Aristotle Redux: A Review of Thomas Nagel’s “Mind and Cosmos” Part 2

Aristotle Redux: A Review of Thomas Nagel’s “Mind and Cosmos” Part 2

A Review of Thomas Nagel’s “Mind and Cosmos”

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.

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4 thoughts on “Aristotle Redux: A Review of Thomas Nagel’s “Mind and Cosmos” Part 2

  1. Pingback: Anonymous
  2. I’ll have to read Mind and Cosmos eventually. I’m looking for the pdf to dl it, cause i’m not in the states as to go to a bookstore and just buy it, but it seems i’ll have to go amazon.

    Anyway, I’ve been tracking down mind/body problem posts all over the web for several months now, and I found this work of yours, I just uploaded it to my skydrive and I’ll read on my way to work. I listened to the philosophy of the mind lectures by John Searle, on YouTube, and it gave an angle, or lets say an excuse, to write about this idea I’ve been going about recently: if you ever find the time, here it is:


    Greetings from the land down under.

  3. Welcome to Common Ground!

    Maybe you can find “Mind and Cosmos” in a library because the book is well worth the read insofar as it gives good reasons why ‘teleology’ and ‘potential’ (2 sides of a coin) have to be re-introduced to science.

    Two other philosophers – Norris Clarke S.J. and Henry Veatch are also worthwhile in this regard. Their arguments are similar but not identical: teleology and potential are already in science hidden under the name of ‘laws of nature.’ When sunlight falls on a window ledge, the window ledge gets warmer – it does not suddenly sprout butterflies. That’s because the laws of physics limit the possible outcomes of what the sunlight can do and such limitation of outcomes is exactly what teleology is. It lets only certain things happen, or conversely, it directs the effects of an action towards a certain outcome, in this case, a warmer window ledge.

    This, of course, has enormous implications for the Baha’i view that science and religion are ultimately one. Also, Heisenberg in his “Physics and Philosophy” regards ‘potential’ as a key concept for understanding sub-atomic physics not realizing that potential and teleology are two sides of one coin.

    John Searle is also worth following. IMO, his point that subject experience i.e. intentionality is the key to understanding consciousness is closer to the truth than all the conceptual contortions of Dennett et al.

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