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Nature Part Three

Posted Oct. 29, 2019 by DOM No comments yet

Intro to Nature: Part Three

Today, we are going to address some ambiguities with regard to the way we often use the word “nature,” building on the last posts. Last time, we finished discussing Fr. Wallace’s two-fold conception of nature, breaking it down into (1) natural things and (2) their activities. When combined, natural things and their behaviors make up the whole world of nature. We emphasized strongly in our last post the importance of inherent natures, which are both the source of and that in virtue of which natural things live-out their particular behaviors and activities. In today’s post, we are going to talk in more detail about specific natures and why distinguishing them is so important for deciding what is natural and unnatural.

It is a mistake to use the word “nature” univocally, which means to treat all senses of a word as if they were the same. We often fail to distinguish “nature” in a general sense—the sense which characterizes the whole world of nature—from substances which have specific natures and activities which derive from those natures. We often do not realize that when we call something “natural” or “unnatural,” we actually mean that it’s either natural or unnatural in a certain way or a certain respect. Remember the example in our last post about the dog wearing a Halloween costume? For dogs to wear clothing is unnatural – it doesn’t belong to a dog’s nature to wear clothes. But we can still say that it is natural for human beings to wear clothing (we’ll discuss this in more detail later).

To make matters more complicated (or more fun depending how you look at it!) the same activity could be considered either natural or unnatural for a subject, depending on which way you look at it. For instance, it is “natural” for beavers to eat potato chips when they are offered them, insofar as they are animals, and animals need to eat to survive. If you starve a beaver and then offer it Doritos, it will eat them. But potato chips are not a typical food for a beaver. A beaver does not seek and find potato chips in its natural habitat; in fact, we would find it odd and “unnatural” for a beaver to seek out, eat, or crave potato chips. We know what a beaver is, and a potato-chip-eater is not what comes to mind. So in this case, it is the specific nature of the beaver that makes the eating of potato chips unnatural. Eating potato chips is both natural and unnatural for a beaver, depending on how you look at it.

Now, humans are defined as rational animals. Our rational nature is what sets us apart from other animals, and we engage in particular activities in virtue of our rationality. When we use our reason to deliberate and make decisions, when we use our free-will to act on our choices, this is natural for us. Recall what we said about how it is natural for human beings to wear clothing. St. Thomas makes this helpful distinction in the Summa (while discussing marriage, no less!):

A thing is said to be natural in two ways. First, as resulting of necessity from the principles of nature; thus upward movement is natural to fire. In this way matrimony is not natural, nor are any of those things that come to pass at the intervention or motion of the free-will. Secondly, that is said to be natural to which nature inclines although it comes to pass through the intervention of the free-will; thus acts of virtue and the virtues themselves are called natural; and in this way matrimony is natural, because natural reason inclines thereto in two ways.[1]

What St. Thomas explains here is that interventions on the part of our free will are unnatural in one sense, and natural in another. Using matrimony as an example, he explains that some things that humans do are not natural in the sense that they “just happen” according to the world of nature, e.g., the way that fire tending upwards “just happens.” However, some things that arise from intervention or force can be natural insofar as the impulse for them comes from our nature.  So, we don’t just somehow “become married” by natural forces; We choose to marry. However, we do so because we naturally seek union with someone of the opposite sex in order to help rear, educate, love our children. It is reasonable. Likewise, human beings wear clothing not only because it protects us from the elements, but also to adorn ourselves and to safeguard modesty. To wear clothing therefore follows from our nature, as it is a reasonable thing to do.

In our next and last post, we are going to wrap up our discussion on nature by using what we have learned to tackle a moral dilemma. Remember our friend from Part One, who argued that contraception is no different than any other “natural” process? Well, next we are going to show how this position falls into the very trap that we have been discussing today, and then we are going to formulate our response. Stay tuned!

[1] ST Suppl., Q. 41, Art. 1

About the Author: Bridget Groff is an M.A./Ph.D. student in the School of Philosophy at the Catholic University of America. She currently works part-time at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops as an intern for the Subcommittee for the Promotion and Defense of Marriage.

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Nature Part Two

Posted Oct. 16, 2019 by DOM No comments yet

Intro to Nature: Part Two

Today we are going to talk more about the 2nd way of conceptualizing nature as mentioned in the first post and see how it is related to the 1st way. [1]

Last time, we began by talking about Fr. William Wallace’s two-fold conception of nature: (1) What is free from human intervention and contamination and (2) activities or behaviors that originate from within an agent. Then, we took a closer look at the first conception and clarified the distinction between what is natural and what is artificial. Now, we are going to go into Fr. Wallace’s second conception.

