Archive for the ‘moral psychology’ Category

Knowing God Through Love

The knowledge of God is often talked about in purely intellectual terms. Aquinas most definitely thinks that some knowledge of God is possible through rational reflection, as he expounds on in his notorious “Five Ways” whereby he offers several rational methods to argue for the existence of God. However, the Johannine tradition challenges intellectual renderings of our knowledge of the specifically Christian God:

“Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love” (1 John 4:7-8).

“So we have known and believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them” (1 John 4:16).

God is love. Picking up on this, Augustine writes in Book VIII of De Trinitate that it is by love that we arrive at the knowledge of God:

No other thing, then, is chiefly to be regarded in this inquiry, which we make concerning the Trinity and concerning knowing God, except what is true love, nay, rather what is love. . . For as there are two commandments on which hang all the Law and the prophets, love of God and love of our neighbor . . . because he who loves God must both needs do what God has commanded, and loves Him just in such proportion as he does so; therefore he must needs also love his neighbor, because God has commanded it . . . the Law and the prophets hang on both precepts. But this, too, is because he who loves his neighbor must needs also love above all else love itself. But “God is love; and he that dwells in love, dwells in God.” Therefore he must needs above all else love God” (De. Trin, Bk. VIII, ch. 7, n. 10).

In other words, we come to know God when we love because the love by which we love is God’s very self. We need not look for God in nature, nor in argumentation, nor even in Scripture. True knowledge of God is derived rather from true love. When we love, we come to know God because it is the very presence of God in our heart which makes love possible.

This Augustinian formula became central in the 12th century in Peter Lombard’s definition of grace as found in Book I of the Sentences. It is the Holy Spirit, Lombard tells us, that is the love by which we love God and neighbor:

It has been said above and it has been shown by sacred authorities, that the Holy Spirit is the love of the Father and the Son by which they love each other and us. It must be added to this that the very same Holy Spirit is the love or charity by which we love God and neighbor. When this charity is in us, so that it makes us love God and neighbor, then the Holy Spirit is said to be sent or given to us; and whoever loves the very love by which he loves his neighbor, in that very thing loves God, because that very love is God, that is, the Holy Spirit (Bk. I, Dist. 17, v. 2).

In other words, for Lombard, Christian love (charity) is the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, so when we love, it is actually the Holy Spirit working in us that is loving with the same love that exists between God the Father and the Son.

Now, Aquinas will openly disagree with Lombard on this point. For Aquinas, charity is not the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, but rather a habit created in the will by the Holy Spirit. For Aquinas, it is the human will that loves by virtue of the fact that the Holy Spirit renders the will capable of loving through the supernatural habit of charity:

it is evident that the act of charity surpasses the nature of the power of the will, so that, therefore, unless some form be superadded to the natural power, inclining it to the act of love, this same act would be less perfect than the natural acts and the acts of the other powers; nor would it be easy and pleasurable to perform. And this is evidently untrue, since no virtue has such a strong inclination to its act as charity has, nor does any virtue perform its act with so great pleasure. Therefore it is most necessary that, for us to perform the act of charity, there should be in us some habitual form superadded to the natural power, inclining that power to the act of charity, and causing it to act with ease and pleasure (II-II, q. 23, a. 2).

Despite this very significant disagreement between Lombard and Aquinas about what charity is, they are in agreement that love (charity) is made possible by an intense intimacy between God and humans. For Lombard, this intimacy is defined in terms of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit; for Aquinas, it is expressed in terms of friendship and a communication of God’s happiness to us (II-II, q. 23, a. 1). For both, hearkening back to the Augustinian position, love is a critically important way in which we come to know God.

Ultimately, Augustine’s, Lombard’s, and Aquinas’s positions on love are metaphysical in nature. They are not saying that we consciously choose to know and love God when we love our neighbor. They are all trying to characterize the essence of human love in light of the fact that God has revealed Godself as love. But for all three, metaphysical reflection on the nature of love can lead us into a more conscious understanding of the God who makes love possible. As Augustine writes,

Let no one say, I do not know what I love. Let him love his brother, and he will love the same love. For he knows the love with which he loves, more than the brother whom he loves. So now he can know God more than he knows his brother: clearly known more, because more present; known more, because more within him; known more, because more certain. Embrace the love of God, and by love embrace God (De Trin Bk. VIII, ch. 8, v. 12).

