Thursday, February 21, 2013

Review of Thomas Nagel's Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False

Thomas Nagel’s Mind and Cosmos is first and foremost a work of philosophy, not a work of pure science.  Many critical reviews of his book are unfortunately miscast in this respect.  What is true is that Nagel uses scientifically-derived evidence to support his philosophical arguments—exactly what any competent philosopher ought to do.

Despite the surprisingly short span of pages in the book, the arguments are hard to digest because they demand a fairly sizable familiarity with contemporary arguments in philosophy of mind and philosophy of evolutionary biology.  I expect this will make the book a delight to read for those with such familiarity but challenging for those without.  While the footnotes and references in the book are relatively sparse, the works cited are well-chosen and successfully do the heavy-lifting where necessary.  For example, Nagel refers the reader to Michael Behe, Steven Meyer, and David Berlinski—all formidable thinkers affiliated with the Discovery Institute—when he draws attention to empirical challenges to neo-Darwinism.  Nagel does not attempt to summarize these respective challenges but rather expects the reader to follow the citations on his or her own.  This decision renders the book more fluid for those of us familiar with these works, but may leave the less-familiar reader perplexed by Nagel’s empirical doubts about neo-Darwinism. 

Nagel’s efforts to embrace the quality of arguments offered by those friendly (or at least not hostile) to intelligent design, while simultaneously rejecting the inference to design himself, is refreshingly commendable.  Here, Nagel embodies the sage advice of the late Robert Nozick who wrote the following in Anarchy, State, and Utopia:
I like to think intellectual honesty demands that, occasionally at least, we go out of our way to confront strong arguments opposed to our views.  How else are we to protect ourselves from continuing in error?  It seems only fair to remind the reader that intellectual honesty has its dangers; arguments read perhaps at first in curious fascination may come to convince and even to seem natural and intuitive.  Only the refusal to listen guarantees one against being ensnared by the truth (x-xi).
Meyer’s lengthy volume Signature in the Cell (which Nagel received scorn for recommending in 2009) squeezes on the conspicuous problem of reconciling the sophisticated self-reproducing cell with inert material antecedents governed solely by chance and natural law.  Nagel rightly recognizes that Meyer’s treatment of the problem is provocative grounds for harboring doubts about the purely materialst account of the cell’s origin.  Nagel, though, leaves it up to the reader to consult Signature for the substance of Meyer’s argument.  Here’s a representative sample of Meyer’s account in Signature:
If we assume that a minimally complex cell needs at least 250 proteins of, on average, 150 amino acids and that the probability of producing just one such protein is 1 in 10164 as calculated above, then the probability of producing all the necessary proteins needed to service a minimally complex cell is 1 in 10164 multiplied by itself 250 times, or 1 in 1041,000.  This kind of number allows a great amount of quibbling about the accuracy of various estimates without altering the conclusion.  The probability of producing the proteins necessary to build a minimally complex cell--or the genetic information necessary to produce those proteins--by chance is unimaginably small (213).
In his previous works The View from Nowhere and The Last Word, Nagel firmly established himself as a serious philosophical realist.  Nagel labored extensively in The View from Nowhere to include the reality of subjective states in our ontology:
I have argued that the seductive appeal of objective reality depends on a mistake.  It is not the given.  Reality is not just objective reality.  Sometimes, in the philosophy of mind but also elsewhere, the truth is not to be found by travelling as far away from one's personal perspective as possible (27).
Nagel fortified his philosophical realism in The Last Word by attacking popular forms of skepticism—subjectivism and relativism:
Many forms of relativism and subjectivism collapse into either self-contradiction or vacuity--self-contradiction because they end up claiming that nothing is the case, or vacuity because they boil down to the assertion that anything we say or believe is something we say or believe (6).
In Mind and Cosmos, he continues this tradition with particular emphasis on consciousness and mental properties, like reason and value.  His treatment of this task bears the marks of a man honestly attempting to reconcile what is plainly evident about this world with systematic findings of science and mathematics.  Nagel insists that there must be a fit between theory and lived life—if ever the two are in conflict, it is theory that must revise itself, not the realities of lived life.  Here, he is diametrically opposed to views such as those espoused by Susan Blackmore in Consciousness: A Very Short Introduction.  Blackmore writes:
We can hang on to the way [the self] feels and assume that a persisting self or soul or spirit exists…or we can reject any persisting entity that corresponds to our feeling of being a self.  I think that intellectually we have to take this last path.  The trouble is that it is very hard to accept in one’s personal life….It means accepting that every time I seem to exist, this is just a temporary fiction...This is tough, but I think it gets easier with practice (81).
Nagel, as I suspect most conscious beings do, steadfastly refuses to allow theory to dictate the absurd proposition that he needs to “practice” denying his own selfhood.  For Nagel, the mind is neither reducible to the brain nor an epiphenomon of the brain merely because materialistic theory requires it; rather, the mind (including its ineliminative subjective nature) is a bona fide ingredient of the natural world, and whatever theory of reality aims to correctly explain this fact must accept mind as it actually is:
Materialist naturalism leads to reductionist ambitions because it seems unacceptable to deny the reality of all those familiar things that are not at first glance physical.  But if no plausible reduction is available, and if denying reality to the mental continues to be unacceptable, that suggests that the original premise, materialist naturalism, is false, and not just around the edges (Mind and Cosmos, 15).
Such a stance is radical only in the sense that it resists the predominant commitments of the age-- not radical in the sense that it runs afoul of philosophical coherence.  What is remarkable about Nagel’s project is that he keeps his sights steadily aimed at the very reality we are attempting to explain.  Not only are we interested in the very fabric of this thing we call consciousness, but we also want to know how in the world it is able to direct its awareness onto a myriad of subjects (intentionality); process raw data into holistic, abstract, and non-immediate generalizations about the world (cognition); and contort thoughts and behaviors into alignment with stance-independent maxims of right and wrong, good and bad (values).  Rather than deny the existence of these features or appeal to some future, unknown material process that designates these features as physical “residues” of one sort or another, he takes them as fundamental elements of nature.  As such, he resolutely maintains that these features must be explained, not explained away.

