Evolutionary Transcendence

7 December 2013


brain in skull

Gödel, McGinn, and the Evolution of Mind

In so far as our human, all-too-human minds supervene upon human, all-too-human bodies (i.e., brains) — subject to all the ills that flesh is heir to — the biological evolution of the brain entails the evolution of the human mind. Indeed, one of the most interesting features of hominid evolution is brain evolution, which has been called The Runaway Brain.

Brain evolution has been a distinctive constituent of human evolution.

Brain evolution has been a distinctive constituent of human evolution.

Why did the brain take off in a runaway escalating spiral among hominids but not in other species? The likely answer is that, at some point in our history — a history that extends well back in time before homo sapiens — human beings and our predecessor species engaged in direct competition engaging intellectual capacity — the survival of the smartest. The human mind, and its distinctive form of consciousness, is the result of an evolutionary “arms race” in intelligence (perhaps even constituting a Fisherian runaway, though not necessarily sexually dimorphic). The impressive brains of several mollusc species, which possess sophisticated camera eyes and a structural complexity prerequisite to controlling the coloration of the entire skin surface, never seems to have been drawn into a cognitive evolutionary spiral as happened with hominids.

It has been argued that the human brain has reached the practical limitations of biologically-based intelligence. A much larger brain would slow down signaling between the regions of the brain, and a much smaller brain would fall below the threshold necessary for consciousness, sentience, and intelligence. While this may be true for strictly biological entities, it leaves aside the possibility of the technological enhancement of an organic brain, or the possibility of pharmaceutical-based cognitive enhancement, in the form of drugs that would improve focus and concentration, or otherwise enhance cognitive function without organic changes to the basic structure and size of the human brain. So there may yet be room for improvement, even if our brains remain more-or-less the same, biologically and organically speaking.

The kind of cognitive improvement I would like to discuss here, however, is not technological or pharmaceutical, but the kind of cognitive improvement that we have seen throughout the development of hominids and the social institutions that hominids have created in order to facilitate cognitive function (like the cumulative effects of social learning, which David Christian of Big History fame has emphasized as a crucial stage in human development). This is a technology, too, if we count ideas as social technologies. The idea of zero is a mathematical technology that allows us to think much more efficiently and effectively in mathematical terms, even if our brains are not organically improved, and even if we are subject to an entire battery of logical fallacies and cognitive biases. (Brain plasticity means that learning new ideas means actual organic changes in the brain, in terms of restructuring neural pathways, but the overall structure and function of the brain remains intact; here it is useful to distinguish between ontogenic development and phylogenic development.)

The evolution of our ideas has been almost as slow as the evolution of our brains. If we look back on the long history of hominids and see the use of tools by early hominids, and eventually the use of fire, were developments of the first importance, but which remained static for literally millions of years. Later with homo sapiens came language, and later still came written language. Only in the past two hundred years have we added electronic telecommunications (the first telegraph for regular communication became operable in 1833), which have so greatly accelerated the utility of language, and allowed language to grow and branch out in new and unexpected ways, that we tend to forget that human beings spoke to each other for tens of thousands of years before anyone was able to put into practice the idea of written symbolic communication.

This at times painfully slow pace of development contrasts with our habit of speaking of “revolutions” in our intellectual development (like the Copernican revolution). Ideas build one upon another, with the earlier often being the condition of the possibility of the later, which makes these earlier ideas, in Kantian terms, the transcendental condition of later ideas. In the same way, our bodies in evolution — and our bodies as specific to our minds, i.e., our brains — are similarly constructed incrementally through history, with the earlier developments being the condition of the possibility of later developments.

The evolutionary and incremental development of our brain, our mind that supervenes on our brain, and our ideas that supervene on our minds, is slow and gradual and only reveals its radical character over the very long term. Without the discoveries of scientific historiography, which has restored to us the once-lost deep history of our species, we might assume that everything remains unchanged in an eternal and unchanging universe — which was, in fact, the dominant conception of human beings in the cosmos in the past.

