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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 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.