I'm interested in this debate as a strictly philosophical observer, not as a theologian, humanist, scientist, or neo-Darwinist. And I entertain the possibility that the outcome of this dilemma may be that we have to abandon an unjustifiable confidence in the human intellect for neo-Darwinism.
The secular philosopher-sociologist Steven Fuller performs here the role of philosophical midwife to what I believe is arguably the next major conceptual revolution in modern intellectual culture: liberal humanists, who use neo-Darwinian theory in their fights with religion, having to abandon the massive, underlying contradiction between neo-Darwinian theory and the secularized theology or metaphysics of their belief in humanism. The Western metaphysics of liberal humanism -- belief that the human intellect is special -- has been taken on loan from theology for roughly 400 years. But now the contemporary debate between neo-Darwinism and Intelligent Design theory is critically uncovering the reasons why the time seems to be nearing for liberal humanists to stop living in denial of this loan and their debt.
Like a family intervention taken to stop an addict's spiral into oblivion, Fuller articulates the sobering confrontation: either you can believe neo-Darwinian theory, or you can believe that the human intellect has the intrinsic motivation and capability to solve any problem humanity faces through reason and science, but you cannot rationally or coherently believe both of these propositions.
I can see why on Darwinian terms we have to give up the idea of “intrinsic motivation” (or telos) but not sure why we have to give up on being capable of managing/engineering dilemmas (unless you meant “solve” in some once and for all sense). surely one can be a neo-Darwinian pragmatist meliorist, no?
As a counterpoint to the above video, here is an interesting article by Norman Levitt:
Bruce Adam says
Thanks for this link. There’s nothing I enjoy more than hearing a mathematician de-bunking the bunkrapt.
Tom McDonald says
It is enjoyable to hear one’s opinions affirmed — much harder to think through serious challenges and show how an opponent has a worthy point.
This was a pretty convincing take-down of Fuller, who’s entire demeanor does strike me as so much academic posturing. But am I the only one who gets worn out by the science – bully tone of people like Levitt? I’m really distrustful of the idea that someone would have to know the intimate details of the math to say anything meaningful about the whole. That’s essentially the same line of reasoning used by i-bankers and financial analysts to keep critics of the current state of the financial system quiet.
Tom McDonald says
Can’t agree more with your latter point comparing the bullying, criticism-deflecting, obfuscating tactics used in public discourse by many science ideologues today with the those used by the high financiers of late to resist public scrutiny. One of Fuller’s theses is that Science is going through its own version of the Protestant Reformation/fragmentation/diversification after the end of the state-sponsored centralized Cold War paradigm, therefore the intense degree of hostility, dogmatism, and reaction from science ideologues is comparable to the Catholic reactionaries who fought to maintain the old centralized paradigm.
Bruce Adam says
Can’t help feeling that he’s attacking straw men. There’s an underlying assumption that those who reject religion must replace all aspects of faith with equivalents from science and Darwinism. Blind faith is one aspect that doesn’t want replacing. There are sources of human qualities such as motivation other than science and Darwinism. Philosophy not least among them.
David Buchanan says
Seems like a false dilemma to me. Does anyone believe that the human intellect can solve any problem? I honestly don’t know of any such person. If humanity is special it’s not because we are something other than an evolved animal. (“Human” has the same root word as “humility” and “humus”, which means “soil” or “dirt”.) But there is relative lack of language, art, civilization, science and technology among the other species. It’s not exactly a matter of faith to believe that these things constitute an important difference or a real distinction.
Are the observable, knowable differences great enough that we can rightly say human beings are “special”? Or are we the same as all other species in every important respect?
To make a case that we are not at all “special”, as Fuller does, you have to deny the idea that evolution is progressive. More specifically, you’d have to deny the idea that human achievements like civilization and science constitute an evolutionary advance. Social and historical facts would be the basis of the claim because, genetically speaking, there is nothing special about us. It’s the intellect that sets us apart. It’s people like Darwin that make us special. 😉
The frustrating thing about Fuller is that he makes some good points sometimes (I thought his book on Kuhn vs Popper was worth reading, whether you agreed with his conclusions or not), but Levitt is basically right about him. You don’t have to know everything about science to be able to do philosophy or sociology of science, but you have to know enough to be able to understand what is going on. Fuller seems to me like a “sociologist of music” who tries to interpret what is happening in an orchestra while having no idea what music is or why people might want to play music.