The reader may find my title — evolutionary transcendence — a bit odd, perhaps not quite right, since we understand by evolution an immanent process, thoroughly integral with the mundane world, and not at all as something “above” or “independent of” the world. Indeed, it would make no sense at all to speak of evolution that is “above” the world. Nevertheless, evolution has, over the long term, repeatedly resulted in radical transcendence that supervenes upon the incremental Kantian transcendental conditions that hold for each stage of a developmental history.

In the Oxford English Dictionary, definition 1.b. of “transcendence” reads as follows:

The attribute of being above and independent of the universe; distinguished from immanence.

The relevant sense of “immanence” (adj. 1) reads as follows:

Indwelling, inherent; actually present or abiding in; remaining within.

Both of the terms — transcendence and immanence — are heavily laden with theological connotations, as the further definitions and examples from the OED make clear. This theological baggage makes the terms problematic, but, if we set aside the connotations of otherworldliness, there is no other word for the consequences of evolution over la longue durée than than later forms — of life and of ideas — transcend earlier forms. Thus is it that existential viability in an evolving world is predicated upon the ability to change, even to the point of essential change, or what Aristotle would have called metábasis eis állo génos (μετάβασις εἰς ἄλλο γένος) — a change into another kind of genus (or category — for Aristotle this was an illegitimate leap, a non sequitur). We usually think of evolution as, quite literally, a change into another kind of species, so the that idea of a change into another kind of genus presents itself as something more radical that evolution. This is merely a façon de parler, since all the biodiversity of the world — from species through genus, family, order, class, and so forth — is the result of repeated evolutionary branching that shapes geographical varieties in the shorter term and genuses and other biological classifications in the longer term.

As suggested above, the biological evolution of the brain bears upon the cognitive history of the mind, and the cognitive history of the mind bears upon the intellectual history of ideas. Driven by the imperative of existential viability, the organism must change, if it changes at all, in such a way as to remain viable — competitive — at every stage of its development. Thus each individual change is small, while the cumulative effect increases over time. And so with the mind and its ideas: at each stage of development the mind and its ideas must be viable in and of themselves, or result in catastrophic failure that marks the extinction of this particular line of development.

We have seen this incremental improvement in mind before in the work of Kurt Gödel. In my post Gödel’s Lesson for Geopolitics (as well as in Addendum on Technological Unemployment) I quoted Gödel as follows:

“Turing . . . gives an argument which is supposed to show that mental procedures cannot go beyond mechanical procedures. However, this argument is inconclusive. What Turing disregards completely is the fact that mind, in its use, is not static, but is constantly developing, i.e., that we understand abstract terms more and more precisely as we go on using them, and that more and more abstract terms enter the sphere of our understanding. There may exist systematic methods of actualizing this development, which could form part of the procedure. Therefore, although at each stage the number and precision of the abstract terms at our disposal may be finite, both (and, therefore, also Turing’s number of distinguishable states of mind) may converge toward infinity in the course of the application of the procedure.”

“Some remarks on the undecidability results” (Italics in original) in Gödel, Kurt, Collected Works, Volume II, Publications 1938-1974, New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990, p. 306

Gödel here reveals an infinitistic conception of mind that is at home in an infinitistic and evolving universe. In the earlier post cited above I Further commented (referencing Fukuyama’s approach to the “end of history”):

“To suppose that human moral evolution had come to an end with the advent of the idea and implementation of liberal democracy, however admirable this condition is (or would be), is to suppose that we had tried all possible ideas for human society and that there will be no new ideas (at least, there will be no new moral ideas unless we change human nature through biotechnological intervention). I do not accept either that all ideas for society have been tried and rejected or that there will be no fundamentally new ideas.”


“Gödel is right. The human mind is always developing and changing. Because the mind is not static, it formulates novel ideas on a regular basis. It is a fallacy to conflate the failure of new ideas of achieve widespread socio-political currency with the absence of novel ideas. Among the novel ideas constantly pioneered by the dynamism of human cognition are moral and political ideas. In so far as there are new moral and political ideas, there are new possibilities for human culture, society, and civilization. The works of the human mind, like the human mind itself, are not static, but are constantly developing.”

