Saturday, February 26, 2005

Laws Of Nature

Jeremy's post on abortion gives me the opportunity to keep grinding away at an old axe, namely, the contribution of Thomas Aquinas's interpretation of Aristotle to the world's net physical and psychological suffering---or perhaps re-interpretations of Aquinas's interpretation of Aristotle.

Referring to opponents of abortion rights as "anti-abortion rights" is already a step in the right direction; "pro-life" is either a tautological position of any decent person, or else a fundamentally incoherent concept. By the latter possibility, I mean that the defining axioms of the mainstream "pro-life movement," the notion of a "right to life" coupled with support of capital punishment, is inescapably contradictory. (Not that they don't try. Oh lordy, how they try.)

And of course, "pro-choice" is an equally silly expression, a truncated version of "in favor of the right of a woman to have a voluntary abortion" that cuts out meaningful connotation by virtue of its truncation.

The preceding is meant to allow me to make this point: if not for a popularized strain of Thomism buried deeply in our culture, there would be no political crisis over abortion rights. The controversy, such as it is, is a particular instance of facile, self-reassuring Thomistic epistemology crashing against the indifference of reality to human concerns and human conceptual schemata.

This is a simpler analysis than it might seem. Aristotelian and Thomistic epistemology---I'm trying to observe the principle of charity here, but it's difficult---is the direct realism of kindergartners. Reality, to little children and Thomists, is not just exactly as it appears, but normatively justified as such. The only difference between 1) a child accepting the validity of the universal parental justification, "Because I say so," as a normative feature of the universe and not a contingent relation of power and authority between parent and child, and 2) the Thomistic assumption of a plenitude of manifest normativities in nature accessible to pure reason, is that the Thomist has a bigger vocabulary, and is highly adept at twisting himself into argumentative pretzels in order to defend his view. (The child accepts normativity as a brute fact of nature; perhaps the other difference is thus that on some deep level, the Thomist really knows better.)

Why do acorns grow into trees? Because they are striving to do so. (Obviously.) What is the natural end of man? To be happy. Which means? To be a free male peripatetic philosopher. (Says the free male peripatetic philosopher.) That, plus the doctrine of metaphysical hylomorphism, plus a number of "proofs" of the existence of God that don't really work, is the entire intellectual depth of Thomistic/scholastic tradition. That it has held such sway over human imagination for as long as it has is a testament to our species' underlying savagery and bestiality. That it has been regnant in Western thought for so long is a rebuke to notion of the exceptionalism of Western civilization.

How does this directly relate to disputes over abortion? There might be some anti-abortion rights folks who think that an aggregation of non-conscious multiplying cells in a woman's uterus is in fact a human being. But the intellectually sophisticated among them prefer to call it a "potential human being" or some such. And what potentiality are they talking about? It is also potentially an early-term miscarriage (which is, as it turns out, rather common). It is potentially nothing more than it ever was, an aggregation of cells. The transformation of a zygote into a living human being is potential only in the sense that it is possible; no hidden natural imperative drives it towards that end, and it is indeed the consent of the mother (and, I hope, father) that makes it so. No one can murder something that isn't alive, and the "potentially alive" count among the not-alive. Even anti-abortionists understand this somewhat; if they really thought that the US government was permitting hundreds of thousands of murders every year, they would be in open rebellion; or maybe they are cowards.

Look at this from another direction: what exactly would it take to constitute a "potential life"? In the case of a zygote, the necessary and sufficient conditions are implantation into a woman's uterus (or maybe in the future, some device capable of abiologically fostering the growth of embryos), the desire of the persons involved to have a baby, and the luck of avoiding spontaneous abortion. Those are the same necessary and sufficient conditions every time a man comes; and not too many people, at least not yet, wish to prosecute masturbation as murder. Even the mere mutual desire of a man and a woman to conceive a child could be construed as potential life. The point is, absent the religious notion of ensoulment, there is nothing special about a fertilized egg.

