The Natural (including evolution) Presupposes the Platonic

The third chapter of Darwin’s Pious Idea is entitled, Evolution: Making Progress? And, the answer is “yes.” Of course the chapter fleshes out what “progress” might mean and why some people (Gould) don’t like using that term. But at a very simple level, taking into consideration all the missteps one can make when using a term like “progress,” we can say that what is inherent in human consciousness and what it is capable of producing is “better” than what was possible shortly after our emergence from our primordial bath.

Part of that progress is what we have learned or been able to reflect upon. We have learned (conceptualized) that even more important than natural selection, DNA, genes, and all the rest is the initial environment from which these components arise. Going down even further, even more important than the environment are the physical laws that make the environment a platform from which life can exist and thrive. There is a symmetry and relational matrix evident that seems to bind and bound all things together, and yet, we cannot really see, touch, smell, or taste whatever that “thing”—or those laws are, we can only experience the evidence for them. Those laws and our ability to conceptualize them and narrate theories from and about them are platonic. And we are led there (the platonic) by the natural world. One points to the other.

Man’s knowledge, Wandschneider, tells us “transcends the possibilities of nature…because the laws of nature have a completely different character than the being of nature. The law of the motion of planets is not itself in motion; the law of the earthworm is not itself a worm…[T]he laws of nature are rather like the logic determining the process of nature: they do not exist in time and space like a stone or an earthworm but possess real character.” (Darwinism and Philosophy—Notre Dame Press)

Cunningham notes:

“This ideal structure underlying nature made manifest from the laws of protein folds, to the potentialities in matter for complex life since the beginning to time, is revealed in evolutionary theory: ‘the ideal underlying nature prosecutes its own self-revelation (Wandschneider).’ Maybe, somewhat surprisingly (at least for the ultra-Darwinist), the natural scientist is a priest of this revelation, for ‘The natural scientist makes the immanent logic of nature visible qua knowledge of nature; in the Darwinian view, he himself is a product of this logic that he makes visible and reveals itself in man at the same time (Wandschneider).’”

Cunningham quotes Thomas Nagel, from The Last Word:

“The recognition of logical arguments as independently valid is a precondition of the acceptability of an evolutionary story about the source of that recognition. This means that the evolutionary hypothesis is acceptable only if reason does not need its support… [T]he basic methods of reasoning we employ are not merely human but belong to a more general category of mind. Human minds now exemplify it.”

To sum up, Cunningham writes:

“Oaks makes the fascinating proposal that, ‘If wings evolve against and in response to air, and eyes against and in response to light, then brains must evolve against and in response to something like ‘mental air.’ By that admittedly metaphorical term, I mean those a priori ideal structures already part of the universe that makes a mathematical-capable brain possible in the first place. In other words, Darwinism is not only compatible with Platonism but presupposes it.’” (Edward T. Oakes: Fitness of the Cosmos for Life)

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5 Responses to The Natural (including evolution) Presupposes the Platonic

  1. Jim Purdy says:

    Fascinating concept!

    We keep peeling back more layers of the onion (reality), and we just find more and more layers. But the effort is getting more difficult.

    In the early 1800s, Darwin needed nothing more than a ride on an insignificant little ship, the Beagle, to peel off many of those layers.

    Now we need Big Science like the Large Hadron Collider.

    Will there ever be an end to the layers, or will there always be one more layer of reality?


  2. Burk Braun says:

    Hi, Darrell-

    I like that.. a priesthood dedicated to the number pi and other such wonders, whose rituals are .. teaching things that are both true and of practical utility. Sounds very inspiring!

    But what of the “a priori ideal structures”? Where did the number pi come from? I think the fair answer is that we don't know and that we may never know, if indeed there is any there there at all, aside from what is plainly perceived- matter and space with all its internal/inherent logic. Painting it otherwise is pure fantasy, so why bother trying?

    And as to your mysticism of “mental air”, there are always problems to solve in life, leading to brain evolution. My local squirrels are accomplished problem solvers, which requires modelling of reality, including social reality. There is nothing mystical about it.. they figure out how things work, where they have hidden their peanuts, and how they can get higher in the pecking order- you can almost see the gears turning. The fact that we as mental modelers can gain practical advantages by cognitive feats of abstraction does not mean that the world is made of abstractions.. it remains made of matter. You & Plato have just moved Paley's watchmaker analogy to a new level, without proper support.


  3. Darrell says:


    A great question. We climb to the mountaintop only to discover another ridge, another height. Always climbing, never arriving. And that is perhaps how it should be.


  4. Darrell says:

    This comment has been removed by the author.


  5. Darrell says:

    Hi Burk,

    Hmmm. Here is a little homework assignment. Re-read my post and then read your response. If you can find anything that actually matches, you let us know. Thanks.


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