In a similar vein I also wrote about this unlimited and incremental development of ideas and the consciousness that embodies ideas in The Growth of Historical Consciousness. Our historical experience grows with the passage of history, so that later history is experienced against a different intellectual background, which changes the nature of history and its experience. This is a social instance of an argument that Bergson formulated almost a hundred years ago, when he argued that the individual’s experience of life is cumulative and therefore plays a role in later experience, which makes life non-deterministic.

It is fallacy to suppose that we are stuck with a finite stock of ideas, or a finite number of states (or forms) of consciousness (what Gödel, following Turing, calls distinguishable states of mind), just as it is a fallacy to suppose that there are only a finite number of possibilities for political society, for economic organization, for the administration of justice, for social institutions, for science, for mathematics, for philosophy, or or any other human activity. It is a fallacy, and it is a familiar fallacy that we have previously encountered in Comte de Maistre’s Finitistic Political Theory. We do not need to settle for a static, stationary conception of the human future; our aspirations can be as dynamic as our imagination is free to conceive as-yet-unactualized possibilities.

But what is the mechanism by which incremental change comes about in the mind and its ideas? How is this even possible? In my recent post The Size of the World I quoted Colin McGinn’s book Problems in philosophy: The Limits of Inquiry and his formulation he calls Transcendental Naturalism:

“Philosophy is an attempt to get outside the constitutive structure of our minds. Reality itself is everywhere flatly natural, but because of our cognitive limits we are unable to make good on this general ontological principle. Our epistemic architecture obstructs knowledge of the real nature of the objective world. I shall call this thesis transcendental naturalism, TN for short.”

Colin McGinn, Problems in philosophy: The Limits of Inquiry, pp. 2-3

Such a position makes change in the mind and change in ideas virtually impossible, but it is an impossibility predicated upon a presumption of the unchanging nature of the mind. As Gödel pointed out, mind, in its use, is not static, but is constantly developing, and because the mind and its ideas are developing, our cognitive limits are developing, i.e., changing, at times increasing, while at times knowledge pushes these limits outward and our minds expand, mastering previously inconceivable ideas. What McGinn has called “our epistemic architecture” makes us think of the static architecture of a grand edifice, like a cathedral, but we need to think of our cognitive architecture as being something more like the familiar metaphors of rebuilding a ship at sea, as famously formulated by Otto Neurath:

“There is no way of taking conclusively established pure protocol sentences as the starting point of the sciences. No tabula rasa exists. We are like sailors who must rebuild their ship on the open sea, never able to dismantle it in dry-dock and to reconstruct it there out of the best materials. Only the metaphysical elements can be allowed to vanish without trace.”

Otto Neurath, “Protocol sentences,” in Logical Positivism, edited by A.J. Ayer, Free Press, Glencoe, IL, 1959, p. 201.

Quine employed the same metaphor:

“We are like sailors who on the open sea must reconstruct their ship but are never able to start afresh from the bottom. Where a beam is taken away a new one must at once be put there, and for this the rest of the ship is used as support. In this way, by using the old beams and driftwood the ship can be shaped entirely anew, but only by gradual reconstruction.”

W. V. O. Quine, Word and Object

Naval architecture, then, under the constraint of rebuilding at sea while staying afloat, is a better model for our epistemic architecture, than the idea of a grand and permanent structure, a cathedral of the mind. Under these conditions, we can gradually bring within the sphere of the mind’s capability ever more refined and comprehensive conceptions that better reflect the structure of the world itself. Such conceptions are never perfect, but they are also never so inadequate as to leave us with an absolute mystery. Scientific mysteries are subject to revision, even as the formerly inconceivable comes within the scope of the mind and reveals new mysteries for the mind to tackle in turn.

In The Size of the World I further wrote:

“…while our cognitive abilities are admittedly limited (for all the reasons discussed above, as well as other reasons not discussed), these limits are not absolute, but rather admit of revision. McGinn’s position as stated above implies a false dichotomy between staying within the constitutive structure of our minds and getting outside it. This is a classic case of facing the sheer cliff of Mount Improbable: while it is impossible to get outside our cognitive architecture in one fell swoop, we can little by little transgress the boundaries of our cognitive architecture, each time ever-so-slightly expanding our capacities. Incrementally over time we improve our ability to stand outside those limits that once marked the boundaries of our cognitive architecture. Thus in an ironic twist of intellectual history, the evolutionary argument, rather than demonstrating metaphysical modesty, is rather the key to limiting the limitations on the human mind.”

