Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Taoism against forms

I once asked a friendly wizard (a disciple of the Archwizard) to summarise the difference between Buddhism and Taoism. He responded with this story:
The Tale of the Three Vinegar Tasters

Three sages (a Confucianist, a Buddhist and a Daoist) walk into a bar. There in the middle of the floor is a big cauldron. Sage 1 steps forward, says I'll handle this and takes a sip. "Ewww! It's sour!" quoth he and recoils from it.

Sage No.2 steps forward, has a taste and says yes. "It's bitter. But then, life itself is bitter, so it all fits really."

Sage No.3 has a taste and says "Hmmmmm. Probably REALLY good with fish and chips."
It made me laugh, but is also very Daoist, for it gave one much to ponder on very succinctly. About how to construe reality, and how to react to what we experience.

We are built to recognise patterns and structures – no learning (beyond that of each moment) or action would be possible if there were not patterns and structures to recognise and use – but there are many patterns and structures in nature to recognise. (Not to mention the varied ways we might react to particular ones.) It is an easy error, to give a recognised pattern or structure – particularly one that generates a strong reaction, either directly or due to powerful associations – more importance than is warranted by how reality is. (Or to think there is some definitively proper reaction to it.)

Aristotelianism, with its notion of defining forms – defining patterned structures – is particularly prone to this error, since it identifies forms in nature with forms in the mind: thereby claiming that our pattern and structure recognition is so perfect as to constitute identity between the pattern or structure-as-contained-in-the-mind and the pattern or structure in reality. For, if the form cannot be held in the mind, it cannot be defining in the way Aristotle wants it to be – particularly for his moral theory. Something that is too partial in its coverage, or too easy to be mistaken about, cannot generate moral obligations. This holdover from the Platonic insistence on the primacy of ideas is an error, for the process of abstraction that is the basis of thought is a taking from, it is not a taking of.

The Artistotelian error is two-fold. First, in seeing patterns and structures as forms: that is, as things which are defining in a separable way rather than specific aspects of a complex and unified reality. Being a table is part of what a table is, but it is only part of what structures any particular table. Our interactions with it are likely to be dominated by it being a table (and how useful it is as a table), but it being a table is not even remotely a complete definition of any particular table. Nor will our recognition of it as a table encapsulate either the full reality of a particular table or even our awareness of a particular table. (Taoist and Zen thought on how reality escapes from our words and categories is keenly aware of such problems.) As a prominent biologist has sagely noted, nature abhors a category: or, more accurately, reality is not contained by our categories. At best, it is partially described by them.

The second error follows from the first: having exaggerated the importance of what we grasp – indeed, the importance of a particular aspect of what we grasp – reality is then deemed to be able to be definitively judged and graded by that aspect. This turns up in all sorts of ways. For example, deeming what is simply a pattern in a particular culture to be defining.
The familiar as definitive
St Paul, following in the footsteps of Philo of Alexandria (described by Josephus as one of the most eminent Jews of his day) in applying Greek natural law philosophy to the Judaic tradition of scriptural revelation, held that long hair is the glory of a woman but an unnatural shame in a man (1 Corinthians 11:13-15). For St Paul, if men let their hair grow, that is unnatural; but cutting it, that is natural (so Delilah was doing Samson a moral favour) – part of the function of hair being to help differentiate men from women. (Something that was very important to St Paul: St Paul-the-follower-of-Christ is in some tension with St Paul-the-follower-of-Philo-of-Alexandria.) Hair did indeed function, via particular usages, as a marker of gender in St Paul’s culture. (Philo thought that men who act like women should be put to death: something that St John Chrysostom, in his commentary on Paul’s epistles, agreed with.) But it is clearly nonsense to claim that such usages are a defining characteristic of human hair. St Paul has seized on the usage of hair he was familiar and comfortable with, and passed it off as defining of the nature of things in a way it is simply not.

