The Call of the Natural, Part 2 (An Inconsistency)

I’ve suggested that we use the word “Natural” to mean more than one thing.  Sometimes we mean it in what I’ve called the normative sense, to describe something that conforms to Nature, other times we mean it in what I’ve called the native sense, to describe what happens when nobody interferes.  The two senses often conflict–I provided examples like gardens, fitness, and education–but when they do we have a surprisingly regular response.

In general if there is a conflict between what is normatively “Natural” and what is natively “Natural,” we act according to the following four claims:

  1. What is normatively “Natural” is superior to what is natively “Natural.”
  2. What is normatively “Natural” is superior even to Nature.
  3. If we are able to pursue what is normatively “Natural,” it is wrong not to pursue it.
  4. Even if we are unable to pursue what is normatively “Natural,” it is wrong to pursue what is natively “Natural” if doing so comes at the expense of the normatively “Natural.”

We respond this way so consistently that we have no practical method for questioning these claims.  They function almost like our senses or our memory, things so common and reliable that we don’t think about how often we employ them.

I’ll discuss later what metaphysical assumptions are needed to make sense of this behavior, but first I want to look at one particular topic with regard to which our response is entirely different: human sexuality.  (For the sake of clear distinctions, I’m going to limit the discussion to one aspect of sexuality–orientation–but the critique applies just as fairly to almost every aspect of the modern approach to sex, and I am not singling out any group for special criticism.)

In terms of human sexuality, heterosexuality is the normatively “Natural” approach.  Male and Female exist and go together.  The anatomical expression of Male and Female form an obvious pair.  The union of Male and Female performs an indisputable biological function, with a sociological corollary that’s  only slightly less certain.  Male and Female go together so obviously that we even refer to inanimate objects like wiring by those terms.

As a society we might want to dismiss this as prejudice, but it’s difficult to conceive of a way for homosexuality to be included in the normatively “Natural” without changing the subject.  That is to say, attempts to express it as part of the normatively “Natural” have to step away from anatomy, biology, and sociology, which are clearly unhelpful to the endeavor, into an arena such as love, freedom, or self-expression.  We can’t include any of the various alternative sexualities in the normatively “Natural” without artificially excluding the most obvious criteria for determining what is normatively “Natural,” but we have no reason for excluding those criteria except that we happen not to like what they suggest.

It’s far more common to argue that homosexuality is natively “Natural,” that people are “born this way” or have certain preferences as an innate part of their identity.  People who reveal alternative sexualities frequently suggest that these are a part of their unaffected selves, who they are when they’re not hiding or trying to be something fake.  If they don’t interfere in their sexual identity by trying to be something they’re not, they will be homosexual.  This is “Natural” in the second sense.  While the claim that heterosexuality is normatively “Natural” might be contentious, I suspect few would argue that alternative sexualities aren’t in some sense natively “Natural.”  In fact the suggestion that alternative lifestyles are natively “Natural” has featured prominently in defense of those lifestyles for some time.

What’s interesting is that our societal approach to this natively “Natural” phenomenon is entirely the reverse of the usual described above.  We demand that what is natively “Natural” be equal to what is normatively “Natural.”  We use claims about causes within Nature as sufficient evidence that homosexuality ought to be accepted as normatively “Natural.”  We object to the notion that those with homosexual inclinations might yet be held to a heterosexual standard, nor will we describe homosexuality as an illness, injury, or disability: the usual situations that might excuse someone from normatively “Natural” behavior.  Most importantly, granting that homosexual orientation acts as an obstacle to pursuing heterosexual relationships, we think it right for those thus obstructed to pursue the natively “Natural” instead.

To explain the contrast by parallel, we wouldn’t argue that being out of shape should be seen in all respects as being as equally good and acceptable as being in shape.  Evidence that genetics influence fitness hasn’t caused us to change fitness standards.  If someone is inclined (temperamentally, genetically, or however) towards being out of shape, we don’t think it rude to encourage them to be fit regardless, and we’re more than willing to discuss their inclinations either as handicaps or moral failures.  Finally, we don’t tell those who are disinclined to pursue fitness that they ought instead indulge in the sort of unfitness toward which they are inclined.

