What’s Wrong with the World

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What’s Wrong with the World is dedicated to the defense of what remains of Christendom, the civilization made by the men of the Cross of Christ. Athwart two hostile Powers we stand: the Jihad and Liberalism...read more

To be or not to be...human.

by Tony M.

One of the current problems with discussing things about marriage, transgenderism, homosexuality, and related issues is a relatively unsatisfactory degree of agreement about what it is to be “human”. And this poisons a lot of the discussions.

The ordinary “definition” I use is the one that Aristotle and St. Thomas Aquinas generally applied, man is a rational animal. To give a proper and complete definition of a substance is to give state all 4 of the kinds of cause for the thing, but primarily it is to state the “nature” of the thing, which is given by its form and matter – its formal and material causes. For a natural thing, it suffices, then, to state the genus in which the thing’s species is found, and the specific difference that differentiates it from all other species in the genus. Man is in the genus animal (which implies the material aspect), and he is different from all the other species by the fact that man is rational.

I don’t posit this as if it were undebatable, for others surely bring up problems with that definition. For the purpose of this discussion, it is sufficient to note that this is a reasonable attempt and a widely held classical definition. What I find interesting about it is that it often goes unnoticed that if this is the proper definition of man, it would imply that “animal” is the lowest possible genus above the species 'rational animal'.

This matter is taken up somewhat in an interesting article by David Oderberg in discussing whether there can be enhanced beings derived from humanity so that they would be a different (superhuman) species.

There is a lot to like about this article, including Oderberg’s discussion of the philosophical difficulties involved in “the species problem”. It’s not surprising that I would like much of what he says: like me, Oderberg is Aristotelian. However, I do not agree with some rather significant points in this article. While he excellently draws out the reasons why “rational animal” is a good definition, I think he lets it get away from him in concluding that no special morphological characteristics of humans is critical, and so ANY rational animal would belong to the species ‘man’. Hence (for the purpose of his article), any super enhanced living animal beings from man would still be part of our species.

While I largely tend to agree with Oderberg about enhanced post-human beings, I still think his claim that ANY rational animal would be human can be shown to be wrong both using revelation and via philosophy / theology, but I suspect the former is easier so I will start there.

In Genesis, in the VERY NEXT SENTENCE after God making man “in his image” (which Thomas and many other scholars take as a reference to man’s rationality), then says “Male and female he made them.” I say that “being in 2 sexes” is, also, part of the specification of man, part of his essence. The Bible puts it right there alongside the “in his image”, so it is at least reasonable that it too is specifying what ‘man’ is. If there some other planet with creatures, (of which Scripture does nothing to speak for or against), and if on that planet God had created beings “in his image” but in 3 sexes, they would NOT be human.

The other argument works sort of from JPII’s theology of the body. Significantly, Thomas Aquinas and JPII both taught that man’s end is in loving*. Specifically, in loving God, and derivatively in loving man as a reflection of God. But in our human condition here on Earth before the Final Judgment, the highest human love we can have here is that of husband and wife who are lovers (in the physical and romantic sense) and friends, and is definitively expressed in the conjugal act of love.

The reason this is important to the discussion is that the format of man’s love in marriage is special to the species of man. (Note: no non-rational animal loves in the proper sense: they are not rational, and cannot act out of the RATIONAL appetite that is the will, as love.) In marriage, the conjugal act is and can only be the physical act of love that regards the other spouse here present and the potential child that may come to be. Both aspects of that regard are ultimately ordered toward God: in His providence, He designed the human act of love to call forth a kind of image of God as under community of the Trinity, which is also a community of love. Indeed the Trinity is the paradigm community of love.

Yet, I submit, because man in his marital love presents AN image of God, a KIND of reflection of Him, and not a perfect (i.e. complete) one, there could be completely different ways for rational animals to operate as an image of God. For instance, God could design a creature which reproduces via 3 distinct sexes, in which their operation of love reflects an image of God under a different mode than the one in which human sexual love does.