A particularly formidable challenge to neo-Darwinism Nagel mentioned in The Last Word and repeated in Mind and Cosmos shares the philosophical stage with Alvin Plantinga, who crystallized the argument in his 2011 work Where the Conflict Really Lies.  The argument suggests that, on a Darwinian evolutionary account of mind, only cognitive functions (e.g. beliefs) that improve survival fitness  will be “seen” by natural selection; the content of the beliefs—e.g. whether or not the beliefs are true—are of no material consequence to the selection mechanism.  If Smith believes, for example, that Mercury is larger in diameter than Jupiter, but all of his other immediate perceptual faculties are operating properly such that he eats when he’s hungry, finds warmth when he’s cold, and runs when he sees danger, natural selection cannot select against his (apparently) mistaken belief about celestial bodies.  For all we know given neo-Darwinism, that belief simply came “along for the ride” when natural selection fixed a particular brain state in Smith for other reasons.  The conclusion from this argument is that our cognitive faculties, given neo-Darwinism, do not reliably produce true beliefs with respect to non-perceptual, non-immediate beliefs.  Thus, whatever non-perceptual, non-immediate beliefs these cognitive faculties generate are not reliably true.  Neo-Darwinism is one such non-perceptual, non-immediate belief generated by these cognitive faculties.  Thus, belief in neo-Darwinism is unreliable.  Hence, neo-Darwinism is self-defeating: Neo-Darwinism undermines the very cognitive faculties that generate belief in neo-Darwinism.  Nagel writes in Mind and Cosmos:
I agree with Alvin Plantinga that, unlike divine benevolence, the application of evolutionary theory to the understanding of our own cognitive capacities should undermine, though it need not completely destroy, our confidence in them.  Mechanisms of belief formation that have selective advantage in the everyday struggle for existence do not warrant our confidence in the construction of theoretical accounts of the world as a whole (28).
Nagel’s critique of the adequacy of the materialist, neo-Darwininian account of consciousness, cognition, and value is sharp and biting; however, his proposed alternative has received nearly universal criticism from reviewers.  Nagel records his personal aversion to theistic alternatives without much by way of sustained argument.  This approach is understandably disappointing to reviewers like Alvin Plantinga and William Dembski who have labored patiently to make their respective cases for theism in the face of unbridled academic hostility, but Nagel’s proposed alternative—teleological naturalism—is offered by Nagel with a great deal of circumspection:
Teleology  means that in addition to physical law of the familiar kind, there are other laws of nature that are 'biased toward the marvelous’….I am not confident that this Aristotelian idea of teleology without intention makes sense, but I do not at the moment see why it doesn't (Mind and Cosmos, 92-3).
As one who has nothing invested in any particular outcome, I welcome Nagel’s bold consideration of this teleological alternative.  Like him, I am not confident that it makes sense, but it is a welcome deviation from the traditional dichotomy of materialism and theism.  As a matter of personal taste, I would prefer Nagel to take up the task of systematically addressing the theistic alternative though.  His writings have thus far suggested to me that he is driven to atheism by conviction rather than argument.  To wit, Nagel in The Last Word: “It isn't just that I don't believe in God and, naturally, hope that I'm right in my belief.  It's that I hope there is no God!  I don't want there to be a God; I don't want the universe to be like that" (130).  Such locutions strongly lead me to suspect Nagel’s teleological alternative is a reluctant solution rather than an invigorated one.
In any case, Mind and Cosmos is a great contribution to an immensely interesting and lively philosophical debate.  I recommend studying the work carefully and following up on his works cited.



