05 April 2005

Aristotle and Evolution: What Counts As Success?

My concern here ties back to one of the first posts on Dissoi Blogoi (see Antiquarian Musings?, Feb. 24, 2005). When we consider the question of whether Aristotelian metaphysics is compatible with, or even indispensable for, modern biology, what would count as a successful treatment of this?

We would set the bar low, and our efforts would ultimately not be Aristotelian in spirit, if our goal were merely to persuade philosophers that Aristotle and modern biology are not incompatible.

I propose that success would involve something like: (1) an article in Nature or Science, or the equivalent, which succeeded in convincing working biologists that they should study Aristotle, or, (failing that) (2) an undergraduate course on Aristotle, which succeeded in convincing students majoring in biological science, that they need to approach their future scientific work with a good grasp of Aristotelian natural science and metaphysics.

I don’t see that professors of ancient philosophy are doing anything like (1) or (2).

(I'm not even sure that anyone is so convinced of the utility of Aristotelian physics or metaphysics as to regard (1) or (2) as possible.)


Anonymous said...

I want to raise a slightly different issue from the one you've posed in relation to the compatibility of Aristotle's metaphysics and the whole phenomenon of evolution of species. It seems ultimately related, however, insofar as the most common (?) motivation for talking about Aristotle and modern biology at all is the relationship between that biology and Aristotelian ethical ideas.

Would we be completely out of line to suggest that the success of Aristotelian accounts in biology per se might have no bearing on the application of Aristotelian principles in the construction of a naturalistic ethical theory? That is, biological science as an empirical and theoretical enterprise need not change itself in order for us to formulate a naturalistic ethics which embraces Aristotelian principles. Rather, the Aristotelian principles merely need to be shown to be compatible, in some way or another, with the best available biological theories. In short, the Aristotelian ethicist need not convince biologists that they ought to be Aristotelians in the empirical and theoretical practice of biology, but merely that the results of biological science cannot be construed in terms of 'scientific realism' and provide insufficient material for a general theory of human nature. That is, biological science can continue on largely unaffected by natural philosophy. Or can it?

Of course, that approach might attain nothing remotely resembling acceptability to someone who actually practices biological science; scientists, I imagine, are as committed as ethicists to the 'reality' of their constructs...

Something like this may be what Peter Simpson has been up to in his work; e.g., his 1987 'Goodness and Nature' and his Sullivan Lecture last year at Fordham on 'how to be a realist--really.' Those with a special interest in transforming an Aristotelian metaphysics into something that can survive the evolution of species, however, may need to go in another direction.

Anonymous said...

This is an extremely interesting suggestion, well worth discussing on its own in a future post. But what do other readers think? 

Posted by Michael Pakaluk

Anonymous said...

Is anybody still actively thinking about this, or working on it? Aristotelian ethics seems to stand or fall with the plausibility of some account of goods which are such for human beings because of the nature of human beings. Maybe that doesn't require teleology, but it probably requires it in some  form -- at any rate, I haven't yet found any of the very many neo-Aristotelians writing in ethics today really focus on this. Foot talks about natural normativity and all that, but I suspect that we need an account that pays attention to what the natural sciences tell us about ourselves, even if the account needs to be metaphysical after all. Would Nussbaum's work count? Guidance needed! 

Posted by Anonymous