Fun with Final Causality

Another critique of Edward Feser’s Aristotelian-Thomist philosophy for you today, my friends. I must start this off with a bit of a disclaimer: If you happen to come across this post in the “edward feser” tag, you’ll notice it’s a response to a quote some other Tumblr user posted. Vagueblogging is in poor taste, I agree, but in this case I think it’s justified–the other user is a “traditional Catholic” woman, and if I directly reblogged from her, it would probably start an argument and cause a lot of drama and annoyance. It is admittedly ungentlemanly to vagueblog, but even more ungentlemanly to inconvenience a lady, so I hope you understand if I took the former route. This is, of course, not to imply that I am at all a gentleman, but given my, ah, ‘reform’ I figure it couldn’t hurt to make the attempt. XD

Anyways, the quote I refer to is this:

“The delight we take in sexual relations is intended by nature to function as a kind of emotional superglue.  Sexual desire is meant to direct people out of themselves and their personal interests and to seek completion in another person, and sexual pleasure is meant to bond a person tightly with that other person once he or she is found.  Like literal superglue, it doesn’t always succeed, but this binding function is still its point, its final cause.  And like literal superglue, if it gets applied in the wrong way there will be serious problems.  It will “bond” you to the wrong thing or at the wrong time”

The quote itself comes from his blog here:

However, he has said essentially the same thing in several of his published books, like The Last Superstition and Aquinas: A Beginner’s guide. Since those books dwell on the subject of final causality at a respectable length, this little quote from Feser’s blog affords me a piquant opportunity to leap into a more sustained critique of final causality as a philosophical concept. Allow me to begin with a very brief overview of it.

Aristotelians like Feser say everything has four causes: Material (what any given object is made of), formal (what pattern a given object takes or how it’s shaped), efficient (how it came to be in the first place), and most important of all, final (WHY it was made in the first place, or its purpose for existing). Nowadays, we don’t put much stock in final causes in regards to pretty much anything that’s not man-made (what is the “purpose” of a rock or the forces of gravity or any other natural phenomena?) but Feser says this is a mistake and that inanimate objects DO have final causes! You see, even inanimate objects evince sorts of regularity rather than randomness. For instance, an inanimate object like a glass of water will always and invariably produce steam when you heat it up enough (under the right pressure, of course). It won’t occasionally produce lilacs or freeze into ice or anything like that. An inanimate object like the moon “regularly” orbits the earth in a specific pattern–it doesn’t just stop in its tracks on Tuesday and zip across the sky on Wednesday or otherwise behave randomly.  (The Last Superstition, pages 60-69).

According to Feser, inanimate objects could only display this sort of final causality of an intelligence was directing them to those particular ends, and, of course, that intelligence would be God. This would be Aristotle’s God, and guys like Thomas Aquinas would say that Aristotle’s God was also the Christian God, it just so happened that the Big A didn’t know it yet. If it weren’t for God constantly directing everything to particular ends (their Final Causes), we’d live in complete chaos, with water occasionally turning into lilacs instead of evaporating or the moon zipping all over the place randomly with no rhyme or reason. Now, you’d probably think Aristotle, Aquinas, and Feser are going a wee bit too far with the idea of final causality, and I’d agree with you. You might also say it’s pretty weird to lump in two very different concepts–inanimate objects displaying regular behavior and human artifacts being created with intent and purpose–under the exact same label of “final causality,” and conflating intent with regularity in order to argue for God. I’d agree with that too, and we’ll come back to the second point later. But for now, we need only understand what Feser is getting at in order to more closely examine how his idea of final causality relates to his *Catholic* sexual morality.

OK, so let’s be nice and agree with Feser that everything has a “final cause,” and also that God wills those final causes. So God wills water to produce steam, and God wills the moon to orbit the Earth. Now, keep in mind we haven’t even gotten to the Bible yet–according to Feser, basic logic alone can prove the existence of Aristotle’s God, and it takes a bit more historical rather than solely philosophical argument to prove that Aristotle’s God is also the Christian one. But that’s all off in the weeds for now, we only need to think about Aristotle’s God, because according to Feser, Aristotle’s God also has particular ends, or Final Causes, in mind for human sexuality.

After all, if everything–every THING–has a final cause, human sexuality, or our sex organs, or whatever, have final causes too. They’re things, right? And in any case, Feser says that bodily organs are the most obvious examples of final causes in nature. A “final cause” is, as we said above, “why a thing was made in the first place” or “why a thing exists,” and it seems obvious organs have these final causes. Why does a heart exist? To pump blood. Why do lungs exist? To distribute oxygen to the body. If either of those organs don’t fulfill those purposes, the organism as a whole dies, so it seems reasonable to say the final cause of the heart is to pump blood, and the final cause of the lungs to breath oxygen.

