More Claptrap on Science on the NYT webpage

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.


54 thoughts on “More Claptrap on Science on the NYT webpage”

  1. Thanks for the barbecuing of Nagel. AFAICT, all philosophy of consciousness is an exercise in taking one tiny bit of information from the sciences (or some other discipline where agreement is necessary), and saying “but this doesn’t explain ME and MY FEELING OF SPECIALNESS!” But they do a hell of a job clouding up that simple fact.

    1. The fact is that physical sciences can’t explain me and my feeling of specialness. You can be as snarky as you want, but a theory that doesn’t account for my feeling of specialness is incomplete.

      1. “a theory that doesn’t account for my feeling of specialness is incomplete”

        Well, then let’s have a complete theory. Oddly enough, complete theories are generally ones that only account for your feeling of specialness.

        Oh, wait, I actually have no observable evidence of your feeling of specialness. Never mind.

  2. It certainly doesn’t seem impossible to me that a good explanation of subjective experience will require something radically different than, e.g., understanding neurology a whole lot better. But it’s too soon to say, and in any event speculation on that issue doesn’t bear the conceptual weight that Nagel wants to put on it.

  3. Bravo, Quincy Adams!

    I was appalled at the way Nagel’s so-called analysis has been treated so respectfully in so many otherwise intellectual venues. It struck me as a bunch of tautologies and merely moving forward from unstated and worse, unproven assumptions.

      1. Mitchell, you were appalled at the way his so-called analysis has been treated so respectfully. I go one level below that:

        “…a respected philosopher, Thomas Nagel.” I am appalled that a living person can be called a respected philosopher. In my vocabulary, he’s a student of philosophy. “Philosophers” are dead folks whose writing has stood the test of time after they were no longer around to explain/restate/elaborate etc.

  4. ‘Neo-Darwinist’ is like ‘fiat currency’ – if it’s being used in a narrow technical sense (i.e., 1% of the time on the internet), then it’s OK. Anything else says that the user is full of sh*t.

  5. It is vain to criticize something for failing to do what it does not purport to do.

    We do not want to be like the opera critic who wrote a scathing theatrical review by noting that the performers could not sing worth a damn and were not even trying.

  6. I don’t think you’ve really grappled with the substance of Nagel’s argument here. I suspect that you haven’t read either his famous “What Is it Like to Be A Bat” or his essay “Panpsychism” (both collected in Mortal Questions). I haven’t read his latest book, but judging from the summary in his NYT essay, he’s building on earlier arguments from those essays. I agree with you that his argument is wrong, but I think it’s more subtle than you give him credit for. And incidentally, your slur on NYU as second rank doesn’t entirely tar Nagel as you’d like it to: he was tenured at Princeton before moving to NYU.

    You seem to have completely missed the issue of emergence. Emergence is usually described as coming in basically two forms: the “soft” type that’s implicit in characterizing all the social science fields as unrelated to physics (the concepts make no reference to more primitive entities, but not because anyone claims that humans aren’t physical), and “radical” emergence, which posits the appearance of new phenomena that are conceptually irreducible to and not derivable from the properties of their constituents. As though the properties of liquid water were intrinsically inexplicable in terms of the properties of hydrogen and oxygen in the appropriate chemical combination. If you read Nagel and others on panpsychism, a common basis for the argument is the non-existence of radical emergence. It’s a hypothesis, admittedly, but if you dispense with it, you’re left with assuming that it’s conceptually impossible to understand the universe from the bottom up.

    This is exactly where your analogizing of Nagel’s argument as
    “this is formally equivalent to saying that we need a fire element because you can’t create fire from nothing”
    fails. You’re arguing that the first type of emergence is not problematic. But that’s not the source of difficulty with physical reduction of the mental, which is the second type of emergence.

    FWIW, where I think Nagel goes wrong is in this sentence: “[S]ince the long process of biological evolution is responsible for the existence of conscious organisms, and since a purely physical process cannot explain their existence, it follows that biological evolution must be more than just a physical process, and the theory of evolution, if it is to explain the existence of conscious life, must become more than just a physical theory.” What’s wrong is the clause after the second “since”, at least if you accept panpsychism. For some reason, Nagel does not. He expresses unhappiness with the concept in the essay I mentioned, but doesn’t really spell out his reasons. He refers to it as having the “stink” of having been “cooked up in a metaphysical laboratory”, an appealing turn of phrase, but not really compelling.