Evolutionary transcendence comes about gradually, incrementally, bit-by-bit, reconfiguring our epistemic architecture just enough with each development that we can understand a little bit more than we understood before. Gödel’s “understand[ing] abstract terms more and more precisely as we go on using them,” such that, “more and more abstract terms enter the sphere of our understanding” is the gradual mechanism by which we “get outside the constitutive structure of our minds” — only on the margins, at the far edge of reason, and to a limited extent. Better, we revise the constitutive structure of our minds, and thereby get outside the constitutive structure of our mind as it was in the past.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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The Developmental Conception of Civilization

classes of exrisk

Eleventh in a Series on Existential Risk

It is common to think about civilization in both developmental and non-developmental terms. As for the former, ever since Marx historians have identified a sequence of stages of economic development, and of course the idea of social evolution was central for Hegel before Marx gave it an economic interpretation. As for the latter, it is not unusual to hear clear distinctions being drawn between civilized and uncivilized life, very much in the spirit of tertium non datur: either a particular instance of social organization is civilized or it is not.

The developmental conception of civilization can be used to illuminate the idea of existential risk, as the classes of existential risk identified in Nick Bostrom’s “Existential Risk Prevention as Global Priority” readily lend themselves to a developmental interpretation. Here are the classes of existential risk from Bostrom’s paper (Table 1. Classes of existential risk):

● Human extinction Humanity goes extinct prematurely, i.e., before reaching technological maturity.

● Permanent stagnation Humanity survives but never reaches technological maturity.
Subclasses: unrecovered collapse, plateauing, recurrent collapse

● Flawed realisation Humanity reaches technological maturity but in a way that is dismally and irremediably flawed. Subclasses: unconsummated realisation, ephemeral realisation

● Subsequent ruination Humanity reaches technological maturity in a way that gives good future prospects, yet subsequent developments cause the permanent ruination of those prospects.

These classes of existential risk can readily be explicated in developmental terms:

● Human extinction The development of humanity ceases because humanity itself ceases to exist.

● Permanent Stagnation The development of humanity ceases, although humanity itself does not go extinct.

● Flawed Realization Humanity continues in its development, but this development goes horribly wrong and results in a human condition that is so far from being optimal that it might be considered a betrayal of human potential.

● Subsequent Ruination Humanity continues for a time in its development, but this development is brought to an untimely end before its potential is fulfilled.

In this context, what I have previously called existential viability, i.e., the successful mitigation of existential risk, can also be explicated in developmental terms:

● Existential viability Humanity is able to continue its arc of development to the point of the fulfillment of its technological maturity.

It would be possible (and no doubt also interesting), to delineate classes of existential viability parallel to classes of existential risk, and informed by the developmental possibilities consistent with the fulfillment of technological maturity or some other measurement of ongoing human development that does not terminate according to an existential risk scenario.

Bostrom originally expressed his conception of existential risk in terms of “earth-originating intelligence” — “An existential risk is one that threatens the premature extinction of Earth-originating intelligent life or the permanent and drastic destruction of its potential for desirable future development (Bostrom, 2002).” In more recent papers he has expressed existential risk in terms of “humanity” and “technological maturity” (as in the formulations quoted above), as in the following quote:

“The permanent destruction of humanity’s opportunity to attain technological maturity is a prima facie enormous loss, because the capabilities of a technologically mature civilisation could be used to produce outcomes that would plausibly be of great value, such as astronomical numbers of extremely long and fulfilling lives. More specifically, mature technology would enable a far more efficient use of basic natural resources (such as matter, energy, space, time, and negentropy) for the creation of value than is possible with less advanced technology. And mature technology would allow the harvesting (through space colonisation) of far more of these resources than is possible with technology whose reach is limited to Earth and its immediate neighbourhood.”

