Part 2 of a review in three parts by Ian Kluge
In part 1 of his review of Thomas Nagel’s controversial new book called Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False, Ian Kluge describes the book as attacking the foundations of modern science on the basis of its inability to explain the nature of the mind.
Nagel, a philosopher of impeccable intellectual and philosophical credentials, says that science must make a new start:
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.
Part 2 of Ian’s review starts below.
The Subjective Experience Problem
Nagel believes in the “irreducibility of conscious experience to the physical (Thomas Nagel, Mind and Cosmos, p.68).”
This is because, by their intrinsic nature, subjective experiences are not available to external objective scientific studies. We can study the external, objective brain correlates of this subjective experience but not the inner subjective experience itself. Indeed, if we had access to someone else’s subjective experience, we would be able to experience their feelings instead of only studying the bio-electrical correlates. This irreducibility also points to a huge explanatory gap. How can inherently unconscious matter lead to consciousness and subjectivity? Something is missing from our explanations which, as we shall see below, Nagel attempts to supply. From this failure to develop an adequate understanding and explanation of consciousness and subjectivity, Nagel draws his conclusion:
Materialism requires reductionism; therefore, the failure of reductionism requires an alternative to materialism (p. 15).
Some will argue that the problematic gap between inherently unconscious matter and subjective consciousness will eventually be solved by science. However, that answer masks an insurmountable difficulty: an effect must be explainable in terms of its cause(s), or, as Nagel puts it, we need “some understanding of why the cause produces the effect (p. 45).” Unfortunately, he does not elaborate his point. A cause is obviously related to its effect. Moreover, the kind of cause determines the kind of effect: we cannot plant iron filings and expect sunflowers; nor can we expect wishes to materialize horses for beggars to ride. Horses are material and wishes are not; they a different in kind, belonging to different ontological categories.
This leads to the question, ‘How can a material cause yield immaterial effects like consciousness and subjectivity?’ Since science only accepts materialist explanations, it cannot – even in principle – answer this question. All the time in the world cannot change this. That is precisely why science engages in reductionism, by reducing consciousness and subjectivity to something material or by-passing the issue altogether.
What Nagel Offers as Alternatives to Materialistic Scientific Models of the Mind
To overcome this problem, Nagel suggests “some form of universal monism or “pan-psychism” (p. 87) i.e. the belief that at least the possibility of consciousness is a constitutive aspect of matter itself (Alfred North Whitehead also expounded a form of pan-psychism in Process and Reality, p. 15). Matter somehow contains the pre-conditions for the development of consciousness. We know that consciousness is possible because it developed – but if it developed it “must have been latent in the nature of things” (Thomas Nagel, Mind and Cosmos, p.86). Otherwise, how could it come into existence? A genuine understanding of reality must, therefore, be able to show “how the natural order is disposed to generate beings capable of comprehending it” (p.86). The pre-conditions or potential for consciousness in matter explain why matter is able to manifest consciousness and subjectivity because the previously noted ontological division no longer exists. It is obvious that in Nagel’s view, the current concept of matter is inadequate and must be revised.
In his explanations, Nagel also resurrects Aristotle’s concept of potentiality as a constitutive aspect of nature. A potential is a possibility or capability that helps constitute any particular kind of thing. For example, an acorn has the potentiality or capability for becoming an oak tree; indeed, that capability is precisely what constitutes an acorn as an acorn. Without that possibility, it would be something else. A steel nut, for example, lacks that potential. A sheet of paper has the potential for being folded into a paper crane or other figures. This distinguishes a sheet of paper from a turnip and makes a sheet of paper what it is.
The problem for materialism is that potentials are not necessarily discernible by empirical observation; they are not physical, i.e. little ‘seeds’ hidden in things – but they exist, i.e. they are ‘there’ nonetheless. Empirical analysis cannot necessarily find them before they have been actualized and become available for study. By re-introducing the concept of potentiality, Nagel implicitly re-introduces the Aristotelian distinction between potentiality and actuality, and the philosophical definition of change as the ‘movement’ from potentiality to actuality. To make things worse (from the current scientific point of view), the definition of change as movement’ from potentiality to actuality raises the question of how this change occurs – Aristotle’s efficient cause – and in what – Aristotle’s material cause. Such considerations cannot help but leave us wondering if Nagel was fully aware of the implications of his statements.
Nagel finds another major deficiency in the current philosophy of nature, namely, the belief – elevated to a dogma – that unguided natural selection operating randomly by genetic mutations and genetic drift alone explain the diversity of life. In Nagel’s view, there is a huge disparity between the supposed physical-chemical causes and the living effects that include consciousness, subjectivity, reason and creativity. Given this diversity of effects, Nagel expresses a common sense skepticism that this account is adequate to explain the infinite variety we encounter. He also wonders how unguided natural evolution could develop capacities such as reason and creativity that go well beyond the needs of reproductive success and survival. In other words, how could science itself have developed?
When we consider this, we are back at the concept of potentials and all that it entails. Of course, none of this necessarily means that our understanding of the evolutionary process is entirely wrong; rather it strongly suggests that something is missing in our understanding which is not erroneous but incomplete. It is important to keep in mind that as an atheist, Nagel has no interest in positing a supernatural origin of life. He has no intention of shoe-horning God into the picture.
The third deficiency grows out of the second: the lack of a guiding principle in evolution. This is where Mind and Cosmos is especially controversial because Nagel does nothing less than revive the Aristotelian concept of teleology as the way to remedy the problems inherent in reductionistic materialism and random natural evolution. He says that “the natural order is disposed to generate beings capable of comprehending it” (p. 45). Such a disposition is a ‘preference’ or for certain developments. He states that “Teleological laws would assign higher probability to steps on paths in state space that have a higher ‘velocity’ towards certain outcomes” (p. 93). Interestingly enough, this is the view of teleology proclaimed decades ago by neo-Aristotelian philosophers W. Norris Clarke SJ (Norris Clarke SJ, Explorations in Metaphysics, 1994) and Henry Veatch (Henry Veatch, Aristotle: A Contemporary Appreciation, 1974). In short, natural processes are not entirely random and have ‘direction.’ Of course, neither Nagel – nor Aristotle, Clarke or Veatch – insist that teleology must necessarily involve conscious intentions by a supreme being. However, that possibility is logically open to those who wish to pursue it.
Next week: Part 3 discusses Nagel restores key ideas of Aristotelian metaphysics of special interest to Catholics and Baha’is.