The Place of the Heart in Lonergan’s Ethics

Despite the fact I hail from Boston College, I have not yet had the opportunity to immerse myself in the study of Lonergan. Bernard Lonergan (1904-1984) was a Canadian Jesuit philosopher and theologian famous for addressing methodological foundations in philosophy, theology, and other disciplines, and in particular for developing an ethical method of the mind. Lonergan wanted to know what the mind was doing when it made a moral judgment. Because of my interest in connatural knowledge and practical reasoning, I am beginning to turn to Lonergan for insights (no pun intended).

I just finished an excellent book by Mark J. Doorley called The Place of the Heart in Lonergan’s Ethics: The Role of Feelings in the Ethical Intentionality Analysis of Bernard Lonergan. Doorley begins by reflecting on how “uneducated” people often were able to teach him more about an existential and moral commitment to God than any of his intense philosophical and theological studies had done. “How did they arrive at such a profound knowledge of God?” he writes in the Introduction. “Each spoke from the ‘heart,’ as they said. It was in their ‘guts'” (xiii). The question of how one could know “in the heart” or “in the gut” is the driving question of this book, to which Doorley turns to Lonergan for answers. He writes,

“Lonergan was interested in the human good and the way in which that good is to be realized through the cooperative efforts of human beings under the sway of the grace of God. His reflections on such a cooperative effort led him to wonder about human feelings. Moral effort is not merely a rational exercise. Feelings are involved as well” (xv).

Lonergan, in the Aristotelian-Thomist tradition, adopts a middle ground between emotivism and rationalism, rejecting that the emotions are either separate from or superior to reason, while also acknowledging that the emotions play a massive role in practical reasoning. However, this balance is a difficult one to strike (Thomas himself often does not achieve it, leaning more toward rationalism), and Doorley notes how Lonergan’s earlier work also reflects a tendency toward rationalism. In Insight (1957), Lonergan’s study of the conscious operations that function in human knowing, Doorley argues that Lonergan more often than not identifies the feelings “as obstacles to the operation of the unrestricted desire to know.” However, he holds this position with a certain level of ambivalence, recognizing the importance of feelings in decision-making. This ambivalence, as well as the influence of Max Scheler and Dietrich Von Hildebrand, allows him to develop a typology of feelings and an examination of their role in intentional decisions in Method in Theology (1972).

Borrowing directly from the work of von Hildebrand, Lonergan distinguishes between feelings as non-intentional states or trends like fatigue, hunger and anxiety, all of which occur independently of perception and/or apprehension, and intentional states or trends which occur in “answer to what is intended, apprehended, represented” (52, MT 30). Intentional feelings are ones which relate the human subject to an object like an apple, rather than a goal like relieving hunger (as with non-intentional feelings). His list, by no means inclusive, of intentional feelings include

our desires and our fears, our hope or despair, our joys and sorrows, our enthusiasm and indignation, our esteem and contempt, our trust and distrust, our love and hatred, our tenderness and wrath, our admiration, veneration, reverence, our dread, horror, terror . . .(52, MT 31)

The important thing to note about these feelings is that they arise in the subject following the apprehension of some object, either real or imagined. I may wake up experiencing a non-intentional dread which becomes real intentional fear when I open my computer and apprehend my dissertation I am preparing to defend. I may experience non-intentional hunger, but I may also experience intentional desire for piece or rare seared tuna. Intentional responses respond to the specific content of the apprehension. This means that these responses follow knowledge. Citing von Hildebrand, Doorley writes that “one cannot respond with joy at the arrival of a friend unless one first has knowledge of the friend’s arrival” (53).

In order to better understand intentional responses, Doorley compares them to insights.

An insight is a supervening act. It adds to the data what is not intrinsic to the data as data, namely intelligibility. . . As with insights, intentional responses operate in relation to a presentation or an image. They operate, as well, in relation to an apprehended object or a possible course of action. Once these feelings occur, they are capable of directing the flow of consciousness. such direction influences the further images, further questions and further insights that might occur. Rather than becoming moments in the formation of a viewpoint, as insights do, intentional responses have the capacity to become vectors in the flow of consciousness (54).

Intentional responses, like insights, go beyond the empirically apprehended data (the empirical residue) and add something to the object, something that goes beyond a merely biological response. Such intentional responses move the subject from mere experience and response to a state of self-transcendence. A dog may desire a steak, and this is a kind of intentional response. But a human may desire a steak, and have that desire “sublated” to a higher level of consciousness which allows her to decide about the goodness of the steak, to transcend the mere empirical data to the immaterial round of goodness.