Nick Bostrom, “Existential Risk Prevention as Global Priority,” Global Policy, Volume 4, Issue 1, February 2013

For the moment, humanity and Earth-originating intelligence coincide, but this may not always be the case. A successor species to homo sapiens or conscious and intelligence machines could either take over the mantle of earth-originating intelligence or exist in parallel with humanity, so that there comes to be more than a single realization of earth-originating intelligence.

While Bostrom mentions civilization throughout his exposition, his crucial formulations are not in terms of civilization, though it would seem that Bostrom had the human species, homo sapiens, in mind when he formulated the class of human extinction, while the other classes of permanent stagnation, flawed realization, and subsequent ruination bear more closely on civilization, or at least on the social potential of homo sapiens, such as the accomplishments represented by intelligence and technology. It is a very different thing to talk about the extinction of a biological species and the extinction of a civilization, and it would probably be a good idea of explicitly distinguish risks facing biological species from risks facing social institutions, even though many of these risks will coincide.

For what classes of entities might we define classes of existential risk? Well, to start, we could define classes of existential risk for individuals in contradistinction to existential risks for social institutions comprised of many institutions, with civilization being the most comprehensive social institution yet devised by humanity.

I suspect that a developmental account of the individual is much less controversial than a developmental account of civilization (or, for that matter, of Earth-originating intelligent life), partly because the development of the individual is something that is personally familiar to all of us, and partly due to the efforts of psychologists and sociologists in laying out a detailed typology of individual developmental psychology. Attempts to lay out a detailed developmental typology of civilization runs into social and moral controversies, though I don’t see this as an essential objection.

In any case, here is an ontogenic formulation of the classes of existential risk:

● Personal extinction Individual development ceases because the individual himself ceases to exist. Death as an inevitable part of the human condition (at least for the time being) means that personal extinction is the personal existential risk that is visited upon each and every one of us.

● Personal Permanent Stagnation Individual development ceases, although the individual himself does not die (as of yet).

● Personal Flawed Realization The individual continues in his development, but this development goes horribly wrong and results in a life that is so far from being optimal that it might be considered a betrayal of the individual’s potential.

● Personal Subsequent Ruination The individual continues for a time in his development, but this development is brought to an end before the arc of personal development fulfills its potential.

Many of these cases of personal existential risks strike very close to home, as in imagining these situations one may well see all-too-clearly individuals that one knows personally, or one may even see oneself in one or more of these classes of personal existential risk. It is poignant and painful to confront permanent stagnation or flawed realization in one’s own life or in the lives of those one knows personally, however fascinating these conditions are for novelists and dramatists.

Just as we can imagine the classes of existential risk formulated specifically to illuminate the life of the individual, so too we can formulate phylogenic forms of the classes of existential risk:

● Civilizational extinction The development of human civilization ceases because human civilization itself ceases to exist. (But note here that the extinction of civilization may be consistent with the continued existence of humanity.)

● Civilizational Permanent Stagnation The development of human civilization ceases, although human civilization itself does not go extinct.

● Civilizational Flawed Realization Human civilization continues in its development, but this development goes horribly wrong and results in a civilization that is so far from being optimal that it might be considered a betrayal of the very idea of human civilization.

● Civilizational Subsequent Ruination Human civilization continues for a time in its development, but this development is brought to an end before the arc of the history of civilization can fulfill its potential.

Such large-scale formulations lack the poignancy of the personalized classes of existential risk, though they are more to the point of existential risk understood sensu stricto. Note that the civilizational formulations of the classes of existential risk are at least in one case consistent with the existential viability of humanity, and all classes of civilization existential risk are consistent with personal forms of existential viability — individuals within stagnant or flawed civilizations may continue to develop and to fulfill their full potential, although this potential is not expressed in a social form. Thus any individual human potential that is intrinsically social would be ruled out by civilizational failure, but I assume that human potential is not exhausted by exclusively social forms of fulfillment.

