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Natural Law Axioms

I will sprinkle clean water upon you to cleanse you from all your impurities, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. I will give you a new heart and place a new spirit within you, taking form your bodies your stony hearts and giving you natural hearts. I will put my spirit within you and make you live by my statutes, careful to observe my decrees. [Ezekiel 36:25-27]

A search of the Web for terms like "natural law axioms" or "axiomatic natural law" yields nothing suggestive of any attempt to bring rigor to the classical subject so ably developed by St. Thomas Aquinas in the Summa Theologica. See "the Natural Law."

Given the disrepute Natural Law has suffered at the hands of skeptical scientists and fideistic clerics, it strikes me that it is high time someone addressed this subject with some care. Although I am quite prepared to admit that my background as a student of Natural Law in all of its variations is less than adequate, I believe I am sufficiently prepared in abstract mathematics (as in the general study of axiomatics), physical science, psychology, sociology, philosophy and theology to take a decent stab at the problem. I have already presented some very preliminary ideas at the Dayton Pro-Life Science and Technology Symposium, but I came away dissatisfied by what I'd accomplished.

After reviewing an interesting article by David Solomon on First Things, I realized it would be helpful to try and sort out the essential areas of study that contribute suitable axioms to the final framework. Solomon's article is a review of a book of essays on Natural Law. (See Natural Law Theory: Contemporary Essays. I have not yet had an opportunity to read this book, nor the other highly recommended book in this field, Common Truths: New Perspectives on Natural Law, though I plan to remedy that situation soon.)

The following comment by Solomon gave me a strong hint as to why contemporary philosophers have floundered in this area:

Modern rationalist thought, however, has attempted to preserve the force and objectivity of traditional moral thought without what it regards as the needless baggage of traditional metaphysics. This goal, pursued most brilliantly and influentially by Kant and his disciples, often involves invoking the notion of natural law. But this modern resort to the concept of natural law does not require that such laws be teleologically grounded. That is, it doesn't require that natural laws link certain actions with certain natural human ends. This goal of "natural law without nature," as one might call it, continues to drive many contemporary research programs in ethics and politics. Even MacIntyre declared in After Virtue that classical ethical thought had to be revived without the aid of Aristotle's "metaphysical biology" (although his more recent writings suggest that he might not insist on that point today).

As usual, it would seem that the bootstrap approach of Immanuel Kant has led many of his students down a blind alley. It should be evident to anyone who cares to consider the matter that an area without substantive observation is an area without substance. Aristotle discovered this over two thousand years ago, and modern science owes him a deep gratitude for his efforts. The deeper criticism of the contemporary approach, however, is that it has jettisoned appeals to teleology. Aquinas' brilliant observation that "The good is prior to the right." however, fails utterly without such an appeal, because "the good" then becomes arbitrary, and without this necessary ordering of goods and rights, there is no theory of natural law.

The key question in any development of a theory of natural law, then, is how to ground teleology. One is forced to this perspective in spite of "the steady erosion of this teleological picture of the world under the pressure of the new science" that Solomon refers to in his essay. It is clear that this general erosion is a consequence of the success of modern science in developing a bottom-up approach to scientific advance, which is what the scientific method very largely is. In particular, one need not appeal to any sense of "purpose" (as the ancients did) when considering the laws of physics, and one can succeed in the study of evolution without any appeal to the idea that features were developed by nature in order to supply needed capabilities.

All of this is, at bottom, irrelevant to the area of natural law for a very simple reason, there is no real natural law theory that does not appeal to God's design in some way, and thus God's purposes for humanity. Any approach that jettisons the appeal to God's design will end up being circular, or what is just as bad, utterly without substance.

In this day and age, of course, the subject of God's design is a highly controversial one. People who dare to approach it can quickly find themselves subject to derision by very intelligent people.

Even the relatively recent attempts to find signs of God's design in the fundamental constants of nature (a rather brilliant argument about the support of life by these highly tuned constants) has suffered an important onslaught by cosmologists who have made important statistical arguments favoring multiverse theories based on the accepted theory of the early inflationary universe.

No one can explain the inflationary period (which seems to be necessitated by the observed large-scale structure of the universe, as seen in the cosmic background signature) without an appeal to multiple universes. And if multiple universes exist, there is a real possibility that the design we see is an artifact of our presence in a viable universe. We would not exist, presumably, in a non-viable universe. Thus, to the argument that the universe was designed to support life breaks down when considering this rather novel application of the anthropic principle. Although it seems plain enough that the arguments in favor of multiple universes with arbitrary sets of physical laws leave much to be desired, the possibility of their existence has led many to back down from appealing to this as an "argument from design."

It seems to me that we have been approaching this topic from the wrong direction. Let us consider the following line of reasoning as an alternative.

