Darwinism and Philosophy

Article excerpt

Darwinism and Philosophy

Eds. Vittoria Hoesle and Christian Illies

University of Notre Dame Press, Indiana, 2005

Philosophers are people who engage in metaphysical attempts to determine what exactly reality is, and particularly what men and women ought to do. Acordingly, philosophy has historically tended to be little more than the record of the conclusions reached by intelligent thinkers living at different times in different cultures. Certainly there have been some instances where earlier conclusions remained at least partially valid to people living in later eras and in other environments. This is only to be expected in light of the extent to which human beings tend to share certain basic needs and drives.

Some philosophers have been "conservative" in that their conclusions have closely reflected the traditional values of their society, while others have been "revolutionary" in the sense that they have developed ethical systems that have conflicted with the views then currently predominant amongst their fellows. In recent decades, however, philosophers trained in the history of past philosophical systems find themselves challenged by advances in the scientific understanding of both nature and the Universe. Because of their claim always to be able to interpret what has been reported by scientists, and indeed to be able to speculate intelligently on what may lie beyond the limits of current science, philosophers are hard pressed today to keep up with the rapid advances of modern science.

In addition, so many philosophers have been influenced by the ancient belief that the mind is separate from the body, that there has been a reluctance to face up to the implications of biological evolution and heredity. When the present volume entitled Darwinism and Philosophy came into the hands of this reviewer, it therefore brought with it a sense of excitement. Although the essays of some of the contributors are disappointing, the volume as a whole provides evidence that many philosophers are beginning to realize that if they seek to retain any audience among educated people, they must make at least an honest attempt to accept the relevance of science to their disputations.

The editors themselves recognize the importance of Darwinian evolution, and begin their introduction with the statement that: "any reasonable theory about the relation between philosophy and the sciences must avoid two extremes. On the one hand, no philosophy can be convincing if it ignores the results of the sciences of its times...On the other hand, philosophy cannot abdicate in the face of scientific theories-for the interpretation [their italics] of the results of the sciences is something that is not as obvious as the results themselves sometimes are." (p. 1) This may be taken as meaning that they are willing to listen to scientists, but that they still intend to "protect their turf."

To fulfill their intention to explore the implications of evolution for philosophy, the editors have collected papers from a wide spectrum of philosophers. They have, however, tactfully avoid asking the vital question of whether anyone trained in archaic philosophies, and presumably, therefore, essentially ignorant of the recondite intricacies of modern science, is really able to understand the implications of modern science, which is highly specialized. Although this reviewer leans toward science rather than archaic philosophy, he is quite willing to admit that this limitation applies to himself as well as to the contributors to this compendium. But that does not affect the importance of enquiring into a commentator's competence.

Some of the seventeen philosophers who have contributed to the volume under review have shown that they are indeed aware of the relevance of scientific information. Yet even they fail to make any significant contribution to our understanding of the universe or to advance any convincing new insights into man's place in the universe. …