It isn’t my point here to attack homosexual behavior (or any of the other modern sexual practices).  My point is merely to suggest that about the topic of sexuality our response to the “Natural” is at odds with our response in every other situation.  We are being inconsistent; those claims which we unwavering apply in every other instance are abandoned in favor of claims almost entirely opposite when we discuss sexuality, yet we have no clear justification for the switch.

We don’t question the claims themselves, not only because they are overwhelmingly reliable in our experience but because applying the nearly opposite claims in other arenas would result in absurdity (e.g. freezing to death in winter, never teaching our children to speak, adding cholesterol to vegetables instead of seasoning).  Nor do we question the identification of certain things as natively “Natural;” that they are natively “Natural” is one of the most popular things to say about them.  We might question the identification of other things as normatively “Natural,” but the move can only be described as counter-intuitive, almost forced, and largely unsupportable.

It’s entirely possible that our resistance to defining what is normatively “Natural” with respect to sexuality is at least partially inspired by an attempt (perhaps unconscious) to avoid the implications our normal response would generate.  That is to say, if we stop resisting what seems to be obvious, we would then impugn behaviors we don’t want to abandon.  To continue the above parallel, I might argue against certain aspects of fitness as being normatively “Natural” because if I accept them, through the process we consistently apply, I would have to recognize that my stubbornly sedentary lifestyle is a fault.  Not wanting to be at fault, but not wanting to behave differently, I cast doubt on the judgment of what is normatively “Natural.”


The Call of the Natural, Part 1 (A Distinction)

We generally mean the word “Natural” in one of two ways.  We might mean that something is “Natural” because it conforms to Nature.  (Let’s call this first sense the “normative” sense.)  We might mean that something is “Natural” because it occurs if nothing interferes.  (Let’s call this second sense the “native” sense.) It’s important that we not confuse the two though.  Sometimes the two sorts of “Natural” overlap, but other times they’re practically opposites.

For example, my daughter likes to play.  This is “Natural” in both senses.  If we look around the world we discover that a lot of young animals play, that it seems to be how young animals develop the skills they need as mature animals.  It makes sense that young humans would play too.  Anyone who remembers being a child though, or who has been around children, knows that it isn’t something that requires coercion.  I don’t have to goad my daughter into playing.  She will play unless I actively try to stop her.  (And frequently she will play in spite of my actively trying to stop her.)  Playing both conforms to Nature and occurs if nothing interferes; it’s both kinds of “Natural.”

What about physical fitness?  I think it’s clearly “Natural” in the normative sense.  When we’re physically fit our bodies seem to operate better; they do all the things they need to do better than they would otherwise.  Even more, looking at other animals again, we discover that most animals are pretty fit.  Actually, this almost seems too obvious to argue; would anyone argue that physical fitness doesn’t conform to nature?  Oddly though, it’s thoroughly not “Natural” in the native sense.  If we don’t interfere in the trend our bodies follow on their own, we simply won’t be physically fit.  In fact the two senses of “Natural” are opposed:  we can either be “Natural” in one sense or the other, not both.

Gardens are another good example.  They’re clearly “Natural” in the normative sense.  Soil, seeds, water and sunlight–all pieces of nature–combine to produce plants according to the same process we see all around us.  Sometimes we muck about with the pattern by replacing one of the natural things, like with hydroponics and “grow lights;” sometimes we throw in things that are not pieces of nature, like genetic modifications and chemicals.  Mostly though gardens are “Natural,” albeit only in the that normative sense.  They don’t occur naturally.  If I don’t interfere in my yard, I simply can’t expect tomatoes, cucumbers, carrots, and broccoli.  Like physical fitness above, gardens aren’t natively “Natural,” natural in the second sense.  Also again the two senses are opposed.  If I don’t interfere, I won’t have a garden.  If I want a garden, I have to interfere.