  • Moral theory that goes beyond an exercise in automata theory, however well disguised, postulates a free moral agent. By this is meant beings who are not constrained by the laws of physics to behave in a determined (up to random fluctuations) manner. Such a postulate, I will argue (as I have already on this blog), requires that we postulate a non-physical, complementary structure of the acting person, namely, in classical language, the soul. Without free moral agency in this sense, we may as well all agree be bound by the philosophy of Skinner's tale, Walden Two.
  • Such moral responsibility implies accountability, but to whom? The obvious answer, of course, is God. But, in what way can we be considered to be responsible to God unless God, in some way, has made known to us his purposes? This, of course, implies revelation.
  • In what way, or ways, has God revealed his intentions? Two answers have been proposed in human history, first, direct communication, such as we find in scripture. Second, in the design of the universe itself.
  • The discernment of God's intentions in scripture yields the study of what is properly called Divine Law, whereas the study of God's intentions as revealed in nature, itself, has to be our starting point, it seems, for the study of Natural Law.
  • The problem arises, of course, that we need a preferred perspective from which to view the hints God has left in nature. Without such a preferred perspective, any sort of "Natural Law" is impossible. Yet, how can one choose such a perspective?
  • Worse, yet, it should be obvious that I have already appealed to a certain theological perspective at the beginning of this argument, namely, that human beings are free moral agents, endowed by God with a non-material soul, that enables God to require responsibility of us. Although some form of these assumptions underly virtually every theological framework that encompasses moral responsibility in some sense, a theory of Natural Law must appeal to an existing coherent set of hypotheses regarding such matters in order to have real substance.
  • Thus, we are led to recognize that there are certain assumptions in Judeo-Christian culture that enable western civilization to flourish, and that also enable the development of a non-trivial theory of Natural Law.
  • And, given the above, the next question that naturally presents it self is this: What else is there in our culture that might help us to recognize God's design, without wholesale appeals to positive law revealed in scripture? Thus far, I have been able to discern only two such assumptions. Both of these assumptions are based on the idea that God's original intention for humanity was somehow set back by an original fall from an ideal state.
  • These assumptions arrive as a pair, based on the following heuristic argument: if God's intention was initially clear, but later obscured, in some way, by the fall, then the obscuring was accomplished through features that are inherent to the fall itself. The fall produced suffering. The fall produced corruption. The fall produced death. All of these things are characteristics of the nature of the universe we live in. Anyone who has studied physics can tell you that they are directly related to the Law of Entropy. A deeper study also reveals that one needs to appeal to the mathematics of chaos theory (including catastrophe theory) to understand how accidents happen.
  • The impact of the laws of Entropy and the chaotic theory of "accidents" leads to an understanding of biological mutations. This impact helps us to understand the process of biological evolution at a deeper level as chaotic deviations from established successes (which might be termed, for the sake of this discussion, as "norms"), or, to state this differently, as significant noise in the genome.
  • Given these observations, I am led to the following two hypotheses:
    1. God's design can be inferred from the successful patterns of nature, specifically, the successful patterns in the human genome, the one species of responsible moral agents on the planet.
    2. God's design is obscured by the natural noise in these patterns.
  • That is to say, the universe human beings inhabit was altered by the fall in some way. This means either that this universe was altered — an hypothesis unlikely to yield success — or, somehow, the original human beings re-emerged in the present universe after the fall. What I personally believe is the following: the first humans were initially created to inhabit a universe that did not include entropy, and did not include chaotic dynamics. Such a universe might be possible if all motion in the universe is, in some way, intentional. After the fall, however, these first humans were reimbedded in the present universe, not in the sense of being transported in a physical sense, but by "waking up" and finding themselves in the evolutionary chain. Another way to state this is that somewhere in the evolutionary chain, God endowed a bonded pair of proto-humans with human souls. These became the first truly self-aware human beings. This hypotheses squares with the realization that the human soul (or for that matter, free moral agency) is not an emergent property of biological evolution.
  • In fact, it is likely that God's design is revealed in the dominant phenomena of nature in many ways. This realization led me to suspect that God signed his work, as an artist signs a painting or an author signs a book. I found several phenomena that, it seems to me, correlate well with Christian revelation1.
  • One need not have this specific perspective in order to arrive at the above hypotheses, but, of course, it helps to have some such perspective. These two hypotheses (of discernibility and obscuration) have an intuitive appeal of their own, however, which need not rely on the specifics of Judeo-Christian revelation. One can find related ideas in other religious traditions.
  • It strikes me that without such hypotheses, Thomas' claim that Natural Law is naturally knowable lacks natural substance, and is otherwise entirely dependent on scriptural revelation. (See, for example, Jeremiah 31:33.) In Thomas' time, this was taken for granted. Today, one would be hard pressed to find a liberal Catholic who believed it to be true, much less a secularist.
  • At any rate, these two hypotheses at least give us leverage in deriving principles from actual observation, the Aristotelian imperative that drives science. If this enterprise succeeds in any significantly objective way, it will have the distinct advantage that the success will support these hypotheses. Such is the nature of scientific investigation.

So this is what I propose. I will augment these hypotheses by a set of hypotheses that effectively amplify the meaning of basic terms of the discourse, such as "good" "purpose" and their relationship to us and God, in much the same way that David Hilbert's axioms of Euclidean geometry amplify his undefined terms. I will then proceed to a consideration of highly dominant phenomena, with a view to discerning God's intentions for us, as well as phenomena that represent departures from the mainstream. In doing so, I will appeal to the most basic of all appeals, survival, or, viability. Any phenomenon that can be seen to naturally disappear in succeeding generations of a given population will be considered inherently inviable. Thus, I am led to a consideration of yet another heuristic referred to by Christ, "By their fruits you will know them." [Matthew 7:16&20] This heuristic is implicitly used in virtually all standard appeals to Natural Law.

Much work remains, of course, but this is where I propose to start.

  • 1. I have hinted at this in a previous blog entry.