This brings us to Doorley’s argument that in Lonergan, there are two types of intentional responses, one to pleasure and one to value. The latter orient the subject to that which is valuable independent of the subject. According to the former, the farthest I get in emotionally responding to the steak is whether it is good for me. This is self-oriented response. An intentional response to value allows me to transcend myself and respond to the steak apart from my own subjective pleasure. This self-transcendence is made possible by my unrestricted desire to choose the good. Doorley writes,

The subject who allows this unrestricted desire, in both its cognitional and moral manifestations, to be the primary force in consciousness is one who is able to achieve cognitional and moral self-transcendence with some degree of regularity. Authenticity, then, is achieved when, and insofar as, the unrestricted desire to know and choose the good is the central dynamism of one’s existence. (75)

How does one allow the unrestricted desire to choose the good become part of one’s existence? By practice, by “painful yet persistent, practice” (77). This is the important part. If one does something, say, eats a steak, that action is grounded in a judgment that this action is good. Now, eating a steak could be good for myself in that it is tasty and juicy. But if I just restrict my judgment of value to what is good for me, I never really achieve that truly self-transcendent state where the unrestricted desire to choose the good is completely operative in my existence. To get there, I have to go beyond myself, to ask whether or not eating the steak is good for the cow, good for the environment, good for the economy. And if I decide that it is not, and I choose not to eat the steak out of concerns that go beyond my own pleasure, I am forming the habits necessary for moral self-transcendence:

The judgment of value, then, on the fourth level of consciousness plays a pivotal role between the intentional activity of the subject and his moral activity. A judgment of value presupposes the activities of experiencing, understanding and judging. It presupposes the process of deliberation which allows further questions to arise, discerns the movement of one’s feelings, and grasps the sufficiency of evidence for a judgment of value. The judgment of value is presupposed by a further process of practical reflection which issues a number of alternatives for action. These alternatives are then met by the deliberative question which seeks the best possible option. A comparative judgment of value, different from the simple judgment already mentioned, pronounces which alternative is the best. A decision chooses which alternative will be followed in accord with the prior judgment comparative judgment of value. And action realizes the value in question. The action itself is conditioned by a disposition in the subject to act in accord with the evaluations of conscious intentionality. (77)

Lest this seem too intellectualistic or rationalistic, the role of the feelings play a dynamic role here. The feelings help establish the horizon of a person, that is, the limit of her concern. A horizon is determined by past insights, judgments, decisions, and actions. If I decide to act out of concern for the cow who made my steak, this concern for animal life becomes part of my horizon. This forms the basis of future concerns for animal life. This means that it is possible for such an intentional response to value to arise in the future. We can compare this process with being in love. When a person is in love, their whole being is directed outward towards the beloved. The state of “being in love” provides the basis for all of her actions. This feeling establishes her horizon, expands it beyond herself, so that she acts in a way that is good for the beloved. To return to Doorley question at the beginning regarding the knowledge of God possessed by uneducated people, the reason is that their horizon is constituted by the love of God. As such, their judgments of value or at the height of self-transcendence. What they know, and what they are able to do, is established by an almost-limitless horizon.

It’s complicated stuff but we can break it down to a basic need to be attentive to one’s feelings, because one’s feelings reveal one’s values and the limit of one’s horizon (or sphere of concern). When one discovers that one’s values are self-centered, one can use the activity of reason to direct one’s concern outward, and to act in such ways as to expand one’s horizon and transcend mere self-regard. The feelings and the mind are mutually interdependent in satisfying the human desire to know and to choose the good. As Doorley concludes, the task of integrating one’s feelings into activities of consciousness reveals to a person that “she is the source of the person that she has become and that she is the source of the person that she might want to become. This is the beginning of moral conversion” (99).

The Gifts of the Holy Spirit

For the finest Thomistic treatment of the gifts of the Holy Spirit, see John of St. Thomas’ Commentary on Thomas’ text in the Summa.

We don’t really talk about the gifts much anymore. Anybody in CCD or raised on the old Baltimore Catechism could probably rattle them off–wisdom, knowledge, understanding, counsel, piety, fortitude and fear of the Lord. The main scriptural passage in support of the gifts is Isaiah 11: 2-3:

The spirit of the LORD shall rest upon him: a spirit of wisdom and of understanding, A spirit of counsel and of strength, a spirit of knowledge and of fear of the LORD, and his delight shall be the fear of the LORD.

