Friday, April 07, 2006

The nature of nature

Continuing our analysis of Robinson’s comments over at our sister blog:

“What then is the difference between nature and grace? How do you distinguish between them?”

We might begin with the fourfold state of man:

(a) Unfallen man enjoys a sinless nature;

(b )The unregenerate enjoy a sinful or fallen nature, without benefit of saving grace, but under the preservative of common grace;

c) The regenerate enjoy a sanctified nature, capable of good as well as evil, but incapable of apostasy,

(d) The glorified enjoy an impeccable nature.

“If civil acts are “good” in what sense are they good?”

Objectively good, but subjectively speaking they are morally compromised by mixed motives. Due to common grace, the motive to do what is objectively good may be a motive with some good intentions; but due to sin, the motive is never pure, but impure—being adulterated by sinful motives as well.

“Is nature good apart from grace or is grace instrinsic to nature?”

Fallen nature is good to the degree to which common grace conserves the remnants of common decency.

Whether grace is intrinsic or extrinsic to nature depends on your definition of instrinsicality or extrinsicality.

Grace is not artificial. It is not grafted onto human nature like a freak mutant hybrid or cyborg—half human, half machine.

But saving grace is purely gratuitous. Some have it, others don’t. Those that have it do so due to the selective and unmerited mercy of God.

“On what moral theory can the effect have a moral value apart from the agent?”

You could have this in teleological ethics or deontological ethics or divine command theory.

It’s possible to do the right thing for the wrong reason. If the Nazi commandant of a POW camp sees that his side is losing the war, he may treat the POWs humanely to avoid prosecution for war crimes.

Isn’t it a good thing that he didn’t torture or execute the POWs, even if he refrained from doing so for cynical reasons?

“If without common grace humans would only be able to do sinful acts (both intentionally and consequentially), does this mean that you think that human nature is intrinsically evil and opposed to God?”

i) Perry is trying to maneuver Evan into an incautious statement which would then expose Evan to the charge of “Manicheanism.”

ii) There is also an ambiguity in the question. Is this a question of moral evil or metaphysical evil?

There is no such thing as pure ontological evil. Evil is a moral property of a metaphysical property-bearer.

iii) Here’s a question for Perry: what is the moral status of the damned? In what sense are they opposed to God?

“Can acts be intrinsically good without being meritorious?”

Bracketing the ambiguous adjective (“intrinsically”), an act can be good without being meritorious.

“If it takes divorcing an act from the actor to call it good, how then can the value of the act necessarily depend on the intention of the actor so that the act has no moral value abstracted from the intention of the actor? In short, if the intention is what determines the value of an act, how can we talk about good acts apart from intentions?”

No one is “divorcing” the act from the actor. It all depends on what we are attempting to evaluate.

If our objective is to assign praise or blame to the agent, then his intentions are germane to the moral valuation of the act.

But if our objective is to evaluate the act in and of itself, then we needn’t take his intentions into account.

This is a necessary distinction. Motivation is a necessary, but insufficient, condition of ethical decision-making.

For some choices are intrinsically evil. Good intentions do not transvaluate otherwise illicit options into licit options. A well-intentioned agent must choose from morally licit options. Alternative goods.

He doesn’t need an array of choices, but whatever choice he makes must be licit in and of itself.

“If human nature is neither good nor evil in creation…”

Human nature in creation is good.

“Moreover, if you think of the will as desires…”

Simplistic. They are distinguishable, not equatable.

Not all desires translate into a resolve choose one course of action over another. Only the strongest desire.

“Then how did Adam perform any act if he wasn’t inclined to good or to evil and hence lacked any strongest desire?”

Adam enjoyed a general inclination to good, but he wasn’t impeccable.

The fact that he sinned goes to show that at the time he committed sin, his general inclination to good was overridden by a countervailing desire.

“And, do you think that Jesus’ humanity was neither good nor evil like pre-fall Adam’s?”

Jesus’ humanity was good because it was sinless—possibly impeccable.

“And if Jesus’ humanity isn’t opposed to God, how then do you explain Jesus having a human desire that is opposed to God?”