    At any rate if, as an academic, you’re going to trash the guy, you really should contend with the full meat of his arguments, not the 10 cent version in the newspaper. Of the modern philosophers I’ve read, he’s by far the most readable and straightforward to understand, right or wrong. He may be wrong on this one, but not because he hasn’t thought long and hard about the issues. Your treatment is too facile by far.

    1. The full meat of Nagel’s argument starts out with a strawman about what physicists say the “Theory Of Everything” attempting to address. Why should I try to argue against what Nagel derives from that false premise?

      1. You’re referring to this: “Since our mental lives evidently depend on our existence as physical organisms, especially on the functioning of our central nervous systems, it seems natural to think that the physical sciences can in principle provide the basis for an explanation of the mental aspects of reality as well — that physics can aspire finally to be a theory of everything.”

        He didn’t capitalize it as you did. He’s not talking about String Theory or whatever. He’s talking about the idea that – in principle – everything is explicable as a consequence of “physical” laws, without reference to anything more. It may be impossible in practice, but it’s just physics all the way down.

        “Why should I try to argue against what Nagel derives from that false premise?” You shouldn’t try to argue about anything you don’t want to argue about. And my point wasn’t directed at you. But if you’re going to take the trouble to write a splenetic “refutation” of a philosophical essay, it’s worth at least contending with the actual arguments, not a caricature. You might get points for rhetorical eloquence (though not in this case, I think), but you won’t persuade anyone familiar with the real debate.

    2. As this is a blog post, not an academic article, I took some liberties. No one should take my “slur” on NYU seriously… I said it was at least a second-tier– which means it may be a first-tier — I really don’t know and don’t care. (You may wish to reconsider your assumption that i am an academic.) I merely meant that NYU claims to hold itself to high academic standards, and so Nagel is not some slouch.

      The “10 cent version … in the newspaper” is Nagel’s own distillation of his argument, not someone else’s. I’ve read the book cited in the ten cent version, and you say you haven’t. There is much wrong in the book, including Nagel’s apparent insistence that only one kind of explanation is of interest. (At one point he says that it isn’t an explanation of aircraft cabin pressure that people need that amount of air to live — but for many purposes that is the best explanation.) Another howler is the notion that the “faculty” of “reason” gives unmediated access to “reality” — as if these were all simple substances that just unambiguously exist.

      I agree with you that Nagel goes wrong in the sentence you quote, and more or less in the place that you cite, but the confusion has nothing to do with panpsychism. The problem is with what is felt to be a satisfactory explanation. Purely physical processes all the time produce phenomena that can’t be “explained” by those processes, because they are being interpreted at a different level. For example when I see a cloud in the shape of face, there is no point in looking to the process of condensation to explain this, even though that physical process is essential to the phenomenon. John Conway’s game of Life using very simple cellular automata demonstrates clear emergence of a level of phenomena and interactions that while completely rooted in the simple rules at the cellular level can be easily predicted and even explained more economically without reference to these lower level processes. Evolution, while it can perfectly appropriately and accurately be described as a purely physical process that has created conscious beings, is in practice not deployed as a theory of a purely physical process. The primary concepts of basic evolutionary population biology include “fitness,” which is obviously not a physical concept though it does not require any extra-physical processes for it to be generated. When the secondary features produced by physical processes (like the shape of clouds in my example) begin to have identities and interact with each other, it becomes possible for them to create boundary conditions that feedback onto lower level causal systems. Biological evolution has created untold individuals and species at different hierarchical levels (many below the organismic level) that interact in much more complex ways than anything in the purely physical universe.