In our first post, we talked about how Fr. Wallace’s first sense of the natural is to be contrasted with the artificial. In this post, we will see that his second sense of nature also gives way to an important contrast: natural activities are to be contrasted with activities that result from force and coercion. In order to make this contrast more apparent, let’s start by talking about activities and their agents. An activity is something done by an agent, and an agent is who or what does an activity. Let’s give a few examples of some activities and their agents: Human beings play sports, eat, watch television. Birds fly; dogs bark; beavers build dams. Notice that all of these agents are things that we identified as “natural” according to our first conception of nature. That is, none of these agents are artificial. It is, in fact, impossible for artificial things to be agents of activity. We see this clearly if we contrast the activities of a natural thing with those “activities” of an artificial thing, such as a kitchen appliance.

A natural thing, like an animal, has a body that self-maintains; it eats, it moves around, it builds itself a shelter, etc., and all of these activities it does “spontaneously” [2] and from within. The animal doesn’t need to be told or convinced to do these things; it just does. This is because the animal has its own “source” of motion or activity—itself; its nature. This is, in fact, the definition of nature laid down by Aristotle in his Physics, “a natural principle of motion or rest in the thing to which it belongs primarily and in virtue of that thing, but not accidentally.”[3] Aristotle is saying that natural things, those things which come into being and function on their own, have an internal principle—something they possess— which accounts for this coming into being and functioning. For example, the beaver has a “beaver nature,” which accounts for what it is and what it does. In virtue of this nature, it builds dams. Building dams is one way that a beaver lives out its nature. Now, we can see that a nature, a “source” of activity, is much more than just what prompts an activity or sets an activity in motion. A thing’s nature is also that for the sake of which it performs all of its activities. In other words, a nature “dictates” the kinds of activities that promote and maintain the flourishing of the thing and its nature. Everything that a beaver does is done in virtue of its beaver nature and for its beaver nature; e.g., beaver nature dictates that the beaver build dams, and the building of dams in turn allows the beaver to flourish in accord with its very nature. This is what prompts our intuition that natural things, like animals, “do what comes naturally.” We know and anticipate that things will act according to the kind of thing that they are. For example, if a beaver grabbed a bag of chips in its paws and sat down next to us on the couch to watch Friends, we would be surprised.

Now that we understand the way in which natural things are agents of their activities, we are in a place to see how artificial things can never be agents of activity. A kitchen appliance, like a toaster, is an artificial thing. Human beings designed and fashioned it for the purpose of toasting—we decided what its function would be.  We decided how it would work as well. Because everything that the toaster does is pre-determined by the way we designed and built it, nothing that the toaster does can be said to originate from “within” the toaster itself in the way that actions arise from “within” natural agents. As we discussed above, for an action to arise “from within” an agent means both that the action is a result of the agent’s nature and that the action is done for the sake of the agent’s nature. The toaster, however, does not have its own source of activity, its own nature by which and for the sake of which it performs its functions. On the contrary: everything the toaster “does” is for the sake of the person using it. Toasters are actually for the sake of human nature. For this reason, nothing that a toaster does arises from “within.”

This is why activities that artificial things appear to do on their own are actually things that we have done to it. For example, we don’t physically heat up the coils of the toaster or make the toast pop up ourselves. It appears that these actions really do originate from “within” the toaster. However, the fact that we don’t do these things immediately or directly doesn’t mean that they therefore originate “from within” the toaster, that the toaster itself “does them.” Even though we do not heat the toaster ourselves, we nonetheless put in place the mechanisms that make it do so. In this way, everything that the toaster “does” is really just a by-product, so to speak, of the way we have designed the toaster to function for our ends, our sake, our nature.

Now that we have Aristotle’s account of nature, it is easy to explain why Fr. Wallace contrasts natural activities with those that arise from force or coercion. Sometimes, force or coercion is called “violence.” These terms—force, coercion, violence—have a negative connotation in our language, often meaning something that is intentionally mean or malicious. In this specific context, however, these terms don’t have any such implications. To act from force or coercion means that a thing is acted upon externally so that it does something opposed to its natural inclination. For example, rocks by their nature tend downward. If I pick up a rock and throw it in the air, I have just done violence to the rock. This motion is, therefore, unnatural for the rock. When Fr. Wallace says that natural behaviors are those which arise from within an agent and thus arise without force or coercion, he is emphasizing the fact that certain activities follow necessarily from the natures of things, and any activity done to a thing which is contrary to its nature is unnatural.

