Thomas Nagel: Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False, Oxford University Press, 2012.
Having mentioned this book in several previous posts, I thought this would be a good opportunity to repost (and significantly expand upon) the review I gave that book at Amazon. The original review may be found HERE.
I started out reading Nagel’s book with a considerable amount of trepidation, but discovered – to my pleasure! – that it was a much better work than I expected. Nagel’s primary thesis is that the idea of naturalism that is dominant in the physical/biological sciences is in desperate need of revision. Naturally, this means that, from its first appearance, Mind and Cosmos has been subjected to a great deal of vituperation from those who declare themselves to be on the side of science and the very naturalism Nagel is at pains to critique. Further, much of the hysteria and negativity directed against Nagel came about because he states at one point that he believes the “Intelligent Design” (“ID”) people have made a couple of good arguments. As one might expect, the above led to an astonishing amount of sharply worded condemnation from certain dogmatic atheists, who essentially accused Nagel of being a young-earth creationist and of selling the pass to religion. None of these claims is even remotely true, of course, and Nagel is very clear about this: he repeatedly and explicitly disavows any belief or interest in theological approaches. Such methods, Nagel is clear, “do not so much solve the problem as strangle it.” (This latter is Ernst Cassirer’s phrase, and neither mine nor Nagel’s. However, Cassirer uses it in an analogous situation – specifically Descartes’ appeal to the goodness of God to solve the problem of the mind/body dualism.) But Nagel is also clear that the mechanistic/materialistic approach to science faces some insuperable difficulties.
Now, just to be clear, I am quite convinced that Nagel credits the ID folks with a degree of thoughtfulness that they simply do not possess – these are not careful critics of the philosophical underpinnings of physical science, but religious ideologues out to stove-pipe their shallowly conceived, theological dogma into the science classroom, legislate it to be a product of “rational” inquiry, and thus ultimately use said dogma to fabricate public policy in accordance with their indefensible beliefs.
But I am also convinced that Nagel is largely correct about the problems with the mechanistic philosophy of nature that continues to largely inform the actual practice of science. Nagel’s unfortunate rhetorical excesses to the contrary notwithstanding, he manages, if anything, to seriously understate the argument for his own case.
Nagel focuses on three problematic areas with mechanistic materialism, areas for which that particular form of naturalism can give no coherent account: these areas fall under the headings of consciousness, cognition, and value. The triumphalist declarations of folks like Daniel Dennett and others aside, the emergence of consciousness remains utterly inexplicable within the current scientific framework. This is because even to the extent that we map out brain function with fMRI scans, and gain some high degree of “push-me/pull-you” types of causal interactions with our neuronal systems, this will no more explain consciousness than a detailed photo album of Elsinore castle in Denmark will give us an interpretation of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. All of the mechanical explanations in the world will not suffice to “explain” the ineliminable reality of phenomenological and intentional experience. The ultimate reasons here have little enough to do with different kinds of objects or “stuff.” The problem is that the logical and semantic structure that are necessary to even begin to talk about consciousness cannot be found in, and certainly cannot be reduced to, the sorts of logical and semantic structures used by physical and biological sciences. You cannot “explain” something that you cannot even talk about, and physics and biology cannot talk about consciousness as an experiential system; no objective talk can capture subjective reality, and no amount of hand-waving can eliminate it.
The above is already quite decisively problematic for contemporary science. But even leaving aside the irreducibility of consciousness within contemporary science, there is no purely Darwinian explanation that can adequately account for how we come to know about reality. This is the problem of cognition. Cognition shares the same problem of logical/semantic structures that are fundamentally different in kind from those used in physical sciences. Even if one could get a microscopically precise map of a person’s brain in the act of knowing something, that map would not be able to tell us the meaning of the thing known; that meaning would have to be retroactively imposed upon that brain scan, and then declared to be “discovered” as always already having been there. We can only “find” it by legislating an identity that simply reveals an act of overt circular reasoning.
A similar argument is applied to the problem of value, about which Nagel is a kind of realist, though one that attempts to get by without invoking any underlying metaphysical principles. To my way of thinking, this last is more than just a bit of a problem for Nagel – but then, I am a Whiteheadian. While Nagel does insist that what he is working toward is a genuine, albeit new, form of naturalism, he has “drunk the koolaid” (if I may be permitted a bit of rhetoric) and embraced that aspect of the older naturalism he is arguing against, that says that metaphysics is BAD. Such a position, I submit, is manifestly indefensible, and it is precisely on metaphysical grounds that Nagel is challenging the currently dominant view of naturalism.
Nagel does go so far as to mention Whitehead, but it is only to briefly touch upon Whitehead’s supposed “panpsychism.” It is relatively obvious that Nagel has not gone further than to read some third party(ies) who basically repeated the old saw that Whitehead was a panpsychist. Deeper readings of Whitehead’s work make it clear that matters are not so simple, but such a reading is not my project here. Nevertheless, Nagel’s own project would have been considerably strengthened had he read Whitehead’s own criticism of mechanistic materialism from 1925, Science and the Modern World. I was also surprised that Nagel nowhere mentioned Searle’s work on intentionality, as this certainly helps Nagel’s own project out – and Searle is certainly someone that Nagel can be expected to have read. Also, Nagel’s discussion of the emergence of value in a naturalistic setting would have been improved had Nagel invoked some of the work of Hans Jonas, who again is a sufficiently major figure that Nagel could well be expected to be familiar with his work. Finally, as Michael Chorost points out, there is a great deal of published science which raises many of the same concerns that Nagel himself does, yet Nagel mentions none of it.
Thus, the biggest problem with Nagel’s book is that a much better case could be made for his position than the one that Nagel himself provides. On the other hand, one also worries that a deeper and more nuanced argument would be even more impenetrable to the dogmatists who reacted so hysterically to the simple piece that Nagel actually did write. Nagel’s prose is dry and academic, and for folks not used to such things it can seem rather impenetrable. (For those of us who are used to such things, the book is nearly transparent.) Nevertheless, in terms of informing public debate, even amongst persons who do not have a well developed habit of reading philosophical argument, this is a pretty good introduction to some current problems. Nagel is arguing for an updated concept of nature, one that is thoroughly naturalistic and eschews any appeals to religion of any kind. This much of Nagel’s argument is beyond dispute, and it leaves one to wonder at the reading skills of many of his critics.