“you have to deny the idea that evolution is progressive” – this is the difference between Darwin and earlier forms of evolution. Darwinian evolution has no teleology. If someone says evolution is progressive, they are no Darwinian (neo- or otherwise).
David Buchanan says
I think we can deny the teleology without denying the progress. We don’t need to make claims about nature’s goals in order to make claims about the accumulated effects of natural selection and sexual selection. Intelligent design advocates and creationists will tell you that the universe has a certain purpose and the old-school Hegelian thought the dialectical process was going headed toward a final goal but I’m just saying evolution produces improvements. It’s not a smooth, straight line of progress, of course, and there is no plan or promise or guarantee. But overall and in general, the movement has been toward greater complexity and adaptability, more sensitivity and a greater capacity to respond.
Stepping back now for a wide angle. The West has tended to think of reality as something made for a purpose, the way a potter shapes clay with a use in mind. You see sophisticated versions of this in the Deist God, the watchmaker type of God. In the East the tendency is to think of the universe as something that grows from within, like forests and jungles, not something that’s been manufactured by outside forces.
So in the West we get saddled with this weird dilemma wherein the universe was intelligently designed or it operates according to blind mechanical laws. But if we trade the machine metaphors in for metaphors of life and growth, the dilemma evaporates because now the “intelligence” is neither denied altogether nor is it ascribed to the creator. Instead, the intelligence in the evolutionary process, if you will, is ascribed to the evolving creatures themselves. On this view, the process isn’t part of some larger goal or design but it’s not exactly a blind mechanism either. Gears and cogs don’t fight for the right to mate and they show off like peacocks. These strategies are a natural part of the selection process too and they everything to do with which genes get passed on and which do not. The evolving creatures themselves are constantly making little “choices” that add up to big changes in the long run.
Tom McDonald says
I appreciate your approach David, but I’m suspicious about our tendency to read our own normative and political views — in particular our normative liberal individualist politics — into Nature. For example, when you say “the intelligence in the evolutionary process, if you will, is ascribed to the evolving creatures themselves. On this view, the process isn’t part of some larger goal or design but it’s not exactly a blind mechanism either. Gears and cogs don’t fight for the right to mate and they show off like peacocks. These strategies are a natural part of the selection process too and they have everything to do with which genes get passed on and which do not. The evolving creatures themselves are constantly making little “choices” that add up to big changes in the long run.” WOW, it’s amazing how conveniently Nature turns out to perfectly serve our normative political views.
David Buchanan says
Liberal individualists and normative political views? Tom, I think you’re making an illegitimate leap from evolutionary progress (my claim) to progressive political positions, about which I said nada.
Tom McDonald says
David: I’ll admit that I haven’t teased out all the implications of your argument, but I strongly suspect you’re on very thin ice trying to defend the notion that evolution is naturally ‘progressive’ without teleology.
Tom McDonald says
Thanks Andrew for pointing out that a Darwinian, “neo- or otherwise”, has to deny the idea that evolution is progressive. This is KEY to the point that Darwinism contradicts Liberal/Progressive Humanism. INDEED: “if someones says evolution is progressive, they are no Darwinian (neo- or otherwise).”
Tom McDonald says
David: Do you not see that a Darwinian account of the human intellect undermines the tenability that a human who hold’s a Darwinian account of the human intellect loses his basis to claim it is true objectively and not based on his own subjective adaptive interest to believe in this particular story? One of Fuller’s points is that Darwinians have not thought through the logical implication that their account turned on the question of human reason completely undermines any claim of science to objectivity.
David Buchanan says
It’s not at all clear what you’re trying to say here, Tom. Would you care to rephrase? I’m really not even sure what claim is being undermined or where this notion of “subjective adaptive interest” comes from. Perhaps you’re responding to somebody else’s comments?
