Thomas Nagel, professor of philosophy and law at NYU, is notorious for his heterodox philosophical positions (this was discussed a bit on PEL here). He is a scientific skeptic, anti-materialist, anti-physicalist, and a strong moral realist. (This isn’t to say that the previous four positions are false, just that they are unpopular.) I have often found myself arguing against Nagel. I’m not particularly convinced by his classic paper “What is it Like to be a Bat?” (discussed on PEL here), and I find his brand of moral realism unsatisfactory. That said, I feel the need to come to his defense now.
Last month, Nagel published Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False. In the book, Nagel makes two main arguments. First, that strong materialist reductionism–the view which holds that the correct picture of the world stands or falls with what physics tell us about it–is false. A great deal of philosophers are already agree with Nagel on this topic. In this way, he overemphasizes, as always, the extent to which “scientism” infects contemporary philosophical discourse. Nagel’s second argument is more controversial. He claims that Darwinian natural selection, insofar as it is committed to strong material reductionism, is false as well. This last claim is going to/has gotten him into trouble with philosophers. (That said: Nagel’s book hasn’t been the object of the kind of outrage Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini’s book, What Darwin Got Wrong, was in 2010.)
Nagel wants to reject any psycho-physical reductionism, or the attempt to reduce mental life to any material stuff. Nagel has been towing this line for a long time, and the arguments he provides are not new. He thinks that “first-person” subjectivity is irreducibly a part of conscious experience, so that insofar as we want to admit we are conscious, it follows that first-person subjectivity is something to be explained. Nagel thinks it is on the materialist to explain how first-person conscious experience arises out of dead matter. Some philosophers have been lead to panpsychism–the view that all matter has mental aspects–from this problem. On this view, one can tell a story about how our complex mental process reduce to more fundamental particles, but because these particles are neither mental nor physical, we don’t get the problem of explaining the development of a first-person perspective. Other philosophers have tried to tell a story about how subjectivity emerges out of certain arrangements of matter. The thought is that if the matter is sufficiently complex, something like consciousness arises out it. Nagel thinks both of these strategies don’t sufficiently deal with the problem. For the emergentist, the criticism is simple: once you have broken the world into first-person subjectivity and not first-person subjectivity, how to explain the relation between the two. Saying that a sufficiently complex arrangement of can “give rise” to conscious states fails to answer the question at hand. But the panpychist, who agrees with Nagel’s criticism of emergentism, is equally in trouble. Positing the existence of “mind/matter” particles in order to escape the problems of emergentism and other materialist views seems ad hoc. Wouldn’t it be convenient if the fundamental stuff of the universe was neither mind nor matter? Nagel thinks this still wouldn’t provide an explanation as to why things turned out the way they did. Metaphysically neutral fundamental particles doesn’t help account for the seemingly complex, coherent, rational unity that is the world.
On account of this, Nagel suggests, contrary to the majority of philosophers, that we should abandon our current materialist reductionist paradigm and attempt to reconstruct the sciences on teleological grounds. Most scientifically minded individuals are apt to be startled by such a claim. The thought “didn’t we get rid of teleology in the 17th century?” will come to mind. I want to suggest, contrary to the disagreements I have with most of his philosophy, that Nagel is on to something here. The sciences may need to start owning up to teleology. First, what does the view that Nagel proposes look like?
Nagel defends what he calls “immanent, natural explanation,” and distinguishes it from “chance, creationism, and directionless physical law” (91, 87).
Lets break down what this means. Nagel rejects creationism out of hand, and I won’t go into his reasons here. How about chance? If the universe is directed in some manner, then chance doesn’t enter the picture. Many philosophers, determinists in particular, would agree with the latter clause, though they may deny the former. The determinist may then say: “Sure, I don’t believe in chance either; one needn’t believe the universe is directed in order to rule out the possibility that genuine chance played a role in its shaping. But this makes me nervous: doesn’t directedness talk require that one have a director?” This is an old debate, but Nagel thinks that teleological explanation doesn’t require that one reference the intention of a deity that stands above the process itself. Instead, he argues that the directedness of the process can be discerned from examining how it unfolds in the world. This is fair. Many philosophers have argued that we can have direction without intention (Plato, Hegel, etc.). On this picture, we don’t use our reason to get at, or conceptualize, the mindless world. Instead, our reason is an expression of the very world we are products of. Reason is not thrust upon the world; it reveals itself in the world. As Nagel notes:
“The view that rational intelligibility lies at the root of nature makes me, in a broad sense, an idealist–not a subjective idealist, as it doesn’t amount to the claim that the world is ultimately appearance–but an objective idealist in the tradition of Plato and perhaps also other post-Kantians, such as Schelling and Hegel, who are usually called absolute idealists” (17).
This sounds like a pretty radical view, but there are a couple of reasons that we shouldn’t be totally suspicious of Nagel, or the concept of teleology, here.
First, there has been a recent surge of work on Aristotelian biology that suggests our dismissal of its key elements are based on a misunderstanding of the text. This fact shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone familiar with the intellectual history of the early modern period–Galileo’s and Decartes’ dismissal of Aristotle is quite thin at times; surely a reaction to Scholasticism more than Aristotle himself. (I would even hazard to argue Descartes and Galileo’s deployment of the primary-secondary quality distinction has wreaked as much, if not more, havoc on the state of philosophy as anything Aristotle had to say.) Second, Michael Thompson, in his book Life and Action: Elementary Structures of Practice and Practical Thought, and Robert Brandom, in various places, have argued that key terms in biology (life, function, etc.) are irreducibly normative. If this is the case, maybe we should look a bit closer at what we are doing when we do science and not simply assume that we are past these issues. (I would argue that Dennett even realizes this is his more careful moments).
Just something to think about. Has anyone read this yet? If there is enough interest in the book, we could do a reading group on it through the Not School.