Wednesday, July 15, 2015

There's more to there than physics:
a review of Thomas Nagel's "Mind and Cosmos"*

"The aim of this book is to argue that the mind-body problem is not just a local problem...but that it invades our understanding of the entire cosmos...I believe a true appreciation of the difficulty of the problem must eventually change our conception of the place of the physical sciences in describing the natural order." Thomas Nagel, Mind and Cosmos:  Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception
of Nature is Almost Certainly False
What?  An eminent philosopher of the mind, Thomas Nagel, a professed atheist,  taking up the theistic argument that  "the materialist, neo-darwinian conception of nature is almost certainly false"--who wood-a thunk it?

In a nutshell, Nagel argues that current belief that there is a physical theory of everything--a theory that includes human mentality and values--is unbelievable:
I find  this view [reductive materialism and neo-Darwinism] antecedently unbelievable--a heroic triumph of ideological theory over common sense. Thomas Nagel, "Mind and Cosmos", p. 136
This disbelief is founded on the following propositions:

  • physical science cannot account for the incredibly unlikely beginning of life;
  • physical science and the neo-Darwinian model cannot account for the development of consciousness;
  • physical science and the neo-Darwinian model cannot account for the development of cognition from consciousness;
  • physical science and the neo-Darwinian model cannot account for the role of value in human activity.  
The fundamental difficulty with the currently accepted physical picture, according to Nagel, is that the ways in which materialism and neo-Darwinism try to account for mentality are inadequate.
 The first way is to deny that the mental is an irreducible aspect of reality, either (a) by holding that the mental can be identified with some aspect of the physical, such as patterns of behavior or patterns of neural activity, or (b) by denying that the mental is part of reality at all, being some kind of illusion (but then, illusion to whom?). The second way is to deny that the mental requires a scientific explanation through some new conception of the natural order, because either (c) we can regard it as a mere fluke or accident, an unexplained extra property of certain physical organisms – or else (d) we can believe that it has an explanation, but one that belongs not to science but to theology, in other words that mind has been added to the physical world in the course of evolution by divine intervention. [emphasis added] Thomas Nagel. The Core of Mind and Cosmos (NY Times Opinionator)
Nagel rejects divine intervention, both for the presence of mind and for the beginning of life.   Instead he  proposes a teleological principle that operates to achieve values (undefined) that include consciousness and cognition;   mutations that work to such an end are preferred, that is have a higher probability.    Nagel terms the failure of materialism and neo-Darwinism to account for the above "a materialism of the gaps".     The arguments Nagel gives  to support the above propositions are  involved.   Were I not already convinced of his propositions, I would find his arguments unconvincing.    Since a detailed examination of these arguments would require an article almost as long as the book, I'll not do that.*   Instead, I invite the reader to go to the book, or if you don't want to spend the bucks, look at Chapter 4 of the book, on Cognition (it's available online for free--use the link).

Finally, I wonder why the addition of a "teleological principle" is not more ad hoc than that of a creating God.    It does seem to be the case that for many atheists, their faith  (or non-faith?)  cannot be shaken.

*Note added 20 July.   William (Matt) Briggs has pointed out that the eminent philosopher, Edward Feser has, in fact, given such an extensive review in his blog.   See Mind and Cosmos Roundup.

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About Me

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Retired, cranky, old physicist.   Convert to Catholicism in 1995.   Trying to show that there is no contradiction between what science tells us about the world and our Catholic faith.   Intermittent blogs and adult education classes to achieve this end (see   and

Extraordinary Minister of Communion volunteer to federal prison and hospital; lector, EOMC.
Sometime player of bass clarinet, alto clarinet, clarinet, bass, tenor bowed psaltery for parish instrumental group and local folk group.

And, finally, my motivation:
“It is also necessary—may God grant it!—that in providing others with books to read I myself should make progress, and that in trying to answer their questions I myself should find what I am seeking.
Therefore at the command of God our Lord and with his help, I have undertaken not so much to discourse with authority on matters known to me as to know them better by discoursing devoutly of them.”
St. Augustine of Hippo, The Trinity I,8.