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

An email correspondence with Ed Gibney about the influence of evolutionary theory on philosophy got me to thinking about my graduate school mentor, Richard J. Blackwell. I was a student in a number of his graduate seminars in the 1980s, all of which had a profound and continuing influence on my thinking. Here is a brief recap of them.

In his course “Concepts of Time” I first pondered that enigmatic continuum which we all experience but cannot define. During that seminar, I remember my particular fascination with J. M. E. McTaggert’s famous article “The Unreality of Time.” But one thing I knew about time when I left this seminar was that it was mysterious.

In “Evolutionary Ethics” and “Evolutionary Epistemology” I came to believe that knowledge and morality weren’t static; rather both evolve as conscious beings move through a time. And in “The Seventeenth Century Scientific Revolution,” I was introduced to a dramatic historical example of intellectual evolution.

A synthesis of some of these ideas occurred when I took an independent seminar with Professor Blackwell on “Aristotle’s Metaphysics.” 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 concept of evolution in 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 was a theory of evolution the concept of equilibrium which was the biological analogue of the quasi-teleological approach that I had been looking for. As a result I came  to believe in 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. 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.

Since that time I have somewhat hedge my bets. Perhaps life’s traumas have dampened my  youthful optimism. In “Cosmic Evolution and the Meaning of Life,” I concluded that the best we can do is to hope that life if meaningful, inasmuch as the evidence that life is meaningful is mixed. I believe that this is an honest response to the conflicting messages we get from the reality in which we are enmeshed.

But the only way to ensure a meaningful reality is, I believe, by continuing the project of transhumanism. Only when we change ourselves for the better will we be able to change reality for the better. As for Professor Blackwell as a man, 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 one of my most precious possessions is a hand-written letter (remember those?) I received from him in the mid 1990s. Replying to my queries about the meaning of life he wrote:

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. Thank you Professor Blackwell. I am lucky to have known you.

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:


    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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