Tom McDonald says
If one holds that the intellect or reason can only be explained by Darwinian evolution (by a naturalistic evolutionary psychology), then one has to take the intellect to be thoroughly relative to adaptive demands, subordinate to the particular circumstances of particular organisms. But it follows from this line of thinking that the claim by particular human intellects to universal truth for Darwinian theory — or the claim to the universal truth of any purportedly scientific theory — must eventually collapse into skepticism and relativism. For, if one adopts the belief that Darwinism explains the intellect, why should this not be so for the relative intellectual survival value the belief may purchase, rather than for its being actually true? This problem would be especially clear in the case where the intellectual environment, in which one’s beliefs and intellectual survival were at stake, was a typical contemporary university science or biology department and the normative pressures therein today. This is a line of argument Steven Fuller raises to make the point that uncritical Darwinism is not as much a threat to religion as it is to reason and science itself.
Now, one could respond to this argument as Daniel Dennett has by claiming that, although the human intellect is thoroughly relative to environmental adaptative demands, it just so happens (to the great luck of science) that these demands correspond to the objective truth about the world. Despite the suspiciously sophistical appearance of this argument, suppose we nevertheless generously grant the possibility of such a state of affairs. If this is true, then one cannot deny the astonishingly special place of the human intellect in the order of nature, to be privy alone, distinct from all the other animals, to the truth of the world. Thus on this move Darwinists like Dennett can’t help but return the intellect to a metaphysically privileged status regarding the world. Then this metaphysically privileged status — restored behind one’s own back — refutes other Darwinian naturalist claims to deny religion any special privileging of the human.
David Buchanan says
I one holds that the intellect can only be explained by Darwinian evolution, then, I think, one is guilty of reductionism and scientism. One would then be guilty of inappropriately applying a biological theory to the analysis of human culture. Plus – as I mentioned- I don’t even buy the notion that genes are selected by a blind mechanism and this is even less true for so-called memes.
Also, I’m not one who views the human intellect as mirroring the objective order of nature. As James so succinctly put it, “we carve out everything”. The original purpose of this capacity for language and concepts was most likely aimed at survival; avoiding danger and finding food and mates, etc.. And maybe Einstein thought the theory of relativity was impressive enough to get him laid or invited to dinner, but I think it’s wildly unreasonable to view this achievement as “thoroughly relative to adaptive demands.” That sort of view ignores the vast differences between the values of the university and the laws of the jungle.
There is an old joke that makes fun of this conflation. If memory serves, if was Tina Fey on Saturday Night Live’s Weekend Update. “The world’s leading evolutionary biologist died today – and was immediately replaced by a larger, stronger evolutionary biologist”. I think that joke makes the point pretty well.
Neo-Darwinism is descriptive, not prescriptive. So it doesn’t conflict with humanism whatsoever. Fuller’s out to lunch.
Tom McDonald says
As if ‘merely descriptive’ theory is not always in actuality thoroughly bound up with the prescriptive agenda of someone, like Richard Dawkins and Neo-Darwinism. The fact-value / positive-normative / descriptive-prescriptive distinction is not as simple as Humean empiricism takes it to be, if at least because one only points others to particular facts (and obsesses about doing so) for the reason that one is highly motivated and interested to point others in the same direction.
Joan Brown says
i am listening to ‘origin of species’ right now (thanks for the intro to open culture.blog!) and don’t see how darwin is a pessimist, as fuller says in the clip above.
i see darwin as a naturalist, an observer of nature. he put forth the theory that we, as humans, are one of the species that live on this planet that we call home, that we evolved to be the creatures that we are now from our primate ancestors, and that we will continue to evolve, as all living species will.
the post above, stating it is a ‘false dilemma’, seems post on. we are not special. we a human. no more/no less.
special is relative to who/what/how we perceive/where, etc.
are the humans that live on the island of, say, manhattan,
better than humans that live in the rain forest of borneo?
are the contents of the museums and libraries in manhattan more valuable that the contents of the floor, canopy and
treetops of the rain forest habitat, both containing millennia
of ‘culture’, from totally differing perspectives? then, are either of these subgroups of our human species ‘better’ than the oran gutan of the forest habitat or the blue whale of the
just because we are the only species that has created a reproducible form of communication, and so can pass knowledge developed from one generation to the next in a way that it is transmittable to the masses, does not mean we are better, or worse, for that matter.
it just means we talk more.
