Thomas Nagel: Has he penned a rallying cry for those who have no taste
for much science in the first place?
Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False by Thomas Nagel. Oxford University Press, 144 pages, $24.95.
By Harvey Blume.
Mind And Cosmos, by the philosopher Thomas Nagel, has created a fair amount of stir, arguing that science, as we know it, can’t explain things like consciousness, or reason, or even, when it comes down to it, life itself. Science, as per Nagel, fails at what I will call the big “phase changes” (say, from chemistry to biology and from matter to mind). Hence, he says, it’s time to look for other types of causality.
No, not religion—Nagel is secular, with an avowed distaste for any flavor of theism. No, not even intelligent design—he’s too intelligent, though he likes that intelligent design keeps the door open. Open for what? He doesn’t know, exactly. We humans can’t know, yet. To the extent that he does say, it’s a throwback to the sort of philosophy that puts mind at the center of things, the view that maintains the universe made for mind, from the get-go, always intended it, so that through our minds the cosmos can know itself.
You get that stuff from Aristotle on to Hegel. It’s potent when they put it forth, a secular rebuff and alternative to religious faith: the universe is inherently meaningful, has been constructed with some end in sight, an end that, moreover, involves us. (Nagel puts a lot of emphasis on ends, final causes, teleology. He wants to take teleology out of the metaphysical scrap heap and put it back into play along with other kinds of causes.)
Nagel’s arguments though, unlike Aristotle’s or Hegel’s, are neither potent nor persuasive. They are, if anything, exhausting rather than, as with Hegel, exhaustive. Perhaps they are meant to be. They are meant not to tell us what we do not know or to put forth what we might yet come to understand but to place speed bumps in the path of what we think we know, already, at this time. They are, at best, cautionary.
Nagel keeps referring to and contesting with “materialist” science. I’m sure he’s using the accepted parlance, in this debate. But what is “materialism”? What does it mean these days? Is DNA material, including the vast amount of what was considered junk DNA that is now regarded as freighted with crucial, dimly understood, functionality? How about neural wiring, the billions of connections in our brains? Are they what is meant by material?
What is material? Are quarks material? Energy? Electricity? What does it mean, in the twenty-first century, to say “materialism”? Is information material? Maybe materialism is just the philosophical position that denies any divine being, any disembodied mind or spirit, any part in the explanatory process. If so, “materialism” might not be the best word for what is essentially a defensive posture.
There is a huge amount we do not know, including at the moment, momentously, what most of the universe is made of—dark energy and matter. We’ll get to know more, I have no doubt. But I am not in the least uncomfortable with the idea that there will be plenty we may never know. Let us strive for a unified theory, a theory of everything. Let there be no end of fruitful effort in that direction, nor will there be. But if in the end there is a disjunction between the cosmos in its vastness and complexity and these minds of ours that have evolved on earth, I see no problem. I think such a disjunction, if anything, fitting, despite eternal efforts to overcome it, and the philosophical conniptions it inspires.
Nagel’s best known work prior to Mind And Cosmos is “What Is It Like To Be A Bat?” Can humans and other non-bats know what it is like to be a bat? “What is it like” is his key phrase. In a way, it is Nagel’s version of Wittgenstein’s famous “is the case,” as used in the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. “The world,” writes Wittgenstein, “is everything that is the case.” That way of talking was meant to, and did, for a time, reframe and reform discussion. “What is the case” was meant to exclude things that one would not say had met the hard test of being the case—angels, all manner of metaphysical and/or religious wishful thinking. All that pretty transparently was not the case.
As if one could not soon enough adapt to the new philosophical style sheet and say that the Trinity is the case, absolute evil is the case, Yahweh, Platonic forms, angels and demons (all over) the case. “The case” was Wittgenstein’s peremptory and surgically dismissive way of trying to get language to make decisions language alone could not make. It was a shortcut that detoured back to itself, to language.
