I came to be reading Thomas Nagel’s Mind & Cosmos. because I came across this review, which was itself a balanced comparative review of Nagel alongside Max Tegmark’s mathematical take on reality, but it was clear Nagel had ruffled a few orthodox scientific feathers with his heretical ideas. Coincidentally when I ordered Mind and Cosmos I’d already obtained and started reading Sheldrake’s Science Set Free. So many feathers ruffled there that Sheldrake (a real scientist) is practically an outcast from the orthodox house of science, for making too many “supernatural” topics valid game for scientific enquiry. Nagel on the other hand is a philosopher, so all too easily dismissed by hard-core scientists to start with.
Since picking up on Nagel for his universally referenced “What’s it like to be a bat?” and his “View From Nowhere” I’d never really thought of him beyond his “what’s it like to be …” alternate take on Chalmers’ “hard problem” of consciousness – explaining the subjective experience, so it was a great pleasure to get acquainted with more than a single paper of his.
Mind and Cosmos is very carefully written, painfully avoiding too-inflated claims for alternatives, but nailing the failings of overly-reductionist physicalist scientism. Painful because his arguments so carefully pick-off one aspect of each topic at a time, comparing each with distinct alternatives, and commenting on the quality of potential arguments rather than necessarily coming to firm conclusions. For that reason alone, anyone interested in getting to grips with what is wrong with scientific reductionism, starting with perhaps a nagging belief only, will find his arguments valuable. A couple of chapters – particularly the one around cognition and its evolution – are so painstakingly argued that the subtleties are hard to follow, but I wouldn’t be put off by that. The writing itself is beautifully simple.
Without too strongly recommending his preferred candidate alternate model to reductionist materialism, Mind and Cosmos is a plea that alternatives are seriously considered by scientific researchers. In that sense he is strongly aligned with Sheldrake. Also like Sheldrake the alternatives are “kinda” panpsychic. Proto-concsiousness being at least part of the fundamental elements of the cosmos – a neutral monism of neither mind nor matter exclusively, though mind more primarily than matter if forced to back one side. Unlike Sheldrake, Nagel doesn’t nail his colours to any particular mast, theist or otherwise.
I do not find theism any more credible than materialism as a comprehensive worldview.
Nagel is opposed to reductionism – everything explainable both functionally and historically from their parts, but is not wedded to emergence either. Personally I can still use emergence, nevertheless with Nagel’s reminder of two-way causation from pattern to parts as well as the orthodox conception of efficient cause.
A key aspect of Nagel’s line of argument is always to compare intentional reasons, and teleological reasons with reductionist / constructionist approach of orthodox scientism. Not simply – that’s just the way it is or the laws of nature couldn’t be any other way and the results are the “chance” causal outcome of the component level constraints and laws only. His arguments dispense with any strong need for the intentional – the intentional designs of an intelligent mind – but the teleological – the causally directed effects of patterns on the parts, creating propensities and tendencies towards patterns in the outcomes (but not specific outcomes or “goals”) – remains very much part of his possible, plausible mode.
“These teleological speculations are offered merely as possibilities, without positive conviction.”
Yeah, right. One thing Nagel doesn’t buy from orthodox science is arguments of something from nothing, not the literally anything from literally nothing – which any philosopher recognises is a metaphysical question anyway – but the conveniently complex from the presumed simple. No “life from chemistry” any more than intelligence from cosmos or cosmos from quarks without his injection of teleology and his neutral monist foundations. Here he is of course pretty controversial, but his arguments suggest he’s at least as much chance of being right as the reductionists. [Here a recent reference that suggests emergence (of bio molecules from simple chemistry) isn't so far-fetched.]
The concept of “value” looms large, particularly “pre-reflective impressions of value” and “pre-rational data” (very much “radical empiricism” a la James) and a great part of Nagel’s evolutionary arguments acknowledge Sharon Street’s “A Darwinian Dilemma for Realist Theories of Value” Philosophical Studies 127 Jan 2006. That seems to become essential reading. [Not fully read yet, but she references Gould & Lewontin (1979) without referencing any 21st century Dennett - sigh.]
Overall – very impressed with Nagel’s latest and believe it could be a very important piece of work. Certainly orthodox scientists needn’t run away screaming. They should take up Nagel’s careful arguments and proposals for what they are, and see what difference they make to existing explanations. A recommended read.
Mentioned upfront that Nagel had been rejected by orthodox science - even Dennett, though I must dig up the context. As I said painfully inconclusive arguments, relying on philosophical questioning and only a couple of main sources. This review is pretty balanced in reviewing his critics as well as Nagel's own case. "Non-committal" is the tactical criticism. I think he deliberately avoids scientific support in his brief book - satisfied that his job is the philosophy, to point out the unanswered questions that orthodox science should consider, after all, he's not the scientist.
Despite what Jerry Coyne says he's not "anti-evolution" he's against reductionist materialist neo-Darwinism. Jerry Coyne didn't read the book of course, and his defensive agenda is the title of his blog anyway - a closed mind if ever there was one.
So far all the criticisms of Nagel seem to be ad-hominem, and few are from those that command my respect, except Dennett, as I say. This Prospect piece seems to get Nagel's message.
Other than reported statements, I can't find any critical piece by Dennett. This conference report is interesting, but don't know anything about the agenda of Andrew Ferguson in The Weekly Standard. (Most of the Dennett quotes elsewhere seem to come from this report.)
Daniel Dennett took a different view. While it is true that materialism tells us a human being is nothing more than a “moist robot”—a phrase Dennett took from a Dilbert comic—we run a risk when we let this cat, or robot, out of the bag. If we repeatedly tell folks that their sense of free will or belief in objective morality is essentially an illusion, such knowledge has the potential to undermine civilization itself, Dennett believes.
I reckon that understates Dennett's take on "greedy reductionism".]