An email correspondence with a colleague about the influence of evolutionary theory on philosophy reminded me of my graduate school mentor, Richard J. Blackwell. 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.
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 there could be 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 hedged 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 thought that this was 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 the project of transhumanism. Only when we change ourselves for the better will we be able to make reality better. Whether this will happen is an open question, but for now I’m pessimistic.
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 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 for your immense contribution to my education. I am lucky to have known you.