In general, the gifts are considered the works of grace of the Holy Spirit for the sanctification of souls. “Grace,” says St. Thomas, “is nothing but the beginning of eternal life in us.” (II-II 24.3.2). The gifts of the Holy Spirit might be considered the foretaste of eternal life. Everlasting life begins not when we die but the moment we receive grace in our soul.

More specifically, Aquinas considers the gifts habits (habitui) in a similar manner as virtues, but distinct from the virtues. Unlike the moral virtues, the gifts have the intellect and will as their subject. Unlike the theological virtues, save charity, the gifts remain in heaven. The gifts collaborate with the virtues, but a distinction remains.

The key word in talking about the gifts is love, defined as the “desire to be in union with the beloved.” The gifts unite a person to God and give her a participation in the divine life. This is not a transient thing, but a firm and stable disposition according to the intention of God (hence the identification of the gifts as habitui). Dominic Hughes provides an important clarification on this point in his introduction to John of St. Thomas’ commentary:

Looked at from the viewpoint of God and of the infused virtues themselves, man’s supernatural life is solid and stable; looked at from the viewpoint of weak human nature, the supernatural life is held in a fragile vessel that can be easily destroyed by moral sin.

Thus, the “blessed assurance” sung about in church exists only from the divine vantage point. Here on earth, things look a little more tenuous.

Nevertheless, the gifts dispose the Christian to receive immediate direction by the Holy Spirit who leads humans toward their ultimate telos–salvation. Progress in holiness is a matter of relinquishing greater and greater control to the promptings of the Holy Spirit. Again, progress in holiness is not something human beings are capable of–“no amount of instruction is sufficient for man to learn perfectly the ways of living in God,” writes Hughes.

The gifts of the Holy Spirit are, therefore, especially ordained to overcome the shortcomings of human knowledge. Even the person enlightened by faith sees “through a veil.” Faith allows one to believe, but belief is not the same as sight. In heaven, faith passes away because we will see God as God is, face to face. Here on earth, this vision is granted by the gifts which enlighten the intellect not to assent to belief, as with faith, but rather, to see. Accordingly,

the gift of understanding gives faith a greater penetration of its own principles, the revealed truths of tradition and Scripture; counsel perfects faith in its practical extension to the multiplicity of human action directed to the final end; it guides immediately the three affective gifts of piety, fortitude and fear of the Lord; the gifts of knowledge and wisdom perfect faith in its act of judgment, whether the judgment is concerned with creatures or with God Himself (Hughes, 17).

The key to the gifts is that they provide a knowledge through connaturality with divine things. Connatural knowledge is an affective union with an object that grants a sort of emotional “knowledge,” a knowledge by love, by inclination (per modum inclinationis) or from instinct (ex instinctu). Knowledge by connaturality is contrasted with the discursive knowledge of the intellect and in some ways is more perfect than intellectual or cognitive knowledge in that it leads to union with the loved object. Connatural knowledge transforms the knower (rather than transforming the object from material to immaterial in the case of cognitive knowledge), and it is in this way that the Holy Spirit works. The grace of the third person of the trinity instills the deep affective, connatural knowledge of God into the believer, thus inclining her toward God by a kind of instinctive movement. Sevais Pinckaers says the result of the gifts is a spiritual “instinct” (instinctus).

What is particularly great about the gifts of the Holy Spirit is that they reveal the great dignity and importance of the emotions in the moral and spiritual life. The gifts transform the emotions to love God, and grant a knowledge of God the intellect is itself incapable of. We should remember this when we try to intellectualize our faith and deny the importance of the emotions. Ss Hughes writes, “If we insist, consciously or unconsciously, on our own initiative, we are doomed to spiritual mediocrity. . . Reason is always valid while we are separated from God by the veil of faith. . . Love is always dissatisfied with the limitations of human knowledge, even when enlightened by faith.”

Integrating Mind and Matter in Healthcare

A great article in the NYTimes illustrates a major problem in contemporary psychiatric practice–its mind/body dualism. The author Daniel Carlat, who has a book coming out on the subject next month, describes how psychiatric practice has moved over the last fifty years from an exclusive focus on the mind to an exclusive focus on the brain:

Leon Eisenberg, an early pioneer in psychopharmacology at Harvard, once made the notable historical observation that “in the first half of the 20th century, American psychiatry was virtually ‘brainless.’ . . . In the second half of the 20th century, psychiatry became virtually ‘mindless.’ ” The brainless period was a reference to psychiatry’s early infatuation with psychoanalysis; the mindless period, to our current love affair with pills.

