Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian. Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False, by Thomas Nagel. New York: Oxford. Editorial Reviews. Review. "If evolutionary biology redraws its boundaries as this book says it Nagel's Mind and Cosmos does not build a road to that destination , but it is much to have gestured toward a gap in the hills through which a road. Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Thomas Nagel is widely recognized as one of the most important analytical.
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Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False. Thomas Nagel Under the terms of the licence agreement, an individual user may print out a PDF of a single chapter. Download full-text PDF. Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist. Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is. Almost Certainly False. Thomas Nagel. The Core of 'Mind and Cosmos'. By THOMAS NAGEL. This is a brief statement of positions defended more fully in my book “Mind and Cosmos.
Nagel thinks there is a wide consensus among philosophers and scientists around a certain view of nature, the 'materialist neo-Darwinian' conception, but that this view has proved radically inadequate. It has failed, Nagel argues, to provide adequate explanations for mind and for value, and these things are so central to an adequate picture of the cosmos that such failures constitute a fatal flaw. Of course, it is not just that no adequate explanation has yet been given, but rather, in Nagel's view, that there are systematic reasons for suspecting that none could be given. Nagel does not develop this argument from a religious perspective. Indeed, he makes it clear that theistic assumptions have no appeal for him.
Conscious experience, subjective as it is to the individual organism, lies beyond the reach of such knowledge. Among the most famous involves a fictional super-scientist named Mary , who studies the world from a room containing only the colors black and white, but has complete knowledge of the mechanics of optics, electromagnetic radiation, and the functioning of the human visual system.
When Mary is finally released from the room she begins to see colors for the first time.
She now knows not only how different wavelengths of light affect the visual system, but also the direct experience of what it is like to see colors. Therefore, felt experiences and sensations are more than the physical processes that underlie them.
Some philosophers have accepted this conclusion, but have argued that Mary would not have additional knowledge. The View from Nowhere argues not only that the subjective view of our perception cannot be reduced to the objective view of the universe, but more importantly that, contrary to what so much modern scientific thought attempts to show, the objective view cannot replace or do away with the subjective view.
Objective science, in short, cannot capture what it is like to be a subject who inescapably experiences the world from a certain viewpoint. The target of his critique, he says, is a comprehensive, speculative world picture that is reached by extrapolation from some of the discoveries of biology, chemistry, and physics — a particular naturalistic Weltanschauung that postulates a hierarchical relation among the subjects of those sciences, and the completeness in principle of an explanation of everything in the universe through their unification.
While there are some who stick stubbornly to the assumption that consciousness is identical with neural events in certain parts of the brain, their views do not withstand close examination by even the most open-minded philosophers, like Australian professor David Chalmers.
With Mind and Cosmos, Nagel wisely stands on the shoulders of these giants, and asks the readers to stand with him: where many philosophers of mind are so exactingly detailed that they can expend the word count of a Russian novel to refine the edges of error, Nagel, rather than exhaustively explore the arguments against reducing the mind to the brain, simply reiterates them quickly and authoritatively.
The result is a compact barnburner of a book. Nagel aims less to check the vital signs of psychophysical reductionism than to note that the patient has long since expired.
Nagel has previously discussed this view, and several otherwise quite orthodox philosophers, including Chalmers and the British philosopher Galen Strawson, have seriously entertained it.
Unfortunately, the theory has a rather high explanatory cost just to preserve a naturalistic account of consciousness. Moreover, as Nagel points out, if all matter is mental, how do we account for the fact that consciousness seems to require a certain kind of organism — complex, and with a complex nervous system — to become apparent? While brain activity is not identical with consciousness, it does seem to be necessary: it is not possible to envisage the latter without the former.
Panpsychism does not make clear what it is about such complex organisms that cause all their little bits of mind to combine into the kind of conscious whole that has experiences, and about which we can say it is like something to be it. Perhaps even harder than this question of what kind of stuff could become conscious, and therefore what kind of stuff the universe is made of, is the historical question: in the unfolding story of the universe, even if conscious organisms were possible all along, why is it that they actually did arise?
Even if consciousness could give an organism an edge over the competition — a hypothesis that is far from proven — this would only explain why consciousness stuck around once it arose, and not why it came into being in the first place. It would offer no truly satisfactory explanation for why natural selection should cause material processes to become organisms sufficiently self-aware to know which behavior is to their advantage.
After all, it would be of great advantage for a beast, faced with a predator, to be able to dematerialize and rematerialize at some considerable distance, but this advantage would not be sufficient to explain the emergence of this property.
The nature of cognition — thinking, reasoning, and so forth — presents an even greater challenge than subjective experience. Notwithstanding the claims of those who ascribe knowledge and thinking to unconscious objects such as computers, Nagel argues that these features are available only to conscious beings. If the nature and existence of basic subjective consciousness cannot be fully explained through evolutionary theory, then neither can the higher cognitive functions, regardless of any putative survival advantage they may ultimately confer.