A nice example of the same error is of Gerald of Aurillac meeting a woman working in the fields. Upon querying her, he found that her husband was sick and the work needed to be done. Gerald gave her money to engage a day labourer because
women should not do the work of men, for God has a horror of what is against nature.
As fine an example of nature meaning accepted background constraints (or the assumptions I am comfortable with) as one could hope to find. Once again, a specific cultural pattern is passed off as defining of the nature of things. If one expect things to have separably defining characteristics (rather than being an intersection of characteristics) and, what is more, have defining characteristics that determine inbuilt “proper” uses, it is a natural error to make.

A part not defining the whole
What St Paul and Gerald of Aurillac are doing in their statements is taking an aspect of something and exaggerating its importance. Aristotle on money and interest is a good example of the same error. In Aristotle’s view, money was sterile; it does not beget more money the way cows beget more cows. He held that "Money exists not by nature but by law" and that:
The most hated sort (of wealth getting) and with the greatest reason, is usury, which makes a gain out of money itself and not from the natural object of it. For money was intended to be used in exchange but not to increase at interest. And this term interest (tokos), which means the birth of money from money is applied to the breeding of money because the offspring resembles the parent.
Wherefore of all modes of getting wealth, this is the most unnatural." (1258b Politics)
He especially disliked usurers:
...those who ply sordid trades, pimps and all such people, and those who lend small sums at high rates. For all these take more than they ought, and from the wrong sources. What is common to them is evidently a sordid love of gain..." (1122a, ETHICS)
Or, in the words of a sympathetic commentator:
Aristotle says that the usurer is the most unnatural of all practitioners of the art of money-making. The lending of money at interest is condemned as the most unnatural mode of acquisition. Aristotle insisted that money was barren. He did not comprehend that interest was payment for the productive use of resources made available by another person.
Money is a unit of account, a medium of exchange and a store of value – that is, it has possible future use as a medium of exchange. Delaying use of one’s money entails the risk of never getting to use it. Letting someone else have use of your money entails the risk of it failing to be fully returned. In both cases, the longer the delay, the greater the risk. Moreover, different borrowers, and different uses of the borrowed money, entail different levels of risk. Interest is a perfectly reasonable charge, a price, for the use of (someone else’s) money. It has the same moral issues as other prices: no more, no less.

What Aristotle has done is focused on a feature of money, treated it as fully defining and inferred a congenial conclusion from that. Coins are, indeed, physically sterile. Nor is this accidental, they are made of things that have strong physical stability across time because that aids money’s function as a medium of exchange: we accept money in exchange because we can use it in the future. Aristotle’s belief that the form in his head is defining of the function of the thing in the world has led him astray.

Aquinas followed Aristotle (“the Philosopher”) in incorrect construal of what is entailed by the use of money as a medium of exchange:
Now according to the Philosopher, money was invented principally for the effecting of exchanges; and thus the proper and principal use of money is the consumption or disbursal of it, according as it is expended on exchanges.
… that a man may take a price for what he is not bound to do; but a man with money is not in every case bound to lend it,—it is to be said that he who is not bound to lend may receive compensation for what he has done in lending, but ought not to exact more. But compensation is given him according to the equality of justice, if the exact amount is returned to him that he has lent. Hence if he exacts more for the use of a thing that has no other use than the consumption of the substance, he exacts a price for that which has no existence, and so the exaction is unjust.
Aquinas has just replicated Aristotle’s error. Which is the same error of St Paul on hair and Gerald of Aurillac on work. Focus on one aspect of something, declare it to be defining of proper purpose and make incorrect inferences about proper use there from.

The entire Catholic and Orthodox teaching on sexuality is also based on this error. It focuses on the fact that sex can be used for reproduction and takes that to be defining of sex (and, for that matter, of humans and of marriage). As biologist Johan Roughgarten points out, that is simply not how sex (or, for that matter, gender) works in nature. (Or marriage across the breadth of human societies.)