More specifically, writes Carlan, “psychiatry has been transformed from a profession in which we talk to people and help them understand their problems into one in which we diagnose disorders and medicate them.”

This is due to a number of factors including the fact that insurance companies “pay nearly the same amount for a 20-minute medication visit as for 50 minutes of therapy” as well as the fact that patients in today’s busy culture are unlikely to want to commit valuable time to weekly therapy. But a big reason for the move to meds over therapy is that the drugs seem to work. But appearances can be deceiving. Carlat writes,

But over the past few years, research studies have shown that therapy is just as effective as medications for many conditions, and that medications themselves often work through the power of placebo. In one study, for example, researchers did a meta-analysis of studies submitted by drug companies to the F.D.A. on seven new antidepressants, involving more than 19,000 patients. It turned out that antidepressants are, indeed, effective, because on average patients taking the pills showed a 40 percent drop in depression scores. But placebo was also a powerful antidepressant, causing a 30 percent drop in depression scores. This meant that about three-quarters of the apparent response to antidepressants pills is actually due to the placebo effect.

Nobody knows exactly how the mysterious placebo effect works, but it is clear that it has impacts on the brain that can be seen as clearly as medication effects. In one study conducted by pain researchers at the University of Michigan, subjects were given an ache-inducing injection of saline into their jaws and were placed in a PET scanner. They were then told that they would be given an intravenous pain treatment, but the “treatment” was merely more saline solution, acting as a placebo. The PET scan showed that the endogenous endorphin system in the brains of the subjects was activated. The patients believed so strongly that they were receiving effective treatment that their brains followed suit. Presumably, a corresponding brain change occurs when depressed patients are given placebo pills.

Therapy, you may be surprised to discover, also leads to empirical changes in the brain.

n an experiment conducted at U.C.L.A. several years ago, with subjects suffering from obsessive-compulsive disorder, researchers assigned some patients to treatment with Prozac and others to cognitive behavior therapy. They found that patients improved about equally well with the two treatments. Each patient’s brain was PET-scanned before and after treatment, and patients showed identical changes in their brain circuits regardless of the treatment.

What this article points out is that the dualistic distinction between mind and matter does not correspond to reality. The “mind” is not some metaphysical entity distinct from and trapped inside the material trappings of the brain. Rather, the mind is matter, or perhaps more specifically, the mind is consubstantial with matter. As scientists like Steven Pinker and Antonio Damasio have illustrated, the legacy of Descartes that there is some sort of “ghost in the machine” is false. The metaphysical “mind,” complete with values, personality, and character, exists substantially in the material components of synapses, axons, and cortex.

We might consider this a development from a more Platonic to a more Aristotelian psychology and biology. Ethically, it challenges us to see how care for the soul cannot be separated from care for the body. We are not spiritual beings who can somehow transcend the trappings of the body with all of its inconveniences, but nor are we purely material beings, as transparent and obedient to the laws of nature as a stone. What is metaphysical in our nature influences and is influenced by what is material.

This new understanding of the nature of the human person, what we might call a philosophical anthropology, needs to influence the way we think of medicine. As Carlat writes,

Clearly, mental illness is a brain disease, though we are still far from working out the details. But just as clearly, these problems in neurobiology can respond to what have traditionally been considered “nonbiological” treatments, like psychotherapy. The split between mind and body may be a fallacy, but the split between those who practice psychopharmacology and those specializing in therapy remains all too real.

For him practically, this has meant a shift to what he calls “supportive therapy” which involves not only prescribing drugs, but also listening to patients, helping them solve basic problems, and offering emotional support. The implications, however, extend beyond just psychiatry to all of medicine. Carlat concludes that good doctoring “involves perfecting all the skills relevant to healing and deploying them when needed.”

This will be a challenge in upcoming years as our health care system becomes more systematized, more reliant on complex care networks dependent largely on electronic patient records rather than a simpler primary care provider/patient relationship. In an of itself, this is not a bad thing and a more efficient system will allow more patients to receive and benefit from healthcare. But doctors need not forget the value of that standard question “how are you feeling?” and most importantly, cultivating a disposition to listen to the response. They may find themselves prescribing fewer meds and getting healthier and happier patients as a result.