Tom McDonald says
Joan: Despite your warm liberal progressive humanist tone, your logical inferences here are roughly the same as Herbert Spencer’s and Adolf Hitler’s logical inferences — since there is no *intrinsic* sense to belief that the human world is morally superior to the animal world, then there is no intrinsic reason for the superior animals to take uninhibited joy and delight inflicting suffering on the weaker animals.
Joan Brown says
while i agree that there is no intrinsic sense to the belief that the human world is morally superior to the animal world (this being relative to what you believe morality to be), i believe we are not inferior either. we are equal. rather, we all exist. we are residents of the earth. i do believe that as the most successful species (so far), we have a responsibility to not destroy it.
and i also could never understand how any being could take pleasure in the infliction of pain in any way (e.g.: boxing, torture, abuse, and so on back through millennia), which is not specific to our species, as documented by primatologists such as goodall, dewaal, etc.
so, please explain to me how being a warm, liberal, humanist progressive correlate to engaging in genocide, torture and eugenics?
Tom McDonald says
Joan: I appreciate your personal beliefs, as I basically share your sentiment, but assertion of personal beliefs is not an argument premised on reasons. My point regarding your views is to draw out logical implications that may not reflect your sentiments, but nevertheless follow from your belief: if the human world is not morally superior to the animal world, then there is no reason (not ‘no sentiment’, but ‘no reason’) that we shouldn’t see Hitler’s desires and actions as perfectly natural and unsurprising.
Joan Brown says
As i have no training in the field of philosophical studies/theory ( my background is education; i now am in administration as a learning disabilities teacher/consultant, after many years as a special education teacher), i am not sure what you seek.
but let me try: because a man/woman desires to form a ‘pure race’, and in doing so would cause pain, agony, misery, and all that would come from such a plan of systemized torture, abuse and murder, or put another way, implement a plan of eugenic cleansing of a population, would this not, therefore, cause that man/woman to place themselves above all others, perceive themselves as superior, whether it be morally, intellectually, physically, etc. ? So, following along with just ‘my personal beliefs’, the logical implications conclude that this would be wrong, due to the fact that ALL creatures on the earth are equal beings, and NO being has superiority over another, and therefore has no right to do so. A belief of superiority of self/group along with belief of inferiority of any other being/group culminating in the desire to (and/or ability to) destroy other groups could happen only with the backing/support of some kind of massive power, strength, force, and fear. The masses of the group need to give support for the violence, or in the least turn their head with a blind eye, for the extinction to be accomplished.
Whether this is ‘perfectly natural’ and ‘unsurprising’ is relative to your perspective, and therefore your belief. Please do not include me as part of your ‘we’.
I find those beliefs and actions to be unnatural, surprising, unfathomable, incomprehensible, and unforgivable.
Andrew C says
Do we all recall that Steve Hawking spoke at Google, and explained that philosophy was dead and that science’s cuisine would reign supreme? Is Steven Hawking a straw-man? (Intellectually yes; politically no.)
Perhaps a more reputable expression than Fuller but paralleling these ideas / sensitive to these problems – is in the intro to the Monstrosity of Christ (intro by Creston Davis). Davis talks about the concern that strict scientific materialism with no space for the transcendent leaves us with no foothold against the remorseless dissolving power of capital.
This is the top google book page, mysteriously Turkish.
Fuller is mostly correct but he very perversely derives enjoyment out of the beratement of the girl in this video. Why present your views with so much spite unless they are not simply closer to the truth? Darwinism is not inherently pessimistic, it is as value neutral as speculative theories have ever come. People have argued in equal measure that it also substantiates both aryanism and transhumanism, though I’m not aware of any additional supporting evidence in favor of either. Many theories which came before it were tossed out or revised for their excessive anthropomorphism, and any successful additions which have come after are always attentive toward it. It seems like rather than abstaining from belief in the automatic progress of science, Fuller instead indulges himself in certainty of its absolute regress. Sure, that science has worked is not enough for it to consist in a reason for ongoing human life, but whatever your feelings about its direction, how are you going to put such an outrageously effective project in air quotes?
To me, a pessimistic evolutionary view would consist in nature some how consciously being at war with man, rather than their relation in theory being dissolved completely.
