Larry Arnhart response to Gavin Colvert “Back to Nature”

Larry Arnhart has written a response to Gavin Colvert “Back to Nature: Aquinas and Ethical Naturalism”

from volume 8 number 2.

The response, “Darwinian Natural Law: A Reply to Gavin Colvert.” can be found here.

Gavin Colvert: Back to Nature: Aquinas and Ethical Naturalism

PDFPDF There is no doubt that we are living in a moment of extraordinary development in the human capacity to decipher the rules and structures of matter, and in the consequent dominion of man over nature. We all see the great advantages of this progress and we see more and more clearly the threat of destruction of nature by what we do… The capacity to see the laws of material being makes us incapable of seeing the ethical message contained in being, a message that tradition calls lex naturalis, natural moral law. This word for many today is almost incomprehensible due to a concept of nature that is no longer metaphysical, but only empirical. [1]

In his recent addresses to groups of scientists and academics Pope Benedict XVI has been sounding a common theme: they ought to get back to nature.[2] His concern cuts deeper to the core of modern life than simply the question of whether human beings are using natural resources responsibly. As the Pope indicates, advances in empirical science and technology have enabled tremendous growth in our understanding of the structure of the physical world, including human biology. A paradoxical and unfortunate byproduct of these inherently worthy endeavors is that we have become less able to understand our own human nature, including its ethical implications, often referred to collectively as natural law ethics. As a consequence, we stand in danger of eliminating human nature.

Remarkably, other intellectuals, who share few of his presuppositions, agree with the Pope in this matter. Francis Fukuyama, for instance, has argued that advances in chemistry and biotechnology will enable us to alter our nature so fundamentally that we need to speak of a “post-human future” unless we find the ethical and political principles to establish prudent boundaries for technological innovation.[3] Our advances in scientific understanding, make it difficult for us to articulate these principles, because modern empirical methods challenge the traditional presuppositions of natural law ethics.

In addition to those who worry about the eclipse of human nature, there are also theorists who share the Pope’s sense that we must return to nature in moral and political philosophy. Proponents of the new “Darwinian natural right,” for instance, hold that evolutionary theory is compatible with traditional Aristotelian teleology when it is properly understood.[4] These arguments draw upon work by scientists who are prepared to admit the necessity of teleological explanations in biology.

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[1] Benedict XVI, Address to the Participants in the International Congress on Natural Law, Vatican City, February 12, 2007. See also, Benedict XVI, Meeting with the Representatives of Science, Lecture of the Holy Father, Regensburg, Germany, September 12, 2006,

[2] A portion of this paper was presented at St. Anselm College in November 2006. I wish to thank the College for the generous invitation to give this lecture.

[3] Francis Fukuyama, Our Posthuman Future : Consequences of the Biotechnology Revolution, 1st ed. (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2002).

[4] See, for example, Larry Arnhart, Darwinian Natural Right : The Biological Ethics of Human Nature, Suny Series in Philosophy and Biology (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1998).

Martha King: Kant’s Theory of Geometry in Light of the Development of Non-Euclidean Geometries

With the development of non-Euclidean geometries in the nineteenth century, the concern arose as to whether these alternatives constituted a refutation of Kant’s theory of geometry. Partly the concerns were related to Kant’s argument that geometric judgments were a priori

synthetic judgments, meaning that the conclusions of geometry could not be derived empirically but were yet universal principles. This aspect of universality led some to believe that the development and subsequent proof of non-Euclidean geometries implied a contradiction of Kant, whose conception of geometry was based in Euclid. In this article I will address whether or not Kant’s conception of geometry can be reconciled with the conclusions of non-Euclidean geometry, and in what way Euclidean and non-Euclidean geometries can be reconciled with respect to the sensible world.

For Kant, geometric propositions can only be justified through the construction of a priori intuitions in the imagination, which intuitions must of necessity correspond with the sensible world: “[I]t follows that the propositions of geometry are not determinations of a mere creation of our poetic imagination, which could therefore not be referred with assurance to actual objects; but rather that they are necessarily valid of space, and consequently of all that may be found in space. . . .” (Prol. 287: 31).

There are several ways in which it is thus assumed that there is no room for non-Euclidean geometry in Kant’s theory. One entails the idea that the postulates of non-Euclidean geometry cannot be conceptualized a priori. In addressing this concern, it is important to note the fact that non-Euclidean geometries have been proven to apply to space and the sensible world. In this sense, if the intuitions of a non-Euclidean geometry are determined to be a priori, then there is plenty of room in Kant for the validity of such intuitions, provided that they in some way correspond to physical space.