This lack of doubt derives not, as Nagel sometimes insinuates, from a prior commitment to a metaphysical view -- there are theistic Darwinists as well as atheistic, naturalists and supernaturalists -- but from overwhelming evidence from a variety of sources: biogeography, the fossil record, comparative physiology and genomics, and so on. Nagel offers no arguments against any of this, and indeed states explicitly that he is not competent to do so.
His complaint is that there are some explanatory tasks that he thinks evolution should perform that he thinks it can't. But as far as an attack that might concern evolutionists, they will feel, to borrow the fine phrase of former British minister, Dennis Healey, as if they had been savaged by a sheep.
Materialism is something quite different. In Nagel's mind, at least, it is almost synonymous with reductionism, the term with which he most commonly refers to the views he opposes. He writes, for instance, 'I will use the terms "materialism" or "materialist naturalism" to refer to one side of this conflict, and "antireductionism" to refer to the other side' p.
This reflects an earlier statement that 'among the scientists and philosophers who do express views about the natural order as a whole, reductive materialism is widely assumed to be the only serious possibility'. This is amazing stuff. The only citation in favour of this is to Steven Weinberg's Dreams of a Final Theory, a somewhat ironic choice given the open disdain for philosophy Weinberg expresses in that book.
But actually it is hard to think of an appropriate citation from a philosopher. Nagel expresses a view that was popular among philosophers of science half a century ago, and has been in decline ever since. It is a view that is perhaps still common among philosophers of mind David Chalmers much discussed book The Conscious Mind , for example, bases its argument for dualism on a similar view of materialism , but reductionism has been almost entirely rejected by philosophers actually engaged with the physical and biological sciences: it simply has no interesting relation to the diversity of things that scientists actually do.
So here is the first problem. Reductionism can be understood as a metaphysical thesis, typically based on an argument that if there is only material stuff in the world no spooky stuff , then the properties of stuff must ultimately explain everything. This is a controversial thesis, much debated by philosophers. But what the last 50 years of work in the philosophy of science has established is that this kind of reductionism has little relevance to science.
Even if it turned out that most scientists believed something like this which I find incredible this would be a psychological oddity, not a deep insight about science.
A more sensible materialism goes no further than the rejection of spooky stuff: whatever kinds of stuff there may turn out to be and whatever they turn out to do, they are, as long as this turning out is empirically grounded, ipso facto not spooky.
Such a materialism is quite untouched by Nagel's arguments. Why does Nagel believe that materialism has to have this reductive character? It appears to be because he believes that 'everything about the world can.
It would not be an exaggeration to say that for Nagel, if science can't come up with a theory of everything it has, in some deep sense, failed. Nagel is thus, in effect, committed a priori to reductionism; the failure of reductionism is therefore the failure of science.
Perhaps the most charitable reading of the position is that Nagel is trying to revive rationalism for an atheistic age. He doesn't, however, make it look like an encouraging project.
The main substance of the book, once this strange philosophical backdrop has been sketched, is an argument for the irreducibility to 'materialist neo-Darwinism' of consciousness, cognition and values, each of which gets a chapter.
Consciousness is, of course, familiar territory for Nagel, whose classic paper 'What is it like to be a bat? Given the special status and mystery even spookiness attributed to consciousness within this movement, it is not surprising that it has given rise to some curious metaphysical views, most famously David Chalmers's dualism alluded to above. What seems to me beyond any serious question is that the results and insights gained by the vast quantities of philosophical and quasi-philosophical work on consciousness in the last few decades is hardly comparable with the successes that stand to the credit of evolution.
Prima facie these things are not material. The materialist story about how material came to possess these entities or qualities is evolution. Let's assume for the sake of argument that we accept the philosophical framing of the issue. The next thing is to give an account of these topics that blocks the evolutionary explanation.
Suffice it to say that in each case the account given is controversial. Most obviously this is true for the moral realism that Nagel defends.
Here he is quite clear that the argument could also run from the truth of evolution to the falsity of moral realism, a direction taken, as Nagel notes, by Sharon Street I have already mentioned the possibility of doubts about Nagel's take on consciousness.
Given the controversial status of these analyses Nagel's subtitle should at least be amended to 'why the materialist neo-Darwinian conception of nature might possibly be false'. The case of cognition, finally, brings out most strikingly Nagel's rationalism. Nagel thinks that reason gives us insights into reality that evolution cannot account for.
Whereas perception gives us a view of the world mediated by a 'mental effect' that it causes in me, something that emerged to serve my evolutionary interests, reason gives me direct, unmediated insight into the world. If I realise that my beliefs are in contradiction, I know directly that one of them is false p. These are deep waters, no doubt.
My own views are, first, that the mediating mental effect in perception is a highly problematic entity, and second that surely logic is at least mediated by language. But here I will only repeat that we have surely not been offered anything harder to deny than the general truth of evolution. Suppose, again counterfactually, that we accept Nagel's accounts of consciousness, cognition, and value, what would it take to show that beings with these capacities could not have evolved in the "neo-Darwinian" manner?
How, for instance, can a collection of molecules evolve the ability to feel like something?