Nagel on Dawkins

Philosopher Thomas Nagel reviewed Dawkins’ book for The New Republic. Sadly, the review does not seem to be freely available online.

Nagel begins with the standard talking points about Dawkins working outside his field of expertise and about how contemptuous he is of religion. After a few hundred words of this, he gets down to business. He describes the argument from design, and then offers two objections commonly levelled at it. Let me briefly mention the second one:

Second, the designer and the manufacturer of a watch are human beings with bodies, using physical tools to mold and put together its parts. The supernatural being whose work is inferred by the argument from design is not supposed to be a physical organism inside the world, but someone who creates or acts on the natural world while note being a part of it.

He goes on to say:

But the second difference is more troubling, since it is not clear that we can understand the idea of purposive causation – of design – by a non-physical being such as a watchmaker. Somehow the observation of the remarkable structure and function of organisms is supposed to lead us to infer as their cause a disembodied intentional agency of a kind totally unlike any that we have ever seen in operation.

This is one of the main points I made in my recent CSICOP essay on this subject. It’s nice to have a philosopher of Nagel’s caliber back me up on it!

I also agree with Nagel’s response to this point:

Still, even this difference need not be fatal to the theistic argument, since science often concludes that what we observe is to be explained by causes that are not only unobservable, but totally different from anything that has ever been observed, and very difficult to grasp intuitively. To be sure, the hypothesis of a divine creator is not yet a scientific theory with testable consequences independent of the observations on which it is based. And the purposes of such a creator remain obscure, given what we know about the world. But a defender of the argument from design could say that the evidence supports an intentional cause, and that it is hardly surprising that God, the bodiless designer, while to some extent describable theoretically and detectable by his effects, is resistant to full intuitive understanding.

I would only add that we had better be certain the evidence really does point to design before we accept this sort of special pleading.

Nagel next describes Dawkins’ approach to this argument, identifying both a positive point and a negative point. The positive point is that the design hypothesis is unnecessary, since natural causes, particularly evolution by natural selection, is an adequate explanation of complexity. The negative point is that any God capable of creating the universe would himself be so complex as to require an explanation.

In response to this second point, Nagel points out that Dawkins’ logic would only be reasonable if God were assumed to be a physical being, made out of atoms like the complex biological entities we are trying to explain. Since God is assumed to be supernatural, he is excused from needing such an explanation. Nagel sums up this line of argumentation as follows:

All explanations come to an end somewhere. The real opposition between Dawkins’ physicalist naturalism and the God hypothesis is a disagreement over whether this end point is physical, extensional, and purposeless, or mental, intentional, and purposive. On either view, the ultimate explanation is not itself explained. The God hypothesis does not explain the existence of God, and naturalistic physicalism does not explain the laws of physics.

It is true, of course, that in explaining the complexity of the universe we are ultimately forced to leave something unexplained. That said, there is a huge difference between leaving the laws of physics unexplained on the one hand, and leaving God unexplained on the other.

The laws of physics are known to exist, you see. By going Dawkins’ route we take the awesome complexity of the universe and explain it in terms of the simplest things we know to exist. Not too shabby.

In going the God route we hypothesize into existence a being far more difficult to comprehend than the universe itself. Nagel himself has already pointed to some of those difficulties. And while it’s all well and good to place God outside of nature, one wonders if anyone has ever stopped wondering where God came from by doing so.

The fact is no one can really understand what it means for God to exist outside of time. Or to say that he has no physical structure but can nonetheless direct the motions of physical entities. Or bring whole universes into being with one act of his disembodied will. These are all just euphemisms for, “We have no idea at all where the universe came from.”

We’re stuck with the laws of physics. We know they exist, and if we can’t explain them in terms of anything simpler we’ll just have to live with that. But we are not stuck with God. Invoking such an entity as an explanation for the universe is not something we should do lightly. Rather, it is something we should only do out of utter desperation.

From here Nagel introduces a third possibility:

This entire dialectic leaves out another possibility, namely that there are teleological principles in nature that are explained neither by intentional design nor by purposeless physical causation – principles that therefore provide an independent end point of explanation for the existence and form of living things.

This, alas, is where Nagel starts going off the deep end. You will search his essay in vain for any clear statement of what these teleological principles are. Indeed, if they are not the product of intelligent design, and they do not arise naturally from the laws of physics, one wonders where they come from at all.

Nagel’s next step is to turn the “Who created God?” question back on Dawkins. Evolution is all well and good, Nagel argues, but it functions only when there is some sort of mechanism of heredity in place. Natural selection might explain how we go from simple organisms to complex organisms, but since it leaves the origin of heredity unexplained it can’t be the ultimate explanation for anything.

No one disagrees, but consider what Nagel says next:

But since the existence of [DNA] or something like it is a precondition of the possibility of evolution, evolutionary theory cannot explain its existence. We are therefore faced with a problem analogous to that which Dawkins thinks faces the argument from design; we have explained the complexity of organic life in terms of something that is itself just as functionally complex as what we originally set out to explain. So the problem is just pushed back one step; how did such a thing come into existence.

This is just wrong. DNA simply isn’t as functionally complex as the organisms in which it resides. It is far easier to explain the emergence of DNA via the blind laws of physics and chemistry than it is to explain functional organisms by such laws. The origin of life remains unsolved of course, but there is no shortage of possible explanations for how physical laws led to the emergence of DNA.