There are a couple of interesting things to notice.  Most obviously, if you think about the various “Natural” things of your experience, you’ll probably discover that in almost every case it’s better to be “Natural” in the normative sense than in the native sense.  It’s better to be in shape than out of shape, better to have vegetables than weeds.  I could provide other examples:

  • We wash things even though dirt is natively “Natural,” because cleanliness is normatively “Natural.”
  • We educate our children even though ignorance is natively “Natural,” because skills and knowledge are normatively “Natural.”
  • We perfect corrective lenses even though practical blindness is natively “Natural,” because seeing is normatively “Natural.”
  • We put on winter coats even though frostbite is natively “Natural,” because survival is normatively “Natural.”

In almost every case, we recognize the inferiority of that which is merely naturally occurring.  Our loyalties seem to lie with “Natural” in the normative sense.

The second thing to Notice is that often Nature itself produces what is simultaneously natively  “Natural” and opposed to what is normatively “Natural.”  Nature grows the weeds in my garden; Nature causes my muscles to weaken if I don’t use them; Nature spreads dirt and disease; Nature kills me if I go out naked in Winter.  That is to say, Nature often produces that which we might call “Unnatural,” and being natively “Natural” does not in any way prevent us from disliking something that is normatively “Unnatural.”  Again, our loyalties seem to lie with “Natural” in the normative sense, even when that means we are more loyal to what is “Natural” than we are to Nature.

A third thing to notice is that, especially with regards to human beings, when a conflict arises between the normative and native senses, we don’t just prefer the normative, we think human beings ought to prefer it and ought to pursue it when possible.  We tend to understand that the only reason to settle for something natively “Natural” at the expense of something normatively “Natural” is the presence of an obstacle: an external limit, an illness, an injury, or a disability.  If there is no obstacle, settling for something natively “Natural” is a character flaw.

To make what I mean clear, consider the example of physical fitness.  An astronaut in space for an extended period might not be able to pursue physical fitness; someone with pneumonia probably shouldn’t pursue it; someone in the hospital after an automobile accident probably can’t; Stephen Hawking certainly can’t.  Someone who faces no such obstacle but prefers being out of shape to being in shape, we would probably call that person lazy.

This seems to hold in most cases.  There are lots of reasons why a person may not grow vegetables, but if that person lives on a farm, has the ability and resources either to work it or have it worked, and doesn’t grow anything, that person is irresponsible.  There are lots of reasons why things might get dirty, but someone who can clean themselves and clean up after themselves but does neither, that person is a slob.  There are lots of reasons why children might not have the opportunity to learn, but a parent who can easily send his children to good schools but doesn’t, that parent is neglectful.

“Natural” in the normative sense has a kind of moral force.  We generally understand that human beings acting rightfully will pursue it.  We make allowances for those who have difficulty pursuing it, we generally don’t condemn people for difficulties they can’t overcome, but we recognize that not pursuing it is somehow wrong.

There’s one last thing to notice: obstacles which prevent a person from achieving what is normatively  “Natural” don’t justify that person pursuing what is natively “Natural.”.  The goal doesn’t change, even if it’s unattainable.  It doesn’t become rightful for sick people to try to be as out of shape as possible just because they can’t try to be in shape.  It doesn’t become rightful for people to let their yards become overgrown wilderness because they don’t know how to garden.  It doesn’t become rightful to refuse to educate children just because those children are born with severe learning difficulties.  What is normatively “Natural” may be out of reach, but we still admit that it’s what we wish we could reach, and what we should try to reach as best we can.

Was Christianity Wrong About Slavery?

Wouldn’t it be nice to outlaw Winter?

Personally, I prefer Winter to Summer, but I know that a lot of people prefer otherwise, and even more are tired of Winter after the Winter we’ve been having.  Unfortunately, outlawing Winter makes little sense.  It’s a feature of the world; we can’t change it.

This is roughly the challenge faced by Christianity with regards to slavery in the ancient world.  It made no sense to talk about abolition; slavery was a feature of the world, perhaps an inevitable feature of it.  They could no more intelligibly talk about outlawing it than we can intelligibly talk about outlawing Winter, or gravity, or breathing.  (They could have talked about it, but they would simply have seemed like madmen.  Would you listen to someone on the street loudly protesting against gravity?)

