I have made the case that people flourish when living according to an Essentialist view of what we are. If I’m right, much of the narrative in Western culture should change, including our response to the LGBTQ+ debate. But if I’m wrong, we have the right narrative, which means we are on the right path to human flourishing and the common good.
Are there good reasons to reject Essentialism in favor of Libertarianism? Many say so. At least four objections can be raised against Essentialism. I’ll discuss one this week and the other three next week.
Objection One: No Species Meets the Requirements of Essentialism
I’ll start with the most rigorous argument made to date against Essentialism. It is most fully articulated by a world-class philosopher. As such, it is quite technical and detailed. To do it and my responses justice, today’s post delves a bit deeper than I normally go.
Dr. Elliott Sober is a professor of philosophy at the University of Wisconsin. His focus includes the philosophy of biology. He has offered a detailed argument against “biological essentialism.” This is precisely the view I’ve been endorsing: biological organisms, including humans, have essential natures that make them what they are and determine what it means for that type thing to flourish.
His argument against biological essentialism appears in his “Evolution, Population Thinking, and Essentialism,” published by Cambridge University Press. Since his arguments are the strongest I’m aware of against Essentialism, if his objections can be answered, this goes a long way toward showing Essentialism is true.
Sober’s main argument is that for (biological) Essentialism to be true, there must be a specific (or narrow range of) genetic makeups (genotypes) or observable characteristics (phenotypes) that all and only members of a given species have. If so, we have discovered the essence of that biological organism—the specific genotype or phenotype. Yet, no such shared genotypes or phenotypes exist for any biological species. Therefore, (biological) Essentialism is false.
I have published a paper in an academic journal responding to Sober’s argument (“In Defense of Biological Essentialism: A Response to Sober et al.” in Philosophia Christi, vol. IV, no 1: 29-44, 2002). In my response, I argue Sober’s objection to biological Essentialism fails for two reasons.
I’ll do my best to summarize my responses here. To fully understand these responses, I suggest you read the entire article. If you would like to do so please contact me and I will gladly email you an offprint.
My First Response
Sober’s argument assumes that the essential features of a biological organism must be genotypic or phenotypic. I argue there is no reason to assume this must be the case. My first argument is based on modal logic—the area of logical possibility, impossibility, and necessity.
Specifically, if it is even logically possible that we can exist apart from our bodies, our essence cannot be genotypic or phenotypic. Our genotype or phenotype are aspects of our physical bodies. If one or the other is essential to what we are, it would be logically impossible for us to exist apart from it. Therefore, it would be logically impossible for us to exist apart from our bodies.
But it seems at least logically possible for us to survive the death of our bodies. In other words, the possibility of us existing apart from our bodies does not entail a logical contradiction, even if one believes it is highly unlikely. Therefore, given the logical possibility of disembodied existence, our essence cannot be defined genotypically or phenotypically. I conclude with this summary:
[T]he properties which are essential to the entities’ existence cannot be genotypic or phenotypic. Rather, such essential properties must be in some sense non-bodily properties. (In Defense of Biological Essentialism, p. 34)
An Objection to My First Response
I acknowledge that one may object that disembodied existence is not even logically possible, and therefore, my argument here fails.
In response, I detail how only by begging the question in favor of physicalism can one argue disembodied existence is not even logically possible. Such question begging is a logical fallacy to be avoided. Therefore, this objection to my first response fails.
My Second Response
A second reason to rejects Sober’s argument is that essential properties may not all be “exemplified” (expressed) at any given time. Rather, they may be “dispositional properties.” These are higher-order properties (capacities or abilities) of the organism, which exists whether or not the organism is currently expressing these abilities.
This argument turns on the distinction between first-order properties (capacities) and higher-order properties (capacities). I give the example of speaking English and Russian. I can, right now, speak English on request. So this is a “first-order” capacity (it is a property I currently exemplify). But I cannot, right now, speak Russian upon request. So speaking Russian is not a first-order capacity of mine (a property I currently exemplify). However, I do have the ability to develop this first-order capacity. I can learn the Russian alphabet, words, and grammar. These are second-order capacities. And if I do so, eventually I will be able to express (exemplify) this first-order capacity—I will be able to speak Russian upon request.