Let’s call such creatures tripplers. I argue that tripplers would be essentially different from humans, and that they would have to be called a different species. While it is true that man’s rationality is essential, and identifies a critical feature in which man is different from all the other animals that we know of, it is not impossible logically that there might be some FURTHER facet of man, within rationality, that is special to him that says “what he is”. And, I claim, man being put together so as to reflect God in sexual love via 2 sexes is distinctive to man and essential to him. Man’s highest love in the human sphere being that of sexual love for ONE spouse, is part of the meaning and definition of marriage: it is unique, singular, and by being directed to ONE ONLY person and no other. This is part of the 'natural law' because it pertains to man's nature. It could not, then, be a mere accident of man that he be in 2 sexes. Whatever the union of tripplers in reproductive love would be, it would not be human marriage properly understood, because the love of one for the 2 others would not be unique and singular.

Interestingly, we might also posit God making a rational animal which reproduces not by sexual interaction at all, but more as “budding” or in some other non-sexual fashion. This format of rational animal would reflect God in a completely different way than man and tripplers do, (which both would entail the love of spouse and both reflect God as regarding community). Perhaps such unitary beings would better reflect God’s oneness, and self-sufficiency. In any case, they certainly would constitute a different species than man or tripplers.

Note that while the differences I posit between man and these other species show up in important morphological differences, those outward differences are not the heart of the distinction I am claiming proves their diverse species. That is proven rather by the special way in which their rational behavior in love is a reflection of God.

A possible objection to this conclusion is that such beings could all be the same species because they can all enjoy the same community: in loving God as rational beings, they are able to inhabit the same sphere by recognizing in each other fellow members having the same ultimate end. The answer to this is a counterexample: that humans share the same conditions with angels, who also are rational and love God, and with whom we will share heaven in community. Yet angels certainly are NOT the same species as humans, they are not even within “animal”, having no earthly bodies.

Finally, what this means is that the description of man as “rational animal” is accurate insofar as it goes, but is incomplete. In a world in which there is no other example of rational animals, merely pointing out that man is rational separates him from other animals quite well. But if there were rational animals in one or 3 sexes, then it would no longer be sufficient. This implies that the lowest genus above ‘man’ is not ‘animal’ but something below that.

I would note that I mostly agree that enhanced beings derived from man will be “human”: as long as they are derived in such a way that the 2 sexes remain fundamental to how man loves while here on earth, I would agree that they remain human. If, however, there were some crazy and (to date unimaginable) way of modifying the human body so that it’s sexual love really were made into 3 sexes – and where all three were essential and distinct – that would represent a different species. For philosophical reasons, I don’t think it possible for man to successfully accomplish such a thing, I believe that such a level of control of nature can be achieved only by God (not even angels). Hence, I don’t think there will ever be enhanced beings derivative from man who manage to leave behind all vestige of being “in 2 sexes”, though we could so damage future humans so that they cannot successfully express love via sexual love – since such a defect is already present in some humans, without causing them not to be human.

Any other new “speciation” difference possibility would have to represent a change that gets at something _essential_ to what man is and how he acts. And it is hard to envision what that might mean*: the 2 “rational” faculties are those of the intellect and the will, and something important enough to be regarded as essential rather than accidental has to be something that fundamentally alters man’s intellect or will in how they operate properly. Merely knowing God as “the Creator of tripplers” rather than as “the Creator of humans” is not an essential difference to the intellectual operation – since if we came across tripplers in outer space we could also know God as “the Creator of tripplers”. You could say the words that claimed a possible intellectual difference in a hypothetical animal creature that did not come to knowledge of the world through sense faculties, but I doubt that you can actually construct a positive concept of such a being, it would be rather merely the incomplete concept of “having animal rationality but not with senses”, but this is mere negation, not a positive way of being.

This leaves somewhat open the question whether lesser differences (such as the types of morphological differences that David Oderberg discusses: having more arms, or tentacles) would be enough to differentiate separate rational species of animals. Oderberg says no, and I am sort of inclined to agree with him on the philosophical basis that such features do nothing important to differentiate the _rationality_features of such animals: you wouldn't have a genus 'rational animal' and have this be the dividing difference between species within that genus. But I am not confident that this is the correct way of proceeding. In identifying distinct species of animals, logically speaking it seems possible that the same lower difference can be present in 2 different genera: the differentiating feature of “having A” or “not having A” can happen both in Genus X and in Genus Y. (Consider, as a similar type of situation, in the genus ‘four-sided polygons’, the features of ‘having equal sides’, and ‘having right angles’, and ‘having parallel sides’: depending on which feature you take higher and which lower, ‘rhombus’ and ‘square’ can be side-by-side species in the genus “four-sided parallelograms with equal sides”, but alternatively ‘rectangle’ and ‘square’ can be side-by-side species of the genus ‘right-angled parallelograms’ and ‘rhombus’ would not be a coordinate species there.) And if so, then you might logically find ‘rational’ as the differentiating feature of species in two completely different genera.

