Tuesday, January 15, 2013

The Good, the Bad, and the Homosexual: PART ONE (Introduction to Metaphysics)

You see, approaching this has been a bit difficult. On one hand, I don't want to make it too technical and full of jargon, otherwise it won't appeal to a large portion of readers. On the other hand (I used to tutor non-English-speaking Asian students in English, and "on the other hand" was one of the hardest idioms to explain to them for some reason; they thought it just meant the next thing on the list, not an alternative), if I make it simple, people will jump all over it because there looks like gaps in the argument that would have been addressed had I teased everything out. This, I think, is a problem with philosophy in general. But I'll do my best to include things I think absolutely necessary while avoiding things that I think will just confuse or belabor the point I'm trying to make. Let me know if I fail miserably.

The most important thing one has to realize when approaching traditional sexual morality is that it starts from a completely different place. In a lot of ways I think the modern world believes itself neutral, that when a man, as an "individual," approaches a philosophical question, he is free from philosophical systems imposed on him from a top-down structure. He's not, of course (this individualism thing is its own system), but that's how people think. The point is, everyone starts with a metaphysics, even if he doesn't think so. Traditional sexual morality (of the Catholic sort) starts with a metaphysics completely different than modern metaphysics. But it's not arbitrarily chosen. It's considered, by many (even some who don't realize it), to be the most compelling sort of metaphysics for explaining anything in the world. In other words, the claim by people who prescribe to this metaphysics is not that it is simply preferable but that it is necessary to understand anything: science, morality, our entire view of reality. So it's to this underlying issue that we shall turn.

Realism, Essence, and Essentialism

Traditional sexual morality is concerned, above all else, with what a thing is. If one can determine what a thing is, he will be able to determine what should be done with that thing. In other words, traditional sexual morality is concerned with what is called essence. It is difficult to define what essence is, at least briefly, without examples. What makes a triangle what it is? Its having three, straight sides, with angles that equal 180 degrees. This is what "triangularity" is, even if there were no perfect triangles that existed in the world. Triangularity is merely the properties shared by all things that can properly be called triangles. Similarly, what makes a human what it is? There are a number of characteristics that make a human what it is, but those characteristics are what would be called "humanity," and humanity (not in the sense of being humane to animals or something, but in the sense of having characteristics specific to humans: being alive, needing food, being rational, etc.) is something that exists metaphysically (if not actually) in anything that can be called human.

This concern with essence applies to everything in the world, whether man-made (an artifact) or occurring in the world without the help of man. A dog, a lion, a computer, all have essences that make them what they are. The reason this sort of metaphysics underlies the study of everything should be somewhat obvious. A mathematician cannot make mathematical claims without first starting with what a triangle is (or what "six" or "numbers" are if he's not interested in geometry), and a scientist cannot make arguments about plants or soil or evolution without first starting with what a plant is, what soil is, or what a species is. All of scientific inquiry is based on these sorts of metaphysical principles, even if the principles are explicitly denied by scientists all the time. "The fire started because gasoline is a combustible substance, and wood is flammable" is appealing the essence of gasoline and wood, even if not intentionally. Even beginning science without this sort of concept is impossible. (A lot can be said about realism and essentialism that will not be said here. Entire books. Check out this book, particularly pages 41-49 to some answers to common objections.) All that should be taken from this is that traditional, Catholic sexual morality is based on the principle that things have real essences, that the world cannot be understood in any way without first understanding what those essences are.

The Four Causes

And to understand what a thing really is, the four causes, developed by Aristotle, will help. It is important that "cause" not be read how you want to read it. Do not think of it in the "what caused the house to explode? A bomb" sort of way. Think of it more as the characteristics (though this word is pretty tricky) a thing has that make it what it is or do what it does. These are all tied to a "what caused the house to explode" sort of question, but they necessarily precede it. You may have already heard of the four causes, but it's important that they be explained in some detail here, especially focusing attention on the "final cause." Again, I don't want to spend too much time here, but bear with me.

Material Cause: The stuff a thing is made out of. In the case of a tree, it would be the actual material substance that makes up a tree: wood, bark, tree molecules(?), etc. Even going down to things like atoms. Basically, what's the physical stuff that makes it, whatever it is, what it is.

