Philosopher Thomas Nagel recently published a book called Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False. The general consensus was that the book delivered considerably less than it promised. H. Allen Orr’s negative review from The New York Review of Books was pretty typical of the response, if somewhat more polite than some.
I have not read Nagel’s book, so I don’t have a strong opinion about it. Based on what I’ve read about it, however, I suspect I wouldn’t like it. For example, here is part of a quote from Nagel, as presented by Orr:
I would like to defend the untutored reaction of incredulity to the reductionist neo-Darwinian account of the origin and evolution of life. It is prima facie highly implausible that life as we know it is the result of a sequence of physical accidents together with the mechanism of natural selection. We are expected to abandon this naïve response, not in favor of a fully worked out physical/chemical explanation but in favor of an alternative that is really a schema for explanation, supported by some examples.
From what I understand, the level of argument in the book never gets much beyond this. But these sentences are absurd. On what possible basis does Nagel decide that it is “prima facie” highly implausible that life as we know it is the result of a sequence of physical accidents? What natural causes can do over the course of billions of years is not the sort of thing about which we can reasonably claim to have intuitions. The only way to decide if it is plausible or not is to do the hard scientific work, precisely as biologists have been doing for the past century and a half. Moreover, the theory is supported by a good deal more than a few examples. Rather, it is supported by a mountain of confirmed predictions and retrodictions, along with numerous experimental successes.
So I’m not optimistic that I will like Nagel’s book once I’ve had the chance to read it, but that is not the subject of this post. Instead, I wish to address the response from some of Nagel’s defenders. If you follow these sorts of kerfuffles, you know they play out according to a script. First, the would-be revolutionary claims to have overthrown the reigning materialist/reductionist paradigm by some brilliant piece of rhetorical legerdemain. Knowledgeable people read the book, find it less than convincing, and write some snide reviews. To which the would-be revolutionaries respond with a lot of whining about how oppressed and put-upon they are. We saw it recently with the dreadful book What Darwin Got Wrong by Jerry Fodor and Massimo Piatelli-Palmarini, and we are seeing it playing out again.
Typical of what we get from Nagel’s defenders is this silly essay from Leon Wieseltier, writing in The New Republic. It bears the subtle title, “A Darwinist Mob Goes After A Serious Philosopher,” and opens like this:
Is there a greater gesture of intellectual contempt than the notion that a tweet constitutes an adequate intervention in a serious discussion? But when Thomas Nagel’s formidable book Mind and Cosmos recently appeared, in which he has the impudence to suggest that “the materialist neo-Darwinian conception of nature is almost certainly false,” and to offer thoughtful reasons to believe that the non-material dimensions of life—consciousness, reason, moral value, subjective experience—cannot be reduced to, or explained as having evolved tidily from, its material dimensions, Steven Pinker took to Twitter and haughtily ruled that it was “the shoddy reasoning of a once-great thinker.” F*ck him, he explained.
And is there a greater gesture of intellectual silliness than the notion that one rude tweet constitutes a call to arms for a Darwinist mob?
Wieseltier’s essay is far more snide than most of what has been directed at Nagel. It contains nuggets like this:
I understand that nobody is going to burn Nagel’s book or ban it. These inquisitors are just more professors. But he is being denounced not merely for being wrong. He is being denounced also for being heretical. I thought heresy was heroic. I guess it is heroic only when it dissents from a doctrine with which I disagree.
Of all the silly, childish things! To say that nobody is going to burn Nagel’s book or ban it (let alone threaten him with torture until he recants) is precisely to say that these professors are not inquisitors at all. They are just critics. And to the extent that Nagel is being “denounced,” it is primarily for being wrong, coupled with the fact that, given the politicization of science education in this country, this is a bad issue to be wrong about.
Since Wieseltier never gets around to saying anything, let’s move on to the slightly better article by Andrew Ferguson. It’s actually the cover story of this week’s issue of The Weekly Standard. The headline, of course, is “The Heretic,” and the cover image is of Nagel being burned at the stake. Charming.
At one point Ferguson manages to sink a bit lower even than Wieseltier. The only thing sillier than using a single tweet as evidence of a looming mob is using a few intemperate blog comments for the same purpose. But Ferguson goes there! I won’t dwell on that, however, since, unlike Wieseltier, Ferguson actually makes a few points. Unfortunately, those points are long on assertion and short on argument. Consider this:
In a dazzling six-part tour de force rebutting Nagel’s critics, the philosopher Edward Feser provided a good analogy to describe the basic materialist error—the attempt to stretch materialism from a working assumption into a comprehensive explanation of the world. Feser suggests a parody of materialist reasoning: “1. Metal detectors have had far greater success in finding coins and other metallic objects in more places than any other method has. 2. Therefore we have good reason to think that metal detectors can reveal to us everything that can be revealed” about metallic objects.