This could actually be argued plausibly in the case of dolphins, who are clearly not in the same ‘infima genus’ of man, if man is in ‘primate’ for example. I for one would not want to be the one on the spot for proving beyond a shadow of a doubt that dolphins are not rational. Some of the behaviors that we see in them are hard to fit with ‘non-rational’. If the true and principled divisions of genera into species over and over were such that it is fundamentally and philosophically impossible for ‘having A’ and ‘not having A’ be the differentiation in two separate genera, then it would have to be the case that ‘rational’ versus ‘not-rational’ could only be a division within one genus, and it would be far harder to argue that dolphins and man are in the same LOWEST genus, even though clearly man is with the primates and dolphins are with the cetaceans. But I don’t know of any successful way to establish such a philosophical thesis, and I doubt it is really valid.

Comments (17)

"To give a proper and complete definition of a substance is to give state all 4 of the kinds of cause for the thing."

True, but this could be, and has been, put better.

So...put it better? I welcome improvements.

Good post, Tony. It sounds like Oderberg is trying too hard, perhaps because he is trying to get the specialness and protections of humanness for genetically altered beings. But any devotee of sci-fi knows that there could be clearly *different* species from man that nonetheless were rational species (that is, it was of their essential nature to be rational) and therefore deserved the same consideration as human beings.

One needn't even postulate that dolphins on planet Earth really *are* rational beings to do a thought experiment: What if, on some other planet, we discovered a species of animals that looked just like our dolphins but were clearly a rational species? They would not be human beings but nonetheless would be rational animals and deserving of the same consideration, possessed of specialness qua species, as human beings are.

But any devotee of sci-fi knows that there could be clearly *different* species from man that nonetheless were rational species

Well, David Oderberg specifically considers science fictiony sorts, and concludes that they WOULD be human, simply because they would be rational animals.

and therefore deserved the same consideration as human beings.

I agree completely that other rational beings, even of other species than humans, would deserve the consideration that we grant to "persons", because they WOULD be persons. It is an interesting question whether this necessarily implies that they would get, for example, the same degree of "hands-off" treatment we think other nations of humans get, or whether there might be room for some kind of "natural competition" with them precisely because we did NOT share the same species. Unlike with other humans (with whom we share, ultimately, one ancestry back to Adam), with another species we would not share that commonality.

Well, David Oderberg specifically considers science fictiony sorts, and concludes that they WOULD be human, simply because they would be rational animals.

Yeah, that's just wrong.

Why not say that "...is a rational animal" expresses a) sufficient conditions for personhood (when understood in terms of species membership, not in terms of an individual's current, actualized abilities) and b) necessary conditions for being human but not sufficient conditions? There are further necessary conditions for being human having to do with biological ancestry, etc.

whether this necessarily implies that they would get, for example, the same degree of "hands-off" treatment we think other nations of humans get, or whether there might be room for some kind of "natural competition" with them precisely because we did NOT share the same species.

That gets us into questions of interplanetary and interstellar political ethics that I leave to the Federation. ;-) Chiefly I leave them to the Federation because they have no immediate practical importance, since neither the aliens (probably) nor the Federation exist in the real universe.

Can't we say that humans are rational animals that descend from Adam and Eve?
Is Oderberg making a transition from "humans are a rational animal" to "humans are the rational animal"?

Some philosophically oriented Catholic science fiction, e.g Michael Flynn's Eifenheim makes the same transition or error--that all rational animals are human and are thus fallen and thus in need for Gospel. CS Lewis in his Space Trilogy never attributed humanity to other rational species.

