May 19, 2011

THERE ARE NO DARWINISTS:

The seat of knowledge: smart and comfortable: Can science provide the ultimate explanation of human nature? No, says Simon Blackburn, who tells us there's life in the philosophical armchair yet (Simon Blackburn, 19 May 2011, Times Higher Education)

The different sciences go about things in different ways, but their practitioners often seem joined in confidence that their tools and procedures have made philosophical reflection obsolete. The philosophical armchair is as discredited an aide to reflection on human nature as the omphalos at Delphi. Indeed, many younger philosophers themselves dispose of such an embarrassing old piece of lumber and talk knowingly only of hippocampi, frontotemporal lobes, oxytocin and evolutionarily stable strategies.

By human nature, of course, I mean not our nature as it is discovered by the camera or in the anatomy lesson, but our nature as it is discovered in our doings. It is the ways in which we think and feel that intrigue us, and it is the old distinction between the Geisteswissenschaften and Naturwissenschaften that is being eroded by the colonial advances of the latter.

Not that this piece of colonial history has in the past been much more glorious than others. There was not only science's flirtations with such things as eugenics, but also the rather alarming tendency for distinguished scientists entering new territories to present not distinguished science but rather - dare one say it - armchair speculation, or ideology, in its place.

Biologists, for instance, have found it irresistible to read the Darwinian struggle into everything we care about. "What passes for cooperation turns out to be a mixture of opportunism and exploitation," says distinguished American biologist Michael Ghiselin. "Scratch an altruist, and watch a hypocrite bleed." Any other view is mere sentimentalism.

Richard Dawkins once veered away from this bleak vision only by having us "rebel against the tyranny of the selfish genes". But this seemed to make sense only if, like some religious people, Dawkins thought that the human soul or spirit floats beautifully free of mere physical processes and, with resources drawn from God knows where, can stick its ghostly finger in and alter the course that these would otherwise have taken.


Posted by at May 19, 2011 6:16 AM
  

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