Formal Cause: The form a thing takes to make it what it is. The pattern or structure the aforementioned materials exhibit. For something like the human brain, it would be the shape, the weird-looking squigly folds, etc. The formal cause (or "form" in general) is pretty controversial as a concept. I think this is due in part with people relating "form" to something like Platonic form, but I'm not sure. But it's hardly that complex. When someone asks you a question, "what does a fork look like" you conceptualize it by its form. It may help to use an example showing the difference between matter and form, or material and formal cause. From Feser's Aquinas, when discussing the form and matter of a rubber ball: "The matter by itself isn't the ball, for the rubber could take on the form of a doorstop, an eraser, or any number of other things. The form by itself isn't the ball either, for you can't bounce redness, roundness, or even bounciness down the hallway..."

Efficient Cause: That which brings something into being. For a house, it would be builders. For a human heart, it would be the various biological processes required during human development (conception, enzymes, all that). This is what most people mean when they say "cause" today. Why is the car parked on the lawn? Because Tommy drank too much. Why did a bowling ball just fall on to the dining room table? Because someone dropped it from upstairs.

Final Cause: The direction or range of effects to which a thing is pointed. Its inherent power. Final cause is obviously the most controversial of all the causes, even more so than the formal cause. But I think that this is mainly an overreaction from some idea of teleology in modern minds. It is generally described as being the "purpose" or "goal" of a thing, though I think this is actually an unhelpful place to start. For example, both Feser's The Last Superstition and Aquinas start with a rubber ball when explaining final cause, that the final cause of a rubber ball is the enjoyment of a child. Determining that the final cause of a rubber ball is child enjoyment is of course completely correct, but I think it misleading in certain ways. It makes it seem as if the final cause of artifacts are similar to the final cause of natural substances. But the final cause of artifacts is two-fold in a way that is not like natural substances. The final cause of an artifact is the intentional purpose placed on it from outside. But that's not relevant to non-artifacts, and citing artifacts as an example to explain how it works in non-artifacts actually tends to harm the cause (ha, pun) more than help it.

Really, the best way to think of final cause is to think of it in relation to efficient cause. Although, you can't really think about final cause without thinking about all the other causes. What I mean by relating it to efficient cause is this, though. Aquinas writes that "Every agent acts for an end: otherwise one thing would not follow more than another from the action of the agent, unless it were by chance." I think this is actually the most succinct explanation of final cause that I've read to date. It's an incredibly simple, yet enormously important statement. It effectively affirms essentialism. It says that only because a thing is what it is (has a particular essence) that some other event results. This may seem like not-a-big-deal, but it is. Put in terms of causes, if a thing didn't have a particular final cause (didn't have some end that it were aimed in), then efficient cause wouldn't exist; or, a particular result would not occur. 

This intuitively makes perfect sense. If a ball did not have as its final cause the the inherit power to roll, you pushing it wouldn't result in it rolling (see, e.g., cubes). This applies to everything. If the penis weren't aimed at ejaculating (it seems like I jumped into some strange territory with this example, but it will make sense in due time), it wouldn't ejaculate. And if sperm weren't aimed at fertilizing eggs, it wouldn't fertilize eggs. This is all that is meant by final cause, and there is no reason to bring in purpose language at first (the next post will explain all of this in much more detail). Again, scientists cite things like "DNA" as "blueprints" for natural phenomenon all the time. What they are appealing to is final cause. That is, the final cause of a particular set of DNA is a specific range of results. If the DNA didn't have this specific range of results as its final cause, a particular characteristic in the living thing would not occur.

Now, the philosophers who defend final cause are well aware that final cause does not require deliberated intention in that sense of purpose, and I don't mean to imply that they aren't aware of that (Feser writes about it all the time, for example). I am just merely trying to explain why starting with that sort of language can be counterproductive. The best way to think about final cause, then, is to think about the direction to which a thing is pointed instead of thinking of it in terms of purpose, at least without a more developed sense of the metaphysics. Feser uses the term "inherent power," and I think this is actually the most helpful. Put simply, the final cause is the range of a results a thing is pointed at and would result if an efficient cause were to act upon it. Again, thinking of gasoline. Gasoline is pointed at fire (has that as its final cause), and fire will result if a match is dropped on it (an efficient cause actualizing the inherent power in the gasoline).

It may not seem clear why all this matters at this point. But it does. If we are able to objectively determine the essence of things, we can likewise objectively determine standards of realness, goodness, badness, defect, etc. But all of that is for a later post. All I want you to take from this post is the general principles about essence and final cause outlined above. Feser writes a great deal about how the abandonment of final causes is what has led to the broken modern state of the world. The reason he says this is because final cause underlies almost everything, especially morality, especially as it concerns sexuality. Again, it may not seem like it at this point, but I promise to deliver. I'll end the post here because the next section covers a somewhat different topic, and I don't want to do too much in one post.