The poignancy of personal classes of existential risk may be useful precisely due to the visceral effect they have — not unlike the visceral nature of the overview effect and the potential of the overview effect in raising personal awareness of planetary finitude and vulnerability. Similarly, the finitude and vulnerability of humanity on the whole may be driven home to the individual by a personal illustration of existential risk.

There is a yawning chasm that separates the disasters all-too-easily rationalized away as not being worth the effort to pursue preparedness, and global catastrophic risks and existential risks that have as yet no existing preparedness efforts because they seem intractable and overwhelming merely to contemplate.

It is possible that just as we may begin with mundane forms of risk management — readily understood and readily implemented — move up to crisis management, then to global catastrophic risks and finally to existential risks, so too we may start with personal risks and move up to the most comprehensive forms of risk — and this emerging consciousness of more comprehensive forms of risk is itself a developmental process.

This macrocosm/microcosm approach to existential risk suggests a cross fertilization of ideas, such that personal methods for mitigating existential risks may suggest societal methods, and vice versa. However, we know that flawed individuals sometimes do great things, just as flawed societies can boast of great accomplishments. It may be necessary to distinguish between flaws that augment existential threats and flaws that diminish existential threats. If this is also true on a societal level, the consequences are decidedly interesting.

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classes of exrisk 2

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danger imminent existential threat

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Existential Risk: The Philosophy of Human Survival

1. Moral Imperatives Posed by Existential Risk

2. Existential Risk and Existential Uncertainty

3. Addendum on Existential Risk and Existential Uncertainty

4. Existential Risk and the Death Event

5. Risk and Knowledge

6. What is an existential philosophy?

7. An Alternative Formulation of Existential Risk

8. Existential Risk and Existential Opportunity

9. Conceptualization of Existential Risk

10. Existential Risk and Existential Viability

11. Existential Risk and the Developmental Conception of Civilization

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ex risk ahead

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Grand Strategy Annex

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Darwin’s Cosmology

12 February 2012


Today is Darwin’s birthday, and therefore an appropriate time to celebrate Darwin by a mediation upon his work. No one has influenced me more than Darwin, and I always find the study of his works to be intellectually rewarding. I also read (and listen to) quite a number of books about Darwin. Recently I listened to Darwin, Darwinism, and the Modern World, 14 lectures by Dr. Chandak Sengoopta. While I enjoyed the lectures, I sharply differed from many of Dr. Sengoopta’s interpretations of Darwin’s thought. One theme that Dr. Sengoopta returned to several times was a denial that Darwin had anything to say about the ultimate origins of life. Each time that Dr. Sengoopta made this point I found myself grow more and more irritated.

To say that Darwin had nothing to say about the ultimate origins of life may be technically correct in a narrow sense, but I do not think that it is an accurate expression of Darwin’s vision of life, which was sweeping and comprehensive. While it may be a little much to say that Darwin ever entertained ideas that could accurately be called “Darwin’s cosmology,” it is obvious in reading Darwin’s notebooks, in which he recorded thoughts that never made it into his published books, his mind ranged far and wide. It is almost as though, once Darwin made the conceptual breakthrough of natural selection he had discovered a new world.

In characterizing Darwin’s thought in this way I am immediately reminded of a famous letter that Janos Bolyai wrote to his father after having independently arrived at the idea of non-Euclidean geometry:

“…I have discovered such wonderful things that I was amazed, and it would be an everlasting piece of bad fortune if they were lost. When you, my dear Father, see them, you will understand; at present I can say nothing except this: that out of nothing I have created a strange new universe. All that I have sent you previously is like a house of cards in comparison with a tower. I am no less convinced that these discoveries will bring me honor than I would be if they were complete.”

Darwin, too, discovered wonderful things and created the strange new universe of evolutionary biology, though it came on him rather slowly — not in a youthful moment that could be recorded to a letter in his father, and not in a fit of fever, as the idea of natural selection came to Wallace — as the result of many years of ruminating on his observations. But the slowness with which Darwin’s mind worked was repaid with thoroughness. Even though Darwin was the first evolutionist in the modern sense of the term, he must also be accounted among the most complete of all evolutionary thinkers, having spent decades thinking through his idea with a Platonic will to follow the argument wherever it leads.

