Evolution and Philosophy: Things I Learned From Richard J. Blackwell

Richard J. Blackwell directed my doctoral dissertation at St. Louis University and later he wrote the Foreword, “Piaget as a Philosopher,” for my book, “Piaget’s Conception of Evolution.” I was a student in a number of his graduate seminars in the 1980s, all of which have had a profound and continuing influence on my thinking. Here is a brief recap.

Graduate Seminars With Richard J. Blackwell 

In his course, “Concepts of Time,” I first pondered that enigmatic continuum which we all experience but cannot define. I remember my fascination with J. M. E. McTaggert’s famous article, “The Unreality of Time,” and I left the class no more sure what time was than when I began. But in that seminar I did learn that time, like so many things, is mysterious.

In his subsequent seminars on “Evolutionary Ethics” and “Evolutionary Epistemology” I came to understand that knowledge and morality evolve, and in “The Seventeenth Century Scientific Revolution,” I encountered a dramatic historical example of intellectual evolution. By this time I had no doubt that evolution was the key to understanding human beings, as well as their minds and behaviors.

A synthesis of some of these ideas occurred when I took an independent seminar with Professor Blackwell on “Aristotle’s Metaphysics.” Like Avicenna, who reportedly read the work 40 times without understanding it, I too was baffled by Aristotle’s notion of substance. But mostly I wondered if Aristotle’s view of teleology—that reality strives unconsciously toward ends—could be reconciled with modern evolutionary theory which is decidedly non-teleological.

In response to my queries, Professor Blackwell introduced me to the thought of Jean Piaget. [For more see my book, Piaget’s Conception of Evolution, or my summary of Piaget’s biological theorizing in Chapter 4 of The Cambridge Companion to Piaget.] What I found in Piaget’s thought was the concept of equilibrium, which was the biological analogue of the quasi-teleological approach that I had been seeking. As a result, I saw how evolution could be characterized by a free, non-deterministic orthogenesis without resorting to Aristotle’s idea of final causation.

Furthermore, the evidence for orthogenesis was derived from an a posteriori analysis of cosmic evolution—order has emerged from chaos. An example of orthogenesis can be found by observing how the potential for language and thought are actualized in the maturing child. In that case teleology/equilibrium is strong enough to steer the development of the child’s language and cognitive faculties, but weak enough to allow for creative freedom.

In essence, what I came to believe as a result of my work with Professor Blackwell was that reality is unfolding in a progressive direction, and that human life has meaning amidst this process of change.

My Further Development 

Since that time I have hedged my bets—perhaps life’s traumas have dampened my youthful optimism. In “Cosmic Evolution and the Meaning of Life,” I conclude that the best we can do is to hope that life if meaningful, inasmuch as the evidence that life is meaningful is mixed. I think this is an honest response to the conflicting messages we get from reality. However, I am currently reassessing that conclusion as well, as I fear that hope too must be abandoned by the intellectually and morally virtuous.

Finally let me say that the only way to ensure a meaningful reality is through human enhancement—-the basic project of transhumanism. Only when we change ourselves for the better will we be able to better reality. Whether this will happen is an open question.

Professor Blackwell’s Legacy

The January 1999 edition of the philosophical journal, The Modern Schoolman, was titled: “Philosophy and Modern Science: Papers Presented in Honor of Richard J. Blackwell.”  The introduction of that work was penned by Professor Richard Dees, now of the University of Rochester. Dees begins thus:

The articles gathered here honor the legacy of Richard J. Blackwell, a dedicated scholar, a consummate colleague, and above all, a much-loved and much-revered teacher … During his tenure, he has directed a program in the history and philosophy of science, written five books on topics ranging from the logic of discovery to his now-famous work on Galileo, translated four other books of historical significance, held the Danforth Chair in Humanities, won the Nancy McNair Ring Outstanding Teacher Award, directed over 30 dissertations, and guided literally hundreds of students.

After describing Blackwell’s many philosophical projects, and introducing the articles written in his honor by the distinguished scholars, Dees summarizes Blackwell’s conclusions about the Galileo affair—the work for which he is most well-known. And in the concluding paragraph I found a pearl of wisdom. Dees writes:

So, for Blackwell, the real lesson of the Galileo Affair is … what it shows us about our own intellectual enterprises. When a standpoint becomes over-intellectualized, it becomes so rigid that no changes are possible without destroying the view itself. In the seventeenth-century, that danger lay primarily in the system-building philosophy that dominated the Catholic Church and the intellectual climate of Europe … The … question is whether the Catholic Church—or any organized religion—can open up its inquiries into the nature of reality in the same way that science has. Blackwell thinks that such a change is possible, but not without reconceptualizing the very structure of traditional Christian thought. As long as faith is considered the key virtue, any religion can fall too easily into dogmatism. Instead, he suggests, hope should be the center of our thought, for in hope lies all possibilities. (emphasis mine)

I believe that Professor Dees captures Blackwell’s overall philosophical attitude about right. Professor Blackwell is an exceedingly positive and optimistic man. And, since I am  fortunate enough to know him and still correspond with him, I can say that he has maintained that attitude despite age and infirmity.

Professor Blackwell As A Man

As for Professor Blackwell himself, I can only reiterate the dedication of my book, Piaget’s Conception of Evolution:

To Richard J. Blackwell
an exemplar of moral and intellectual virtue

Finally, in a hand-written letter (remember those?) I received from him in the mid 1990s, Blackwell replied to my queries about the meaning of life like this:

As to your “what does it all mean” questions, you do not really think that I have strong clear replies when no one else since Plato has had much success! It may be more fruitful to ask about what degree of confidence one can expect from attempted answers, since too high expectations are bound to be dashed. It’s a case of Aristotle’s advice not to look for more confidence than the subject matter permits. At any rate, if I am right about there being a strong volitional factor here, why not favor an optimistic over a pessimistic attitude, which is something one can control to some degree? This is not an answer, but a way to live.

This is still some of the best advice I’ve ever received. I thank Professor Blackwell for his immense contribution to my education. I am lucky to have known him.

One thought on “Evolution and Philosophy: Things I Learned From Richard J. Blackwell

  1. Okay, this has bumped up “The Meaning of Life” to the top of my reading list. I just ordered a copy and look forward to reading your survey of the various perspectives on that topic as well as any final conclusions you make. I’m really curious to see how you handle the topic you mentioned at the end of this essay:

    “But the only way to ensure a meaningful reality is by continuing the project of transhumanism. Only when we change ourselves for the better will we be able to change reality for the better.”

    I’m quite sympathetic to this project, although there are certainly pitfalls to be negotiated. Over at Bibliotekos, I was given interview questions about my writing, which resulted in an essay here:

    http://www.ebibliotekos.com/2015/07/the-philosophical-novelist-ed-gibney.html

    At the end of that essay, I described the next novel I’m finishing at the moment.

    “I’m trying to create a story where the reader wants to be one of the characters and succeed as one of its heroes, as this can be a great way to pull people in and inspire thoughts and emotions that cross over into their daily lives. In this case, my “Chief Philosophy Officer” is the head of a firm that has developed life extension technologies that are ready to be trialed on human subjects. The book revolves around the selection process for these candidates to be the first among us to “live forever,” which raises all sorts of philosophical questions about the impact this would have on people and society. Most medical trials look for people with specific illnesses that need to be cured, but this one needs to find people who are really good at living life so they can be given lots more of it. Wouldn’t you like to be one of those people? I know I would. Then I’d definitely have time to complete all the rest of the novel ideas I’ve got swimming around in my head!”

    Sounds like we are thinking along the same lines once again…

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