      I think I understand emergence just fine, thank you — In fact I noted that emergence in many fields is today a common strategy for admitting a level of analysis that is not functionally reductionist but that does not contravene physicalism. Even simple interacting systems can create hugely powerful forces that while based in lower level forces and interactions are more easily analyzed and explained at a higher level. So for example the simple concept of a resonant frequency. The Tacoma Narrows Bridge was destroyed by oscillations induced by wind. This could in theory be completely modeled by interactions down to the atomic level, but no one would bother doing so. Children on swings are another example of resonant systems that can be pumped, as are radio frequency oscillators, whether based on vacuum tube or transistor circuits. There’s a little bit of an art to recognizing these as the same phenomenon — there’s nothing exactly physically the same about these situations. But the same explanation applies. Or consider dynamic vs. static stability of aircraft, and the advantages of one over the other. Again, there’s nothing non-physical involved, but you wouldn’t want to reduce the situation to individual atoms in order to understand it. Or if you are looking to explain the effect of a drug on the human body — often you would look for similar chemicals and how they affect other systems that are evolutionarily related, rather than immediately trying to reduce the question to stereochemistry. In other words there is no new physics that is introduced by increasing complexity, but that does not mean basic physics provides the best explanation. Very economical explanations become available because the systems has emergent properties at different levels of order and interaction. In other words Nagel (and you) are wrong to dismiss the importance of what you are calling “soft” emergence. Ironically Nagel is logically forced into his false alternatives by a much stronger reductionism than is adhered to in practice by working scientists today, who are content to use explanations at a variety of levels as appropriate to the problem. There is very good reason to believe that what you call radical emergence is an every-day fact in loosely connected hierarchical systems characterized by large populations, non-equilibrium, and high energy flows, and that in fact there is a continuum between what you call “soft” and what you call “radical” emergence, with the difference being based not on a difference in kind but on the degree to which the phenomena can be understood by reference to the basic atomic level interactions and the degree to which they need to be understood by reference to constraints operating at a higher systems level.

      As a thought experiment, ask yourself what is so special about consciousness in Nagel’s account in relation to emergence. What if you were to substitute “sexual reproduction” or “Mendelian inheritance” or “protozoa”? I am not at all saying that these are the same sorts of phenomena, just that they are about equally reducible to physics. It’s as meaningful (or meaningless) to say that the logical possibility of each of these existed prior to their arising historically, as saying as Nagel does that the possibility of Reason must have existed prior to its realization. Or what about having blond hair? Maybe that’ part of the natural order also, There is at base in Nagel’s work more than a whiff of uncritical pre-modern essentialism — not just Reason but a permanent “Natural Order” — the phrase appears 66 times in the book, yet never subjected to critical scrutiny — it’s just assumed that such a thing really exists.

      My interest in writing this post was not to trash Nagel but to inquire how it is that someone who as you say has “thought long and hard” building on a base of highly respectable academic preparation (as you say, “tenure at Princeton”), can feel at ease making sweeping characterizations about the modern scientific approach to nature without bothering to understand the work of any actual scientists. In many ways Nagel comes out in a reasonable place — he does reject creationism and theism and his teleological approach if treated as an empirical direction is quite mild. He’s a smart guy who could be much more productive if he had been forced to examine some of his basic intellectual commitments including the nature of explanation and of the ‘faculties” of reason and morality — which can empirically shown to be not the holistic substances that Nagel takes them to be.

      Coming full circle to Michael O’Hare’s earlier post that was triggered by a NYT reference to the Virginia Heffernan piece where she looked down her nose at science because she preferred more stable and satisfying stories — I see Nagel as sharing this impulse. His errors and the platform given to them are symptomatic of an academic and intellectual culture that feels smugly superior to the actual practice of science and doesn’t feel the need learn any actual science. Maybe it’s time to go back and read C.P. Snow again.

      1. “ask yourself what is so special about consciousness in Nagel’s account in relation to emergence”

        That’s the nub, and that’s where I think you’re going wrong. Sexual reproduction, Mendelian inheritance, protozoa, fire, liquids, etc. are different from consciousness in that they are all externally observable. It’s on the basis of those external observations that we eventually figured out in what way fire was derivable from properties of more basic constituents, or that the liquidity of water was a consequence of molecular dynamics (though the details on that one might still be hazy), or that inheritance follows from the properties of DNA, even if it’s not convenient to talk that way all the time.