Don Nelsen says
There is just something about this video. It is clear that Fuller is stridently defending his position, but I’m not clear on his reasons for doing so. It isn’t as if Humanists are claiming evolution as a basis for the tenets of secular humanism, nor is the case clearly made that theology is the basis for its tenets.
I don’t think this idea that evolution (so called Neo-Darwinism or the Modern Synthesis) and humanism are mutually exclusive is supported either. Evolution is simply a method to explain change over time. It is powerful, it may explain why we are how we are, but I fail to see how it contradicts humanism.
The explanatory power of science is in-and-of itself a reason for scientific endeavors to continue into the future (I know, Fuller says “It Works” is not sufficient, but why is it not sufficient?). Those of us curious as to the workings of existence will continue to utilize this method simply to satisfy our curiosity.
Please forgive me if I am doing this wrong. I don’t mean to step on any toes. I don’t have a counter argument but simply question the validity of the argument presented. I am not a student of philosophy.
Tom, Fuller really annoys me, but he makes an interesting argument. I think you’re right in pointing out that the central point is that neo-darwinism is fundamentally anti-teleological.
But though Fuller presents this as a crisis for both science and scientifically minded humanism, I think that’s a step too far.
Neo-darwinism on its own terms has tools for dealing with this: First, an important idea in the modern synthesis is that new evolutionary adaptations (new genes, new organs, etc) almost always arise by a process of co-option. It’s this feature that people who argue for irreducible complexity overlook, for example, with the evolution of the bacterial flagellum from the simpler type III secretory system. So in this context, if values and goals are important for being human, but originally arose out of religions, a good neo-darwinist has no qualms about appropriating, repurposing, and generally keeping the good bits while ditching the crap and woo.
Second, although evolution is anti-teleological, that doesn’t remove as much … call it meaning… as you might at first think. It’s just not right to say “at the end of the day we come and we go like all creatures end of story,” because neo-darwinism is explicitly about how *some lineages* dont just go, but stick around, and around and around. Our first multicellular last common ancestor didn’t just “come and go”. It came, and gave rise to a *huge* progeny that has dramatically reshaped the face of the planet, and lasted for 500 million years. And so when evaluating human special-ness, its from this perspective that neo-darwinists are coming. And its not for nothing that geologists have declared the entrance into a new world epoch, the anthropocene: we have completely reshaped this world, on a scale on par with the colonization of the land by the first plants, or of the oxygenation of the atmospheres and rusting of the oceans by ancient cyanobacteria. So can a neo-darwinist say humans are special, with a straight face? Yes indeed.
Finally, to look to philosophy, Nietzsche is a perfect example of a thinker who affirms both a fundamentally anti-teleological metaphysics and still has a lot to say about how we as humans can go about creating value for ourselves. So I really don’t think the inference from “neo-darwinism implies no telos” to “any thinker who accepts the truth of neo-darwinism must abandon all notion of goals and values” holds at all. But though a neo-darwinist may have the tools to answer Fuller, its important to recognize that the question is an important one that needs answering.
This leaves aside a discussion of Fuller’s critique of optimism; whether we should believe that science is inherently good… I’d say we shouldn’t, but thats a huge additional discussion.
Tom McDonald says
Evan: your appeal to Nietzsche is telling, as Nietzsche’s idea that we must subjectively impose values on to an inherently meaningless, valueless nature is an expression of the Nihilism (collapse of meaning beyond self) and ‘will to Power’ (self-assertion to control everything as salvation from nihilism) which ultimately results from the Cartesian dualistic metaphysics (strict fact-value separation) which is still widely policed within the ideology of contemporary science. Fuller’s criticisms of science are informed by critical engagement in the continental tradition with how Nietzsche expresses the underlying nihilism of the scientific age.
Tom McDonald says
Evan: I should say the underlying nihilism of the “technological age” rather than “scientific age”. I do not think as Nietzscheans do that reason and science as such are necessarily nihilistic, but rather, in agreement with Heidegger’s social diagnosis, our nihilism is charcterized by science in the form of a normative instrumental-rationality, the normativity of technological will to power and control.
