بسم الله الرحمن الرحيم، وصلوات الله وسلامه على أشرف المرسلين
In the name of God, Most Gracious, Most Merciful.
I read the book Mind and Cosmos by Thomas Nagel some time back, and I figured it’d be a good idea to share the notes I took while reading it. Nagel is an atheist philosopher, though he’s one of the few honest atheists, so he talks quite openly about how many of the current orthodox theories about materialism, evolution, etc make no sense.
It should be stated that these are my notes, and not a summary of the book. I didn’t understand some parts, like some of the stuff about teleology, so I left them out, and I paraphrased some stuff according to my own thoughts and interpretations, so please do not assume that everything written below is coming from Nagel (though much of it indeed is). I would recommend you read the book also if you’re interested, it would give you a better idea and more detailed explanation of these concepts than my notes.
Also, I used Google Docs voice typing to transcribe these notes. I tried my best to correct the mistakes and format them, but there still might be errors, so I sincerely apologize if any of these errors slipped through uncorrected. Please notify me in the comments or via Twitter DM (@604yousuf) if you notice anything.
Let me know if you have any questions, comments, concerns etc in the comments section.
Introduction and Overview
Materialist reductionism is a worldview; some scientists believe it, but many scientists don’t have an opinion on it. Among scientists who do express an opinion about the nature of the world as a whole, materialism is seen as the only possibility.
Reductionism is the orthodox view in biology. But the more details we learn about the chemical basis for life and intricacy of the genetic code, the more difficult it becomes to believe.
It’s highly implausible that life is the result of chemical accidents + natural selection. There’s no worked-out physical/chemical explanation, and there isn’t even a credible argument for why this has a non-zero chance of being true.
Origin of life from physical accidents is highly suspect, and so is natural selection, although orthodox scientists are more sure about the latter than the former.
The world is an astonishing place. The fact that it produced us, who are capable of understanding it, is also astonishing. We must be capable of explaining this without just saying “it was an accident.”
Author is against the kind of theism that explains “certain parts of the natural world” via divine intervention.
The development of the mind casts its long shadow back over the entire physical/chemical process starting with the big bang.
With respect to evolution: the process of natural selection cannot account for the actual history without an adequate supply of viable mutations. So it’s just explained away as an accident. There needs to be “other factors determining and restricting the forms of genetic variation.” No longer legitimate to imagine a sequence of gradually evolving phenotypes – what we now know about DNA makes this problematic.
Origin of life is an even more difficult problem, since the chance of it being an accident is pretty much impossible.
Some have advocated intelligent design and were met with a scorn, but the critics of intelligent design have been unable to refute the notion that the reductive hypothesis fails to explain the origin and development of life, given the available evidence.
Science assumes the world is intelligible. This means that the mind is not just an afterthought or accident, but rather a basic aspect of nature. Not enough to say “this is just how things are,” because intelligibility as described by the laws science has uncovered is itself part of the deepest explanation of why things are as they are. Nature is at such to give rise to minds and to be comprehensible by them.
Theism interprets intelligibility in terms of intention or purpose. God created this world and made it intelligible to us… God would not systematically deceive us (see: Descartes). Author believes that a disadvantage of theism is that it does not provide a comprehensive account all of the natural world, it just pushes the quest for intelligibility outside the world.
Unlike divine benevolence, the application of evolutionary biology to the understanding of our cognitive capacities should undermine our confidence in them. Mechanisms of belief formation that give a reproductive advantage short-term do not warrant our confidence in the construction of theoretical accounts of the world as a whole. Evolutionary naturalism implies we should not take any of our beliefs seriously, including… evolutionary naturalism.
Era of Galileo and Descartes: dualism between mind and matter. Shape, size, motion etc assigned to matter, human perception and subjectivity assigned to mind. Enabled many scientific advances.
