The Tyranny of the Exception

I suppose that working on a PhD at a (somewhat) traditionalist Roman Catholic university has made me more “conservative.” But the deeper reason beneath that development, it seems clear to me, is simply that I have learned so much more (than I had known as one reared in secular and evangelical institutions), particularly historically.

In this blog post (which has been simmering for about a half decade or more) I hope to highlight a basic difference (a difference, perhaps, in disposition or orientation) between the premodern mind and the modern, western mind. It has to do with the role that exceptions (or exceptions to the rule) play in our thinking.

First, consider a basic, very elemental, structure or “pattern” laid down by Aristotle. Aristotle, to put it very simply, would say that it is the nature of an acorn to develop into an oak tree. (He talks this way in the Metaphysics and the Physics.) The “purpose” or “end” (Greek telos), that is, of the acorn is the fully developed oak tree. The oak tree is the “fully active” version of the acorn. The acorn, in turn, is a “potential oak tree.” (This way of thinking relies on the Aristotelian metaphysical distinction between potency and act.)

Now, Aristotle perfectly realized that not all acorns successfully develop into fully formed oak trees. As did St. Thomas, who follows Aristotles’s reasoning here without exception. But it would never have occurred to either of them to conclude, on the basis of the failure of some acorns to develop into oak trees, that it is not the nature of an acorn to develop into an oak tree. Rather, they understood that this accomplishment occurs “for the most part,” that is, not 100% of the time. They understood that nature (or natural philosophy) is “messy” and does not comply with our rational, scientific systems in the same way that, say, mathematics does. (As an example of Aristotle’s thinking about things that are true “for the most part,” see Nicomachean Ethics I.3, together with his word of caution that accompanies them.)

The modern mind is quite different. To cite an example of the “default tendency” of the modern mind which I am trying to diagnose in this article, consider the (admittedly, ecclesiastically “intramural”) issue of infant baptism. I could not begin to count the number of times people have registered their opposition to the catholic practice of infant baptism in the church to me on the basis of the exception. “Richard Dawkins,” a good friend of mine likes to say, “was baptized as an infant in the Church of England, and just look at him,” implying that Dawkins disproves that the “nature” of baptism is to bring baptizands into a life of Christian faith. We know that infant baptism is not a valid or true doctrine, so this reasoning goes, because it does not always “work.” This way of thinking, I’d argue, is analogous to the point about the acorn not successfully growing into an oak tree: the exception does not undermine the “nature” of the thing in question.

Exhibit B: sex and the presence in nature of hermaphrodites, or biologically ambiguous genitalia in infants, children, and adults. Yes, the Scriptures speak of “male and female” (Gen. 1:27). (They also speak, in the same context, of a binary division between “land animals” and “sea creatures,” but one would be on shaky ground to hold on this basis that they intend to reject the existence of amphibians.) I am certain that the ancient Hebrews were aware of ambiguous genitalia. But, again, nature is messy and “for the most part.”

Does the exception here refute the rule or the “nature” of the thing, that “male” and “female” are valid ways of describing what we find in nature, or what actually is in nature? No more than the stunted acorn does.

(Does my position here make me an “essentialist?” No, because of this, and also because when a Christian speaks of “nature,” she will in the next breath speak of “creation.” But that is a topic for a later blog post.)

 

 

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