On Evolution by Rational Selection

This is a guest post by Eric Steinhart.

Almost all atheists are surely aware of Darwinian evolution, which is evolution by natural selection, and which explains the history of life on earth.  Universal Darwinism is the thesis that evolutionary principles operate beyond earthly biology.  Of course, not all things have genes or compete for survival in ecosystems.  More general evolutionary theories need not be Darwinian in any narrow-minded or literal sense.  Thus Darwinian evolution is a specific type of evolution, it is the specialization of evolutionary principles to earthly biology.  Many atheistic philosophers have developed very general theories of evolution.  These thinkers include Spencer, Peirce, Nietzsche, and others.  Even Leibniz offers an essentially atheistic creation story in which evolutionary principles bring all things into being.

The previous post used an atheistic version of the Cosmological Argument to argue for the necessary existence of an original object.  It was then argued that this original object encodes the Principle of Plenitude: For every thing, for every potentiality of that thing, if there is no reason to prevent the actualization of that potentiality, then that potentiality will be actualized.  The Principle of Plenitude serves as the primary principle for an ontological theory of evolution, the theory of evolution by rational selection.

Since the original object is independent, it is the first object to which the Principle of Plenitude (the PP) applies.  The original object has potentialities, and the PP says that for every potentiality of the original object, if there is no reason to prevent the actualization of that potentiality, then it will be actualized.  The potentialities of the original object are ontological or existential potentialities: they are potentialities for the existence other things.  If they are actualized, then other things exist.  Such potentialities are found, for instance, in mathematics.   The axioms for the natural numbers assert the existence of the original number 0.  Those axioms also contain a successor rule that says that if some number exists, then its successor exists.  This if-then rule expresses an existential potentiality of every number: according to this rule, the existence of every number entails the existence of its successor.  It is the existence of the number 0 which entails the existence of the number 1.  This entailment is a necessitation of the next number; it is arithmetic productivity.  And for sets, the axioms of set theory say, for instance, that every set produces its power set.

Any potentiality of the original object is some possible version of the original object.  So the PP says that for every possible version of the original object, if there is no reason to prevent the existence of that version, then that version will exist.  Since there are no other objects on which the original object depends, any reason to prevent the existence of any version of the original object must come from within the original object itself.  Rationality opposes all forms of inconsistency or self-contradiction.  For any possible version of the original object, if that version modifies the nature of the original object by introducing some inconsistency or self-contradiction into that nature, then the original object contains a reason to prevent the existence of that version, and it will not produce that version.  Any version of the original object that is produced by the original object also contains the nature of the original object; it contains within its essence the PSR and the PP.  To use a biological metaphor,  the PSR and PP are replicated in the offspring of the original object.

It seems reasonable to say that it is self-contradictory for any object to produce any lesser version of itself.  Productivity cannot be self-negation.  It is self-contradictory (and thus irrational) for any object to produce any other object whose nature is a damaged, mutilated, restricted, or perverted version of its own nature.   The reason within any object prevents that object from actualizing any perverted or degraded versions of itself.  Of course, if there are many objects interacting to produce a single object, then those many objects may have their own conflicting reasons, and damage or perversion may arise out of that conflict.  A virus and a cell have their own natures; conflicts among the reasons in those natures may lead to harmful mutations in the cell or to the destruction of the virus.  However, discussions of conflicts within highly complex systems depend on the following preliminaries.

If the previous analysis is correct, then it is a principle of reason that no object produces any lesser version of itself.  Hence the Principle of Plenitude (PP) entails that for every possible version of any object, if there is any way that version is greater than the original object, then that greater version exists.  Since the original object is simple, it is minimal with respect to complexity.  Complexity is the only scale of greatness on which the original object takes any place.  Thus the PP entails that for every possible version of the original object, if that version is more complex than the original object, then that more complex object exists.  The offspring of the original object are more complex versions of itself.  If the increases in complexity from the original object to its offspring are not minimal, then the productivity of natural creative power skips over some possible increases in greatness.  But it is irrational to skip over any possible increase in greatness.  Hence every increase in greatness is minimal.  From which it follows that every offspring of the original object is minimally more complex.  One minimially more complex version of the original object is a whole which contains exactly two copies of the original object as its parts.  Call this object Beta.

