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Human Freedom after Darwin: A Critical Rationalist View

Human Freedom after Darwin: A Critical Rationalist View

by John Watkins, John Watkins

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A University of London philosopher argues that Darwin's discoveries have transformed concepts of human freedom. His account of humanity's place in nature presents an alternative to strict determinism that does not leave the physical world a plaything of chance.


A University of London philosopher argues that Darwin's discoveries have transformed concepts of human freedom. His account of humanity's place in nature presents an alternative to strict determinism that does not leave the physical world a plaything of chance.

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A leading proponent of the ideas of Karl Popper, Watkins (philosophy, U. of London) argues that philosophical discussion of human freedom has been transformed by developments in modern science, especially evolutionary biology. He offers and defends a strictly naturalistic account of freedom and creativity and tests it against examples of drug addiction, hypnosis, slavery, brainwashing, and creative leaps in thought.

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Open Court Publishing Company
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6.00(w) x 8.95(h) x 0.88(d)

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Chapter 1: Critical Rationalism and Science

What sort of history might classical rationalists expect science to have? That science has developed might seem to pose a problem for them. Descartes declared that all the scientific truths in his Principles `have been known from all time and by all men'.2 Then what was there for Harvey, Galileo, Kepler, and others to do? Why the long, slow history? Part of the answer is that, in addition to fundamental principles known apriori, science needs auxiliary assumptions which cannot be supplied by reason, for instance about the relative masses and distances of the bodies in the solar system. But the main answer harks back to Plato. Truths can be innate in our minds without our being aware of them. They can be overlain, suppressed, "forgotten", needing to be recollected, one after another, perhaps under the prodding of experimental findings. So science will have a history. But classical rationalism is like classical empiricism in carrying the implication that its growth should be smooth and cumulative. Each new "recollection" of an apriori truth will add to what was there before without cancelling any previous "recollection"; earlier apriori truths can't get elbowed aside by later ones. And if the role of experience is, as Kant put it, to fill in the "complete plan" provided apriori by the mind's categories, the growth of science on its empirical side should also be essentially incremental.

Critical rationalism is at one with classical empiricism in denying the possibility of synthetic apriori truths, or non-analytic truths knowable independently of experience. A consistent proposition either holds in all possible worlds, in which case it is knowable apriori but analytic, or it holds in some possible worlds but not in others, in which case it is non-analytic and not knowable apriori. But what about pure mathematics? Was Kant wrong to hold that it consists of synthetic apriori propositions? In his 1978 Imre Lakatos distinguished those extra-scientific systems that are deductively organized into "Euclidean" ones where all the axioms are known to be true, and "quasi-empirical" ones where the axioms are not all known to be true and the axiom-set has to be judged by its consequences, as with scientific theories. His thesis was that all serious mathematics is quasi-empirical. In support of this he pointed out that, despite the endeavours of Frege, Russell, Hilbert, and others to "Euclideanize" mathematics, virtually everyone who had worked in this area-pre-eminently Russell himself, but also Bernays, Church, Curry, Godel, Kalmar, Mostowski, Quine, Rosser, von Neumann, and Weyl-had come to recognize, with great reluctance in some cases, the quasiempirical nature of mathematics. That Euclidean geometry itself, with its problematic Parallel Postulate, is not "Euclidean" was shown by the invention of non-Euclidean geometries in the nineteenth century.

What sort of history does critical rationalism expect science to have? The short answer is: a turbulent one. That a theory has been riding high, achieving a wide range of predictive successes, does not mean that it is verified; it is open to daring spirits to construct rivals to it. A rival theory should match or, better, exceed the present theory in explanatory and predictive power; it may proceed from radically different assumptions; if it does, these may lead to predictive implications that diverge, if only slightly, from those of the present theory; these will point the way to crucial experiments from which both old and new theory will be at risk. Karl Popper was famously impressed by the risk of refutation which Einstein ran when he put forward his General Theory of Relativity (henceforth GTR) in competition with Newtonian Mechanics (henceforth NM). The latter had been superbly corroborated by a great variety of experimental observations, and had seemed to Kant, and continued to seem to many others, a grand system of verified truth. But GTR had predictive implications that diverged from those of NM. There were not many such divergences, and they were all small; but in some cases, for instance with regard to the bending of light rays passing close to the sun, they were large enough to be exposed to experimental test.

There had been a rather similar relationship between NM and its predecessors. NM led to small but systematic revisions of the predictive content of Galileo's and Kepler's laws. Galileo's law had freely falling bodies near the earth's surface falling with constant acceleration. NM said that they will fall with a slightly increasing acceleration; for their acceleration varies with the gravitational force, which varies inversely with the square of the distance between the centres of gravity of the earth and the falling body, and hence increases as this distance decreases...

What People are Saying About This

Graham Oddie
Graham Oddie, University of Colorado at Boulder:

John Watkin's parting gift to philosophy is pure gold, the refinement of fifty years of focused reflection on freedom, mind, and knowledge. Taking as his departure point the critical rationalist approach to knowledge, and locating his program firmly within the naturalistic world-view bequeathed by Darwin, Watkins delivers a coherent and intelligible account of human freedom which explains why it is so valuable. The book, which races along like a good detective novel, is lucid, profound, scholarly, wise, and witty. It should be read and enjoyed by all who crave to know "Man's Place in Nature."

Meet the Author

John Watkins was born in 1924 and became a career naval officer. He was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for torpedoing a German destroyer in 1944. After the war, he became a political scientist, though under the influence of Sir Karl Popper he switched to philosophy. He taught at the London School of Economics from 1950, Emeritus Professor since 1989. Watkins wrote over 100 articles and three influential books: Hobbes's System of Ideas (1965), Freiheit and Entscheidung (1978), and Science and Scepticism (1984). Following completion of Human Freedom after Darwin, Professor Watkins died suddenly while sailing his yawl Xantippe on the Salcombe Estuary, Devon, England.

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