Gerhard Vollmer (born 17 November 1943 in Speyer) is a German physicist and philosopher. He tries to build bridges between the natural science and the more social or humanistic disciplines. He is perhaps best known for his development of an evolutionary theory of knowledge.
Vollmer studied in Munich, Berlin, Hamburg and Freiburg. After finishing his degree in physics in 1968 he studied philosophy and linguistics in Freiburg. He worked as a trainee in Deutschen Elektronen-Synchrotron (DESY) in Hamburg. In Freiburg he attained a doctorate (1971) in theoretical physics. He stayed here after completing a year's stint as a research assistant in Montreal in 1975. In 1974, Vollmer attained an additional doctorate in philosophy.
From 1975 Vollmer taught at the University of Hanover. From 1981 he lectured on the Philosophy of Biology at the University of Giessen. From 1991 he has taught philosophy at the TU Braunschweig. He holds lectures and classes in logic, epistemology and philosophy of science, natural philosophy, and artificial intelligence.
Honours and associations
In 1963 he was awarded the Magnus Schwerd Prize for outstanding achievements in mathematics at school. (Friedrich Magnus Schwerd (1792–1871) was perhaps the longest serving teacher of Mathematics in the one post in the world. From 1817 until his death he taught Maths at Speyer Gymnasium, now named after him. He was a determined postitivist, on whose gravestone in the old cemetery is inscribed "Wahrheit über alles" - Truth above all else!)
Vollmer became a member in 1998 of the Leopoldina Academy of Sciences Halle. He is a member of Giordano Bruno Foundation (a society dedicated to a sort of evolutionary humanism, weblink below) and (in 2001) was elected to the learned society, Braunschweig Sciences Society (Braunschweigischen Wissenschaftlichen Gesellschaft). On his 60th birthday in 2003 a Festschrift was produced in his honour called "Cold-blooded:Philosophy from a rational standpoint" ("Kaltblütig. Philosophie von einem rationalen Standpunkt" edited by Wolfgang Buschlinger and Christoph Lütge, published by Hirzel Verlag, Stuttgart).
In 2004 he received the Eduard Rhein Foundation Cultural Prize for having laid down the “foundation of an evolutionary theory of knowledge and for his outstanding achievement in bridging natural sciences and the social and humanistic disciplines”.
He is one of the editors of the periodical Aufklärung und Kritik. He is a member of the Science Advisory Committee of the GWUP (Gesellschaft zur wissenschaftlichen Untersuchung von Parawissenschaften - a German union supporting scientific skepticism). Vollmer is also a member of the Brights movement (to which philosopher Daniel Dennett and biologist Richard Dawkins are also affiliated. “Bright” is an umbrella term for persons with a naturalistic worldview.)
Although educated in the German tradition of Continental Philosophy, Vollmer’s work has more in common with the Anglo-American tradition of Analytic Philosophy, in particular the Pragmatism associated with Willard Van Orman Quine. In the English-speaking world, his thought is most associated with Evolutionary Epistemology, which tries to answer age-old questions of what we can know and how, together with justifications, by referring to our evolutionary history. Darwin in his notebooks speculated that the pre-existing innate ideas with which Plato thought we were born derived from our primate ancestors. “read monkeys for pre-existence!” he wrote to himself. This idea was picked up by Konrad Lorenz in the middle of the 20th century and made popular by Donald T. Campbell in the 1970s.
Vollmer claims, uncontroversially, that cognition - including our thinking - takes place in our heads. Using a range of stimuli, our brain builds up a picture of the world in which we operate. We draw conclusions from our experience - some of which prove helpful in future action, some of which do not. The principles underlying these cognitive processes were developed during our evolutionary history, and it is these that form the subject of study of Evolutionary Epistemology. Our cognitive functioning fits the world we live in because they have evolved over millions of years in adaptation to this world. Our ideas are not infallible, but our basic intuitions are fairly reliable in dealing with the normal world - what Vollmer calls the Mesocosm, a world of medium-sized objects in a space reaching to the middle distance, and in relatively recent time. This is the world our ancestors negotiated - and survived long enough to pass on their cognitive apparatus. Our intuitions fail in larger perspectives - of size, space and time - but our inherited apparatus can construct cognitive tools to transcend these. Language, algorithms, calculi, mathematics, computers, etc. can help us even form an understanding of the very large, relativity theory; and the very small, such as quantum theory.