In other words, explaining the origin of DNA is just a separate problem from explaining how complex organisms arise once DNA comes on the scene. Nagel spends a few paragraphs being generally dismissive of origin of life scenarios, but the fact remains that as a refutation of Dawkins this line of attack is a dud.

Nagel’s final point involves a criticism of reductionism:

The reductionist project usually tries to reclaim some of the originally excluded aspects of the world, by analyzing them in physical – that is, behavioral or neurophysiological – terms; but it denies reality to what cannot be so reduced. I believe the project is doomed – that conscious experience, thought, values, and so forth are not illusions, even though they cannot be identified with physical facts.

The problem here is not hard to spot. Nagel has no basis for his assertion that the items on his little list cannot be identified with physical facts. Indeed, one wonders what they can be identified with, if not physical facts. This is the problem I have with all anti-reductionistic rhetoric. It is not that people like Nagel are trying to open our eyes to a different form of explanation. It is that they desperately want things like consciousness to be mysterious. Scientists are trying to understand these phenomena using tools that have been overwhelmingly successful in every domain where they have been tried. Anti-reductionists prefer to leave things unexplained.

Nagel seems to acknowledge this difficulty. He writes:

Any anti-reductionist view leaves us with very serious problems about how the mutually irreducible types of truths about the world are related. At least part of the truth about us is that we are physical organisms composed of ordinary chemical elements. If thinking, feeling and valuing aren’t merely complicated physical states of the organism, what are they? What is their relation to the brain processes on which they seem to depend? More: if evolution is a purely physical causal process, how can it have brought into existence conscious beings?

Those are, indeed, very serious problems. The day anti-reductionists can provide some answers to them is the day I will start taking them seriously.

Comments

  1. #1 paul
    November 9, 2006

    Nagel:”The supernatural being whose work is inferred by the argument from design is not supposed to be a physical organism inside the world, but someone who creates or acts on the natural world while note being a part of it.”

    I think he is right about this, but what is left out is the usually unexpressed premise that this “someone” is like us, i.e., we act on the natural world without being a part of it (I decide to pick up the glass from the table, and it is done). Unfortunately, this analogy is not a very good analogy, considering what we know about the brain. This unspoken analogy between God and us is very deep-rooted, but probably, demonstrably wrong.

  2. #2 Koray
    November 9, 2006

    I am not sure whether even a philosopher can throw around the word non-physical that easily. I recently read about what ‘exists’ means in philosophical terms and I believe that statements like “The Loch Ness monster exists” is an extremely fuzzy one.

    Of course, all of this is beside the fact that the claim about the designer was imparted to people who lived a long long time ago and knew very little about what we call physics today.

  3. #3 David D.G.
    November 9, 2006

    “It is not that people like Nagel are trying to open our eyes to a different form of explanation. It is that they desperately want things like consciousness to be mysterious.”

    You know, this aspect you’ve pointed out is eerily reminiscent of the attitude of the luddite philosophers in “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,” who protest the creation of a supercomputer to calculate the answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe, and everything — on the grounds that the machine will put them all out of work because it is infringing on their professional territory.

    “What’s the use,” one says, “of our staying up all night arguing about whether there may — or may not — be a God, if this bloody machine goes and gives you his phone number the next morning?!” And then his partner adds, oxymoronically, “We demand guaranteed, rigidly defined areas of doubt and uncertainty!”

    I never expected that REAL philosophers were like this; I had assumed that Douglas Adams was just being funny here. It’s annoying and depressing to discover that there are philosophers who really would want to short-circuit the search for knowledge and replace it with navel-gazing.

    ~David D.G.

  4. #4 Harold Henderson
    November 9, 2006

    As I mentioned when I blogged about this review at chicagoreader.com, the curious non-TNR subscriber can find the full text free at http://ded-maxim.livejournal.com/236039.html

    The reductionist project is doomed because my experience of seeing a sunset is just *not the same thing* as the firing of my brain neurons. Nagel doesn’t want to create mystification. He does insist on dealing with the universe as we find it, and our experience is part of that universe, even if it doesn’t fit very well. Reductionists are the ones who need to pony up here — or at least read “The View from Nowhere” before lumping Nagel with the creationist idiots.

  5. #5 Mustafa Mond, FCD
    November 9, 2006

    by a non-physical being such as a watchmaker.

    Well isn’t that confusing? Watchmakers, as we know them, are physical.

  6. #6 Mustafa Mond, FCD
    November 9, 2006

    Since God is assumed to be supernatural, he is excused from needing such an explanation.

    I recommend substituting the word “magical” for “supernatural” there.

    The reductionist project usually tries to reclaim some of the originally excluded aspects of the world, by analyzing them in physical – that is, behavioral or neurophysiological – terms; but it denies reality to what cannot be so reduced. I believe the project is doomed – that conscious experience, thought, values, and so forth are not illusions, even though they cannot be identified with physical facts.

    It seems that he directly contradicts himself in the next bit:

    Any anti-reductionist view leaves us with very serious problems about how the mutually irreducible types of truths about the world are related. At least part of the truth about us is that we are physical organisms composed of ordinary chemical elements. If thinking, feeling and valuing aren’t merely complicated physical states of the organism, what are they? What is their relation to the brain processes on which they seem to depend? More: if evolution is a purely physical causal process, how can it have brought into existence conscious beings?

    I highlighted a few words there just for randomness. He seems to be saying that consciousness is somehow not physical. As someone I know once said, whatever consciousness is made of, it must be soluble in alcohol. Before I got too deep into discussing this with someone, I would force them to define “consciousness.” It’s just pointless to build a big case around a poorly-defined term.

