A couple of months ago the Kentucky chapter of Planned Parenthood tweeted out this message:
Why would a pro-abortion rights organization insinuate itself into the transgender debate? Those seem like completely unrelated issues. To be sure, I know people who are pro-life but also pro-LGBT rights. But generally speaking, these issues do tend to attract the same supporters. Those who are pro-abortion rights also tend to be pro-LGBT rights, and vice versa. Why is this the case?
The answer to this question involves a philosophical issue that on the surface appears to be very trivial and esoteric, but in fact reflects the single greatest mistake ever made in the history of Western Civilization. How’s that for overselling?!? Except in this case, it is not an exaggeration to say that this philosophical issue undergirds the crisis facing western society.
How can one idea be so crucial, and what is this concept, anyway? In this brief post I hope to answer these questions.
This is a picture of the beautiful Hillsborough River nearby where we live. Here’s a simple question – was this river invented or discovered? Obviously, it was discovered. It is part of the natural environment. I don’t know who the first people were to find this waterway, or what they first called it. But the point is, human beings did not manufacture it – the river was a part of the natural order, and human beings simply found it.
The same is true with other natural forms and forces. Sir Isaac Newton did not “invent” gravity; he discovered it. The force of gravity existed long before Newton observed it and quantified it with his famous equation. All that he did (and he did it quite brilliantly!) was to observe that aspect of the natural order and structure of the world and then develop a mathematical formula that summarized this discovery.
Hanging in there with me so far? The big point here is that there is order and structure to reality that we as human beings discover rather than invent. We do not simply impose our own meaning on this order and structure; we discover and describe it.
And once you uncover what something is, you can also determine what something is for. Take a look at this picture, for instance:
What is this? It is an ear. And what is its purpose? Its purpose is to hear. The structure and order of the ear also reveal its purpose. Once you know what it is, you know what it is for.
So let’s summarize:
- There is order and structure to reality.
- Human beings discover rather than invent this reality.
- Discovering what something is also reveals what something is for.
This all seems like so much common sense, and it is. This view of the nature of reality also has a technical name in the study of philosophy. It is called realism (snazzy, right?!). And this is the view of reality shared by the philosophical tradition of Plato and Aristotle, as well as the teachings of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam – in other words, all of the major streams of influence of Western Civilization. And it held sway until the 17th century when certain developments led to its abandonment.
By the time of the 1600s the fruits of scientific study shifted the focus of attention from discovery to invention. To be sure, all of the inventions that were developed depended on awareness of the structure and order of reality that were previously uncovered (especially the laws of mathematics and physics). But over time, the astonishing breakthroughs in technology and manufacturing led some philosophers to conclude that all of reality is nothing more than an invention of human beings. There is no structure and order in reality for us to discover. We simply impose our own reality on the world. And all of those forms of structure, order, and purpose that were previously held to be real were dismissed as nothing more than names we assigned rather that universal realities we discovered.
This view is called nominalism (think of nominating = naming a candidate). And as philosopher Edward Feser has written, the rejection of realism in favor of nominalism is “the single greatest mistake ever made in the entire history of Western thought” (The Last Superstition, p. 51). How so?
Think again with me about that Planned Parenthood tweet:
Realism says that there is order and structure to discover. On this view, a human being who has a uterus is a woman. But if there is no structure and order to discover, then we can impose on our meaning onto reality. And thus, a person with a uterus can be called a man.
Likewise, if there is structure and order to reality, then it is obvious what this is:
This is a human being (it is a being, and it is human). But if there is no such reality to discover, only one to impose, then we can make this be anything we want it to be, such as a body part.
Similarly, if there is structure and order to reality, then just as it is obvious that the purpose of the ear is to hear and the purpose of the eye is to see, it is also clear that the purpose of male and female sexual anatomy is for men and women to be sexual complements of each other. And with a little more reasoning, we can see that they are to be complements in a permanent union suitable for raising children, i.e. marriage.
But if we are free to impose our own meaning on reality, then marriage can be anything we want it to be. It can be two people of the same sex. It can be groups of people. It can be human beings and robots. It can even be one person marrying herself (although I’m not sure how you would go about getting a divorce in this situation!).
Maybe now you see what I meant when I said this rather academic question has profound implications for civilization. The rejection of realism in favor of nominalism explains why questions which were once agreed upon by the broad consensus of western society are now hotly contested. But what is at stake here are not a few hot-button moral issues. What is at stake is civilization itself.
If a society concludes that it merely imposes rather than recognizes natural order, then it no longer must afford human rights to all mankind. It can simply define certain people as subhuman, which is precisely what the radical ideologies of the 20th century did. For the Nazis, non-Aryans were Untermensch, “under-men,” subhuman. Jews, Poles, Slavs, homosexuals, anyone the Nazis determined to be unworthy of the status of full humanity. To the Nazis, people like the Jews were not human beings; they were lice, parasites that needed to be eradicated.
Once this premise is accepted, it just depends on the particular biases of the culture as to which group faces such dehumanization. Maybe it’s fetuses. After all, they drain resources, to the extent that this writer calls them “parasites.” And of course, fetuses aren’t the only human beings who drain resources. So do sick infants and the elderly. That’s why it is no surprise to see open advocacy for infanticide and euthanasia of the aged.
And as the metaphysical glue of realism dissolves, so does the belief in human dignity and equality across racial and ethnic lines. All that counts is race or tribe or class. So it is no mystery that as the philosophical underpinning of western values crumbles that racial animus, class warfare, and authoritarianism are on the rise. And this will only get worse.
What we are witnessing is the unraveling of reality.
So what are we who follow Jesus supposed to do in the face of the emerging Dark Ages? The key word is to love – to love God and to love our fellow man. There is a curious paradox about the way Christians were perceived in ancient times. On the one hand, pagans despised early Christians as “stubborn and obstinate” and as “haters of all mankind” because of their determined stand on the truth of the gospel in defiance to the pagan culture. But on the other hand, the charity of early Christians was so manifestly evident that even while condemning them, the pagans conceded that they were filled with love.
But it is mainly the deeds of a love so noble that lead many to put a brand upon us. See, they say, how they love one another, for themselves are animated by mutual hatred; how they are ready even to die for one another, for they themselves will sooner put to death. (Tertullian, Apology 39).
As reality continues to unravel around us, the human toll will be enormous. That means it is vital that we remain committed to our faith and not succumb to the incoherent philosophy of the world. But it also means that we must live our faith and minister to those who are the victims of this dehumanizing age. Through this sort of compassionate conviction, just perhaps we can mend a few broken strands.