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March 2018
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Justin [userpic]
The Design of Sex and the Poverty of "Sexual Deviation"

Does sex have a purpose? If so, how may we derive knowledge of its purpose, if only by consulting the designer? These questions are somewhat rhetorical, and they are in response to a posting down the board in regards to a Yale student who has questioned the notion that certain reproductive organs function to fulfill the “purpose of reproduction”. These questions are not posed in response any discussion about the student’s method or effectiveness of expression. Rather, they are posed to help accentuate the very criticisms that, I think, we can all agree that she was trying to make.

If it is claimed that sex really does have a purpose, it is tacitly advanced as a claim grounded in Aristotelian teleology (or, at least I think so). Sex has a purpose because, to borrow the words of one poster, it functions to do what it is “good for”, as if a piece of techne designed to faithfully fulfill the purpose for which it was designed. Aristotelian teleology may attempt to argue for a particular and primal purpose, all the while assuming that there does indeed exist a purpose to be discovered in the first place, but can it really establish the existence of a purpose in the first place?

Even if it could establish as much, how then could it coherently establish the existence of a particular purpose? Isn’t Aristotelian teleology grounded in the observation of the object’s natural functions? But given that any object – and sex especially so -- invariably has a range of functions – a range of what the object is “good for” -- hardly any of which is necessarily dependent on any other, does Aristotelian teleology then commit itself to the view that any object like sex necessarily must have a range of purposes, none of which can be thought to be more important or “primary” than any other? It seems as if it would be so committed, given the simple reality of the variable function of objects.

But, as has been seen, the notion of purpose has been brought to bear on normative concepts of sexual deviation: sexual act A deviates from its purpose, therefore sexual act A is wrong, is unnatural, etc. Notions of sexual deviation from sexual purpose not only gain purported credence from their roots in Aristotelian teleology, but they also serve as a demarcation point between concepts of what is natural sex and what isn’t, what is wrong sex and what is right. But again, the Aristotelian, it seems, may discover particular purposes from which the act may deviate only by observing the functions the act just so happens to have – functions that, again, are variable and not necessarily dependent on one another. And so the argument goes, the goodness or naturalness of the act’s particular function is determined by its congruence with its end, and the end is determined by the act’s natural function. I think that the circle in the reasoning is obvious. How can the Aristotelian really think that there are some functions that are wrong or unnatural and ones that are natural and good, when the criterion for goodness or naturalness stipulates that the function in question must be in accordance with a condition itself determined and discovered by reference to those very same functions?

It seems as if the Aristotelian is then left with a choice about sex. Either abandon the idea that sex has a particular and primal purpose, or find the grounding for that purpose in something other than in the observation of sex itself. I’m a metaphysical naturalist, and so I don’t buy any claim that sex has a purpose whatsoever. But even if I weren’t, how could I ever ground it in Aristotelian teleology? Perhaps I’ve misread him?

Comments

Look up Michael Levin, “Why Homosexuality is Abnormal”, The Monist, Vol. 67 (1984), No. 2, pp. 251-283.

My remote access is misbehaving. Would you mind giving the gist?

I'm going to go and drop a garden gnome on my head now in the hopes that I will forget having read that.

Oh, Larvy. You and your homophobia. It's so cute. *pinches your cheek*

"Does sex have a purpose?"

That's a good question. One of the preliminaries to answering it would be an account of what we mean by 'purpose.'

"If so, how may we derive knowledge of its purpose, if only by consulting the designer?"

For example, here you have implicitly advanced the theory that the purpose of something is that which it's designer intended it for. But why should we accept such a theory? There may be a good reason, but you certainly haven't made any clear here. And it doesn't follow at face: I had dinner with my family today and my father asked my brother if he would like a watch, my brother said "What for?" and my father responded "To tell the time." Are we stuck supposing either that this remark was an incoherent absurdity or that my father consulted the inventer of watches? It seems not. But then, your theory here is evidently incorrect.

"If it is claimed that sex really does have a purpose, it is tacitly advanced as a claim grounded in Aristotelian teleology."

Firstly, you're evidently changing the subject: the art project was not about sex.

