Category Archives: Personal – Academic

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 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.

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 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.

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 has Blackwell’s overall philosophical attitude about right. he is an exceedingly  positive and optimistic man. And since I was fortunate enough to know Professor Blackwell—and I 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.

David Hume (1711 – 1776): How To Be A Philosopher

David Hume is one of my intellectual heroes. I first encountered him in the fall of 1973 in Lucas Hall on the campus of the University of Missouri at St. Louis. The campus was familiar, right up the street from my house, but the ideas I encountered there were from a different world. Anxious to expand my small intellectual world, I eagerly enrolled in a class called, “Major Questions in Philosophy.”

Professor Paul Gomberg, at that time a newly minted Harvard PhD, taught the class with intelligence and enthusiasm. We read Descartes’ Meditations on First Philosophy, Lenin’s The State and Revolution, and Hume’s Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion. Wow! Knowledge, the gods, and the state all undermined in sixteen weeks. But it was Hume who made the greatest impression, demolishing the design argument for god’s existence and, more importantly, opening my mind.

It was not only Hume’s philosophy, but his character that I came to respect. He was not only a fearless intellectual, but he enjoyed life too. (I wish that I could have been with Hume and Franklin in the salons of Paris, sipping brandy and flirting with the ladies.) He was a good man who faced death bravely; he was more noble than most of his detractors, past or present. (I encourage anyone interested to read The Life of David Hume, the great biography written by Ernest Campbell Mossner.)

Here is Hume on how to be a good philosopher. It is from the opening pages of An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding.

Man is a reasonable being; and as such, receives from science his proper food and nourishment: But so narrow are the bounds of human understanding, that little satisfaction can be hoped for in this particular, either from the extent of security or his acquisitions. Man is a sociable, no less than a reasonable being: but neither can he always enjoy company agreeable and amusing, or preserve the proper relish for them. Man is also an active being; and from that disposition, as well as from the various necessities of human life, must submit to business and occupation: but the mind requires some relaxation, and cannot always support its bent to care and industry. It seems, then, that nature has pointed out a mixed kind of life as most suitable to the human race, and secretly admonished them to allow none of these biases to draw too much, so as to incapacitate them for other occupations and entertainments. Indulge your passion for science, says she, but let your science be human, and such as may have a direct reference to action and society. Abstruse thought and profound researches I prohibit, and will severely punish, by the pensive melancholy which they introduce, by the endless uncertainty in which they involve you, and by the cold reception which your pretended discoveries shall meet with, when communicated. Be a philosopher; but, amidst all your philosophy, be still a man.

Tomorrow’s post will talk about how the atheist Hume faced death bravely.

A Letter From A Former Student

The Letter

A former student of my nearly 30 year college teaching career found my blog and sent me email updating me about her life over the last fifteen years or so. In it she said:

I am so grateful that you and a small handful of other people I have encountered in my life had such an influence on me, in teaching me how to think for myself and how to not be a sheep, to not settle for accepting the world at face value, and the value in asking questions. I am sure you had a similar impact on other students … Thank you a million times over!

In addition I have another former student from years ago with whom I regularly correspond and  get together with when he comes to town. (There are very few like this; most of your students forget you.) I recently received a birthday from him which contained this excerpt: “You remain one of the greatest inspirations from an otherwise boring and uneventful college experience.”

Students & Teachers

l begin with a disclaimer. I am not publishing these so anyone thinks I was a great teacher. I’m sure for every nice letter one receives from a former student there is another student who longs to write its antithesis.  And as anyone who has ever read class evaluations of their teaching knows, the “this guy changed my life and should win the Nobel Peace Prize” evaluation is followed by one that says “this guy is the worst human being who ever lived.”

My graduate school department chair gave the best advice I ever heard about class evaluations. In a typical sample of about 30-40 he said, take the 2 best and the 2 worst, throw them out, and focus on the remainder. I think he was right. What I have found is that no matter what you do some students really like you and some really don’t. So it is the majority in the middle that provide the best feedback. Still the entire process of teaching evaluations done by students is suspect. Although I always did pretty well on them, I’ve often thought that they were bad for education, forcing instructors to grovel for student affection.

Why I Published The Excerpt

I think the excerpt from the letter above captures the essence of teaching and learning, especially its emphasis on thinking for oneself, asking questions, and not merely being a follower. Thinking is about wondering, questioning, fantasizing, and imagining, as another of my recent posts suggested.

But to be reminded by one of those nearly 10,000 students of your influence is strangely rewarding. That you made a bit of difference to someone’s  life makes your life seem, for a brief moment, meaningful. No it doesn’t mean that your life or cosmic life is fully meaningful, but it does bestow some temporary value upon one’s efforts.

And those brief, fleeting, ephemeral moments when you are reminded that everything you have done was not completely in vain is one of the best things life has to offer. Even when the reminder comes from strangers in the past.

Living Inside a Computer

office

Here in my small 5 x 8 ft. study I’m connected with thousands of people. I live, part-time, in my computer. Amazing! (In reality I have a standing desk, a different chair, and the bookshelf is behind me.)

As I child I waited for the bookmobile to come to our neighborhood to get new books; the small trailer sat at the bottom of the street next to the lot where we played football. It had 200 or 300 books! Sometimes my Mom drove me to the small branch of the county library a few miles away, but often she was … busy! The main branch had perhaps 100,000 volumes, but was too far away for frequent visits. Thus a lot of my knowledge about the world came from episodes of “The Adventures of Superman” and “Leave It To Beaver.” 

So books were the only source of real knowledge. By the time I was in college a far bigger library was at my disposal, but the books you wanted weren’t always there. You could use inter-library loan, but that was a cumbersome process. What effort it took to get information back then. Now it all comes to me, and I share my thoughts with thousands of people a day. In fact, “There are 25 Petabytes (10^15) created every day and thrown into the internet.  This is 70 times larger than the Library of Congress.”

Yes deciphering all these facts and figures is impossible; that’s why we call it information overload. We need augmented intelligence and/or artificial intelligence to make sense of all this data. But it comes to me not in a little truck once a month at the end of a little street in a little neighborhood, but electronically.

Thank you science and technology, thank you Alan Turing and all the other engineers and computer scientists for delivering this real miracle. For now I don’t have be isolated as I age. For as long as my mind functions, I am connected to the world.

I am nostalgic thinking about that little truck on that little street in that little neighborhood. But I’m glad I don’t live in that world any more.