Saturday, September 10, 2011

The Catholic philospher and the origin of sin

Edward Feser has an extremely interesting (well, at least for some of us) article about the catholic view of Original Sin. He apparently has dug deep into the issue of the human mind and the various explanatory inadequacies of the material-reductionist model of it. This topic has interested me for quite some time, but that interest has lead more to sporadic thinking about the issue than real research or inquiry, so I harbor no illusions of being able to match, let alone supplant, this Catholic champion. However, as I finally reached the end of the aforementioned article, I noticed a few gaps in his argument concerning the bi-human origins of Sin.
After summarizing the Aristotle-to-Aquinas dichotomy of the human intellect and its material operations (which is pretty much the mainstream Christian position), Feser finishes with this:
The implications of all of this should be obvious. There is nothing at all contrary to what Pius says in Humani Generis in the view that 10,000 (or for that matter 10,000,000) creatures genetically and physiologically like us arose via purely evolutionary processes. For such creatures -- even if there had been only two of them -- would not be “human” in the metaphysical sense in the first place. They would be human in the metaphysical sense (and thus in the theologically relevant sense) only if the matter that made up their bodies were informed by a human soul -- that is, by a subsistent form imparting intellectual and volitional powers as well as the lower animal powers that a Planet of the Apes-style “human” would have. And only direct divine action can make that happen, just as (for A-T) direct divine action has to make it happen whenever one of us contemporary human beings comes into existence.

Supposing, then, that the smallest human-like population of animals evolution could have initially produced numbered around 10,000, we have a scenario that is fully compatible with Catholic doctrine if we suppose that only two of these creatures had human souls infused into them by God at their conception, and that He infused further human souls only into those creatures who were descended from this initial pair. And there is no evidence against this supposition.

This scenario raises all sorts of interesting questions, such as whether any of these early humans (in the metaphysical sense of having a human soul) mated with some of the creatures who were (genetically and, in part, phenotypically) only human-like. (If any of the latter looked like Linda Harrison in Planet of the Apes, the temptation certainly would have been there.) Mike Flynn and Kenneth Kemp have some things to say about this, but it does not affect the point at issue here, which is that there is nothing in the biological evidence that conflicts with the doctrine that the human race began with a single pair -- when that doctrine is rightly understood, in terms of the metaphysical conception of “human being” described above.
I first have to note that Feser is arguing as a Catholic and for the reconciliation of Catholic theology with current genetic and evolutionary science (specifically that homo sapiens didn't descend from one couple). In contrast, I am not a Catholic, and I am not arguing that genetics is an any way contradictory to Catholic theology; I simply contend that his logic is uncharacteristically deficient. There are no problems with the first paragraph, but the illogic begins to show once he progresses from the dualistic nature of Man to theories about how Original Sin spread throughout humanity.

Take this statement: "only two of these creatures had human souls infused into them by God at their conception, and that He infused further human souls only into those creatures who were descended from this initial pair."

Although it is theoretically possible that all humans today share a taint of Adam's genetic material and are thus imbued with a soul, it is unlikely given that the various races split off from each other comparatively early in their history, and far earlier than any theologian would place as the date of Adam. So is Feser saying that not every human is made in the image of God?

While one could probably fit this view into a reasonably orthodox theology, the empirical test Feser proposes earlier in the article precludes such an interpretation. For if the soul is necessary for abstract thought, then it would elude those endowed without one. But since it is clear that every single human being on the planet - with the possible exception of a few cases of mentally retardation, a condition that is more the result of material malfunction than a lack of a soul - possesses abstract thought, everybody is thus an endowed with a soul.

Moreover, one wonders whether Feser believes that Man's fallen nature is a material property and not a spiritual one. I haven't read enough of his works, so I wouldn't know what his stated opinion on this would be, but it seems to follow from his contention that the soul, and by extension Original Sin, would only sprout from the biological descendents of Adam. After all, as he admits, God actively bestows his image during the creation of every human being, so there is no reason to believe that God couldn't do so on a non-Adamic descendent. The curse of Adam would still fall on the creature, as he would simply be a *spiritual* descendent of the dreadful apple-eater. I mean, its not as if the Bible has never used the term *descendent* in a non-biological way.

So, I propose an alternative, one that is wholly compatible with Catholic theology. I agree with Feser for the most part. Specifically that once mankind developed the neurological capability to sustain the soul-imposed abstract thought, God created Adam as the first metaphysical human being, as opposed to the first physical human being. (Whether Adam existed 50,000 years ago, marked by the period Jared Diamond dubs "the Great Leap Forward," or 6,000 years ago when culture developed and the agricultural revolution was in full swing can be debated. I am inclined towards the latter myself, but the theological implications between the two are few). However, I differ from Feser in that I believe it makes the most sense, especially in light of what Feser has himself argued, that shortly after Eve's seduction, God empowered the rest of mankind with gift only before given to Adam, the initial representative of humanity.

I really like Feser; the man is brilliant and I look forward to digging into his archives and books. And for the most part I agree with him; I just believe he ended a great post with untypically weak logic that could easily be remedied.

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