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An Historical Afterword to Darwinian Evolution and Classical Liberalism

by Michael J. White

In the final chapter of Darwinian Evolution and Classical Liberalism, I attempt “to step back and frame the issue of the relation between Darwinian science and classical liberalism within a broader historical context.” I trace the issue of the proper role of teleology in natural philosophy (or ‘natural science’, as we now call it) back to the criticism of the scientific methodology of the presocratic natural philosopher Anaxagoras by Plato’s Socrates. In brief, I argue that the goal of eliminating teleology from natural philosophy, which began to become prominent in the scientific revolution of the seventeenth century, eventually issued in the evolutionary theory of Darwin, with particular focus on natural selection, in the nineteenth century. I further argue that the classical Aristotelian and Christian-scholastic distinction between ‘first philosophy’ (theology and metaphysics) and natural philosophy (‘science’) can be invoked to confine the eschewal of teleology (as a kind of ‘first cause’) to natural science.

If this distinction is maintained, then ‘Science’ need not, as Bertrand Russell insisted, provide us with a ‘world’ that is “purposeless” and “void of meaning.” Indeed, according to the classical distinction, natural science does not address issues of ‘first causes’ or ‘meaning’ at all. Thus, it does not of itself have implications concerning morality or politics; and is essentially irrelevant to the truth or merit of classical liberalism. As his capitalization of ‘Science’ suggests, Russell is implicitly making the questionable (and, in my view, false) assumptions that (1) natural science serves as the only means for arriving at (non-analytic or non-linguistic) truth and (2) natural science (thus?) determines whatever truth that exists with respect to theological, metaphysical, moral, and political issues.

The obvious and fundamental question that arises with respect to my chapter is whether the classical distinction between natural science and first philosophy that I favor really can be sustained. There certainly is a tendency in contemporary thought–perhaps particularly in quasi-popular writing on natural science by figures as diverse as Stephen Hawking, Richard Dawkins, and Paul Davies–to elide natural philosophy and metaphysics (in a sense that includes theology or investigation into ‘first’ or ultimate causation). The same tendency tends to be shared, in my view, by many proponents of intelligent design. Perhaps the most pertinent question to be posed with respect to my chapter is whether this tendency is, as I rather indirectly suggest, the result of lack of sufficient attention to foundational issues in metaphysics and epistemology or whether, on the contrary, it is rationally irresistible.

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