Old attitudes die hard, and especially the one about humans beings possessing properties that can’t be explained by biological evolution. A good example appeared recently at “The Stone,” a soap box for distinguished philosophers provided by The New York Times. Richard Polt insists that to be human is to be more than an animal, and certainly not a machine. I’m sympathetic to his latter concern, of course, but decidedly at odds with the first, so I wrote a response. This is the original version, which I cut down to fit within the NYT length limit. (It mentions a very critical comment that appeared shortly prior to mine.)
I generally agree with A.B.’s preference for Dawkins’ replicator proposition as a null hypothesis, but I would hasten to argue that the core of that proposition leaves room for durable ethics and, more importantly, free will.
Humans have generated a thick semiotic platform on this world. I’m not speaking of memes (one of Dawkins’ most mistaken and misleading propositions), but of the phenotypic manifestation of our species (one of Dawkins’ most powerful and persuasive propositions). I recommend Terrence Deacon’s “The Symbolic Species” and his more recent “Incomplete Nature” for more thorough explanations of how that platform evolved. That platform has become more durable and extensive through acts of truth seeking (a skilled human practice), in the sense that methods which bring about the production of reliable knowledge prove more adaptive over the long term. The durability of our material reality… our technology and engineering, and the various physical cultures we construct… is strengthened over time by its alignments with reliable knowledge.
Ethical propositions are epiphenomenal to truth seeking, in the sense that they chunk up sustainable propositions that help sustain the species… truths. But we are not driven by a priori ethical revelations. Like scientific truths, ethical truths are works in progress. We make them; we are responsible for them.
The semiotic layer that is our home is not pre-given, it is the medium and outcome of social practice by humans who are biologically endowed with the capacity to acquire agency within assemblies of social structures. That capacity is also known as intersubjectivity. It is essential to understanding the development of self-aware, self-willed individuals, and how they collaborate to establish civilizations. Free will isn’t a magical property; it’s an evolved human sense, like vision, taste, fairness, and significance. Those senses are subject to maturation and cultivation… and to atrophy and impairment as well.
For more, have a look at a conference paper I wrote, “Deriving Common Interests from Animal Origins.” http://www.scribd.com/doc/44670838/
Also, thanks to RLW for suggesting Rudolf Steiner’s “The Philosophy of Freedom.