And now all the evolutionary principles iterate: Beta produces Gamma and Delta.  Gamma is derived from Beta by duplicating Beta and then splitting one of its parts; Delta is derived from Beta by duplicating Beta and then splitting both of its parts.  All these wholes and parts contain the nature of the original object, that is, the PSR and PP.  From continued iteration, a stratified hierarchy of increasingly internally complex objects emerges.  These can include wholes with many levels of parts.  For instance, Beta might also produce Epsilon, which is derived from Beta by duplicating Beta and then giving one of the parts of Beta two lower level parts of its own.   Since the PP is fully general, it entails that every possible elaboration or complexification of the original object eventually appears among the descendents of the original object.

As these descendents appear, their internal relations also become complexified.  Order relations appear among the parts, so that the parts are linearly or partially or otherwise ordered with respect to each other.  Eventually temporal relations will supervene on linear orders internal to highly complex descendents of the original object, so that some parts in those descendents are moments which are earlier or later with respect to each other.  And spatial relations will also eventually appear, so that parts are not merely copresent in some whole, but they are spatial points such that one point is beside another point.   Within some complex wholes, elaborate metric structures will appear.  As the Principle of Plenitude acts within the descendents of the original object, those descendents will contain space-time manifolds, scalar fields, vector fields, and so on.  Cellular automata and lattice-gas automata will appear among these descendents.   Proto-physical systems will appear.  Eventually, physical universes will appear within the descendents of the original object.

Generation upon generation, the iteration of the Principle of Plenitude will produce ever more complex physical universes.  Within them, highly complicated material structures will appear and interact.  These will all contain their own natures, their own rational wills, which strive for their own types of greatness, and which may come into conflict.  An example is Darwinian evolution on earth, in which each organism strives to reproduce its kind, or to maximize its own number of offspring, and in which those many strivings cooperate or compete, thus ensuring the survival of the fittest.  Thus being-itself eventually manifests itself in evolution by natural selection on the planet earth.  The conflicts among the strivings of organisms lead to both good and evil consequences.

Conflict is good insofar as it drives evolution to greater heights of value.  For instance, conflicts among the strivings (the rational wills) of organisms drive evolution from the unicellular level up to the appearance of rational animals like human beings.  Thus the objective rationality in being-itself successfully wills the existence of things which can orient their own wills by their own reason.  Objective reason, which is impersonal and unconscious, becomes personal and conscious, and experiences itself as such.

Conflict is evil insofar as it leads to disease, damage, or death.   Since evils emerge from the conflicts among goods, there is no need for any being that is the source of all or even some evils (indeed, getting rid of Satan is one of the best ideas in Wicca).   However, given any universe, and all of its parts, the Principle of Plenitude acts within that universe as a whole and within each of its parts.  Every universe has many offspring such that the failures of reason in that universe are satisfied by its descendents.  Thus any conflicts of reason that take place in one universe are eventually remedied within its descendents.  Over the long course of evolution by rational selection, all rational demands are satisfied.  For any proposition, if it rationally ought to be true, then it will be true.

The metaphysical theory presented here and in the last post is atheistic.  It does not involve any theistic deities.  It is consistent with any version of Wicca that regards the god and goddess as merely poetic symbols for abstract powers of being.  It is certainly more plausible that the unfortunate creation myth given by Cunningham (2004: 123).  And it is also certainly more plausible than the ancient creation myth found in Genesis.  It is entirely consistent with our best physical and biological science.  Atheists, whether they are interested in Wicca or not, are free to affirm this metaphysical theory.

Related Posts on Evolution, Metaphysics, and the Origins of Universes:

On Evolution

An Atheistic Evolutionary Metaphysics

Evolutionary Metaphysics is not Faith

On the Dangers of Inflation

Some Explanations for Our Universe

Loveliness is Rare

Process Atheism

Atheism and Leibniz

The Logic of Creation

Why Atheists are Obligated to Hold Positive Speculative Beliefs

Creation Stories

Some Naturalistic Ontology

Atheism and Possibility

The Impossible God of Paul Tillich

Atheism and the Sacred: Being-Itself

Pure Objective Reason

On Participation in Being-Itself



Cunningham, S. (2004) Wicca: A Guide for the Solitary Practitioner.  St. Paul, MI: Llewellyn Publications.

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About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.