On Why We Should Look at Human Nature Like Chemistry and Not Geometry

I had a long drive this weekend to and from Chicago.  Worth it, without question--I got to see some friends that I haven't seen since about a year ago at this time at Neil and Mike's wedding.  But, long nevertheless, and so by the end of the trip back, I found myself flipping through the satellite radio channels.  In the end, I found myself of EWTN, the conservative Catholic channel.  Usually their material is awful, and this was sort of awful as well, but in the course of listening to what the speaker had to say, something clicked into place in a way it hadn't really clicked into place before.

The interviewee was giving a run-down of why Catholics are right about contraception and gay issues.  The core of his argument was that all Catholic positions flow from "reason," and that "reason" establishes that there is certain content to "human nature."  If that is true, then to act in a manner inconsistent with human nature is per se unreasonable, and since the Catholic moral position is simply a codification of what is reasonable, then the Catholic position is necessarily right.  All standard stuff.

But what struck me for the first time listening to this guy is the way this account elides over the different kinds of reason that exist, and how there is an unspoken assumption that "reason" in this context means "non-empirical reason" as opposed to "empirical reason" (I would say "pure reason" versus "practical reason," but that gets us into the weeds of Kantian categories, so let's avoid that).  To show what I mean by this, take yourself back to high school and think about the difference between chemistry (all of the hard sciences, really, but let's use chemistry) and geometry.  Both are disciplines that work on the basis of reason, but they utilize different sorts of reason.

Think first about how chemistry works.  Ultimately, the discipline of chemistry is grounded in observations in the physical world that exist outside of the mind of the person "doing chemistry."  Boyle's Law (which says that, keeping temperature constant, gas pressure is inversely proportional to volume) is not just an intellectual construct, but something that one can show by measuring physical phenomenon in the outside world.  Sure, you need to build the purely intellectual "superstructure" first (like defining terms and a system of measurements), and you have to interpret the data that you are observing, but the realities you are talking about exist "out there" in the material world.  Chemistry, and all of the hard sciences, are thus exercises in "empirical reason"--they ultimately derive from empirical data that is outside of the mind of the reasoning body.

Geometry doesn't work like that.  The statement "two points determine a line" is not subject to empirical observation and testing--it is a purely intellectual construct.  When you do a geometric proof, you don't take observations of the outside world--you start from pre-loaded axioms and then logically work your way through to demonstrate the conclusion.  There is nothing wrong with that, or with geometry.  But imagine a version of chemistry where you never made any measurements or observations, and just logically worked your way to a vision of how atoms and molecules work through logical proofs.  It would be a bad way to do chemistry--it's using the wrong process to get the results you want.

Empirical and non-empirical reasoning procedures are both found in the Catholic intellectual tradition.  But the dominant way of approaching the question of human nature in the Catholic tradition, at least right now, is through non-empirical reasoning.  When the guy on the radio was talking about "reason," he meant non-empirical geometry reasoning, not empirical chemistry reasoning.  It begins with a set of axiomatic presumptions about human beings, how they work, and what they are for, and it then works from there to craft a comprehensive theory of what human nature consists of.

The problem is that I think that's completely wrong-headed.  It seems to me that the proper (you might even say "reasonable") way to approach the question of human nature is like it is a chemistry problem.  In other words, rather than beginning with a set of purely intellectual axioms, we should start by observing the phenomenon of human beings "in the wild," noting the ways in which the human body works, how human behavior is structured and what it's tendencies are, and what major patterns can be observed.  From that data, we can construct a theory of what human nature is and how it works.

While all of that seems utterly sensible, even obvious, to me, it is significantly different from the method of reasoning that is dominant in the Catholic consideration of human nature.  In fact, I think this difference explains why both sides spend so much time talking past one another.  Take for example James Alison's essay "Good Faith Learning and the Fear of God," which I have talked about before in depth here.  Alison's primary point in that essay is that the definition of homosexuality that is used in official church documents doesn't line up with the empirical evidence regarding the lived experience of homosexual people.  But that argument presupposes that the proper way to reach a model of human nature is through empirical evidence of actual human beings.  If you don't think that, then everything Alison has to say is irrelevant, and Alison would be engaging in a category mistake.  It would be sort of like trying to challenge a geometry proof by making a bunch of measurements of the angles contained in shapes around your home--that's just not how geometry proof work.  And if the nature of human beings can be explained as a geometry proof, then all of the stuff Alison brings up doesn't matter, either.

This divide also explains the wholly different meanings assigned to the bugaboo word "relativism."  Conservatives, including the guy on the radio, make the case that if you don't accept the picture of human nature provided by the Catholic church, then it follows that you must believe that there is no objective account of human nature, and thus you embrace "relativism."  If you believe human nature is a geometry problem, then that's true--either we can prove the things we can prove with geometry, or those things are not subject to that sort of proof.  It's a purely binary choice, either right or wrong.  But, if human nature is a chemistry problem, then the accusation of relativism, or even really the concept of relativism as applied to these questions, is unhelpful and even nonsensical.  Essential to the empirical process is the iterative feedback loop of more empirical data resulting in a better model, which in turn points us toward more and better empirical data.

When Einstein argued that Newton was wrong in certain elements of his mechanical model, he was not being a "relativist"--he was proposing a better model, based on better empirical data.  Likewise, saying "hey, this principle of how human nature works that we held turns out not to be true," is not a opening to a sell-out to relativism, but an opportunity to improve our models.

It seems to me that when I was trying to talk about "Christian Realism," what I really meant is "Christian Empirical Realism."  This doesn't mean that religious faith is reduced to science, or that everything that cannot be established using scientific criteria is to be rejected.  But it does mean that we must take seriously the world as we find it, and use that (rather than some purely intellectual construct) as the basis for our explorations of what it means to be human.  God's will is revealed to us in the way that human beings are actually constructed and how human interactions actual work.  Non-empirical reasoning is fine for geometry, but it is bad for talking about human nature.


Popular posts from this blog

On the Amice and Ghosts

Two Christianities

Quick Hitter: Why Pastoral Discretion Is Not a Panacea