  1. Sir, - I read your review with the intention of addressing more points than one with the time I had here. Instead I got lost in following links discussing Nagel’s book recommendation and the long comments sections attached to some of them. With that said, I did really enjoy reading this (and the link-following it inspired)!

    The one point that I wanted to explore more is this: “Nagel insists that there must be a fit between theory and lived life—if ever the two are in conflict, it is theory that must revise itself, not the realities of lived life.” I am not sure I buy it. It seems to me some sort of give and take incorporation is most appropriate.

    You make this point in reference to Blackmore discussing the latest science leading us to believe that we don’t have a soul. First, the “theory” that leads her to this, is one, I presume, that is based in some observed evidence on the part of neuroscientists or even her own intellectual experience. How is this not lived life? I think a clear definition of lived-life or theory is lacking and I can't grasp this without it.

    Secondly, you mention it is absurd to practice denying selfhood. It does seem so at first glance. Just as it probably would seem absurd to someone unaccustomed to our current understanding that the earth they are standing on is round or, more recently, that the person talking into a cell phone that is smaller than their hand is actually on the other side of the world. Over time, after getting it shown to them and dealing with this, they would incorporate this new knowledge into their world-view. That seems to be what is needed here…incorporating the knowledge into lived life and not rejecting it since it doesn’t currently fit perfectly.

    Thirdly, incorporating it seems less “absurd” when you charitably interpret a Blackmore-like view. What would it mean for us to not have a soul? You can easily make someone scoff if you try to tell them something like “you don’t exist”. What I believe most naturalists want to say is that, some immaterial ghost-like self isn’t floating around inside you. When you do things like consider reasons for or against something and have your other everyday experiences, there is actually a physical base to this. One might still scoff and say, “It doesn’t feel like it!” or “I don’t experience it that way!”, but if overtime they came to understand some of the science behind it and see some of the empirical evidence that caused people to come to that conclusion, then they might get to the point where they understand how they themselves can be sans soul. I know you are aware of these nuances (since we have talked about them before) and likely left them out since it wasn’t the main point of your review, but I feel it is important to note.

    Finally, I worry that applying the rule, “when theory contradicts lived-life we must revise theory” leads one to a weird unfalsifiable territory where you are committed to our prima-facie experience always being completely accurate.* In previous discussions with you, you seem to be okay with this…perhaps I need a refresher on how you explain mirages, a round world, and how the clock is telling me I started reading this over two hours ago, when it felt like only minutes have passed.

    *Note that even if you do accept this. The cell-phone case is an example where we can incorporate it into our lived-life and that I think we might be able to incorporate a new understanding of “the thing formerly known as self” into our lived-life even if it at first seems to run contrary.

  2. Dancing Animal,

    Thanks for taking the time to offer a thoughtful reply. Here are a few responses to your comments.

