The NYT has done it again — posted more claptrap on science. But this time it’s by a respected philosopher, Thomas Nagel. Nagel’s post is a cliff notes version of his book published last year, Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False.
This book title alone provides a good indication that Nagel should be ignored on these matters, since any scientific theory is likely to be “false” in an old-fashioned philosophical sense of an exact description of nature– as Newtonian mechanics is “false” because it does not comprehend relativistic or quantum interactions. So we need to ask what is it about our academic institutions and intellectual cultures that allow tenured faculty at NYU (at least a second-tier University) and Oxford University Press (a premier publishing house that publishes academic and quasi-academic books) to advance misleading nonsense that proceeds in ignorance of how other professors in nearby offices do their work.
Let’s try to go through Nagel’s argument and see what it relies on and what it misses.
First he builds a strawman that physics aspires to be a “theory of everything.” Leave out the silly grammar where a field of study is anthropomorphically given aspirations. When physicists talked about a “theory of everything” they didn’t mean a theory that comprehends such things as consciousness, morality, aesthetics, free will, or even the stock market — they meant, to use informal terms, a theory that provided unified explanations of gravitation and the previously unified theory of electricity, magnetism, and strong forces within atomic nucleii. This was an ambition to unite the world of physics, not to use physics to subsume all other sciences.
So let’s not beat up on physics.
When we get to neuroscience and psychology, there is a hard question about what is the relation of the biochemistry and connective structures of the brain to conscious life –part of the conundrum is about subjective experience, and another part of this is about agency and free will. Neuroscientists, psychologists, philosophers, and humanists struggle with these issues. Granted there is a lot of nonsense in these fields, but there is a lot of serious investigation also, involving both theoretical constructs and experimentation of various kinds — in other words, science.
Nagel’s response is to wave his wand and act as if none of this science exists. He argues that if physics cannot explain subjective experience, then we need wholly new theories “of a different type from any we have seen so far.” But we have lots of scientific theories that have no direct contact with physics, and many of these relate to understanding complexes of human behavior. Nagel acts as if he has never met an economist or an information theorist or a computer scientist or a social psychologist or an ecologist or even a logician (obviously impossible for a modern philosopher) — but these people routinely deploy theories that are different in character from those of physics, and many of them deal with systems that behave teleogically. Teleology turns out to be the wholly different element that Nagel says needs to be melded into natural science.
Nagel wants to declare “mind” as a fundamental part of “nature” — certainly one would have a hard time explaining the historical trajectory of the post 1900 evolution of the Earth environment without reference to mind, so it’s clearly important now, but that does not mean it’s a fundamental part of the natural order everywhere. Nagel seems to believe that mind cannot not spring up from nothing, and so it can’t have arisen by evolution. Never mind that this is formally equivalent to saying that we need a fire element because you can’t create fire from nothing. He wants morality and reason to exist outside of history and evolutionary contingency because he can’t seem to vanquish the bugaboo of relativism otherwise. (This is spelled out in detail, if speciously, in the book). So his response is to insist on somehow mentalizing nature itself, in some way yet to be determined — maybe like the aether was needed to conduct light.
I suppose we should not foreclose this possibility — but what sort of theory would it be and how would it be testable? More tellingly, it is not at all necessary to make progress. In fact, Nagel considers and rejects the primary overall frame within which active scientists are making progress on these issues– the notion of “emergent properties.” So far as I can tell, Nagel’s rejection is purely aesthetic — he doesn’t think you can create something just by increasing complexity of interactions and changing the level of analysis. Similarly, his rejection of the evolutionary emergence of reason is also primarily aesthetic — he fears that recognizing that reason and morality arose historically and contingently undercuts their legitimacy by making them appear more unreliable. In my view this recognition engenders a more critical stance that should open up the possibility to make them more reliable, but I wouldn’t use this personal judgment as a way to sniff out truth and falsehood.
It’s entirely clear that one can fully resist Nagel’s conclusion on the need to mentalize nature without resorting to any of his supposedly exhaustive four-fold options for resistance. You don’t need to mentalize physical nature to recognize the power of thought once mind comes into being — especially social mind backed up by culture and language. I don’t mean to minimize questions about, for example, whether you could have a different logic and where logic comes from, and I am also not going to completely foreclose the possibility that one day a scientific theory might somehow look like what Nagel is proposing now. This would be mere speculation.
It’s completely clear that Nagel has not made anywhere near the case he thinks he has. There is lots of room for improved understanding of the nature of mind and consciousness in ways that are completely consistent with materialist physics and neo-Darwinism, with the addition of complex systems understanding.
A NYU professor who pronounces science’s conception of reality to be false without engaging with any current science should be ashamed of himself. Oxford University Press should not have published this book. The fact that Nagel is respected and picked up in the New York Times is a symptom of our fragmented and fundamentally un-serious intellectual culture.
If the universe had any sensible teleology or nature were infused with Mind we would no doubt be served much better than this.
Update: A comment notes that, according to one apparently reputable ranking, the NYU Philosophy Department is the best in the English speaking world, which just makes me shake my head more.