        Consciousness isn’t externally observable. We each know about exactly one example: ourselves. We infer all the others by an argument from simplicity (otherwise you get solipsism). And then there’s nothing blocking disagreement on where in the evolutionary chain – or some hierarchy of complexity – consciousness starts. Because we can’t examine a wasp or an amoeba and observe its consciousness. Just as there’s no evidentiary argument against solipsism, there’s no way to demonstrate that wasps are and amoebas aren’t. Or that dolphins are and wasps aren’t. Or that only humans are, or only some humans – I’m happy to leave Louie Gohmert off the list.

        We need to get experience into the picture somehow. I used to be a theoretical physicist (the Higgs boson studying kind). And I am confident, with 100% certainty (not just rounded up) that there is no way, nohow, that physical theories are ever going to say “this is where consciousness shows up”. There’s simply no need and no place for it. Not even as a convenience – in the sense that it’s more convenient to use terms like “liquid” or “gene” or “protozoan” to talk about larger chunks of matter and their properties. Oh sure, we know it’s there, because we know it of ourselves. Short of positing radical emergence you can’t get it in humans without it already being there – in some proto form – in quarks and electrons. That’s the argument for panpsychism, or panexperientialism if “psych” is too loaded. Since we agree that brains are made out of electrons and quarks (or whatever it is that those are made of), the experiential aspect of brains must be implicit in those of the particles, just as fire and sexual reproduction are. But there’s no place in a physical explanation to put qualia. There’s just charges and masses and momenta and fields and the math that goes with those terms.

        Nagel doesn’t like panpsychism. So he goes wrong with thinking the universe needs some kind of teleological drive and that Darwinian evolution is not purely physically explicable. But he’s on to a real problem, and I still don’t think you’ve genuinely gotten around the central issue that causes so much trouble. Qualia are not like fire. You can’t observe mine and I can’t see yours. And it’s not because we don’t have good enough microscopes or proton colliders or aren’t looking for them at the right level of complexity.

        As for the NYT’s reasons for publishing this stuff… I can tell from Brian Leiter’s site that it drives some of the professionals up the wall. But why should the professionals have all the fun? Let the public see what these folks think and say. It’s kind of fun to have a place – like a blogging site – where a journalist like Heffernan can make a fool of herself demonstrating that even someone familiar with technology can still adhere to creationist nonsense. It’s illuminating to those of us who wonder how – in a world of antibiotics, genetic engineering, quarks and electrons – someone can still operate at a high level while believing stone age myths. Or that Nagel can show his cards to a wider audience who can then try to understand where he’s gone wrong. It’s not reportage. It’s just cultural fun. I’m hoping Searle shows up one day to explain how there’s something special about brain-stuff and that everyone who doesn’t get that is just a moron.

        I don’t think Nagel suffers from a lack of familiarity with science. He’s not on the wrong side of Snow’s two worlds. He’s just gotten frustrated over 40 years of dissatisfaction with the obvious (partial) solution to one of his life’s big professional puzzles, and taken off in a bad direction for an alternative.

        1. Short of positing radical emergence you can’t get it in humans without it already being there – in some proto form – in quarks and electrons.

          I’m a bit late to the party, and I may be misunderstanding what you mean by “radical emergence,” but emergent phenomena in groups of particles that are related in extremely non-obvious ways to the behaviors of the individual particles are by no means unheard of. Just from my subfield of condensed matter physics, things like the fractional quantum Hall effect or high-temperature superconductivity are extraordinarily difficult to understand in terms of quarks and electrons. Chemistry, particularly biochemistry, operates at an even higher level of abstraction. All of which is to say that I’m absolutely not 100 percent confident that physical theories will never explain consciousness. Never is a long time from now.

    3. “But that’s not the source of difficulty with physical reduction of the mental, which is the second type of emergence.”

      It is a CLAIM that the mental is the “second type of emergence”. This is not a proved fact.
      Nagel can claim whatever he likes, but his argument is no different from “I assert God exists, but physics has no place for God, therefore physics is wrong”.