  7. #7 Jason Rosenhouse
    November 9, 2006

    Harold-

    Thanks for the link to the Nagel article. As for the rest of your comment, I’ll simply point out that putting the phrase *not the same thing* between asterisks is not a justification for what you are saying. Also, I definitely do not lump Nagel in with creationists.

  8. #8 Mark
    November 9, 2006

    I wonder if creationists or people like Nagel would consider the possibility of a god if the concept did not already exist. If humans had traditionally for thousands of generations assumed that the universe was a physical place that occurred through purely physical means, would they find that they needed a god anyway? And if so, why?

  9. #9 Alejandro
    November 9, 2006

    I basically agree with the points Jason makes in the review, though it is a bit uncharitable to say that “there is no basis for his assertion that the items on his little list cannot be identified with physical facts”. There are plenty of arguments for this position (just google “zombie argument” or “knowledge argument” to get started on those for consciousness). Of course, all of them are disputed hotly by philosophers of reductionistic disposition, and in my opinion none of them can succeed; but it is by no means such a simple matter.

    People interested in Nagel’s philosophy and the reasons that make him so adverse to reductionism might like to read my review of his book The Last Word.

  10. #10 Brandon
    November 9, 2006

    (Apologies for the length of this comment. I tried to make it more concise, but was worried it might become less clear, and it requires that some distinctions be carefully made.)

    This, alas, is where Nagel starts going off the deep end. You will search his essay in vain for any clear statement of what these teleological principles are. Indeed, if they are not the product of intelligent design, and they do not arise naturally from the laws of physics, one wonders where they come from at all.

    This is an odd reading of the essay. Nagel’s argument is not that the teleological principles “do not arise naturally from the laws of physics”; instead, Nagel’s argument is the explicitly epistemological one that certain forms of understanding — moral reasoning, introspection, conceptual analysis, etc. — are not directly reducible to explanation purely based on law-governed causation by antecedent conditions. And indeed, there is no direct relation between Nagel’s description of Aristotelianism (which is what you are actually quoting, not Nagel’s own view; and which was in any case not the claim that teleological principles “do not arise naturally from the laws of physics,” either) and Nagel’s own position; the two are, in fact, similar in rejecting the dichotomy between intelligent design and reductionist physicalism as false, but there’s nothing in the text suggesting that Nagel is an Aristotelian about teleology. It’s very odd to interpret what is explicitly a comment about a historical position that was rejected as if that position could be identified straightforwardly with Nagel’s own, even if the rejected position does have affinities with Nagel’s position.

    You seem to make a similar sort of mistake later in your post when you criticize Nagel by saying, “Indeed, one wonders what they can be identified with, if not physical facts,” which appears to be a conflation between what we can call coextensive description and identity. It’s straightforward what they would “be identified with, if not physical facts” — e.g., conceptual analysis would be identified with the analysis of concepts, moral reasoning with practical reasoning involving moral principles and expectations about probable outcomes, and so forth; you can even find specific examples to point to when discussing them. What would be mysterious to deny is not identity with physical facts (as determined by descriptions involving law-governed causation by antecedent conditions) but coextensiveness with physical description. And nothing Nagel says involves such a denial. Nor is there anything bizarre about this. We already recognize legitimate coextensive descriptions that don’t admit of identity. To use a crude example, a saxophone can be described in terms of metal composition, geometry, air flow, etc.; it can also be described in terms of its cultural significance and what John Coltrane could do to your state of mind with it. The descriptions don’t admit of identity, unless you are just equivocating on the meaning of the term ‘identity’; but they are coextensive, since they describe exactly the same thing. Nagel’s claim is (more or less) that because of this there is, in effect, more than one legitimate way to understand, or think rationally about, the saxophone (or living organisms, or persons, or any other physical thing). Likewise, it is not the claim that saxophones ‘can’t be explained’ — no anti-reductionist naturalist holds such a view; it’s that there is not just one type of legitimate explanation, which all real explanations turn out to be. It’s the claim that (for example) the taste of chocolate can be legitimately explained in different ways, and that while these explanations are necessarily connected (because the descriptions they use are coextensive) they are not just versions of one explanation (because the descriptions are not identifiable with each other). That’s a bit rough and made-for-the-comment-boxes; Nagel’s actual view is more sophisticated, and is argued for over the course of a number of books and articles. (One reason why it is odd for you to say “there is no basis” for the anti-reductionist claims, without further comment, given that Nagel has argued extensively elsewhere that there is such a basis.)

    My point is not that arguments can’t be made for identity, but that you are letting yourself off far too easily, since nothing you’ve said gets you beyond coextensiveness of description. But if that’s as far as you get with your argument, nothing you’ve said actually manages to get beyond a purely verbal dispute — what Nagel distinguishes into the identifiable and the non-identifiable, you, using different (and apparently less sophisticated) distinctions, lump all together without distinction. Or so it would seem, unless you have some ace-in-the-hole argument that’s not clear from your post.

  11. #11 John Boc
    November 9, 2006

    Reductionism has made great strides in explaining both the physical and the biological worlds.On ever level there are however different systems of explanations.We cannot explain how an atom works to logically deduce the nature of a gene. A gene works on a different level of complexity in contrast to the workings of sub atomic particles.At the present time we cannot explain how a gene and DNA are reflections of a sub-atomic component (not to say we never will).But rather there is no reason to try to explain such an interaction. It is more useful to explain how a gene works on a genetic level of complexity and how its properties influence the genotype of an organism. And so to try to explain the beliefs of man in terms of a physical reality is pointless.Theology has its own level of complexity.Or in the end should we all just lay down our own disciplines and defer everthing to sub-atomic particles.

