T. Nagel, Mind and Cosmos, 2012

by alexeyburov

Dear colleagues, I think this is an indispensable book for any serious approach to the main metaphysical questions. Its author, Thomas Nagel, is one of the most interesting contemporary philosophers. Calling himself an atheist, he suggests a deep and well–articulated criticism of the materialistic reductionism, showing “why the materialist neo-Darwinian conception of nature is almost certainly false”. Explaining why theism is not acceptable to him either, he tries to glimpse a third way to understand mind and cosmos. It seems a good idea to discuss this book at one of our meetings. A review of this book by Alvin Plantinga is also very interesting. The last couple of pages of the “Mind and Cosmos” I bring to your attention below.

In the present climate of a dominant scientific naturalism, heavily dependent on speculative Darwinian explanations of practically everything, and armed to the teeth against attacks from religion, I have thought it useful to speculate about possible alternatives. Above all, I would like to extend the boundaries of what is not regarded as unthinkable, in light of how little we really understand about the world. It would be an advance if the secular theoretical establishment, and the contemporary enlightened culture which it dominates, could wean itself of the materialism and Darwinism of the gaps— to adapt one of its own pejorative tags. I have tried to show that this approach is incapable of providing an adequate account, either constitutive or historical, of our universe. However, I am certain that my own attempt to explore alternatives is far too unimaginative. An understanding of the universe as basically prone to generate life and mind will probably require a much more radical departure from the familiar forms of naturalistic explanation than I am at present able to conceive. Specifically, in attempting to understand consciousness as a biological phenomenon, it is too easy to forget how radical is the difference between the subjective and the objective, and to fall into the error of thinking about the mental in terms taken from our ideas of physical events and processes. Wittgenstein was sensitive to this error, though his way of avoiding it through an exploration of the grammar of mental language seems to me plainly insufficient. It is perfectly possible that the truth is beyond our reach, in virtue of our intrinsic cognitive limitations, and not merely beyond our grasp in humanity’s present stage of intellectual development. But I believe that we cannot know this, and that it makes sense to go on seeking a systematic understanding of how we and other living things fit into the world. In this process, the ability to generate and reject false hypotheses plays an essential role. I have argued patiently against the prevailing form of naturalism, a reductive materialism that purports to capture life and mind through its neo-Darwinian extension. But to go back to my introductory remarks, I find this view antecedently unbelievable— a heroic triumph of ideological theory over common sense. The empirical evidence can be interpreted to accommodate different comprehensive theories, but in this case the cost in conceptual and probabilistic contortions is prohibitive. I would be willing to bet that the present right-thinking consensus will come to seem laughable in a generation or two— though of course it may be replaced by a new consensus that is just as invalid. The human will to believe is inexhaustible.

Nagel, Thomas. “Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False”, Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition (2012).

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