But it became clear eventually that our bodies and central nervous systems are also part of the natural world and made up of matter. Molecular biology enabled us to understand many functions within our bodies. Seemed natural to extend this to the brain, and to make everything physically reducible, creating a consistent materialist world picture. (Note: assumption is that physics is philosophically unproblematic.)
One strategy: conceptual behavioralism. Reduces mental attributions to the externally observable conditions on the basis of which we attribute mental states to others. But it leaves out the inner, first-person conscious state itself.
Another strategy: psycho-physical identity theory. Says that mental events are nothing but physical events in the brain. A = B, where A is a mental event like pain or pleasure, and B is the corresponding physical event in the central nervous system. But: what is it about B that also makes it A?
Materialist have to explain how “pain” and “brain state” can refer to the same thing even though they’re not the same, without appealing to anything non-physical in accounting for the existence of pain. Many sophisticated strategies, but they all leave out something essential, without which there would be no mind.
Going back to A = B: materialists argue that it’s analogous to saying “water = H2O” or “heat = molecular motion.” But there is no water without H2O, no H2O without water, no heat without molecular motion, and no molecular motion without heat.
Whereas it’s conceivable that for any B, there should be B without experience. The experience in the mind of the person is something extra, produced rather than constituted by the brain state. There is a ghost in the machine even though a machine without a ghost would work just as fine.
Failure of reductionism in the philosophy of mind has implications that extend beyond the mind-body problem. Psycho-physical reductionism is part of a broader naturalistic program which cannot survive without it.
Also, even if consciousness can be analyzed or explained in physical terms, its appearance still needs to be explained. Consciousness is just as important a factor in life as sight, hearing, etc. The explanation for the coming into existence of conscious creatures should include an explanation for a consciousness also, otherwise it’s inadequate. A purely materialistic account cannot do this.
Saying “the appearance of consciousness is the result of evolution” is not an explanation. Does not provide understanding or enable us to understand why it came about. Regular patterns and functional organization demand real explanations, not dismissal as coincidence.
For example: if you type “3 + 5 =” in a calculator it displays 8. Explaining why this happens would require an analysis of the inner workings of the calculator, not just saying “it appeared because you typed ‘3 + 5 =.’”
Author is against dualism, which would abandon hope for an integrated explanation.
Even if one disregards consciousness, the standard evolutionary account of the development of a life is difficult enough. Natural selection needs to explain why it’s not extremely unlikely that accidental mutations in DNA generated the range of variation in viable phenotypes needed to produce the evolutionary history that actually happened. (Note: evolutionary biologists now say that sources of variation are more systematic and less random than previously supposed, but this also needs to be explained by physical principles.)
The physical reductionist explanation would also need to address the origin of life, showing that there is a likelihood of starting from nonliving matter and ending with life through a purely physical process.
Consciousness adds a whole new level of difficulty to the above problems.
Philosophy cannot generate such explanations, but if can point out the lack of them. Author says we should not give up the search for a cohesive, integrated, naturalistic explanation.
Thought, reasoning and evaluation currently limited to humans but their beginnings may be found another species. Can only be done by a conscious being; that already implies that this can’t be explained by physical science alone. But beyond this, the nature of these capacities and how they relate to us to the world should also be examined independent of the problem of consciousness.
Thought and reasoning are correct independent of a thinker’s beliefs, and we assume there is a thing called Objective Reality which we can arrive at using perception and reason.
We don’t just have sensation perception and emotion – we have the ability to think our way beyond those starting points. Basic forms of perception and explanation could have an evolutionary explanation (disregarding consciousness) but not the ability of humans to go beyond that and arrive at a reality that exists beyond what perception, appetite and emotion tell us. Whereas other animals exist in the world of their perceptions and desires and have no concept of true reality.
Another aspect is that we acquired language which enables us to understand reality.
Two main problems: first, is it credible that selection for fitness in the prehistoric past should have fixed capacities that are effective in theoretical pursuits that were unimaginable at the time? Second, how can we naturalistically understand the faculty of reason that is the essence of these activities?