Pinker on Grammar and an Update on Human Nature

The Hub and I do the New York Times crossword puzzle in the evenings (since we do not have a television) and the Thursday Lewis Carroll theme provides the perfect opportunity to add to the last post on Pinker by briefly addressing his thesis on grammar which is related to his arguments in favor of a universal human nature. In The Language Instinct, Pinker quotes Carroll’s “Jabberwocky”:

‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.

“Beware the Jabberwock, my son
The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!
Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun
The frumious Bandersnatch!”

He took his vorpal sword in hand;
Long time the manxome foe he sought—
So rested he by the Tumtum tree,
And stood awhile in thought.

And, as in uffish thought he stood,
The Jabberwock, with eyes of flame,
Came whiffling through the tulgey wood,
And burbled as it came!

One, two! One, two! And through and through
The vorpal blade went snicker-snack!
He left it dead, and with its head
He went galumphing back.

“And hast thou slain the Jabberwock?
Come to my arms, my beamish boy!
O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!”
He chortled in his joy.

‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.

Pinker writes:

“As Alice said, ‘Somehow it seems to fill my head with ideas–only I don’t exactly know what they are!’ But though common sense and common knowledge are of no help in understanding these passages, English speakers recognize that they are grammatical, and their mental rules allow them to extract precise, though abstract, frameworks of meaning. Alice deduced, ‘Somebody killed something; that’s clear, at any rate–.’ And after reading Chomsky’s entry in Barlett’s [“Colorless green ideas sleep furiously”], anyone can answer questions like ‘What slept? How? Did one thing sleep, or several? What kind of ideas were they?'”

Pinker’s point is that human beings are born with an innate capacity for language, and despite the great differences in language, share a common biologically-determined grammar, a point originally made by Noam Chomsky. As the title of the book suggests, Pinker sees language as a characteristically human instinct, analogous to geese flying south for the winter. We are creatures who have evolved to use language. Even children born deaf will draw on this universal grammar to “babble” with their hands.

Like The Blank Slate, the arguments in The Language Instinct point to the evidence for some sort of universal human nature, a human nature which can be explored scientifically through genetics and evolutionary biology. However, there are implications for philosophy too. For example, by drawing on such evidence for a universal grammar or an evolutionarily-evolved shared human nature, can we enhance attempts to use natural law reasoning as the basis for cross-cultural dialogue on such issues as human rights? Can we provide scientifically-backed evidence for normative claims about what it means for individuals–and entire societies–to flourish? Can we talk about the virtues as a sort of “moral grammar” with differing and distinct content in different societies but sharing the same underlying structure? Does the universal ability to read and understand “Jabberwocky” point to the possibility not only of a universal grammar, but possibly a universal ethic?

On Wednesday, the Gasson Chair Professor for 2009-2010, Andrea Vicini, presented the annual Chair Lecture on the topic of natural law and possibility of a universal ethic. Although he gave only passing mention to the fields of cognitive psychology, sociobiology, and evolutionary psychology, it seems to me that collaboration with such fields will be critical for Vicini’s project–establishing natural law as the basis for cross-cultural and interreligious moral conversations. Natural law ethicists need to start reading Chomsky and Pinker in addition to Aquinas and MacIntyre.

A Brief Review of Steven Pinker’s Blank Slate

EverydayThomist sheepishly admits that she was simply unaware of the height, breadth, and depth of the human nature debate until reading Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature. I was obviously aware of nature/nurture debates, in which the idea of the blank slate is rooted. Quite simply, the debate boils down to whether you think human behavior is socially conditioned (blank slate, nurture) or biologically conditioned (marked slate, nature). The phrase “blank slate” refers to the idea that human nature is born formless, without prior inclinations and dispositions, and becomes “written on” by one’s surroundings—family, social environment, geography.

What I did not realize was what was at stake in “blank slate” arguments, and why arguments about a universal human nature and a biological foundation of morality were so politically suspect. Pinker’s book is concerned more with the political implications of arguments against the blank slate than he is with scientific arguments. He targets his adversaries on both sides, with the right’s fear that arguments about the biological foundation of behavior will undermine religion and is in danger of slipping into a dangerous amoralism or biological determinism, and the left’s insistence on the inherent equal potential of all people and the importance of social conditioning to form good people.

It is the left’s attachment to the blank slate that I found most interesting. Pinker argues that the good intentions of the left lead them to embrace bad science. If traits like intelligence, aggression, and passivity are heritable, not environmentally determined, this means that not everybody is equal, and subsequently, that some people are better than others. Some people are naturally smarter, some people are naturally disposed towards criminal behavior, some people are naturally disposed towards being a pushover. This means that anti-social behavior cannot be explained away by a troubled childhood, or an under-achieving adult cannot be excused by parents who did not read to him enough. We have to accept, says Pinker, that our human biology can explain a lot of our selfishness, violence, bigotry, and irrationality.