  12. #12 Jason Rosenhouse
    November 10, 2006

    Brandon-

    Nagel says specifically that the telelological principles he is referring to are explained neither by intentional design nor by purposeless causation. So unless your point is that something can arise naturally from the laws of physics but not be explained by purposeless causation (which would be a pretty bizarre point), I’m not sure why you criticize my reading as odd.

    And I find nothing in Nagel’s essay to suggest he distances himself from Aristotle’s view. Nagel describes Aristotle’s view as having been rejected, but the remainder of the essay makes it very clear that he thinks this rejection is unwarranted.

    If Nagel’s argument is to be a challenge to anything Dawkins’ has said, then it must entail something more than what you have described. Dawkins, and I, would argue that mind states are reducible to brain states. The reductionist view is that our ability to have mind states at all traces back to the physical interactions of the atoms in our brain. I find it hard to understand how that is possible, but such evidence as we have suggests that it is true.

    But no one says that the only reasonable way to discuss what the brain does is to talk about the firing of individual neurons. Likewise, no one tries to explain how a car works by examining individual atoms.

    If Nagel agrees that mind states arise from brain states, then I don’t think he has offered anything to challenge either Dawkins specifically, or reductionism generally. If he rejects that then I don’t see how you have offered anything to challenge my characterization of his argument.

    It’s nice that Nagel has developed his ideas in various books. And your discussion of coextensiveness vs. identity is all well and good. The fact remains that in this essay Nagel offers no defense of his assertion that thought and values are not reducible to physical facts. Neither do you. If the thoughts you are having right now are purely the result of the physical interactions of the atoms in your brain, then reductionism wins and the rest is fascinating, but irrelevant. If the thoughts you are having are the result of physical interactions plus something else, then tell me what the something else is.

  13. #13 martinlb
    November 10, 2006

    What sometimes surprise me about scientists is how they focus all their energy on one field, but completely fail to, or have no interest in, seeing the bigger picture. Then they go on to make claims about other fields they obviously know nothing about. In the case of pro darwinists, many of them obviously know very little about religion. the deeper one goes in the study of religion the more one finds that they all point to the the same truth through different paths. (i am of course not talking about the degenerate pseudoreligion most people today practice. someone very wise said: “religion is realisation”. Ergo if there is no realisation, the religion is not working! And realisation damands a HUGE conscious effort)

    Darwinists interpretation of the creator in their critique of ID etc. is obviously fallicious.(that is not to say that Id is not even more fallicious) To understand g*d, first of all it is necessary to have an accurate understanding of reality, that is well described by quante physics and the theory of relativity. Now the consequences of theses theories are harder to deal with and can be summed up as follows:
    -matter is made up of the same stuff as light
    -there is no such thing as concrete “stuff”, everything is essentially movement, vibration, pressure.
    -everything is connnected and interacts with everything else(the butterfly effect etc)
    -our percepcion of time, space and the sensory world are relative and do not at all correspond to a “real” reality.
    -spooky actions at a distance are real.
    With this in mind, how are we to understand a creator in the context of evolution? One theory that has been exposed and that makes some sense is that g*d is contained in cosmic background radiation that exist everywhere and can contain potentially infinite amuonts of information. The aim of real religion is then to attune the mind to this. Evolution/creation is then the interaction of inert matter with this allpermeating intelligence/guiding principle. As everything is essensially vibrating and interconected this makes sense. This is of course just a theory, as noone truly knows or can know this. But people should be open to the FACT that they do not know, and that there may be underlying principles that may guide seemingly random events.

  14. #14 Brandon
    November 10, 2006

    Jason, I will paste in the paragraph for you. Nagel says:

    This entire dialectic leaves out another possibility, namely that there are teleological principles in nature that are explained neither by intentional design nor by purposeless physical causation–principles that therefore provide an independent end point of explanation for the existence and form of living things. That, more or less, is the Aristotelian view that was displaced by the scientific revolution. Law-governed causation by antecedent conditions became the only acceptable form of scientific explanation, and natural tendencies toward certain ends were discredited. The question then became whether non-teleological physical law can explain everything, including the biological order.

    Prior to this point he has been discussing the opposition between reductionistic naturalism and the God hypothesis. He then points out here as a historical comment that that this is not a true dichotomy. Thus he mentions as a third possibility — and does not in this paragraph commit to it — namely, the one that was more or less held by the Aristotelians who were displaced. He then continues with his historical comment, discussing how the reductionist view became popular. I don’t see that there’s any mystery about any of this — in saying that “Nagel says specifically that the telelological principles he is referring to are explained neither by intentional design nor by purposeless causation” you are tearing something said in the middle of a sentence out of context, without regard for the clarifying comment in the next sentence, and without closely examining how it fits into the discussion as a whole. As a result, you are attributing things to Nagel’s own view for which the text does not give evidence.

    “If Nagel’s argument is to be a challenge to anything Dawkins’ has said, then it must entail something more than what you have described. Dawkins, and I, would argue that mind states are reducible to brain states. The reductionist view is that our ability to have mind states at all traces back to the physical interactions of the atoms in our brain. I find it hard to understand how that is possible, but such evidence as we have suggests that it is true.”