We now understand both senses of nature that Fr. Wallace distinguishes and how they are related. Sometimes, we talk about natural things, and sometimes we talk about natural activities or behaviors. However, these two senses of the natural are interdependent. Natural things possess natures that account for what they are and what they do; natural activities are rooted in and depend upon the natures of their agents. Thus it is only by combining natural things and their distinctive activities that we have a full picture of the natural world:

“Combining the two senses, we may characterize the world of nature as what is capable of coming into existence apart from human influence and as made up of things that have within themselves natures or internal sources of their distinctive activities. Nature is thus populated by plants and animals of various kinds, by chemical elements and compounds, by hosts of elementary particles. by galaxies, stars, and planets…” [4]

We now have also a better sense of the way we use the words “natural” and “unnatural.” Sometimes, we say “that’s unnatural” unqualifiedly when referring to an object, the thought being “this thing does not belong to the world of nature.” For example, we say that a plastic water bottle is unqualifiedly unnatural because it only exists because of human technology; it’s not a product of nature but of man. Sometimes, we say “that’s unnatural” when referring to the behavior of a specific, natural thing if we know that it has been done out of force or coercion. For instance, someone might see a dog dressed up for Halloween and say, “that’s unnatural.” What they are really saying is “it is unnatural for a dog to get dressed in a Halloween costume.” It is important not to conflate these two senses of the word “natural.” That is, it is important to consider that some things are not unnatural unqualifiedly but may be unnatural for a certain thing and in a certain respect. In our next post, we are going to talk more about the difficulties that arise if these two senses fail to be distinguished. Stay tuned!

[1] See our previous post, Nature Part One.

[2] William A. Wallace, The Modeling of Nature: Philosophy of Science and Philosophy of Nature in Synthesis (Catholic University of America Press: 1996), 4

[3] Aristotle, Physics 2.1, 192b20–23.

[4] Wallace, 4.

About the Author: Bridget Groff is an M.A./Ph.D. student in the School of Philosophy at the Catholic University of America. She currently works part-time at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops as an intern for the Subcommittee for the Promotion and Defense of Marriage.

 

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Nature Part One

Posted Sep. 30, 2019 by DOM No comments yet

 

Intro to Nature: Part One

In his book, The Modeling of Nature, Fr. William Wallace, O.P. states the problem that we agreed to tackle in our last post: “though it is easy to form a general idea of nature and the natural, it is difficult to define nature precisely and to differentiate things and processes that are natural from those that are not.”[1] In this post and the posts to come, with the help of Fr. Wallace and others, we are going to nail down what the word “natural” means.

Fr. Wallace distinguishes two ways to conceptualize nature: (1) What is free from human intervention and contamination. So, natural versus artificial. Contrast, for instance, Lake Michigan and the man-made ponds in city parks. In this sense, natural things exist on their own, indifferent to mankind’s needs or desires. We did not “have a say” about whether Lake Michigan exists, but we did create various ponds for our own enjoyment. (2) Activities or behaviors that originate from within an agent without force or coercion.[2] For example, no one must remind beavers to build dams or ask bees to make honey. They just do. This sense of nature is what we mean when we say that things “do what comes naturally.”

Now, let’s take a closer look at the first sense of nature that Fr. Wallace distinguishes: that which is free from human influence (or: that which is opposed to the artificial). Think of all the things that we consider natural: plants, animals, bodies of water, rocks and rock formations, the planets, chemicals and compounds. We could even include natural phenomena like storms, natural disasters, or the water cycle. Now, what makes all of these things natural as opposed to artificial? The distinction that Fr. Wallace makes is that natural things exist or come into being on their own. Why does this make something natural? Well, if something comes to exist on its own, it means that it does so regardless of mankind’s needs, wishes, or desires. Recall our contrast between Lake Michigan and our man-made ponds. While we may use and enjoy Lake Michigan—use it for swimming, fishing, sailing, etc.—we did not create it for this express purpose. The man-made lakes, however, were designed by someone and deliberately placed in the park for us to use and enjoy.

Someone might object that the man-made ponds are still made out of natural things like rocks, water, and plants, and they might be populated by animals like fish or ducks. So, why can’t we consider them natural, like Lake Michigan? While it is true that the man-made ponds are made out of “natural stuff,” this still doesn’t change the fact that these natural things were arranged, configured, put there by someone else.

