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Switch to Forum Live View Is the "natural law" really valid?
6 years ago  ::  Mar 26, 2009 - 4:23PM #1
LittleLes
Posts: 9,994

 


We are frequently told that many moral teachings are from the "natural law. "  This is defined as the existence of a law which is based on observation of natural phenomena. It is suppose to be discoverable by reason alone (rather than revelation) and is supposed to be unchangeable.


 In Catholic philosophy, many "natural law" arguments come from the writings of Thomas Aquinas especially his Summa Theologicae. 


Are conclusions based on the observation of natural law valid, or does natural law really reflect older thinking based on a flawed or incomplete understanding of nature?

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6 years ago  ::  Mar 26, 2009 - 10:30PM #2
newsjunkie
Posts: 5,748

Mar 26, 2009 -- 4:23PM, LittleLes wrote:


 


We are frequently told that many moral teachings are from the "natural law. "  This is defined as the existence of a law which is based on observation of natural phenomena. It is suppose to be discoverable by reason alone (rather than revelation) and is supposed to be unchangeable.


 In Catholic philosophy, many "natural law" arguments come from the writings of Thomas Aquinas especially his Summa Theologicae. 


Are conclusions based on the observation of natural law valid, or does natural law really reflect older thinking based on a flawed or incomplete understanding of nature?




ISTM it's an outdated notion, from a bygone era. Here's a definition of natural law, from the "What is Science" website by B. Railsback, a geology professor at U. of Georgia (http://www.gly.uga.edu/railsback/1122science7.html):


natural law - a term rarely used today, at least by scientists thinking about what they're saying. Nineteenth-century science presumed that it could arrive at immutable, absolutely true, universal statements about nature, and these were to be "natural laws". Newton's ideas about gravitation, for example, were considered the "laws of gravity". To continue with that example,in the 20th century, Einstein's theory of relativity showed that Newton's laws needed correction in some cases. Thus it became apparent that it would be wisest to treat even our most trusted ideas, of which Newton's had been one, as theories rather than laws.


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6 years ago  ::  Mar 26, 2009 - 11:37PM #3
jane2
Posts: 14,295

When I was in Catholic college we studied much of Aquinas, but even back in the fifties not all that Aquinas wrote in the thirteenth century was considered applicable. That would have been preposterous!! My professors were much too astute to buy into all of Aquinas. I still admire much of what I learned from applicable Aquinas, especially that Faith and Reason work together.


Most who take all of Aquinas at some strange literal face-value didn't learn to analyse very well. Good higher education usually requires analysis, synthesis and formation of appropriate ideas. Good analysis doesn't apply only to the sciences: it belongs to the whole world of ideas. A good part of a good liberal arts education was learning how to reason. The world needs poets and scientists.


I've mentioned before an hilarious conversation I had with a Germaqn-born pyschiatrist at a party. He kept bugging me about how much Freud I'd read. When I told him I didn't need Freud because of the amount of Shakespeare I'd read, he laughed out loud. He and I usedto "nail" each other all the time.


 


 


 

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6 years ago  ::  Mar 27, 2009 - 7:59AM #4
TemplarS
Posts: 6,865

Mar 26, 2009 -- 10:30PM, newsjunkie wrote:


ISTM it's an outdated notion, from a bygone era. Here's a definition of natural law, from the "What is Science" website by B. Railsback, a geology professor at U. of Georgia (http://www.gly.uga.edu/railsback/1122science7.html):


natural law - a term rarely used today, at least by scientists thinking about what they're saying. Nineteenth-century science presumed that it could arrive at immutable, absolutely true, universal statements about nature, and these were to be "natural laws". Newton's ideas about gravitation, for example, were considered the "laws of gravity". To continue with that example,in the 20th century, Einstein's theory of relativity showed that Newton's laws needed correction in some cases. Thus it became apparent that it would be wisest to treat even our most trusted ideas, of which Newton's had been one, as theories rather than laws.





NJ, this is a good point, though I might use the term "principles" rather than "theories".  In fact, Newton's "laws" work just fine 99% of the time.


The same would seem to me to apply to the way the term is used in a moral sense.