    This is very similar to Nagel’s view. (For a very good crash course introduction to it, see this [PDF] paper.) What Nagel will deny, I think, is that this is in any meaningful sense reductionist. The reductionist cannot just hold that mind states somehow ‘trace back’ to physical states; that’s not strong enough. To be a reductionist he has to hold that there is in principle some purely physical description of the atoms, a description involving no appeal to any mental, purposive, teleological, etc. property, of which all descriptions using mental, purposive, teleological, etc., terms are just vague descriptions at a purely practical level. (The reductionist differs from the eliminativist in that the eliminativist will hold that the descriptions using teleology etc. are purely fictional. The reductionist will allow that the descriptions are legitimate, but only insofar as they approximate in their vague way the ideal physical description.) While Nagel usually doesn’t rule this out, he does tend to think that this ideal physical description is a pipe dream; i.e., it may be attainable, but we have reasons to think it’s not, and even if it is attainable it will only be with a physical science of a sophistication we cannot currently even imagine. So Nagel’s view is, very roughly, that (1) the various levels of description (or conceptualizations, or whatever we wish to call them) are necessarily connected; but (2) the connection between the two is only discoverable by experiment, a posteriori (in effect, what I was calling coextensive in description, rather than identical even allowing for vagueness); and (3) when the physical descriptions are laid out, the descriptions involving mental terms, etc., turn out not to be redundant, because we have good reason to think they identify genuine facts about the world, and we have no means of reducing those descriptions to the physical descriptions without remainder. The reductionist would respond with the hope that there’s some ideal physical description that includes everything, without itself appealing to mental, teleological, etc. facts at all; Nagel will point to his arguments that there is probably no such ideal physical description, and will suggest a completely different hope, that scientists (e.g., cognitive scientists) will make some of the mental etc. descriptions rigorous enough that scientists can begin to see clearly why the two descriptions, while logically distinct, are nonetheless necessarily connected.

    The fact remains that in this essay Nagel offers no defense of his assertion that thought and values are not reducible to physical facts. Neither do you.

    If we’re going to play that game, Jason, I’ll remind you that you don’t offer any serious defense of the opposing claim in your post, either; your whole defense amounts to a rhetorical claim (‘one wonders how they can be identifiable with anything else’) that misses the point in the way noted above and a clear mischaracterization of Nagel’s position (‘prefer to leave things unexplained’). Myself, I don’t think there’s really much of a problem here; Nagel’s reviewing Dawkins, you’re reviewing Nagel, a review is not the place for rigorous development of an argument, but only for highlighting one or two particular points that are thought interesting or important. I’m chiefly concerned with people going about criticizing other people without taking any serious trouble to understand their views. That seems to be a running theme of your Dawkins posts, so it’s unfortunate that you seem to be doing the same with Nagel:

    If the thoughts you are having are the result of physical interactions plus something else, then tell me what the something else is.

    But Nagel doesn’t hold that “the thoughts I am having are the result of physical interactions plus something else”; there is no ‘something else’. That’s why he is a naturalist. Since physical interactions are on his view necessarily connected with thoughts, if you have the physical interactions, you have the thoughts, without the need to posit something else. What Nagel is denying is that the description of the thoughts as thoughts is reducible to the description of the physical processes as physical processes; while the two are necessarily connected, and in a state of advanced science (at some point in the future) might be seen to be necessarily connected and not just thought to be so on our best evidence, the one is not just a more vague or pragmatic version of the other.

  15. #15 Koray
    November 11, 2006

    martinlb wrote,

    What sometimes surprise me about scientists is how they focus all their energy on one field, but completely fail to, or have no interest in, seeing the bigger picture. Then they go on to make claims about other fields they obviously know nothing about. In the case of pro darwinists, many of them obviously know very little about religion.

    And you not only know scientists so well, but also see that big picture, don’t you? How about another pat on your own back? By the way, if scientists know very little about religion, don’t you have to wonder what is so complicated about it, especially since common folk like us is meant to understand as well?

    the deeper one goes in the study of religion the more one finds that they all point to the the same truth through different paths. (i am of course not talking about the degenerate pseudoreligion most people today practice. someone very wise said: “religion is realisation”. Ergo if there is no realisation, the religion is not working! And realisation damands a HUGE conscious effort)

    I believe what you wrote above is called “a bunch of unsupported statements”.

    Darwinists interpretation of the creator in their critique of ID etc. is obviously fallicious.(that is not to say that Id is not even more fallicious) To understand g*d, first of all it is necessary to have an accurate understanding of reality, that is well described by quante physics and the theory of relativity.

    Oh yeah? Then major kudos to all the people who claimed to understand and know “g*d” even before quantum physics and relativity.

    With this in mind, how are we to understand a creator in the context of evolution? One theory that has been exposed and that makes some sense is that g*d is contained in cosmic background radiation that exist everywhere and can contain potentially infinite amuonts of information.

    Oh, it’s much easier than that. If you just don’t assume something exists despite the lack of evidence pointing to it, the need for explanations using background radiation promptly disappears. Amazing, huh? If you violate this principle, you may find yourself inventing theories for Ze*s, Ap*llo, Th*r, etc. Much fun.

    The aim of real religion is then to attune the mind to this. Evolution/creation is then the interaction of inert matter with this allpermeating intelligence/guiding principle. As everything is essensially vibrating and interconected this makes sense. This is of course just a theory, as noone truly knows or can know this. But people should be open to the FACT that they do not know, and that there may be underlying principles that may guide seemingly random events.

