelessly wicked, less-than-human due to their inferior intelligence, or both, and are thus deserving of death or slavery.

Of course, the affirmation of these claims - that a culture lacking the ethical principles of an assumed natural law is either wicked or inferior - would implicitly affirm that those principles can be lost, and thus deny that Natural Law is truly universal to humanity. That this conclusion is rarely arrived at by the conquerors or perpetrators of these acts is perhaps a sign that the theory has been misappropriated as a tool of political convenience.

Now, if the essential content of Natural Law really were universal, if follows that it would be present in the ethical principles of every human culture. Since secondary principles can be lost, they would not necessarily be present in every human culture. So, then, if there are such universal ethical principles, at least one way (and possibly the only way) to verify them is to conduct empirical investigations into every human society, both past and present, and see if such principles are found universally. After all, if empirical investigation found absolutely no such universal principles, then at least one element of Natural Law would be falsified: the concept that its principles are universal to rational creatures.

Thus follows my conclusion that empirical observation would be essential not only to demonstrating the truth of Natural Law but also to the description of its primary, indelible principles. But here lies yet another problem for Natural Law: how does one describe these principles? The more specific and substantial one's description of the principles, the more likely one will find ample evidence of cultures in which ethical norms lack or contradict one or more of those principles. For example, one would probably find far more cultures contradicting a principle such as “marriage is between one man and one woman” than would find contradicting a principle such as “marriage is between men and women.” Successively broader and more vague principles would likely have even fewer contradicting cultures. However, even one culture in which ethical norms contradicted or lacked such a principle would be enough to falsify the hypothesis that that principle is universal!

Now, such an undertaking would need certain sorts of caveats. For example, there are plenty of examples from history in which a society reacted to a sudden social ill or calamity in a way which is fundamentally at odds with its own ethical principles; such short-lived malaises may be excluded from the study if it represents only a momentary breach of a society’s underlying principles rather than a true change in principle. Researchers more learned and adept in these matters should set such requirements, but I would venture to guess that if such a breech in principles lasts less than the average lifetime of its members, it can be discarded, but that changes that last over more than one lifetime are indicative of a substantial and accepted change in that society’s ethical norms, even if later events return that society to its original (or nearly original) norms.

It is my hypothesis, simply from my rather scant knowledge of anthropology, ethnography and sociology that no substantial ethical principles will pass such an empirical test. In order to fashion an ethical principle that can be found in every culture, one would have to resort to a statement such as, “one should pursue good and avoid evil,” which is a fundamental tautology, since ethical good may be defined as “that which should be pursued” and ethical evil may be defined as “that which should be avoided.”

What would be the consequences of the discovery that no non-tautological ethical principles are truly universal? For one, Natural Law would lose its ability to provide critiques of cultural norms from “outside culture,” because it would be revealed that ethical principles are not universal but are dependent upon culture. I do not believe this conclusion to be ultimately irreconcilable with Christianity (which, in my mind, has always been extremely insistent upon the particularity - even the cultural particularity - of its revelation) nor even to cross-cultural criticism. Instead, it would destroy any attempt at moralizing from the pure ethical high-ground of universal law and would instead force all ethical conversations to proceed in culturally specific terms grounded in history and particular societies. None of this would either deny or affirm the presence of some “right answer” to ethical questions: it would simply change the terms (and perhaps, to some degree, the attitudes) of those undertake the discussion.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

A Purely Philosophical Argument for a Pro-Life Position

Let us say that a worker has the rather unenviable job of doing away with stray cardboard boxes in a large warehouse, and that in the course of his labor he spends hours throwing the boxes into a compacter. One day, as he picks up an unusually heavy, sealed box that has been placed in the garbage pile, he hears a co-worker shout, “Stop! Don’t do it! There’s a toddler asleep in that box!” Other coworkers smirk, and one notes sardonically that the concerned coworker must be an idiot, judging from the improbability of there being a toddler in the warehouse in the first place, much less in a sealed box. Our worker is now faced with a decision.

I do not want anyone to believe that I present this as an analogy for abortion, at least not in anything but the accidental sense. I merely wish to present what I believe to be a valid and quite acceptable ethical principle that could be accepted by anyone, pro-life or pro-choice: in a matter of ethical uncertainty, one should err on the side of moral caution, not moral license. There may be very little chance that there is a toddler in the box, but I believe that the worker does have a duty to investigate the claim. This is especially the case the more grave the ethical concern: the fact that a life may very well be at stake (and, moreover, a life that few if any contemporary ethical frameworks would neglect to extend the rights of personhood) means that if the worker simply ignored the warning and tossed the box into the compacter he would be acting in an unethical manner, even if the box were empty, simply because he acted in a haphazard way without investigating the claim. And, of course, in the unlikely event that there had been a toddler in the box, he would have been in even more trouble.