For example, "Do not kill" seems to be a universal concept among humans. But there always seem to be those exceptions: "Do not kill- unless it is a person not of your tribe, or who has offended your honor in some way, etc. etc".  In spite of this unversal law, we do plenty of killing and are constantly trying to find justification for it (just war, capital punishment, fetuses are not human, etc.)


So natural law might apply at the level of the highest principles, but it is not always helpful in day to day life.

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6 years ago  ::  Mar 27, 2009 - 10:11AM #5
hewy1952
Posts: 2,454

I have been a frequent writer about the issue.  One--and not the only one--of the issues is that we rely on Aristotelian/Thomistic definitions of 'natural law', which, according to their definitions apply only to the 'mind of man'.  Secondly, it is a 'habit' of thinking--which allows, for example, for the act of 'killing', since natural law does not 'in the mind of man' prohibit all killing--only unjust killing.  As we previously noted, this is a definition of 'natural law' that is no longer accepted by either the scientific and philosophic community.  (If it is accepted, there really is not basis--without violating the definition 'the mind of man' for environmental/ecological theology (God's creation and image) of preservation of the planet.


More importantly however, is the reliance on the principle of 'duality' in looking at everything, be it essence/existence, substance/accidents.  Real natural law simply does not fit the reality of a definition of duality upon which  both Aristotelian and Thomistic philosophy rely. 

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6 years ago  ::  Mar 27, 2009 - 11:07AM #6
LittleLes
Posts: 9,994

Question:


It is argued that a man cannot have a vasectomy because this is mutilation of the body, a destruction of a proprer biological function, and consequently forbidden by the natural law.


But how does the natural law apply to organ transplantion in which, say, a perfectly functioning kidney is removed and transplanted to another individual?

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6 years ago  ::  Mar 27, 2009 - 12:35PM #7
jane2
Posts: 14,295

Mar 27, 2009 -- 10:11AM, hewy1952 wrote:


I have been a frequent writer about the issue.  One--and not the only one--of the issues is that we rely on Aristotelian/Thomistic definitions of 'natural law', which, according to their definitions apply only to the 'mind of man'.  Secondly, it is a 'habit' of thinking--which allows, for example, for the act of 'killing', since natural law does not 'in the mind of man' prohibit all killing--only unjust killing.  As we previously noted, this is a definition of 'natural law' that is no longer accepted by either the scientific and philosophic community.  (If it is accepted, there really is not basis--without violating the definition 'the mind of man' for environmental/ecological theology (God's creation and image) of preservation of the planet.


More importantly however, is the reliance on the principle of 'duality' in looking at everything, be it essence/existence, substance/accidents.  Real natural law simply does not fit the reality of a definition of duality upon which  both Aristotelian and Thomistic philosophy rely. 




Thanks for the fine explanation, Hewy.

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6 years ago  ::  Mar 27, 2009 - 12:58PM #8
newsjunkie
Posts: 5,748

Mar 27, 2009 -- 7:59AM, TemplarS wrote:

NJ, this is a good point, though I might use the term "principles" rather than "theories".  In fact, Newton's "laws" work just fine 99% of the time.


The same would seem to me to apply to the way the term is used in a moral sense.


For example, "Do not kill" seems to be a universal concept among humans. But there always seem to be those exceptions: "Do not kill- unless it is a person not of your tribe, or who has offended your honor in some way, etc. etc".  In spite of this unversal law, we do plenty of killing and are constantly trying to find justification for it (just war, capital punishment, fetuses are not human, etc.)


So natural law might apply at the level of the highest principles, but it is not always helpful in day to day life.




While I appreciate that you prefer the word "principle", scientists use the term "theory" to refer to things like Newton's or Einstein's explanations of gravity. Same with things like plate tectonics, the structure of the atom, and evolution. A scientific theory is our best explanation for how something in nature works, has a mountain of evidence to support it, predicts other things we should find or that should occur in nature, and that we do indeed later find. Scientific theories have been tested many, many times, and despite the rigorous testing, have not been falsified. Sometimes it is found that the theory is limited, and Newton's theory of gravitation is a good example. That doesn't mean the theory is wrong in all cases -- of course the theory still is our best explanation for how things work in those cases to which it does apply.