We have a natural desire to avoid pain.

We have a moral desire to avoid slander. It’s because Jesus is good, because he is innocent, that a false accusation is morally repugnant.

We have a psychological desire to avoid public humiliation.

It is quite possible to desire a given end while finding the means personally repellent.

“If we take the Edwardian line that natures determine desires and desires determine actions, then if Adam has a good nature, then he has good desires and hence only good actions.”

Let’s be clear on a couple of things:

i) Calvinism does not begin with a philosophical theory of the will.

Rather, Calvinism begins with the Biblical witness regarding original sin.

When a libertarian proposes a philosophical theory of the will, or when a libertarian raises a philosophical objection to the Reformed doctrine of original sin, then a Calvininist like Edwards may respond in kind by offering a philosophical theory of the will consistent with Calvinism, or respond with a philosophical objection to the libertarian theory.

This is a question of polemical theology, not exegetical or systematic theology.

Even if Edwards’ theory of the will were mistaken, that would go no distance in disproving Calvinism. Edwards is merely mounting a rational counterargument to a rationalistic objection.

ii) Perry is obsessed with the word “nature.”

This evidently triggers in his own mind a whole lot of conceptual baggage.

But the use of the word “nature” in discussing original sin need not carry so much ontological cargo.

a) The Bible uses picturesque metaphors like “tree” and “heart.”

“Nature” can simply be an abstract synonym for this colorful, concrete usage.

Of itself, “nature” does not denote any particular conceptual scheme.

b)”Nature” is just a linguistic placeholder, the way we use the word “gravity.”

When we say that an apple falls to the ground due to the law of “gravity,” that does not assume any particular theory of gravity. It could be Newton’s, or Einstein’s, or Witten’s, or Penrose’s.

The appeal to “nature” is simply a way of expressing a relation in the nominative case, just as we speak of possible worlds, which is nothing more than a handy circumlocution for divine omnipotence (what God could possibly do).

c) Another reason we use an abstract noun like “nature” is to avoid the nominalistic suggestion that human beings just happen to sin.

There is an underlying reason for the universality of sin. It isn’t just a fortuitous circumstance that otherwise autonomous agents, who could either sin or refrain from sinning, all happen to be sinners.

Rather, God has imputed the guilt of Adam’s sin to his posterity, and as a result of that imputation, it is also the case that every son of Adam is morally corrupt or depraved, and commits actual sin if he gets the chance.

“Doesn’t God’s nature being good make it impossible for him to sin?”

Depends on what we mean. God cannot sin. His moral attributes are such that God cannot sin.

But God’s nature is not something over and above God himself, which prevents him from sinning—like an external restraint. God’s nature doesn’t “cause” God to do this or refrain from doing that.

There is nothing which would “constrain” God from sinning. But, by the same token, there is nothing which would constrain or incline God to sin.

There’s not much more we can say without falling into a vicious regress.

“I don’t think its obvious that if nature determines desires and desires determines actions that Adam would be inclined by nature to do neither good nor evil. I am familiar with the distinctions between posse pecarre, non posse pacarre, etc. I just don’t see how it fits with your Edwardian line. Moreover, if the will just is the strongest desire winning out, simply asserting that Adam had no desire for good or evil doesn’t address how it is possible that Adam made any choice at all. If he has no desire either way then it should be the case that he never could make such a choice. Right? How does someone make a choice without an antecedent strongest desire on your view?”

i) As I’ve said before, I reject his characterization.

ii) Since I’m not Adam, I don’t know what Adam’s was thinking. His state of mind is inaccessible to me. So it’s useless to indulge in speculative psychology regarding the particular motive of any particular agent.

iii) There is a stock vocabulary to explain “why” people do what they do: “motive,” “incentive,” “disincentive,” “inclination,” “predisposition,” &c.

This is useful up to a point, but there is only so much it is intended to explain.

Why did the wife murder her philandering husband? Because she was jealous. That’s the explanation.

But why was she jealous, you ask?