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Colin Connors: Plato’s Parmenides: An Analysis and Response to Objections Raised

The Parmenides is composed of two parts: the first section is a self-criticism of Plato’s theory of Forms, while the second part consists of a series of hypotheses concerning the one, and what results if the one is or if the one is not. The first part of Plato’s Parmenides contains four objections or problems concerning the Theory of Forms, which apparently result from the very nature of the forms. The problems break down into two main categories: metaphysical and epistemological. There are three metaphysical problems: (1.) What things count as having a Form? (2.) How is it that instances participate in their Form? (3.) What is a Form and how is it different from a particular? Finally, there is one epistemological problem: if the forms are separate existences or are in another realm, how is it that human beings can come to know them in this realm? All of the objections or problems fail to invalidate Plato’s Theory of Forms because they misrepresent the Theory of Forms and/or involve an unwarranted assumption.

The first problem that is raised in the Parmenides centers around a perplexity on Socrates’ part as to whether things like mud, men, and fire have forms; however, the perplexity seems to arise from Socrates’ disdain for material things. Socrates readily agrees that there is a character of the Just itself, the Good itself, and Beauty itself, but refuses to believe in the existence of a character for physical things: “Surely those things actually are just what we see them to be, and it would be absurd to suppose that something is a character of them” (Annas 248). Unlike justice, beauty, and goodness, physical things are bound to this temporal world, and since they are so, there is no reason to suppose an eternal character of them. Francis Cornford observes that Plato initially approached the Forms of moral qualities: “…Plato must have started by recognizing the Forms of moral qualities, because these had been the main object of Socrates’ inquiries” (Cornford 82). Given the fact that Plato initially began his study of the Forms through moral qualities, it is not surprising that he should disregard the existence of Forms of physical things. Physical things are, for Socrates, insignificant, and therefore do not have forms.

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Erin Kidd: The Virgin Desert: Gender Transformation in Fourth-Century Christian Asceticism

Macrina was a fourth-century ascetic who was famous for her wise counsel. We know of Macrina through her brother Gregory of Nyssa, a rather prolific fourth-century Cappadocian father. In his epistle to the monk Olympius, Gregory wrote in great detail about the life of his sister. Of interest is his introduction of Macrina. After referring to her as a woman, he questioned himself: “if indeed she should be styled woman for I do not know whether it is fitting to designate her by her sex, who so surpassed her sex.”[1] How did Macrina surpass her sex? Is Gregory’s hesitancy to call his sister “woman” indicative of a belief in the inferiority of women? Was Gregory implying that it was necessary to overcome her gender in order to acquire success in ascesis? Though it is obvious that Gregory adored and admired his sister, his reverence for her appears to be at the cost of her femininity.

Macrina is not alone. Amma Sarah, one of the few desert mothers whose sayings are recorded, refers to her own gender transformation: “According to nature I am a woman, but not according to my thoughts.” In fact, many fourth-century female ascetics in early Christianity were praised (and praised themselves) in words which emphasized the putting off of femininity. In order to understand exactly what sort of transformation these women went through, it is necessary to understand how early Christian ascetics understood gender. What did it mean to be woman qua woman? What did the feminine gender represent for early Christian asceticism?

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[1]Gregory of Nyssa, The Life of Macrina, trans. by W. K. Lowther Clarke (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1916) published in the Internet Medieval Source Book, 1997, 24 Apr. 2006.

Alice Evans: Why Parfit’s Contradiction Makes Me Think I Don’t Exist

Although counter-intuitive and apparently contradictory consequences may in themselves be insufficient grounds to reject a theory, realising that a theory has such consequences may prompt us to reconsider its premises and question whether they are as sound as we would have otherwise been inclined to believe. If those premises are insufficiently forceful to make us amend our intuitions, so that they accommodate the consequences of that theory, we may justifiably reject that theory altogether. This may be the case for Parfit’s theory of personal identity, as revealed by an analysis of his Division. I shall argue that because the uniqueness condition is neither logically nor metaphysically justified, Parfit should revise his theory. But such revision entails an inescapable problem. I then provide further reasons to think doubt that Parfit’s Reductionism is our concept of identity.

According to Parfit, numerical personal identity is a metaphysical fact that holds because of certain impersonal circumstances. For Parfit, “our identity over time just involves (a) Relation R – psychological connectedness and/ or psychological continuity – with the right kind of cause [ which he takes to be ‘any cause’[1]], provided (b) that this relation does not take a ‘branching’ form, holding between one person and two different people.”[2] But discussion may suggest that Parfit be advised to revise his view.

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[1] Parfit, D., 1984, p. 215.

 [2] Ibid., p. 216.