From Descartes to Darwin and beyond: Reflections on traditional versus modern views of the human mind, its reliability, and its place in nature

October 10, 2014 - October 11, 2014
University of Zürich



John Cottingham
Heythrop College
Hans-Johann Glock
University of Zürich

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Master Class
From Descartes to Darwin and beyond
Reflections on traditional versus modern views of the human mind, its reliability, and its place in nature
John Cottingham (University of Reading  & Heythrop College University of London)
Hans-Johann Glock (University of Zurich)


There is a familiar contrast between the traditional religious
conception of human nature as the creation of a good God, and the modern
'naturalist' worldview according to which our human nature is the result
of an accidental chain of purely natural causes and conditions. The
seminar will aim to deepen our understanding of the philosophical
problems that arise for each of these outlooks, taking Descartes and
Darwin as key representatives, and will explore some unexpected
continuities and parallels. The main focus will be on how far, whether
on the theistic view or on the naturalistic view, the human mind can be
expected to be a reliable instrument for the pursuit of truth. 

In stark contrast with The Descent of Man (1871) produces a series of
considerations purporting to show that `the difference in mind between
man the higher animals, great as it is, certainly is one of degree and
not of kind.' We shall ask how plausible is Darwin's account of the
similarities and differences between the human and the animal worlds and
at the question of whether there is any prospect of identifying a single
`anthropological difference'. We shall also examine the implications of
Darwinism for the reliability of the human mind, given that it was
shaped by success in the competition for survival rather than through
any inherent tendency to track the truth. In this context, we shall
briefly look at `evolutionary epistemology' and, possibly, at
evolutionary anthropology. Finally, we shall consider Thomas Nagel's
arguments (in Mind and Cosmos, 2012) that modern scientific naturalism
cannot fully account for the powers of the human mind, and in particular
its emergence as a `instrument of transcendence' capable of grasping
objective meaning, truth, and value. On Nagel's view, any evolutionary
account of the place of reason `presupposes reason's validity and cannot
confirm it without circularity.'

In reviewing these various contrasting positions from the seventeenth,
nineteenth and twenty-first centuries, the course will attempt to look
beyond various prevailing preconceptions (whether theistic or
naturalistic) about humanity and its place in the natural world. We
shall instead aim to examine in detail the arguments offered by the
three main protagonists mentioned above in order to make a careful
philosophical assessment of their strengths and weaknesses, and perhaps
to draw some conclusions about the status of the naturalistic outlook
that is an increasingly dominant feature of the contemporary
philosophical climate.

Organised by the Institute of Philosophy
Doctoral Program: “Philosophy: Language, Mind and Practice"

Date: 10th – 11th October 2014

Venue: Philosophisches Seminar, Zürichbergstrasse 43, 8044 Zürich
Room: ZUP-U-8                                                         

Please contact for further information and registration: 
Stefan Riegelnik, [email protected]

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