Secondly, this reference to Aristotle is problematic in multiple ways. Firstly, there has been no such advance, and you are burdening your rhetorical opponents with a position which is not theirs. If you just want to comment on Aristotleanism, that is one thing, but it is peculiar to do so as if it refuted people who had never mentioned it. Secondly, it's not clear that Aristotlean teleology is the appropriate topic to raise here. The question of the nature of reproductive organs is as much a question of formal cause as final. Although these issues do seem to be related to the issues at hand, this relation is complicated and you have not said anything to clarify it. This leaves you remarks about teleology looking somewhat irrelevant. Thirdly, it does not seem to be the case that an appeal to Aristotleanism is necessary here, as he is rather far from the only philosopher to believe that things have meaning and value. Again, some treatment of the relation of, for example, formal and final causation to these issues would probably clarify this matter. Fourthly, 'what something is good for' is not an adequate definition of final causality.

With all this said, it's not clear that anything meaningful remains of your remarks, which seem just confused for the reasons noted.

One of the preliminaries to answering it would be an account of what we mean by 'purpose.'

I think it's pretty obvious what is meant, given that the post is heavy on the concept of purpose as telos.

For example, here you have implicitly advanced the theory that the purpose of something is that which it's designer intended it for.

Not neccessarily. In fact, this is meant as a summary of the thoughts in the last paragraph. For if it is true that the telos cannot be discovered by reference to the thing, where else may you look to discover it? Keep in mind that the concept of function is distinct from the concept of purpose -- the latter being intimately connected with the cause of the thing whereas the former isn't. That object X has Y function does not mean X exists because of Y. It is unclear whether your father's response describes a function or a purpose of the watch.

Firstly, you're evidently changing the subject: the art project was not about sex.

Of course it was, given that the "biological functions" the Yale artist refers to are (conventionally) thought to be sexual -- sexual, of course, in the sense that their consequence is sexual reproduction. Whether it was about a specific feature of the sexual act (the insemination) or apparati is irrelevant; whether it was also about a "matter of reading" is likewise irrelevant.

If you just want to comment on Aristotleanism, that is one thing, but it is peculiar to do so as if it refuted people who had never mentioned it...

It has been mentioned. Aristotle was explicity mentioned in the other thread. It need not be mentioned as a serious assent that Aristotle is correct, but surely Aristotle has been taken seriously by someone, although that someone need not be here for us to talk about this.

The question of the nature of reproductive organs is as much a question of formal cause as final. Although these issues do seem to be related to the issues at hand, this relation is complicated and you have not said anything to clarify it.

We aren't talking about the nature of the reproductive organs so much as we are talking about purported final cause, for the nature of reproductive organs includes questions of function -- the answers to which I don't think are very controversial.

Fourthly, 'what something is good for' is not an adequate definition of final causality.

Of course it isn't. In fact, it wasn't advanced as a definitionm of final causality so much as it was advanced as something that is supposed to indicate final cause.

The concepts of "purpose" or "function" are invariably shot through with normative/moral content. I think it's easy to criticize Aristotelian natural function if you leave out the fact that it was part of a larger moral framework, one which encompassed the whole cosmos.

The problem with modern thought on "function" is that we are stripped of such a cosmic moral framework, and so the notion of "function" becomes very murky. An uncontroversial example is that the heart's function is to pump blood. Why? It does that, but as you say, it does lots of other things (helps to keep the lungs apart, weighs 1.2 pounds, makes a certain noise, etc.). Intuitively, we say that because doing so keeps the organism alive, pumping blood is its purpose. But this requires a further leap, that the organism itself is "supposed" to be alive. This is equally mysterious: organisms die all the time for what appear to be perfectly natural reasons. We might try to save the idea (as [Bad username: larvatus"]'s mind-bogglingly stupid article above does) by appealing to natural selection and saying that organisms are "supposed" to pass their genes on, but Darwin and most evolutionary scientists are crystal clear on this: this is a metaphorical way of talking about evolution, that nothing is really "supposed" to happen at all. That the world really operates on purely mechanistic terms.

This doesn't stop people from using Darwinism as a moral prop by talking as though natural selection had moral-teleological content.