Mactoul, thanks for the C.S. Lewis reference. I think that his space trilogy presents an excellent example of the possibilities we ought to be able to consider.

I have never quite understood how one could make the error - upon assuming a race of beings not descended from Adam - that they must of necessity be fallen and in need of redemption. And, in particular, the redemption of Christ's cross on Calvary. Lewis avoids two separate errors: that being 'rational animal' implies being human, and that being 'rational animal' implies being fallen. Actually, a third: that being human (having human nature entirely) naturally implies being fallen: he explicitly allows for a race of humans NOT descended from Adam. Given that according Bible we inherit our fallenness when we inherit our nature from (ultimately) Adam, a race of humans not descended from Adam would not receive fallen human nature from him, and would be fallen, but for OTHER reasons which are not necessary but contingent.

I haven't read Flynn's stuff, so I can't speak to it. James Blish also considered sentient aliens and explicitly reflected on whether they would be fallen - and how we would know it.

There are further necessary conditions for being human having to do with biological ancestry, etc.

Lydia, that brings up still more questions for the Federation: if there were a race of humans not descended from Adam (a la Lewis in Perelandra), would our duties with respecting their humanity be just the same as our duties to our brethren descended from Adam (assuming easy interplanetary travel), or would we have moral space for some kind of gulf, or even competition? For, I would argue that "being human" and "being descended from Adam" are not necessarily coextensive, and that as Lewis postulated God could easily create new humans without involving Adam in any sense: He is surely capable of *creating* anew another Adamic first member of a race.

Actually, this gets to something St. Thomas said: that God's taking on human nature in the Incarnation cannot possibly exhaust God's capacity to join himself to created natures. Because He is infinite, there is no way to contract his ability to join to created natures to only ONE such nature. So, if (as we are saying in opposition to Oderberg's thesis) that there can be many rational animal natures, God could do it over and over again. The reason I bring this up is that Lewis postulates for Perelandra that God, once having joined to human nature in the Incarnation, could not fittingly create any new rational natures other than humans. And that he could not fittingly save any such fallen race by a new Incarnation, because he had "done that already", and God does not repeat himself. I would argue that "God does not repeat himself" would imply more strongly that any new race of rational animals would be some other species - he has "done man" already.

One common Catholic attitude about the Incarnation is that this event is, par excellence, THE reason for creation as a whole and for the existence of man (rather than just angelic rational natures), because by being enfleshed and therefore having the possibility of many individuals with the very same nature, God could take on the SAME nature as man and thus be joined to creation in the intimacy of the hypostatic union. (Not possible with angelic natures.) This seems to imply, though, that the Incarnation would be absolutely unique, which runs at least partly counter to the Thomistic thesis that God's capacity to join with a nature cannot be exhausted by taking on one nature - though (because any such act is utterly beyond a specification or natural end of natural beings) one could just say "that God could do it (take on other such natures) does not imply that God would have any intention or purpose to doing it."

At least I would say this much: I don't think that Lewis's conjecture that God could not fittingly create other rational natures besides human once He had become man in the Incarnation holds all that much weight. If God's ultimate plan is for there to be many species or races of rational animal, I doubt that His becoming man at a specific moment in history importantly constrains all later races created separate from Adam. However, the Incarnation as man could STILL be the unique and utterly central moment of all creation even if there are many other species and races of rational animals: it is not necessary to posit that all such species or races would need redemption, nor to posit that for any that does need redemption that an incarnation is God's only fitting choice to accomplish it.

Be that as it may hypothetically, I doubt that other rational species or races is actually part of God's plan. I think it more likely that man is it, the only such species, and that Adam's is the only race of men. But not very strongly more likely.

Perhaps this is a mere quibble, but I'd call Tor and Tinidril and their descendants "human-like" or "humanoid" rather than "human," and reserve the word "human" for those really descended from Adam.

Okay, I'll give my opinion on the "competition" thing: "Some kind of gulf"--almost certainly in the sense that we shouldn't be planning to intermarry with them. "Competition," probably not if that means what I take it to mean--that we could morally plan to take over their planets just because we can or because it would be useful to us. I take it that a purely instrumental view of another being and a disregard for its best good is always precluded in the case of a person. The reason we can morally compete with animals (e.g., we don't actually *need* to weep and wail if people's home building causes the extinction of the snail darter) is precisely because they do not have the moral value that we have. They are "lower" than we are.