Science differs from religion in one important way. Science isn't in the business of finding "absolute truth(s)". Its goal is to find the best explanation for natural phenomena, using physical evidence as the basis for deciding whether one explanation is better than another. Potential scientific explanations have to be testable or falsifiable -- there has to be some way to get evidence to potentially prove it wrong. Religion doesn't work that way. 


For me, scientific explanations of gravity, evolution, plate tectonics, and so on are sufficient. I don't need to wait for discovery of some "absolute truth." Scientific theories provide explanations that allow us to do all kinds of things, and to learn more about nature. I use them. Works for me!

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6 years ago  ::  Mar 27, 2009 - 1:48PM #9
TemplarS
Posts: 6,865

Mar 27, 2009 -- 12:58PM, newsjunkie wrote:

While I appreciate that you prefer the word "principle", scientists use the term "theory" to refer to things like Newton's or Einstein's explanations of gravity...



In the context of science, sure, you are right.  But most people, when they live their lives, don't approach things from the perspective of the scientific theories.  We do not need proof in order to act.  I don't know that there is any proof that charity is benefical to the giver (or even to modern society in general), but we still give because it feels right to us.  I would think of that as more of a  principle.


Mar 27, 2009 -- 12:58PM, newsjunkie wrote:

Science differs from religion in one important way. Science isn't in the business of finding "absolute truth(s)". Its goal is to find the best explanation for natural phenomena, using physical evidence as the basis for deciding whether one explanation is better than another. Potential scientific explanations have to be testable or falsifiable -- there has to be some way to get evidence to potentially prove it wrong. Religion doesn't work that way. 


For me, scientific explanations of gravity, evolution, plate tectonics, and so on are sufficient. I don't need to wait for discovery of some "absolute truth." Scientific theories provide explanations that allow us to do all kinds of things, and to learn more about nature. I use them. Works for me!




Granted; again, though the question is, how to apply this to everyday life.  Why act a certain way as opposed to another? To answer this most fundamental question, you need to have some idea as to the purpose of your life.  You do not need to believe in absolute truths to answer this question, and you do not need religion to answer this question; but science cannot answer this question, though it may provide data for coming to an answer. 


 


So I think limiting natural law questions to those involving science is only half the picture. 


 


 


 

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6 years ago  ::  Mar 27, 2009 - 4:09PM #10
newsjunkie
Posts: 5,748

TemplarS,


To be more clear, what I am saying that is that I am not convinced there is any such thing as "natural law," at least not as I understand that term. And if we're talking about scientific theories, which my quoted material that you responded to was, I think we should use the term scientific theory.


Regarding your comment about "proof" earlier in the post, I don't require proof in order to act either. But if we are talking about finding an answer to a question regarding nature (and part of our problem here is, I'm not sure that is what you're talking about), I think the scientific method is the best way to answer that question. Science is not in the business of proof, but instead in the business of disproving explanations that are lacking, or false, in favor of others that haven't been disproven. 


When it comes to ethics and morals, I don't think one can rely solely on science to provide answers. I don't operate that way, and honestly don't know any people who do. What science can do is provide information and explanations about things in the natural world and how they work. That information is useful to many people when they try to decide whether certain things are right or wrong. Maybe if someday in the future when we learn more about how the brain works and how thoughts are generated, it may be found that some aspects of what we think is right or wrong is hardwired. But I don't think science has made a lot of progress in that area yet. And even if things are hardwired, organisms are constantly changing, so why wouldn't that hardwiring be susceptible to change as well?


I currently view our notions of right and wrong as part of our thought processes, some of which may be hardwired, or perhaps some special thing that is God-given, I do accept that latter notion as possible. If it is God-given, it's not "natural law" but a supernatural law, unless you're a pantheist and believe that God=nature. It seems more likely to me that all of these thought processes are more heavily influenced by our conditioning (nurture rather than nature, one could say). Our values may most strongly reflect what our parents, peers, teachers, and culture have told us. Our perceptions are influenced by our past experiences, upbringing and cultural "filters" through which we see the world.

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