Sunday, May 27, 2018

Peter J. Woodford's "The Moral Meaning of Nature"

Peter J. Woodford is a research associate at the University of Cambridge, where he is collaborating with scientists and philosophers to study the evolution of cooperation and its potential for understanding the roots of human ethical and religious dispositions. He received his Ph.D. in Modern Western Philosophy, Religious Thought, and Ethics from Stanford University.

Woodford applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, The Moral Meaning of Nature: Nietzsche’s Darwinian Religion and Its Critics, and reported the following:
I do believe my book passes the page 99 test!

In The Moral Meaning of Nature, I narrate how a collection of thinkers understood the relationship between natural processes and human values, especially those values reflected in the aims of science and in the Christian religion. Page 99 occurs towards the end of chapter three, in which I discuss how Georg Simmel—a highly neglected German philosopher and founding figure of modern sociology at the turn of the 20th century—understood this relationship. My chapter on Simmel argues that he took over a core philosophical project from Friedrich Nietzsche, and this was to show that human commitments to the value of life, and even human orientations toward values that transcended life, nonetheless arose out of life. Here, “life” is understood as a natural process or phenomenon that circumscribes all of what we would call the “biological” world—namely, the world of plants and animals, insects and cells, and organisms of all kinds.

On page 99, I am in the middle of trying to explain how Simmel could conceive of religions as products of biological processes more generally. I describe Simmel’s view that religious ways of understanding and responding to reality were products of affective life that comprised emotions, drives, and instincts that preceded and indeed constituted values that emerged in rational reflection. So, page 99 describes Simmel’s view that humans emotions and drives—such as respect, love, fear, longing, admiration, and even hunger—came to “color” the world and to invest it with diverse values. However, for Simmel, these emotions and drives were not “merely subjective” in the way that we might think of them as wishes or feelings “projected” onto a neutral or indifferent world. Rather, these drives reflected something that genuinely did transcend humans and of which humans were a part, something that even pervaded the non-human world, namely, the reality of “life.” For Simmel, life itself was essentially a kind of appetite, striving, and desire, and only by recognizing this could one understand how religious aspirations toward a fulfillment or consummation of human life in response to transcendent realities could emerge from—and not in opposition to—the wider natural world in which they found themselves.

The snapshot of Simmel’s thoughts on these matters on page 99 reflects the larger project of the book, which was to interrogate how thinkers originally applied “Darwinian” notions of evolution, of life, and of human origins to a fundamental, ancient philosophical question: what place does the normative order of human values have in the wider natural world? The book focuses on what the Lebensphilosophen (“Life-philosophers”) saw as the crucial lesson of Darwinism, namely, that human values were not the products of rationality alone, but rather had a deeper past and source in natural history. However, this was not necessarily an easy idea to live with, since recognizing this appeared to challenge the authority that some of these values were thought to have, and this is why the debate about the natural origins of moral and religious values took on existential urgency. Page 99 describes some of Simmel’s views on conceiving human religious values in terms of a “life-process.” It also sets things up for the next chapter, in which I explain the reasons why a prominent Neo-Kantian philosopher, Heinrich Rickert, trenchantly rejected this picture of Darwinism and its implications for understanding guiding values of both science and the Christian religion.
Learn more about The Moral Meaning of Nature at the University of Chicago Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue