[Editor's Note: Here's a post by Getty from our Hume/Smith on ethics episode. Incidentally, Getty will be leading a Not School Reading group on Harry Frankfurt's The Reasons of Love. Go join.]
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.
I’ve not read the book, but my question would be “why does it matter?”
Whether the universe is directed or not, the data doesn’t change. What you measure is still what you measure. Science still works the same way. So unless he is offering some way of showing that we can know what that teleology is, and that it will help us be more accurate scientists, the question seems to be scientifically meaningless.
Jay Jeffers says
I recently finished the book. I enjoyed it very much, but felt like it didn’t exactly finish with a bang. Maybe this is because I expected the book to throw down the gauntlet and either change philosophy for good or be laughed out of contention. It’s still a little early yet, but like you said in the post, Getty, there’s not much, or maybe anything new here. I did personally find a gem here and there I hadn’t thought of, and I wouldn’t be surprised at all if there’s something I haven’t fully appreciated, but all in all it seems like a summary, and not one that provides a new and deadly argument against reductive materialism (maybe I projected my expectations on the book, but for some reason I had the feeling that it was really meant to be a significant and unheard of challenge to the reigning orthodoxy).
In Nagel’s defense, he acknowledges the weaknesses in his own view, or at least acknowledges that the argument is ongoing and that his view, whatever its advantages, has not won a decisive victory.
I’m happy to see this post because I’d been waiting with bated breath for the book to come out, and bought it as soon as I could on Kindle. Then I read it as quick as I could, often at lunch at work, or sneaking it in whenever I had a free moment. It was all very exciting at first… I’m also happy to see this post because I’ve been pumped about Not School but just haven’t joined or spoken up about it. But I would be *thrilled* if enough people were interested in this book to get something started on Not School (incidentally, “Two Dogmas of Empiricism” looks like a great group as well).
By the way, Craig, it’s hard for me to imagine how comprehensively our paradigms effect our research, but I cannot dismiss as quickly as you the notion that it might make a practical difference if we thought differently about what is fundamentally true or possible about the universe (perhaps someone else can come up with some specific examples). And, maybe Nagel’s speculation is scientifically meaningless, but we haven’t all agreed that science is the only arbiter of meaning. Even if we did, it would make metaphysical views opposite of Nagel’s (i.e. reductive materialism/physicalism) equally meaningless. After all reductive materialism is not just a method of operating, but is also often a philosophical commitment about the world, and most of us aren’t positivists (or positivist-phenomenalists) anymore.
I don’t believe that “that science is the only arbiter of meaning” by any means. I do not consider myself a materialist. I just have no qualms about using a materialist view when “doing science” because it has proven itself to work. Maybe I have missed the point of Nagel’s argument. How does science get better by searching for or assuming there exists a telos in the natural world? Wouldn’t this be like searching for the Aether?
Again, I didn’t read the book, so I am only assuming why Negel would want science to abandon a working paradigm. I would think that he must offer some evidence that a new paradigm works better in some way.
Jay Jeffers says
All that makes sense, Craig. Thanks for following up. I think I agree mostly. I had the same sneaking feeling early on in the book, actually. A feeling like, “if we all just agree to treat materialism as a methodological assumption and go our separate ways after, then why get into a fight over what science actually means.” Sort of like a Rawlsian public space applied to science. You know the materialists are like, idk, atheists, the creationists are baptists, the Nagels of the world Episcopalian or Unitarian, but they can all keep their traps shut while they do science… So maybe had I read your post more carefully, I would have simply agreed.
I still have a somewhat amorphous feeling that something more practical might be at stake, but I can’t blame you for not going along because I’m having such a hard time articulating it. I think Getty Lustila said it best so far in the post, writing
“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).”
But being a humanities major not incredibly familiar with how paradigms impact research, I can’t be more specific than that, and maybe this just stops at what we say we’re doing when we do science. And again I think I agree somewhat.
Wayne Schroeder says
I can not see how these issues can be adequately dealt with outside of complexity theory, which Nagel does not address.
Wes Alwan says
I’m reading this book now. In fact, I got a free copy from the publisher to review here on PEL, but it looks like you’ve done my job for me (I’ll add my thoughts in another review if warranted). A discussion group sounds good.
Daniel Horne says
I’m sold on both the book and the discussion group. Let’s do it!
Wes Alwan says
Great — I should be done with the book in a week or so.
Hmm, I just downloaded the sample Intro chapter onto my Kindle and read it. To be absolutely honest, my initial reaction was, this guy’s a moron when it comes to science… but, as he says:
“I realize that such doubts will strike many people as outrageous, but that is because almost everyone in our secular culture has been browbeaten into regarding the reductive research program as sacrosanct, on the ground that anything else would not be science.”
I regard his claims in the Intro as ‘outrageous’, but I also think that the purely reductive approach is missing something, too.
So, I’ll buy the book and join the Not School for a Nagel discussion in the hope that you guys can convince me that he has something credible to say. : )
I have not read this book yet, but it would be interesting to explore it as a development of the ideas put forth in a The View From Nowhere. In that book Nagel challenges the Darwinian view of evolution and puts forth the idea that human consciousness developed necessarily out of the structure of the universe. At least that is the way I understand the following quote:
I don’t know what an explanation might be like either of the possibility of objective theorizing or of the actual biological development of creatures capable of it. My sense is that it is antecedently so improbable that the only possible explanation must be that it is in some way necessary. (The View From Nowhere, page 81).
It seems his latest book is building on this idea.
Wes Alwan says
I created a group for this in Not School — join if you’re interested.
Daniel Horne says
A couple of decent reviews:
Tom McDonald says
Excellent post. Well expressed:
“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.”
This actually makes me hopeful we may be on the verge of overturning 400 years of Cartesian error.
Tom McDonald says
Having worked my way through the phenomenological analyses of Hegel and Heidegger I am convinced that (a) Cartesian mind-world dualism has caused vast, inestimable confusion throughout Western philosophy, science and culture over the past 300 years, yet (b) it cannot be escaped by any pseudo-scientific metaphysical postulations about the properties of kinds of substance, e.g., by arguing that mind must arise from a latent ‘property’ of matter, etc.
The problem with the latter kinds of postulations is that they assume a reasoning subject who begins from outside the world in order to figure out how it got there.
To avoid this absurdity we need to turn, as Robert Brandom argues, from a representational to an * expressive * conception of reason itself.
Reason and thought are expressions revealed in the world. This is not ‘mysticism’ — it is just obvious after one has rid oneself of mistaken Cartesian assumptions. Hegel and Heidegger emphasize in this regard the mistaken Cartesian beginning or premise of assuming the reasoning subject begins from outside the world.
Only a radically anti-metaphysical, phenomenological approach can help us get rid of this historical reification that continues to haunt our self-conception. When the phenomenological approach is understood rightly, as Hegel and Heidegger did, it becomes evident that, as Getty writes:
“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.”
Wayne Schroeder says
Well done, Tom.
Jay Jeffers says
Having not worked my way through Heidegger, Hegel, or Brandom, bear with me, but I’m a little confused.
See I no longer know what to make of “the world” if my conception of it is radically anti-metaphysical. How am I to make sense of the idea that I am a “product” of a world at all? Does this world have extra-social characteristics that cause me to be certain ways?
We could be just using “the world” differently, which is fine I suppose. If that’s the case, then maybe I’m being persnickety.
Maybe one way to look at this idea is that our concepts and reasoning ability are a product of this world, and therefore cannot be applied outside the context of this world. According to this view, we are not in some sense outside the world looking in and trying to understand it. For example, our reasoning ability is not the product of an immaterial substance trying to understand the material world. Therefore, I would think, from this perspective, questions about what is beyond our world, or what is causally prior to our world, etc., are literally meaningless. It is taking the concepts outside of the only context in which they have any meaning. The argument makes me think of Wittgenstein. Maybe I am not being clear, and maybe I don’t understand what is being said; but this is my take on it.
Jay Jeffers says
Until Tom replies, perhaps your reply might help me flesh out what I mean, Michael.
The thing is, even when you use the term “our world,” it seems like you mean what I mean, but on the other hand I’m not so sure.
Does our world include our understanding of the whole universe, with all its scientific laws, cause and effect, etc, even though we do not (apparently, phenomenologically, directly) experience much of what science tells us about this world? If so, that sounds like a material world, a world it takes a presumption of objectivity to conceive. If I’m right about that, it seems like reason has transcended time and place; we are, in this scenario, somewhat outside the world looking in. Or at least if we’re not, then I can’t see how we can mean the same thing when we speak of “our world.” What would you make of our scientifically informed view of the universe with a radically anti-metaphysical background?
And again it’s cool if we mean something different when we speak of “the world,” but I’m still a bit unclear whether we do or not.
Mark Linsenmayer says
Tom’s in NYC, by the way. I’m thinking lots of folks will be off the Internet there for a bit…
Wayne Schroeder says
Jay, the whole Hegel-Heidiger, phenomenological hermeneutics developed out of trying to understand the world from a non dualistic subject/object split (which is Heidegger’s opus “Being and Time.”)
To quote the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, “Heidegger sometimes uses the term dwelling to capture the distinctive manner in which Dasein is in the world. To dwell in a house is not merely to be inside it spatially . . . . Rather, it is to belong there, to have a familiar place there. It is in this sense that Dasein is (essentially) in the world.”
Dasein is his term for being, and thus for being “in the world.” That should be clear as mud, but you may get the sense that it is in perceiving the world (phenomenology) that you become able to non-dualistically “know” the world. His whole philosophy proceeds to build on phenomenology.
I believe that reason does transcend time and place, but I was trying to capture what I believe Tom might be getting at. However, not having read Hegel, Heidegger, etc., I am taking a shot in the dark. That being said, I can see someone making an argument that our concepts are context dependent, and therefore cannot be applied in a meaningful way outside of the context that defines them. Therefore our concepts about this world (“this world” can be defined the way you defined it) are the product of this world and therefore are not separate in some dualistic sense. That’s my best shot anyway.
I wonder if, in a sense, Nagel’s line of reasoning comes close to a version of the Ontological Argument?
But what’s the difference between today’s philosophy and quote? Do we have a clever philosophy after 6 years age?
Ed Feser did a good series of posts in response to Nagel’s book largely in response to what looked like wilful misunderstanding of what he was trying to say.