Given that Darwin himself thought that making the idea of natural selection public was like “confessing to a murder,” the fragments of Darwin’s cosmology must be sought in his latter and notebooks as much as in his published works. As for the origins of life, narrowly considered, apart from the cosmological implications of life, Darwin openly speculated on a purely naturalistic origin of life in a letter to Joseph Hooker:

“It is often said that all the conditions for the first production of a living organism are now present, which could ever have been present. But if (and oh what a big if) we could conceive in some warm little pond with all sorts of ammonia and phosphoric salts, — light, heat, electricity &c. present, that a protein compound was chemically formed, ready to undergo still more complex changes, at the present day such matter would be instantly devoured, or absorbed, which would not have been the case before living creatures were formed.”

Darwin’s 1871 letter to Joseph Hooker

What has widely come to be known as “Darwin’s warm little pond” sounds like nothing so much as the famous Stanley L. Miller electrical discharge experiment.

Darwin revealed his consistent naturalism in his rejection of teleology in a letter to Julia Wedgwood, where he indirectly refers to his slow, steady, cumulative mode of thinking (quite the opposite of revelation):

“The mind refuses to look at this universe, being what it is, without having been designed; yet, where would one most expect design, viz. in the structure of a sentient being, the more I think on the subject, the less I can see proof of design.”

Darwin’s letter of 11 July 1861 to Miss Julia Wedgwood

This same refusal continues to a sticking point to the present day, since, like so much that we learn from contemporary science, appearances are deceiving, and the reality behind the appearance can be so alien to the natural constitution of thue human mind that it is rejected as incomprehensible or unthinkable. That Darwin was able to think the unthinkable, and to so with a unparalleled completeness at a time when no one else was doing so, is testimony to the cosmological scope of his thought.

One of the most memorable passages in all of Darwin’s writings is the last page or so of the Origin of Species, which touches not a little on cosmological themes. Take, for instance, the “tangled bank” passage:

“It is interesting to contemplate an entangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent on each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us.”

Besides anticipating the evolutionary study of ecology and complex adaptive systems long before these disciplines became explicit and constituted their own sciences, Darwin here subtly invokes a law-like naturalism that both suggests Lyell’s uniformitarianism while going beyond it.

Darwin places this law-governed naturalism in cosmological context in the last two sentences of the book, here also implicitly invoking Malthus, whose influence was central to his making the breakthrough to the idea of natural selection:

“Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows. There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.”

This famous passage from Darwin reminds me of a perhaps equally famous passage from Immanuel Kant, who concluded The Critique of Practical Reason with this thought:

“Two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing admiration and awe, the more often and steadily we reflect upon them: the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me. I do not seek or conjecture either of them as if they were veiled obscurities or extravagances beyond the horizon of my vision; I see them before me and connect them immediately with the consciousness of my existence. The first starts at the place that I occupy in the external world of the senses, and extends the connection in which I stand into the limitless magnitude of worlds upon worlds, systems upon systems, as well as into the boundless times of their periodic motion, their beginning and continuation. The second begins with my invisible self, my personality, and displays to me a world that has true infinity, but which can only be detected through the understanding, and with which . . . I know myself to be in not, as in the first case, merely contingent, but universal and necessary connection. The first perspective of a countless multitude of worlds as it were annihilates my importance as an animal creature, which must give the matter out of which it has grown back to the planet (a mere speck in the cosmos) after it has been (one knows not how) furnished with life-force for a short time.”

Both Darwin and Kant invoke both the laws of the natural world (and both, again, do so by appealing to grandeur of the heavens) and a humanistic ideal. For Kant, the humanistic ideal is morality; for Darwin, the humanistic ideal is beauty, but what Kant said of morality and the moral law is equally applicable, mutatis mutandis, to beauty. Darwin might equally well have said of “the fixed law of gravity” and of “endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful” that he saw them before himself and connected them immediately with the consciousness of his existence. Kant might equally well have said that there is “grandeur in this view of life” that embraces both the starry heavens above and the moral law within.

