Friday, November 1, 2013

review of Nagel's Mind and Cosmos

I read Nagel's Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False alongside deWaal's most recent book. (See: my review of deWaal here. See: Johnson's review of Nagel in Touchstone.)

Both books are well-written by thoughtful atheists; effective at laying out what's known and not known; and take shots at atheists who are silly or overplay their hands. Differences? Nagel is a philosopher focusing on epistemology (the study of knowledge); deWaal is a scientist. Nagel's book is slender but thick, needing to address a skeptical academic audience; deWaal's work is larger but breezier, aiming for a popular audience. And deWaal is much more optimistic about (capital-E) Evolution-- for reasons that Nagel addresses.

More broadly, both books reminded me of the desire of (some) atheists to do more than oppose theism. (See: my time with an impressive local group of atheists.) It's relatively easy to claim what one doesn't believe. It's far tougher to look at what one does believes. It's tougher still, intellectually and emotionally, to analyze what one must implicitly believe-- and whether those beliefs are probable, speculative but reasonable, or more fantastic than the views so confidently rejected. (Another recent book by an atheist philosopher that looks relatively good: Alex Rosenberg's Atheist's Guide to Reality. H/t: CRJ's review in vol. 36, #3.)

As always, I'm not denying the existence and power of evolutionary mechanisms. Instead, I question whether (capital-E) Evolution CAN provide a comprehensive explanation for the development of life as we see it (the possibility seems fantastic to me)-- and noting that it certainly doesn't do anything close to that at present. Nagel focuses on these questions-- noting but then putting aside the huge but unanswered questions of ultimate existence and the origins of life.

Nagel is certainly not religious at all (in the traditional sense of the term)-- and he takes great pains to make this clear, repeating it often (e.g., see: p. 7, 12, 22, 26, 91, 95). He also admits that this is purely subjective for him. For example, he says "I am talking about something much deeper-- namely, the fear of religion itself. I speak from experience, being strongly subject to this fear myself: I want atheism to be true and am made uneasy by the fact that some of the most intelligent and well-informed people I know are religious believers. It isn't just that I don't believe in God...I don't want there to be a God; I don't want the universe to be like that."

Why is this important? It increases his credibility with other (religious) skeptics and (capital-E Evolution) supporters. "My skepticism is not based on religious belief, or on a belief in any definite alternative." (7) There is, seemingly, no ulterior motive for him-- either way.

Nagel notes that the preeminent focus on the biological questions of Evolution has been reductionistic. This approach has borne much fruit, but is necessarily limited. It is both more comfortable for scientists-- and more easily prone to (seemingly) reasonable extrapolation. But the flip sides of this reductionism are ignoring important factors that have been reduced from one's model; imagining that reductionism is the only possibility; and ignoring what Nagel appropriately and ironically labels a "Darwinism of the gaps" (127).

The physical/biological/material questions are difficult enough-- and a nearly-infinite number of huge gaps remain (in terms of providing an explanation). Nagel acknowledges this and is hopeful that these gaps will continue to close, but is quite unconvinced that this will or can happen. Beyond this, Nagel focuses on what he sees as insurmountable barriers to determining-- or whether we could possibly determine-- an explanation for the supposed evolution of consciousness, cognition/reason and objective (vs. subjective) reality, and values. 

His argument on values is fascinating (105, 111, 116) but beyond the scope of a short review. On reason and reality, Nagel notes that "the ability of creatures like us to arrive at such truth, or even to think about it, requires explanation...The problem has two aspects. The first concerns the likelihood that the process of natural selection should have generated creatures with the capacity to discover by reason the truth about a reality that extends vastly beyond the initial appearances...The second problem is the difficulty of understanding naturalistically the faculty of reason that is the essence of these activities." (73-74) He continues by describing these problems at length (78-86), before concluding that one can assume that reason emerged as a "fluke", ex nihilo (88). Of course, this would not be an explanation, but the sort of (cosmic) hand-waving usually criticized by dogmatic atheists. Throughout, Nagel is careful to note that an explanation requires attention to both the contemporary and the historical. And in a word, he says "good luck with that".

But at least for now, Nagel does "not find theism any more credible than materialism as a comprehensive world view. My interest is in the territory between them." (22) For Nagel, that reduces to non-theistic and largely undefined "natural teleology"-- the idea that there must be "something" beyond the purely material, but without any commitment to theism per se.

Nagel points to one intriguing inference: that an embrace of non-reductionism-- if true-- is not only helpful but required if we are to pursue truth in Science (69). Along these lines, he does not find ID compelling, but is thankful for the space it has created on these questions (12). (He does not explain his take on ID-- nor would one expect that in this book. One hopes his views are not based on the all-too-common ignorance of what ID is/does.)

Nagel's concluding paragraph is useful as a summary and quite provocative: "It is perfectly possible that the truth is beyond our reach, in virtue of our intrinsic cognitive limitations and not merely beyond our grasp in humanity’s present stage of intellectual development. In this process, the ability to generate and reject false hypotheses plays an essential role. I have argued patiently against the prevailing form of naturalism, a reductive materialism that purports to capture life and mind through its Neo-Darwinian extension. But...I find this view antecedently unbelievable--a heroic triumph of ideological theory over common sense. The empirical evidence can be interpreted to accommodate different comprehensive theories, but in this case the cost in conceptual and probabilistic contortions is prohibitive. I would be willing to bet that the present right-thinking consensus will come to seem laughable in a generation or two — though of course it may be replaced by a new consensus that is just as invalid. The human will to believe is inexhaustible."

For those who subscribe to Touchstone, David Bentley Hart provides a similar treatment of these questions/problems in the second half of a recent "Back Page" essay (November 2013). [For some reason, it is not available on-line, but the issue can be ordered at] On subjectivity, Hart gets off a great line, noting that it "poses philosophical difficulties that even the tireless and tortuous bluster of a Daniel Dennett cannot entirely obscure. From there, he also ranges through abstract concepts, reason, consciousness, intentionality, "and so on". He concludes: "Not that there is room here to argue these points. Nonetheless, there are very good reasons why the most consistent materialist philosophers of mind-- when, that is, they are not attempting to get around these difficulties with non-solutions like 'epiphenomenalism' or incoherent fantasy solutions like 'panpsychism'-- have no choice in the end but to deny that such things...exist at all."

If you want to read someone who has the "room" to argue these points, pick up a copy of Nagel's book. If you don't want to slog through it, please know that philosophers have something to offer in this debate-- at the least, humility and perspective about what is known and what can be known.


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