Furthermore, these second-order capacities assume further higher-order capacities. For instance, in order to learn to speak Russian I must have the ability to think conceptually so as to connect new Russian words to known English words. And so on. So it seems capacities come in hierarchies.
Such a hierarchy of capacities cannot ascend forever. (Otherwise you run into the intractable problems related to actually infinite sets, in this case sets of capacities. I touch on the nature of infinite sets here.) Therefore, this hierarchy of capacities must stop somewhere—in a set of ultimate, or highest-order capacities. It is this group of highest-order capacities that determines the species’ essence.
If this is true, it is wrong to identify what an essence is with a genotype of phenotype, which are both first-order properties. Rather, a species’ essence is the cluster of highest-order capacities, which are, by definition, immaterial.
There are four objections that can be raised against my second response.
Objection One to My Second Response
Some may object that this is not a true Essentialist view, because historically Essentialist views have posited phenotypes or genotypes as the essential characteristics of biological organisms.
I have two responses. First, I grant that, yes, this is different than other historical formulations. But this is no reason to reject it. In fact, that may be a reason to embrace it, because it improves on the former attempts. In science, we never say, “That can’t be right, because we have never thought of it that way before!” So why should we do so on this question?
Second, this view does meet the definition of an Essentialist view. Sober outlines four conditions making a view Essentialistic. My view meets all these conditions. (This is too detailed to go into here—for more request an offprint of my paper.)
Objection Two to My Second Response
Others may object that these ultimate capacities are not observable or scientifically verifiable. Therefore, they cannot be what defines our essential nature. I offer two rebuttals in response.
First, in science we often appeal to things we cannot see to explain what we can see. For example, we appeal to electrons, which we have not seen, to explain what we do see. My argument, in principle, is no different.
Second, some scientific theories maintain that natural “states” will never be fully found in nature. Two examples are the natural state of uniform, linear motion in Newtonian mechanics and the Hardy-Weinberg law of genotype frequencies in population genetics. Yet these are still understood to be scientific theories. Therefore, the same is true for my “ultimate capacity” Essentialism.
Objection Three to My Second Response
A third objection is that a more precise identification and description of these ultimate capacities is needed before this view can be accepted.
I counter this is not required for my second response to Sober to be successful. We often claim that something is true before we are able to fully explain why it is true. In fact, this is often done in the practice of science. For instance, many claim to know quantum particles exist, without being able to provide much more specificity.
The same can be said for the notion of species itself. I observe,
Though most evolutionary biologists and philosophers of evolutionary biology agree that species exist (in some way which is not purely arbitrary), much debate continues as to precisely what constitutes such entities. (In Defense of Biological Essentialism, p. 41)
I conclude, “Thus, it seems equally scientific to suggest that one can know that such sets of essential ultimate capacities exist before one is able to specify what constitutes such natures in any detail.” (In Defense of Biological Essentialism, p. 42)
Objection Four to My Second Response
A fourth objection is that this form of Essentialism is no different than other ideas rejected by scientists and philosophers of science, such as astrology.
In response, I point out two important differences that invalidate this objection. First, Essentialism has been accepted in other areas of science. As Sober grants, in chemistry it is generally accepted that the elements have essential natures, and therefore the Periodic Table is objective. So it is reasonable to believe such essences are true of biological species, and seek to discover them. The same cannot be said for astrology.
Second, there are sound arguments from metaphysics to indicate natures may, in fact, exist. My arguments above are examples. Furthermore, if natures exist, they are a type of universal, and so arguments for the existence of universals (metaphysical realism) supports the existence of biological essentialism. (I defended metaphysical realism here.)
Conclusion: Sober’s Argument Against Essentialism Fails
For these reasons I believe Sober’s argument against Essentialism fails. Yet there remain three more objections that can be raised against Essentialism. I’ll discuss these in my final post of this series next week.
Until then, grace and peace.