Congenial excluding
But such references to how things are in nature, or how people are (sexually varied), is completely unpersuasive against upholders of the natural law tradition, since the Aristotelian can (and does) simply dismiss any manifestation of reality as “aberrant” if it fails to conform to what has been decided has defining importance. In doing so – by allowing one’s conclusion to select its premises, to define contradicting facts as not evidence – the conclusion is insulated from rebuttal. So, you can claim that marriage is defined by procreation: that many cultures have had same-sex marriage does not count. Thus does the “nature of reality” “demonstrate” your conclusion, given any part of reality that fails to do so is “aberrant” and does not count. This is, no doubt, very consoling (and is extremely convenient for using philosophy to support religious doctrine). But it should not be confused with genuine understanding of reality. Or, for that matter, genuine compassion: which is grounded in people as they are – in all their variety and complexity – not whether they conform to your grading definitions of what a person “properly” is. Such blindness about reality can be the basis of great harm: as, of course, it is.

The example of usury is a very revealing example. In medieval economic thought the attack on usury was based on biblical texts such as Leviticus25:36 (or Exodus 22:25, Deutoronomy 23:19, various passage in Ezekiel 18 and Ezekiel 22:13) and the Sermon on the Mount, particularly Luke 6:35.

As ever, there are issues of scriptural translation and interpretation. The Parable of the Talents, including the version in Luke, suggested that interest itself was fine while the above passages have been variously translated as being against any charging of interest or only excessive charging of interest.

But, in medieval Catholic doctrine, usury was a mortal sin – depriving the sinner of salvation – and was a form of theft (it stole God’s time and took from the borrower, via the charging of interest, what was not the lender’s). Money, Scholastic doctrine held, was sterile so the notion of it being fruitful was unnatural. The overall presumption was that the usurer gained, illegitimately, from the borrower. By focusing on the relevant aspect of reality as definitive, conclusions congenial to the prevailing scriptural conclusion were reached.

All of which makes the scholastic attack on usury an excellent example of problems with natural law theory. Take a reductionist view of something’s form (money is round metal objects with no inherent generative power), and therefore its use (purely for exchange for goods), ignoring wider context (money is a store of value, a medium of exchange and a unit of account whose use promotes gains from trade: while one has money, one has use of it; in loaning it, one is depriving oneself of alternative uses: use of it includes investing in productive assets). Declare use (earning interest) outside that reductive characterisation to be against the nature of something (money-as-sterile, money-is-for-exchange) and therefore illegitimate (in this case, thieving usury). Reaching the conclusion that doctrine wants.

This, needless to say, is exactly what is done with human sexuality.

Retreating towards reality
Unlike the victims of natural law theory of sexuality, bankers and money-lenders had powerful claims on the attention of the Church: not least because the Popes were both lenders and borrowers. So commentators began to feel the story was more complicated than charging-interest-is-the-thieving-sin-of-usury.

Hence the development of the theory of interest, as medieval commentators wrestled with commercial reality and issues such as risk, loss of use, delay and so forth. Which culminated in Pope Leo X, at the Fifth Lateran Council, (in the bull Inter Multiplices) ruling it was legitimate to take interest from the beginning of a loan and that:
Usury means nothing else than gain or profit drawn from the use of a thing that is by its nature sterile, a profit that is acquired without labour, cost or risk.
Which undermined most of the basics of the theory of usury. Loans were no longer free, time could (by implication) be sold. By implication, labour, cost or risk could make money fruitful. Use implied that ownership did not pass to the borrower, separating ownership from use (as with leasing a house or other asset). All that was left was a totally idle lender making an effortless profit with usurious intent. (But, by that stage, the Reformation was underway and the biblically-minded Protestants were to keep the usury debate alive.)

One can see some of the same pattern of retreat in face of reality over sex: the Catholic Church has a clear decision principle – maintaining the authority of the priesthood is the first priority. Clement of Alexandria claimed that any sexual act not undertaken with the intent of procreation “outraged nature”. Thomas Aquinas, more lenient, that all sexual acts had to be (potentially procreative to be legitimate:
there is the "vice against nature," which attaches to every venereal act from which generation cannot follow.
Which would bar sterile husbands or post-menopausal women from having sex. A strong interest group, so, according to the Catholic Church, it is fine if the procreative form is followed, even if procreation is not possible. (Any sex that does not involve a penis ejaculating into a vagina is out, however, since human intentions and aspirations are entirely subordinate to the form, the mechanics, of what we do sexually: the mechanics of sex is not merely a moral principle, it is a trumping moral principle.) This is not only form and function (i.e. sexual mechanics) trumping consent, it is form trumping function trumping consent. Hence Aquinas defines sex “against nature” as being worse than rape and medieval punishments for “sodomy” were typically more severe than those for rape. (It also runs into the small problem that Jesus did not think barrenness was grounds for divorce: thereby failing to define marriage by procreative purpose.)