Even Jeremy, whose unification of anti-abortionism and apologetics for torture as expressions of a culture of state power strikes me as on the money, seems to accept the idea of "metaphysically potential humans." Or maybe he was being ironic and I missed it.

Apropos of his conceptualization, it's worth asking exactly which culture is properly termed the "culture of death." The intellectual advocates of abolishing abortion rights have become the advocates of banning stem-cell research---or at least, all of the latter are among the former. Every moment that (potentially!) life-saving research is blocked increases the likelihood that actual human life will perish. The victims of Parkinson's disease, multiple sclerosis, etc., have been made into blood-sacrifices to the god of American fundamentalism, the golden blastocyst.


At 5:08 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

philosopher kings are good.

At 12:02 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

For Aquinas, 'potency' and 'possibility' are not the same. There is no logical contradiction in a human zygote becoming anything whatsoever. But a human zygote per se has an intrinsic and natural disposition to become an adult human being. A human zygote per se has no intrinsic and natural disposition to become a tree, a bird, or a stone.


Post a Comment

<< Home

  • E-mail me: Dan Koffler
  • My YDN Column: Smashing Idols
  • The Reasonsphere
  • Hit & Run
  • Matt Welch
  • Julian Sanchez
  • Jesse Walker
  • Virginia Postrel
  • Tim Cavanaugh
  • Ringers
  • Andrew Sullivan
  • Josh Marshall
  • Crooked Timber
  • Matthew Yglesias
  • Kevin Drum
  • John Cole
  • Leiter Reports
  • Pharyngula
  • Gregory Djerjian
  • Atrios
  • Mickey Kaus
  • Jim Henley
  • Radley Balko
  • TNR's Plank
  • Balkinization
  • Glenn Greenwald
  • Thomas Knapp
  • Justin Logan
  • Laura Rozen
  • Mark Kleiman
  • Print Culture
  • Arthur Silber
  • Tom Tomorrow
  • James Wolcott
  • OxBlog
  • Eric Muller
  • Majikthise
  • Pandagon
  • The American Scene
  • Daniel Drezner
  • Will Wilkinson
  • The Volokh Conspiracy
  • Intel Dump
  • Prequels
  • Johan Ugander
  • Dan Munz
  • Josh Eidelson
  • Future Less Vivid
  • Sequels
  • (not)Delino Deshields
  • Actual God
  • Hidden Hand
  • I am justice
  • Death/Media Incarnate
  • (not)Marquis Grissom
  • Yanqui At Cambridge
  • Beneficent Allah
  • Mr. Wrongway
  • The Hippolytic
  • Discourse Decision
  • Tight Toy Night
  • Mulatto Jesus
  • Sago Boulevard
  • Immortalized Stillicide
  • Nick's Corner
  • Dead Trees
  • Reason
  • Dissent
  • The New Republic
  • The New Yorker
  • The Atlantic Monthly
  • The American Prospect
  • Arts & Letters Daily
  • The Economist
  • The Nation
  • Yale Daily News
  • Virtual Reality
  • Wikipedia
  • Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
  • Symbolic Logic into HTML
  • Slate
  • Salon
  • The Huffington Post
  • Crooks and Liars
  • The Smoking Gun
  • The Smoking Gun: Bill O'Reilly
  • Romenesko
  • The Christopher Hitchens Web
  • Draft Russ
  •'s Library
  • Urban Dictionary
  • Homestar Runner
  • Planet Rugby
  • Flex Online
  • Card Player Magazine
  • Gawker & Such
  • News
  • Politics
  • Gambling
  • Gossip (NY edition)
  • Gossip (LA edition)
  • Cool Shit
  • Cars
  • Video Games
  • Photoshop Fun &c.
  • Travel
  • MacGuyver Yourself
  • Porn
  • Prepare For The Worst
  • Bull Moose Blog
  • The Corner
  • Instapundit
  • Reel Blogs
  • BathTubYoga
  • More TK
  • R.I.P.
  • Jamie Kirchick
  • That Girl