    Oh, everybody is ‘open’ to the fact that they don’t know. See, that’s what evidence is good for. When you have it, you DO know. Because I don’t have evidence for or against a lot of things, like the t**th fairy and v*mpires, but I can’t go on living my life assuming they ‘may’ exist. I bet you have theories that ‘make sense’ without any evidence for those as well.

  16. #16 Mustafa Mond, FCD
    November 11, 2006

    the deeper one goes in the study of religion the more one finds that they all point to the the same truth through different paths. (i am of course not talking about the degenerate pseudoreligion most people today practice. someone very wise said: “religion is realisation”. Ergo if there is no realisation, the religion is not working! And realisation damands a HUGE conscious effort)

    Hogwash. Christian-style after-life in paradise vs. reincarnation – hard to reconcile. Creation to End Times vs. cyclical (e.g. Hindu) time line – hard to reconcile. By “degenerate pseudoreligion” I presume you mean everybody else’s religion, not your own. Oh how easy it is to perceive the folly of others, even with a log in your own eye.

    Making sense also requires an effort; more effort than you can apparently muster.

  17. #17 Harold
    November 11, 2006

    Jason and Brandon, thanks for the discussion. My impression (I’m still reading and my philosophy muscles haven’t been exercised for a while) is that Nagel is making a more radical claim than merely denying “that the description of the thoughts as thoughts is reducible to the description of the physical processes as physical processes.”

    I think Nagel is pointing to an obvious difference between brain processes and thoughts. Firing neurons are just facts, things in the world. Mental processes as viewed from inside have a point of view. What’s needed is an account of how matter acquired a point of view. Nagel, who may be the most modest philosopher I’ve ever read, doesn’t offer one. If someone else does, let me know. (Or perhaps I’ve misunderstood the whole point.)

  18. #18 Jason Rosenhouse
    November 11, 2006

    Brandon-

    I’m still waiting for the quote from Nagel’s essay where he distances himself from Aristotle’s view. From the context he sure seems to be endorsing it.

    You wrote:

    But Nagel doesn’t hold that “the thoughts I am having are the result of physical interactions plus something else” ; there is no ‘something else’. That’s why he is a naturalist. Since physical interactions are on his view necessarily connected with thoughts, if you have the physical interactions, you have the thoughts, without the need to posit something else. What Nagel is denying is that the description of the thoughts as thoughts is reducible to the description of the physical processes as physical processes; while the two are necessarily connected, and in a state of advanced science (at some point in the future) might be seen to be necessarily connected and not just thought to be so on our best evidence, the one is not just a more vague or pragmatic version of the other.

    I’m not sure what it means to talk about describing my thoughts as thoughts. You apparently agree that mind states are the result of physical processes in the brain, without the need for positing anything else. If that is so, then in principle a perfect physical description of my brain is adequate to explain the thoughts I am having. If such a description is not adequate, then clearly something non-physical is required to explain my thoughts. You (and Nagel) seem to reject that possibility.

    It is probably true that as a practical matter we will never be able to map specific physical states of the brain to specific thoughts. And it is also true that it probably will rarely be useful to engage in such an activity, just like we don’t usually explain what a car does by reference to individual atoms or a saxophone by a matallurgical analysis. But that such a description is possible in principle is all Dawkins would insist on.

    You can not have it both ways. If you agree that there is no need to posit anything beyond physical causes in explaining our thoughts, then you must also be agreeing that when we use mental or teleological language we are merely using convenient terms for describing what the complexly organized matter of our brain does.

    Incidentally, requesting evidence for one’s viepwoint is not a game. Surely the burden of proof is on you to show that something beyond physical causation is necessary to explain what the brain does. We know the brain is a physical object, and we can map specific parts of the brain to specific physical and mental abilities. When certain portions of the physical brain are damaged, the mind goes with them. And even you agree that mental states are coextensive with physical states. Also, this all came about because Nagel suggested that Dawkins is overlooking something important in his committment to reductionism. I’m merely asking you to explain what that something is. So far I find nothing in your comments to challenge either Dawkins, or my reading of Nagel.

  19. #19 johnc
    November 12, 2006

    Jason, you describe as “bizarre” the notion that “something can arise naturally from the laws of physics but not be explained by purposeless causation”. But isn’t that precisely what consciousness is? “Making a decision” is a conscious activity that is by definition teleological, yet is also related to a unique physical brain state that is in principle causally describable (or derivable). So one doesn’t have to postulate “something else” to also say that consciousness is an emergent property of physical brain activity that is not reducible, even in principle, to that activity. To reject reductionism is clearly neither the same as rejecting science nor introducing mysticism in through the back door.

    More broadly again, as Nagel says in a paragraph you do not quote:

    We have more than one form of understanding. Different forms of understanding are needed for different kinds of subject matter. The great achievements of physical science do not make it capable of encompassing everything, from mathematics to ethics to the experiences of a living animal. We have no reason to dismiss moral reasoning, introspection, or conceptual analysis as ways of discovering the truth just because they are not physics.

  20. #20 Jason Rosenhouse
    November 12, 2006

    johnc-

    Forgive me, but I’m not sure what your point is.

    Let me begin with an analogy. Evolution by natural selection is something that emerges from the competition among animals for scarce resources. Therefore, you can not understand the process by focusing in on individual animals in isolation, or on specific features of the environment. Rather, you must consider the complex interactions of many animals and many aspects of the environment.