  1. Hi Joe,

    I hope you're doing well! I'm a fellow philosophically-inclined Catholic man in my 20s, so I'll be following your blog with interest.

    I agree with you that people who criticize the idea of "final causes" usually don't understand what a final cause actually is. As you point out, an object's final cause is not the object's "purpose," it is the behaviors that the object exhibits. Whenever we acknowledge that a certain thing does some things and not others, we are affirming the existence of final causes.

    What I personally find much more conceptually difficult is the formal cause. Ever since I learned that it is not the structure of a thing (the formal cause of a particular shoe is not its shape, but its "shoe-ness"), I've been a bit confused.


    1. Don't get too confused with "form," though I completely understand how it can be confusing. I think the natural thing to do is to think in the Platonic sense, like forms exist in some third-realm as perfect idealizations. I think that's just sort of the natural progression we take in understanding what a thing is, because once we notice patterns in the world, we see things as having these sort of permanent, transcendent characteristics outside themselves.

      I found this quote from Rank Sophist actually pretty helpful when discussing form: "I should add that your belief that forms are irrelevant is due to your misunderstanding of what a form is. This is very common--I myself was baffled by them for quite awhile. But you've got to realize that a form is nothing fancier than water having the chemical formula H2O. It's not "spooky" or "extraneous": it's just the common sense view." From here: http://edwardfeser.blogspot.com/2012/11/nagel-and-his-critics-part-iv.html.

      Do note, though, that form is sometimes different than essence, in that form "has a narrower sense in which it refers to only a part of a thing's essence." (From Feser's Aquinas). Also note that once you get final cause, you get formal cause. Without the form it has, the final causes it has would not exist and vice versa. There's more on this here: http://edwardfeser.blogspot.com/2011/11/tls-and-formal-causes.html

      Thanks again for visiting, and I hope all this proves helpful! You sound like someone who's on top of it already.

    2. Would something's formal cause roughly correlate to one's mental conception of it? For instance, take a marble bust of Napoleon. I can completely picture the bust in my mind--I can picture its appearance, marble, texture, etc. But that complete mental picture clearly lacks the material cause that would give that form physical existence.

      To put another way, what is the difference between formal cause and essence, material cause and existence?

    3. To clarify, when I say "material cause" I am really referring to a pure material cause, prime matter.

  2. I should add that I'm particularly interested in hearing your take on stopping the use of pornography. So far, I've found that minimizing temptation (porn blockers), staying busy, staying social, and staying religiously active help the most. Of course, I've found that there are always times when I'm home alone with nothing to do and with an unblocked computer, and that's when things are more difficult. I'm realizing more and more the truth of this quote from Paul: "For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do."

    I come into the Church on Easter Vigil, and I'm hoping that actually being able to receive the Eucharist and weekly Confession will help.

    1. I know that people are very interested in that topic; I'm just trying to get through the rest of these underlying principles before I move on to that. I wrote this: http://www.reddit.com/r/NoFap/comments/148wn8/iama_27yearold_celibate_male_who_has_not/ which you may have already read, but I cover some things there that might be helpful. There is not one special secret, though. It's just a matter of virtue, fortitude and temperance mostly, which always take time and a lot of effort. A good man does what he has to do until he succeeds at what he can succeed at (and you can succeed at this). It's the same stuff that makes a father a father, a firefighter a firefighter, a soldier a soldier, and a hero a hero.

      You are also right about confession. I don't know if it's just me, but the idea of going to explain to a priest that I did THAT terrifies me. (Do not let that keep you away from visiting a priest if you need to, though. Just be mindful when you open your internet browser that that confession is ultimately required. (And of course it's never as bad as you think it will be.)) At any rate, be encouraged, or at the very least, never be discouraged.

      And welcome!

  3. Hi Joe,

    I'm new to your blog so I hope that you will see this question. I'm also not experienced with philosophy so I hope this doesn't sound ignorant. My question has to do with how one determines the essence of something. At least from my perspective, I find it really hard to determine what the essence of a "thing" really is. By what criteria do we judge something to be part of the "essence" of another? While I can understand your example of the triangle (since it's a mathematical definition), I find it a lot harder to determine the essence of a biological human. Are we appealing to biology, or is there something philosophical?

    I guess what I'm trying to go with (and I may be referencing some of your future posts, since I have read them as well), is that one may argue that the "essence" of a human is to pursue pleasure and happiness, which would lead to the conclusion that homosexual behaviour is moral.

  4. Hi Joe - new to the blog - great article.