      There is, on the other side, a growing body of evidence that throwing ever more statistical learning at problems does in fact work — with enough data structured in the right way, with the right algorithms, you CAN in fact bootstrap yourself to “probably approximately correct” solutions — which IS in fact what we are talking about when we discuss the human mind, not some ineffable transcendent and flawless “mentalism”.
      It is easy to mock the cases where we haven’t yet figured out how to do this properly (most obviously speech and language) while ignoring the amazing progress we have made in some areas, for example SIFT feature detection in computer vision is pretty darn incredible.

      1. There is no contradiction between asserting
        * that the brain is a neural network made of biological components, constituted in turn of elementary particles
        * that a brain could be replicated by a suitable system of transistors made from impure silicon powered by electricity and “programmed” through a training regimen
        *and* the claim that something is being left out of both physical descriptions, namely the “what is it like to be that thing”. We each have one instance of “what it is like” that gives us grounds for inferring that something’s being left out. Third person description and analysis of computational systems doesn’t subsume first person experience. You are describing computational systems from the outside, without explaining where the inside originates.

        1. What would you consider to be an explanation of “where the inside originates”?
          That seems to me like saying “yes, yes, I understand about light frequency and rhodopsin and such, but where does the FEELING of redness come from?”

          What skeptics like myself are asking for is not a fully-fleshed explanation of “where the inside originates” but an idea of WTF that would even mean. It seems like the people wanting this sort of thing will ONLY accept an explanation for mind couched in the language of mind, a circular logic that they then try to resolve by moving the explanatory principle to something mind-like.

          Perhaps the problem is that the term “explanation” seems as misunderstood among the intelligentsia as the term “theory” among the proletariat? I’m not saying I have a great definition for “explanation”, but it seems to me to encompass some sort of “this happens because of that”, where “that” is some sort of more-or-less agreed unproblematic behavior of the world. Obviously there are levels of this — the plane flies because of the behavior of air, air behaves as it does because of statistical mechanics, statistical mechanics works because of the structure of matter, which exists because of quantum mechanics, …
          Explanation here allows for Intentional Stance or human teleology type “explanations”; there’s still “A happens because B (which we all mostly agree upon)”.
          But you seem to be asking for “I feel what I feel because of…” what exactly? What TYPE of thing do you want to fill in the blank?

          Saying “mystery A happens because of mystery B” does not seem part of the spirit of explanation. If you’re going to go that route (about gravity “hypotheses non fingo”) you have to at least augment mystery B with SOMETHING — a pool of observations, a mathematical model, a scheme of prediction, a profound analogy to an existing understood system.
          None of these seem to be on offer here.

        2. Since nobody has replicated a wetware brain in silicon yet, we do not know whether the silicon version would have consciousness like poor HAL. It may be tied to the wetness (see Penrose), it may not.

          1. How would we know? I don’t even know if you’re conscious. You assert it, and I take your word for it.

          2. Self to Super-Siri: ¨Are you conscious¨? Super-Siri: ¨What´s that?¨ If she makes no claim to be conscious, she probably isn´t. If she does, there´s a problem. Use the Turing test and hope for the best.

          3. How about zombie-Siri, who asserts that she is conscious but we know isn’t? We know because, per Searle, “all” she is doing is manipulating symbols. There’s just syntax, without semantics.

            The only “easy” escape from all this is just to assume – with Occam doing all the heavy lifting here – that all matter has some sort of proto-mental attributes. We only acknowledge these attributes when they are manifest in a sufficiently complex system (wasp? dolphin? bat? human?), but they’re inherent in everything. Like Thales said – everything is full of gods. (If there’s a “hard” escape from this I don’t know what it is. Emergence doesn’t cut it.)

            As I said above, Nagel doesn’t like this route, for reasons he doesn’t make clear in his earlier writing. But now it seems I’m going to have to contribute to his retirement fund via Amazon.

  7. To paraphrase the smartest guy ever, the only reason we even ask these questions is because we are unhappy.

    1. Well, yes. As the brilliant Lily Tomlin notes, “Man invented language because of a deep inner need to complain.”

  8. Let me see if I have this right: consciousness is not biochemical process, even though it doesn’t exist before conception or after death. Hoooookay….

    1. Is that all consciousness is? Once you’ve described the chemistry/physics, is there nothing else to talk about? What is it like to be a calcium channel?

