Sunday, April 06, 2014

Comparative Philosophy

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

Philosophy has to proceed comparatively.  The best we can do is to develop the rival alternative conceptions in each important domain as fully an carefully as possible, depending on our antecedent sympathies, and see how they measure up.  That is a more credible form of progress than decisive proof or refutation. (p127)

This is a very small book about some big issues; namely the "relation between mind, brain, and behavior in living animal organisms" and its relation to the cosmos.  Thomas Nagel has written a provocative book aimed at both serious readers and other philosophers. Whether he succeeds in his goal of explaining the implausibility of materialist theories is in doubt, but there is no doubt that he provides some challenging ideas about the way we can philosophize about the nature of mind.

The book starts sort of in midstream discussing modern materialist theories;  with a focus on the "failure of psychophysical reductionism." This is the position in the philosophy of mind that proposes that the physical sciences will be ultimately capable of providing a theory of everything.   It is known as as reductionism. In addition to attacking this he proposes that the development of mind raises questions that the evolutionary theory of the development of life forms can explain the complexity that is evident today.  He also criticizes the idea that consciousness is merely a side-effect.  In this he is successful at least from this reader's perspective.  It seems evident that life is more than just an accident that keeps happening.

After a discussion of anti-reductionism and the natural order the book follows with chapters on consciousness, cognition, and values. In his discussion of cognition he proposes a teleological, or goal-oriented, development of "biological possibilities". This is presented as an alternative to the alternatives: chance, creationism, or directionless physical law. He does not recognize that evolutionary theory suggests that certain developments might be inevitable, or at least predictable.  His proposals are made as reasonable alternatives to theories that he suggests have reached a dead end.  In presenting them he does not argue from proof, but rather suggests his alternatives provide what may be considered a new paradigm that will allow progress in areas like the relationship of consciousness and the brain and evolutionary development.

He concludes that the best alternative is a naturalistic, though non-materialist, alternative. Thus Mind is not an inexplicable accident or a divine and anomalous gift but a basic aspect of nature that we will not understand until we transcend the built-in limits of contemporary scientific orthodoxy.   Some questions that were raised in our discussion of this book included whether there is life or consciousness elsewhere in the universe, if the ability to create life in the laboratory would have any bearing, and if we could create consciousness in computers would this make a difference?  Unfortunately the author does not explore these and many other issues in this short book.  While Nagel is an atheist, he adds that even some theists might find his proposed views acceptable; since they could maintain that God is ultimately responsible for such an expanded natural order, as they believe he is for the laws of physics.

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Brian Joseph said...

Though I too my not agree with his ultimate conclusions this sounds like a book that I would love. I have an amateur's interest in science and often finding myself wondering about it all and tying it to philosophy. As of late, prom a personal perspective I am feeling that the mind and consciousness is indeed the greatest and most awe inspiring mysterious in a universe that is filled with great and awe inspiring mysteries.

James said...

Thanks for sharing your observations and interest in this subject. I share the interest and have read a few books over several decades beginning with an introduction to the topic in a Philosophy of Mind course more than four decades ago.
Some other books focused on consciousness from a philosophical perspective that are worth considering include: The Mysterious Flame by Colin McGinn (1999); Consciousness Reconsidered by Owen Flanagan (1992); and, Consciousness Explained by Daniel C. Dennett (1991). The McGinn book is very accessible, seemingly aimed at the layman, while Dennett and Flanagan, also accessible, are more rigorous philosophical tomes.
In the meantime I have expanded my original comments on Nagel's book.