My overall point is this: all judgments of "function" presuppose normative standards, standards which may be supported by natural facts but which are not ultimately reducible to those facts. The normative is prior. This is perhaps why Aristotelianism seems so circular to us: we do not operate under the axiomatic normative teleology that much of his culture did.

Self-conscious use of teleological and teleonomic language when referring to evolutionary adaptations is due to Colin Pittendrigh. Two of its most prominent champions are Francisco Ayala and Ernst Mayr. Their theoretical framework bears out the notional burdens assumed by Michael Levin’s article.

A more fruitful criticism of Levin might depart from the hypothesis that the penis and some of its possible bodily receptacles are also designed for domination and submission. In other words, the ability to dominate over one’s peers by forcing them into a receptive sexual position explains why some males had higher reproductive fitness than others; and the human penis is better adapted for such domination than were its ancestral versions. This approach departs from just-so stories to align with empirical science, to the extent that its historical component is open to refutation by reference to the fossil record.

Francisco Ayala, “Teleological Explanations in Evolutionary Biology,” Philosophy of Science, Vol. 37 (1970), pp. 1-15.
Ernst Mayr, “The Idea of Teleology,” Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 53 (January/March 1992), pp. 117-135.
Colin Pittendrigh, “Adaptation, natural selection and behavior,” in A. Roe and G.G. Simpson, editors, Behavior and Evolution, Yale University Press, New Haven, CT, 1958, pp. 390-419.

In other words, the ability to dominate over one’s peers by forcing them into a receptive sexual position explains why some males had higher reproductive fitness than others; and the human penis is better adapted for such domination than were its ancestral versions.

Yes, the penis forces one's peers into a receptive sexual position. When I want sex, my penis gets angry, grows to 6 feet tall, and uses its rippling biceps to force my peer to the floor.

My ancestors' penises, however, could only bench-press 30 lbs. The wimps.

“Isn’t Aristotelian teleology grounded in the observation of the object’s natural functions? But given that any object – and sex especially so -- invariably has a range of functions – a range of what the object is 'good for' -- hardly any of which is necessarily dependent on any other, does Aristotelian teleology then commit itself to the view that any object like sex necessarily must have a range of purposes, none of which can be thought to be more important or 'primary' than any other? It seems as if it would be so committed, given the simple reality of the variable function of objects.”

It’s interesting to note what Aristotle and others at the time held to be the primary function of the brain—to cool the blood—which it does do, we lose a good deal of heat via our heads, but it now seems that they were missing some very important functions with this explanation, maybe missing the primary function, if there is such a thing.

When talking about the purpose of sex, which I think of more as an act than an object, it has social and psychological functions as well as biological, reproductive functions. I think that which we judge to be the more primary function depends on the context, or maybe derives from the act of interpretation itself.

There is only one purpose of sex, but for realizing which, all men, their minds, and their societies would necessarily fail to exist and endure. In this sense, social and psychological purposes are secondary to physiological functions.

The "purpose" of any biological act seems a bit odd to speak of. It is easy for us, looking down, to see nature as having formed purposeful events. For we can see, to what each act tends. But this is to fundamentally misunderstand the sequence of events, I think. To my mind, it is easier to see this when we talk about something being "organic" rather than "natural". Sex grew to be a strategy by which some organisms self-perpetuated.

Evolution doesn't simply restate the teleological narrative in new words. It shows us that forces tend to interact in certain ways within an individual, which result in patterns that allow for categorical definition as populations. As soon as we can define distinct species, it is easy for us to talk about the "why" they have sex. But it's not a matter of why. It's simply a matter of how they continued to be. Clouds don't form for the purpose of raining. They're the result of inorganic forces. Likewise, sex didn't form for the purpose of babies. It's a result of organic forces.

Very good. I agree -- although I might not make a distinction between "organic" and "natural", for according to your argument there doesn't seem to be a need to make such a distinction. However I am, first and foremost, addressing arguments made elsewhere, which is why I bring up the notion of "purposes" -- and most specifically Aristotelian "telos" -- in regards to biological acts.

Genitals are unlike clouds in having evolved through natural selection.

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