This means parents can relax a little about trying to provide the perfect environment for their kids. Reading to your child or playing Mozart CDs is likely to be futile, according to Pinker, in making a child more intelligent. Frequent hugging will likely not change a child’s biological disposition towards violence. Letting a boy play with dolls will not make him gay.

It also means that most forms of social conditioning will be unsuccessful. We cannot, Pinker argues, form a society free of hatred, violence, rape, and ignorance, and furthermore, any attempts to try and impose “equality” from the top-down will be unsuccessful. Pinker blames many failed Marxist regimes of embracing the blank slate mentality in their assumption that there is no essential human nature, only a human history. Pinker is also critical of what he calls “radical feminist agendas” which try and argue that gender is a social construct, without a biological foundation, and that rape is more about violence and patriarchy than it is about sex. Not only are such theories wrong, but they are also dangerous. By failing to recognize the inherent differences in the sexes and attempting to create a utopian society through social engineering, you end up suppressing the natural talents people are born with and oppressing huge segments of society. He draws on Orwell and Vonnegut for fictional support, and oppressive communist regimes like Mao for historical support.

Pinker is not, as you might suspect, attempting to undermine free will. He uses the example of language to explain how free will and biological causality can be maintained. Language, argues Pinker, emerges from a fixed, determined universal grammar. But as he stated in Reason Magazine, “Even if we’re equipped with a fixed set of grammatical rules and a fixed vocabulary, we can spin out a mind-boggling array of sentences that have never been uttered before. Each one of those sentences corresponds to a distinct thought. The open-ended creativity of language is just a way of externalizing the open-ended creativity of thought. People can come up with new ways of resolving conflicts or attaining social goals in the same way that they can cook up new technological solutions to problems. You don’t need an unconstrained ghost in order to account for human ingenuity.” In a similar way, behavior, though emerging from a fixed starting point, has the same open-ended potential. “What we call free will,” Pinker goes on, “is a product of particular circuits of the brain, presumably concentrated in the prefrontal lobes, that respond to contingencies of responsibility and credit and blame and reward and punishment and alter their operations as a consequence. Our decision to hold people responsible for their behavior is itself part of the environment in which the brain works. The brain can respond to an environment in which people are held responsible, and that’s why we should continue to hold people responsible.”

The book would be a lot better if Pinker distinguished personality, which he claims is biologically determined and largely unaffected by conditioning, with character, which he implicitly argues can change and develop and is largely dependent on social environment. Clarifying this distinction is the task for another blog post.

In general, I would recommend the book mostly for a sort of “review of the literature.” Parts will make you angry. Feminists will not like his chapter on women, for example, and his arguments in favor of the common sense approach to preventing rape that women need to dress less provocatively in order not to entice men whose evolutionarily-evolved sexual appetite often gets the best of them. Pinker is also no fan of religion, and he could use a more nuanced, dare I say Thomistic understanding of the relationship between religion and science and theological anthropology. But all in all, a fine read.

A Thomistic Argument for Labeling Retouched Media Images

Valerie Boyer, a member of the French Parliament, has drafted a law requiring all digitally-altered photographs of people used in advertising to be labeled as “retouched.” Her proposal has not yet come to a vote in the National Assembly, but has understandably initiated a debate extending beyond France.

According to the NYTimes article on the subject, the real issue for Ms. Boyer is “about her two teenage daughters, 16 and 17, and the pressures on young women to match the fashionable ideal of a thin body and perfect skin.” Boyer noted in an interview: “If someone wants to make life a success, wants to feel good in their skin, wants to be part of society, one has to be thin or skinny, and then it’s not enough — one will have his body transformed with software that alters the image, so we enter a standardized and brainwashed world, and those who aren’t part of it are excluded from society.”

Photographers and models largely oppose the proposed law, citing concerns about destroying the nature of photographic art and misplacing body concerns and eating disorder prevention efforts to images rather than other complex causal factors.

But EverydayThomist is on the side of Boyer, with a Thomistic argument to boot. According to Aquinas, the sense of sight is the most important of the senses (this point he derives from his Aristotelian biology). While Aquinas thinks that there is something ontologically superior granted to the sense of sight not shared by other senses, a primary reason that the sense of sight is so important is that it is through our vision that we know the truth.