      1. I wonder what that “bio” prefix I used was about? Oh, yeah, that thing that philosophers try to avoid, life.

        1. Damn. I forgot about “vital fluid”. I knew there had to be a simple explanation.

  9. Frankly, I have a lot of trouble even parsing the line of thought here. But, it seems to be that Nagel is crowing about how we don’t yet understand consciousness as an emergent property of known physical interactions, thus Mysticism Beats Science.

    As a line of argument, it seems to resemble the old joke about how before Newton invented gravity everyone was clutching tight to the Earth for fear of floating up among the heavenly spheres …

  10. “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.”

    My specialty is early baseball history. The absolute worst book on the subject was written by a tenured humanities professor at an excellent private college, and published by an Ivy League academic press. When I say this book is terrible, I mean that any reasonably intelligent person knowing nothing of the subject leafing through the end notes would have alarm bells going off in his head. For anyone who knows the subject, it is even worse.

    Reading this book was an eye opener to me: not that there are bad books out there, but that the quality control at even an Ivy League press is so bad.

    As for the book at hand: At the risk of being flip, some centuries ago the field of philosophy split into a branch that sought out evidence from the physical world and used this evidence in the construction of its theories, and a branch that did not. For reasons I have never quite figured out, the latter branch got to keep the name “philosophy”.

  11. An old-timer (say anyone in the 17th century) would have dismissed “emerging properties´´ as handwaving. Of what substance are conscious events accidents? It´s either matter (monism) or mind (dualism). The logical snag with dualism is that since consciousness as we know it is clearly causally influenced by matter, you need to have some property in matter that allows it to interact with mind (Descartes´ “pineal gland´´ problem). So within dualism, matter has a rather mysterious dual property which the addition of mind-stuff has not explained. Ockham´s Razor indicates just going for matter with a property that supports consciousness. So the simple answer to the question, “what, ultimately, is thinking when I think?´´ is “quarks and gluons´´. Since there´s no reason to think quarks and gluons are different in stars and in brains, that means all of them in the universe are capable of supporting consciousness, though only a minuscule fraction do.
    You can evade this argument by saying that the substance-accident distinction is not fundamental, but you´d have to refute Kant to get there.

    1. I admit that I never liked Kant. I don’t disagree within your framework but I don’t completely agree either. We have some additional modes of thinking (conceptual tools) that were not generally available in the seventeenth century or even the eighteenth century when Kant wrote. There certainly is no mental substance comparable to irreducible matter– but I doubt that seventeenth century minds would accept as a “substance” what modern physics “ultimately” understands as the basis of the physical world– in your phrase “quarks and gluons” (and their quantum interactions). Ultimately whether something is handwaving or not depends on whether it does useful work as part of a conceptual system deployed to some purpose. Much of the broad discussion of “emergent properties” is handwaving, just as is almost all of the discussion of “mental states” and “brain states.” But there are today quite useful theories that involve complex systems and historical individuals with some coherence that do not have to be resolved to the lowest level in order to make useful predictions and understand their behavior, and some of these behavioral regularities best understood by reference to goal-orientation, and there are also very interesting theories that have contact with details of reality that try to explain how assemblies of neurons interact with themselves and other brain systems to support thinking of various kinds. So I would not endorse the dismissal of all emergence as “handwaving,” though perhaps it’s philosophically important to say that emergent properties do not ever become independent of their substrate. In terms of your comment that all quarks and gluons can support consciousness but only a few do, there is of course as you say nothing special about the ones that do… you could switch them out with others of the same kind with no change to consciousness. It’s how they are organized at a much higher level and the history of this higher level system that is relevant to understanding most higher level properties. After all Newtonian kinematics is very successful at affording understanding of interactions on the pool table without reference to quarks and gluons.

  12. I’m glad other people had a negative reaction to Nagel’s piece. I was wondering if I was just having trouble following his convoluted argument.

    For me, there were two red flags that came up. The first, is the discussion of “consciousness.” Perhaps it’s my background in behaviorism, but I’m always skeptical when “consciousness” comes up.

