Can we Derive Norms from Nature?


A British empiricist philosopher named David Hume is famous for his skeptical arguments attacking the notion of a natural morality. Hume claimed that no moral (“ought”) claims could be derived from descriptive (“is”) claims. From the mere fact that something happens to be a certain way, it doesn’t follow that it’s supposed to be that way. Hume assumed that things just happened to be the way that they are. But what if he were wrong? What if God created the world, human nature in particular, in such a way that it reveals the way things are supposed to be?


One of the original Genesis creation texts reveals a great deal about human nature:

The Lord God said: It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suited to him. So the Lord God formed out of the ground all the wild animals and all the birds of the air, and he brought them to the man to see what he would call them; whatever the man called each living creature was then its name. The man gave names to all the tame animals, all the birds of the air, and all the wild animals; but none proved to be a helper suited to the man. So the Lord God cast a deep sleep on the man, and while he was asleep, he took out one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh. The Lord God then built the rib that he had taken from the man into a woman. When he brought her to the man, the man said:
“This one, at last, is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; This one shall be called ‘woman,’ for out of man this one has been taken.”

First, notice that God doesn’t just meet Adam’s need for his wife. He, instead, waits for Adam to discover the fact from the comparative absence of a human mate. Adam notices—quite rightly, Mr. Hume—that all the other animals have mates. The thought then occurs to him, “Wait a minute! What about me?” This is a perfect example of what Socrates called “dialectic,” what Aristotle described as the mind’s using experience to grasp something important about the natures of things. We might call it the process of discovery. God created Adam to be a rational inquirer, a discoverer of truth. And so, he offered Adam the chance to discover his need for himself.


Second, God wouldn’t wait for Adam to discover what could not in fact be discovered! Apparently, God thought that given that all the animals that Adam saw had mates, that it was reasonable for Adam to conclude that given his male status that he too needed a mate, a female. Hume might argue that it isn’t guaranteed that Adam was made for a mate. Maybe his male status was just a bizarre artifact. Maybe the fact that on his own Adam couldn’t reproduce was just an accident. Maybe Adam wasn’t the member of a species (reproductive by definition), the first of his kind, but more like an angel. Well . . . these possibilities are all of them ridiculous, aren’t they? Adam was a physical creature like the animals. He wasn’t an angel. Adam had male genitalia like the male animals, and the animals used these systems for reproduction. So, what else was Adam to conclude? Of course, maybe God is a deceiver. Maybe he made it all appear perfectly reasonable that Adam was missing a wife, but in fact it was all a trick. In fact, this seems to be the view that Hume would have to endorse to maintain his skepticism. But God is not a deceiver. He who is perfect goodness contains within himself no darkness at all. So, God knew what he was doing. He offered Adam this educational arena of discovery because important truth was available to be discovered.


Third, the natural world provided a baseline for expecting what was normal, what is “normative,” to use philosophical language. The normal, the expected, the usual all followed from recognizing what was in common between things. In metaphysics, the study of reality itself, these commonalities are called universals, because they tend to apply across the board. We search for them in science all the time, though we tend to describe the scientific universal now as a law. These normative discoveries in the empirical sciences may not all be guaranteed to be true. But for all that, they are highly probable and generally dependable to rely on for our lives.


Adam was able to tell that human nature requires a male and a female for completeness. Genesis tells us that when God created man—and only when God created man—he said that it was not good. In each of the other acts of creation God declared his creation to be good. But for the man, he said, “It is not good for the man to be alone.” Thus, God needed to complete the man through his creation of woman, his wife. Therefore, human nature is completed through the unity of husband and wife. This is a metaphysical truth discovered by the man with multiple faculties at the same time. Using his intellect, Adam rationally recognized that while all the other animals had mates, he did not. Using his emotions, Adam felt alone even though he was with God. God created him to need the community of other human beings, first and foremost the familial community that begins in marriage. And when Adam saw Eve, he was immediately drawn to her both sexually and imagistically, immediately writing the first poem, “bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh.” Perhaps he even sang it to her one night, making Adam the first to write a number one love song.


Human nature was created in such a way as to be intrinsically linked to the reality of the rest of creation. It's not all an illusion. It’s not mere construction by the subjective mind, universal human “consciousness,” or anything else except the creative power of God. And since God’s creative power is the foundation for reality, we can distinguish what is real from what we wish things to be. We should accordingly recognize that we are not gods, that it is our role to discover rather than to create the metaphysical, moral, scientific, and aesthetic norms necessary to fulfill our lives. Every faculty of human nature is connected to the world such that we can discover truth, desire beauty, and pursue goodness. Imperatives can indeed be drawn from universal descriptions. Maybe Mr. Hume couldn’t figure out from looking at pairs of animals that something was missing. But I’ll bet every man who remembers the first time he really saw a woman knows just how wrong Hume was.

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