Darwin did not express himself (and would not have expressed himself) in these philosophical terms; he was a naturalist and a biologist, not a philosopher. But Darwin’s naturalism and biology were so comprehensive to have spanned the universe and to have converged on an entire cosmology — a cosmology, for the most part, not even suspected before Darwin had done his work.

There is a sense in which Darwin fulfilled Marx’s famous pronouncement, from this Theses on Feuerbach, such that: “Philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.” Darwin, however, did not change the world by fomenting a revolution; Darwin changed the world by thinking, like a philosopher. In this sense, at least, Darwin must be counted among the greatest philosophers.

I would be a rewarding project to devote an entire book to the idea of Darwin’s Cosmology. I know that I have not even scratched the surface here, and have not come near to doing justice to the idea. It would be a rewarding project to think through this idea as carefully as Darwin thought through his ideas.

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Happy Birthday Charles Darwin!

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Grand Strategy Annex

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A Note on Plantinga

3 December 2009


Alvin Plantinga

Recently in Skepticism as Critique of Knowledge I had occasion to mention Alvin Plantinga. I have also had occasion on many occasions to give some kind of expression to the philosophical naturalism that is my own point of departure, for example, recently in A Formulation of Naturalism. Since Plantinga is sometimes identified as an anti-naturalist, his thought is about as alien to me as anything could be.

There is something Quixotic about being an anti-naturalist in the 21st century — i.e., there is something heroic and deluded, and therefore doomed, about it. When Huysmans wrote his Against Nature in the 19th century, his anti-naturalism was a very different beast — a Baudelairean beast — than the simple-minded earnestness of Plantinga’s attempt to contravene naturalism a century later. Ironically, it is the earlier anti-naturalism that is the more sophisticated, and it will stand the test of time rather better. Plantinga’s bizarre anti-naturalism is, I suppose, what one should expect of an anti-naturalism of today. Since no plausible or coherent doctrine of anti-naturalism is conceivable, only the implausible and the incoherent alternatives remain.

One of the many errors in Plantinga’s evolutionary argument against naturalism is the assumption that evolutionary processes determine outcomes. This is an elementary (and fundamental) error: evolution operates without reference to outcomes; indeed, there are no evolutionary outcomes, only provisional settlements that will be overturned with time. We should not be surprised at this error, for determinism is a distinctive feature of theological thinking, and is a likely way in which the theological apologist will misunderstand naturalistic thought, of which biological evolution is a paradigmatic instance. Science seen through the lens of teleology is unrecognizable for what it was, and becomes something entirely different: it becomes theology.

Plantinga’s evolutionary argument against naturalism is completely dependent upon the whole post-Gettier epistemology of analytical philosophy, in which it is simply assumed that knowledge is some variation of justified true belief (a belief now so common that it is abbreviated as “JTB”) plus (aye, there’s the rub) whatever it takes to defeat Gettier-style counter-examples. But Gettier-style counter-examples have no style. What distinguishes Gettier-style counter-examples is their accidental character — they refer to no principle. Knowledge, on the other hand, and in contradistinction to belief, is a principled undertaking. Knowledge is not accidental.

The definition of knowledge as justified, true belief has to contend not only with the Gettier problem, but also with the referential opacity of belief. Belief simply does not behave like knowledge, and the attempt to transform it into knowledge by imposing certain conditions upon it is doomed to failure. Just as knowledge is not accidental, so too knowledge is not opaque. It could be argued that knowledge is the deconstruction of opacity.

Certainly, some qualifications are made here and there in particular versions of knowledge as justified true belief, but the basic psychologistic orientation is unchanged. Plantinga’s argument is dependent upon the idiom of belief, and if it is explicitly denied that knowledge is justified true belief, or indeed any kind of belief at all, the argument utterly collapses. The epistemic underpinning of the evolutionary argument against naturalism only flourishes in the hothouse of psychologism; should the door be left ajar when a cold wind blows (say a cold wind of the medieval past, when knowledge and belief were distinguished, or a cold wind from the continent in the form of phenomenology, which systematically denies psychologism) these rare but unlovely growths would wither and die.

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