    Consciousness is like pornography. Everybody knows what it is, but nobody can define it. However, at least pornography has an observable referent. We can all argue about whether or not the same picture is pornographic. But there is no observable referent for someone else’s consciousness, political jokes not withstanding. If a phenomenon cannot be observed, measured, or defined, it can’t be studied scientifically. I’m not arguing for logical positivism; we can study unobservable phenomena as long as there is some kind of observable referent. This is really basic philosophy of science and I’m surprised that a philosopher wouldn’t know it.

    By ignoring this basic point, Nagel sets himself up for my second red flag. He says:

    “This means that the scientific outlook, if it aspires to a more complete understanding of nature, must expand to include theories capable of explaining the appearance in the universe of mental phenomena and the subjective points of view in which they occur – theories of a different type from any we have seen so far.”

    I am always distrustful of “If-must” statements. “If-then” is a logical construction, governed by logical rules. The logic can be tested, and in many cases, the accuracy of the construction can be tested via experimentation. In contrast, “if-must” is a faith statement. Science depends on the belief that nothing “must” be true. Truth must always be tested. So, perhaps Nagel’s book is a better exposition of his thoughts, but as far as I can tell, this article is just a faith statement.

    1. “If a phenomenon cannot be observed, measured, or defined, it can’t be studied scientifically.´´ So you accept Nagel´s proposition that modern science is incapable, by historical self-limitation, of understanding consciousness?
      The conscious self and the physical world are a distinction. You can´t have one without the other (Kant).

      1. I’d take it one step further: If you can’t observe, measure, or define something, how can you argue that it exists?

        1. Your question includes two pronouns, “I´´ and “you´´. How can I observe your “I´´? Or you mine?
          Newborn babies have a strong belief in the persistence of unseen objects. Is this a superstition on their part?

  13. With respect to neuroscience, Harriet Hall at reviews a book on the topic by two authors with passable scientific credentials, a book which may be worth looking for. The book criticizes the oversimplifications and premature applications of neuroscience in areas where it remains unproven.

    It is important to distinguish between claims made by promoters of science and claims made by scientists. Brain imaging, for example, is being oversold by marketers with financial incentives to exaggerate the power of SPECT and fMRI. I have had some interactions with salesmen for SPECT, and must admit that they are very good at making persuasive Power Point presentations on the topic. Hell, I nearly signed up for a SPECT myself after hearing them speak, but had read too much scientific literature on the topic to follow through.

    Do any of Nagel’s critics think that he has confounded science and marketing in his writings?

  14. One problem I have with “subjective experience” is that it is so self-limited. For instance, a toilet ballast* feels like a toilet ballast, pushed and pulled by rising water. To our vastly greater experience of self, it seems exceedingly simplistic, the product of basic laws. But could not an alien mind far more advanced than ours easily see our little mind as similarly simple, likewise as much the product of basic physical laws?

    *h/t Douglas Hoffstadter

  15. NYU’s philosophy department has been ranked the top philosophy program in the English-speaking world in Brian Lieter’s rankings for the past decade. You could have discovered this fact by googling “top philosophy departments” and clicking the first link.

    1. Yes, please, let us denizens of the Blogosphere hasten to accord credibility to something Brian Leiter says, as if we know no better

      (I’m agnostic on the preeminence of NYU Philosophy: I know nothing about the subject, and I’m not surprised they’re supposed to be great; but (1) them being great doesn’t weaken Quincy Adams’s argument here, quite the reverse; and (2) for FSM’s sake, Brian Leiter?)

  16. Wow. This is a truly terrible post.

    Nagel is in no way insane nor incompetent. He is basically presenting, in a relatively short, summary, and non-technical way, a view that is taken seriously by a fair number of philosophers (or at least implicit in a fair amount of respectable philosophy). I don’t have the details of the book on the tip of my brain, but it’s a perfectly competent piece of philosophy, even if it’s a view that is terribly out of vogue. Furthermore–and, to some extent, this is the crucial point–he is, as I recall, careful to point out that his explorations are tentative and likely to be wrong. However, his main point, as I recall, is, basically: the current metaphysical orthodoxy among scientists (or, to an even greater extent: science groupies) is either some form of radical physicalism or some version of emergentism. These views are often held fairly unreflectively, and there are non-idiotic reasons to doubt both positions. However, to express doubts about them–even well-supported, appropriately tentative doubts–is often to be branded a lunatic or, worse, a theist. However, at least from the perspective of a philosophically very astute non-scientist, there are other views that it seems we ought to take seriously–views which are not theistic, but according to which roughly mental properties are neither eliminable nor emergent.