But they could subvert it.  They could change the assumptions involved.  They could change the relationships involved.  This they did.  In the Bible already we have talk of slaves having human value, of being equals and brothers.  The basic Christian beliefs, applied to slavery, undermine it.  People complain that the Bible doesn’t more clearly say that slavery should be outlawed, but at the time that would have been gibberish.

They said what they could though, and an interesting thing happened.  Because Christians had changed the discussion, because they had subverted slavery by changing the assumptions involved, slavery increasingly became something it made sense to challenge.  It stopped seeming like an inevitable feature of any society, and became something that society could and should abandon.

Within a few hundred years, slavery went from a fact of life to a moral evil.  Christians were the ones who effected that change, and then they opposed that moral evil until slavery in the Christian world was nearly eradicated.  It was a long and hard process, and not a perfect one, but from the beginning Christianity was on one side of the process, and the world was on the other.  Christianity wasn’t wrong about slavery, the Church wasn’t wrong about slavery, the world just dragged its feet.

Then another interesting thing happened, although this time it’s “interesting” in a tragic way.  As the world limped toward the modern period and an increasing number of people abandoned even a token affiliation with Christianity, slavery returned.  It had continued in non-Christian parts of the world the whole time, and without having Christian commitments to stop it, some folk even in the Christian world began to embrace it again.

They decided to reverse the process; they changed the assumptions in the discussion again.  It became a matter of economics, or practicality, of expedience.  Certain people were declared to be less valuable, less important, less worthy of respect.  Eventually, entire races of humanity were declared to be less than human.

Now among these folks and in the culture that followed, there were certainly many people who used the Bible as a defense.  When one wants to do something one knows is wrong, one tries to justify oneself.  If one’s primary authority is religious, one tries to justify oneself religiously.  Christians twisted scripture to defend the worldly evil in which they wanted to engage.  That happened, and it was rampant.  Slavery spread, and large numbers Christians participated, frequently with enthusiasm.

They participated though not because they were Christian, but because they were worldly.  Their beliefs only supported them to the extent that it they had been twisted and perverted from the Christianity that had been handed down to them.  That is to say, their religion supported slavery only to the extent that it stopped being faithful Christianity.

Of course, thankfully that isn’t the end of the story.  A group arose to challenge slavery again, to oppose it again as an evil worthy of eradication.  That group shouldn’t surprise anyone:  Christians.  Those Christians who were faithful to the Bible and the Church again recognized slavery as a moral evil, and again opposed it.  It was a long and hard process, and again not a perfect one, but it was again Christianity against the world.

So was the Church wrong about slavery?  Was Christianity wrong about slavery?  No.  Christians were wrong yes, but only because for a while in history they were very worldly about the subject.  Christianity and the Church opposed those Christians too, precisely because they were worldly.  The world was wrong about slavery, and when Christians became complicit, they were wrong too.

What does all this mean?  Well, it’s pretty common nowadays to hear people argue something like this:  “Christianity was wrong about slavery, and only slowly recognized that slavery was wrong, so maybe Christianity is wrong about [whatever] too.”  This shows a complete misunderstanding of history though.

Usually it shows an ignorance of history; the people who say it don’t look further back than a few hundred years.  They see Christians a few hundred years ago using the Bible to defend slavery and they assume that Christianity was in favor of slavery for the entirety of its history up through a few hundred years ago.  Then they assume that opposition to slavery was something that developed recently in history as new progressive understandings influenced stale archaic doctrine.

They only see the end of the story, and so completely misunderstand it.  Opposition to slavery in recent centuries was actually the triumph of ancient doctrine over the “new progressive understandings” which Christians had fallen into.

In fact, the Christians who were wrong about slavery were the one’s who submitted to the world and learned from it, not the ones who refused to learn such wisdom as the world offered.  They were wrong because they twisted the Bible to justify what the world wanted, rather than resisting the world when the world wanted evil.

So if you want to learn from history, if you want to look at the Christian relationship to slavery and use that as guidance in how to interact with the many social issues of the world today, here is the lesson:  the world will want evil, and it will be very persuasive in justifying it, so that even Christians will be tempted to it.  They will be tempted to twist and contort their beliefs to justify what Christianity has always opposed.