Wow, I never considered the intermarriage issue. Yeah, that certainly presents some difficulties.

but I'd call Tor and Tinidril and their descendants "human-like" or "humanoid" rather than "human," and reserve the word "human" for those really descended from Adam.

That's interesting. I usually think of "human-like" and "humanoid" as meaning "like human beings in many ways but still essentially distinct from humans." The "essentially" part implies that there remains something about them that says "not having human nature".

For creatures that have human nature in every sense, but are not descended from Adam, I think the term "different race of humans" is probably more applicable. Using "human-like" for them is also valid, but leaves ambiguous the issue of whether they are "not of the same nature" as humans - it would allow "human-like" to cover animals that are human-like but do not have human nature, and creatures that are perfectly human-like and DO have human nature, and non-human-nature rational species that are somewhat similar to humans in form but not quite. But you're right, it is at most a minor quibble and not worth a lot of ink. As long as we are clear on what category we are speaking of. Maybe "entirely human-like"?

"Competition," probably not if that means what I take it to mean--that we could morally plan to take over their planets just because we can or because it would be useful to us. I take it that a purely instrumental view of another being and a disregard for its best good is always precluded in the case of a person.

That's an excellent observation: using persons as instrumental is obviously a problem, it defies the meaning of "person".

However, I used "competition" rather than something more aggressive because I was thinking of something less pointed than "taking over their planets". Imagine (before taking over their planets comes up) taking over OTHER planets that have no sentient life, that would be suitable for either them or us. Would we have a definite moral constraint that says something like "we have to not encroach upon territory they might expand into" at least to the extent of giving them equal shot at expansion as we claim? Could we say "sorry, we got there first" if we claimed all the planets around them before they got interplanetary travel? Would there be a _moral principle_ that determines such matters? Would there be some kind of ordering principle between them regarding competing claims for resources? Even more interestingly, would there be some kind of ordering principle between the two species as such? Would one species be junior to the other in any fundamental sense (as, for example, humans are in a sense junior to angels). It seems almost a certainty that humans and other sentient species would be either higher or lower than the other in terms of significant features - intelligence, emotional coherence, social development, sensory capacities, science and philosophy, etc. (Not to mention the possibility that one species might not be fallen). Would these differences potentially imply one species would "naturally" become a junior partner to the other even without sinful opposition?

Imagine (before taking over their planets comes up) taking over OTHER planets that have no sentient life, that would be suitable for either them or us. Would we have a definite moral constraint that says something like "we have to not encroach upon territory they might expand into" at least to the extent of giving them equal shot at expansion as we claim? Could we say "sorry, we got there first" if we claimed all the planets around them before they got interplanetary travel?

But whatever answer you would give to that (I think) you can also give concerning other unambiguously human people groups right here on planet Earth. For example, "colonialist" as it may sound of me, I really have no problem at all with one group of intrepid explorers claiming (and their descendants and fellow countrymen peopling) vast swathes of uninhabited Earth-space just because they happen to get there first and have the resources to do it. They're the ones investing the time, energy, money, risking their lives, etc. If they can colonize the South Pole first (or the uninhabited forests of the Wugga-Wugga), more power to their elbows. I don't think they have to sit around worrying about whether they gave other people groups a "fair shot" merely because they *might* have expanded into that territory otherwise.

But whatever answer you would give to that (I think) you can also give concerning other unambiguously human people groups right here on planet Earth.

That's a very good point, the problem arises here just as well. Presumably any solution that works here may apply to the other as well.

I am not quite sure what the rationale would be against marrying those of another entirely human-like non-Adamite race. I can see that prudentially speaking, it would be almost certain disaster if the other race were not fallen, whereas (of course) we are - but I trust it most unlikely that a non-fallen human could desire marriage with a fallen human. But if both were fallen, I cannot see a principle that sets against such marriage as if it were against nature.

If they were biologically distinct races (not in the vague sense of "races" used among humans on earth, but in the sense of literally distinct biological species), they would not be able to reproduce. Which seems to set it against nature.