In fact, there are many examples of artificial things that are made from natural parts. For example, wooden furniture is “natural” insofar as it is carved from naturally-occurring wood. Cotton clothing is natural insofar as it is made from the cotton plant, and granite counter tops are natural insofar as they’re cut from slabs of naturally-occurring granite. Notice that all of these things are harvested, altered, and designed specifically for human purposes. That fact is what makes them artificial rather than natural. Imagine how out of place a wooden kitchen chair would look amidst a forest of redwood trees!

Now that we have this first sense of the natural squared-away… stay tuned for part two! In part two, we will discuss the second sense of nature that Fr. Wallace distinguishes and how it is both related to and different from the first.

[1] William A. Wallace, The Modeling of Nature: Philosophy of Science and Philosophy of Nature in Synthesis (Catholic University of America Press: 1996), 3.

[2] Ibid.

About the Author: Bridget Groff is an M.A./Ph.D. student in the School of Philosophy at the Catholic University of America. She currently works part-time at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops as an intern for the Subcommittee for the Promotion and Defense of Marriage.

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New Blog Series: The Nature of Marriage

Posted Aug. 30, 2019 by DOM No comments yet

Introduction: What is Nature?

A few years ago, I was discussing the Church’s position on contraception with a friend of mine. He said, “Well, getting sick is natural, and we take medicine to stop the process of becoming ill. Why is taking birth control to stop the process of becoming pregnant any different?” I must admit, I was a little stumped. I knew that the two cases—becoming ill and becoming pregnant—were different, but I couldn’t quite parse out how. I had an intuition that it had something to do with the way my friend was using the word “natural.”  Surely, I thought, getting sick and getting pregnant are two different kinds of natural processes. But how?

We all have a general—perhaps a vague—idea of what “natural” means. Such is obvious by the fact that we assume the existence of nature in our everyday language. When two dogs struggle against their leashes to sniff and inspect one another, we say, “Well, they’re just doing what comes naturally!” We say things like, “I hadn’t eaten breakfast or lunch, so naturally, I was starving come dinnertime.” Not only do we talk about the natural, but we also have an intuition that what is natural is good. For instance, many of us favor natural remedies as opposed to prescriptions. Many of us gravitate toward brands that include the word “natural” in the name, brands that promise products free of chemicals and food free of additives and preservatives.

As Catholics, we have an especially rich understanding of the natural as good. We take human nature to be the grounding for certain truths about the human person: that mankind was created male and female, that the human being is ordered toward procreation and family life, that the human being is by nature a social creature. All these things we regard as good insofar as they are integral aspects of human nature, and to live out these aspects of human nature is what enables the human being to flourish. When we recognize a common human nature and recognize this nature as good, we therefore know also that it is good for everyone to flourish. In other words, we recognize that to flourish is a right, so to speak, of each and every person. To recognize this fact gives way to the concept of human dignity, which means to respect and, indeed, to help our fellow human beings flourish and live-out their human nature. We cannot, therefore, truly know what it means to say that human beings have worth and dignity, what is good for mankind, without a concrete notion of human nature.

In 1993, St. Pope John Paul II published his encyclical Veritatis Splendor in view of widespread confusion and disagreement in the areas of ethics and moral theology. The mission of the encyclical was to recall and restate the fundamental truths of Catholic doctrine as it pertains to the Church’s moral teaching. The overarching theme of Veritatis Splendor is to affirm the natural and eternal law, to affirm and defend a real and immutable human nature, and to affirm the fact that “the power to decide good and evil does not belong to man, but to God alone.” (VS, no. 32)  In other words, St. John Paul II teaches us in Veritatis Splendor that to know human nature and to know it as good and created by God are essential to understanding the Church’s moral teaching.

Taking for its inspiration St. John Paul II’s Veritatis Splendor, this blog series will answer questions about the Church’s teaching in the areas of human sexuality, marriage, and the family— with an eye toward human nature and natural law. For example: What does it mean to say that marriage is a natural institution? In what sense is marriage natural? Why are unity and procreation marriage’s natural ends?

In the blog entries to come, I hope to provide some clarity and insight into the nature behind Church teaching and to answer some of these tricky questions that sometimes leave us stumped. These are questions that Catholics and non-Catholics alike struggle with and, if left unanswered, can be a source of confusion, frustration, and anxiety. It is more important than ever to understand and promote the true nature of the human person and the true nature of marriage. It is more important now than ever to remember that nothing in God’s creation is arbitrary, that (in the words of Aristotle) “nature does nothing in vain”—to remember that not only is marriage unique, it is unique for a reason.

About the Author: Bridget Groff is an M.A./Ph.D. student in the School of Philosophy at the Catholic University of America. She currently works part-time at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops as an intern for the Subcommittee for the Promotion and Defense of Marriage.