So, then, what is the final cause of our “sexual faculties?” Feser uses this word rather than “genitalia” specifically because he knows our genitals have multiple purposes (penises both pee and ejaculate). But our “sexual faculties,” that is to say, our testicles, ovaries, and arousal centers in the brain combined with the genitals to be considered as one thing, would also have a final cause–their purpose for existing, why they were made (evolved, in this case) in the first place. And, of course, that “final cause” is what Feser says: To bind a man and a woman together so that they not only make babies but raise them as a couple.

Why is that important? Well, also according to Feser, to contravene or subvert the “Final Cause” of anything is bad, evil, and in defiance of God’s will. This is an extremely complex subject, and I don’t have time to get into it fully here. You’re just going to have to trust me on this. So if the final cause of human sexuality is to have children and bind men and women together, it is bad and evil to do anything that prevents that Final Cause from being fulfilled, and we could figure this out even without reading the Bible. Condoms prevent procreation from occurring, therefore condoms are Bad and Evil and piss God off. Masturbation and homosexuality can’t produce babies, so they’re right out. Finally, having sex with lots of different partners prevents you from being Binded to any of them and raising healthy children together, so that’s Bad and Evil as well.

Well, I think I’ve done enough to fairly acquaint my beloved Regular Readers with Feser’s arguments. We are ready now to explore the problems and inconsistencies in those arguments.

First, there’s the epistemological problem of discerning what the “final cause of our sexual faculties” really is. Once again, I draw the reader’s attention to the fact that none of these arguments revolve around, or even mention, the Bible in any way. You don’t need religious texts to tell you that the Final Cause of the moon is to orbit the earth, or that the Final Cause of a heart is to pump blood. But how, then, do we discern that the “final cause” of sex and sexual pleasure is to bind a man and women together monogamously? That is far from clear, and nothing I have read–either in Feser’s blog or in his books–has satisfactorily made the case. In The Last Superstition, he tells us “sexual pleasure has as its own final cause the getting of people to engage in sexual relations, so that they will procreate.” (page 142). Easy enough to understand–if a heart exists for the purpose of pumping blood, the sexual faculties exist for the purpose of conceiving children. But none of this has anything to do with the “binding” Feser refers to in his blog entry.

Even if we were to agree with Feser that any “non-procreative” sex is bad, it could still be the case that the “Final Cause” of sex is *simply* reproduction, with bonding entirely ancilliary to it. That is to say, it would be perfectly in keeping with the “Final Cause of our sexual faculties” for men to have sex with as many women as they wanted without monogamy or “binding” with any of them. The argument Feser gives initially in The Last Superstition undercuts the one he gives in his blog. The fact that sex is pleasurable does not necessarily mean its Final Cause is to bind heterosexuals in monogamous relationships. As Feser himself points out, the “final cause” of sexual desire and sexual pleasure seems to be getting people to have a lot of sex and therefore a lot of children.

Why, then, should we believe sex has any “binding” component at all? How could we determine this *without* recourse to what the Bible says? Remember, we can tell that the final cause of the moon is to regularly orbit the sun, or that the final cause of water (when exposed to heat) is to evaporate, simply by observing these things. But when we observe people having sex (Voyeurism is unseemly, I use “observe” in a general sense, for those of you with minds in the gutter), the “final cause” of the activity seems much less clear. Yes, one final cause is obviously having children. But both children and sexual pleasure can and often do exist in the total absence of any kind of “bonding.” A man can have great, pleasurable sex with a woman at night and never wish to see her again in the morning. A woman can have sex with a strapping specimen, bear his child, but never know or care about his name after that one-night stand. In such instances, sexual desire and sexual pleasure would seem to have the “final cause” of kickstarting sexual activity, but not binding anyone to anything. This means that non-monogamous sex (as long as it’s heterosexual) is actually not bad and evil and does not contravene God’s will, at least if we take God’s will to be “fulfilling the Final Causes of things.”

Feser might think he has an answer to this. On page 143 of The Last Superstition, he tells us that pregnancy and the helplessness of young children mean that women cannot take care of babies on their own, and that they desperately need the father around to provide and protect them. Therefore, the Final Cause of sexuality MUST also be binding, because human beings would not be able to procreate successfully without fathers being binded to mothers–the babies would just die!