All this intellectual superstructure is built on fundamental error about how patterns and structure work in nature, and our ability to indentify and infer from them. Forms do not define things, they define – at best – aspects of things. Our appreciations of pattern and structure are not identical with actual pattern and structure in the wider reality. We therefore cannot reliably apprehend some defining function of things so as to determine proper use sufficient to determine moral obligations.

Pattern, structure and humility
That things have pattern and structure is clearly true, and has to be for learning (beyond the most momentary) and action. This is why the universe can be expressed mathematically, can be expressed by the science of pattern and structure. But such mathematical expression is only expressing aspects of things, aspects of reality. The endless (2,500 years old and counting) philosophical problem of universals is built on an erroneous framing. On trying to turn pattern and structure into something it is not – something in itself or, at least, separably defining – and taking that framing as the only way to construe pattern and structure so that nominalism (that being individual things somehow excludes sharing patterns or recurring structures) is the only alternative. Pattern and structure is pervasive, it is just not separably and fully defining.

And we are built to recognise patterns and structures. As we have to be to function effectively as acting-with-cognition beings: consider how much successful such functioning there has to be to make a vast, technologically effective society – with its myriad interactions between people and with the world – to work. But thinking is not a process of identical apprehension of those patterns and structures in any sense that means we can fully define reality by some particular set of them.

We need to be more like the Daoist sage: more open to the reality and possibilities of things, less convinced that we can define in a way that excludes other perspectives. This does not abandon understanding, morality or compassion. On the contrary, if provides far more basis for all three, since we open ourself up more to what there is to discover, and how to act properly – particularly properly towards others – because we take them seriously as they are. That we do not, for example, take some narrow framing of what it is to be human, and of the nature of human aspirations, so as to cast millions of other fellow humans, and their aspirations, outside the realm of the “properly” human. We are not that “clever” and it is a profound arrogance to think we, or our theories, are so.


  1. While we may define hatred and prejudice in a category of emotion, and find reason to further categorize them as undesirable, surely the energy and resilience of these emotions in the conservative mind bespeaks their social value. Without the cleansing rage of a moral panic, the callous disposal of those who don't conform to cultural norms, and the brutal suppression of innovation, how can these valuable social forces be given full vent ? Besides, money lenders and the whole process of credit creation is merely a legalized scam which devalues the labor of all people, and homosexuality provides a conveniently passive, non-conformist and disease ridden social minority to persecute.

  2. Like Krishna, I grew up herding cows and it was my duty from about the age of 8 to report to my father the name any cow that, when mounted by another cow in an attempt to copulate, stood fast thus signifying its complaisance. I was struck, at this impressionable age, by the zeal with which the mounting cow thrust pointlessly with its udder and otherwise mimicked the actions of the male of the species which, by the way, not one of our herd had ever encountered in the flesh. It was as obvious to me then, as it is now some 60 years later, that what I was witnessing was incontrovertibly part of nature but which I, even then, recognized as falling into that vexed category of unnatural acts. Although I didn't know it, there I was in my rubber boots standing in the odoriferous barnyard being befuddled by Aristotle. I was witnessing the perfectly ordinary intersection of two aspects of reality deemed to be mutually exclusive by our culture.

    Although I have long been able to sense when these kind of errors are being made I have never encountered such a clear and thoroughgoing explanation of them. Despite the overall intellectual tone of the piece my heart was particularly struck by your almost tangential plea for "genuine compassion: which is grounded in people as they are – in all their variety and complexity – not whether they conform to your grading definitions of what a person “properly” is." Indeed.

  3. Thank you, that is a very encouraging comment and a striking illustration.