I just read the strange yet insightful NDPR review of Paul Sheldon Davies’s book Subjects of the World: Darwin’s Rhetoric and the Study of Agency in Nature. I want to share a few passages that I liked.

(1) The review (by Paolo Costa) starts out as follows:

It is no news that naturalism is the dominant philosophical position in the English-speaking world. One of the clearest signs of this hegemony is the battle now raging around its purest and most consistent interpretation and the gradual spread of a “holier than thou” attitude that, at first sight, should be a distinctive feature of ideological battles rather than of intellectual discussions.

This strikes me as right, that there is battle regarding how to be a naturalist — from John Bickle’s “ruthless reductionism” to Andrew Melnyk’s “physicalist manifesto”. I think Bickle and Melnyk are doing good philosophy though, so I wonder if Costa have different works in mind.

(2) This part of the review is amusing:

Our conscious attributions of purpose are therefore a delusion, however deeply entrenched in our psychology. The end result is somewhat paradoxical, as the author himself points out in a side-remark concerning autism. As is well-known, “autistic children tend not to conceptualize objects in their environment in mental terms; they tend not to conceptualize persons as things with minds”. We nonautistics, on the contrary, are “naïve realists concerning the existence of other minds” (117). But naïve realism is the Ur-mistake for Davies. So it appears that autistics are right and normal people are wrong as far as our attitude towards the other beings is concerned (this seems to reveal something about people in the academy or in laboratories, but I cannot further investigate the matter now).

(3) I’m always on the lookout for people using rhetoric in place of solid argumentation, and the reviewer accuses Davies of doing just that:

Seen in this light, Davies’ book is a shining example of militant naturalistic rhetoric, rather than as providing a convincing case for a stricter and monopolistic (I would be tempted to say “imperialistic”) variety of naturalism. This may help explain the unexpected religious overtones of Davies’ prose and his continuous reference to the “weaknesses”, “frailties”, “biases”, “infirmities” of our (fallen?) nature and especially his relentless admonition not to be led “astray”…

Costa certainly makes it sound like Davies is one of those militant atheists who feels the need to latch on to a worldview in the same way that militant religious people do. I saw Davies give a talk recently at U. of Colorado, and he didn’t come across that way; I’ll have to take a look at the book.

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