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Exploring Evolutionary Implications for Philosophy

The world is on the brink of a revolutionary shift in the way we think about ourselves and our place in the universe. We are poised between the world view represented by the golfer in the sequence above (who is primarily absorbed with pursuing enjoyment in life) and the man to his right, who is thoughtfully examining the entire process that led to his existence. This paradigm shift has been a long time coming, having begun roughly with Charles Darwin. The last decade and a half has brought an accelerating introduction of evolutionary theory into the thought of both academics and laymen, signaled by hugely successful popular books such as E.O. Wilson's On Human Nature, Richard Dawkins's The Blind Watchmaker, Robert Trivers's Social Evolution ... and quite recently, Daniel Dennett's Darwin's Dangerous Idea. (You can learn more about these and other books in the "Books" section.)

As you might imagine, much has been written about evolutionary theory by academics in the various professional journals. I expect someday to offer an extensive bibliography here, but for now I'm trusting that the working scientists and philosophers will have no problem tracking down that material, while interested lay readers will be in need of some accessible works such as those just mentioned that still cover many cutting-edge issues.

As wonderful as these ground-breaking works are, they all miss what I think is a readily available foundation for philosophy in evolutionary theory -- one that I have set about providing.

Now, having completed my Master's in Philosophy at Arizona State University (December 1997), and pursuing doctoral studies at Indiana University, I am offering parts of that foundation for critical evaluation. Much work remains to be done, but enough is available here to provide an interested reader the basis for making a judgment on how promising my insights are.

As Thomas S. Kuhn noted when he introduced the term in "The Structure of Scientific Revolutions" (1962), a paradigm shift is both difficult and painful for anyone who is comfortable with the prevailing view -- so much so that even the most dedicated scientists can fall into irrational defenses of their besieged beliefs. Having been forewarned that the views here constitute (or at least contribute toward) a paradigm shift, the reader should be monitoring his reactions for signs of cognitive or emotional defensiveness. It takes a free-thinking individual to grapple with revolutionary ideas -- one who can stomach the notion, say, that certain prevailing human beliefs -- such as those about the nature of value and judgment and self -- are mistaken in ways that have been useful to our hominid forebears, but are really erroneous biases of our evolved neuropsychology. Ridiculous? Take the time to read the supporting arguments.

I apologize in advance to lay readers who will probably find the specialized vocabulary and wide-ranging subject matter (spanning evolutionary theory, anthropology, neuropsychology, ethology, social psychology, developmental psychology, philosophy of mind, metaethics, and philosophy of science) somewhat intimidating. I'm convinced that a bright reader with a smattering of knowledge in many sciences will be able to keep up with the help of a good dictionary and encyclopedia. Let me encourage you to at least give it a try!

The focal point of this website is my Master's thesis, a study in metaethics that plays two roles: (1) providing a critique based on evolutionary theory of a modern classic of metaethics, Allan Gibbard's book Wise Choices, Apt Feelings, and (2) showing how we may be able to naturalize ethics by applying a bit of analysis to the process of Life -- that marvelous, 3-billion-plus-year-old tradition of begetting begetters, which I claim has intrinsic value: value in itself, independent of being valued by some organism.

This is a pretty radical view. Most philosophers view value in subjective terms. There is, however, a growing discipline called "environmental ethics" whose practitioners believe that, somehow, living organisms of all kinds have value in themselves that doesn't depend upon any attitude of valuing or judgment of value by themselves or any other organism. Though I don't share their apparent motivations, I suspect I've provided them the foundation they need.

In the process, I argue that the ordinary notion of value as subjective lacks any viable claim (so far) to being value other than as a purely instrumental aid in the promotion of Life and living (that is, in the promotion of objective intrinsic value) -- and, analytically, the instrumental can never in itself be fundamental. I also point out that we are systematically deceived about the nature of our judgments -- including (perhaps especially) those about value.

I also want to provide a bit of historical perspective on the development of these ideas -- and introduce some notions not fully explored in the thesis. So you'll find here two "ancestors" of the thesis: (1) a 1989 monograph, "Evolutionary Foundations for Philosophy", and (2) the 1988 article that inspired it, "Survival of the Whichest? Toward an Evolutionary Philosophy for the 21st Century".

You can also just get a brief overview (in development, but coming along nicely) of the philosophy I'm calling "Metaphysical Functionalism" (or, where ethics is concerned, "Metaethical Functionalism" or "Panvitalism").

As I find the time, I'll be adding other philosophical papers on the philosophy of mind, philosophy of language, decision theory and rationality, and other topics. You'll find some of my favorites already online if you go to the "Articles" page.

I would also greatly appreciate feedback about the ideas herein, as well as about the way in which they are presented. If, for example, you wish certain terms were defined in a glossary here, tell me which ones would be helpful so I can develop such a tool. Just send email to kvanclea@indiana.edu, or join the discussion with other visitors on the message board page. And don't forget to register your opinion(s) by participating in our poll.

I think the explanatory power of these ideas is difficult to overstate. Do you wonder why there is so much cultural and political strife in the world? Why your will power sometimes fails? Why cultures all over the world have many values in common -- and why they also have idiosyncratic values that are quite at odds with those of their neighbors? Where does the difference in point of view between conservatives and liberals, scientists and theologians, or traditionalists and libertines come from? What is the relation between emotion and reason? Which is better -- and under what circumstances? How can we know what good is -- or is it just a matter of opinion?

Answers await you. Sometimes they are provided straight out; other times you need to think a bit about what you have read before you realize that it implies the answer to one of these questions.

So ... I invite you to rev up your brain and start reading! Just begin with the overview, or pick your favorite online paper from the "Articles" page. If you don't see the menu in a frame to the right of the screen, I recommend clicking on "Home [frames version] below to make your navigation around the site much easier.

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