Now you’re pressing the causal question beyond the limits of rational inquiry. Pretty soon we find ourselves bogged down in an infinite regress.

There’s nothing wrong with stopping with “jealousy” as the explanation. That is morally sufficient.

If you wanted, you could take it a little further. She was jealous because she was in love with her husband, and love, being possessive, brooks no rivals.

She felt betrayed and humiliated. We form an emotional bond with certain people. Her brain chemistry was addicted to her spouse.

Do these additional explanations improve on the original? Maybe, maybe not. They aren’t morally relevant.

Do they extend the causal chain, or are they merely paraphrasing the originating cause? Nice question.

You can’t go back a step, and back another step ad infinitum.

The only way to avoid a vicious regress or vicious circle is to stop asking for an explanation when there’s nothing left to explain.

“I seriously doubt that we have the same notion of original sin so that an appeal to it just relocates the problem.”

If it only relocates the problem, then that’s a problem for Perry as well as Evan. Perry has his own burden of proof to discharge.


  1. Evan is your sister?

    Dude: I didn't see that coming.

  2. Cent, haven't you ever heard of alternative families?

  3. Yes, I suppose that Steve figured that overly-masculine language would offend our highly-sought-after social feminist readers. "Brother Blog" would make Steve into too much of a bigot, and we all know that Steve is the evangelical equivalent of Barney, the magical dinosaur.

  4. ---
    ii) Perry is obsessed with the word “nature.”

    This evidently triggers in his own mind a whole lot of conceptual baggage.

    But the use of the word “nature” in discussing original sin need not carry so much ontological cargo.

    a) The Bible uses picturesque metaphors like “tree” and “heart.”

    “Nature” can simply be an abstract synonym for this colorful, concrete usage.

    Of itself, “nature” does not denote any particular conceptual scheme.

    b)”Nature” is just a linguistic placeholder, the way we use the word “gravity.”

    This is an excellent point, especially in this context, since Perry appears to be conflating the various popular uses of this term throughout the course of his reasoning, burdening Evan with all sorts of specious puzzles. In discussions about the relation of humanity to sin, there are at least two uses of the term "nature" that need to be distinguished if one's exposition is to have any hope of avoiding the most absurd equivocations or incoherance.

    The first is what we might call the *kind-property* view of natures. This account of natures answers the question: What *kind* of entity is the given individual? This account treats natures as *natural kind* properties, where properties are *abstract* objects of a certain sort. Among the important characteristics of such objects: (a) they have the property of possibly having instances, or possibly having individuals stand in the *exemplification relation* to them, and (b) the posited objects are causally inert. That is, the objects do not *cause* any object to be such-and-such, or thus-and-so.

    The second is what could be called the "constituency" view of human natures, where human natures are (complex) dispositions (or in Evan's preferred terminology "predispositions"), inclinations, or similar entities; where each of these entities is a constituent, or a (mereological) *part* of some concrete individual, like a moral agent or a personal substance. This account of natures makes no attempt to tell us what *kind* of entity a given individual is, but rather, it attempts to tell us what constitutes a moral agent, and what relation his relevant constituent "parts" bear to his actions or behavior. The thing to note here is that the posited entities are *causal* entities of some sort (which alone should clue one in to the fact that this account of "nature" differs significantly from the kind-property view mentioned above).

    Here are some important consequences to note about these two uses and their differences:

    (1) when the kind-property account of natures is in view, it makes no *literal* sense to ask whether human nature or humanity *itself* is morally good or evil. Humanity and human nature are neither good nor evil. The reason why is obvious: only moral agents can be good or evil, and natural kind properties (or any properties at all for that matter) are not moral agents. They are causally inert, abstract objects. On this understanding of natures, it makes no more sense to say of humanity that it is morally good or evil than it makes sense to say of the number 8 that its morally good or evil.

    (2) when the kind-property account of natures is in view, the claim that any morally significant action A performed by some individual was *determined* by the human nature of that individual is *false*, since no morally significant behavior or properties are *kind-essential* properties of humanity or human nature. At best, such moral qualities are *contingent* properties of humanity. This is evidenced by the moral goodness of prelapsarian humans like Adam and Eve (and Christ), as well as the postlapsarian sinfulness of humans like you and I. And this despite whatever Perry interprets Edwards as saying.