One solution is anti-realism: the belief that the facts we think we know about the world are our own creation anyway. This is awkward because by extension one would become an anti-realist about Evolution also. Better leave the realist assumption in place.
Aim of naturalized epistemology: explain how mental abilities selected for their immediate adaptive value are also capable of generating (eventually) true theories about ha law-governed natural order that there was no need to understand earlier.
The currently proposed theories are far-fetched, like much of evolutionary speculation. They require that mutations and whatever else causes genetic variation should generate not only physical structures but also phenomenology, desire and aversion, awareness of other minds (to correct individual perceptions by reference to others), symbolic representation (to enable language and sharing of perceptions), and logical consistency, all of which have essential roles in the production of behavior.
Then there is the issue of reductionism viewing cognition as similar to, say, vision in that it’s shaped by natural selection. We recognize that our vision may sometimes be selective, misleading or distorted, as a result of its evolutionary history. We can also recognize some of our thoughts as being influenced by our evolutionary history: e.g. the desire for companionship, revenge, etc.
But when we take such a reasonable detached attitude towards our innate dispositions we are implicitly engaged in a form of thought to which we do not take that same detached attitude. It’s the existence of that form of thought which is the puzzle.
In ordinary perception we are like mechanisms governed by a (roughly) truth-preserving algorithm. But when we reason we are like a mechanism that can see that the algorithm it follows is truth preserving. Something has happened that got our minds into immediate contact with the rational order of the world which, can in turn be used to reach a great deal more.
Like consciousness, reason is inseparable from the lives of organisms that have it. Any attempt to explain the origin of humans must also explain the origin of their ability to reason.
Regarding the origin of life: those engaged in research admit that they are very far from formulating a materialistic hypothesis, but they’re convinced that a materialistic explanation exists, because life cannot have arisen by chance since it looks so much like design. So the only solution according to them is that must be made likely by physical law – they cannot allow a “Divine Foot in the door.” This is an incorrect assumption. There is no conceivable reason that blind forces of nature should be biased towards developing something as marvelous as life and make it “likely” somehow. Materialists are stuck with the chance hypothesis.
The hypothesis that all possible universes exist is a cop-out and dispenses with the attempt to explain anything. And the claim that the question isn’t worth asking because if life hadn’t come into existence we wouldn’t be here to ask it is silly. One doesn’t show that something doesn’t require explanation by pointing out that it is a condition of one’s existence.
Reasoning about right and wrong involves both consciousness and cognition, so this includes those problems, but even if we could solve those problems value itself also presents a problem for materialist reductionism.
Moral realism: our ethical judgments attempt to identify the correct answer. Subjectivism: the correct answer doesn’t really exist, rather it depends on our attitudes and dispositions. There is no experiment which can establish or refute moral realism.
Moral realism is incompatible with a Darwinian account of the evolutionary influence on our faculties of moral judgment. If moral realism is true, the Darwinian account must be false even if there is a scientific consensus in its favor.
An adequate conception of the cosmos must explain why beings capable of thinking successfully about what is good or bad, right or wrong, etc and discovering moral truths that do not depend on their own beliefs.
The ability to detect objective moral truth makes no contribution to reproductive moral fitness. As far as natural selection is concerned, if there is a such thing as mind-independent moral truth, our judgment about it could be systematically false.
Natural selection says pain enhances fitness solely in a virtue of the fact that it leads us to avoid the injury associated with it. It might actually be good, or valueless. Moral realism says pain really is bad and not something we just hate, and pleasure really is good and not something we just like. Doesn’t mean our visceral responses are infallible though, of course.
Either moral realism is wrong or Darwinism is wrong.
Current state of affairs in the secular intellectual establishment is the “triumph of ideological theory over common sense.” The empirical evidence can be interpreted to accommodate a variety of theories, but in this case the amount of conceptual and probabilistic contortions is very high. Still, the human will to believe is inexhaustible.