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Darwin, Kant, Denett...

From: Andras
Sent on: Monday, April 23, 2012 9:50 PM


I am happy to forward to everybody John's e-mail to the participants of the last meetup. The files mentioned in the e-mail are now uploaded to our web site (see the More->Files link on our main page).

Thank you John,




Sorry to have missed Wednesday. I had an inescapable family obligation.

I offer the attached article which is a nice summary of some of the central the philosophical implications of Darwin, as I see them, but written by a contemporary philosophy professor who has a specialty in philosophy of biology.

The article begins, somewhat unfortunately, by assuming familiarity with a popular book "Darwin's Dangerous Idea" written by Daniel Dennett. For that reason I am attaching a scan of two pages of Dennett's book. These two pages introduce the term "universal acid" with which Rosenberg's account begins. I think that one could read the Rosenberg article without having read the Dennett book and without these two pages, but I provide them as a flimsy crutch so that Rosenberg's opening seems less daunting.

Lastly I would note that the discussion of the origins of purpose in the world was nicely summarized by Kant in the Critique of Judgement. I could recommend the entire second part called "Critique of the Teleological Judgement" but would have to admit that Kant's peculiar idiom is in full flower here, making a quick read difficult unless you remember your Kant well. I am attaching a short excerpt, somewhat famous I think, near the end of which Kant discounts but does not rule out the possibility of a Darwin to be a Newton for the "blade of grass". The passage begins near the bottom of the first page with the paragraph "But what now in the end..."

The key section is on the third page beginning with this "bold" forecast of the absurdity of expecting a Darwin:

"It is indeed quite certain that we cannot adequately cognize, much

less explain, organized beings and their internal possibility
according to mere mechanical principles of nature, and we can
say boldly it is alike certain that it is absurd for men to make
any such attempt or to hope that another Newton will arise in
the future who shall make comprehensible by us the production
of a blade of grass according to natural laws which no design
has ordered. We must absolutely deny this insight to men."

Then in typical Kantian "Critique" fashion he goes on to say that we "cannot judge objectively with regard to the possibility that there cannot lie hidden in its mere mechanism a sufficient ground of the possibility of organized beings without supposing any design in their production." He sees this as cutting both ways, so to speak, as making it impossible for us to prove God's existence and impossible for us to assert objectively (in his technical terminology) that mere mechanism is inadequate. The tension is reflective of Kant's great project declared in the introduction to the second edition of the Critique of Pure Reason, to limit knowledge so as to make room for faith.

The Kant passage for me summarizes the span of modern time for which Darwin is now the fulcrum, philosophically speaking. Kant's position is, in some ways the best pre-Darwin attempt at dealing with the subject of purpose in the world. Rosenberg at the other end draws the post-Darwin conclusions rather well. (As may be assumed, I agree with Rosenberg that Dennett's flinching from what ought to be his own conclusions is unjustified.) I would lodge a pragmatist critique of Rosenberg's own conclusion, but that is not for today and does not reverse his main points.

Andras, feel free to post this on the site or forward to others who may have attended the meeting I missed.


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