    These two distinctions alone render much of Perry's exposition a wash. Here are some examples of his conflated usage from the thread with Evan:

    "Persons are sinful, not natures since persons do acts and natures do nothing... persons subsist in a nature which is good, but insufficiently good such that it can will the good, but not in a way that pleases God."

    In the first sentence, Perry seems to have the *kind-property* account of natures in view when he correctly notes that moral evil is a property of persons and not abstract objects like humanity or human nature, which are causally inert, or in his words - they can "do nothing". Unfortunately, he either contradicts himself, or equivocates in the sentence that immediately follows, where he appears to predicate of that same (?) abstract property "...which is good", the property of being insufficiently good to perform the act of willing, presumably meaning that its causal powers have been mitigated by some qualitative lack in its moral properties.

    "Grace perfects nature and hence natural capacities, it doesn’t obliterate them."

    Here's a more clear divergence in his usage of terminology. It makes little sense to say of some natural kind property like humanity that it gets "perfected" You can no more "perfect" humanity then you can "perfect" the property of being evenly divisible by 5. A property is what it is, and can't be made any better or worse than it is.

    Maybe what he means is not that the natural kind *itself* gets perfected, but rather, the individuals who exemplify that nature kind get perfected. Or maybe he has the constituency model in mind where grace perfects some of the inhering parts or powers of human beings, rather than the abstract kind-property they exemplify. In either case, assuming he understands and acknowledges the distinctions that have been drawn here, the burden lies with him to clean up his prose and minimize the guesswork of his readers.

    "I equate human nature after the fall with pre-lapsarian nature because they are the same. There aren’t two species of humans. On my view, after the fall human nature is intrinsically the same but is weakened-it lacks the divine power but it isn’t fundamentally different. It is the same kind, essence, ousia, pick your term."

    While the first two sentences looks agreeable enough (his use of the term "species" signaling that he has the kind-property model of natures in view once again), what follows is another equivocation in his use of the term. He goes on to say of human nature that it now lacks certain causal powers or "divine power". But of course, on the kind-property account, natures don't have powers.

    "If human nature is neither good nor evil in creation, what are we to make of the divine statements where God called creation very good?"

    Here's a better question: if human nature is an abstract natural kind property that necessarily exists, what relevence does God's calling all of "creation" good have to do with Perry's infering that therefore human nature is good? Are necessary beings like properties part of "creation" on this view? Its far from obvious to me that they are. In anycase, he's still left to explain what it could mean to say of some abstract object like a property, that it is "good".

    Then again, maybe he no longer has the kind-property account of natures in mind, but has switched back over to the constituency account, or perhaps some other view. Whatever he's trying to say, he isn't displaying much skill in saying it.

    Isn’t there then a fundamental difference between the Son and the other members of the Trinity since they are not determined or necessitated to do anything and completely free whereas the Son is predestined and determined to do certain acts?

    Here's a parallel equivocation on some more terms. For starters, its presumably *wills* that are relevantly "free", rather than persons simpliciter. This is obviously important given that Christ has two wills, and the properties had by one will might not be shared by the other.

    In anycase, the sense in which Christ is "determined", "predestined" or "necessitated" in his actions or mission, is not at all the same sense in which the other members of the trinity are undetermined, or unnecessitated in their actions. Christ is just as "free" as the other trinitarian members in that respect, assuming we can meaningfully predicate freedom of persons rather than their wills. Conversely, the other Divine Persons are just as "necessitated" in Their actions as He is in His.

    The preceeding should be sufficient to show that Perry's theological exposition is muddled. He seems to have an aversion to defining his use of terms, he doesn't blink when imputing the undefined usage to others, and generally feels comfortable reveling in the polysemy of the theological lexicon. This wouldn't be so bad if he was at least uniform in his use of the undefined terminology, but as shown above, this clearly isn't the case.