Now there are caveats and limitations to the principle. For example, if the co-worker had shouted that the God-Alien Timalzek from Vesta was hiding in the box, we might more easily have a right to dismiss the claim. This is not to say that it is flat out impossible that such a state of affairs might exist, but as a matter of principle there must be limits to acting on uncertainties in order simply to avoid paralysis. Thus, in order to qualify as a matter of ethical uncertainty, the competing ethical claim(s) must be able to present a compelling and rational case. But, similarly, once such a competing claim has presented at least some form of evidence, it cannot simply be passed over as “weaker” without any investigation. Unlike many non-ethical practical decisions (such as, which of these ties should I wear in order to make the best appearance at my job interview) which by their nature usually allow for a great deal of uncertainty, it is my contention that ethical decisions by their very nature can have only a very low tolerance for uncertainty, because the consequences of ethical decisions can potentially impact others’ lives in a very negative manner. We even have words for failing to recognize the possible negative implications of our ethical decisions: recklessness or neglect.

But there is another limitation: to what degree can the uncertainty really be solved, what resources must be expended to solve the uncertainty, and are those costs worth failing to make a decision? In the box example, the uncertainty has a rather straightforward, low cost solution: simply unseal the box and look inside. The question admits to very little beyond that. In fact, I would argue that it is precisely the low cost and ease of solving the uncertainty compared to the potential cost of ignoring it that makes the example a solid case in which the principle of ethical uncertainty applies. We may very well imagine a different case, which lowers the potential damage of the uncertainty while raising the cost of coming to a solution. Let us say that workers have spent days preparing for a massive concrete foundation, and on the day scheduled for the concrete to be poured one of the workers shouts that they must stop the operation in order to see if a watch he has misplaced is somewhere in the labyrinth of wood and metal rods that will soon be immersed in concrete. The cost of investigating this uncertainty in both time and money is quite higher than the potential losses, and we might imagine the foreman denying his request with a certain gruff indifference.

The final caveat, which is really more a reformulation of the preceding concern, is that we must weigh moral uncertainties against moral certainties. On his way home from work, our worker crosses a railroad track near a switch at which the line branches. He sees that both branch lines have a car sitting on them, and that a train is heading at full speed towards the switch. It will clearly not have time to stop. As he looks at the cars, he can clearly see that there are passengers inside, somehow oblivious to their peril. The other car, however, seems from his distant vantage to be empty. He has no time to make a better investigation: he must act. He knows there are persons in one car, and is uncertain about the other; weighing these, the ethical choice would be to flip the switch so that the train will demolish the car that appears empty rather than the one he knows is full.

I believe the force of this principle is obvious, and that once accepted (as it should be regardless of one’s pro-life or pro-choice stance) its implications for the abortion debate should be equally obvious. But still, consider the principle of uncertainty vis-à-vis abortion.

The basic question in the pro-life/pro-choice debate is “Is the embryo or fetus a person, and thus entitled to the ethical and legal status and protections or personhood?” At this point I should wish to note something that might tick off members of both sides of the issue: this question cannot be answered by the biological sciences, sonograms, or anecdotal stories of fetal hands grasping at fingers. The question is ultimately ethical-philosophical and legal in nature, rather than biological, even though it is also clear that our philosophical stance on these matters must be informed by what we know through science. But, to be even more clear: it is not certain that simply because the fetus has an anatomical connection to its mother that it is to be considered a part of its mother’s body rather than a person. Making this claim would also force us to deny the unique personhood of members of conjoined twins, who are anatomically connected and in some cases even dependent upon that anatomical connection, which is something I believe most pro-choice adherents would want to resist. Second, the status of having a unique set of DNA does not render one a person, as this would mean that chimerical individuals would have to treat the chimera cells present in their body with all the respect of a separate person, which I believe is clearly an unwanted ethical conclusion. Third, the ability to grasp someone’s finger, or the fact that aborted fetuses are often quite unpleasant to look at, are so clearly unrelated to the question that I believe they deserve no further comment.

How, then, can we solve this dilemma? Well, part of the difficulty is that we have not even yet come to consensus on what a “person” really is. Many contemporary definitions have used “the ability to choose rationally” as a corollary to “having the right to choose” and thus having the rights of personhood. Of course, this sort of definition has the unpleasant side-effect, confirmed by its own philosophical champions, of denying infants, toddlers, and young children the status of “person.” They must then be given a special ad hoc defense to make killing them unethical, such as comparing them to “priceless works of art.” Not only that, but I believe this unpleasant side effect is coupled with another: namely, that even “the ability to choose rationally” is itself a suspect concept: whose rationality? What standards do we set for this rationality? And, finally, what if “choice” is an illusion?