I guess my wider point would build on that a little:
My favorite part of Nietzsche is book three of geneology, where he argues that the will to truth, in other words, science construed broadly, arises as religion and ascetic metaphysics asks ever harder questions of itself, a process which culminates in the death of god; really, nihilism. Book three is Nietzsche’s prolonged discussion of how the will to truth arises from untruth.
So I suggest that in an analogous fashion, Neo-darwinism may be stronger than Fuller credits, that when treated with philosophical sophistication it may have the tools to show how value can emerge from the value-less: through the evolution of a creature, homo sapiens, that bestows value.
I’d also say that I don’t think this goes so far as to constrain us towards one particular set of values, we have, happily or unhappily, more degrees of freedom than that. So I agree that its important to consider how an unreflective technological normativity can go seriously awry here.
I won’t say too much as I think Mr. McDonald has done a nice job of explicating the point at hand, though I think if I had to put at least one line of criticism of Neo-Darwinism succinctly, it would go like this:
(1) Human beings have or can develop a telos. (humanism)
(2) Human beings are entirely within nature. (naturalism)
(3) Nature is entirely without telos. (naturalism cum neo-darwinism).
Obviously (1) is in conflict with (2) and (3) — they cannot all be rationally held at once — and Fuller seems to be asking us which of these premises we care to drop.
But that’s just the issue: your conflict between (1), (2) and (3) isn’t real. “naturalism cum neo-darwinism” implies something more modest than “Nature is entirely without telos,” namely, something like “there is no telos governing the evolution of living things in the universe”.
But its entirely consistent for a non-teleological process to result in such things as: cells, organisms, thinking beings, beings that can plan and make goals. And what are beings the can plan and make goes (homo sapiens) if not a naturally arisen telos?
The criticism doesn’t work.
It’s not as though the form of the argument itself is entirely invalid and the conflict imagined, it’s just that you choose to accept premises 1 & 3, and reject 2. While you might be correct, your view also at least necessitates a very sharp divide separating the nearly infinite majority of natural entities merely subject to the aimless conditions of the world, from we uniquely thinking beings. This is a divide which I find is always becoming less permissable as science proceeds to uncover the biological workings of the human mind. First there is the progressive, unconscious evolution of the universe, and then suddenly and inexplicably there are superior living things like ourselves which begin to some how transcend it.
Conversely, what are human beings if not further incidental and homogenous material manifestions of nature? While you rightly reject any fallacious universal telos that might guide each individual toward evolving, you propose rather an absolute telos which guides the world itself toward always undergoing processes that should produce men. Unfortunately it doesn’t seem to me like people now enact any more meaningful projects than we ever have before, or ever will, it’s just that the process of avoiding death today has become so shrouded in mystical convolution that would impress even ancient pagan shamans.
Did you even read my response? I accept premises 1 and 2, and reject 3. Humans are completely part of nature, and are in no way transcending anything.
I’ll try and say it more explicitly. The way in which the neo-darwinian modern synthesis is non-teleological is simple: Evolution has no goal. It proceeds solely in response to local fitness gradients, without heed for any long-term direction. That does *not* imply that the products of natural selection cannot, if they are sufficiently complex, come up with goals of their own. Or would you deny that individual evolved humans like you or me have goals?
As to whether our current goals are more… meaningful… than those of our distant ancestors, or whether any of them do now or ever will transcend individuals or small groups, thats an interesting question, but is way off in a different direction.
I guess meaningful was probably a loaded word to use, I should have said ‘different’, as in our individual motivation is exactly the sort even single cellular organisms always abide by: avoid death. You reject that nature is entirely without telos because you suggest it can produce goal oriented behavior through sheer random chance. Modern societies have invented all sorts of mechanisms to mask this grim process, but it has not distinctly changed, or transcended itself in any way. How is that not relevant?
I think it might also be said that this is as much a question of philosophy itself as it is of liberal humanism. However you want to formulate the question exactly, it seems to me that the telos as it plays an important role in human life supposes some measure of free will. Now, if one accepts naturalism one is also likely to accept determinism, which of course excludes free will from the picture, and I don’t see how choice is going to manifest itself from mechanical atoms in the void. So much for telos. It also seems to me that humanism, among other things, enshrines intellectualism, and what is the crown of intellectualism if not philosophy?