Mind and Cosmos, by Thomas Nagel

Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False.
By Thomas Nagel

The book is 128 pages plus a two page index. I welcomed it as a quick roundup of ideas available for thinking about mind and cosmos and evolution, as reported by a highly-qualified and respected philosopher. Turned out, for me, a philosopher may not be the person best qualified to write on the subject.

I relished the promise of his program: “The great advances in the physical and biological sciences were made possible by excluding the mind from the physical world…. I find it puzzling that this view of things should be taken as more or less self-evident, as I believe it commonly is…. I find the confidence among the scientific establishment that the whole scenario will yield to a purely chemical explanation hard to understand, except as a manifestation of an axiomatic commitment to reductive materialism.”

By contrast: “My guiding conviction is that mind is not just an afterthought or an accident or an add-on, but a basic aspect of nature…. Our own existence presents us with the fact that somehow the world generates conscious beings capable of recognizing reasons for action and belief, distinguishing some necessary truths, and evaluating the evidence for alternative hypotheses about the natural world…. The existence of consciousness is both one of the most familiar and one of the most astounding things about the world. No conception of the natural order that does not reveal it as something to be expected can aspire even to the outline of completeness. And if physical science, whatever it may have to say about the origin of life, leaves us necessarily in the dark about consciousness, that shows that it cannot provide the basic form of intelligibility for this world.”

And I welcomed his call for new concepts. “The world is an astonishing place, and the idea that we have in our possession the basic tools needed to understand it is no more credible now than it was in Aristotle’s day.”

So far, so good. But after this stirring beginning he falls into the toils of traditional philosophical terms. “The aim of this book is to argue that the mind-body problem is not just a local problem, having to do with the relation between mind, brain, and behavior in living organisms, but that it invades our understanding of the entire cosmos and its history.” This is in contrast to simply accepting the existence of matter and living creatures, including us, as simply what the world is. Why is there a problem? Because evolution is so unprecedented all prior philosophical discourse has been rendered obsolete. The persistence of such discourse is the problem. By limiting himself to it Nagel shows how bankrupt it is.

He dwells on several distinctions I judge unhelpful:

Nagel’s goal is to promote a monism that transcends dualism. “I am setting aside outright dualism, which would abandon the hope for an integrated explanation. Indeed substance dualism would imply that biology had no responsibility at all for the existence of minds. What interests me is the alternative hypothesis that biological evolution is responsible for the existence of conscious mental phenomena, but that since those phenomena are not physically explainable, the usual view of evolution must be revised. It is not just a physical process.” To me this is testimony to us lacking sufficiently-refined conceptual apparatus on this issue. As for the virtue of monism, suppose we join to today’s physics a set of principles accounting for mind, does it make any significant difference whether we call this monism, or dualism? It’s just semantics, not a valid distinction, I think. I find “substance” dualism too vaporous a concept to invoke in the context of evolution. Just study living creatures and see how they behave.

“ …it is clear that any explanation will have two elements: an ahistorical constitutive account of how certain complex physical systems are also mental, and a historical account of how such systems arose in the universe from its beginnings. Evidently the historical account will depend partly on the correct constitutive account, since the latter describes the outcome that the former has to explain.” I don’t see these as necessarily distinct and, apparently, neither does Nagel. Another pair of concepts better abandoned.

“The constitutive account will be either reductive or emergent…. If we stay with the assumption that the mental cannot be reduced to the physical, this will mean that the elementary constituents of which we are composed are not merely physical…. An emergent account, by contrast, will explain the mental characteristics of complex organisms by principles specifically linking the mental states and processes to the complex physical functioning of those organisms…. The difference from a reductive account is that… the connections they specify between the mental and the physical are all higher-order…. Still, this kind of higher-level theory, however empirically accurate, seems unsatisfactory…. If emergence is the whole truth, it implies that mental states are present in the organism as a whole, or in its central nervous system, without any grounding in the elements that constitute the organism…. That such purely physical elements, when combined in a certain way, should necessarily produce a state of the whole that is not constituted out of the properties and relations of the physical parts seems like magic…” Hence the distinction is functionless. Nagel goes on to point this out: “But since conscious organisms are not composed of a special kind of stuff, but can be constructed, apparently, from any of the matter in the universe, suitably arrange, it follows that this monism will be universal…. So this reductive account can also be described as a form of panpsychism: all the elements of the physical world are also mental.” I can’t see this going anywhere. Why fall back on this kind of discourse at all if a familiar paradox is built into it?

The following seems to me scholastic logic-chopping: “The historical account of how conscious organisms arose in the universe can take one of three forms: it will be either causal (appealing only to law-governed efficient causation), or teleological, or intentional…. Since either a reductive or emergent constitutive account could be combined with any of the three types of historical account…there are six options.” This may be nothing more than play with traditional philosophical counters. Nowhere does Nagel draw on his own experience of consciousness to analyze what kind of processes it involves, or the path of evolution. How teleological does that path appear to him?

Can you apply traditional philosophic categories to something that happened only once across our entire planet in the course of several hundreds of thousands of years? Several times Nagel uses the word “likely” in connection with the origin of evolution. How “likely” is it? He continually assesses hypotheses to do with evolution by how “intelligible” they are, and I wondered if that was a reasonable criterion for something developing over one third of the universe’s existence. What experience have we had of such phenomena by which to judge which accounts of them are “intelligible”? How intelligible should we expect them to be? Doesn’t expecting accounts to be intelligible militate against a fair assessment of those that are unfamiliar?

Blessedly, in his conclusion he re-affirms his initial openness: “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.”

I will be presumptuous and point, for an alternative discourse, to a dialogue between Charles Darwin and Galileo I have just posted online, covering the same range of topics, at www.evolvedself.com/dialogue/dialogueDarwinGalileo.pdf