    First, I am taking lived-life to refer to something like experience or common sense. In the realm of philosophy of mind, this is sometimes called "folk psychology." Blackmore is quite clearly attempting to undermine the common sense realization that we have minds with the theory of eliminative materialism: the position that minds do not exist. Now, certainly her proposition is based to a sizable degree on brain sciences and other data derived through "lived-life," as you suggest. My point in contrasting lived-life with theory is to show that, where elements of the two are irreconcilably in conflict, one must prevail at the expense of another. For example, if eliminative materialism is true, then I have to abandon the existence of my mental reality; if my mental reality is true, then eliminative materialism must go. When in this dilemma, I assert that it is lived-life that takes precedence. Nagel seems to award some credibility to common sense as well. Consider this quote from Mind and Cosmos:

    "But it seems to me that, as it is usually presented, the current orthodoxy about the cosmic order is the product of governing assumptions that are unsupported, and that it flies in the face of common sense" (5).

    Second, your point about the absurdity of materialist accounts of mind resulting from insufficient knowledge (of the sciences, etc.) is reasonable. However, I think the issue with eliminative materialism, at least, is not really one of knowledge. It is rather an issue with contradiction. The claim that minds do not exist is in direct opposition to our own mental lives. Contradictions are not resolved by way of demonstration or accumulation of knowledge. Disbelief in the existence of round squares, for example, is not a matter of ignorance of certain facts. The disbelief is instead conceptual, or logical, or rational. Nagel also directs attention to contradiction in Mind and Cosmos, for example:

    "The hope is not to discover a foundation that makes our knowledge unassailably secure but to find a way of understanding ourselves that is not radically self-undermining, and that does not require us to deny the obvious. The aim would be to offer a plausible picture of how we fit into the world" (25).

  3. cont...

    I think you're right in your third point in that most materialists are motivated by a rejection of a ghost-like soul. This motivation, however, is not sufficient to deal with the apparent contradiction found in eliminative materialism. A materialist need not be an eliminative materialist, though. Perhaps the mental is somehow identical to neural structures, or maybe neural structures produce or cause mental states. These options are not as outwardly contradictory since they do not, on the face of it, reject the existence of our mental lives. Without going into much detail, I will assert that these views suffer conceptual difficulties themselves, and therefore the issue with them is not, once again, one of knowledge. Jaegwon Kim, who is a philosopher motivated by materialism, had to concede that the mental could not be conceptually absorbed without remainder into the physical. Here's the last paragraph of his book Physicalism, or Something Near Enough:

    "The position is, as we might say, a slightly defective physicalism--physicalism manqué but not by much. I believe that this is as much physicalism as we can have, and that there is no credible alternative to physicalism as a general world-view. Physicalism is not the whole truth, but it is the truth near enough, and near enough should be good enough" (174).

    He found that materialism could not account for intrinsic, non-causal mental states (qualia), like what yellow looks like or what ammonia smells like. He reached this conclusion by way of conceptual analysis, not accumulation of empirical facts. I'll simply offer his analysis in support of my claim that the problem with all forms of materialism is conceptual rather than informational.

    Perhaps by now my response to your last point will be predictable. Mirages, the shape of the world, and your perception of time are not cases of conceptual contradiction. The contradiction in the case of the mirage, for example, is merely apparent. There is only a contradiction if one takes one's perceptions to be infallible reporters of what exists. But if one does not take perceptions to be infallible, then mirages are easily explained as cases of mistaken perception. The same could be said of the shape of the earth and your experience of time. The same could not be said, however, of the denial of mental states themselves. This is so because the experience of a mental state is infallible evidence of the existence of the mental state. For example, if one is in the desert and has a visual experience of a lake just ahead, the person can be wrong about whether or not a real lake is out there in objective reality; but, the person could not be wrong about the fact that he is having a "lake-like" mental experience. I take eliminative materialism to be in the position of denying that the person is having a "lake-like" mental experience, and I say this is conceptually absurd. My position is that mental experience is infallible proof of the existence of mental life, but mental experience is not infallible proof of the existence of external objects or states of affairs.

  4. Hey Ryan,

    Thanks for the reply, that does clarify things for me and I now know more "where the conflict lies." I really don't have much to say other than that I need to familiarize myself more with Philosophy of Mind literature and this qualia business (although, in one sense I guess I am already familiar with qualia?) I was motivated to pick at the interpretive tool of dismissing theory when it goes against lived life since I know you use a version of this as part of your argument for a libertarian stance on free will and although it may seem counter-intuitive, I still have a strong intuition that our sense of an "outside-the-causal-order" ability to choose is an illusion...or, rather it is best understood as within a determined causal order. But, alas, I have no new argument to give you, nor, currently, the ambition to regurgitate my old arguments in a spirited fashion.