All of this is based on our organic evolution, and the evolution of our cognitive faculties plays an important role in epistemology. Vollmer thinks this approach can solve old problems of epistemology, pose and solve new ones, or shed new light on a range of issues. He claims that Evolutionary Epistemology is naturalistic, meaning that “there are no secrets” anywhere in the Universe, and that this naturalism covers all human activities "language, knowledge, scientific investigation, moral action, aesthetic judgement, even religious faith" . He calls for a naturalistic anthropology, epistemology, scientific methodology, ethics and esthetics. He acknowledges that Quine had set out this programme, had developed a naturalistic epistemology to carry it out, and had even hinted that natural selection could explain why “Creatures inveterately wrong in their inductions have a pathetic but praiseworthy tendency to die before reproducing their kind”.
Vollmer also claimed that Evolutionary Epistemology was realistically oriented. It had a realistic ontology, meaning that the world is generally “independent (for its existence) of our consciousness, is lawfully structured and is quasi-continuous”. It has a realistic epistemology, in that it is “partially knowable by perception, thinking and inter-subjective science”. Lastly, the fact that our hypotheses of the world are often proved wrong, proves that the world is real, but means that any hypothesis, scientific or otherwise, is provisional and preliminary (and subject to processes not unlike natural selection). This naturalistic, realistic world is subject to the correspondence theory of truth - meaning that a statement is true if, and only if, it truly reflects the state of affairs it purports to describe. This is often described as a circular argument, but Vollmer suggests it only such if we think it is a sufficient criterion (i.e. a sure-fire marker) for truth. We have no such thing, only necessary criteria (i.e. without which, no truth) including consistency, corroboration and coherence. It is in fact only a definition, and not a criterion, of truth. The clincher, he thinks, is that only this can explain falsity.
It follows from this that there is a strong genetic component to our cognitive processes. Not only was Plato right, about our innate ideas but so was Noam Chomsky and Steven Pinker, who claim that we all have an inborn template for language learning. Vollmer thinks language is a sort of probe, by which we can investigate the organisation of mental processes, and relate them to our evolutionary history. It is this that he sets out to explore, mentioning that it is connected to realism, materialism, evolutionary theory, the development of science and an evolutionary philosophy of science.
The main criticism is that this is not a systematically argued philosophical position, but merely a programme for research for (possible) evolutionary explanations for our cognitive functioning. At best, it is merely descriptive - describing what we do when we come to know something - and leaves out the normative aspect, or why certain assumptions about reality are in fact knowledge. He ignores issues about intentionality and agency or even meaning. Vollmer could plausibly answer these questions, especially as he is wary of metaphysics - “Just as much metaphysics as is necessary” - but in this he is vulnerable to the charge of being concerned only with the easier parts of epistemology - a sort of meso-philosophy, to adapt his term, dealing with issues in the middle distance, and underestimating the power of the elaborate cognitive tool known as metaphysics to address a bigger picture. (see Marjorie Grene). His use of terms such as "quasi-continuous" and "partially knowable" might suggest that, as a good pragmatist, he is happy with this limited objective.
- Evolutionäre Erkenntnistheorie (Evolutionary epistemology) (1975, 8. Aufl. 2002)
- Was können wir wissen? (What can we know?) (2 Bde. 2. Aufl. 1988)
- Wissenschaftstheorie im Einsatz (Philosophy of Science in practice) (1993)
- Auf der Suche nach der Ordnung (In search of order) (1995)
- Biophilosophie (Philosophy of Biology) (1995)
- Wieso können wir die Welt erkennen? (How can we grasp the nature of the world?) (2002)
There is a chapter by Vollmer in English in
- Bartley, W W. and Radnitzky, Gerard (eds) Evolutionary epistemology, rationality and the sociology of knowledge. La Salle, IL : Open Court, 1987. ISBN 0-8126-9038-9 ; ISBN 0-8126-9039-7 (pbk)
- Hösle, Vittorio and Illies, Christian (eds) Darwinism and philosophy University of Notre Dame Press, 2005. ISBN 0-268-03072-3 (hbk) ; ISBN 0-268-03073-1 (pbk) (Chapter 13. How Is It That We Can Know This World? New Arguments in Evolutionary Epistemology, by G Vollmer)
- Link to G Vollmer's Homepage
- Link to Giordano Bruno Foundation
- Link to Braunschweig Sciences Society (in German)
- Link to German Sceptical Organisation (GWUP, in German)