Alas, this strikes me as a profoundly unsatisfying argument. Much to the conservative Feser’s dismay, it is very, very far from self-evident that fathers are as absolutely necessary as he claims. I’m sure he’ll tell us that it’s literally and physically impossible for a woman to take care of children on her own, and that single mothers are absolutely and utterly incapable, under all circumstances, of successfully raising children to adulthood. OK, whatever. But what about the multitudes of other childrearing possibilities? What about a young woman and her mother? Kids might have a better chance to survive with their grandmother around, even if the father is absent, since Granny also has a vested interest in the propagation of her progeny. What about kids being raised by the state? The Spartans, if I recall correctly, took children away from both their father and their mother and put them into a communal military environment where they would become loyal servants of the state above all else. Plato explicitly argued that “marriage, the having of wives, and the procreation of children must be governed as far as possible by the old proverb: friends possess everything in common” ( Feser doesn’t like Plato quite as much as Aristotle, but he’s a big fan of the guy too, if the opening chapters of The Last Superstition is any indication. It’d be amusing to see how he reconciles the, ah, “interesting” family values of the Father of Western Philosophy to his own decidedly more buttoned-down ideals, but that’s his problem. The point I am making is that the proposition, “Fathers are absolutely necessary for raising children” is nowhere near as self-evident as the proposition, “procreation is the purpose/end/Final Cause of sex.” And without that first proposition, you simply cannot prove, with any degree of certainty, that any sort of “binding” is a Final Cause of our sexual faculties. If Feser wants to argue for that, he will need to perform much more historical–and sociological, and economic, and God knows what else–analysis to prove that the monogamous male-female pair bond is superior to any other alternative when it comes to raising kids.

2: More generally, Feser’s examples of sex also seem to demonstrate some rather troubling problems with “final causality” as a coherent concept. Remember what we discussed above: Final Causality in nature can be seen in the moon invariably orbiting around the Earth, or water invariably turning into steam under the right conditions. But sexuality, as with most phenomena involving living things rather than inanimate objects, is much less reliable. Feser himself notes that sex can and often does fail to “bind” people to one another. Since the “binding” function of sex is far, far less reliable than the orbit of the moon or the evaporation of water, it would seem reasonable to conclude that “binding” is not in fact a Final Cause of sex.

Feser tries to get around this by using an analogy with superglue, and by shifting the definition of “Final Cause” from “a regularity” to “a purpose or intent.” Yes, he admits in his blogspot, sex often fails to bind people, but superglue also occasionally fails to bind things together–sometimes it goes bad, or loses its adhesive properties, or whatever. But the purpose of superglue is still to bind. Similarly, even if sex fails to bind people together on occasion, its overall purpose is still to bind.

But, again, this is not a good argument. We can easily discern the purpose or intent of superglue simply by looking at its packaging. The box or bottle or whatever will literally tell you straight up that this stuff is supposed to be an adhesive. There is no corresponding packaging or instruction manual for human beings. The only way we would be able to conclude that “binding” is a Final Cause of sex would be to observe the process and results of sexual behavior throughout history, and as I pointed out above, the historical examples of the Spartans and Plato’s ideal society argue against male-female binding being a Final Cause of sex.

2b: Even worse for Feser, even if “male-female binding” regularly accompanied sex, it STILL wouldn’t prove that binding was the “Final Cause” of sex, because regularities can be and often are completely divorced from any given thing or artifact’s “Final Cause,” as Feser and Aristotle might have it. Take a hammer. The purpose of a hammer is, as we all know, to assist in building things by driving in nails. But there are also a host of other regularities associated with hammers. For instance, if you pound it down on something, it will regularly make noise, as opposed to being silent or producing lilacs or whatever. Thus, under Feser’s reasoning, we could say that the “final cause” of hammers is to produce noise. But this is obviously absurd. We know for certain that the “why” of hammers–their function, their purpose, the reason we make them–is simply to drive in nails. Whether they do so loudly or quietly is completely irrelevant to our intent for them.

What value, then, does the concept of final causality have? in The Last Superstition, Feser made a big deal of how “directedness to an end or ends,” or in other words, causal regularity, exists even in the absence of any human consciousness. However, the example of the hammer shows that causal regularity can exist entirely ancillary to and divorced from intent or purpose–that is to say, divorced from what Feser considers to be Final Causality itself! It is beyond me, at least at this point, to understand how Final Causality remains a coherent concept.

If you haven’t realized it yet, this has dire consequences for Feser’s sexual morality. Even if binding regularly accompanied sex, that wouldn’t in and of itself prove that binding is the final cause of sex–it might simply be something regularly associated with sex, but not the actual purpose of sex, just like noise is regularly associated with hammers, but the actual purpose of hammers is not to make noise. More importantly, if regularity of some sort can be associated with artifacts without necessarily being intentional, why should we not assume regularity in general can exist without being associated with any kind of intent? There may certainly be a reason why water regularly turns into steam or why the moon regularly orbits the Earth, but, at least IMO, Feser has failed to demonstrate that reason must be some divine being’s conscious intent, or any kind of intent at all. And without intent, “Final Causality” becomes meaningless, and we see the moderns Feser dismisses were themselves actually correct to dismiss Aristotle–his theory of causality apparently doesn’t help much in understanding the world.

Phew! A long entry, but that’s all I wanted to get through today. I hope y’all enjoyed it!


  1. mcc1789 · · Reply

    I fail to see how this would preclude polygamy, where a father is involved while raising children who he has with multiple wives (or, more rarely, a woman who has multiple husbands). Nor a monogamous, committed unmarried couple. Doubtless they have some reasoning why both are “unnatural”, though it sure isn’t obvious.

    1. Very much so–I make this point in chapter 3 of my book, in fact.

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