But of course a metal detector only detects the metallic content of an object; it tells us nothing about its color, size, weight, or shape. In the same way, Feser writes, the methods of “mechanistic science are as successful as they are in predicting and controlling natural phenomena precisely because they focus on only those aspects of nature susceptible to prediction and control.”
Meanwhile, they ignore everything else. But this is a fatal weakness for a theory that aspires to be a comprehensive picture of the world. With magnetic resonance imaging, science can tell us which parts of my brain light up when, for example, I glimpse my daughter’s face in a crowd; the bouncing neurons can be observed and measured. Science cannot quantify or describe the feelings I experience when I see my daughter. Yet the feelings are no less real than the neurons.
The point sounds more sentimental than it is. My bouncing neurons and my feelings of love and obligation are unquestionably bound together. But the difference between the neurons and the feelings, the material and the mental, is a qualitative difference, a difference in kind. And of the two, reductive materialism can capture only one.
Almost all of that is wrong, starting with Feser’s caricature of materialist thinking. What materialists actually say is that if you are going to hypothesize into existence something immaterial, it is on you to provide evidence for your hypothesis. Of course it’s possible that there are immaterial entities that influence matter in ways that are undetectable by science, but can you do anything more that just assert their possible existence? Given some phenomenon you assert to be incomprehensible under materialism, can you show how it becomes comprehensible under immaterialism? Ferguson tells us that science just ignores “everything else” beyond the material aspects of reality, but the very point at issue is whether there is anything else to ignore.
It seems like all the immaterialists ever do is make assertions! Ferguson concedes that his feelings are intimately bound up with his bouncing neurons. Then he just asserts that reductive materialism cannot account for his feelings. But why not? And if it’s not just bouncing neurons, then what else is it? After all, saying that emotions and senses of obligation are ultimately produced by complexly organized matter in no way suggests they aren’t real.
Skipping ahead, Ferguson writes:
Among these remarkable, nonaccidental things are many of the features of the manifest image. Consciousness itself, for example: You can’t explain consciousness in evolutionary terms, Nagel says, without undermining the explanation itself. Evolution easily accounts for rudimentary kinds of awareness. Hundreds of thousands of years ago on the African savannah, where the earliest humans evolved the unique characteristics of our species, the ability to sense danger or to read signals from a potential mate would clearly help an organism survive.
So far, so good. But the human brain can do much more than this. It can perform calculus, hypothesize metaphysics, compose music—even develop a theory of evolution. None of these higher capacities has any evident survival value, certainly not hundreds of thousands of years ago when the chief aim of mental life was to avoid getting eaten. Could our brain have developed and sustained such nonadaptive abilities by the trial and error of natural selection, as neo-Darwinism insists? It’s possible, but the odds, Nagel says, are “vanishingly small.” If Nagel is right, the materialist is in a pickle. The conscious brain that is able to come up with neo-Darwinism as a universal explanation simultaneously makes neo-Darwinism, as a universal explanation, exceedingly unlikely.
More assertion. The odds are vanishingly small that our big brains are the result of natural selection? Really? I’d like to see the calculation that supports that conclusion. It sounds to me like Nagel just made that up. There is a vast literature on the selection pressures that might have driven the evolution of the human brain. Does Ferguson have an actual reason for thinking this literature is misguided? Has he given it any serious consideration at all? And let’s suppose that Ferguson is right that Neo-Darwinism needs to be supplemented with something. Any suggestions for what that something might be?
Actually, Ferguson does gesture towards Nagel’s answer to that question:
The positive mission Nagel undertakes in Mind and Cosmos is to outline, cautiously, a possible Third Way between theism and materialism, given that the first is unacceptable—emotionally, if not intellectually—and the second is untenable. Perhaps matter itself has a bias toward producing conscious creatures. Nature in that case would be “teleological”—not random, not fully subject to chance, but tending toward a particular end. Our mental life would be accounted for—phew!—without reference to God.
Now, I don’t see any particular to think that a Third Way is necessary, nor do I really understand what it would mean to say that matter has a bias toward producing conscious creatures. But let’s suppose it turns out that Nagel is right, and at some point in the future we realize that these sorts of teleological laws are real and comprehensible. My question is this: Why should a materialist be disconcerted by that? Nagel is basically saying that matter is more complicated than we think it is. Could well be. I don’t even find that hard to believe. I’ll just require some evidence that such laws are real.
Ferguson’s essay is quite long, and it is chock full of dubious assertions about how scientists think and about what materialism entails. Go wade through it if you feel the urge. If you encounter an actual argument then please point it out to me, because I couldn’t find one.