This requires some explanation. Human beings, in Aquinas’ hylomorphic anthropological schema, are composed of a material body and an immaterial soul. We know the truth through our immaterial intellect. However, unlike the angels and other spirits, human beings, being corporeal, cannot grasp the truth simply through the immaterial intellect. Rather, all knowledge of the truth must be mediated through the corporeal body, and specifically, through the external senses–sight, hearing, touch, taste, and smell.

The external senses apprehend external objects which it then communicates to the immaterial intellect. The intellect, being immaterial, cannot have knowledge of material objects perceived by the senses unless it abstracts from these material objects to form an image in the mind, what Aquinas calls a phantasm. It is by means of this image that the mind knows. This is an important point in Thomistic epistemology that bears repeating: the mind can only know by means of the creation of phantasms.

However, the process of knowing by means of the creation of phantasms is a complex and highly dialectic process. The mind must continue to return to the external senses which apprehend (and are corporeally transmuted by the perception of the external object) in order to maintain and develop the phantasm. Think of this analogously to apprehending a complex piece of art. As you think back on the work of art in your mind, your knowledge will be fragmented. You have to continue, time and again, returning to the piece of art before you can truly see it in your mind’s eye, even when the artifact itself is absent. Turns out, all knowledge of externals is like this. We have to continue returning to the external object before its phantasm can be firmly planted in the mind and our knowledge of the object can be said to be true.

Multiple empirical studies have indicated a significant correlation between exposure to idealized media images and various manifestations of body dissatisfaction including depression anxiety, and anger. A 2003 Australian study investigated the effect of body dissatisfaction in adolescent boys and girls (aged 13-15) after viewing 20 commercials containing idealized thin female images versus 20 nonappearance television commercials. The study found that girls, but not boys, who viewed the commercials with the idealized images reported significantly higher body dissatisfaction compared with nonappearance commercials, supporting the general hypothesis that televised images of attractiveness lead to increased body dissatisfaction in adolescent girls. A 2002 study by Durkin and Paxton found that in a controlled study of seventh and tenth graders, both grades experienced a significant decrease in state body satisfaction and a significant increase in state depression attributable to viewing idealized images of females in advertising. Another 2002 meta-analytic review of 25 studies on the effect of mass media images of the slender ideal on body dissatisfaction found that body image was significantly more negative after viewing thin media images than after viewing images of thin models than after viewing images of average or plus-size models.

The role of the media and specifically the espousal of the thin-ideal image of female beauty is frequently implicated as a cause for the onset and maintenance of eating disorders, and experimental data from the last two decades seems to confirm that this is the case. Several studies confirm that body-image dissatisfaction is the most consistent predictor of the onset of an eating disorder. A three-year longitudinal study of female adolescents confirmed a statistical significance between body dissatisfaction and the onset restrictive eating behaviors.

Aquinas would not be surprised at such empirical studies. Aquinas, along with the ancients, knew that what we see influences who we are. Aquinas called this the process of becoming connatured to what we see. The strongest phantasms in our minds, the phantasms of external objects we are most frequently exposed to through our vision, naturally influences our appetites, inclining us toward those objects in the appetitive movement of love. If we continuously are exposed to thin-ideal images of beauty in popular media, those phantasms of that beauty ideal will be strong in our mind, and our appetites will be duly influenced as well. Women may be inclined towards behaviors like food restriction and over-exercise to manifest such an ideal in their own body. Men may be inclined towards women embodying such an ideal, thus reinforcing the knowledge (derived from the phantasm), that thinness is the ideal of feminine beauty.

Boyer’s proposal offers a way of bypassing this psychological process. By labeling thin-ideal images as retouched, the phantasm that the mind would like create upon exposure to such images is more likely to be a phantasm of a falsely-represented external object, rather than an accurate representation of reality. The mind would not just create a phantasm of an overly-thin beautiful woman, but would accompany this phantasm with the cognitive judgment that such an image was a lie. Thus, the appetite is more likely to be inclined towards such images as good and desirable.

Now, EverydayThomist in no way thinks that Boyer’s proposal is going to solve the eating disorder problem. Eating disorders are complicated phenomena, and the representation of thin-ideal images of women in popular media is only part of the problem. But her proposal is a step in the right direction. It recognizes that eating disorders are not simply problems with food, but also problems in seeing. Transforming what we see is frequently the first step in solving problems in what we do.