    It’s funny that so many have, in response, declared him crazy…and often for terrible reasons.

    Take some of the godawful, embarrassing reasons in the post above. For example:

    “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.”

    (a) That is not a strawman, it is a well-known and respectable position–roughly, physicalism. (I’ll ignore the fact that nothing here is really about the grammar of the relevant sentence…) (b) There’s really nothing wrong with talking about the aspirations of physics, and I have no doubt we’d not get such niggling objections if the poster weren’t indignant about the particular aspiration at issue. “Physics aspires to explain gravity” is not worth complaining about. People, including physicists, see explaining gravity as a legitimate goal of physics. (c) On our current view of physics, one of its legitimate aims is, indeed, to explain gravity and so on. However, on one extremely common view of the sciences, a future physics will also be able to explain everything that chemistry can explain. Physics and chemistry will meet, and unify. On this view, chemistry is basically what we do when we don’t know all the physics, or when it’s too complicated to do it all. Chemistry, that is, is reducible to physics. And biology is reducible to chemistry. And so on.

    It’s important to note that this view is very, very common. Scientists and enthusiastic non-scientists say a lot of often confused things about the philosophy here…but this view of all other sciences as in principle reducible to physics is implicit in very many of those things.

    It is absurd to insist that when people say that “physics is a theory of everything” they never mean that *very common thing to mean,* but, rather, mean only that physics is a theory of everything that physics is a theory of. The author of the post is distorting the obvious sense of such claims in order to pretend that we’ve never meant the thing that we’ve so often obviously meant.

    And things go downhill from there.

    Really, I know that it’s good sport for science groupies to pile on Nagel, but he is, so far as I can tell, right, and they are wrong: the view that something more-or-less mental is neither eliminable nor emergent is a perfectly reasonable view. And, furthermore, those who point out that it is a reasonable view are treated as heretics and lunatics.

    Nagel might be wrong. He probably is, since any specific view on this we can point to is probably wrong. But he is not an idiot. The most troublesome thing about this whole episode however, is the irrational vitriol with which his perfectly reasonable suggestions are being met. It’s frothing-at-the-mouth dogmatism in the face of a quite-possibly-false-but-in-no-way crazy suggestion that is most worrisome here. There are certainly some things that scientists (and their epigones) have a right to reject with extreme prejudice. So far as I can tell, though, Nagel’s position isn’t one of them.

    1. Sorry, I never said Nagel was either insane or even incompetent (within the confines of his narrow discipline). He evidently makes moves that other philosophers view as within bounds. Where I take him to task is that he makes up a false ambition for physics and does not understand what actual neuroscientists are learning about the brain and mind, but he is glad to pronounce modern science’s world view false. In when you say that he is attacking physicalism, this may be a respectable philosophical position but it is not essential to the practice of science and is not really the worldview of most practicing scientists. Similarly while many scientists would agree that chemistry might in principle be reducible to physics, this is not how most chemistry is conducted. Most would agree that most biology will never be conducted this way. So while the view may be common among philosophers or students of science or even in a casual way among scientists, it is not really a scientific view. And I don’t know who “we” is in the fourth from the last paragraph. It is you who are ignorant of the phrase “theory of everything.” Even Wikipedia is aware that within Physics this term has a technical meaning as I have explained.

      And I used “grammar” in the broad sense — Wittgenstein would not have minded this usage — it’s an error to talk of a field of study having ambitions, except as a result of a detailed analysis of the sociology of the individuals involved or their common statements. Nagel has done neither. He blithley says that the worldview of modern science is false without actually engaging it. Physicists have ambitions, but none I know have the one that this sentence seems to want to attribute to them. It’s a symptom of sloppy thinking and of an academic system that encourages smart, sane, and technically proficient people to work within silos and not test their views to see if they are accurate and wise before publication.

      For another unfavorable if more professional review of Nagel’s book, please see H. Allen Orr in the February 7 New York Review.

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