The philosophical implications of evolutionary theory, in particular how reality should be understood after Charles Darwin, were the subject of heated discussions at “The Metaphysics of Evolutionary Naturalism”- a conference organized by the Department of Philosophy at the American University of Beirut (AUB), in collaboration with the Office of the Dean of Arts and Sciences and the Office of the Provost. The conference was held on May 12-14 at the Suliman S. Olayan School of Business.
Understanding the three terms in the title of the conference is crucial, noted Ray Brassier, chairman of the Department of Philosophy at AUB and conference co-organizer. Naturalism is a doctrine prevalent among many contemporary philosophers, who accept that natural science is able to investigate all aspects of reality, including the human mind. Metaphysics is the study of the nature of existence and ‘metaphysical naturalism’ is the doctrine according to which natural science suffices to explain everything that exists.
While some philosophers claim that the phrase “evolutionary naturalism” is redundant, since evolution presupposes naturalism, others call themselves naturalists but reject the metaphysical claim that science is sufficient to explain everything that exists.
Most educated people in the world today, following the dramatic advances in physics and biology, consider science to be the most reliable guide to understanding reality. But the question may be raised as to what philosophical consequences may be drawn from the modern scientific worldview, noted Brassier.
“Philosophers once appealed to supernatural causes in order to explain phenomena like life and intelligence, but evolutionary theory has forced them to develop a very different worldview,” he said.
This is the second in a series of annual conferences which the Department of Philosophy at AUB hopes to hold, noted Brassier. “Being able to attract these world-renowned scholars has been a fruitful experience which raises the profile of the Department of Philosophy,” said Brassier.
“This conference explores the new worldview that has emerged after the Darwinian revolution and what it looks like,” said Bana Bashour, assistant professor of philosophy at AUB and conference co-organizer.
Bashour welcomed the nine distinguished guest speakers, as well as the large audience of AUB faculty and students from the Department of Philosophy and members of the AUB community at large. She then introduced the first speaker of the day, Muhammad-Ali Khalidi, associate professor of Philosophy at York University in Ontario, Canada, and former chair of the Department of Philosophy at AUB.
In his presentation, entitled, “Naturalizing Kinds: Taxonomy in the Natural and Social Sciences,” Khalidi offered a naturalistic alternative to essentialism, according to which the mark of natural kinds is their discoverability by science, both natural and social. Natural kinds are the most fundamental differences in reality.
“What will emerge is a preliminary account of natural kinds, which contrasts with the prevailing essentialist conception,” said Khalidi.
Hans Muller, assistant professor of philosophy at AUB and conference co-organizer, introduced the second speaker, Paul Horwich, professor of philosophy at New York University, who gave a presentation on “Naturalism, Language and Metaphilosophy.” Horwich offered a critique of contemporary naturalism, then proceeded to consider what lessons can be drawn regarding the relationship between linguistic and metaphysical questions.
Brassier introduced the third speaker of the day, Daniel Dennett, world-renowned philosopher and author of many books on a variety of subjects, such as consciousness, evolutionary theory, free will, religion, and most recently, humor. Dennett is Austin B. Fletcher professor of philosophy at Tufts University and visiting professor at the Department of Philosophy at AUB.
In his keynote address, Dennett made a distinction between having a reason to do something and doing it for a reason. Non-human animals may be doing things for a reason despite the fact that they are unable to represent these reasons.
“We are the only reason-representers,” said Dennett. “Finding and appreciating reasons in nature is something only we, [humans], do,” added Dennett.
The conference papers approached naturalism from different angles. Some discussed abstract issues, such as whether there are non-natural facts, while others debated whether metaphysical naturalism was possible. Still others, like Rosenberg, insisted that naturalism was the only viable metaphysics. All reality, for him, is reducible to physicality.
In his presentation, entitled, “Disillusioned Naturalism,” Rosenberg sketched the reasons why naturalists draw pessimistic conclusions from science's answers to perennial philosophical questions about reality, the mind, morality and personal identity.
He defended metaphysical naturalism, noting that the humanities, unlike the sciences, do not actually answer any of these philosophical and ethical questions.
Other distinguished speakers included David Papineau, professor of philosophy of science at Kings College, Ruth Garrett Millikan, professor of philosophy at Connecticut University, Peter Railton, the John Stephenson Perrin professor of philosophy at Michigan State University, Ellen Fridland, postdoctoral fellow at the Berlin School of Mind and Brain, and Tim Crane, professor of philosophy at Cambridge University.
Bashour and Muller plan to publish an edited volume based on the conference proceedings.