In following the same-sex marriage debate, I’ve come across this odd objection: If you are opposed to what is “unnatural,” then don’t use cars or telephones. It’s the kind of argument that makes you cringe, because you know the person so rushed as to say it will probably not have time for the slow work of thinking; not everyone advocating same-sex marriage would be so sloppy. But let’s take just a moment to untie this thing.
Logicians—who are all about the hard work of thinking—distinguish between being “contrary” and being “contradictory”. To be contrary to something is to be at the other end of the spectrum, against it, the antithesis: white is contrary to black, light to darkness, good to bad, hard to soft, beautiful to ugly, and so on. Contraries are always on the same spectrum but at opposite ends.
On the other hand, to be contradictory to something is simply to be not that thing, to be other. A tree is not light, but neither is it the antithesis of light; it just isn’t light. To be orange is not to be soft, but neither is it opposed; it just isn’t the same thing. To be black is not the same as to be good, but neither is it the antithesis of good. Contradictories are not always on the same spectrum as each other. Often, they are not each other just because they are on different spectrums altogether.
When we talk about “natural” vs. “unnatural,” we’re talking about contraries, things that are actually opposed to one another, in competition with each other. Natural relates to unnatural the way light relates to dark or good to bad. A same-sex marriage tries to be what marriage is but fails in key respects: it is on the same spectrum as natural marriage, so to speak, but stands away like black from white.
But when we talk about cars and telephones, we’re talking about the contradictory of “natural”: they are not “unnatural” but simply “not natural”. A car is not natural the way orange is not soft. A car or a telephone is something more like “natural” than, say, a two-by-four nailed to an apple, because a car or a telephone is built to extend our natural abilities while a two-by-four nailed to an apple is neither here nor there in relation to nature.
So, the punchline: I can be opposed to the “unnatural” while being fine with the “not natural”. I can oppose same-sex marriage and blog at the same time.