Human Freedom after Darwin: A Critical Rationalist View (review)

Journal of the History of Philosophy 41 (1):136-137 (2003)
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In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:Journal of the History of Philosophy 41.1 (2003) 136-137 [Access article in PDF] John Watkins. Human Freedom after Darwin: A Critical Rationalist View. Chicago: Open Court Publishing, 1999. Pp. xi + 348. Cloth, $49.95. Paper, $24.95. John Watkins examines man's place in nature since Darwin. As a critical rationalist, using the methods of science, Watkins hopes to construct a world-view which challenges competing hypotheses and supports his own. He recognizes that his view is, also, a candidate for critical rejection. All scientific views are, in principle, fallible. He divides his book into two parts: Naturalism and Freedom. [End Page 137]In evolutionary development, he accepts, as critically established, the sequence: matter before life, life before mind, and, no mind without a brain. Thus, naturalism is preferred beforesupernaturalism or divine intervention. These guides may support a continuous, steady evolutionaryprocess or discontinuity, mutations, and various stages of change. Darwin acceptedthe former and held physical changes were unaffected by consciousness. All change is, in principle,present from the beginning and unfolds over time. Darwin's view, then, is deterministic.Watkins challenges this position and argues for consciousness affecting physical change in new and unpredictable ways. It is herein that the possibility of animal and human freedom lies. Watkins gives examples of the actions of the hunter and hunted among animals, and of strategies developed by humans during crises, to support the view that there are novel and unpredictable actions by conscious beings. These actions can hardly be called predetermined in the nature of things. There is a huge difference between a general genetic structure for kinds of behavior and specific actions during crises (not that these are the only instances of freedom). At any rate, there is a reciprocal action between an individual and its environment and not merely a unilinear one.In Part II, Freedom, Watkins examines some classical, philosophical views of human freedom. He gives brief, but penetrating, analyses of Hobbes, Descartes, Hume, Kant, Schopenhauer, and Spinoza. Either they account for human action in strictly physical terms that are causally deterministic or they turn to non-empirical sources that are not verifiable. Since the latter make no difference in our account of behavior, they are entities multiplied beyond necessity. Those who give a completely deterministic view—Hobbes, Hume, and Schopenhauer—offer no continuum between cause and chance. Chance turns out to depend upon our ignorance of causes; further examination would show it causally determined.Watkins seems most sympathetic to Spinoza's treatment. In his hard-headed naturalism, Spinoza rejects any non-natural or supernatural accounts of human behavior. He is a strict determinist where man's confrontation with nature is concerned. Human emotions are passive and react to our environment; they do not affect it. Human reason makes no difference, but in its capacity to contemplate eternal truths it offers a way out. Instead of reacting to nature, man may transcend it. This transcendence is the key to Spinoza's view of the intellectual love of God, and human freedom. Watkins criticizes this flight from man's place in nature and the limited use of reason. In this vein, Spinoza seems to abandon the confrontation of nature for a flight to eternal truths. For Watkins, however, reasons must be used in confronting nature. As we saw, he claims that reason may have an effect upon the environment that is novel and unpredictable. Human agency is a part of the evolutionary story. Human agency is not an either/or proposition. There are degrees of effectiveness in human response to nature.In his analysis of human freedom, Watkins turns to the works of Newton, Faraday, Einstein, and others. In studying the problems posed by the consideration of natural phenomena during their time, they showed intellectual perspicacity of the highest order. Faraday's unified field theory brought electrical and magnetic phenomena, previously thought to be disparate, together. Newton's laws of motion brought celestial and terrestrial mechanics under one theory. Einstein changed the way in which space, time, mass, energy, and light were conceived. In a real sense, they were...

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