    If you are making a similar point about the brain, then I agree. Studying individual atoms or individual neurons is probably insufficient in principle to explain consciousness. You must also consider how all of these individual pieces interact with one another. I don’t see anything in this, however, that challenges anything Richard Dawkins has ever said.

    Describing consciousness as an emergent property of physical brain activity does not contradict the statement that consciousness is the result of purposeless causation.

    Concerning the Nagel quote: Before responding I would want to know what sorts of truths we can be said to obtain via moral reasoning, introspection or conceptual analysis; and which of those truths are things that Richard Dawkins says we should be obtaining in a different way.

    The issue, as I see it, comes down to this: Is consciousness the result of the physical interactions of particles that are not themselves conscious? Dawkins answers yes. If Nagel agrees that the answer is yes, then I’m not sure what the argument is about. If Nagel does not agree, then I would want to know what else is needed to explain consciousness.

  21. #21 johnc
    November 12, 2006

    Jason, in your review you wrote: “It is not that people like Nagel are trying to open our eyes to a different form of explanation. It is that they desperately want things like consciousness to be mysterious.”

    This is surely unfair. To assert that consciousness is “the result of the physical interactions of particles that are not themselves conscious” is not the same as saying that it is (or will ever be) understandable in that way. In Nagel’s case, he believes that while consciousness is conceptually irreducible to brain neurophysiology it will nonetheless be possible to construct a necessary relation between a theory of consciousness and a theory of brain activity without the former being “explained” by the latter, in any meaningful sense of the term “explain”. The point of all this for Nagel’s critique of Dawkins is as follows:

    A religious worldview is only one response to the conviction that the physical description of the world is incomplete. Dawkins says with some justice that the will of God provides a too easy explanation of anything we cannot otherwise understand, and therefore brings inquiry to a stop. Religion need not have this effect, but it can. It would be more reasonable, in my estimation, to admit that we do not now have the understanding or the knowledge on which to base a comprehensive theory of reality.< \blockquote>

    This is part of a common problem other generally sympathetic reviewers have had with Dawkins: namely, that his form of rationalism-cum-materialism-cum-reductionism is philosophically unsophisticated and leaves the impression in even non-expert readers of a somewhat chilly and pinched perspective. In this regard, Dawkins compares unfavourably with Gould, who was always temperamentally and intellectually more expansive, even if his NOMA formulation was fatally flawed.

  22. #22 Jason Rosenhouse
    November 13, 2006

    johnc-

    You talk about a theory of consciousness. But what does such a theory seek to explain? You say that consciousness is not explained by brain activity. Then what does explain consciousness?

    I am likewise uncertain as to what Nagel has in mind by saying that we lack a foundation for a “comprehensive theory of reality.” There are open problems, certainly, as Dawkins would be the first to admit. And there might be problems, such as how consciousness is produced by the physical activity of the brain, that will remain forever unsolved. How do these observations render Dawkins philosophically unsophisticated?

    It’s not as if Dawkins runs around telling people that we have a comprehensive theory of reality. Rather, he tells people that we have a very good way of investigating problems in the physical world, namely science, that is vastly superior to its main rival, namely religion. He also says that it would be foolish to give up on these approaches just because some problems are difficult to study.

    You refer jeeringly to Dawkins’ form of rationalism, materialism and reductionism. That suggests that either you or Nagel have an alternative to it. I have yet to see what that alternative is. Does Nagel have a suggestion for how we might obtain the sort of theory he asserts exists? Can he suggest investigative approaches that Dawkins’ blinkered views would keep us from pursuing? Can you suggest a discovery we might make that would lead Nagel to agree that the problem is solved?

    You obviously see in Nagel some valuable suggestions for how we should understand certain aspects of the world. I’m afraid all I see is gobbledygook. Po-TAY-to, Po-TAH-to.

  23. #23 johnc
    November 13, 2006

    Nagel has in fact written extensively on this area, starting with his seminal 1974 paper What is it like to be a bat?. I won’t try to further summarise his thinking here (I’ve probably done it enough violence already) but there is no claim he (or anyone else) has a theory of consciousness, rather his work is an investigation of how we might go about constructing one. One might disagree with him, but it would be as well to first be familiar with the details of his influential writing on the matter.

    I wasn’t jeering at Dawkins, but pointing out that I am far from alone among pro-science, secular readers who have strong reservations about aspects of TGD. Krauss, who you’ve discussed, and Kenan Malik come to mind as two other people with impeccable credentials who have also expressed misgivings within the context of generally supportive reviews. Nagel adds a further philosophical dimension to the collective discussion of this important book.

    For my part, I see a continuity of Dawkins’ position on religion in areas such as his overly uncritical endorsement of “evolutionary psychology” (perhaps not unsurprising for an ethologist) being conditioned by his pronounced positivism. To forestall any further misunderstanding, I’ll borrow from Wikipedia to explain how I’m using the term:

    Positivism is also depicted as “the view that all true knowledge is scientific,” and that all things are ultimately measurable. Because of its “close association with reductionism,” positivism and reductionism involve the view that “entities of one kind… are reducible to entities of another,” such as societies to numbers, or mental events to chemical events. It also involves the contention that “processes are reducible to physiological, physical or chemical events,” and even that “social processes are reducible to relationships between and actions of individuals,” or that “biological organisms are reducible to physical systems.”

    Rejecting positivism obviously does not mean rejecting science, but one often gets the impression from Dawkins’ most ardent supporters that they cannot tell the difference between the two.