Nagel’s thrust in “What Is It Like To Be A Bat?” is that we can’t know what it is like to be a bat. We can describe the bat down to exquisite zoological detail—the wings, that sixth sense, remarkable sonar—but never really know what is like to be such a creature. His point is that whatever we know scientifically, from the laws of physics on through chemistry, biology, zoology and within zoology, chiropterology (the study of bats), can never be sufficient to explain subjectivity. No amount of life science can tell us what it is like to be a bat, can give us entry to its strange point of view.
Nagel alludes to other sorts of impasses. We can never know what it’s like, if we have sight, to be blind. We can never transmit the idea of color to one who cannot see. Or, implicitly, to someone deaf, communicate what it is like to hear.
In “What Is It Like To Be A Bat?” Nagel stops short of the obvious, existential, intra-human impasse. What is like to be you? How can I know? Forget bats: we, you and I, being of the same species, presumably having language and allowing for the moment that the senses appropriate to our kind are intact, do we, how can we, even so, ever know each other? Do I know what is like to be you, or you me?
This impasse has long provoked and irritated art and literature. Nagel steers clear of art and literature. He draws back from the existential, impasse—the I-Thou fissure—that would inevitably invoke them. He is more comfortable with the sort of impasse between what it is like to be Homo Sapiens and what it is like to be bat and in using such impasses to tear away at the whole edifice of scientific explanation, from Big Bang through natural selection to neuroscience. If science cannot find ways across such gaps and fissures, then it cannot, despite enormous achievements, in principle, be anything like comprehensive. So he says.
It strikes me that there is something disingenuous about this line of attack. It is as if Nagel has never heard of Gödel, never assimilated what Gödel established for mathematics—and implicitly, perhaps, for other intellectual endeavors— namely that any strong explanatory system will necessarily, in principle, display fissures, breaks, gaps, and suffer from incompleteness. Nagel excludes I-Thou and the Incompleteness Theorem. Such exclusions, and others, give a sterile feel to his writing. His is an emetic style of philosophy, one that depends on self-purgation.
For Nagel, something else must be going on, something else intended by an unnamed and for now unnamable intender. Darwinians like Daniel Dennett and Richard Dawkins speak of design without a designer and try to show how evolution—humanity, human consciousness—have come into being without any grand intention to start it off or help it along. Nagel wants to put a designer back into the mix, though he’s vague about just where. For him, the cosmos was willed—that is for him the only alternative to materialism—though he shies away from saying who or what willed it or why.
(Somehow uprooting mind, human mind, from the center of things, is a more arduous project than Copernicus and Galileo faced when they uprooted the earth from the center of the cosmos. The earth is no longer the center of the cosmos—that is the consensus, common knowledge—but for some thinkers, mind, however reformulated, won’t be banished from centrality and is always reconstituting itself at the core. It’s hard to imagine what sort of instrument, analogous to the telescope, would show definitively that our minds—or even an indescribably superior analogue to them—does not emanate crucial and continuous intent.)
As noted, Nagel’s book has occasioned uproar. Leon Wieseltier, for example, in the New Republic (March 11, 2013), fulminates to the point of apoplexy about the shoddy treatment Mind And Cosmos has received from “Darwinian Imperialists” who deride it as nothing short of heresy. Heresy? When did modern scientists ever gather together to expel, punish, or brand as an heretic a neo-Aristotelian of Nagel’s ilk? But fulmination is as ever Wieseltier’s forte.
As for me, I think Nagel has received more patient and considerate response than he deserves, in the New York Review of Books, for example, and elsewhere. I think the tribe of philosophers has largely resolved to treat him well, to reason with him, to act as if his questions and complaints, couched as they are in a stringent code of discourse, add up to more than Hamlet’s admonition: ”There are more things in heaven and earth, . . . Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”
That is true now as ever, of any philosophy and each Horatio.
Nagel of course is entitled to focus on what he takes to be explanatory bottlenecks in the scientific enterprise. But in the meantime, and no matter that he did not intend it, his work has become a rallying cry for the many who have no taste for much science in the first place and for Darwinism least of all. Nagel may not like the theists, but they do like him. He may not have wished to empower proponents of intelligent design, but it is the case that he has been a boon to them.