Another simply takes sentient consciousness as its guide to “personhood,” although yet again there is the problem of the status of infants, who assumedly do not develop self-awareness until later and must be either subject to infanticide or given an ad hoc ethical defense that protects them while underscoring the flaws of this definition of personhood.

I will dispense with religious definitions of personhood on the grounds that a revelation or revelations not accepted by all cannot be the basis of common consent, but I will also note that these definitions are not necessarily free of their own internal difficulties, such as the possibility of inconsistencies with biological understandings of human reproduction.

There are many more definitions of “personhood” and many variations of the above definitions, which I do not have the time to exhaustively list. I would like to make the observation, however, that to some degree almost any definition of personhood is an ad hoc claim. That is to say, we have certain people that we wish to include as “persons” and certain people that, for good or bad reasons, we wish to exclude, and we then create a universal definition that attempts to fall along these pre-chosen lines. That it is so difficult to do this without either excluding wanted entities or including unwanted entities is perhaps one sign that the terms of the debate are themselves flawed. But it also seems to suggest that to some degree neither side is treating the status of the fetus as a real uncertainty. Pro-Life individuals, for the most part, have previous philosophical or religious commitments, or perhaps have simple sentiments or “gut instincts,” which compel them to include fetuses and embryos, and as such theories of personhood which emanate from this corner tend to simply include fetuses and embryos. Pro-Choice individuals, similarly, have previous philosophical or sometimes social commitments that tend to compel them to want to not include fetuses and embryos as persons, and as such their theories of personhood tend to focus on essential qualities that exclude these entities (and, usually, many born individuals as well).

In other words, the language and debates of personhood have been used on both sides to obfuscate the real uncertainty of the issue: that, lacking a solid biological or scientific basis for “personhood,” the debate has taken the form of each side developing a definition of personhood that suits its agenda and tastes and then “discovering” that fetuses and embryos are or are not persons. This may not be a necessary outcome: that is, I do not believe that the discussion of personhood must take this form. I do believe that, at least in the American abortion debate, this is more or less the form the argument has taken (that is, whenever the argument takes a coherent form and is not limited to a bumper sticker slogan or billboard).

I believe that if the true ethical uncertainty of the fetus’s status as a person were acknowledged, the result would be strongly towards something resembling a pro-life position, with caveats. For example, we must weigh uncertainties against certainties. If a pregnancy has resulted in life-threatening complications for the mother, the certainty of the mother’s personhood takes precedence in ethical considerations (interestingly, even the Catholic Church has come to this conclusion, although it has taken extra special care to phrase its teachings on the matter in a way that obfuscates that they are permitting abortive measures). More difficult to weigh, but certainly of importance, are the possible social ramifications, psychological, or developmental ramifications of certain sorts of traumatic pregnancies, such as rape and extreme underage pregnancies. However, I would like to point out that I believe the principle of ethical uncertainty would deem unethical all sorts of “abortions of inconvenience;” or, in other words, “I don’t want a baby yet,” “I don’t know where I will get the money,” “raising a child is difficult and I never wanted that,” or so forth. That is, the possibility that the entity created as a result of conception might be a “person” is itself sufficient cause on its own to outweigh these concerns, especially in a nation with the social service infrastructure of the United States. I am not meaning to make light of these concerns: as a poor man myself with two children, I know the difficulties of raising children, of making extreme career and other sacrifices for them, and I furthermore know that these difficulties can only be magnified in the case of single mothers. But I believe that both sides, pro-life and pro-choice, can admit that abortion has become a means of creating a scapegoat for our social problems. The United States, as good of a country as it is, is host to single mothers living in poverty, crime, poverty, unwanted or neglected children who often end up spending much of their time in jail, and so forth. However, I believe it has also been abundantly clear that legal abortion has not solved these problems, and I believe that to some degree the shouting back and forth on both sides has only served to distract from social programs and solutions that would more ably strike at the source of these social malaises, of which “inconvenient pregnancies” are the symptom.

This may seem unfeeling. I do not believe that I am unsympathetic to the plight of the poor, unmarried girl who ends up pregnant and soon finds herself in a situation she would much rather avoid. I am a strong advocate of social programs to aid such an individual. I simply believe that we have not yet really engaged the real uncertainty of the ethical status of the fetus, and that until we have a better sense of what makes a person a person we had best act with ethical caution rather than ethical license.