  24. #24 Russell
    November 13, 2006

    What I find interesting is that, from what I have read in the above, nobody, not even Nagel has brought up the essential incompatibility of a logical analysis of metaphysics. Wittgenstein asserted that metaphysics is an untenable argument and must, therefore, be abandoned. This form of pragmatic thinking seems to evade Dawkin’s crusade and all the pro and con discussion I’ve witnessed concerning Dawkin’s protest. The argument of “God” is a failure of logic on either side. It goes like this: one side: “I believe there is a being that exists ‘beyond the laws of Nature’ that created everything. Because said being is ‘beyond the laws of Nature,’ you can’t argue against it via the laws of Nature.” other side: “There is no evidence in Nature that there is a being that exists ‘beyond the laws of Nature’ that created everything, therefore said being does not exist.” — Both are tautologies. Both are untenable.

  25. #25 johnc
    November 13, 2006

    Russell, I’m not sure whether this is the sort of thing you are getting at, but this is another as-yet unquoted par from the Nagel review:

    I agree with Dawkins that the issue of design versus purely physical causation is a scientific question. He is correct to dismiss Stephen Jay Gould’s position that science and religion are “non-overlapping magisteria.” The conflict is real. But although I am as much of an outsider to religion as he is, I believe it is much more difficult to settle the question than he thinks. I also suspect there are other possibilities besides these two that have not even been thought of yet. The fear of religion leads too many scientifically minded atheists to cling to a defensive, world-flattening reductionism. Dawkins, like many of his contemporaries, is hobbled by the assumption that the only alternative to religion is to insist that the ultimate explanation of everything must lie in particle physics, string theory, or whatever purely extensional laws govern the elements of which the material world is composed.

  26. #26 russell
    November 13, 2006

    sort of… Nagel is fishing for “other possibilities” in order to resist the temptations of hubris on the part of science… I think.
    What I am saying is that Dawkin’s has weakened his argument by asserting, unequivocally, that there is no such thing as “God.” As a scientist he must accept that this is a probability statement, not a truth. The is no criteria to state, with logic (i.e. making an argument that holds to the structural demands of a logical statement) that “It is true that God does not exist.”
    He would have better served his purpose limiting his battle to the archaic structure of a two-thousand-plus-year-old document of lessons and parables as a set of proofs for the way the world was made. You can also soberly state the problems and ultimate conflicts of the “May way or the Highway” thinking in “Truth based on religious documents” and leave whether there is or is not a God totally out of it as a purely practical measure.

  27. #27 johnc
    November 13, 2006

    To be fair to Dawkins, he does posit his position on God as a probability statement. But I think you are quite correct that the book would have been much stronger with a narrower focus, since his attempts to tackle some of the broader philosophical arguments generate mixed results as he is clearly wading out of his depth.

    I am happy to add my voice to the specific point you make: that there is an unbridgeable gap between the general proposition that “God” exists and the specific claims of crosses and resurrection, talking snakes and original sin, etc which constitute the real content of belief. And while the God proposition may be genuinely undecideable, that is really irrelevant to the reality of those religious practices and beliefs which constitute such a problem for the modern world.

  28. #28 russell
    November 13, 2006

    You are right. Dawkin’s does refer to the existence of God as a probability statement. But the tenor of his book is to “Do without this whole “God” thing” which, unfortunately begs the question. I’m glad you agree with my second point. I would add, as someone who is closer to a philosophical mind than a scientific mind, that the discussion can gain more ground by challenging the reasoning of religious assertions that extrapolate false statements from ambiguous content. Example: Where, in the Bible, does it specifically state that the passage of time from the creation of the universe to the birth of Jesus was around three thousand years? And: There are parables that are spoken by prophets IN the Bible that they (the prophets) use for a greater communication of the values they are imparting — therefore, where do you draw the lines, lines that are not specifically outlined in the Bible (i.e. footnotes from God saying: “The following paragraph is metaphorical, the paragraph after is literal,” etc…)? And on and on…

  29. #29 johnc
    November 14, 2006

    Again, to be fair to Dawkins, the science-based argument is also crucial. I think, for instance, he is required – given his own area of expertise – to deal with argument from design, both in its classic formulation and in its modern (inverted) incarnation, intelligent design. And this is fine, because biological science allows for that discussion to no longer be metaphysical but firmly evidence-based.

    Here, I think, Nagel has it wrong and Jason concedes too much. It is in fact not necessary to worry about the explanatory endpoint (ie the origin of the laws of physics). The evolutionary explanation for the complexity of life is not diminished by science not having an explanation for why the laws of physics are one thing and not another. Darwinism has rendered the design argument invalid as a matter of fact, and further “foundations” for this fact are not required.

    The ID folk are aware of this problem, which is why they attempt to characterise evolutionary science as embodying a metaphysical position (“materialism”) whereas in fact they are the metaphysicians and biologists are just doing science. All of this is Dawkins’ strong suit, which he plays skilfully and convincingly.

  30. #30 Tim B.
    November 29, 2006

    Harold,

    I skipped down to post after reading your comment directed at Jason and Brandon; therefore, someone may have already said what I’m saying here:

    Chalmer’s tentative explanation about the inability of reductionism to account for subjective experience has to do with the notion that consciousness is a physical primitive, like gravity and electro-magnetism…that everything has some spark of interiority that is complementary to but not supervenient on any other primitive physical components. To me, this is harmonious with Schopenhauer’s description of Will (or Force).