Right, I completely agree with that. But if they were biologically alike - that's what I meant by "entirely human-like" as opposed to merely "human-like", being entirely human in every respect except that of being descended from Adam - they would be able to reproduce because biologically it would be no different than mating with ordinary people descended from Adam.

I'm pretty certain that in Perelandra one should assume that the Green Lady and her descendants couldn't reproduce with humans. The very fact that she's green is supposed to indicate *some* biological difference (plus she's much stronger than an ordinary human woman), and what she says about theology (that after the Incarnation all new sapient life must have human form) I do *not* take to refer to DNA or to mean that, literally, she is a member of the same *biological species* as Ransom.

and what she says about theology (that after the Incarnation all new sapient life must have human form) I do *not* take to refer to DNA or to mean that, literally, she is a member of the same *biological species* as Ransom.

Sure, but I don't take C.S. Lewis's hypothesis there as anything more than a pious wave of the hand. I don't think Lewis intended that notion as a serious theological point. If God designed a universe in which there are many rational animal species, there is no special reason to think that the ones that came before Christ's Incarnation as man and the ones that originate after are in a fundamentally different relationship with regards to Christ Incarnated. And that's true even if Christ's Incarnation as a rational animal here on Earth is unique in all of space and time. I would suppose that this is more readily accessible as true if all of the others are un-fallen species, so that only man is a species that needs redemption. But even if some of them that come after Christ's birth here fall, God can cause their redemption in a different way than He brings it about for man, and they need not have any special relationship to Christ as human (that the pre-Christ species don't have).

In any case I don't suppose that Tor and Tinidril's being not-quite the same species as Ransom as being representative of any kind of necessary situation: though God could create somewhat human-like species which are different in nature and biology from humans, He also could create ENTIRELY human-like persons who biologically share with us absolutely everything except that of being descended from Adam. And while there is something comforting in the notion that all later races would at least "look like us" to some extent, it is hardly a theological point if they are in fact different from us in biology enough we would be different in species. The looks would be superficial, we ought to regard more the nature of the thing than its appearance.

What I find more interesting, though, is the possibility that God could create rational species that surpass man in certain ways that in a purely natural sense would make them better at being rational in significant but modest ways. For example, they might have more senses: on Earth, bats, eels, sharks, and homing pigeons all have sensory capacities to apprehend reality in ways that we don't. There could be, in addition to those, direct sense of magnetism, or of density, or any number of other possibilities. In addition, such beings might have better memories, or better ability to imagine, both of which are important to using the mind.

These are, in a sense, the kinds of things that David Oderberg is trying to defeat as constituting super-human species. Whereas I believe that it is highly unlikely that any such beings as have entirely new senses could be manufactured out of humans as the source, (due to Aristotelian-Thomistic understanding of "nature"), I don't suppose that OTHER rational animals cannot have such features. And as long as such other species are "rational animals", then they and we would both qualify as "persons" and for this reason be always to be treated not as instruments. For this reason, then, I would say that while they could be better than humans at some things (or even, in almost all things), this could never justify their subjugating man as a permanently conquered race always to be held under foot. (The same goes in the other direction if there were a species that had lesser capabilities than man.) But there could be rational animal species that surpass us in similar fashion as some angels surpass other angels, while all are angelic.

But we agree that if they are different in species, either not looking like humans (rational dolphoid creatures or what-not) or being a "superior" race such as you envisage in your continuation, then there *should* not be intermarriage between them and us, right?

I myself would say that it would be a defeasible prima facie rational presumption that *any* race of beings not descended from Adam and Eve are, in fact, reproductively incompatible and hence not intermarriageable, whatever their appearance (however much like ours). Of course, science now has the capacity to tell that pretty well from a relatively simple genetic test.

But we agree that if they are different in species, ...then there *should* not be intermarriage between them and us, right?

Completely.

I myself would say that it would be a defeasible prima facie rational presumption that *any* race of beings not descended from Adam and Eve are, in fact, reproductively incompatible and hence not intermarriageable,

That's a pretty good stance. I would go with that. I think that it would be shocking if any other rational animal races were reproductively compatible with us (or with each other), and a presumption against it is appropriate.

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