This isn’t development or growth though, it’s error.

Why Ask Why

If you’re not going to investigate why things are as they are–and I don’t mean to criticize those who don’t if they’re doing other better things–you have a responsibility (at least for your own sake) to vet carefully whichever authority you let ask that question for you.  For sure, by not asking it yourself, you do not make it go away.  Somebody asks it, and somebody answers it, and the answer they give will affect you.  The Why questions are the most important ones.

Here’s a obvious example.  Lets say that you’ve been raised always to tell the truth and also to be charitable in pursuit of other people’s happiness.  You may not ask why you should do those things, but other people have, and their answers influenced how the two values were instilled.  Then you come to a moment when the two conflict: a truthful answer will hurt someone’s feelings.  You may not reason it through at the time, but which value you choose to follow is determined by the answers you’ve been given to these questions:  Why should you tell the truth?  Why should you try to make other people happy?

If you think you should tell the truth because lying is inconvenient (for you who must remember it) and rude (to whomever you deceive), you might be inclined to do it if something more inconvenient or ruder comes along.  If you think you should tell the truth because it’s impossible to predict outcomes with enough certainty to judge whether a lie is worthwhile, you might stubbornly refuse to lie even if you encounter a serious challenge.  If you believe that you should tell the truth because the truth is somehow holy and lying offends God, you may not recognize the situation as a challenge at all.

The Why questions you may never have considered have a staggering effect on how you choose to live your everyday life.   Do you cheat on your taxes?  Do you have an affair?  Do you move in with your boyfriend/girlfriend?  Do you gossip about your neighbor?  Do you avoid the homeless man on the street?  Do you tweet about the Kardashians?  (My 15 year old word processor insists that should be Carpathians.  Does anyone tweet about the Carpathians?)  All of these things are significantly (maybe predominantly) influenced by your basic understanding of why the world is how it is and why humans do what they do.

To put things simply, people who believe that the world was created by God, that humans were created by God, behave differently than those who believe that both the world and humanity are simply the results of an arbitrary, irrational, accidental system.

The results can sometimes be uncomfortable, especially in matters of ethics.

The naturalist answer is that these things are culturally developed, the natural combination of circumstance and psychology, and as such they have no de jure authority.  They’re a sort of cultural prejudice with de facto authority by virtue of the members of the culture outnumbering any individual dissenter.  If our current culture has developed (by the same method) values which differ from those of precious cultures, importing the values of the former culture into the current would be a sort of cultural imperialism, the past conquering the present, which it clearly has no right to do.

This can feel liberating when we’re told that we can reject “archaic” restrictions on enjoyable or personal things.  But no one wants to argue that certain cultures, which approve the murder of non-members, have as much authority as our own culture which discourages murder.  If our ethics are cultural products though, they only apply to participants of the authorizing culture.  The answers given to the Why questions about ethics don’t seem to let us do what we would want to do, which is to object to obviously objectionable things like genocide.

The best available response to this difficulty is that some ethics are evolutionarily advantageous.  Thus, since evolution applies equally we have a standard that supersedes culture.  Unfortunately, valuing what is evolutionarily advantageous is itself a cultural value, and again not one we generally want to apply.  (It’s cliché to talk about Nazis, but it’s also obvious that they were pursuing what was deemed to be evolutionarily advantageous.  We all rightly find this horrible, but there is simply no naturalistic reason why we should assume that our horror shouldn’t be ignored.)

(Also this evolutionary assumption is factually inaccurate.  The bulk of the values we have, ones which we don’t want to abolish, were not only developed in opposition to cultural assumptions, but in opposition to what occurred naturally for human beings.  Any study of history can show this.  Things like charity and human rights were taught to humanity, which has always eagerly pursued the opposites.)

So, while I suspect most of us are not going to spontaneously start a new genocide, we are nevertheless, more each day, accepting answers to the Why questions which would support us if we tried.  Mostly we accept those answers because they remove from us to responsibility of being anything other than what we most easily want.  Unfortunately, we pave the way for those who easily want horrible things.  (And I would say we make it easier to want horrible things ourselves.)