Part 1 of a review in three parts by Ian Kluge
Starting with its title – Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False – Thomas Nagel’s new book sparked controversy and invited attack from the scientific community.
How many fingers can one man poke in how many eyes at the same time? In the title alone, he challenges materialism, the materialist-physicalist concept of nature and neo-Darwinism. and asserts that they are “almost certainly wrong.” In effect, he calls into question some of the ontological foundations of modern science as a whole. To make matters even worse, he offers Aristotle’s concepts of potentiality and teleology as possible solutions to the problems he identifies.
Sharpening the sense of outrage, at least in some quarters, is Nagel’s distinguished career as a philosopher. He is a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, a Corresponding Fellow of the British Academy, and recipient of fellowships from the National Science Foundation. Moreover, he is a self-professed atheist and has no religious dogmas to defend. He believes that science must provide objective knowledge and will have no truck with the vagaries of postmodernist subjectivism. He believes that:
[T]hought and reasoning are correct or incorrect in virtue of something independent of the thinker’s belief, and even independent of the community of thinkers to which [a person] belongs (Thomas Nagel, Mind and Cosmos. p.72).
Also, one of Nagel’s two specialties is the philosophy of mind– the study of mental events and their relationship to the brain. For reasons that will become clear below, he finds all current theories inadequate.
The philosophy of mind is where Nagel starts his critique of the current scientific “conception of nature.” He writes:
The aim of this book is to argue that the mind-body problem is not just a local problem having to do with the relation between mind, brain and behavior . . . but that it invades our understanding of the entire cosmos and its history. The physical sciences and evolutionary biology cannot be kept insulated from it and I believe a true appreciation of the difficulty of the problem must eventually change our conception of the place of the physical sciences in describing the natural order (p.3).
Challenging words indeed! Nagel is saying nothing less than that the sciences as we know them must be re-thought and reinvented because, as we shall see below, they cannot – on the basis of their own principles – explain the origin and nature of mind, consciousness, and reason.
Indeed, science has developed its explanations by purposely ignoring their existence even though they are the very basis of all scientific endeavor. As Nagel says, “mind is not just an afterthought or and accident or an add-on, but a basic part of nature.” (p.16) Furthermore, he insists that “reason is an irreducible faculty” (p.87) of consciousness and that material explanations cannot account for it. In a nutshell, he argues that “the failure of psychophysical reductionism,” (p.4) i.e. the inability of materialist science to explain both fact and principle the origin of mind, consciousness and reason in the universe shows the incompleteness and inadequacy of the material-reductionist approach to explaining nature. He states:
We want to know what has to be added to the standard Darwinian picture to account for the appearance through evolution of creatures like us, who can control their actions in response to reasons (p.117).
He wants a “revision of the Darwinian picture rather than an outright denial of it” (p.123).
Furthermore, Nagel claims that science unwittingly admits as much by assuming that nature is “intelligible,” (p.16) i.e. there are rationally discoverable necessary and sufficient reasons for events (p.17). In short, nature is rational. This assumption – made by all scientists – undermines the supposed purely empirical foundations of science because it cannot be justified empirically. The intelligibility of nature suggests that mind is an unavoidable “basic aspect of nature.” (p.16) To the attentive reader, Nagel’s unstated suggestion is clear: if science does not even understand the implicit implications of its own foundations, there is no rational ground to accept the current scientific world view’s claim of the unchallengeable supremacy of the reductionist-materialist conception of nature. This does not undermine the actual scientific research of the last three centuries, but it does mean we must be open to different philosophical interpretations or understandings of what that research means. Materialist-reductionism is one such understanding and in Mind and Cosmos, Nagel is suggesting another.
Contrary what various reviewers suggest, there is nothing unreasonable – or unscientific – about questioning the philosophical interpretations of any scientific facts or methods. Of course, Nagel does not question any specific scientific results – he could hardly have such widespread expertise – but rather he questions the philosophic interpretation of these results. His point is that the materialist-reductionist view of nature is glaringly inadequate because it fails to explain mind and consciousness. Indeed, the current understanding of science cannot be proven to be correct by the scientific method; no experiment can prove that statements are true only if they are measurable and quantifiable, predictable, based on physical evidence, repeatable and falsifiable. Neither can reductionism be proven by the scientific method. These, too, are interpretations – albeit very useful ones – and, in Nagel’s view, it is time for a major revision.
Nagel focuses especially on the whole concept of reductionism and a “fully mechanistic account of the origin and evolution of life” (p.7). According to Nagel, his doubt about reductionism is justified because:
The great advances in the physical and biological sciences were made possible by excluding the mind from the physical world . . . But at some point it will be necessary to make a new start on a more comprehensive understanding that includes the mind (p.8).
In other words, Nagel’s point is that mind and consciousness are such overwhelmingly important developments in evolution that any scientific method that, by reductionism, severely distorts what it describes must be deficient in some way. What Nagel means is that all attempts to “accommodate . . . mind and related concepts” (p.14) have ended up by reducing mind and consciousness to a parody that has no clear resemblance to what humans universal experience. In short, he believes in “the irreducibility of conscious experience to the physical” (p.68).
Nagel makes a powerful point here – one that his opponents prefer to ignore. So far, all reductionist explanations ignore or distort consciousness. For example, determinism rejects free will despite our universal experience of it; epiphenomenalism, which Nagel explicitly rejects, (p.115) dismisses consciousness as a powerless and irrelevant by-product of physiological processes despite our constant experience to the contrary; and computer-brain models reduce consciousness to mere “calculation engine.” Finally, there are the neurosciences and their reduction of mind or consciousness to the brain. Like all the other reductionist theories, the neurosciences miss the subjectivity of consciousness, the fact that consciousness is universally characterized by subjective, personal experiences. As Nagel puts it,
Consciousness presents a problem for evolutionary reductionism because of its irreducibly subjective character. This is true even of the most primitive forms of sensory consciousness such as those presumably found in all animals (p.71).
Nagel claims that all of these models force consciousness into the intellectual Procrustes’ bed and chop their understanding of mind to fit their model.
Next week: Part 2 discusses what Nagel offers as alternatives to materialistic models of the mind.